Friday, February 27, 2015
Monday, February 23, 2015
Last week I mentioned the importance of church camp in the development of my spiritual life and my sense of call as a minister. As powerful as my camp experience was, it was not without a few shortcomings. One summer, one of our counselors told us that when we returned to school we needed to be sure to bow our heads and pray before lunch each day in the cafeteria. We were instructed to do this not just because of a desire to return thanks and not because we ought to pray, but we were told to do so because our classmates should see us praying; the point of our prayers was to be seen praying, as it would be a witness of faith. Our counselors also told us we should read our Bibles regularly, and as I did, I remembered the words of Jesus in the Sermon On the Mount, where he says that we should pray in secret. The words of my counselor seemed to be in conflict with the instructions of my counselor.
The conflict between what I was told and what I read in this passage led me to what might seem like a strange practice to some people – before I eat a meal I always return thanks, but not always in an obvious manner. When I share a meal with another person or a group of people, I’m often asked to offer the blessing, which I do and I’m happy to do so, but when I’m by myself, I do not bow my head and I do not close my eyes, but I do return thanks. Praying in a way that is obvious to others makes me wonder about the difference between an authentic expression of faith and an activity that is done simply to gain attention.
Does that make me weird? It’s okay to nod your head yes, I know I’m weird.
Listen to what Jesus says in chapter six of the Sermon On the Mount –
1 Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
2 So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.
3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,
4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
5 And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.
6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.
8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
This morning we are talking about The Danger of Self-Righteousness. What is the difference between a genuine expression of faith and self-righteousness? Let’s find out –
Self-Righteousness Feels the Need to Call Attention to One’s Actions.
One of the marks of self-righteousness that is identified by Jesus in this week’s Scripture passage is that of drawing attention to one’s spiritual practices and actions. Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them, Jesus said, implying that if we have to point out our righteousness to other people, it’s not really true righteousness. Self-righteousness is identified by a looking-over-the-shoulder way of living that wants to be sure others see what we are doing.
In Luke 18:9-14 we read the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector, both of whom were praying in the Temple. The Pharisee is audacious enough to point out the tax collector, to whom he felt superior, and turned his prayer into a self-congratulatory speech. God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get (Luke 18:11-12). I’m not sure how he managed to reach around and pat himself on the back and pray at the same time, but he did!
It’s very sad to see prayer used in a way that makes a point. Ministers, sadly, are some of the worst offenders about using prayer in this way. I’ve heard ministers offer a prayer in a worship service similar to this – Lord, we’ve got a really big decision coming up in our congregation. We need to do the right thing. We know the right things is to (decided in some particular manner). Lord, we know how you want us to decide, but there are some who have closed their minds and hearts to that way. Open their hearts, their minds, their eyes, and their ears to vote in the proper way, especially those elders who are being stubborn and unwilling to get with the program! Those kinds of prayers aren’t really prayers – they’re speeches, and everybody knows it, and they’re self-righteous as well.
Jesus encountered a lot of self-righteous people. And when he did, he was usually pretty tough on them. Consider these words from the 23rd chapter of Matthew’s gospel – Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of of deadmen’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? (Matthew 23:27-28; 33)
Wow. Those are tough words, spoken with strong emotion, and they probably didn’t win Jesus any fans among the Pharisees and others in the religious establishment. Jesus was hard on self-righteousness, I think, because it presents a distorted idea of the nature of faith and because it turns people away from faith, as they find it to be so unattractive.
I don’t think anyone has much tolerance for self-righteousness. Jesus certainly didn’t. But as much as we dislike self-righteousness, it’s important to remember that we all have the capacity to become self-righteous. It’s really not that difficult, because one of the traits of self-righteousness is the inability to recognize it, even in one’s self. While we are quick to recognize it in others, we are not so quick to identify it in ourselves.
