My sermon from First Sunday in Lent (February 18, 2024) on Mark 1:9-15.
Sarah Polley is a Canadian filmmaker, former child actor, activist, and writer who won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2022 for her film Women Talking. She’s a person who has been through a lot and has thought long and hard about what happens we need to just stop. As a person who works in films and movies, Sarah knows how much of a machine film-making can be. She’s often wrapped up in all the pressure to get everything done within a specific timeframe and under budget. Long days and even longer nights are not only considered the norm, it’s expected that the entire crew is supposed to be physically, mentally, and spiritually exhausted through the whole thing. And while some people can thrive in that kind of environment, most quickly learn how harrowing, traumatizing, and harmful these places can be. Sarah, while creating the film Women’s Talking – decided to implement something most directors, producers, and film creators don’t usually do. She gave everyone working on a film telling a story of women talking about their future after experiencing sexual violence – to simply stop. If the work became too much, the film would shut down while people took care of themselves. And Sarah shared why she did that while being interviewed on the podcast Everything Happens. Sarah said: “I was inspired by my sister, who’s a [doctor], and … she gives all of her patients her cell phone and says, you can use this any time at night or on the weekends. And we’re like, Susie, that is crazy. And she said, here’s the thing: it’s almost never [used]…[But] my Mondays are so much calmer, because what I don’t have is a waiting room full of people who were panicking all weekend, who didn’t think there was anyone they could call. Usually those same people won’t actually call my number. The fact that they know they can makes a huge difference in their well-being.” Sarah, while creating a film about a really difficult story, gave people permission to stop so they could do the mental, emotional, and spiritual work they needed to do when things became too much. And by doing that, she also gave her film crew what they needed to see – and build – their own kind of resilience that might help bring them through. These kinds of stops are something we’re not very good at offering ourselves or to others. But in our reading today from the gospel according to Mark, we get to witness one of the times when Jesus stops.
Now we spend the first Sunday in Lent every year watching what happened immediately after Jesus was baptized. Even before the water dried from his forehead, Jesus was immediately sent into the wilderness. The wilderness, as imagined in our Bible, isn’t some kind of spot in nature untouched by human habitation. It is, primarily, the place where our control breaks down. We know we’re living in the wilderness when we are feeling utterly unsafe and alone. And yet that’s usually when God shows up to say that we are seen and known. In Matthew and Luke’s version of this story, we’re given a few additional details like an actual conversation between Jesus and one of God’s adversaries. But in the version we just heard today, we don’t get very much. Jesus, after hearing a voice from the heavens declare him to be God’s beloved son, was then sent on a one verse sojourn into a place where people have no control. Now when we take a step back and notice the wider story, this push by the Holy Spirit feels like an odd interruption. Jesus was, at the time, already in the wilderness since that’s where John the Baptist was practicing his ministry. Jesus, along with many others, had put a kind of stop on their lives to see what John was up to. Some journey into the wilderness because they were curious while others hoped their sojourn with John would help them become who they were supposed to be. Their time John and God was the stop, the sabbath, and the break they needed for their faith to grow. And while no one knew exactly what they would experience out there, I imagine that many expected they would somehow be changed. They would return to their lives refreshed, renewed, and ready to do what they were supposed to do. Their stop with God by the Jordan would change who they were but Jesus’ stop in the wilderness had only just begun.
Now it’s reasonable to assume that the Son of God was always ready to be who he was supposed to be since he was there when the universe was made. But I wonder if the Holy Spirit, and Jesus himself, recognized that being human means being human. His forty days in the wilderness was not merely an extreme vacation meant to prove how awesome he was. It was an opportunity for him to stop, process, and integrate his story mentally, physically, and emotionally just like we do. The Holy Spirit gave him permission to not immediately go out and change people’s lives but to live into the kind of healing we need as we discover what the promise of God is all about. Jesus, at the start of his public ministry, didn’t need to just be God; he also needed to see how being human often needs permission to make it through.
And that, according to Sarah, is what the “stop” on her film set actually did. It let people be people and admit when their experience became too much. Rather than pushing people beyond their humanity, the stop gave them permission to be who they were supposed to be. Sarah, while describing the impact of the stop on her film, said “… if you just give people the option of [stopping], it’s very rare that you’re going to be overburdened with it. But it does create a sense of care and support that I think just leads to better outcomes all around, like psychologically, artistically, in every way. If there’s some sense that you’re the priority, I just think you’re going to do better…[and I think during] the whole production, we stopped for like ten minutes out of eight weeks. But the knowledge that we could, I think, got people through a lot of days.” When Jesus’ ministry began, he hadn’t lived through what was about to come. He hadn’t fully faced what we do when God’s love comes near. Jesus’ stop in the wilderness wasn’t only a struggle with temptation or against sin. It was also an opportunity for him to grow into his humanity by paying attention to the resilience that comes when we have permission to stop. This stop doesn’t mean we’re taking a vacation nor should it be confused with the essential practice of the Sabbath that God wants to see in all our lives. Rather, it’s about being human and purposefully tending to the mental, emotional, and spiritual needs that make us who we are. God the Creator, after naming Jesus as a beloved son, stopped the ministry we’d expect Jesus to immediately do so that he could be the kind of human his ministry needed. And we, like him, should embrace our own permission to stop as we grow into who God knows we can be. Much of our culture and our lives are centered on how far, and fast, we go. We think we have to keep pushing even though stopping might be the far more healthier thing to do. Creating the space where we – and others – can stop isn’t always easy because we’ve been culturally conditioned to only accept the exact opposite. But when we stop and let ourselves be truly human, that’s when we grow into who God has already declared us to be. You, like Jesus, have already been named beloved. You, in your baptism, have already been named as essential to what God is doing in the world. There is nothing you can do to earn the love God has given you nor do you need permission to be as loved as you already are. But we can, instead, give ourselves – and others – permission to be human; a permission to pause; a permission to do the work that it takes to process what we are going through. And when we do that together, we do more than participate in our own sense of healing and wholeness; we also become the kind of human Jesus showed us how to be.