Mark 1: 35 Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. 36 Simon and his companions went to look for him, 37 and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!” 38 Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” 39 So he traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons.
On this, the 10th anniversary of the tragic terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, I find that there is much yet to grieve. In addition to the lives lost on that day, I grieve the two wars that our country charged into, and for the hundreds of thousands of lives lost in them, American as well as Iraqi, Afghani and others. Very few of those lives had anything to do with Al Qaeda and the events of ten years ago today.
But I do find some things to celebrate. Within days and months of the attack on the Twin Towers, it seemed that everybody and their dog was sporting a Fire Department of New York sweatshirt, t-shirt, coffee mug, water bottle, bandanna or baseball cap. I mean that literally about the dog, by the way. On the official FDNY website you can even order an official FDNY dog bandanna.
It just goes to show that heroes emerged from that tragedy, and not just villains. Heroes such as fire fighters, police officers, emergency medical technicians, doctors, nurses and others who ran into harm’s way to help others, who stayed on task for long hours and many days, who not only risked their lives but many who lost their lives to help others. If we are looking for heroes with whom to identify, we could do much, much worse than these civil servants. Many young people since then have become such civil servants precisely because of their heroic, sacrificial example. And even now as I speak, our friends at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church up at Portland Ave. and 19th Street are observing this anniversary with a service of celebration and blessing for these same servants in our fair city. Think of that: servants as heroes. That doesn’t often happen.
Today we are also celebrating and blessing some of the many servants among us, in particular, our Christian Education servants, whatever the age of the people they serve. At first glance, your service may not look as glamorous, life-threatening or adrenaline-rush-producing as what fire fighters and emergency medical technicians give. Nor does your compensation come in the form of immediate earthly rewards. For that we are all the more impressed with your volunteer commitment. But you do have this in common with fire fighters, EMT’s and others: the service you render requires as much commitment, over time, and as much care and love, as does their calling.
If you’re like me, the word “service” typically brings to mind another word, “assignment,” kind of like “job.” I typically think of service as having to do with tasks, or duties, or goals to accomplish, which it does. But in today’s Gospel text, the service that Jesus models has to do first of all with relationships. Jesus appears to be just off, sitting by himself in the pre-dawn darkness, doing nothing. But praying. And that, while mobs of needy people have been clamoring for his help, with more coming in by the minute. What kind of service is that?
But what he is doing so early that morning, in solitude, I call service, even Christian service, because he is attending to three relationships, and in proper order of priority. Without this proper order of priority, service degenerates into mere busywork, it can even do more harm than good, and finally, it can come crashing to a halt all together. Violate this order of priority and service is not sustainable.
The first relationship to which Jesus is attending is his relationship with God his Father. He’s praying. We don’t have to seek too long and hard to figure out what he’s praying and how. Just look at what he taught his disciples about prayer, in the Lord’s Prayer that we will recite later this morning. Just read his own prayer recorded in John chapter 17. And take into account that as a Jew, he would not have been the only Jewish man who arose to pray before sunrise.
Ever since time immemorial, this is some of what Jewish people have been praying upon rising in the morning: “Blessed be the Lord God, King of the Universe.I thank you, living and eternal King,for returning my soul within me in compassion, great is your faithfulness.”
Then he would have recited: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: a good understanding have all they that do his commandments: his praise endureth for ever. Blessed be the name of his glorious kingdom forever and ever.” Blessed art Thou, LORD our God, King of the universe, who removes sleep from my eyes and slumber from my eyelids. May it be Your will, LORD our God and God of our fathers to accustom us to Your Torah [law] and attach us to Your mitzvot [or commandments]. And do not lead us into the hands of sin, nor into the hands of pride or perversity, not into the hands of temptation, nor into the hands of shame, and do not let the evil inclination rule over us.”
This intimate union with God was his from before time, like that of the word spoken, with the mouth that speaks it, like fire and the light that it casts. But as a human, it was also a union that he cultivated and maintained, much as we cultivate and maintain all our most important relationships. The relationship of the Son to the Father was so close that Jesus could honestly say, “What I see my Father doing, that I do as well.”
That is what service is about: doing in the world what God does in us; being channels for the work of God, in us and through us, and not just doing our work for God. The difference between Christian busywork and Christlike service begins here: in the intimacy of our union with God. That relationship must be cultivated, consciously, intentionally, like any other meaningful relationship, such as marriage. Think of it even as service to God, for God is well pleased with any amount of time, of faith and of love that we can return to him. Lest we get so busy doing work for God that we don’t have time for this work of God, let’s remember what Martin Luther used to say, that “I am too busy not to pray.”
But while he was attending to that first relationship, Jesus was also taking care of himself. For as St. Augustine said, “You have made us, O Lord, for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” God is not only good, God is our greatest good. By attending to his relationship with God, Jesus is also doing good for himself.
And that’s the second relationship Jesus is modeling: with himself. The text says that he went to “a lonely place.” But it does not say that Jesus was lonely. If anything, he came to this “lonely place” from a place where he had been mobbed and nearly overrun by crowds of people with deep and difficult needs. His service to them, over time, was exhausting, draining and distressing. And he would return from this “lonely place” to places where again he would be mobbed, pushed and pulled in all directions by thousands of people and their thousands of crying needs.