People don’t generally know when they are being self-righteous. The Pharisees, who represent to us the very epitome of self-righteousness, wouldn’t have understood themselves to be self-righteous. In fact, the Pharisees as a group began in the time between the Old and the New Testaments as a movement to revive spirituality among the Jewish people. The Pharisees were a reaction to what was perceived as cold, stale, legalistic religion, so their roots were based in a good impulse, but they eventually came to represent exactly what they originally opposed. From a desire to encourage prayer they moved to offering showy prayers, standing in busy public places so they would be seen as they prayed. From a desire to encourage generosity they moved to a self-congratulatory attention-calling to their giving. From a desire to give to the needy they moved to a lesser concern with helping and a greater concern to receive the recognition for their generosity.
Sometimes, the best and most noble spiritual impulses can go awry. In fact, one of the lessons we can learn from those whom Jesus addressed is this – if we have to point out our righteousness to other people, it’s not really true righteousness.
Self-Righteousness want to serve as God’s gatekeepers.
I like the concerts at the State Fair, especially the free ones at Cardinal Stadium. I like them because, well, they’re free, and because they often feature the classic rock acts of my era of music. One year I was walking through Freedom Hall on my way to the stadium, and there was a long line of people waiting to be seated for a Kenny Chesney concert. I don’t mean to stereotype, but have you ever noticed how it’s just obvious that some people belong to a particular group? Like Kenny Chesney fans, for instance. The dress code was an assortment of boots, cowboy or baseball hats, and faded and torn jeans. I’m not being critical of country music, I’m just making an observation. Or maybe I’m just jealous because no one has ever written a song about my sexy tractor. Not the I even have a tractor. I have a sad, little riding mower and believe me, there is nothing sexy about it! But the point is, everyone in that line looked like they were going to a Kenny Chesney concert, except for one guy. In the midst of this long line of people was a guy who looked to be in his early to mid 20s. His hair was heavily jelled up in spikes and was dyed three or four different colors. He had a bunch of piercings and a big chain hanging down from his belt. I wondered if I should tell him Metallica wasn’t playing that night, because he just didn’t look like he fit in, and many of the people in the line were giving him looks that communicated that they didn’t think he fit in either.
Self-righteousness loves to communicate who fits in with God and who doesn’t. It has a uniform, and a set of beliefs and actions; it has a mold in which every one must fit perfectly. Self-righteous people want to define that mold, and they believe they are the ones qualified to serve as God’s gatekeepers, determining who is acceptable to God and who isn’t. They are the ones who will look at people and say, no, you don’t fit; you don’t belong; you’re not like us. The Pharisee in the Temple fit this bill perfectly, as he looked down on the tax collector in his self-congratulatory manner. It was very clear to him that he was one not only of God’s chosen but one of God’s preferred, and that gave him the right, in his mind, to determine that the tax collector was not worthy enough to be one of God’s children.
We hear a lot in recent years about the folks who are spiritual but not religious. I’m not going to criticize that group of people, because I believe churches had a big part in creating them. Far too often, churches appointed themselves the gatekeepers to the kingdom of God and would confidently, loudly – and often irritatingly – proclaim who was acceptable to God and who was not. Jesus very obviously kicked the legs out from under that high horse. Jesus very obviously went out of his way to bring into God’s favor those who were cast aside by the self-righteous. Jesus very obviously offered love, grace, and dignity to people who received none of those gifts from the self-righteous.
Self-Righteousness thrives on false comparisons.
I talked some about comparisons last fall, but I want to mention comparisons in a different context today. Self-righteousness loves to make comparisons; the Pharisee in the Temple is a perfect example of this – God, I thank you that I am not like other people. The reality is, the Pharisee might have been a better person in some ways than the tax collector, but so what? The point is not to be better than other people; that is a false comparison. The true comparison is this – how do I compare to Jesus? It’s not hard to find someone to whom we can feel spiritually superior, whether or not we really are. And plenty of church people over the years have made that comparison to others, so in some cases, the reputation of churches as being self-righteous is well-deserved, isn’t it?
