Time to be On, Time to be Off

by the Rev. Paul Nancarrow

This sermon is based on Mark 1:29-39. Click here to listen to an audio version of this sermon.

On Friday I came across this quote in the News Leader: “There is so much pressure to do well in high school or otherwise you won’t get into college and if you don’t do well in college you won’t get a job.” That was said by Isabella Galeazi,  who is a college student in California and who is 18 years old.

That quote caught my eye because just the day before I’d been talking with Muffie Newell, our parish Assistant for Christian Formation and Pastoral Care, about her concern for the youth of this parish, our high schoolers and middle schoolers, our teens and tweens – and the highly scheduled, highly tasked, highly stressed lives they seem to be leading. It came up initially because Muffie was talking with the Senior and Junior High Sunday school teachers and youth group leaders, about the difficulty they are having in scheduling events that the kids could come too. Not just events that kids would want to come to – finding church things that are genuinely attractive to youth is its own kind of challenge – but they were having trouble scheduling dates that kids were able to come to, even when they wanted to, because the kids’ schedules were already so full of so many things. Sports and clubs and rehearsals and music lessons – and not just one sport, but two; not just rehearsals for band, but for choir and for the musical, too; not just lessons for one instrument, but lessons for two or for three. And so often, Muffie said, the reason she heard for all these tasks and all these activities and all this pressure, was that kids needed all those things on their transcripts and their resumés and their college applications, so that they could get into the best schools and get the best jobs and have the best lives.

All of which sounds well and good – all of which sounds like appropriate, healthy ambition – all of which sounds like a can-do spirit and go-getter attitude – until you begin to realize what a toll this kind of pressure takes on a young life. What happens to a teen or a tween when they are under such pressure to prepare for the stresses of adulthood that they never really get to be a kid?

Now, as a church leader, I suppose it would be easy for me to stand up here and say, “It’s all a matter of priorities. If these young people – and, more importantly, if their parents – would just get their priorities straight, then they would put church and church gatherings at the top of their list. They would think that youth group and Sunday school are more important than sports and practices and travel. Then they would be here, and we would have a successful youth program, and we could all feel good about that, and that would take the pressure of all the other things they feel they have to do.” I suppose it would be easy enough to say that.

The problem is it wouldn’t be true. Because it’s not that simple. It is not that church ought to be a top priority; it’s that there are too many priorities.

If kids today are feeling under pressure to be always on and always working and always grooming for success, that pressure must be coming from somewhere. They’re not doing it to themselves. And it doesn’t take more than a moment’s thought to see that pressure is coming from us, from adults. Partly it comes from parents, who naturally want to see their kids do well and have rich and fulfilling lives. Partly it comes from teachers, who naturally want to see their students succeed and who have an idea of just what success requires. But I think a lot of it comes from us in general, from adults in general, from a kind of widespread social system of expectations and obligations and definitions of “success” that are difficult for any of us to sustain, that are taking their toll on all of us, but especially on our kids.

Dwight Zscheile, whose book The Agile Church the Vestry is using as a study book this year, writes about the level of anxiety most of us experience in today’s society. He quotes psychologist Robert Kegan on how we as workers are “now expected to invent our own work; to be self-initiating, self-correcting, and self-evaluating; to be guided by our own visions;” and to “work on ourselves” so constantly that building up our own identity becomes our chief project in life. Every job, every action, every relationship, every place we go, every thing we do, even every bit of fun we have, is supposed to contribute in some way to building up our sense of self, the resumé, as it were, that we each carry around in our head. But such a self-built identity is very fragile, and maintaining it takes a lot of work. So we end up with a feeling that we are always on, always performing, always at work, and we have to do everything at our top notch or else we’ll fall behind.

And because we feel this is the sort of world we live in, and because we want our children to have a chance of being successful in this world, we pass on to them this sense that they must always do everything, and do everything their best – and without intending it, we end up making them feel even more anxious and pressured than we feel ourselves.

Now this is a sermon, not a sociology lecture; and my job here is not to criticize culture but to preach the gospel. So here’s the gospel: In today’s reading from Mark, we see Jesus living in a way that is very different from feeling pressured to do everything and do it all his best in order to be a success. In this gospel story Jesus is very busy, he does a lot, it is true; but there is something else here that is more than just busy-ness.

This passage is a kind of a day-in-the-life of Jesus. It actually starts a few verses earlier than the part we read today. In the morning of the sabbath day, Jesus and his disciples go to the synagogue, where Jesus preaches and heals a man who has an unclean spirit. After service, they all go to Simon’s house for the sabbath meal. Simon’s mother-in-law, as the eldest woman in the house, would normally have the privilege of leading the feast; but she is in bed with a fever; so Jesus heals her and she serves the meal. But remember that this is a sabbath meal, which means no work could be done, which means all the food was cooked the day before, so Simon’s mother-in-law merely sets it out on the table, says the prayers, and invites everyone to come and eat. And they spend the rest of the afternoon resting, doing no work, just enjoying each other’s company in the presence of God.

It is later that evening, when the sun is going down and the sabbath is over, that all the people in town come to Simon’s door, bringing the sick and unwell among them, and Jesus heals them all. But then darkness falls; and since oil for lamps is expensive and most families didn’t want to burn any more of it than they had to, it isn’t long before they all go to bed and get a good night’s sleep.

Then, early in the morning, before sunrise, Jesus gets up and goes out into a lonely place, where he spends some time alone with God in prayer, not doing anything for anybody else, but simply being with God. And when Simon Peter and the others come looking for him, Jesus tells them they have to go on to the next town and bring Good News there, too, because that is what Jesus has come out to do.

The whole passage, the whole 24-hour period, shows Jesus doing a lot of work; but it also shows Jesus taking a lot of time to not work. There is a certain rhythm in Jesus’ day, there is this wonderful balance in Jesus’ time, holding together both work and rest, both time on and time off, both engagement and withdrawal, both public and private, both in the world and with God. This rhythm of work and rest, outward and inward, is part of what gives Jesus his strength to bring the presence of God into so many people’s lives.

And that same kind of rhythm of work and rest, outward and inward, has been part of Christian discipleship ever since. It has taken many forms; but I think one of the most significant has been the Benedictine pattern, that incorporates into each day some manual work, and some time in chapel, and some time in quiet personal prayer, and some time just to rest. Monks and nuns have been living in that pattern since the sixth century; and recently men and women outside of monasteries have been rediscovering that pattern, as Kathleen Norris wrote in her book The Cloister Walk. The rhythm of prayer along with work, quiet time along with striving for success, helps us get beyond the anxiety of always having to create ourselves, helps us find a deeper center in each other and in God, helps us sift through too many priorities to find what really matters most.

And if Jesus models that kind of rhythm for his disciples, then as disciples it is our job to model that kind of rhythm for those close to us, for those among us who are parents and teachers and coaches and nurturers, and especially for our youth and teens and tweens. How can our church, how can Trinity Parish, be the sort of place where people can come to learn a rhythm of work and rest, time on and time off, outward and inward, that can help balance our lives? Where can you look to find that rhythm, that balance, in your life? – how can you learn if from others, and how can you share it with those who need to find it too?

“There is so much pressure to do well” Isabella Galeazi says. And Jesus replies, There is time to be on, and time to be off, and time to be with God. Let’s do what we can to bring those two together. Amen.