The Urgency of Lent: Third Sunday of Lent, 2016

I never seem to have enough time. Perhaps you can relate to that. I try to squeeze everything in, but I always wish for just one or two more waking hours in the day.

Wednesday was like that for me. I had a day that started with an obligation in Boston in the morning and ending with two meetings here at night. The thing is, I really wanted to get to the YMCA to work out. But at the only time I could have possibly gone, I had a conference call.

IMG_7962So I came up with a brilliant idea. I’d plug my headphones into my phone, put myself on mute, and listen to the call while I lifted weights. So there I was, trying to listen to the meeting, and balancing heavy weight all at the same time, and I thought to myself…maybe this isn’t the way it’s supposed to work.

That’s when I got to thinking about priorities. One of the lessons I try to teach our youth is this: Never give the best of yourself to someone or something that can never love you back.

I’ve been surprised at how much that advice resonates with young adults. Not only does it become the measure by which boyfriends and girlfriends are judged, but it becomes a metric for the larger questions in life too. Questions of meaning take center stage.

Most surprisingly, though, it also generates discussion in their families about the way precious resources, like time and money, are used. I have been amused that it is those discussions, more than any about dating or sex or love, that trouble their parents.

We don’t talk about idolatry much, despite the caution against it throughout Scripture. That is ironic given that idolatry flourishes in our culture. We have not yet started building literal golden calves, but we have all spent plenty of time worshipping at equally dangerous altars. Money, success, popularity, greatness, security…they are powerful gods. And in worshipping these gods we have too often driven ourselves to the point of living overwhelming lives.

In Lent we are called to turn away from what can never love us back, and toward that which can. Counter to the narrative we often write for ourselves, though, we are not called by a patient God who speaks to us casually or without urgency. Instead, we are called by a God with time-sensitive conviction.

In this week’s Scripture Jesus tells a story about a fig tree, a gardener, and a land owner. Year after year the tree fails to bear fruit. Tired of wasting good soil, the land owner tells the gardener to cut it down. But the gardener refuses to give up, and negotiates a one year reprieve for the tree. They pledge to take care of it and shore it up with good soil. If even after all of that it does not bear good fruit, the gardener says, then you can cut it down.

I often want to ask the people I know who feel overwhelmed “Why do you keep living like this? Why do you make the choices that leave you overextended and exhausted? Do you want to live a life utterly devoid of abundant new fruit?”

Or, put another way, “Why do you give the best of yourself to the things that can never love you back?”

I think we all want to believe that we have infinite time to start loving the right things, and bearing good fruit. But despite the urgency that defines the rest of our lives, scheduling everything from the car pool to the 401k contribution, we fail to respond to Christ’s call to transformation with anything other than hesitation. There is always tomorrow, after all.

In Lent, though, Christians are called to live with spiritual urgency. We have to proclaim boldly with our choices that our transformations can no longer wait. We have neglected bearing good fruit for far too long, choosing instead to focus on what will not bring us joy.

The good news is that there is great freedom in no longer having to wait to focus on what matters the most. Now is the time to put the first things first; no excuses.

This urgency does not come from a fear that God will smite us. I do not believe that God wants to destroy us the way the land owner wanted to destroy the dormant fig tree. But I do believe that Christ spoke with urgency because he knew how quickly most of us are destroying ourselves. And I believe God wants before for us than that.

One of the few fairnesses of life is the fact that each of us is given an equal 168 hours per week.
It is those 168 hours that somehow baffle us all though. I know of few people who feel they have enough time to do everything they need to get done, let alone do anything they want to do. It does not matter how many modern conveniences we have, we just will never have enough time.

The unfortunate reality is that because of that, our spiritual life often suffers. Instead of being our basic foundation, spiritual practices somehow become luxuries that we squeeze in only if we have enough time. Church is great, but we have to fix the roof Sunday morning. Prayer would be wonderful, but who has the time to sit around with their eyes closed and talk to God? It would be interesting to read the Bible one day, but these financial reports from work have to be read first.

I get that. Pastors are not immune and, despite literally being surrounded by church all day, I sometimes catch myself feeling disconnected from my spiritual life. But I have also noticed how that spiritual disconnection is unsustainable.

So often we look around to find that we are no longer bearing spiritual fruit. It is in those moments that we can become our own gardeners, cultivating the space and the good soil needed to once again grow in abundance.

