In 2004 some e-mails started circulating among the employees at a well-known accounting firm. People were troubled by the behavior of a new recruit.[i] In the middle of a busy and bustling office setting, she appeared to be doing nothing. She just sat at her desk and stared into space. When someone would ask her what she was doing, she would say something vague like “I’m doing thought work.” She spent one whole day riding the elevators up and down over and over. When a colleague asked if she was “thinking again,” she replied “It helps to see things from a different perspective.” The other employees became increasingly agitated, and their e-mails became increasingly urgent. Something had to be done about this new colleague.
As it turns out, unbeknownst to them, they were all participating in a performance piece called The Trainee. The alleged employee was actually a Finnish artist named Pilvi Takala, someone whose work often focuses on disrupting social norms with simple actions. In this case she was challenging the notion that we must be productive every minute of every day. We all know that there are many things that distract us from productivity throughout the day – text messages, phone calls, social media, conversations with other people, hunger, exhaustion, stress. But when someone so blatantly violates the expectation of constant productivity, it challenges so much of what we’ve been taught to value in ourselves and others.
Just a couple of weeks ago we heard how Jesus sent out the disciples two by two, telling them to travel lightly and to carry a message of repentance and hope to the surrounding villages. At the beginning of today’s gospel, they have just returned, eager to report to Jesus what they have accomplished, all that they have done and taught.
But wait just a minute, Jesus says. Before you do that, he tells them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” Their plans for rest get thwarted by the crowds that follow them, as it turns out, but the invitation is important. Come away and rest a while. Jesus puts rest ahead of reporting what they might have accomplished in their recent travels.
Remember that Jesus, too, is in need of rest. We hear again and again in the gospel of Mark how Jesus looks for opportunities to rest. In this moment we can imagine that he is grieving the recent death of John the Baptist, wrung out by the moral failures of leaders like Herod and disappointed that he’s had to warn his disciples to be prepared for rejection everywhere they go. No wonder he has compassion on the gathering crowds, seeing them as sheep without a shepherd. He knows what it feels like to be disappointed and disillusioned, longing for connection.
We know what the need for rest feels like too. We can feel it deep down in our bones, when realities and responsibilities force us out of bed even though we don’t always relish that “to do” list. We get worn out from being available and accessible 24 hours a day – to friends and family, to colleagues and supervisors, to our own worries and fears.
We get caught up in the myth that our worth depends on our productivity – that our success as humans is measured in how much we get done for how many people in how little time.
The messages from the culture around us will try to persuade us that that’s just how things are – you either measure up or people will start circulating e-mails about you. But what a terrible way for our value to be determined.
I’m not saying that you should ignore your responsibilities and become a big slacker. I’ve known most of you for a while, and I have yet to meet a slacker. But how might we understand our sense of who we are and what we are worth as something apart from how much and how often we produce?
The people who decades ago decided what scripture readings would be assigned to each Sunday in a repeating three-year cycle – they made an interesting choice this week. In today’s gospel from the sixth chapter of Mark, they decided to skip over two big moments in the ministry of Jesus. The first is the feeding of thousands of people with just a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish. (To be fair, the Gospel of John’s version of that story is scheduled for next week, so I suppose they figured they had that one covered.) The other is the story of Jesus walking on water, which you have to admit has a certain dramatic flair. I can’t claim to know their reasoning for skipping those parts this week, but I think it’s interesting that it moves our attention away from Jesus doing these big, flashy, mind-boggling things. Instead we’re invited to see Jesus focus on the quieter things – looking after those who need rest and those who need healing.
In today’s gospel Jesus does travel – from villages to cities to farms. He moves from place to place to seek out the people who need his compassion the most. He’s not hanging out in some lofty place and expecting people to come to him. He finds those who are in need of healing.
