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Sunday, July 25, 2010

Prayer at Midnight

A sermon based upon Luke 11: 1-13
Charles J. Tomlin
Flat Rock-Zion Partnership
July 25, 2010

A mother sent her 5th grade son to bed. A few minutes later she went in his room to make sure he was in bed. When she stuck her head into his room, she saw that he was kneeling beside his bed in prayer. Pausing to listen, she heard her son praying over and over again. "Let it be Tokyo. Please dear Lord, let it be Tokyo."   When he finished his prayer, his mother said to him, "What did you mean when you said, "Let it be Tokyo." "Oh," the boy said, "We had our geography test today and I was praying that God would make Tokyo the capitol of France."  ( Dorothea Belt Stroman from Sermon “Jesus’  Teaching On Prayer, from, 2010.)
Prayer is useless when reduced to a method of getting God to give us what we want.  This is the classic mistake Huck Finn has when writer Mark Twain has him saying: … Then Miss Watson she took me in the closet and prayed, but nothing come of it.  She told me to pray every day, and whatever I asked for I would get it.  But it warn't so. I tried it. Once I got a fish-line, but no hooks. It warn't any good to me without hooks. I tried for the hooks three or four times, but somehow I couldn't make it work.  By and by, one day, I asked Miss Watson to try for me, but she said I was a fool. She never told me why, and I couldn't make it out no way.”
Consider how the discussion continues with the same tone:  “I set down one time back in the woods, and had a long think about it. I says to myself, if a body can get anything they pray for, why don't Deacon Winn get back the money he lost on pork?  Why can't the widow get back her silver snuffbox that was stole?  Why can't Miss Watson fat up?  No, says I to myself, there ain't nothing in it.  I went and told the widow about it, and she said the thing a body could get by praying for it was "spiritual gifts." This was too much for me, but she told me what she meant -- I must help other people, and do everything I could for other people, and look out for them all the time, and never think about myself.  This was including Miss Watson, as I took it. I went out in the woods and turned it over in my mind a long time, but I couldn't see no advantage about it -- except for the other people; so at last I reckoned I wouldn't worry about it anymore, but just let it go.
Huck Finn says he “let go” thinking about prayer, but I hope we won’t.  I especially like the last line when he speaks of going “out in the woods” to turn it “over in my mind a long time”  and he decides: “I couldn’t see no advantage about it---except for the other people...”  Could this be Twain’s “unexpected” and perhaps “unwanted” insight into true prayer?   Could this be why  the Lord’s Prayer in our text begins “our Father”, not “my Father”?   Huck’s discovery is that prayer is not much use if you are selfish.  True prayer can never be reduced to getting.   If prayer is anything, it is about taming our “wants” in light of other needs.   
Understanding “what a body could get by praying” is something neither Huck Finn nor a disciple of Jesus can take for granted.  Prayer is about learning our greater needs and it can take us beyond being obsessed by our wants.  Just as a baby cries for what they need and want and doesn’t yet know the difference between the two, if a child is going to grow up, stay alive, be healthy, show love and live full and free, they must come to “learn” to tell the difference between their “wants” and their “needs. 

It is not hard to contemplate how learning prayer is learning life.  Not only can our wants end up prematurely “killing us” but our “wants” can keep “others” from getting from they need and our wants can keep us from  getting what we really need too.  This “spiritual” side of prayer is just “too much” of a discovery for Huck Finn.   He is unable to rise above his “wants.”  Because he can’t see beyond his wants, he only sees prayer as “unanswered” and “useless” because it  doesn’t give him what he wants.  He is never able to see any “advantage” in prayer since he is stuck on what he wants.  