That will not be easy, though. It is going to take a shifting of priorities, and the deliberate reapportionment of some of our 168 hours. But one lesson that focusing on spiritual growth has consistently taught me is this: no matter what other demands are made of us, we make time for what really matters to us in life.

Billy Graham once said that if you really want to find out what you worship, you should look at your checkbook. I think there’s wisdom in that. But in our over scheduled world, I’d say this instead: if you really want to find out what you worship, look at your calendars and planners. That will tell you the truth.

It the end, I believe that God wants us to have new life, and that this life will only happen when we start telling one another the hard truth: the clock is ticking, the time is now, and life is too short to waste another minute on what can never love us back.

So back to the story I was telling you. The conference call came to an end while I was bench pressing. No one on the other end was so much the wiser. But that’s when I heard someone say on the other end, “Emily…are you still there? Would you close us with prayer?”

And so right there, in the middle of the free weight area of the YMCA, I took the phone off mute and prayed out loud. My guess is a few fellow lifters were looking at me funny. But maybe it was the reminder I needed that sometimes it’s time to slow down, switch gears, and focus on what matters.

That moment illustrated to me in a very real way that God doesn’t always wait for us to be in the ideal place to get our attention. God is calling us now. And sometimes it’s urgent enough that we need to put down our heavy lifting, rethink our priorities, and pick up. Amen?

Sabbath and the Idolatry of Being Busy

The following was preached as a sermon at the Congregational Church in Exeter on July 19, 2015. 

Mark 6:30-32

6:30 The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught.

6:31 He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.

6:32 And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.

We are all busy.

Would you agree with that statement? And even if you don’t agree with the “all”, would you at least agree with it in regards to your own life? Are you busy? And do you sometimes feel as if you don’t have a minute to spare, as if the hours and days of your life are so over-scheduled that you have no control over them, as if you can never get to the end of your to-do list?

Does any of this sound familiar to you?

It does to me. I keep my calendar on my phone, and before I schedule anything I have to check it. And I have in my mind a list of things I would like to do if only I were not so busy. I promise myself I’ll get around to them someday, when I’m less busy, but of course that time never comes around.

I even start many of my phone calls and emails with this apology: “I’m so sorry for my delay, I’ve been really busy.” And that never feels particularly good to say. But at the same time, I know that sometimes, in some twisted way, that busy-ness is almost a source of pride.

Because, part of me believes that if I’m busy, I’m important. If I’m busy, I’m not lazy. If I’m busy, my life matters.

My Puritan ancestors, with their strong work ethic, would be proud.

But the thing is, I’m not so sure I should be.

This morning’s reading comes from the Gospel of Mark. It’s a story of how the disciples all came and gathered around Jesus, and they told him all about what they had been doing. Scripture tells us that they were coming and going and not even eating. They were saying to him “look at how many we have taught, and look at all we have done”.

So, what they were really saying to him was this: look at how busy we have been.

And Jesus, this is how he responds; he doesn’t hand out awards, or raises, or corner offices. He doesn’t make one the senior disciple. He doesn’t even say “good job”. Instead, he says this: “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”

Wouldn’t you have loved to have seen their faces just then? Because I’ll bet they were disappointed. I’ll bet they’d been gearing up for the biggest pat on the back ever, and all they got was “yeah, you need to take a break”. Jesus, didn’t seem to care about whether they were busy or not.

It’s almost like he was saying you couldn’t work your way to salvation, or something.

Of course, that’s what our faith tells us. We don’t earn salvation by working hard. We don’t earn God’s love by being busy. We get those things anyway solely because of this reason: God loves us, and God gives us grace.

IMG_6067In response we are called to live lives of gratitude to God. That means that whatever we are doing in our lives is supposed to be a sort of “thank you” to God for the grace we’ve already received. We’re asked to live not busy lives, but good lives. Lives that glorify God.

So, where did we get our wires crossed? When did good and meaningful lives come to mean over-scheduled and stressed out ones? When did our worth somehow become tied to the fullness of our calendars? And when did we ever get the idea that this is what God wants from us? Because Jesus makes it pretty clear what he thinks his disciples need most, and it’s not an 80-hour workweek.