A couple of weeks ago I mentioned a church I served as Student Minister back in the 70s, Bethel Christian Church in Jonesboro, Tennessee. Bethel is an African-American congregation, which was a very interesting experience for me. Early in my ministry there I was standing in a room behind the sanctuary looking at a picture. It was the traditional Head-of-Christ picture that we see in many churches, except it was an African-American Jesus. As I was standing there, just looking at the picture, one of the ladies of the church walked by and, without stopping, said, yeah, that’s not right, but neither is the one at your church.
I found that to be both funny and true, as the reality is that we can easily have the tendency to remake Jesus in our image, rather than remaking ourselves in his.
The comparison we ought to be making is not how we measure up to other people, or how they measure up to us, but how we measure up to Jesus.
Monday, February 16, 2015
Attending college in northeast Tennessee meant there were many outdoor activities available. One that I enjoyed was climbing Buffalo Mountain, just outside of Johnson City.
There was one particular spot on the mountain that has an absolutely breathtaking view, especially when you walk out onto an overlook of rock that stuck out rather precariously. The rocky overlook was a fairly good-sized space and it is possible to walk right out to the edge and peer over and see the very long drop back down the mountain.
There’s something euphoric, I think, about being on a literal mountaintop and surveying all the valleys that stretch out before you. Although it’s a lot of work to get to the mountaintop, there is a sense of peace as you gaze into the valley and know you are far removed from all the problems and stresses of life in the valley.
This morning, as we move a little further into the gospel of Mark, we are talking about Living Between the Mountaintop and the Valley. Let’s read the story of the Transfiguration, where Jesus takes Peter, James, and John to the top of a mountain and there is transfigured before them.
2 After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them.
3 His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.
4 And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.
5 Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
6 (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.)
7 Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”
8 Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.
9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
Allow me to share a few lessons from this passage –
We need our mountaintop experiences.
For me, church camp was always a mountaintop experience. I spent a good deal of my summers, beginning in elementary school through my early college years, going to church camp, and my experiences there were some of the most profound in my life. At the time, I understood those experiences to be a source of strength and encouragement for me between summers, helping me to get through each school year, but as I’ve grown older I’ve come to understand how they continue to be life-changing and life-shaping experiences for me. For some people, their mountaintop experiences came in other ways. The context of the experience doesn’t matter as much as having the experience.
I hope that worship can be a mountaintop experience for you. I understand that our experience of worship can vary quite a bit from week to week, and there are times when you might come for any number of weeks – or longer – and not get that sense of a mountaintop experience, but I hope it does come at some point.
Sometimes we need a special encounter with God. Sometimes we need those moments that lift us above the daily grind of life. Sometimes we need those moments where heaven meets earth and the divine comes right into our lives. Those moments don’t come every day in my life. Sometimes, those really moving encounters come few and far between. Sometimes those encounters come totally out of the blue and other times they come because we place ourselves in a position where they can happen. But one of those encounters is enough to provide spiritual fuel for a long time.
Peter, James, and John would certainly have their share of powerful and profound experiences with Jesus, but this one was special, and as difficult as it was for them to understand the experience, it was one that touched them in a very deep and profound way.
We need people to share our journey.
I don’t know why Jesus seemed to favor Peter, James, and John, but he seemed to be closer to those three than the other disciples. The gospels mention other times when Jesus favored Peter, James, and John, such as in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he took those three further into the garden with him than the others. If we attempted to list the others from memory we might have a difficult time of it as, outside of the list of their names, some of them are barely mentioned in the New Testament.
But Jesus was, I’m certain, very close to all twelve of the disciples, and his relationship with the twelve reminds us of the powerful need we have in life of being in relationship with other people. We are social creatures; we are not meant to live in solitude. And when we look around at the prevalence of social media and the powerful force it has become in the lives of so many it is but one more reminder of that need God places within us for relationships with other people.
Aren’t you grateful we do not walk through this life alone? Aren’t you grateful for the people that God has brought into your life? Can you imagine life without those people who celebrate with us in the difficult times but also walk with us through the valley, the people who will sit and weep with us, mourn with us, and love us when we feel as though we cannot continue?