And where are those in healing to be found in that last verse? They are found in the marketplace. Isn’t that an interesting detail? The marketplace, where things are normally bought and sold, where everything has a price, where worth is determined by your ability to bargain and negotiate and get the biggest profit with the least amount of effort. In that very place people bring those whose needs are great, those who can’t bargain or negotiate at all but want only to be healed. Those whose value was too often dismissed because of their illnesses or disabilities or maladies. Into that space Jesus enters to say: Your worth is not measured in terms of health or wealth. You are worthy because you are loved. And I love you no matter what.
The same is true for each and every one of us. Our worth does not depend on our perpetual productivity. Our worth does not come from our perfectionism, from our pluckiness, or from our plowing ahead while we ignore our own exhaustion and pain. Our worth comes from the love of Jesus, who longs for us to have times of rest and stillness so that we might truly experience what it means to know that love apart from anything that we do.
That rest sometimes comes in the form of vacations, but it can’t come only in that way. Our souls need quiet moments more often than that; even a few minutes of reflection can helps us receive an awareness of God’s grace washing over us.
Those small moments of grace can sometimes appear when we least expect them. Often others invite us to those oases in the wilderness of our lives. Or they come in small insights during moments when we manage to be still for more than a second.
Our furry friends often understand this idea far better than humans. A friend from California sent me a story this week about the Lutheran Church Charities (LCC) K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry.[ii] There are teams across the country, but this piece highlighted the nine golden retrievers from Florida, Georgia, Illinois, South Carolina, and Tennessee that were sent to Miami spend time with folks grieving for family members, friends, and neighbors lost in the condo collapse in Surfside. The dogs intuitively know that grief work is not about engaging in a frenzy of activity. It’s about showing up with empathetic eyes and furry paws to hold – it’s about being more than doing.
The people in our lives can be bearers of grace too. In her memoir, musician Brandi Carlile tells about Dolly Parton showing up at the Newport Folk Festival. “How are you?” Dolly asks. Brandi finds herself inexplicably honest and tearful, saying: “I bit off more than I can chew with this.” “Alright then,” Dolly replies. “Let’s pray.”[iii] So they prayed together. And then they went on to sing a rendition of “I Will Always Love You” that no one in that audience will ever forget.
Lately, when storms roll through, I try to sit for a few minutes on my tiny porch and watch it rain. It doesn’t magically make all my stress go away, but it does settle me. Those few minutes of stillness make me more aware that I am not in charge of the world any more than I am in charge of the rain or the thunder or the lightning.
This week, whenever you feel yourself overwhelmed by the pressures of productivity, I invite you to listen for the voice of Jesus saying to you: Come away and rest a while. Hear him say: It’s OK to be still. It’s OK to rest. I love you. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i] How to do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell, pp. 62-64
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Luke 12:32
I spent the week in Milwaukee at the Churchwide Assembly of our Lutheran denomination – the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). The days were very full. We had lots of decisions to make, which I look forward to sharing with you in greater detail. Perhaps my favorite part of the assembly was the worship. It was a joy to gather each day with hundreds of Lutherans from all 65 synods of the ELCA to sing and to pray and to clap and to hear powerful preaching and to receive Holy Communion.
On Tuesday the preacher was my colleague from South Carolina, Deacon Sarah Bowers.[i] Sarah and her husband have a 17-month-old, and Sarah says that shortly after little Romney Ann was born, she felt a deep need to apologize to her parents. She was totally overwhelmed by how much she loved her daughter, and it made her realize in a different way how much her own parents must love her. And also how much some of her words and actions when she was growing up must have hurt them.
When Romney Ann was just a few hours old, Sarah found herself in the hospital room with her own mother, and she told her mom how sorry she was for things she had done that had been hurtful.
Her mom replied: “It’s OK. One day Romney Ann will say something mean and hurtful, and she will tell you NO, but it won’t change how much you love her at all.”
Sarah sarcastically said: “I’m sorry, but I’m certain she will never tell me no. Can you not see how perfect she is?”
Her mom replied, “You keep living in that fantasy world.”
