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Exhaustion, Burnout, and the Kingdom of God: The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

February 7, 2021:
Isaiah 40:21-31
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Mark 1:29-39

The gospel today takes off right after what we heard last week, where Jesus had gone to the synagogue, encountered a person possessed by an unclean spirit, and cast it out. And now here he and his little group is, leaving the synagogue, and, as Mark often puts it, immediately finds himself in another scene: trying to get some rest and food at Peter’s place. Perform an exorcism… grabbing some food. It’s kind of funny how nonchalant it all is. And the scene just plays out naturally and spontaneously: he finds that Peter’s mother-in-law is sick; he heals her. They eat. They bring townspeople to him to receive that same healing. Word spreads, and the city is waiting outside the door. Many are healed. And then Jesus sets off before sunrise to get some peace and quiet. And the interesting thing here is that when the group finds him, he says this: “Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” This healer and exorcist who has quickly seen success and popularity — and also broke with taboos by healing on what was likely a sabbath day — he doesn’t write a manifesto, or start a program, but he just, as the Dominican writer Timothy Radcliffe describes it, “wanders around responding to people’s ailments.”*

Now, this will turn into a movement: there will be a sense of purpose, and organization, and roles, but there is a flexibility and unpretentiousness that he models; he is so selfless that he silences the demons that know his true identity. This is in line with St. Paul’s gospel rather than self-focussed vision of ministry, and the God-focussed vision we hear of in Isaiah: “Lift up your eyes and see [me]” says God, the One with real power to create real change in our world. This Jesus we meet here today doesn’t get caught up in the fame, or his power, or even in what I’m sure was limitless compassion for people struggling to just get by every day. No, he says that it’s time to move on “so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” Because the healings are all instances of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God; something that’s happening all around, if people just had the eyes to see it. And if they see it, then they will respond to it, and even perform the same amazing works that he does, when they see life through the eyes of faith. It’s the eyes of faith that help us to see beyond ourselves (beyond our assumptions, goals, talents, and shortcomings), and to truly see the other — the person in front of us — and to see God, the creative force of love that’s all around and within us. “Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” In proclaiming the Kingdom Jesus is living out what Isaiah has recorded, that true change springs out of that wellspring of Love; not just from our own well-intentioned attempts at rolling our sleeves up and doing good.

So what Jesus does is live out this ministry of wandering, and as needed, as Radcliffe said, he responds to people’s ailments. And that’s what I find difficult to think about right now, because the spontaneity I’m trying to parse out and highlight from this episode is what is difficult to realize at this moment in time. Where our movement is limited, our actions so defensive and planned out, our interactions with people curbed, and basically everything done with such self-conscious order. (All of this for the common good, of course — and hopefully a temporary measure — but with implications for true human flourishing.) So we might bookmark this story and let it percolate in our brains and our hearts, so that when it becomes safe and possible once again, we take seriously the call to, as Christians and as the people of St. Andrew’s, to take up a ministry of wandering in our neighbourhood, home, and workplace, and respond to what we meet with the eyes of faith.

But maybe there is something that speaks to us specially right now. We might look to the way today’s story unfolds: how Jesus heals one person, privately; then heals many people, publicly; and then he goes off to a deserted place and prays. This is what a lot of people will call “self-care,” though that’s a term that doesn’t sit right with me. Because unlike the readings we’ve looked at today, it seems to begin and focus on “self,” rather than the God in which we find our origin and our end; our “true self,” I would say.

Just the other day The Economist magazine posted one of its stories to its Facebook page, about the long history of burnout in human society, with special note that we’re especially susceptible to it today.** One of the piece’s arguments was that we used to live in a society full of limits. And sometimes these limits or barriers were frustrating, or even downright bad. But in today’s world that shuns limits and barriers (often with good reason) we come up against the tyranny of limitless expectations — whether imposed by others or imposed on ourselves. They differentiate burnout from exhaustion. Exhaustion is just the tiredness one feels after staying up late or playing a game of hockey. Burnout is “when you’ve exhausted all your internal resources, yet cannot free yourself of the nervous compulsion to go on regardless. Life becomes something that won’t stop bothering you.”** And they raise the modern day dilemma of having the choice between keeping your phone on all the time and receiving a never-ending flood of communication, OR, turning it off and worry eating at you while you wonder what you’re missing and what you’re going to find when you turn it back on. It is a difficult predicament we have put ourselves in.

So as we think about that we might turn again to the gospel story and see how Jesus has woven into his life the time for solitude and prayer. We might flesh out what that might look like for us: personal devotion, rest, experiencing joy, remembering our purpose, spending time with art. This time of pandemic and lockdown has shown us that burnout isn’t the same as exhaustion, because we can burn out even if we’re sitting completely still, not leaving our homes. No, burnout has more to do with losing that sense of meaning and purpose, and losing touch with the joy that inspires and animates us.

So there is something here for us today, and something for us to begin thinking about as we get closer and closer to Lent. Jesus went off and prayed in a deserted place; what will that look like for you? How will you open yourself up to once again reclaim those things I’ve described: joy, purpose, and the creative force of Love — God — in which we find our beginning and our end? We remember these words from the Book of Isaiah:

“Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

© 2021 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

* Alive in God: A Christian Imagination (London: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2019), 60.