Sermon: Going the Distance

Matthew 8:23-27 NRSV

23When Jesus got into the boat, his disciples followed him. 24 A windstorm arose on the sea, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. 25 And they went and woke him up, saying, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” 26 And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm. 27 They were amazed, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?”

Early in the Gospels’ accounting of Jesus’ ministry, we hear of Jesus’ popularity and busy-ness. In chapter 6, Mark tells us that everywhere Jesus turned there were crowds clamoring for his attention. When the Disciples reported all that they were doing, he advised them to come away and rest awhile, for they had no leisure even to eat. You’d think the man had a smart-phone with GPS locator on it, the way people always managed to hunt him down, seeking to have their wounds healed and needs met.

I imagine this sounds familiar to many of you, depending on what stage of life you find yourself in. Parents with babies and pre-school aged children have always been hampered thus. The more children you have and the younger they are, the more likely it is that there is literally never a moment of peace for you. In these days of Covid, when so many working parents found themselves also having to home-school or supervise distance-learning, the constant demands traveled up the age-ladder. Anxiety looms large for families and teachers alike as the Helena schools do their best to balance educational, health, and safety needs for children, their families, educators and staff. It’s a delicate balancing act fraught with consequences and impact on everyone. If you’re connected to this at any level, and already feel exhausted before the school year’s begun, trust that you’re in good company. This is tough stuff.

If this was all that was on our plates, that would be enough. But this is an election year, and many see issues and circumstances that they feel called to address and act upon at a critical time. It takes energy to be someone who puts one’s values and convictions to work in order to serve as a social or political advocate. To do this when the ways you’ve previously done things are not readily available because of social-distancing practices, adds an extra layer of energy drain as you consider how to do things in a new way.

And then there are the “ordinary” circumstances of life that require prolonged, intensive effort… pursuing education, an extra challenging season of work, illness in the family, death of loved ones and the long journey of grief… all of these things demand from us more than we often feel capable of. We get depleted and find ourselves getting to the ends of our rope, having run out of “me.”

In her book, Sacred Resistance, Ginger Gaines-Cirelli offers an entire chapter on the spiritual practices needed to avoid burnout. While her book addresses those who are seeking to put their faith into action in the arena of social justice, I find her “how to keep going” advice to be broadly applicable to all of us, no matter what long-haul journey we are endeavoring to sustain.

Let’s face it. Life itself is a marathon. Unless we learn to pace ourselves, until we figure out how and when to re-fuel along the way, many of us will find ourselves collapsing at some point and failing to cross the finish line of our ideals and intent. So how do we “go the distance” in becoming and being the contributions to this world and the people around us that God calls us to be?

In short, how do we learn to become like Jesus, who in our Gospel reading from Matthew, demonstrates himself to be capable of getting rest even in the midst of the very storms that terrify everyone else. Who DOES that? And how can I get some of that?

Put another way, how do we embody Psalm 1, which describes people of faith as trees planted by streams of living water, who bear fruit and grant shade to all who need it, because their root systems literally swimming in the Source of Life that is God.

Those of you of a certain age may remember the Far Side cartoon my Gary Larson. One of my favorites depicted what a dog hears when a human speaks. You see the dog and her human and the caption overhead reads, “Blah, blah, blah, Ginger, blah, blah, blah, Ginger.”

I am a little bit worried that the rest of this sermon might occur this way as I re-visit the topic of spiritual disciplines… those practices that keep us connected to Jesus, the vine… those activities that plunge our roots into the Living Water that is God… “Blah, blah, blah… spiritual disciplines… blah, blah, blah.” Knowing that this might be a moment in which your eyes glaze over a bit, I encourage you to stand up! Shake! Wake-up and tune in. Because this is important my friends.

Many of us find ourselves dragging these days. We don’t have the energy or capacity we’ve formerly had and there are lots of reasons for this. But I suspect that for many of us, the problem is that we’re not spiritually hydrated.