In today’s Bible text from Luke, the disciples have seen Jesus as a man is possessed by the needs of the world around him and is unattached to his own wants.   The motivation for their asking Jesus about prayers was not as much what he had been teaching, but who he was as a man of prayer.  This reminds us that before prayer can be taught, it must be caught.  Jesus’ example of praying sparked their desire to pray.  
Two other things stand out about the disciple’s request.  It should be a curiosity for us that though Jesus a master teacher, a preacher of great authority, and charismatic healer, we have no record of the disciples ever asking Jesus to teach them to teach, to preach, or to heal.  Their only request was: “Lord, teach us to pray…” (11:1). This could be significant.  Notice also, that the disciples aren’t asking to learn “about” prayer, to learn a “theory” of prayer, nor are they asking for the “words” to say in prayer.   Even though Jesus gives them a brilliant “model” of prayer, learning “to pray” is ultimately not about learning the right words, memorizing or even habitually repeating words.   The disciple wants to pray like Jesus.  The Greek is literally: ‘Teach us prayer’.   Learning prayer comes by doing.   The disciples are asking for the desire, the will, the urgency of praying like Jesus.   To put it in the simplest of terms: the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray so they can want and need what Jesus has.       
Can you understand with Jesus, that the first matter of learning prayer is learning to “want” God?   Jesus begins:  “when you pray, say, Our Father, hallowed be your name…thy kingdom come….”   Jesus begins prayer not by asking, but first by acknowledging God as Father, as Holy and who’s will and purposes should matter the most.     

Think about the very “secular” world in which we live---a world that, for the most part has, either killed God off in our thinking or at the very least, has neutered God in public and pushed  God to the sidelines of life, making faith in God only an option of personal choice.   Such a “real world” makes this opening phrase sound as if Jesus is a long way away from where we live.  

Most of the moments of our lives are spent on working, caring for family, taking care of business and these days, trying to survive.   Seeking God seems less necessary, is not natural, and must be learned.  Since we can easily choose to “live without God” in a free society based more on economic dreams or political will, than having to consider God’s will, can we still take prayer seriously?  Can we, who live in such a complex, multi-cultural, religiously plural, variegated world, dare to imagine that we all have the same spiritual “Father”?   Can people who have lost their sense of the sacred or of values greater than our own, care about a holy God?  Can humans who have made it their goal in life to go after what “I” want, “fathom” that life might be about what God wills rather than what “I” or “we” want?  

To “name” God in prayer can’t help but raise this question about God.   And when you raise the God question, you can’t help but question everything---everything about what you believe, the way you live your life, what you dream about, and what you actually do with the life you have been given.   When Jesus gives God the distinctive name: “Abba, or “Father,” we can see how our lower “wants” might be wonderfully transformed by our higher, and greater needs.   Finding “what” matters in life rests upon knowing “who” matters most.   This is why the first lesson is prayer is: Do we want God?     

In a fascinating book, “The Question of God,” Harvard Professor, Armand M. Nicholi, carries on an imaginary debate between two “dead” geniuses; C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud.   The professor put both their writings and biographies side by side letting you see any difference in how they lived, one as a “believer” and the other as an “unbeliever”.  As their stories “unfold” and you take note of how two brilliant minds dealt grappled with the major human issues of God, Love, and the Meaning of Life.   You get to see what they came to “want” in their lives and you also see who they became, not just in their brilliance of mind but in their own personal character.  Freud, an unbeliever, primarily “wanted” God to be an illusion who was imagined to be too harsh to be any kind of “real” loving Father.   As a result, you a find Freud as a person who was often a harsh, stern, demanding character, who in the end, as he dies, shows little emotion or spirit.  C.S. Lewis, on the other hand, who was an also a brilliant Oxford Scholar allowed himself to be “surprised by joy” and is transformed into a passionate, caring and loving person, who’s heart can be broken and tested by love’s demands.     The “desire” for God, of lack of it, made a great “loving” and compassionate difference.

Asking ourselves, whether or not we “want” God brings up another issue for prayer in a secular world.   When belief in God has become optional, we must also learn to ask: Why do we need God?  Are we ready to seek and discover “what” we need from God?

Jesus suggests, in his model prayer, that we all need God’s help in sustaining our lives with the basic essentials (daily bread) and we need God’s help to save our souls from the destructive powers can steal both our lives and our souls.   We need God to help us seek what will sustain our bodies and what will save our souls.  Prayer helps us seek and want what we “needs” and not just what we want in life.

The other night, Arla and Warren Cutts invited us to their home to watch a TV movie entitled “Amish Grace.”   It’s the tragic story of how a small, Amish community had their lives horribly interrupted and their faith tested when a mentally deranged neighbor busted into a one-room school house and killed 5 innocent Amish girls.  The movie was a heart-breaking, true and life –changing of how this believing community went beyond the “want” and “desire” to hate the man who killed their children, to seeking and finding the strength to forgive and even show love and mercy to the family of the murderer.   

