2 Samuel 7:1-14a
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
I’ve mentioned Debbi Thomas to you before. She writes a weekly lectionary reflection on a site called, “Journey With Jesus.” You might check it out sometime. She’s always thoughtful, very authentic, and I’ve found that you can email her and she’ll even email you back.
Here’s how she begins this week:
“In a New York Times article this past April, organizational psychologist Adam Grant identified the “dominant emotion of 2021” as “languishing.” He went on to describe this unfortunate state in a variety of ways: a sense of emptiness. Despondency. A lack of hope. Aimlessness and joylessness. The “dulling of delight” and the “dwindling of desire.”
At around the same time, researchers noted that roughly sixty percent of Americans are experiencing pandemic-related insomnia right now, despite the gains we’ve made in vaccinating our population, lowering nationwide mortality rates, and resuming some measure of normal life. In other words, what began over a year ago as a natural flight-or-fight response to a global state of emergency has now morphed into something shapeless and sinister. We’ve lost a sense of balance and rhythm. We can’t get started. We can’t wind down. We’re anxious, sleepless, overstimulated, and bored.”
Of course, we are individuals and none of us are in exactly the same place. Maybe you are feeling some of what Thomas is describing, or maybe you’re feeling a bit more optimistic than that. Regardless, she’s lifting up a broad social trend and I imagine that in one way or another you may be able to relate.
Personally, I’m happy that in many ways we’ve returned to normalcy. I’m feeling relief and a sense of potential. But, I’m also a bit overwhelmed by the uncertainty of what this new emergence will call for. What should the church be in light of all that we’ve experienced? What will people need? What will people value? What are we equipped to do? Where should I try to take us? As I try to stay ahead of the curve it’s pretty easy to feel the pressure to be a kind of mind reader, knowing that such things are impossible and worrying that no matter what I try it won’t be enough in a world that I can’t control.
Andrew Root, one of my favorite theologians uses a word for it that Debbie Thomas quoted earlier: “despondency.” Though it doesn’t characterize my dominant state of mind, I get it and I can relate to it. Root suggests that it has something to do with the “age” we are in. Not our numerical age, but the era in which we operate and the values and assumptions that color our time. It’s not simply a response to a particular circumstance, such as the pandemic. There’s something bigger happening in our world and it’s in the very air we breathe.
Root observes that we are in a secular age, which isn’t saying anything especially insightful in and of itself. Except, he goes on to say that this secular age is characterized by authenticity and self-identification. The forces that formerly defined us, determined roles, and established limits no longer reign. Religions, nations, institutions, and cultural norms, have yielded to our individual right to self-determine. No one can tell us who we are, and in many ways that’s a good thing, a liberating thing, and a just thing. On the other hand, it leaves us with the responsibility of doing that all on our own, and the only way to be what we are is to perform it, and the only way to perform effectively is to do so before an audience, and the only audience we have is wrapped up in a sense of time that is moving faster and faster and ever changing at a manic pace. And, it’s this pace, the speed of time, and keeping up with it that’s killing us. And, it’s killing us because when we live at a constantly accelerated pace it is almost impossible to sense the sacred in it. We move so quickly through the demands of time that we are less and less prone to apprehend the moment and experience the holy in it.
Root tells the story of walking through a church building with the senior pastor who’s describing a kind of depression that the congregation can’t seem to get out of. The pastor says that despite appearances of success and lots of creative efforts to engage the congregation, they are getting smaller and smaller and can never seem to grow past the point of having real and inspired energy for anything more than Sunday morning services. As they toured the building they passed by a nursery school class playing a game of tag. Root noted the image of a little girl running with an air of exhilaration- completely unhindered by his presence – into the safety zone just beyond the reach of her chasers, exclaiming with utter joy to no one in particular, “that was great!” For Root that vision serves as a telling contrast. There she was, apprehending the moment, resonating with the present, undivided in her energies, and able therefore to name the goodness she was a part of. On the other hand, when we’re swept up in life’s frenetic pace we lose our capacity to name and enjoy that goodness.
In today’s gospel passage the disciples have just returned from having been sent out to teach and preach and heal. As they gather around Jesus, no doubt inspired by what they found themselves doing AND exhausted by the work of it all, Jesus says, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest for a while.” Jesus’ first act is the act of interrupting the pace of time. The disciples are ready to talk, to tell him all about it, but Jesus tells them to rest. The association I make here is with the call to Sabbath, the invitation into a sacred kind of rest that’s not simply a break, but rather a claiming of God in the break. It’s a returning to God’s time within a world that pulls us into its relentless passing of time.
Our Old Testament passage adds an important touch to this invitation, I think. Here King David is, still riled up from last week’s dancing in the streets (according to lectionary time), now inspired to build a temple to house the ark. But, God puts the breaks on David’s plans. “You’re going to build ME a house?” God asks. Actually, it’s the opposite. God says, “I will build you a house, and a place for my people.” The action in this passage is all God’s. “I brought my people out of Egypt. I have moved among them. I have been your shepherd. I have guided you to pasture. I will give you rest, and from your offspring I will establish a kingdom, and I will make it so that kingdom shall last forever.”
God is the primary mover here. The plan is God’s and the work is God’s. Here God reminds David that David gets to be a part of it, and not the other way around. And, this is an important aspect of this Sabbath rest that Jesus calls his disciples to. It’s not resting from something so much as resting into God. It’s pausing to reclaim God as the primary mover in our lives. It’s letting God’s action be the action that matters. It’s a stopping and a beholding. It’s a surrendering and receiving. It’s our way of seeking not so much to keep up with the change around us but to attend to the transforming love within us. Ultimately, it’s about keeping time holy, which when we recall that our days here are limited, is really the most important thing we can do.
I mentioned last week that we were coming up on the anniversary of Angela’s father’s death. It’s been a strange year, and in a way it seems that some of the doors to mourning are just now opening. As part of that process we’ve been finding old videos of Chuck with Charley and Lucy. Of course, it’s fun to see our kids so little from not all that long ago and to remember what perhaps we had forgotten. And, it’s a gift to hear Chuck’s voice and see him in action. But, what moves me the most is the simple satisfaction you can see from him as he sits across from Lucy, for example, teaching her how to play patty cake and make funny noises from her mouth. It’s like he could have sat there forever. He was mindless of the camera and seemingly of anything else. He resonated easily with the present in those times with the kids, I think, because he was a man practiced enough in the faith to keep time holy. And, isn’t it a gift to have people in our lives who can show us how to do that?
My friends, maybe that’s what the church can best do these days. We can practice the slowing down of time. We can worship like it’s the thing that matters most. We can practice receiving the present as God’s gift, and in so doing we can discover the sacred in a world that keeps rushing by.
 Andrew Root, The Congregation in a Secular Age, chapter 1.