Jesus surrounded himself with close friends because that is what we need in life. We need, in particular, people who will be encouragers for us. Think of Barnabas, in the book of Acts, whose name meant encourager. Imagine being known for all of history as an encourager – now there is a legacy! I could give you so many examples of people who have served as encouragers to me, but I’ll share just one this morning. In a previous congregation where I served, as the conclusion of the service, one of the members shook my hand and said, Dave, that was a really good message today. I really enjoyed it a got a lot out of it. Thank you for sharing it today. My first impression, honestly, was to be disappointed, because we had a music program that day and I didn’t preach. I thought she must have slept through the service and didn’t notice there was no sermon that day! Upon reflection, however, I realized it was because her habit was to say something encouraging to me every week after worship. It was that she didn’t notice I hadn’t preached; she just did what she always did, which was to offer an encouraging word to me.
We enter the valley because that is where so much of life is lived and that is where so many people live.
We all have that one place where we could just camp out forever. Perhaps it’s the beach – that’s the favorite for a lot of us, isn’t it? My mother-in-law lived on the beach at Tybee Island, Georgia for 18 years, and we loved to visit there. The beach is one of the few places in the world where I can be content just sitting. I look out at the water and think, I could sit here forever. Now she lives on a lake in northeast Georgia, and though I really miss the beach I love the lake as well. The lake has over 900 miles of shoreline winding through the hills of northeast Georgia and islands dot the lake. Some of them are smaller than this room but others can cover a couple of acres. I love to go out on the lake and pull up to one of the islands and sit on the little beaches that surround them. It’s incredibly peaceful. It’s quiet, there are no phones ringing and no to-do lists. There is only peace and quiet. There have been many times when I sat on a beach, or an island, or on a mountain overlook and thought I could stay here forever. Have you ever felt that way?
But, sadly, the mountaintop is not where most people live. Most people live much of their lives in the harshness of the valley, where dysfunction and disease and conflict and loss and fear and violence and so many other problems overwhelm life. As wonderful as it would be to stay on the mountaintop, we have to enter the valleys because that is where people live.
On a fortunate few occasions we get to visit the mountaintop and have that beautiful mountaintop experience, but that is not where we get to stay long. Some people never make it to the mountaintop. Some people spend all of their lives struggling to be free from the valley of poverty, of disease, of violence, of loneliness, of depression and despair, of fear and so many other struggles that fill that valley.
Peter, bless him, has an interesting reaction to being on the mountaintop. He turns to Jesus and says Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah. Peter’s words were accurate but the sentiment behind them was a bit off. It was indeed good for them to be there and to experience such a momentous occasion. What a wonderful experience they shared; who wouldn’t want to stay there?
But Peter’s desire to build some shelters and stay on the mountaintop was the wrong sentiment. It was the wrong sentiment for this reason – after the transfiguration Jesus leads Peter, James, and John back down the mountain, back to reality, where there is chaos, confusion, and frustration. Basically, back to every day life. When you read ahead to the next story, you find the other disciples surrounded by a crowd and a man whose son who needed to be healed. It was a chaotic situation and a reminder of why we prefer to be on the mountaintop and out of the valley. I’m sure Peter, James, and John were thinking at that moment can we go back up to the mountaintop and get away from all of this? Isn’t that a reaction we often have to the chaos and suffering and struggles of the world? Lord, excuse me, but I think I’ll go to my safe place, to my favorite place that will insulate me from all this craziness in the world. But here is an important truth for us to remember – any encounter with God that does not lead us down from our mountains, that does not lead us out of our buildings, and does not lead us out into the needs of the world around us is probably not a real encounter with God.
A mountaintop experience – a true mountaintop experience – is one that compels us down from the mountaintop and into the valley, because that is where God can always be found – in the valley. Isn’t that what the psalmist tells us in the 23rd psalm? Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. There is no valley too deep for God. There is no valley out of God’s reach. There is no valley where God is not present.
