Faith Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD
February 7, 2021
Serve, Rest, Repeat…
How is everyone doing? There have been a flurry of articles lately pointing to the same truth: a lot of people are worn out. In the Guardian, a journalist writes: “Pandemic burnout on the rise…” and in HuffPost: “It’s not just you: A lot of us are hitting a pandemic wall right now.” My favorite, in the New York Times, “Three American Mothers, on the brink,” part of a series called the Primal Scream, about parenting in the pandemic – the picture, a mom on a conference call in a makeshift office in her closet, while her three-year-old swings like a monkey from the clothing rack behind her…
So how are you, really? These articles all say we’ve been operating in a state of heightened stress for almost a year now, with excess cortisol and anxiety disrupting sleep, throwing us too easily into fight or flight mode, fogging our thinking and making us “emotionally zapped.”
We are at a pandemic breaking point, it seems – infections are falling, but they’re still higher than at any point prior to November. We’ve either gotten sick ourselves, or known others who have. Many of us have had friends or loved ones die. 460,000 dead in the US, more than 2.3 million worldwide. Impossible to comprehend, really. New, more contagious variants are spreading rapidly, calling for more caution than ever before. The promise of the vaccine glimmers on the horizon, even as the snarled appointment system remains shrouded in mystery and supply is painfully limited.
The promise of Isaiah sounds pretty incredible, doesn’t it – you will mount up with wings like eagles, you’ll walk and not get weary, run and not faint? Long-lasting fatigue and shortness of breath continue to plague many who’ve recovered from Covid – some of our number can say that’s true.
Some of you, I know, have gotten your first and even your second vaccination shots! Thanks be to God, and to science! You may be booking flights and making plans, or just feel a deep sense of relief, gratitude, and urgency for everybody else to get theirs, too.
You’ve seen by now, I’m sure, the expert being interviewed on a live BBC news program when his toddler bursts into the room – heard the reporter on NPR with her children in the background. The line between work and home has blurred more than ever before, it’s part of pandemic life. And this craziness, weariness, stress, and sadness, this pandemic is the lens through which I read the story about Peter’s mother-in-law, sick in bed with a fever.
And I’ve got to be honest with you, it riles me up! I mean, this story really makes me angry. Really, Jesus! He heals this woman, literally, lifts her up out of bed and puts her on her feet and what does it says? Immediately – it’s the gospel of Mark, so everything happens immediately – Immediately she begins to serve them.
This poor woman. Sick in bed. Head aching. Body aching. Shivering. Then sweating like there is a fire in her bones. Exhausted, delirious even. What do you do when your fever breaks? What do you do? You sleep! Finally, you can get some sleep!
But Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, she’s got a house full of fishermen and an itinerant preacher in her bedroom, lifting her up out of bed! And her fever breaks, it leaves her at once. But does she get to rest? No, immediately she begins to serve them.
Now, I understand that their culture was different than ours. Women had prescribed roles, and providing hospitality was a matter of honor for her family, there was not a choice for her. But still.
Historical critical and feminist reads of the gospel have helped me see this story a bit differently. There are a few things I want to lift up.
It’s notable that the first real healing in Mark’s gospel is not a man, not a child, but a woman. And even though we do not know her name, we know that in Biblical times, women were at the bottom of the social hierarchy – we were the property of men, and our job was to have children and serve the house. Yet, here, in the oldest story of the life and ministry of Jesus – a woman is the first to be healed! Not a homeowner, not a priest or a scribe. A woman! That’s not by accident.
It tells us that Jesus, the miracle worker, the one who teaches with authority, the preacher who called fishermen to follow him – he didn’t come to the politically powerful, the wealthy, the healthy, and the strong. Jesus befriended the poor, and sought out those who were left behind and shut out: the sick, the mentally ill, prostitutes and tax collectors, women and children.