One outstanding, dramatized, character was an Amish mother who lost her very talented daughter in the shooting.   She was struggling with the community’s decision to “forgive” the man and came close to leaving her faith.   She could not understand the “need” to forgive and she did not have the desire or ability to forgive.   Right down, almost to the end of the movie, you expect her to leave her family in protest, until she visits the hospital bed of one of the surviving girls, who describes what happened in the last moment of her own daughter’s life.  Bravely, this young child looked into the killer’s cold eyes, prays for him and forgives him for what he was about to do.  

When the mother realizes that her own daughter had displayed the courage to forgive, she immediately gained the strength and ability to forgive, to be redemptive instead of being “destroy” by great evil.  It is as if her daughter’s act of faith and courage, gave her the ability to realize something thing even worse than forgiving her killer.  If she did not forgive like her daughter forgave, she would “kill” her daughter’s memory by holding on to hate in her heart.  Forgiving was not what she wanted, but through her daughter’s faith, forgiveness became her greater need, so she could rightly honor her daughter in death as in life.   Her need to forgive overcame her not wanting to forgive. 

However we define prayer, prayer is learning to want God and learning find what we need in God, and it is also, learning to want what God wants. 

Wanting what God wants is the “final frontier” of prayer where most people seldom have gone before, and seldom learn before they are dying.  This final lesson of prayer is unsuspected.   Most of us come to consider prayer like Huck Finn does: either we have been disappointed that we didn’t get what we asked for, or we are elated that our prayers have been answered just as we asked.  The value of prayer to us or the lack of it, is then based upon the kind of “answer” we get. 

Jesus, however, sees the real value of prayer in the asking, the seeking, and the knocking for the answer, not in the answer itself.   In his parable about the woman who goes out asking for bread at midnight, he says her need for bread at midnight “gets answered” because she is persistent in her asking, her seeking, and her knocking.   Why is persistence the most important lesson in prayer?  For two reasons, I believe.   Jesus wants us keep asking and praying, because we might give up too soon.  Our prayers are always heard by God and surprisingly, God wants to answer our prayers more than most of us want to pray.  God must be known as even more than a “friend in Jesus “ who might wake up to help” us,  because God is a loving Father who only gives good things to his children when they ask.   To want what God wants in prayer means that God wants to answer more than we want to ask.  Secondly, Jesus wants us to keep asking because God wants to give us more than know to ask.   Through persistence in our prayers, when the answers come and also when they don’t, through our praying and not giving up, God gives us the ability to rise above our wants, and can even teach us to want what God wants.

Wanting what God wants is the lesson we see in Jesus’ own life, isn’t it?  Jesus himself, prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, a great prayer he desperately needed to have answered.  It was a prayer not just of human want, but also of the greatest human need.   In Matthew’s gospel, 26: 39, we read how in prayer,  “threw himself on the ground and prayerd,  "MY FATHER, IF IT IS POSSIBLE, LET THIS CUP PASS FROM ME; YET NOT WHAT I WANT BUT WHAT YOU WANT."   The persistence of Jesus prayer did not change give Jesus the answer he wanted, but it gave Jesus and the world, the answer we all needed.   God’s plans are always bigger than just one life.   But one can become part of how God answers the world’s need,  when we learn to trust God, not matter what kind of “answer” we get.     

Do you realize that the greatest “answer to your prayers” may not be what you ask for, but the greatest answer could be receiving something you don’t even yet know to ask for?   While I was chaplain on the cancer floor at Baptist hospital, I came upon a woman who was, like all of us would be in her situation, praying to be healed of her cancer.  She told me, even if she didn’t beat her cancer, she at least hoped that she could make it through the next year until she saw her son graduate.  Of course, in the moment we prayed, it was altogether uncertain whether these prayers would be answered.   But then, she told me about an “unexpected” blessing in the midst of all her pain and disease.   It was something she hadn’t prayed for, but had already received as an answer.  She and her husband had often had a rocky marriage, but now, through all the sickness, the treatments, the pain and the fears, her husband “proved” his love for her because he did not leave her side.   Now, she told me, she will never again “doubt” his love.  Her new “marriage” to her husband was the answer to the prayer she had not known how to pray for and it came as an unexpected blessing in the middle of the “midnight” of her life.          