But that’s the culture that we live in. One where a spare minute is wasteful, and everything comes down to billable hours. And one where even our kids are over-scheduled. One where they have to sacrifice sit-down family meals or play time or, yes, even church on Sunday in favor of travel sports teams or Mandarin lessons or oboe practice.

And for so many of our kids they do this all not because they truly love the sport or the language or the music, because the adults in their life want them to have a good life. A worthy life.

A life in which they can have children of their own. Who will miss their own family dinners, and go to their own practices and lessons instead.

I’m not preaching this because I am blameless here. Because, I confess, this has been a hard lesson for me to learn. In my first few years of parish ministry I worked 70 hour weeks. I took less than half my vacation time, and even then it was usually to do things like officiate a friend’s wedding or bury one of my relatives.

Because I wanted to be a good pastor. And I was willing to kill myself to do it. It took my Dad, one of the hardest working people I know, saying “you need to slow your life down” before I realized that maybe, just maybe, I could do just that.

I still struggle with workaholism. I always will, I think. But now I look out for it. And when I find myself writing my sermons on Saturday afternoon because I’ve been too busy to work on them all week, for instance, that’s a cue to me that something is wrong. And that’s a sign that something is wrong spiritually in me too.

Because the reality is this: our busy-ness, our need to do more, to work harder, can be an idol. And idols never deserve the worship we give to them.

It’s right there in the Ten Commandments. Three times in fact. Have no other God’s than me. Don’t make false idols for yourself. And remember the Sabbath, and keep it holy.

I happen to think those are all pretty good rules for life, but if you are not a rule person, and if you don’t want to listen to that, then listen to Jesus. Listen to him saying “stop…come away for a little while”.

Because what we all need is a little sabbath. If you want to think of that in the strictly one day a week sense you can, because for centuries people kept a sabbath day each week. Christians generally did so on Sunday, the day of Resurrection, and our Jewish brothers and sisters, for many millennia more than us, have seen the wisdom of a Sabbath from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown.

One of my favorite memories from living near the Orthodox Jewish community in Atlanta was seeing the shops shut down on Friday evenings, and then watching the faithful walking to temple, and walking back home where they would eat meals together and celebrate the sabbath. There’s a reason why Jewish sages have long said that “sabbath is like a taste of heaven on earth”.

So right now you might be saying, that’s great, but I can’t give up one day out of my week. If I do that, I’ll be busier than ever the other six!

Maybe. But I tend to think our busy-ness is a choice. And I think that setting aside sabbath time might actually teach us an important lesson. It might make us look at our obligations and appointments and think a little more clearly about what is essential and what is not.

Because the reality is that making time for sabbath means that we have to do some spiritual discernment. We have to make choices about our priorities. And we have to decide what we will worship. Because when we give time to something, in a small way we are worshipping it.

But if you still say, I can’t do it, try this: try an hour. Try one hour when you will take sabbath. Try one hour when you will set aside all work, all obligations, and all busy-ness. And instead, do the thing your soul is calling you to do. Take that walk with your kids. Go to the beach with your spouse. Do something to rest yourself, and quiet your soul, and to connect with God.

And when you’ve done it for a while, you might even find that you can’t afford to not take a sabbath. Maybe you even need to take more. Because sabbath, paradoxically, makes us more efficient. It helps center us. It rests us. It takes our dull edges, and it sharpens us. And it shows those around us, even our kids, that life is more than being busy. There’s a reason Jesus insisted his disciples take it: he was preparing them for some big roles, and he needed them ready.

And so, here are my questions for you: First, who or what do you really worship? To answer this, take a look at your calendar. Or, look back at your last few weeks, think about how you’ve spent your time. If someone observed it, what would they tell you that you value the most?

And second: Do you want things to keep worshipping those things, or do you want to make a change?

You have to answer that question for yourself, but I can offer this advice: if you are giving your heart and soul and time to something that can never love you back, if you are worshipping at the altar of the false gods of busy-ness or material success or the fear of its loss, you will never be truly happy.

But if you want something better, then I know this guy. And he says that our worth doesn’t come from working ourselves into an early grave. It comes from the one who loved us first, the one who will love us even on our final day. And he’s asking us all to stop, and come away with him, to a place where we can remember what really matters. I’m ready to go there. And I hope you’ll join me. Amen?