I feel like I preach this gospel every time I return from vacation, but guys: Vacation is a WONDERFUL thing.
This year, I broke my own precedent and took 6 days off of work after General Convention. 6 days where I could just sleep, knit, watch British murder mysteries, and sleep some more. (And also finish unpacking my books.) This novel approach meant that for the first time ever, I did not come down with a post-Convention sickness of some kind, neither did I subject my dear parish to my incoherent blathering after a 10 day stretch of no sleep and little food.
In short, I recommend vacation. My heartfelt thanks to the supply preachers who showed up to give me a break, and also naps.
Here’s what I said (when I returned.)
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
July 22, 2018
Ordinary Time, Proper 11
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
I like to knit—I think I’ve told you this. I started knitting when I was in college, and kept at it on and off ever since. I have noticed that my knitting tends to increase exponentially especially in times in stress. When I was studying for comprehensive exams at the end of seminary, I knit three sweaters in one month. When I had to go to stressful diocesan meetings, I knit countless pairs of socks.
This isn’t stress relief—it’s something common to most people in helping professions. I knit because I need to do something that I can see is productive. There are times I need to see something concrete emerge from the time and energy I apply—especially when so much of my working life is spent in ephemeral ideas, putting effort into things that matter immensely—but the effects of which cannot be seen or measured. So, when things get stressful, I need to do something that results in something tangible. Even if it’s a shawl I am accidentally knitting backwards.
Our world likes productivity. We like producing things, we like doing things. It influences so much of how we live, how we relate to each other. One of the first things we ask, when we meet someone new is “what do you do?” What field are you in? Having a job, keeping a job, is an implicit requirement for being seen as an adult, or a contributing citizen in the country. (Just think what that phrase implies—contributing citizen.) In much of our culture’s public discourse, when we talk about people, we talk in economic terms: what people contribute, what they can produce. And this is every side of our political spectrum, really.
Because this sort of language is so endemic (and really, once you start listening for it, it starts to spring up EVERYWHERE) it bears repeating that this is not the language we find in Scripture. In fact, from the very start, God seems entirely disinterested in what human beings can produce.
Actually, before God even gets to figure out the true potential of these new human critters, GOD TAKES A BREAK. God goes on vacation. God finishes creation, creates humanity, and then…takes Sabbath. And from then on, God tells humans to do the same—work for six days, and then on the seventh—do nothing. Absolutely nothing. This is the basic pattern for what becomes the Jewish tradition of the Sabbath. It get further fleshed out in laws, and descriptions, but there’s the pattern, set by Godsownself.
The idea is that one day a week, humanity has to stop entirely and do no work. Not just no wage-earning work, but no work entirely. No lighting stoves for cooking, no turning on cars for running errands that didnt’ get done while you were at work, no starting up the computer to catch up on email—no work whatsoever. It was a day just to exist and to be—and to reclaim that initial relationship with God.
Because, if you notice in that Genesis 1 story, God does not immediately create humans and then sets them to work; God creates humans and then…lets them be. The initial relationship between God and humanity is one of pure enjoyment of each other’s existence. They hang out with each other in a familiar and intimate way, in the cool of the evening as God comes strolling through.
It’s only when the first humans mess up, and hide from God, that the intimacy is broken, and one of the consequences of leaving the garden is the burden of constant work. Losing that intimacy with God now means that humanity is scared, and wants to continually prove that it’s good enough, can do enough. And so work becomes a burden, instead of a joy.
So with ALL THAT as context: when Jesus turns to the disciples and tells them to take a break, it’s not necessarily because he’s exhausted, or he wants a vacation. He’s calling them back to their own religious tradition’s practice of sabbath. That there be periodic times where you don’t have to be productive, but you just get to stop and just be. He’s reminding them that they need to stop doing and just be with God.
So off they go—for a time of quietness and prayer, just to observe some momentary Sabbath. It doesn’t quite work out the way they want it to, but the recognition of the Sabbath is important for a number of reasons.
For one thing—humans need to rest. We aren’t Energizer Bunnies; if we keep working all the time, we burn ourselves out. And this is one of the times when our dear RCL cuts out a lot of the story. In between the time when Jesus tells everyone to go take a break, and when the crowd discovers them, and make them go on a healing spree, two massive miracles happen: the feeding of the five thousand, and the walking on the water. These are some pretty sizable miracles, certainly larger in scale than what he’s done up until now. So for one thing, as a practical matter, Sabbath—reconnecting with God—enables us to recharge, so we can better concentrate on doing God’s work in the world.
But for another, the primary reason we need Sabbath is to remember our true value. Because we live in a world that’s so defined and fascinated with what we can produce, what we can earn, we badly need time to break free of that so that God can remind us that our value does not lie there. Rather our value lies in our very existence as children of God—and that’s it. Even if we never earn a dime in our lives, even if we never produce a single marketable anything, the very fact of our existence speaks to our worth and value to God. And the time we take away from our work is a witness to our inherent value and dignity as images of God, entirely apart from what we can produce. Sabbath is a moment to witness to who we fundamentally are, and a reminder that nothing we do or don’t do can change that ultimate relationship with God.
The miracles Jesus does (that the RCL skips here) are Sabbath-y type miracles, too. He feeds a harassed and harried crowd, when his disciples want to send the people out to find food for themselves. Make them do some work! Make them earn their own food! Jesus refuses, and just gives them lunch. Because on their own, without working for it, or having to earn it, those people are worthy of having their needs met. Those people are worthy of Jesus’ compassion and love. They don’t need to do anything; just as they are, as they exist, Jesus cares for them. Such is the Sabbath.
Honoring the Sabbath isn’t something that comes naturally to us. We don’t have a tradition that emphasizes it and structures it weekly like Judaism. And we live in a world that pushes us more and more towards constant connectedness and constant productivity. But that makes it all the more important for us to consciously take time, periodically for sabbath. Maybe not every week, but try every month. Every two months. Every quarter. Just try taking one day and devote yourself to not doing anything. Do nothing productive at all. Don’t take care of anyone or anything. Just spend time the God who loves you, and reconnect to your essential value as a beloved Child of God.
Because in the end, we don’t have to do anything to earn God’s love. We don’t have to produce great achievements for Christ to care for us, or provide for us. God cares for us just because we are. We are loved just because we were created in God’s love. And in the knowledge of that love, we can rest secure in our worth, and worry less about our production.