READING FROM THE CHRISTIAN SCRIPTURES (James 1: 17-27)
17Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
19You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 21Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. 22But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing. 26If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
READING FROM THE GOSPELS (MARK 7: 14-23)
14Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
17When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, 19since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. 21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
So, this next week is the first week of school. I love fall, and I love the whole “new year” feel to fall. Still. I don’t know about you, but I’m starting to get anxious as September nears. I opened up my calendar for the month of September and said to Helen, “it will be a miracle if we make it to the end of this month.” Amen? It just feels like running.
In his article entitled “the Busy Trap” in the New York Times (read entire article here: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/30/the-busy-trap/?_r=0), Tim Krieder says that “If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: “Busy!” “So busy.” “Crazy busy.” It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: “That’s a good problem to have,” or “Better than the opposite.’”
Show of hands:
How many of you have asked someone how they are, and you have been met with this response (busy, so busy, crazy busy) in the past month?
How many of you have answered someone with that response in the past month?
How many of you have asked someone to be on a committee at this church, and that was their response?
We certainly contribute to this culture of busy, don’t we? Even at church.
I listened to a sermon this summer on Star Island by my brilliant colleague Mara Dowdall who opined that we have made an idol of “busy.” We worship at the feet of busy. We wear our “busy” like a badge of honor. “Busy” means we are important. Worth something. If our calendar isn’t filled with things to do, and places to go and tasks to complete, then we are somehow idle and worthless. Or worse, lazy.
Krieder says that “Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day. I once knew a woman who interned at a magazine where she wasn’t allowed to take lunch hours out, lest she be urgently needed for some reason. This was an entertainment magazine whose raison d’être was obviated when “menu” buttons appeared on remotes, so it’s hard to see this pretense of indispensability as anything other than a form of institutional self-delusion. More and more people in this country no longer make or do anything tangible; if your job wasn’t performed by a cat or a boa constrictor in a Richard Scarry book I’m not sure I believe it’s necessary. I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter.”
This culture of crazy busy is becoming a little bit, well, crazy. It seems we have taken being “busy” to new extremes. Parents of young children are busy with working and juggling child care and activities and exercise and grocery shopping and trying to make time for friends and aging parents and family outings. Our children are even busier than we are—with school and sports and after school enrichment activities and dance and Scouts and art and music classes and tutors and college prep starting at 5th grade scheduled into almost every moment of their days. Even Saturday is filled with games and classes and lessons.
Do you know which generation is most apt to tell you that they are “sooooo busy” around here, though? Can you guess? Baby boomers—our retired church-goers are often the “busiest” of all of us—serving on boards, running this church, caring for parents and adult children, going back and forth to different coasts to see far flung family.
We barely have time to sit down and eat food together. 20% of all American meals are eaten in cars. We barely have time to call a friend “just to talk,” or to ride our bikes on the bike path with the kids. We don’t even have time to shop anymore, a favorite American pastime. Reverend Dowdall cited this statistic in her sermon: a new survey by Cashstar and Harris International came out recently saying that 38 million Americans admit to online shopping on their smart phones while sitting on the toilet.
Friends, we’re even multitasking on the toilet.
We have become more like human DOINGS than human BEINGS.
So what are we actually busy DOING? Galen Guengerich says that this is the ultimate religious question. (http://www.faithstreet.com/onfaith/2015/08/27/what-are-you-doing-the-ultimate-religious-question/37737).
Because what we do, like it or not, ends up being who we are.
It matters what we do.
Jesus has a lot to say about this, as it turns out.
Our scriptures from today are about what you believe and what is in your heart, and what you DO as a result. These scriptures are great examples of why Christianity has been fighting over what matters more—what you believe or what you do--since the dawning of Christianity. Don’t think you’re gonna find an easy answer to that question in the Bible. What matters more—faith or works—has been one of the things that Christians have about 17 different answers for.
I think the conclusion that I draw from our Bible passages today is both--what you believe and what you do--are important. This is how I sum up both texts from James and Mark:
It matters what is etched upon your heart, and what you do is a reflection of who you are.
Jesus is pretty harsh about it. He tells us that evil comes from within the human heart, and defiles a person. He says that "there is nothing going in that can defile, but only what is going out can defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.” Alternatively, good is also etched upon the human heart, so what we do can also be a reflection of the fruits of the spirit James talks about.
Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.
We need to look no further than our online banking statements and our iphone calendars to know if we are “busy” being “doers of the word”. We need to look no further than what is open on our computer’s browser to know what we spend our time doing. We need to look no further than our excuses we use to blow off a friend who wants time with us, or our spouse who is asking for some affection, or our kids who want our attention.
I want to ask: what is it that we are we sooo busy with? What are we doing?
Writing work emails? Playing Candy Crush? Stalking old boyfriends on Facebook? Working ourselves into the ground? So busy filming our child’s concert on our phones, that we fail to actually enjoy the concert?
It matters what we do.
Andre Dubus, in his book "Essays from a Movable Chair," writes:
On Tuesdays when I make lunch for my girls, I focus on this: the sandwiches are sacraments. And each motion is a sacrament, this holding of plastic bags, knife, of bread, of cutting board, this pushing of the chair, this spreading of mustard on bread, this trimming of liverwurst, of ham. All sacraments, as putting the lunches into a zippered book bag is, and going down my six ramps to my car is. I drive on the highway, to the girls’ town, to their school, and this is not simply a transition; it is my love moving by car from a place where my girls are not to a place where they are; even if I do not feel or acknowledge it, this is a sacrament. If I remember it, then I feel it too. Feeling it does not always mean that I am a happy man driving in traffic; it simply means that I know what I am doing in the presence of God.
If I were much wiser, and much more patient, and had much greater concentration, I could sit in silence in my chair, look out my windows at a green tree and the blue sky, and know that breathing is a gift; that a breath is sufficient for the moment; and that breathing air is breathing God.
Perhaps being “doers of the word” simply means being noticers of what is sacred. Perhaps being “doers of the word” simply means that we know what we are doing in the presence of God. Knowing our breathing is a gift; that breathing air is breathing God.
It matters what we do and it matters that we notice.
Because perhaps noticing what is sacred will help us to have fewer regrets about how we spend our time. On our death beds, we are probably not going to say, “I wish I spent more time in needless work meetings”, or “I wish I had a cleaner house.” Kreider says: “I suppose it’s possible I’ll lie on my deathbed regretting that I didn’t work harder and say everything I had to say, but I think what I’ll really wish is that I could have one more beer with Chris, another long talk with Megan, one last good hard laugh with Boyd.”
It matters what we do.
This is the beginning of a new school year. The end to the lazy days of summer are coming rapidly to a close, and our tendency to turn into human doings is going to reach its peak in just a few weeks from now. It seems to me that the cult of busy—that what we do--is distracting us from who we are. And if who we are is human beings who love mercy, do justice and desire a closer relationship to God, then what we need is to take stock of what is keeping us busy from doing the things that reflect our deepest held values.
It matters what we do.
So let’s put the following tasks on our to do lists this fall, that we might be “doers of the word”:
1. Pay attention more.
2. Notice whom my heart breaks for, and let my broken heart lead me to action.
3. Call a friend just to talk.
4. Be silly with my kids.
5. Give my people my undivided attention.
6. Make good food, and eat it with loved ones (preferably not in the car.)
7. Stand up for the voiceless.
8. Sit and read a book that has the power to change my perspective.
9. Be soft hearted.
10. Kiss more.
11. Worry less.
12. Be Love by doing love.
Reverend Robin Bartlett is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, with dual standing in the United Church of Christ. She is the Senior Pastor at The First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts.