Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Don't Just Do Something - Sit There!

July 18, 2010

I like to consider myself somewhat of a student of human nature. I enjoy observing people and am fascinated by the differences in people. God must really enjoy variety, considering the many different personality types and the many varieties of temperaments. I wonder, for instance, what gives Mike the ability to know everything about a wireless router, down to the serial numbers, when you ask him a question about the internet? What gives Trish her bubbly personality?

It’s likely that you are different in personality and temperament from your spouse. Tanya and I are very different in personality and temperament. Don’t ever get between Tanya and her task; I would prefer for someone to get between me and a task – don’t worry about it. Tanya is the hardest working person I know; she can squeeze ten hours of work into one hour; I can squeeze one hour of work into ten hours (should I admit that?) She moves fast and is pretty intense; I’m pretty laid back and move at a slow and steady pace.

Those differences in people are great, but they can cause problems as well. Think for a moment about how those differences can play out in a church setting. There are some people who are gung-ho about everything and they look very suspiciously at those who want to go a bit slower. Those who prefer careful and measured movements are suspicious about those who like to move fast, and spend their time trying to slow things down. We spiritualize a lot of our differences and our preferences, such as music and worship style – but those are just preferences.

This morning we are studying a passage about two sisters who were very different in personality and temperament – Mary and Martha.

The differences between Mary and Martha really come to light in this passage.

Jesus had been traveling and came to stay in Mary and Martha’s home. While at their home, Martha was busy with preparations, probably a meal and other matters to offer hospitality for her guests, while Mary just sat and listened to Jesus.

There is a difference between duty and devotion.

Have you ever been around a person who prepares for a big occasion but nobody is happy about it because that person makes everyone miserable? They are not taking care of people as much as they are inflicting their care upon people – I’m doing something nice for you and you better appreciate it because I love you! So take it and appreciate it! This is the kind of person who wants to make sure you know they are sacrificing their time to do something and you better appreciate it – I’ve slaved over a hot stove all day and you’re going to sit there and enjoy it and be happy about it because I’m so happy about it! We all know people like this; sometimes we are that type of person.

There is a difference between duty and devotion. Duty tends to be a cold, more lifeless form of service; devotion is a serving that comes out of love and affection and contains a joy, while duty has very little or no joy.

Martha, I think, was serving out of a sense of duty, while Mary was listening out of a sense of devotion. Martha wanted to listen also, but she was pulled away by her sense of duty. Luke says she was distracted, a word that carries a sense of being pulled away from something you would like to embrace, but duty won’t allow it.

Duty carries several dangers. One is a sense of self-pity. Have you ever been in a situation where you become frustrated with others because they won’t get serious about a task? Have you poured yourself into something and others didn’t seem interested so you slip into self-pity? It goes something like this – Nobody cares like I do about this matter, or this ministry. I’m giving my time and working hard and no one else seems to care. Why can’t everyone be as righteous and dedicated as me? I guess I’ll just suffer along by myself and be unhappy about it, and I’ll make sure everyone knows how unhappy and miserable I am – but also how righteous I am – poor, poor, pitiful me.

Have you ever felt that way? Don’t let a sense of duty rob you of the joy that can be a part of life. Devotion serves and works out of a sense of love and joy, and it’s not bound up in a concern about whether or not anyone else is helping. Mary was caught up in the moment of opportunity to sit and be with Jesus and listen to him, while Martha was missing the opportunity of a lifetime. Have you noticed there seems to be an absence of joy in Martha? She comes across agitated, frustrated and angry in this passage. I don’t know if she was always that way, but she comes across so in this passage.

It is very common to see the element of anger in duty. Those who are full of a sense of duty can be overcome by anger, because others do not work as hard as they are working. You know what it is like to work hard, making preparations, and someone is sitting around “doing nothing” rather than helping. We get angry with them because they aren’t helping and we get angry because we have allowed ourselves to get in such a situation.

Martha’s frustration probably led her to make some faces, clear her throat or do other things to signal her displeasure, until finally her frustration boils over and she pours it out onto Jesus. She even gets to the point of asking Jesus if he cares. Here is a woman with a lot of nerve. This is not the only time that Martha demonstrates such nerve. In John 11:27 she confronts Jesus after her brother Lazarus dies and says to Jesus if you had been here my brother would not have died. Everybody else is stepping away saying; I think I’ll avoid the lightning strike that may be coming.

This is not an informational question Martha asks. Martha is not really asking Jesus if he cares; she’s pointing her finger at him and accusing him of not being on her side. Have you ever heard some variation of that complaint? I guess you just don’t care; I guess nobody cares. I’m just trying to do what’s right, and nobody cares or appreciates what I’m trying to do. Have you ever heard that? Have you ever said that?

