Proclaim a Fast: Quit That Extra Internship

Part 1 of a Three Part Sermon Series for Lent
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center
February 21, 2010
Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Luke 4:1-13

Deuteronomy 26:1-11 • When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, “Today I declare to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our ancestors to give us.” When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the LORD your God, you shall make this response before the LORD your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me.” You shall set it down before the LORD your God and bow down before the LORD your God. Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house.

Luke 4:1-13 • Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”
Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

I. BEGINNING

My generation—Generation X—is a bunch of slackers. Well, maybe that’s not fair. But if not slackers, then cynics. We were not true believers.

Part of that was due to accidents of history. We had seen how the baby boomers had talked a lot about revolution, peace, and freedom, and then promptly sold out and got jobs on Wall Street in the 1980’s. We also were in the midst of rising disparity between rich and poor, environmental degradation, and this feeling that any day now, the Soviets were going to drop a big old nuclear weapon on our heads and the whole thing would be over.

And so, suffice it to say, my generation was not always the most optimistic. We were cynics—on account of betrayed ideals and on account of a world teetering on the brink of annihilation. We embraced a cynical humor, were big fans of irony, and adopted musical styles that were post-modern and that defied tradition.

Apart from your appreciation of ironic slogans on your t-shirts, your generation is not like that at all. On balance, you tend to commit to ideals, believe in progress and the ability to work meaningful change. You don’t just talk a good game about race, class, sexuality, the environment, and other issues, you actually live out lives that reflect a commitment to the values of equality and inclusiveness. And most of all, if there is one concept that your generation embodies it is that you are what the generational psychologists call “world changers”. You have set out to change the world itself. As proud as I am as a campus minister to work with you, deep down my Gen-X soul is tempted to say, “Let me know how that works out for you.”

But political and societal aspirations aside, there is a by-product of this enthusiasm and deep social commitment that is problematic: you are all incredibly busy. Perhaps that’s not simply due to your world-changer nature. Perhaps it’s also due to having had childhoods filled with activity. Perhaps it’s having been signed up for this activity on Mondays, that activity on Tuesdays, another on Wednesdays. Being told that if you had free time, you should take an extra class or sign up for some activity. Perhaps it is a combination of those and other factors.

But I will say this, I would never have imagined when I was your age, that when I got to a position of authority—thank you for not laughing at that—that I would spend a fair amount of my time giving young adults the following advice:

Please stop working and goof off more.

That seems odd advice for someone in my position, particularly as a Protestant minister, to give. I mean, that hardly sounds like the Protestant Work Ethic to me. Should I not be lecturing you instead on your moral obligations in this season of Lent?

II. LENT

This is the first Sunday in Lent after all. It is that season of preparation and penitence before Easter. Forty days in the wilderness together, commemorating the forty days that Jesus himself was in the wilderness, being tempted by Satan.

In that temptation, Jesus is tempted with all manner of things: sustenance, power, vindication. But Jesus does not yield. He will not put God to the test. He will not worship anyone other than God, though doing so might bring him power and glory over the whole world. He will not break his fast, when tempted with his hunger. He remains committed steadfastly to the disciplines of his spiritual preparation and to the bedrock of his faith—fidelity to God.

In Christian tradition, we seek to follow Jesus’ example. Traditionally, in Lent, we have followed that example by the Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, all of which were ancient ways of reminding us of our dependency on God for our sustenance and spiritual well-being, and our mutual responsibility for one another. And so these disciplines have been an important element in our Lenten journey for some time.

Particularly fasting, since fasting has that singular ability to remind you of the basics of life: sustenance and our need for God’s provision. It also tends to purify the blood—it’s why they tell you to fast before giving a blood sample. Fasting is a spiritual and physical ritual of purification and centering.

III. PROCLAIM A FAST

Fasting from food is an important discipline, but I would like to suggest to you another fast: fasting from endless activity.

I watch in utter amazement as students register for 18 credits of class, take on a part time job, take on an internship, sign up for a club or activity and volunteer to help out with their activities. And then, for good measure, you take on an extra internship—and unpaid ones for no credit, to boot! I am amazed because I wonder, when do you have time to just… live? When do you have time to simply be?

For too long our culture has told you that you need to accomplish things. That you need to pile up more and more lines on those resumes. That you need to have more and more credits, more and more things that will impress an employer. Because everything you’re doing right now is to get to the next phase. You’ll expend your free time now to get to the payoff later. Work. Work. Work. Study. Study. Study. Pile up the credentials. Show the world how much you have gotten done.

And it’s killing you.

