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Spirit-led Unproductivity

A sermon on 1 Kings 19:1-15a and Luke 8:26-39

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash.]

I had a remarkably unproductive week this week.

That was not my original plan. In fact, my original plan was exactly the opposite. I knew I had a lot of pressures on my time this week – a family birthday on Monday, and a number of medical appointments, and a long-planned tripped to New York City on Friday – so I was going to NEED to be on my peak efficiency game.

But then, on Monday night, I came down with a nasty head cold. So, instead of punching through all the items on my to-do list, I spent much of this week napping, and making myself hot drinks, and watching Heartstopper on repeat, and going through box after box of tissues because my head was far too full of ickiness to have any room for cogent thoughts.

And the worst thing about this unplanned respite time is that it was NOT being solidly sick for 3 straight days, NOT the physical misery that made me feel so bad… it was the shame I felt about all that “wasted time.”

Much as I hate to admit it… much as my rational mind and my theology want to resist it… I have been conditioned by the Protestant Work Ethic that defines the social morality of dominant American culture. And because of that, there is some deep level of my subconscious that honestly believes that my value comes from what I produce. Which means that spending 3 workdays doing almost nothing except resting and healing feels sort of like a moral failing.

Now, I know this is not true. My faith and my own life experience tell me that my value comes from the unalterable fact that I am a beloved child of God. I don’t have to earn my right to exist – none of us do! We are each created by, and in, and for LOVE. Full stop! We exist because our Creator designed us… not as tools to accomplish tasks, but as creatures to be God’s delight, and to share in the joy and the wonder of God. So, working as though productivity is the justification for our existence, and a necessary pre-requisite to enjoyment, is actually the exact opposite of our purpose in life.

What is more, it doesn’t work. A friend recently shared with me an illuminating finding from Robert Sapolsky’s laymen’s medical book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, which essentially explains that our bodies WILL get rest one way or another. Either we can intentionally structure our lives with enough time and space for restoration and renewal… OR our bodies will force us to stop by breaking down.

I know this!

In part, I know this because, when I was in school, I would consistently get sick the week after finals, because I consistently pushed myself to that point of forced-break-down.

And I also know this because I have done a lot of therapy.

And I also know this because I am a Lutheran Pastor, so I spend a lot of time thinking and processing about grace…. Which is ALL about how we DON’T HAVE TO EARN GOD’S LOVE AND MERCY.

But even though I know it, it can be hard to feel it. It can be hard to break the chains of performance-based self-esteem that tells us we are what we do… what we achieve… what we produce. And I suspect I am not alone in that.

Which is why I am so deeply grateful for the two biblical stories we heard today… stories that demonstrate the clash between the Protestant Work Ethic and God’s way of working in the world…

stories of powerful, Spirit-led un-productive uses of time.

If you have heard me preach on 1 Kings 19 before, this interpretation of Eljah’s story probably won’t surprise you. The narrative of Elijah’s time under the broom tree is one of my favorite passages of the Hebrew Bible. A few years ago, when we held a Service of Healing for Mental Health, this was the passage I preached on, because it is such a simple and powerful reminder that God doesn’t demand that we perform in order to be loved.

Elijah was a powerful prophet of God who had performed awe-inspiring miracles in the service of his mission, but he couldn’t spend all his time on the mountain top. When the Queen threatened his life, he got scared, and overwhelmed, and he lost sight of the work for which God had equipped him and called him.

And when he cried out to God from his despair, God didn’t rebuke him. God didn’t shame him for running in fear, or for putting his own needs ahead of God’s message. God didn’t tell him to pull himself together and get back to work. Instead, God sent and angel to nourish him. God let him rest.

And then, once Elijah had experienced the restoration he needed, and travelled to Mount Horeb as the angel had instructed him, God mirrored this same patience and call to stillness in the means of revelation God chose to use.

God wasn’t in the rock-splitting wind. God wasn’t in the rumbling earthquake. God wasn’t in the rushing fire. God wasn’t in any of the signs of power that leave evidence of their profound impact… God was in the silence.

Elijah already knew how to interact with God in the realm of signs and wonders… what Elijah needed was the chance to recognize God apart from all that… in the BEING, instead of the DOING. Because once he met God in that unproductive moment, Elijah would know God instead of just knowing God’s works.

The gospel story might offer a less obvious connection to the idea of God’s intentional unproductivity, but we can see it if we consider the context. The story on the shores of the lake of Galilee represents what professor Jeannine Brown calls “a dramatic interruption” in Jesus’s early ministry.[1] Up to that point in his ministry, Jesus has been in increasingly high demand. People are flocking to hear his teaching, and to receive his healing. He is gathering disciples (along with some opponents who are threatened by his power and popularity). Everywhere he goes he is anticipated. Every moment of his time there is someone there longing for the taste of God that Jesus can offer.

Until he suddenly decides to take a detour into Gentile territory… where no one is expecting him, and no one really knows what to make of him, and his miraculous healing is met with fear and the people begging him to LEAVE. He only seems to reach ONE person. Albeit that man’s life is completely transformed when he is released from his legion of demons…But Jesus won’t even let him become a disciple. He frees one man from suffering, but turns a whole community against his mission… and this while other communities are clamoring for his ministry.

When considered from the perspective of productivity, the whole trip to Gerasa seems like a pretty colossal waste of time.

But here, again, we find the revelation that God’s agenda is not about power and productivity. God’s mission is not about numbers, or return-on-investment. God is not driven by the Protestant Work Ethic.

I was talking to a dear pastor friend yesterday about what grace really means, and why it’s so hard even for “church people” to accept that God’s love is not something that we or anyone else needs to earn. She made the point that a system where we were NOT all equal in God’s eyes, where we actually DID have to earn God’s love, would have the appeal of feeling more FAIR. And our investment is “fairness” is rooted even more deeply in our societal morality than our commitment to productivity. It might even be the reason we feel driven to produce, and achieve, and never “waste” our time of frivolous, selfish things like rest.

Because a system of fairness gives us control… it convinces us that as long as we work hard enough, we can ensure that we get what we deserve.

But attractive as that formula sounds, it’s a lie. We don’t have control over most things in our lives. And while that’s terrifying, there is one incredibly bright spot in that reality: It means we don’t have to depend on ourselves, on our work ethic, or our deservedness, to be loved and valued. That’s up to God, and its already guaranteed.

And that means that… just like Elijah we can rest when we need to.

And just like Jesus’ trip to Gerasa, the value of our ministry isn’t about the number of people we reach or the kind of publicity we get.

Sometimes the Spirit leads us into beautiful, blessed times of unproductivity.

In a few weeks (for 4 weeks in July), I will be taking a time of intentional rest. During that time, our Church Council has also discerned that our congregation as a whole would benefit from a time of Sabbath. There will still be nourishing worship on Sundays, but beyond that the congregation won’t be offering our usual bevy of gatherings, and committee meetings, and learning activities. We won’t be trying to be “productive.”

And my prayer for all of us… for me, and for each of you, and for our congregation is that we will have the chance to meet God in the silence, and remember that the life of faith is not always about doing. At its heart it is about being.

And what we ARE is beloved children of God.

Thanks be to God.


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