When our service causes us to criticize others or to feel self-pity we are on very shaky ground. Notice how Martha links Jesus care for her to doing what she wants. That is a dangerous and tragic mistake to make. Well, Lord, I didn’t get this in my life; I guess you just don’t care. As one writer said, do we ever accuse God of not caring for us because we have already decided what his care looks like?

Duty will drain our energy, our enthusiasm and our joy while devotion creates a constantly replenished source of joy and excitement and enthusiasm. The Pharisees were a great example of duty rather than devotion. They come across as hard and angry, because they were about carrying out a duty, and they were grim and unloving and unhappy about it.

Do you think any church people approach life in that way? There is a lot of grim duty in churches. Understand that I’m not saying there shouldn’t be a sense of dedication and faithfulness; what I’m talking about is the difference in the source of that dedication and faithfulness. Duty will turn it hard and cold; devotion keeps it joyful and loving.

I have witnessed people who allowed a sense of duty to hurt them; that sense of duty has robbed them of any sense of joy in serving and they become angry and bitter and burned out and they quit and stay mad. That’s so tragic.

There is a time to work, and there is a time to sit and be still.

If you are someone who is more of a sitter, someone who takes a more contemplative approach to life, it’s tempting to use this passage to prove it’s more spiritual to sit around than it is to be working. Likewise, it’s hard for a person who is active to understand the person who sits and contemplates. The person who is concerned with quiet meditation is puzzled by people who run around doing all the time. Some people will read this passage and say well, I agree with Martha; she got a bum rap here. But this is not a passage about whether it is better to be a listener or a doer, and don’t make the mistake of thinking this passage convicts either those who are the sitters or those who are the doers.

Tanya and I were talking about this passage once, and she said the church needs some of both personality types – we need some of the doers and we need some of the sitters. And she’s right. There is a time to work, but there is also a time to sit and be still. It’s not an either/or; it’s a both/and. If we were always contemplative a lot of important things would be left unfinished; but if we worked all the time there would be no time for prayer and thoughtfulness that lead us to important insights.

There is a sense of superiority in what Martha says to Jesus, and there may have been an air of superiority from Mary, thinking she was being more spiritual. But think for a moment about what was ahead for Jesus. He was not looking for a banquet; he wanted some quiet. Jesus had some difficult days ahead of him and he didn’t need a big banquet with a lot of elaborate preparations. It was not that Martha was working; Jesus says she is bothered and worried about so many things, and at that moment those were the wrong things about which to be concerned. Martha’s big mistake was this – she failed to recognize what Jesus needed at that moment. Under different circumstances her activity may have been what was called for, but not here. Martha was not thinking about what Jesus needed. If she wanted to truly minister to Jesus that’s where she should have started, with what he needed. Instead, she was imposing upon Jesus her idea of what was needed.

There is a time to be busy, but there is also a time to be still, and we need to be able to discern the difference.

Why are we so busy?

Who would like for their lives to be less busy? Let me ask you a question – what is keeping that from happening? Is it really impossible to slow our lives, or are we generating some of our business because we are running from something?

Was Martha busy with her preparations because she wanted to be or was she avoiding what Jesus might have to say to her? It is, after all, harder to hit a moving target. Maybe it was easier for Martha to be busy because it allowed her to avoid a confrontation with Jesus.

I believe there is something in each of us that Jesus wants to confront, because he wants us to be transformed. Maybe Martha was trying to avoid that confrontation. Why are we so busy? Could it be that we are trying to distract ourselves? We run and run, but we do more running than is truly necessary? My question is, from what are we running? Why are we obsessed with being busy? Is it to hide from life and what we don’t want to see about our lives?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

July 11, 2010 Message

The Power to See

How many of you trust your eyesight? Can we really trust our eyesight? Can two people look at the same object and see something different? Can they both be right? Let’s find out. Show PowerPoint images.

straight lines

Face or Liar

What word do you see – good or evil?

Do you see the word you or me?

Count the black dots in the picture.

Is this picture in motion?

How many legs does this elephant have?

Do you still trust your eyesight? We are trained to see things in a particular way. We are trained to see the world, to see people – to see everything – a particular way. We are a combination of influences that give us a lens through which we see everything, and those influences control how we see the world and how we see others. And here is the really scary part – most of the time we aren’t even aware we are being conditioned to see the world and people a particular way.

When we approach the gospels, we find that Jesus was constantly working to help his followers “see” in a different way. Jesus was constantly working to enable his followers to move beyond the way they had been conditioned to see the world and people so they could understand the world and people in a new way.

The teachings of Jesus sounded radical then, and still do, because of the way people are conditioned to see the world. To teach, for example, that a person should love their enemies (Matthew 5:44) was – and still is – very radical because people are conditioned to treat their enemies in a very different manner. Telling people to store up their treasures in heaven rather than on earth (Matthew 6:19-20) was – and still is – very radical because people are conditioned to think of their treasure in a very different way.