Sarah was kidding, of course, and sure enough, it wasn’t long before Romney Ann was saying no in her own way. They would tell her not to touch something, and she would give them a dimpled smile and head straight for it. She hasn’t yet learned the actual word “no,” but that day is coming soon.
What I loved is that Sarah then admitted that she hopes her daughter does learn to say no. In Sarah’s words: “[To say] no when it comes to comments and actions and systems that hurt her neighbor and cause death – because we know that’s not the way of the empty tomb. That’s not the way of the resurrection.”
I kept thinking about what Sarah said throughout the week as I looked forward to Grace’s baptism this morning. Grace isn’t yet saying the word “no,” but she’s already practicing how to use her voice. And it won’t be long before she says that word defiantly.
What I hope Grace will learn – and what I hope we will show her how to do – is to say no. No to greed, no to violence, no to racism, no to all the other isms, no to conflict, to exploitation, to evil.
In our baptismal rite, we do say “no.” We did it just a few minutes ago: “Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?…Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God?….Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God?” Each time we answered “I renounce them.” That’s one way of saying “no.” No to anything that harms others. No to all that makes us selfish and small. No to what moves the world farther away from God’s vision for it.
We declare this “no,” but living it is much harder. Most of us probably don’t believe in a two-horned devil who wields a pitchfork and runs around wreaking havoc in the world. But there is no denying that evil is on the loose. How do we say no to that evil?
We start by remembering that we do not do it by our own strength. We rely on a God who has said “no” first. No to exclusion. No to all the death-dealing forces that leave trauma and suffering in their wake. No to death itself.
God also says “no” to the idea that we must be good enough to be worth saving. We want to believe it’s up to us, but it’s not.
Jesus reminds us this morning: It is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. God gives us all we need. It is not a reward for good behavior. It is not because we live perfect lives. It is not because we are free of sin. God knows us well – our gifts and our temptations – and still God chooses to give us the kingdom.
God does not give us these gifts of life and hope begrudgingly. God gives them freely, with good pleasure, in the hope that we in turn will know the good pleasure of being God’s own children. We call that grace. For her entire life baby Grace will carry in her name the reminder that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. And anything that tries to stand between us and God will hear a resounding “no.”
Grace Marie Beadle, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. Forever. What is true for Grace is true for each of us. Marked and made whole. Sealed and sent out.
And so, having been sealed by the Spirit and marked by the cross, we’re equipped to do some things. Not required, but equipped. Jesus tells us to be ready: “Be dressed for action, and have your lamps lit.” He later uses the example of a break-in to remind us to stay ready for the unexpected. That example might seem a tad dramatic, but it’s not a bad comparison. When God’s kingdom breaks into the world, it summons us to act on behalf of our neighbors who are being violated and traumatized. We cannot predict when we will be in a position to stand up and say “no” to what is at war with God’s will for the world.
Maybe it’s speaking up when someone tells a joke that demeans another person or a group of people. Maybe it’s intervening when we know someone is being harassed. Maybe it’s getting so frustrated about a particular justice issue that we get involved with that issue personally. Maybe it’s the way we use our financial resources, knowing that where our treasure is, there our heart will be also. Maybe it’s learning more about something – or someone – we don’t understand.
We won’t all say “no” to evil in the same way, but we do say “no” in the name of the same God.
I hope that Grace will always carry with her the power of her name. I hope we will show her how to receive that grace again and again. I hope we will surround her with our prayers and with our love and with examples of how to say no.
But most of all, I hope Grace always knows that the God who says “no” to sin and death looks at her with love beyond measure and says, “Yes, yes, yes!”
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i]You can watch Deacon Sarah’s beautiful sermon in its entirety at the following link (starting at 21:50): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a2DlrkkKGCs&fbclid=IwAR3ur3OymggRI7olBGFRfxXX3BrbWKv9GIHOyOQUOw2Co_JeRPHSHb222FA