Rev. Rebecca Heilman-Campbell
Johann Hari, a journalist and author, writes in his new book, Stolen Focus, about a three-month liberating experience of cutting off any and all internet access while vacationing on the coast of Massachusetts. While preparing for his trip, challenged to escape the internet, Johann realizes he needs a different phone, a phone that won’t temp his attention. So he stops by Target and the employee helping him looks puzzled while Johann explains what he needs. “I don’t understand what you’re asking for,” says the employee. “These are the cheapest phones we got. They have super-slow internet.” Johann replies, “No, I want a phone that can’t access the internet at all. I am going away for three-months, specifically so I can be totally offline. I only need this phone for emergencies. I need to have no internet options of any kind…no matter how hard I try.” The employee still doesn’t understand. A friend of Johann gifts him with an old broken laptop that can’t access the internet but will allow him to write his book. He bought a watch, an alarm clock, and a pile of books to bring with him. Johann Hari accepted this challenge, that is more challenging than you might imagine, because he is exhausted. He has worked nonstop since he had been 21 years old. He had taken hardly any holidays and as he writes it, “I fattened myself with information every waking hour to make myself a more productive writer [and person]…I tried to inhale more information, interview more people, learn more, talk more, and I was now manically skipping between topics, like a record that has been scratched from overuse, and I was finding it hard to retain anything. I had felt tired for so long that all I knew was how to outrun it.”
And so he walked off the ferry boat, towards his rented little cottage and slowly, slowly, after several days and weeks, the anxiety of not having a device at his fingertips fell away and a calm fell over him. He writes, “The day is over; rest now. The beach house was empty. There were no texts or voice messages or emails waiting for me – or, if there were, I wouldn’t know for three months. I climbed into bed, and fell into the deepest sleep I could remember. I didn’t wake up for fifteen hours later.” Johann Hari said “no” to a busy life, the internet, social media, the insane amount of information we receive in our modern world. And he said “yes” to rest, to being present, to connections and beauty, to life.
As we know, Jesus would take time to get away as well. Away from the crowds pushing in, from the overwhelming sick, from the chaos that tends to come with people possessed by demons. It was not unusual for Jesus to go, as Mark writes, to a “deserted place” to be in prayer or for some spectacular event on a mountain top – like the transfiguration or his desperate prayer right before his arrest. Mark, while the shortest gospel, gives an urgency to Jesus’s life, a vivid image of both the Jews and gentiles quickly learning what Jesus is capable of, of his radical and different message, even if they don’t know who he is just yet. One of the reason’s Jesus’s message spreads quickly is because of the work of the disciples. Just 23 verses before our passage today, Jesus sends his disciples out in pairs. He has strict instructions for them – take nothing but a walking stick – no bread, no bags, no money in your belts. In essence, depend on those you meet along the way. And so they go out two by two to the surrounding villages, staying in people’s homes, proclaiming that folks should change their hearts and lives, and casting out demons and healing the sick. We don’t know for how long they are gone, but it is long enough to heal many. And so, when they return to tell Jesus everything crowds of people are not far behind. People are coming and going, interrupting while the disciples are trying to catch up with Jesus about their trips. There was no time to eat as Mark tells us. And so Jesus, aware of the disciple’s tired feet, of their hunger, and their exhaustion, he invites them to a secluded place to rest a while. And so they left by boat to be by themselves in a deserted place.
Jesus is saying “no” to the crowds and saying “yes” to rest. And from here on out, we see lots of “yeses” and “nos”. When they arrive to the other side, a crowd has already formed to welcome them. With compassion and understanding, Jesus changes his “no” to a “yes,” realizing they are a sheep without a shepherd and he invites them to listen to his teachings. When it is late and Jesus tells the disciples, “you, yes you, give them something to eat.” The disciples say, “no, we can’t do that. What are you asking of us, Jesus?” When the disciples bring whatever bread and fish they have, Jesus looks up to heaven and says “yes” breaking the bread into enough pieces and dividing the fish among thousands of people. And the miracle of them all, five thousand people said “yes” together, eating in groups and processing everything Jesus had taught them. They all said yes to a way of life that makes space for God. Because when you say “yes” to something, you’re also saying “no” to something else. When you say “yes” to something, you’re also saying “no” to something else.