It is also significant that after she is healed, this woman, Peter’s mother-in-law, responds with service. Remember, later in this gospel Jesus says: “I came not to be served but to serve.” The word used here, diakonia, is the same word we derive the word deacon from. So Peter’s mother-in-law was not just pouring tea! She was the first true disciple, who understood the proper response to the coming of God’s kingdom – was to serve others with love. She embodies the truth that each one of us has something to contribute. And it’s human nature, isn’t it – to want to help others, especially if we ourselves have been helped.
I’ve served several downtown and urban churches, churches with strong outreach ministries, night shelters, and a lot of work with hungry folks and people experiencing homelessness. Again and again, people who have received assistance come back and want to do what they can to help others. Like Ashley – When I met her, Ashley was wearing an oversized tie-dyed T-shirt, pushing her toddler son in a big blue stroller. A little disheveled, and worn out. I learned she was staying at the YWCA down the street, a shelter for people escaping domestic violence. The only reason she came to my church is because it was close, and there weren’t any stairs to navigate with her stroller, and we offered childcare during worship. But she kept coming back. And she worked hard. And moved into an apartment on her own. And when she could, she wanted to give back. So for a time, she became the church’s shelter volunteer coordinator, recruiting church folk to cook dinner and stay overnight. And often, she’d cook and serve and stay herself, dinner and dessert for 70+ people, with two kids under five. Having done it with one child on my back and another beside me, I can safely say I have no idea how she managed. She’s studying social work now, because she wants to help other women find their way to safety, to solid ground. She wants to give back.
After Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law, Mark tells us they brought everyone who was sick or possessed, and the whole city was crowded around the door. Everybody came to be healed. And Jesus healed many of them. But then, and this is what I want to lift up, then – Jesus took time for himself, time apart, to rest, to pray, and be restored.
For those who have hit a pandemic wall, the idea of time apart might seem like an impossible luxury. But it’s necessary. You cannot fill someone else’s cup if your well is dry! Finding space, to pray, to be quiet, to listen and rest – is how we keep going. The life of faith to which we are called is a dialectic of work and rest, action and reflection, service and sabbath. One enables, enriches, and informs the other. Jesus himself shows us, in this story and others, he models this rhythm of work and rest.
You know, one of the things I miss most in pandemic life is singing – hearing the sanctuary fill with music, our voices layered on top of each other, joy resonating up through the rafters. Singing in a choir taught me something about rest. Really! There is magic that happens when many voices join together in song – the total is greater than the sum of its parts. If I need to take a breath, I take a breath – the note continues, because the rest of the choir is singing it. We hold the note for each other. And singing in the congregation a similar thing happens – you know, there are some hymns I just can’t sing all the way through. Here I Am Lord is one, and How Can I Keep from Singing is another – they remind me of places I’ve been and people I’ve loved and I just get overcome with emotion and the words won’t come. But when that happens, you keep going. The congregation keeps singing, even when I can’t. We hold each other up.
So how are you doing?
If you need rest, please, say so. Make time to rest.
If you need help, please, ask for it. Say something. Reach out. There is no reason to suffer alone.
We are almost almost through this thing. We can hang in for a little while longer. Hear the promise of the prophet Isaiah: We will mount up with wings like eagles – walk and not get weary, run and not faint.
May it be so!
 Marsh, Sarah, “Pandemic Burnout On the Rise As Latest Lockdowns Take Toll,” The Guardian, 2/5/21, https://www.theguardian.com/society/2021/feb/05/pandemic-burnout-rise-uk-latest-covid-lockdowns-take-toll
 Ries, Julia, “It’s Not Just You: A Lot of Us Are Hitting A Pandemic Wall Right Now,” The Huffington Post, 2/5/21, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/coronavirus-pandemic-wall-mental-health_l_601b3c9dc5b6c0af54d09ccb
 Bennett, Jessica, “Three American Mothers On the Brink,” New York Times, 2/4/21, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/02/04/parenting/covid-pandemic-mothers-primal-scream.html