February 7, 2021
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
When I was in seminary, my New Testament professor, Beverly Gaventa, was a young mother of a three year old and I remember during one lecture she described what it was like to juggle child care and teaching.
“A few weeks ago,” she said, “I thought the ball joint on my car’s rear view mirror must be loose. Every morning, I’d get into the car and adjust the mirror to perfect alignment but as I drove to child care, and to work, and back to child care, stopping on my way home to do all of the errands that had to be done, by the end of the day the rear view mirror was pointed too high, and I’d have to adjust it again. I finally realized that the problem isn’t the mirror — the problem is my life. I start out the day wide awake and sitting up straight in my seat but by evening, I’m slumped down in exhaustion.”
We all know the kind of fatigue my professor was describing, days in which each passing hour finds our shoulders slumping just a little more, our feet trudging forward with a little less spring in our step. For some of you, the weight on your back is from trying to juggle your children’s schedules made more complex by at-home learning, along with your own work commitments and the thousand Zoom meetings you have to attend. For others of you, your fatigue is caused by the emotional drain of anxiety, or a chronic illness that saps your strength, or even the tedium of the pandemic’s social isolation that requires every ounce of willpower to drive you through the lonely day. Fatigue is part of the human condition, but for all of us that condition has been exacerbated by the unrelenting shutdown and changes brought by Covid 19. Does the gospel have anything to say to the weary souls among us? There is good news for the leper and good news for the blind; is there good news for the simply tired whose backs are bent not from deformity but from the weight of each day?
I believe that there is good news for the exhausted among us here at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry in the gospel of Mark. Immediately following Jesus’ emergence from his forty days in the wilderness, Mark tells us that in his first day on the job, Jesus preaches around Galilee, chooses several local fishermen as his disciples, hikes with them up to Capernaum, a village on the northwestern shore of the lake, and goes to the local synagogue where he spends a considerable portion of the day teaching. After he is finished speaking, he casts out an unclean spirit that is possessing a local man, and then goes to Peter’s house where he heals Peter’s mother-in-law who has been sick in bed with a fever. You would think a day of organizing a team of disciples, hiking around a lake, teaching, and healing two people from their diseases would be enough for one day’s agenda, but Jesus’ day is not over. Even as the sun is setting, the whole city crowds around his door asking him to cure this person and that, and Jesus continues his work until finally, he is allowed to go to bed. If you have ever wondered whether Christ appreciates the weariness you sometimes feel in your life, re-read the first chapter of Mark: he is well acquainted with your fatigue.
But if Jesus’ first day of ministry resonates with our own weariness, it is his second day of ministry that points to the hope for the healing of our fatigue.
“[The next] morning,” the gospel says, “while it was still very dark, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” This will become the pattern for Jesus’s ministry: teaching, healing, and then withdrawing to pray; teaching, healing, and withdrawing to pray; teaching, healing, and then withdrawing to pray.
Jesus’ seemingly inexhaustible energy comes, we discover, from his recognition that he is in fact not inexhaustible and that even he, the Savior of the world, must regularly stop to lay aside the needs of the world in order to tend to his own spiritual fatigue.
For many of us, admitting we are not strong enough to cope on our own is difficult. Those who are worn out from trying to meet everyone else’s needs may feel selfish drawing a line and saying, “Enough. I can do no more for today.”
Those exhausted from anxiety, depression, health concerns, or the isolation of the pandemic may berate themselves for what they perceive as their weakness or lack of willpower. “Why can’t I just get over these feelings and get it together?” they ask. “What is wrong with me?”
Instead of facing our fatigue and admitting our need for help, we try to ignore our exhaustion, we distract ourselves from our grief, we tell ourselves we are just being childish and it will be better tomorrow, we grit our teeth and soldier on, all the while our souls are becoming more and more battered and the joy is draining from our hearts. The gospel, however, tells us that admitting that we are not self-sufficient, admitting that we need help — divine help — to cope, is not weak or selfish; it is the way of faith. Carving out time for yourself in prayer and holding that time as sacred even from the needs of family or friends — whether you find it in the 15 minutes the rest of the household is still asleep, or through a walk in the woods, or the reading of a devotional, or in the services of the church — allows you to regularly reconnect with the source of your strength so that you can be renewed. Jesus’ pattern is to be ours: teaching, healing, withdrawing to pray; child rearing, house cleaning, withdrawing to pray; Zoom meetings, volunteering, withdrawing to pray; even grieving, weeping, withdrawing to pray. Whatever the work of your life might be right now — even if your work is the work of healing a broken heart — Jesus says that you will find the strength you need to do that work when you bring that work to God in prayer.
And the gospel says that in prayer, God is able to give us strength because God brings our focus back to what is most important.
The gospel of Mark says that when the disciples found Jesus praying, Jesus got up from his knees and said to them, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” There are still a lot of people back in Capernaum who would be happy for Jesus to hang around with them a few more days and heal a few more hundred people, but in prayer, Jesus has trimmed away everything that is not part of his primary calling and has oriented himself once again to what it is he has come to do. As one person put it, “The main thing is keeping the main thing the main thing.”
Often our exhaustion comes from our losing sight of the main thing: of what it is we need to be doing right now. A million things distract us, a million needs call to us, a million doubts clutter our souls and we are overwhelmed by it all, but in prayer, God can help us to sort out what it is that we are called to do right now, whose needs we are called to meet and which we should be setting aside, what work we need to doing today and what other worries, no matter how legitimate, we may have to set aside in order to keep the main thing the main thing.
“The main thing is keeping the main thing the main thing.”
What is your main thing right now? What is the primary work that God wants you to do at this moment? For parents, the main thing right now may be ensuring your children thrive in a world that has suddenly been turned upside down. For those who are struggling with an illness, your main work is healing and sharing small moments of joy with loved ones. For those distressed by injustice, your main thing is finding a way of speaking out; maybe you can’t correct every wrong in the world but you can do one thing that will move us an inch closer to God’s vision of peace.
Even Jesus didn’t do it all; he said to the disciples, “Let us go and do what I came out to do,” and every time that ministry became muddled by the distractions of a thousand other needs and possible directions, Jesus got down on his knees and prayed for God’s help to keep the main thing the main thing.
We are all tired these days but God promises there is help for our weary souls. God waits for us to come, to bend our knees in prayer and say, “I think I need some help — some divine help — to get through this day, to clear away all that distracts me from the work I am called to do in this moment and this place.” May we all take a lesson from Jesus and carve into the pattern of our lives a time to regularly withdraw in prayer.