The disciples are often portrayed as being rather slow to understand the teachings of Jesus; if they understood him at all. In Mark’s gospel, for example, we find the disciples puzzling over the parable of the sower (Mark 4:9-13). The disciples were often left puzzling at the things Jesus said and did because their way of seeing everything kept them from understanding what Jesus was trying to teach them.

We are in danger of the same inability to see what Jesus is trying to teach us. We are people living in a particular time and place and the influences of our time and place get in the way of our being able to see, and perceive, and understand.

So much of Scripture centers on God working to help people to see. Abraham was presented a vision of faith that he could not always see. Moses was presented with a vision of a people that he could not always see. When Jesus called Peter, Andrew, James, and John to follow him (Matthew 4:18-22) he presented them with a way to “see” others; they were called to be fishers of men.

Matthew records this story of two blind men who call out to Jesus as he and his disciples were leaving the city of Jericho. A large crowd followed him and two men who were blind shout out over the noise and clamor of the crowd. Lord, Son of David, they shout, have mercy on us! The crowd rebukes them and told them to be quiet but the men shout even louder.

Here is the classic contrast the gospels show us. A large crowd of people gathers around Jesus, with everyone desperate to see him and to be near him. On the surface it all looks great. Who wouldn’t want to see a large crowd gathering around Jesus? Wouldn’t we want a really large crowd following Jesus?

But there’s a problem – for all their physical proximity to Jesus the crowd is far from him spiritually. Why is the crowd far from Jesus spiritually? Because they couldn’t see these two men the way Jesus saw them. The crowd sought to silence the two blind men, but Jesus picked them out of the crowd.

The crowd was unable to see what Jesus saw – the crowd saw two men who should be quieted but Jesus saw two men in need. Verse 34 says Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes. Immediately they received their sight and followed him.

If you want to be like Jesus, you have to learn to see like Jesus, and the crowd was unable to do so. The crowd couldn’t see these two men and their need, so they failed to have compassion. Compassion. The gospels often use this word in relation to Jesus. Matthew 9:36 says when he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Mark 8:2 records Jesus saying I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat.

Compassion. I wonder how it is that some churches, clamoring just like this crowd to be close to Jesus, fail to see those who need compassion. I wonder how it is that some churches, professing to be like Jesus are actually like this crowd, shouting down those who need to be touched by the compassion of Jesus. I wonder how it is that some churches, like this crowd, are actually keeping people from Jesus rather than bringing them closer to Jesus.

Can we trust our eyesight? Has our vision been so conditioned by the world around us that we are unable to see need surrounding us? Have we become so accustomed to the many voices that we hear shouting in our world that we are unable to hear the voices of those in need who are calling to us? May God give us The Power to See.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Fourth of July Sermon


100 years ago this past Friday, July 2nd, 1910, my grandfather, Tom Charlton, arrived in the city of Philadelphia. He and his family had departed from Liverpool, England and boarded the "Friesland" as steerage passengers and immigrated to America. They were not escaping tyranny, but looking for a better life, for greater opportunity. I’m glad they made it here.

Today, as we celebrate the 4th of July, we think about freedom. Freedom is absolutely foundational to who we are, both as Americans and as Christians. And as Americans who are Christians, it is incumbent upon us to look at freedom in particularly important ways.

On this 4th of July, may we remember some important truths about freedom.

1. Diversity is good.

Freedom is wonderful, but it is also very, very complicated. When people have freedom they begin to disapprove of how some people exercise their freedom.

It is very obvious we live in a society full of division. Some politicians – and some clergy, I might add – complain about the divisiveness while at the same time using it for their own personal or political gain by exploiting that divisiveness. The truth is, there is no way around divisiveness in a free society. When a society is free there will be so many opinions that a certain amount of divisiveness is impossible to avoid.

And divisiveness – political divisiveness – is not new to the American scene. In 1800 a newspaper, commenting on the election campaign between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams printed the headline God-And a Religious President or…Jefferson-and No God.

(American Gospel, by Jon Meacham, page 104)

We are a very diverse people, and I’m not sure when it happened, but it seems that diversity has become a dirty word in recent years. We shouldn’t be bothered by diversity; we should celebrate diversity! We should thank God for the wonderful variety of people and opinions he has created and not fear the differences between people and their point of view.

I believe our world is becoming far too fearful of diversity. I believe people ought to be who they are and they ought to have their own opinions and speak their opinions. I hope you have speak up about your opinions, be they political or spiritual. I know you do, because I have heard some of them. Some of them I agree with and some of them I don’t. But that’s okay, because you won’t agree with all of mine.