Kayla Mueller is a name we learned only recently. She had been in the hands of ISIS and we were all surprised to hear the news in recent days, as her kidnapping had not been made public. We also learned, tragically that she died in recent days. In the spring of 2014 she wrote a letter to her family, which the family made public after her death. Here is some of what she had to say –
I remember mom always telling me that all in all in the end the only one you really have is God. I have come to a place in experience where, in every sense of the word, I have surrendered myself to our creator b/c literally there was no else ... + by God + by your prayers I have felt tenderly cradled in freefall. I have been shown in darkness, light + have learned that even in prison, one can be free. I am grateful. I have come to see that there is good in every situation, sometimes we just have to look for it. I pray each day that if nothing else, you have felt a certain closeness + surrender to God as well + have formed a bond of love + support amongst one another.
Isn’t that an amazing testimony of courage and faith? Her words, in a very powerful way, echo those of Paul, who also wrote of his faith while in prison, and who also wrote of being able to see the good in each situation. I hope that if I were ever in a situation that challenged my faith that I could hold to it as strongly as Kayla. For Kayla, the mountaintop came to the valley. Even though she found herself, literally, in the valley of the shadow of death she shows no fear, as she knew God was with her. Down from the mountaintop he came, and entered into the valley with her.
Some of you may be blessed to be on the mountaintop at this point in your life. Many more of you may be in the valley, where life is difficult. Know that God is not far away on the mountaintop, but he is in the valley with you.
Tuesday, February 10, 2015
My senior year in high school I had a parking permit that allowed me to drive to school. Our high school had limited parking and a permit was required, and they were difficult to secure. Suddenly, because I could drive to school, I was very popular in my neighborhood. Every morning, as my car filled with riders, I took up a collection for gas. None of us had much money, so I ended up with a handful of quarters, nickels, dimes, and pennies. We would stop at the Clark gas station on the main drag through my hometown and get gas every morning. Some mornings it was $2.00 and sometimes less. That was in the days when there was an attendant who would pump gas for you, so I would roll down my window, hand him a bunch of change, and he would roll his eyes and put the gas in my car. One day he asked me, why don’t you just fill up your tank instead of stopping every day to get a little bit of gas? Wouldn’t that be a lot easier? I told him I would love to fill up the tank, but I didn’t have the money. Because we put in a little bit each day I was always running on empty. There was a stretch of time when I ran out of gas on several occasions as I drove home to school, and I would walk to a nearby house and call my dad – if he was home from work – and ask him to come and pick me up. Finally, after picking me up one too many times, he told me I was going to have to start charging my riders more or I would have to walk home the next time I ran out of gas.
Fortunately, I can now fill my car with gas but there are still many days when I’m running on empty. There are days when I’m tired and worn down with a crowded schedule and I feel I’m sputtering and about to run out of gas. I’m not the only one; you feel that way as well, don’t you?
This morning, we are studying another passage from the gospel of Mark, as the lectionary takes us further in chapter one, where we read these words –
29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John.
30 Now Simon's mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once.
31 He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
32 That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons.
33 And the whole city was gathered around the door.
34 And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
35 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.
36 And Simon and his companions hunted for him.
37 When they found him, they said to him, "Everyone is searching for you."
38 He answered, "Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do."
39 And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
So let’s take a closer look at some of the lessons from this passage –
1. Refueling is a spiritual act.
If you are like most people, you’re probably tired a good deal of the time. Living in a 24/7, always-connected, always-on world means we seldom have time – or take the time – to relax. An increasing amount of research is beginning to make one thing very clear, and that is the failure to allow our bodies and minds to rest is taking a terrible toll on our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health.
But we don’t need research to tell us this, do we? We already know we need more rest and a break from the stress of modern life. But who has time to rest? The emails, phone calls, texts, and job and family responsibilities keep coming at us, causing us to push harder and harder, with the end result that we are increasingly exhausted and stressed.
Among the many fascinating elements of the ministry of Jesus is his practice of slipping away from the crowds and from his disciples for times of quiet reflection and prayer. Interestingly, it seems that Jesus was more likely to slip away when the demands upon him increased and the needs surrounding him were at their greatest. This story, in fact, takes place immediately after Jesus was inundated with people seeking to be healed and was at a time when the demands upon him were the greatest. It was the time, his disciples would believe, when he needed to be most available to meet the needs of people. And yet there he was, slipping away quietly in the early morning hours to take the time to pray and to refresh and recharge himself.
