Jesus needs a break.
Since hearing of John’s death in chapter 14, Jesus has tried to get away multiple times to be alone and pray. He has always been thwarted. People see him head out alone in a boat and meet him when he comes ashore, thronging him, bringing all their sick for healing. He feeds the thousands with five loaves and two fish. He rescues the disciples from stormy weather at sea. And on and on.
So finally Jesus and the disciples just get away for a while. They walk the 50 or so miles out to the region of Tyre and Sidon on the Mediterranean coast. Tyre and Sidon are bustling seaports in Phoenicia. Phoenicia. Not Judea. So Jesus is outside of Jewish territory, away from Herod, away from scribes and Pharisees, away from the throngs who follow him everywhere with their ceaseless needs and hunger and demands. Finally he is going to have some down time.
He needs to process what is developing in his ministry. John the Baptist’s death just ramped up the intensity of his work. Is he next? We know the answer, but he was living into all sorts of possibilities. Maybe this is not what he thought he was getting into. He needs time to grieve, to pray, to seek guidance, to breathe deeply, to rest without having people hound him about healing their sickness. He needs a vacation.
We see this with others who have been extraordinary leaders in our own time. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had some real soul-searching, prayerful nights. Did he answer his call to lead the Civil Rights Movement thinking people would bomb his house, stab him, finally assassinate him? At one point, right out of seminary, he considered serving a church in the north (Detroit?). We know how his story turned out, but he didn’t. He was making choices all along the way. So is Jesus.
So are we, all through our lives. And our decisions matter, both for how our lives play out and for our impact on those around us. Do I go to this college or that college—or go get a job? Do I take this job in this city or that job over in that city? Do I marry this person? Do I divorce this person? What about kids? Do I stick with this career track until retirement, or am I being called to something different? There is injustice happening in my community—how do I respond? Do I get involved, and if so, how much?
We need time for prayerful discernment, and the answer doesn’t always come in an instant. It may take time, discipline, a lot of listening and thinking. We may have to clear space to focus on this discernment process. We have to seek that time for quiet prayer, connection with God, guidance, discernment. We can’t just push-push-push all the time. That’s a good recipe for burnout.
Exhibit A: Jesus tells people it isn’t what goes into your mouth that defiles you; it’s what comes out of it. And then when the Canaanite woman comes shouting after him (very annoying!) to heal her daughter, he tells her to bug off. It’s the rudest thing he says to a person seeking healing. But he’s burned out, and she has come pestering him when he has just walked 50 or more miles to put his feet in the sand, listen to the waves, and above all get away from such hounding. It’s what comes out of your mouth that defiles you, and what comes out of his mouth is just mean. He doesn’t live up to his own good advice. In her annoying way, the woman has to remind him that his call is to serve anyone and everyone.
It is so bothersome when annoying people are right! But she brings him back to his call, and he at least has the good grace to admit that she’s right. Your daughter is healed. Now leave me alone.
Jesus needed a break. We’ve been having a break in some ways: the pandemic has disrupted our usual routines, forced many of us to slow down, stay home. And yet. It’s easy to fill the time with more stuff, more busywork. And this isn’t a vacation. We can’t take the usual vacations that give us rest and renewal, that connect us with friends and relatives, that feed our spirits. Normally summer is a time when many of us do take vacations. We might go to the coast, like Jesus, or go hiking in the mountains, take the kids to Disneyland—whatever. Some of you are finding ways to do some of these things. Many of us are spending way more time at home this year than usual because of the pandemic and orders to self-isolate. And maybe that has allowed us to slow down, spend more time in the garden, read more books, etc. And some, especially in the health-care industry, are working harder than ever, no vacations in sight anywhere.
Personally, I’m finding it easy to fill up the extra free time with more stuff to do. My usual summer vacations all got canceled. I’m working, starting to build my house, I’ve put in a garden and am in prolonged conversation with the deer as to whether this is a buffet set out for their enjoyment. There is plenty to do. So I say, as much for my own benefit as for all of us: take breaks. Be really intentional about it. This pandemic isn’t going away anytime soon, and dealing with it can be exhausting and stressful. The regular demands of jobs, relationships, running our households, health issues can fill our days with busyness.
Take time to just be. Take time to pray. Get away from whatever is hounding you, whether that means 10 minutes every morning to meditate or a week away at the shore. Breathe deeply, sleep well, relax. Discern actively: How is God calling you to respond to the needs of this time and place? The needs will always be there, and they will always be greater than any one person can fulfill.
This isn’t to say that we should all just walk away from the pressing demands of our time. But if you feel yourself getting crispy, hear yourself making abrupt responses to people who are asking you for help, as the Canaanite woman was asking Jesus, step back in an intentional way. Take a break. Breathe deeply. Pray for guidance.
And then come back, refreshed, with a renewed sense of purpose and direction.
When we first shut down for this pandemic back in March, many of us likely thought this would be a short shutdown, maybe a few weeks. We have been shut down now for five months, with no real end in sight. This is a marathon, not a sprint. So be intentional about seeking what sustains you in this time. Work on a spiritual discipline of prayer, discernment, reflection, and stillness.
The needs of those in our community are only going to intensify. Racism, economic collapse, pandemic, summer wildfire season, climate change, immigration, voter rights—the urgent needs go on and on. Once in a while, we need to walk out to the coast, sit on the beach, and unplug the phone. Put your feet in the sand. Listen to the waves washing up on shore. Pick up a shell and just look at it. Put it up to your ear and listen. Wonder about the creature that lived in it. Pray to the God who created it—the God who created you.
What Jesus did know is that he was in for the long term. And he needed sustenance, not for a sprint, but for a marathon. That’s us, too: ways that will sustain us for the duration. So we get to find ways to take good care of ourselves, to open our hearts and souls for God’s still-speaking voice, to nurture that human-divine relationship so that we are grounded in what is life-giving.
Rachel Hackenberg writes,
[W]e are not made from dust that can be sustained in hyperdrive.
The cry of justice can only be just when it is paired with an invitation to rest. To prioritize well-being as much as labor. To value rest alongside restlessness. To fight for healthy sleep as much as we fight for healthy work. To believe that none are expendable to satisfy the storm’s torment.
(Rachel Hackenberg, “Treading Water,” Witness for Justice https://www.ucc.org/treading_water_08062020?utm_campaign=wfj_0806_20&utm_medium=email&utm_source=unitedchurchofchrist)
Many of you have been sewing masks, writing postcards, feeding the hungry, and continuing to do other good works throughout our community. You are making a difference. Your work matters. Make sure you are being fed for the long haul, and that you are taking that vacation from routine to check in with God, to be still, to rest and be nourished. God bless you and all that you do to build God’s realm. Amen.