The practice of saying “yes” and “no,” is no easy task. It’s a discipline even if one answer comes easier to you than the other. And the practice, while it seems so practical, so modern, it’s more than just saying no to your child asking for another cookie or saying yes to your boss who asks you to take notes in a meeting. The faithful act of saying yes and saying no is to answer towards the “fullness of life that God intends for us.” It’s to answer towards a life that is giving, hopeful, centered in God’s goodness and grace. It’s an answer of self-care, mental well-being, of maybe enjoying life more or even better, of staying home to rest. For that’s what Jesus/God wants us to choose, life, an abundance of life and all that comes in your life.
Steve, Sara, and I, we pulled together our Lenten theme of Practicing our Faith with intentionality and care. Dorothy Bass and Craig Dykestra originally published the book titled Practicing our Faith in 1997. The book challenges its readers to reach beyond what we may have always understood or how we’ve always practiced our faith so that we are not confined to one way of doing it. The book and now the website, that you can access in an email tomorrow, is designed to help nurture and shape communities and individual’s faith. And so while our past sermons of healing, dying well, and hospitality fit pretty well into practicing our faith, saying yes and saying no, in this nearly post-pandemic world is just as important. Our daily lives are about how we relate to God, to other humans, to our natural world. And as M. Shawn Copeland writes it’s “through these relationships, we give meaning to our experience and attune our hearts and minds to the deepest dimensions of reality.” It’s in these relationships that we experience and interact with hospitality, death, healing, hurt, hope, joy, love, the abundance of feelings and the web of life. One day we are eating lunch with a friend, the next week we might be in surgery to repair a broken a body. One week we might be bowling with our family, the next day we might be curled up, unable to get out of bed. One day we might be hugging our loved one and the next year, saying goodbye. Often, we are simply living day to day routines, drifting along, until something changes, maybe a painful event, a change in our brain chemistry, or a “demand that a decision be made.” Those moments they jolt us awake to life as we know it. To a reality. They shock us out of our slumber and force us to face decisions and consequences, choices and commitments. Our moral compass is then supposed to point us towards saying yes or saying no as we struggle, grow and become transformed by our realities. And it’s here, as Copeland says, we must learn the practice of saying no “to that which crowds God out and yes to a way of life that makes space for God.”
While the disciples may have originally said “no” to feeding the 5000, they said “yes” in other ways. They organized intimate groups and then fed each group, whether it was actual food or the metaphor of faith. And these groups, they didn’t just sit in a circle and sing “kumbaya” they lounged in the grass. Reclining in the Greek way, enjoying a meal together, with Mark writing in a celebratory, festive tone as well as with connotations of Christian eucharist celebrations that would usually happen in homes. The disciples essentially created small churches, organizing groups that could depend on each other, that could seek a closer union to God and bring an openness, compassion and care for one another that can only be found in community. They were building from a joyful meal a community of faith where realities, hardships, celebrations can be shared, and everyone that day, said YES! YES! Knowing they might be saying yes to new things that will feed them, even if they don’t know it – maybe serving on Session, or nurturing the faith of little ones, or planning a mission trip, or organizing a meal for the congregation so we too can lounge at a table in groups.
The community said “YES,” knowing they might have to say no to things eventually, when realities of life get in the way and when it feels like God is crowded out. Sometimes we have to say “no” so we can make room for God to come right back in. The disciples and the 5000 people said yes to a fullness of life that God intends for them and yes “to a way of life that makes space for God.” And because they said yes to that, they were also saying no “to that which crowds God out.” That’s why we practice saying yes and no, so that there is always room for God and faith and hope and love to be at the center of who we are as individuals and the church and how we care for others as individuals and as the church. And so practice saying yes and saying no. Before you answer, think, am I making a leap of faith and creating space for God with this answer or am I unconsciously crowding God out. Practice saying yes and no. Quite honestly, there’s no wrong answer.
Pray with me. Loving God, we believe, help our unbelief. Amen.
 Joanne Hari, Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention – and How to Think Deeply Again (New York: Crown 2022), 19.
 Ibid., 23.
 Hari, Stolen Focus, 27.
 Dorothy Bass, Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2019), 60.
 Bass, Practicing our Faith, 60.
 Ibid., 61.