Here, at this dark and deserted place we see a key secret to Jesus’ ministry. To sustain his service to others, Jesus needed not loneliness but solitude. There is a big difference between loneliness and solitude. Loneliness we naturally fear. But solitude is a universal human need, greater in some, but present in all. On the surface it may look like a hostile act of withdrawal or disengagement, but looks can be deceiving. Jesus sought solitude for the sake of service, like when we close up our cell phones and plug them into their re-chargers. Then they can serve us again.
We think of service as meaning that we respect other people’s needs and limits and minister to them accordingly. That’s true. So why shouldn’t we recognize and respect our own limits and our own needs? When we don’t attend to God AND to ourselves, three things happen: 1) we run out of power to really, truly serve; we’re just going through the motions of Christian busy-work, but with fatigue and resentment; 2) that fatigue leads to emotional and spiritual disengagement that also pushes other people away; and 3) other people must take over our responsibility to respect our limits and needs and minister to us, when we are responsible to do it ourselves. We must take care of ourselves so that we can care for others.
Long ago I helped out with a children’s church on Sundays. One of the songs we taught the children was “Jesus and Others and You, what a wonderful way to spell Joy…..J is for Jesus ‘cuz he takes first place; O is for others you meet face-to-face; Y is for you, so whatever you do, put yourself third, that spells joy.”
Forty years later, I wish I could find those same kids again and tell them, “Uhhhhh….take that song with a grain of salt.” No, don’t be self-centered. Sometimes we do have to put ourselves third, like when our children get sick. Or like the police, fire fighters and EMT’s who rushed to the stricken Twin Towers ten years ago today. While many of them didn’t survive that day, I doubt that they could have lived with themselves had they run from the scene.
But the church already has a Savior who can attend to everyone one of us, and do whatever we need, 24-7, and its not anyone here in flesh and blood. Put yourself third all the time, without attending to your relationship with God and with yourself, and not only is it not sustainable, long term, its not even good service. If you’re always third to everybody and anybody with any need, then your spouse and your kids, if you’re married, will end up as neglected and resentful as yourself.
Yes, I know its hard to give ourselves permission to attend to ourselves and our needs. Where does this permission stop? we might wonder. If it helps, I make a distinction between healthy self-care, or responsible self-nurture, and irresponsible self-indulgence. When I was flying to Burkina Faso last February, on the first leg of the trip to Brussels, I was seated in front of the self-professed “Chardonnay club.” They were teachers who were on a tour of Europe for their personal and professional enrichment. That I would call healthy self-care or self-nurture. Good for them. What a gift that will be to their students, too.
But true to their name, they were ordering and consuming glasses of Chardonnay to the point where I was surprised that the flight attendants didn’t cut them off, but were still serving them. As the night went on, and as they got louder, more boisterous, rude and obnoxious, people around them were vacating their seats to find quieter places to sit and sleep, myself included. That was our self-care.
The Chardonnay Club never slowed down nor slept until about 5 AM, which was just about a half hour before landing in Brussels. Then the flight attendants had to awaken them. They were not happy about it. As they stumbled through the gate and into the terminal looking like the proverbial death warmed over, I wondered how they were going to appreciate the beautiful cultural wonders of Europe: hung-over, sleep-deprived, groggy and grumpy, on top of jet lag. It looked to me like they had engaged in a self-defeating kind of self-indulgence, and not a responsible self-care, or self-nurture.
If we need permission to attend to our self care in solitude, to do the kinds of things that really recharge our batteries, like exercise, reading, fishing, hiking, sewing, quilting, painting, music, and of course, worship and prayer, then take this sermon as permission from your pastor to do just that. Because he does (or at least he tries). And I take my permission from the example of Jesus in today’s Gospel text.
The third relationship Jesus attends to is his relationship to others. I’ll actually say the least about this morning, except to encourage us to prioritize our servanthood relationships. If God has called us to marriage and family, there is our first field of service to others. Those constitute our first churches, even our first mission field.
Jesus models for us a service to others that is grounded in and powered by the first two relationships I mentioned: with his God and Father, and with himself. And here’s another thing about his service to others: what he did for others he also did with others. While he was serving people by addressing human needs, he was also serving people by teaching them how to serve others, his disciples, even sharing the burdens of his service with them. Because service is a universal human need. We have a God-given need to contribute and make a positive difference.
And that’s what I want us to take away from today’s passage, especially our Christian Education workers. Yes, you are engaged in Christlike service to others, your students. But you are also teaching them what they need to know in order to serve in Christlike ways. In particular, you are teaching them about God and their relationship with God. That implies that they are also learning about themselves in relationship to God and to others.
For example, our Senior High Youth have recently had some classes about spiritual gifts. Not only will they now know what those gifts are about now, they will likely also be learning which gifts the Spirit has given them. Then they will be better able to use their gifts to serve others.
Teachers, sponsors, mentorers, and any others in our ministry of Christian Education, we encourage you, along with everyone here, to always attend to those first two relationships, with God and with yourself, so that you may serve others—especially your students–with power and great love drawn from the deepest wells of your soul, just as Jesus did, wells that are fresh and full, not tired and dry. God bless you.