Oh, maybe not physically… yet. But spiritually it is. I see it in the slumped shoulders, the tired expressions, the weary voices. There is only so much that a person can take on. Stop it. Quit. Proclaim a fast and fast from the activities that are distracting you from what’s really important.

Now, of course, we all have work we have to do. We need to take our classes in college. We need get our internships to give us valuable insight into our chosen careers. We take on work in order to make the skyrocketing costs of college less oppressive. These are the things we must do. But there is one other thing we must do: rest.

IV. SABBATH

It has been one of the oldest parts of our tradition that we are to observe a Sabbath, a day of rest. There are two versions of the Ten Commandments, one in Exodus and the other in Deuteronomy, and each provides a different rationale for the Sabbath day. One identifies it as a response to the days when the Israelites were slaves in Egypt and could not rest. The other, as commemoration of the fact that when God created the Universe, the seventh day was consecrated as a day of rest for God.

But another understanding is crucial: without rest, all the work we do is utterly meaningless. Those of you who are musicians will understand that if the rests are removed from the music, the melody becomes nonsensical. The rhythms and the pacing of the melodies of our lives likewise become nonsensical if we remove rest from our lives.

So much of art is defined not why what is drawn or painted, but by what isn’t. Much of graphic design is made effective by the use of white space. Look at the graphic in your bulletins, the triangle you think you see is actually defined by what isn’t there. Our very popular flyers on campus are mostly white space, using a typeface that makes excellent use of the spaces between the letters. Without those spaces in between, the substance of what we do becomes a jumbled mess.

When I was in college, I came across some verses from the Tao Te Ching that I have always liked, that sum this idea up well:

Thirty spokes will converge in the hub of a wheel;
But the use of the cart will depend
on the part of the hub that is void.
With a wall all around a clay bowl is molded;
But the use of the bowl will depend
on the part of the bowl that is void.
Cut out windows and doors in the house as you build;
But the use of the house will depend on the space
in the walls that is void.
So advantage is had from whatever is there;
But usefulness rises from whatever is not. [1]

The spaces are what give definition to our lives. The spaces make the substance of our lives meaningful, and useful. The spaces in our lives help us to be better at the substance. An unneeded internship, an extra class, or some other activity designed to keep us busy, makes us less effective at the things we would do. The busier we get, the less we are actually able to accomplish. The spaces are necessary to give definition to our work.

But most of all, the spaces are for God. It is in the spaces that God speaks to us. In the spaces that we are still enough to hear the voice of God calling. In the spaces, that we are freed from distraction long enough to know what God intends for us. In the spaces, we have the chance simply to be, to know who we are and whose we are. It is in the spaces, in the rests, that we give room for God to enter. How will that be possible if we never stop to rest?

We keep trying to fill our lives up with activity. We keep trying to do more, to achieve more, to make more. And yet, such behavior is no healthier for us spiritually than gluttony and constant eating would be for us physically. We are gorging ourselves on our constant levels of activity and we are not leaving any spaces in between.

One of the often misunderstood things about college is that many of you think you are hear to build a resume for your future employers. You are here to build you. This is your time. This is your opportunity to learn who you are. To wrestle with the questions big and small. To explore your likes and dislikes. To expose yourselves to new ideas, to different ways of thinking. To claim the person that God has called you to be. But if you look at this only as a period of unrelenting work and activity, you will miss out on this most important task. In depriving yourself of Sabbath and rest, you will not accomplish the one thing upon which all the others depend: learning who you are.

V. END

We are on a Lenten journey with Jesus, from Ash Wednesday to Palm Sunday, through the Good Friday and the cross on to Easter. It is a time of preparation, a time of reflection. A time of fasting.

Jesus, whose fasting we emulate during this season also knew the importance of rest. Jesus often took time apart for restoration, reflection, and renewal. And though we may sometimes act like it, none of us is better than him. We need rest, too. We need those spaces into which God’s spirit can enter.

It’s not an easy task, I grant you. We live in a culture driven by status and accomplishment, in a city where the resume is worshiped, at a university full of students eager to make a difference and to accomplish things. But perhaps this Lent will give us the opportunity to change that for ourselves.

I am going to give you something you don’t often get. At the end of this sermon, I am going to give you a couple minutes of silence. A couple minutes of stillness. To simply be. A pause. A Sabbath. Take this opportunity to pause, to reflect. To claim who you are amidst the busyness of your lives.

And over the next six weeks, we can commit ourselves to rediscovering Sabbath. To resisting the impulse to do more, to work harder and harder. To proclaim a fast from constant activity. To create the space in which we might encounter the One who says to us, “Be still and know that I am God.”

Notes
[1] Lao Tzu and R. B. Blakney (1955). The way of life. A new translation of the Tao tae ching. [New York], New American Library.

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