Father Joshua Daniel
Year B Proper 11
Sermon Text: Mark: 6:30-34, 53-56
(Pictured: Qumran, Judean Wilderness, Palestine)
(Audio cuts out half way)
There is much to like in Robert Fulghum’s well-known book, Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Here are just a select few insights. 1. Share. 2. Play fair. 3. Put things back where you found them. 4. Flush. And last but not least, 5. Take a nap every afternoon. There is real wisdom there. Jesus also has a thing or two to say about the importance of children, the importance of seeing the world through their eyes. Later in Mark Jesus quite provocatively says, “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” More on that later (like in October, which is when we’ll read that passage). For every thing that children do know–and in some ways know better than we do–there is something that hardly any child can appreciate. And that’s what I want to focus on today. The blind spot for all children. Boredom. This is a sermon about boredom. A sermon–to the horror of children everywhere–meant to celebrate boredom.
I’m not a culture warrior. I don’t get overly concerned about the “war” on Christmas or whether prayers are spoken over the intercom before school. But one of the cultural trends that does concern me is the growing lack in boredom. The decay of boredom. The pervasive desdain our culture has towards it.
And I speak about this not from a safe distance, eyeing all you sinners. But rather as someone who personally struggles to be bored. Someone who, as a parent, fails to adequately bore my children.
Almost a year ago I got the first upgrade to my phone in seven years. I went from an iphone 4 to an iphone 7. It was magical. After several failed, what I will generously call “updates” to the phone, everything because a negotiation. I would open it and ask, Will you work today? Will you tell me if someone calls? Will you not leave me holding the bad with bad directions in the middle of a trip? Sometimes–in fact, I think it’s fair to say, many times–the answer was no. No, I will not help. Not today, sorry.
But the new phone never talked back to me. I could make calendar appointments. I could check my mail any time I wanted. I could listen or watch news as I cleaned the dishes after super.
Living the last three years so far away, my family travelled by airplane more than we ever have. Switching phones was like the difference between travelling in an airport with multiple connections with young children in tow to flying direct without children.
What I mean to say, dear people of God, is that the struggle is real. With my new phone the problem of boredom became real. It became real because boredom–for at least the first few weeks of having the phone–almost disappeared completely from my life.
I won’t lay out the clinical case for the dangers that screens (like my magical, wonderful new phone–but also tablets and other small and large TV devices) pose for our individual and collective mental and physical health. As far as I understand them, though, many researchers are very concerned about the effect screens are having in our culture.
Imagine all the events in your day as large stones in a sturdy vase. There’s a rock for walking the dog, there’s a rock for the current project at work, for the drive home, for preparing the day’s meals, for getting ready for bed, etc. At the end of the day the vase is full of different sized rocks. But there’s still plenty of space in between them. Screens have become the sand that fills up the empty space in the vase.
Where there might have been some empty space between different events in the day, my phone often fills up that gap. I struggle to find “downtime” now. To sit and be still. To not rush back to the information machine. Sometimes this means not being as present to my family as I should. Sometimes it means that I have failed to have the courage to be bored.
What I’ve done here is my best attempt at making Jesus’ concern in today’s gospel real for us. Recall the gospel setup. After travelling to his hometown in Nazareth, after being dismissed as merely “a carpenter, the son of Mary,” Jesus sends his disciples out on their first mission. A mission not defined by aggression and force but a mission defined by openness and mercy and a call to repentance. It was defined not by the “bread of Herod” but by the “bread of God.”
In today’s gospel the disciples return. They gather around Jesus and tell him “all they had done and taught.” And “he said to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” The scriptures tell us that they had been so busy that they didn’t have enough “leisure” time to eat. It is passages like these that the divide between their ancient society and ours seems very small indeed.
The great miracles of Jesus are just around the corner. Soon Jesus will feed the five thousand. Soon Jesus will walk on water. Soon Jesus’ very body will transfigured into an unearthly “dazzling white”, and as all of Mark means to point us, soon Jesus will face his own execution and resurrection. But before all that. And in the midst of all that. Jesus calls his disciples to retreat. To slow down. To collect themselves. To go out to a “deserted place.” Jesus calls them to boredom.
Now there’s important aspect of this that I want to name but don’t have time to explore today. And that is the importance of wilderness in Jesus’ spirituality. For Jesus a “deserted place” often means wild country and there’s an important witness in that for the goodness and beauty of God’s creation. And the absolute necessity for us to actually retreat and walk in wild places.
But today I want to briefly suggest another “deserted place” to be bored in. Here. This church. One way of thinking about Sunday worship is to think of it as a sacred time to be bored. To re-set yourself at the beginning of the week. Reset yourself with your friends, your community, your family. A time to unplug from business. A space to invite quietness and prayer.
I grew up going to church and some of my favorite memories was when my mind would start to wonder during the sermon. I remember that so many of those sermons would provoke me into states of fantastic imagination and curiosity. The sermon would set my mind down unexpected paths. The pastor would make connections I hadn’t but then that would often lead me to make connections of my own.
There is a thread throughout scripture and the history of our church that links quiet and stillness to the voice of God. That mysteriously in silence God speaks most clearly.
Silence, quietness, stillness. These are all things that as people we easily neglect and sometimes actively avoid. Think of this hour in your week as gym time. Time not to build muscles or increase physical endurance. But gym time to build up your endurance and openness to boredom.
Our liturgy means to bring out just these qualities. When we recite scripture our collective memories are drawn back all those thousands of years to hear the words our ancestors spoke. There is a slowness in how this unfolds each Sunday morning. During our service we stand and kneel. We make images of the cross on our mouths and chests. We teach our bodies to retreat.
We train our bodies back into Christ’s time. Not just remembering the time when Jesus lived but also mirroring our lives in the way that Jesus lived. Christ’s time is filled with vacancy.
As powerful as the liturgy is in expressing this, there is probably no greater power than the music that our choir and musicians provide. Music has the inexplicable power to cut through our emotional insulation and open us back up to the tenderness that business hardens us to. Music prepares us for those moments of silence to break through with conviction and clarity.
Notice one last thing. It was after Jesus called his disciples to retreat to a “deserted place” that opened him up to the ministry of God. Mark tells us that when “he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them.”
And so I invite you to boredom. To quietness and a still life. However brief. To draw ourselves to a “deserted place” and remain there for a moment. So that God might fill our lives, soften our hearts, make us more present to ourselves, our families, and our community. To enable us for works of compassion and love. Amen.