St. Philip Lutheran Church
18 July 2021 + Lectionary 16B (Pent. 8)
Rev. Josh Evans, preaching
How are you? “I’m doing fine.” “I’m good.” Or for the grammatically astute among us: “I’m well.”
But imagine if we answered: “Honestly, I’m languishing.”
Languishing. It’s the “blah” feeling that psychologist Adam Grant suggests many of us might be feeling in these ongoing days of global pandemic. Languishing, Grant says, is like the “neglected middle child of mental health.” Somewhere in between flourishing - “the peak of well-being” - and depression - “the valley of ill-being.” People who are languishing don’t necessarily have symptoms of full-on mental illness, but they aren’t exactly the picture of mental health either. If you’re languishing, you might not be depressed or totally unhappy, but you’re not really thriving either.
For Grant, languishing was playing Words with Friends in bed until 7am, instead of bouncing into action at 6 when his alarm went off. Or it’s his family member who stays up late to watch a movie, even though it’s one she knows by heart. More broadly speaking, languishing is the “dulling of delight” or the “dwindling of drive.” It might not be burnout - yet - but it’s just sort of existing.
When the disciples return, fresh from their mission trip, they are on fire! They come back to Jesus to tell him all they had done and taught. Energized by their experiences of healings, exorcisms, and evangelism, they are ready for their next assignment.
Jesus’s new assignment, however, isn’t another mission trip. It’s an invitation: “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” Come away all by yourselves… away from the crowds, away from the busyness… and rest, stop, take a nap, have something to eat… recharge… now take care of yourselves.
Sure, they had been riding the high of their trip. Anyone who has ever been on a mission trip or participated in a service project knows what that’s like - to experience the excitement of putting your faith into action and making a real, tangible impact in our communities and in the world.
But Jesus sees something else. When Jesus sent the disciples out, he warned them that they would face rejection, too. He told them what to do when people wouldn’t welcome them into their homes or accept their message. What happened to those “darker stories”? Stories of failure, rejection, doubt. Surely they were there, lingering just under the surface. Those stories would take some time - and rest and nourishment and self-care - to unearth.
I wonder if Jesus sensed that the disciples might be languishing - or at least in danger of it. Even if they had a hundred good experiences and just one negative experience, doesn’t it seem like it’s that one solitary negative experience that cuts a little more deeply and sticks with us the longest? As your mind replays it over and over again: What did I do wrong? What could I have done better? It’s strange how one negative experience or critical comment can dull the delight of a mountain of success stories like that, dwindling our drive … and pushing us back from flourishing into languishing.
Jesus himself certainly had cause to experience languishing. By all outward appearances, his ministry was actually flourishing. He couldn’t keep the crowds away: “For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.”
Try as they might to retreat by boat, the crowds recognize Jesus and the disciples, and they run ahead on foot to meet them where they are going. Wherever Jesus went, the crowds seemed to follow and multiply.
Meanwhile, though, Jesus had just lost his beloved cousin John the Baptist, the one who had baptized him - and to a gruesome murder no less, a terrifying reminder about what happens to people like them, who preach and teach the kinds of things they’re saying. Somewhere in between outward appearances of flourishing and inward grief and anxiety, Jesus is languishing.
Jesus is languishing. The disciples are languishing. So Jesus invites them all to come away by themselves and rest a while. Jesus recognizes the need for a break, for solitude, for downtime.
Pastor Kay Lynn Northcutt never thought she would miss church coffee. As a student in divinity school and later in her first congregation, she never understood the allure of gathering around the coffee urn or how the equation of coffee + donuts = Christianity. The conversations she overheard around church coffee revolved around football or the latest episode of reality TV. They could have stale coffee and cold donuts and mundane conversations at home, she thought.
It wasn’t until several years later, on the second Easter Sunday in the second year of COVID, that Northcutt finally understood. After waking up and saying her morning prayers, she blurted out to her husband: “I want church coffee. Not our coffee. Not McDonald’s coffee. Not Starbucks coffee. Only church coffee will do!”
After her husband asked her if she was “quite OK” at her pleas for church coffee, she admitted, “No, I am not OK. I want church coffee.”
“Truth be told,” she writes, “I wanted to see Paula and Helen and Ted and Stephen and Joene and Allyson and Ricky and Phyllis and Scott - and to have a cup of coffee with them in the context of the church.”
Church coffee, after all, was about community. People come to church, she realized, as much to talk with one another as to talk to God. For Northcutt, on the second COVID Easter, church coffee and community were the antidote she craved for her state of languishing.
There is healing power in communities and connection for our languishing, as one New York Times columnist writes: “Moments of being seen by other people, and being met with respect or even enthusiasm, can energize and invigorate us and help create bonds within our neighborhood or community.”
Thanks be to God that we have a God who rests! Jesus himself gets hungry and eats, and he gets tired and retreats. I’d like to imagine Jesus would even be at coffee hour with us after this service, sipping mediocre coffee and talking about the Cubs.
Jesus languishes and takes time to rest. And Jesus meets us in our languishing and invites us to rest ourselves.
Jesus yearns for us to thrive and to live an abundant life. The Jesus who equips us and sends us out for mission also recognizes that we need time for rest, to care for ourselves in order to be whole. The Jesus who himself goes out to heal and preach and teach needs time to recover himself. We have a Savior who cares for us and who encourages us to care for ourselves, so we can in turn care for each other. That is the work of the kingdom of God.
Come away all by yourselves and rest a while. Thanks be to God.