Interstices

Pentecost 9, Year B  22 July 2018

A Sermon from the Rev.Linda Mackie Griggs

(Mark 6:30-34, 53-56)

“Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” 

As I was thinking about this week’s readings in the context of last week’s sermon and of this past week’s events I realized I had made an incorrect assumption. I spoke about the importance of continually seeking God—of asking the question, “Where is God in this?” as a spiritual discipline. I talked about the potentially world-transforming power of the practice of theological thinking, which would prioritize God over self-preservation and self-interest in our decisions.

That hasn’t changed. But in the process of making the argument I said that it is easy to find God in the beautiful, the good and the true.

Based on some conversations I’ve had lately I’m not sure if I’m right about that anymore. To say that it’s easy to find God in the beautiful the true and the good these days seems glib and naïve. It sounds like a platitude. And I hate platitudes. Platitudes are band-aids. Platitudes don’t heal the exhaustion and the worry and the feeling of helplessness in the face of an endless onslaught of bad and confusing news.

There’s a John Prine song whose refrain begins, “Blow up your TV, throw away the paper…” I can relate to this.

Is it any wonder that today’s Gospel had me rethinking part of what I said last week? This passage is almost claustrophobic. The crowds are everywhere; Jesus moves, and the crowd moves with him; not just following him but anticipating where he’ll be next. It never seems to stop. The disciples are exhausted and overwhelmed. And Jesus says,

“Come away to a deserted place and rest awhile…”

Seriously, Jesus? Have you looked around? We can’t even eat in peace!

Jesus knows. He knows, but he gazes at the milling crowd, and:

“…he had compassion for them, like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things.”

Jesus doesn’t follow his own advice to withdraw and rest. Instead, he takes a deep breath and plunges back in.

Why? Why does the Evangelist highlight this tension between a need for rest and the demands and needs of a broken world? Because that is our story. Some days more than others. There’s something we need to notice here, and it has to do with who God is.

Jesus acts out of Compassion. The Gospels refer to Jesus feeling compassion at least eight times. This is crucial: Compassion is not just a feel-good term indicating pity and sympathy. Pity and sympathy can be felt at a distance. Compassion is something done up close—it means to feel with—in the gut. You can’t mail in compassion—you have to put skin in the game. Jesus feels with his people. It is this feeling with that manifests to us God’s very identity. The Incarnate one—the Word made flesh– shows us that God is Compassion.

“Come away to a deserted place and rest awhile.”

How does Jesus’ compassion for the suffering mesh with the call to rest? How do we resolve the tension between rest and the needs and concerns and worries that crowd behind us and run ahead to meet us, and demand that we fix, resist, heal, or listen right now?

A God of Compassion knows this—knows that we are exhausted and anxious. A God of Compassion asks us to remember something: God is God, and we are not. The world is desperately in need of healing in so many ways, but God knows that we are no good to anyone without rest and renewal. Without Sabbath.

“…rest awhile.”

God, who created and liberated, rests. If God rests, how much more should we do the same? But I’m not talking as much about the importance of a Sabbath day, though that is the ideal minimum; I’m talking more about finding Sabbath spaces in a world that seems to be going bonkers.

Walter Brueggemann, in his book, Sabbath as Resistance, writes,

“That divine rest on the seventh day of creation has made clear (a) that YHWH is not a workaholic, (b) that YHWH is not anxious about the full functioning of creation, and (c) that the well-being of creation does not depend on endless work.”

God is God, and we are not. Our call to Sabbath is a call to remember who is in charge, and to remember that our efforts are only as good as our balance—our ability to pause and to be present to God and what God has given us. That’s what Sabbath is: Time to stop. To say that, yes, there is work to be done. It will be there when I return to it, but for now, what I have is enough. I am thankful right now. This is what a Sabbath moment looks like.

Sabbath is not a platitude, it is the Fourth Commandment. The key is to understand that work and rest are not separate entities. They go together. God’s first acts of Creation were not separate from rest; they included it.

What if our work included Sabbath in such a way that the two were deeply interconnected, like when water is poured into a container of sand and flows into all the little gaps between the grains? A Sabbath mentality invites us to let Sabbath seep into the interstices—those tiny gaps– of our work and ministry, cooling the anxiety and softening the edges of cynicism and exhaustion. Interstitial Sabbath takes to heart Jesus’ admonition that the Sabbath was made for God’s children, not God’s children for the Sabbath. An interstitial Sabbath state of mind opens our eyes to see God’s hand in the world about us. It transforms platitude into healing balm and renews us for the work ahead.

This isn’t anything new. Honestly it isn’t a whole lot more than setting the concept of mindfulness in a theological context. The terminology isn’t as important as the practice of paying attention, whether it is to the feel and smell of working in the dirt of the garden, the taste of a good meal, the sight of a work of art that gives you chills, or the sound of a sublime piece of music; all of these are moments that invite us into a sacred pause: This is enough. I am thankful.

Or as a wise person once said to me after a wonderful outdoor concert: “It’s things like this that remind you that the world doesn’t suck.”

And that’s the point. Our work and ministry are important. The challenges of the world are urgent. But attending to them is useless if we don’t have a deep understanding of why we do what we do—why we serve in the world. The beautiful, the good, and the true—these are all descriptors of the compassionate God who created us and calls us into work and renewal. The world needs us, yes; but the world needs us whole. 

I’d like to conclude with a prayer by Ted Loder, from his book, Guerrillas of Grace: Prayers for the Battle:

O God of the miracles,

            of galaxies

                        and crocuses

                                    and children,

I praise you now

            from the soul of the child within me,

                        shy in my awe,

                                    delighted by my foolishness,

                                                stubborn in my wanting,

                                                            persistent in my questioning,

                                                                        and bold in my asking you

to help me unbury my talents

            for wonder

                        and humor

                                    and gratitude,

so I may invest them eagerly

            in the recurring mysteries

                        of spring and beginnings,

                                    of willows that weep,

                                                and rivers that flow

                                                            and people who grow

in such endlessly amazing

            and often painful ways;

that I will be forever linked and loyal

            to justice and joy,

                        simplicity and humanity,

                                    Christ and his kingdom.       

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