I recently discovered newly the value of physical hydration. I know we’re all constantly told to drink more water. If it’s hot outside… drink more water. If you’re at higher elevation… drink more water. If you want to lose weight… drink more water. Yeah, yeah, yeah. In my cancer recovery journey, I’ve been pushing myself to move more, trying to increase the number of steps I can take at one time as well as the overall number for the day. My health coach pulled the “drink more water” card on me and I begrudgingly agreed. The amazing that happened was that the day I actually drank the water, I was able to walk TWICE as long as I had the day before when all of my liquid had been caffeinated. Wow. That was weird. Tried the experiment a couple more times… don’t drink the water… do drink the water. Turned out to be pretty reliable… drinking water gave me twice as much energy. Don’t believe me? Run your own experiment! Personally, I’m convinced. Apparently all those experts knew what they were talking about! Which is kind of a bummer because these are the same people who have stuff to say about sugar. But that’s a topic for another time.

For today, we’re focusing on what we need to put into our lives in order to be spiritually hydrated, and thus empowered to persevere with whatever form of marathon is facing us.

God’s original prescription for this is Sabbath. This is, after all, the advice God took for Godself. Taking one day out of seven to STOP. Get off the treadmill. Don’t be productive. Don’t be perpetually available. Don’t be “on” 24-7. The temptation to forget this is enormous in our culture. I realize that finding 24 hours may seem like an impossible task. So find 8… or 4… or start with even 1. It requires intentionality and discipline to stop doing and simply be. It requires letting go of our own importance and humbly accepting that actually, the world WILL keep spinning without us. The kids may eat lunchables and the laundry might not get done. But if you take a break, everyone will survive. It may take creativity and planning to carve out that time. It’s worth it. You’re worth it. Sabbath is about being refreshed and renewed. For some folks that means going fishing. For others it’s a nap, or time to read a good book. Some folks need alone time. Others need to be with their peeps. Whatever else you do for Sabbath, part of our “downtime” practice is intentionally connecting with God in prayer. The whole point is to spend time with God, trusting that God is the Source of life, creativity, well-being, peace, inspiration… whatever it is we’re running low on, God is the wellspring of. It only makes sense to take the time to turn on the tap! How did Jesus do all that he did? He consistently spent time with God, getting rehydrated for a life of love and service.

If you were to pick up one of the classics of Christian literature, such as Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, you would not find the following practice included, but it’s nevertheless one of my favorites. Laughter! Anne Lamott describes humor and laughter as “carbonated holiness.” A good laugh is as valuable to me as a solid night’s sleep. Priceless!

I’ve talked about practicing gratitude previously. No kidding, friends, paying attention and really looking for what is good in this world makes a difference. Did you know that there are actual news sources that specialize in sharing GOOD news? One is called the Good News Network. Another is the Daily Good. And there’s a weekly e-newsletter from the Washington Post called The Optimist. Even if your eyes have gotten too weary to look around and really appreciate summer flowers or the color green, I suspect if you began to feed yourself a diet of good news, rather than the doom and gloom we’re typically surrounded by, you might find inspiration with which to be grateful.

Finally, I see such need for us to hold onto those who hold us in love. Jesus could rest in that boat in stormy waters because he trusted that God held him in love. Who and what do we trust to hold us? Over the last year, I have learned that I can trust you, the people of HUMM to hold me in love. I hope you trust each other for this, for I have witnessed how you hold each other. This is part of why we benefit from being connected to a community of faith… to know that we hold and are held in love… fulfilling the baptismal promises made to us and made by us for the sake of others.

There is more to say about all of these things… more practices to cultivate… more resources to try. I’d be delighted to talk with you and share more ideas. But in the meantime, start with this… STOP. Breathe. Take a big drink. Laugh a bit. Look for the good. And hold on.

Trust that God has you… and that with God’s help, you CAN run the race before you. Amen.

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