Mark tells us that very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed (Mark 1:35). I am not a morning person, although in recent years I’ve tried to reorient by body clock to be more of a morning person. I go to bed earlier and get up earlier, but I have to confess that it’s a struggle. Those of you who attend the early service have most likely noticed that early morning is not my natural habitat. For me, that most natural time for worship comes only once a year for our church – at 11:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve – now that’s my time of day! Tanya and I are completely opposite when it comes to our body clocks. She gets up a little before 5:00 a.m., when I’m still dead to the world, but I’m awake long after her in the evening. She is very much a morning person, and I have to be honest, I kind of resent morning people. I’ve resent them because they got up first and built the world to revolve around their schedules. If you are a night person you understand that you have to adapt to the world of the morning people!
But whether we are morning or night people here is how we often live – it is when we are at our busiest that we tend to be least likely to do what we really need to do, and that is take the time to refresh ourselvs physically, emotionally, and spiritually. That is worth repeating – it is when we are at our busiest that we tend to be least likely to do what we really need to do, and that is take the time to refresh ourselvs physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
When life gets busy and stressful, sometimes the first things to go are the things we need the most, such as time alone, time in prayer, time pursuing a spiritual discipline that will put fuel back into our tanks, energy in our steps, and passion in our hearts. Too often, when life gets busy and stressful, we continue to push ahead and charge forward, when we really need to retreat; to retreat into a quiet place where we can refresh ourselves through a time of quiet prayer, reflection and meditation. Thou hast created us for Thyself, and our heart is not quiet until it rests in Thee, wrote Saint Augustine, one of the greatest minds in the history of the church. Augustine understood that our hearts need time of rest and quiet, or else we will fail to withstand the stresses and pressures of life.
2. Refueling is a necessity.
When I was in seminary, I often thought about the fact that the schedule was, perhaps, a way to prepare ministerial candidates for a ministry that is 24/7. I went to class morning and early afternoon, and then I went to work at my first job until it was time for dinner. I ate a quick dinner and then went to my evening job, which was from 6:00 to 10:00 at night. When I returned home to my apartment it was time to begin my studying for the next day. It prepared me for a schedule that involved a lot of hours but it also, unfortunately, ingrained in me the idea that I needed to be accomplishing or doing something almost every hour of the day.
I have a hard time sitting and a hard time relaxing, and when I do, I generally feel guilty, as though I am wasting valuable time. And I sense that many of us live this way. Many of us will run out at the drop of a hat to express care for someone else yet never take the time to care for ourselves. As Jesus told us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, we could add that we should care for ourselves as we care for our neighbors.
After a time away – taking time for prayer and solitude – Jesus was most prepared to continue his work of ministry. When his disciples found him and told him, everyone is looking for you, Jesus was ready to go to work. But before continuing the work of ministry, Jesus knew the power of taking time for quiet prayer. After a time away we can sense within him a staunch resoluteness to go about his work.
If Jesus found it necessary to take a break and refuel, who are we to argue?
3. Refueling is a reflection of the important work of ministry.
Here is an obvious fact – you don’t have to go searching for people in need, because they are all around us. In fact, if you respond in any way to the needs of people, they will find you! Mark says the whole town of Capernaum gathered at the door of Peter and Andrew’s home. That would be a little annoying, wouldn’t it? It wasn’t a huge town, but with a population of about 1,500 people imagine what it would be like if they all showed up at your house, knocking on the door, looking in the windows, stepping on your flowers, and leaving their trash all over the lawn.
What we see is that the response to the ministry of Jesus – especially his healing ministry – quickly gets to the point that it became overwhelming to the disciples. On more than one occasion, the disciples ask Jesus to send the crowds away.