As Disciples, this is where we have such an advantage over many churches, because it is such a powerful part of our heritage – it is part of our spiritual DNA – that we not only respect diversity, but we encourage it.

Diversity is the blossom on the flower of freedom. Diversity means we have freedom and that freedom is being exercised. When diversity is restricted, freedom is restricted.

2. Religious freedom is a wonderful gift.

If you were to name the most significant religious event since the time of Jesus, what would you say? For me it is this – the conversion of the Roman emperor Constantine in the year 312 AD. Constantine was the first Christian emperor and in 313 he issued the Edict of Milan, which stated we should let both the Christians and all others follow whatever religion they wanted to, so that whatever God there is in heaven may be happy and pleased with us and with all our subjects. And with a stroke of a pen the persecution inflicted upon the church from its beginning had come to an end.

I mention this because we must understand the church was born into an environment so very different from ours. In the earliest centuries of the church Christians were persecuted and put to death, sometimes for no other reason than for the entertainment of the Romans. Nero used them as human torches to light his garden at night, their executions were a sport in Rome’s coliseum, and they faced all manner of other types of persecution.

While we enjoy a government that provides us with security, education, roads, and many other services the government was anything but the friend of the earliest followers of Jesus. We are guaranteed the right to worship as we choose; the earliest followers of Jesus met in places like the catacombs to worship. The catacombs were tombs. Imagine, while we sit in the comfort and beauty of this place, the early Christians sitting among the stench and decay of corpses and death in order to worship.

The fish symbol you see on cars and other places – called an Ichthus – was a symbol used to guide early Christians to safe places of worship.

Persecution is, unfortunately, alive and well today. In China, for instance, it is estimated that between 80 and 100 million people attend house churches, and the Chinese government in the past few years has stepped up their persecution of those house churches (http://www.persecution.com/public/media.aspx?mediapage_ID=MjQ1). The country that finances so much of our debt, the country that manufactures so many of the products we buy, that country is also one of the most intense persecutors of the church.

We must pray for our brothers and sisters around the world that are persecuted because of their faith, and may we never take for granted that we drove to and walked in this building unmolested this morning. No one has to give approval or sanction our gathering this day. No one tells us how we must conduct ourselves or what we must believe as we gather here. We are free! Free to worship and free to follow our beliefs!

3. People were created as free beings.

God intends for people to be free and to remain free. We must pray for and agitate for the freedom of others.

But not just for political freedom, but spiritual freedom as well. In spite of our political freedom there are many who are bound by the chains of fear, of addictions, of poverty, of violence, of abuse, of materialism, and so many other things that bind the human heart and mind. Political freedom does not guarantee the freedom of an individual’s heart and soul, a large bank account does not mean there is not a poverty of the soul, and an abundance of food does not alleviate terrible spiritual hunger.

4. God does not enforce belief, so neither must we.

My journey back to the Disciples was a journey back to my roots, but it was also a journey away from the narrow legalism and enforced uniformity of other traditions.

There are far too many examples of forced uniformity in churches today. Disciples are one of the shining – and increasingly rare – examples of soul freedom. Our Scripture reading from the book of Romans is a passionate plea on Paul’s part to resist legalism. Disciples have always resisted a legalistic and narrow approach to faith.

5. We should never confuse patriotism and faith.

Patriotism and faith are two very different matters. I love God and I love my country, but I understand they are not the same. I do not worship my country. I am grateful to be a Christian and I am grateful to be an American, but sometimes the two are in conflict. Faith will sometimes compel us to challenge others and speak up and speak out about what we see. This is the great American tradition and even greater, it is the Biblical tradition. Imagine if Nathan had not been willing to confront King David after David, in order to cover his own sin, had Bathsheeba’s husband killed. Nathan, the great prophet, dared to stand in front of the king and say You are the man! (I Samuel 12:7) as he brought into the open the sin of David. Imagine if the apostles had silenced themselves as instructed by the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin ordered the apostles to be flogged and then ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus (Acts 6:40). Imagine if Paul had not stood up to the authorities, on a local level and all the way to Rome to Caesar himself. Imagine if the bold faith of our forebears in faith had been silenced by the persecution of Rome. In Disciples’ history, imagine if Thomas and Alexander Campbell had not spoken out for an open communion table and spoken against the stifling of personal opinion.

One of my favorite movies is Braveheart. Near the end of the movie is a scene when the character of William Wallace, played by Mel Gibson, is to be tortured and executed for high treason. Wallace, from Scotland, led his fellow countryman in their quest to win their freedom from England. He is told it will all end quickly if he admits his guilt and begs for mercy. Instead, after enduring the pain of torture, with his final breath he yells out freedom! It’s a very stirring scene as it reminds us of the great quest for freedom throughout history.

Freedom. It is for freedom, Paul writes, that Christ has set us free.