If you are providing a life-changing, life-saving service to people, they will not only beat a path to your door, they will knock down your door, knock over everything in your living room and every other room of the house as they search until they find you, and then they will drain every ounce of your energy as they draw life out of your life and into theirs. That’s not being critical or cynical – that’s just how we operate as humanity. When we are overwhelmed with our needs and our sufferings, we don’t generally think about the impact our needs and our sufferings have upon others. So if someone who is in need or is suffering is not thinking about you, you better think about you and make sure there is some fuel in your tank because the work of ministering to others is so important we don’t need to have people burning out.
People are so hungry for ministry. It was obvious, as so many people came to Jesus, that people were hungry for ministry. Last summer, when I was preaching through the book of Jonah, I mentioned that church people sometimes criticize those who turn to God or come to church for the wrong reasons. I think it’s worth mentioning again the question I asked – is there a wrong reason for people to turn to Jesus or to come to church? There is an oft-leveled criticism that some people come to church or turn to God simply because of what they can get. So what if people come to Jesus or to church for what they can get? Maybe the crowds were there simply for the healing, but so what? They came to Jesus. There are some reasons for coming to Jesus or to church that might be better than others, but if a person is coming that’s a good thing, even if their motivations are somewhat suspect. We shouldn’t be too quick to judge people’s motivations, because those motivations grow out of very deep and important needs.
And, after all, don’t we all do that? You’re coming for what you can get for your children or for yourself, and what’s wrong with that? Faith is not just an intellectual exercise or agreeing to a list of theological precepts; faith touches us on a very practical level as well. Faith is, practically speaking, what gets us through the difficult days, the difficult weeks, the difficult months, and the difficult years; faith is what sees us through the darkest and most difficult times of life. We all come to church, to faith, to God because of what we can get, and let’s not be hesitant to admit this, because it is in God that we find our needs in life can be fulfilled. Years ago, in a church where I served as the Student Minister, I scheduled a Christian rock group to come to the church to play on a Saturday evening for our youth group. That’s not unusual now, but at that time it was still fairly controversial, this idea of “Christian rock music.” We didn’t have many people there, and to be honest, I was kind of relieved, because they came in and just took over. They moved things off the platform like they owned the place. That made me nervous to I walked out of the sanctuary and ran into one of the guys in the band in the hallway pulling the front off of a breaker box. He was hooking wires into the box and running them into the sanctuary and I was certain he was going to get electrocuted or blow up everything.
And then the music started! It was really loud – which is not a bad thing, in my opinion – and during the last song the kids were standing on the pews and dancing around. And this was during my Baptist years, so dancing and church did not go together! Near the end of their program I was standing in the back of the sanctuary when suddenly the door opened and three people stepped into the sanctuary. They were there to prepare communion for the next morning and looked rather stunned at what they saw happening in the sanctuary. They were lovely people but this was not the type of event that excited them. They just stood there in the back watching, with very stern looks on their faces, and when the final song ended they immediately made their way towards me, looking very determined and unhappy. I just knew it was the end for me at that church. Before I could open my mouth to even begin stammering some kind of explanation as to how I could allow such behavior in the sanctuary one of them spoke up and said I can’t say I find this to be music, but if it gets kids to church on a Saturday night I’m all for it.
Maybe those kids were just there for the music. Maybe they were just there for the free pizza. But they were there. Maybe the people of Capernaum were just there because they had hopes of being healed. Maybe they were there for selfish reasons. But they were there, practically knocking down the door of Peter and Andrew’s house to get to Jesus.
I don’t know that it matters what gets people to church and to Jesus; what matters is they get there. It’s important work, and it’s work that is important enough that we have to be up for the task over the long haul. Don’t get into a position where you burn out and give up. One of the reasons I’m so grateful for a time of sabbatical this year is that I’ve been doing ministry a long time and I’m tired. I’ve got some years left in me and I want to be able to use those years effectively. I’ve seen too many people quit over the years, not because they dislike the work of ministry or because they have grown uncaring, but because they’ve grown so tired they could not continue.
Are you tired and weary? Are you running on fumes, feeling as though you are barely hanging on to life and to faith? If so, stop. Stop pushing harder and stop, step away, pray, and allow God to give you Fuel for the Journey.