Jesus says the one “gift” or “answer” we are always guaranteed in prayer is the “Holy Spirit”.    Through the gift of the Spirit, God answers our prayers even might think he hasn’t.  The greatest answer to prayer will never be “what” we get, but “who” we, by God’s spirit in us, can become.  Everyone who asks and keeps on asking, will receive God’s spirit.  This is Jesus’ promise.   But Jesus’ promise is not that we always get what we want, nor will we only get what we need.   The promise of Jesus is that by wanting God, by coming to understand our greater needs in life, and through the discovery that the greatest answer to prayer is not getting what we want, but wanting what God wants, then, the greatest answer to prayer is no longer what we can get, but “who” we can become when we pray.   By learning to pray and to pray persistently, who we become for God, for others, and even for ourselves, is a far greater “gift” than anything else we can get from God.   The greatest surprise at midnight?: Who we are in prayer” is both “who” and what God really wants.  Amen.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Spirituality 101

A sermon based upon Luke 10: 38-42

Charles J. Tomlin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
July 18th, 2010

A police officer pulls a guy over for speeding and has the following exchange:
Officer: May I see your driver’s license?
Driver: I don’t have one. I had it suspended when I got my fifth DUI.
Officer: May I see the owner’s card for this vehicle?
Driver: It’s not my car. I stole it.
Officer: The car is stolen?
Driver: That’s right. But come to think of it, I think I saw the owner’s card in the glove box when I was putting my gun in there.
Officer: There’s a gun in the glove box?
Driver: Yes, sir. That’s where I put it after I shot and killed the woman who owns this car and stuffed her in the trunk.
Officer: There’s a BODY in the TRUNK?
Driver: Yes, sir.    (Hearing this, the officer immediately called his captain. The car was quickly surrounded by police, and the captain approached the driver to handle the tense situation.)
Captain: Sir, can I see your license?
Driver: Sure. Here it is.   (It was valid.)
Captain: Whose car is this?
Driver: It’s mine, officer. Here’s the owner’s card.   (The driver owned the car.)
Captain: Could you slowly open your glove box so I can see if there’s a gun in it?
Driver: Yes, sir, but there’s no gun in it.  (Sure enough, there was nothing in the glove box.)  Captain: Would you mind opening your trunk? I was told you said there’s a body in it.
Driver: No problem.    (Trunk is opened; no body.)
Captain: I don’t understand it. The officer who stopped you said you told him you didn’t have a license, stole the car, had a gun in the glove box and had a dead body in the trunk.
Driver: Yeah, I’ll bet the liar told you I was speeding, too.[i]

There is so much of the human condition unveiled in this humorous story, but when we realize how close this is to the human condition, the humor is lost.  

Think about 19 year old Colton Harris-Moore, the so called “barefoot bandit”, who for 2 years eluded police after multiple break-ins.   This rant included stealing airplanes and crashing them, until he was finally caught in the Bahamas last week.  The news reports not only talk about the following this young bandit has had on his Facebook internet page, but it also told us about the abuse he suffered from his mother and that he has been stealing since he was 12 years old.  This is one of those stories which reveals how broken humans can become from the inside out.  They said, when the Bahamian police opened fire on this motor boat to shoot out the motor, as they came to the boat the young 19 year old was rolled up on the bottom of the boat in a fetal position.[ii]

The human soul has wonderful potential and possibility to live and be a creative force of life; but our souls can also become confused, broken and lost, even within our own bodies. Knowing both our potential for good or for evil, and our need to keep our own lives on track, wouldn’t be great if we had some type of technology to monitor our spiritual health?  

Right now the FDA has already approved a wireless, water-resistant sensor which you wear like a bandage to provide instant monitoring of a person’s physical health.  Can you imagined your body being monitored constantly by a gadget that reads your heart rate, respiratory rate, bodily fluid levels and your overall activity---whether you are getting enough exercise or not?   Then, can you also imagine all this information being constantly transmitted to a central server for analysis and review by a doctor and then by you as well?  Think of not just one or two, but hundreds and thousands of people wearing such devices so that all kinds of medical situations can be predicted or prevented by early warning signs being sent to your doctor and the medical team that are constantly monitoring your health?   This might sound like Star Trek, but the capabilities of such technology, called PiiX (pie-ex) are already being tested and perfected as the exact algorisms are being generated to provide “predictive” information.   It will be part of the great coming effort to move science from being majorly “reactive” to being primarily “proactive”, preventative and much less expensive as well as more life-saving.[iii]

This “smart-sensor” could be a great advancement for monitoring and maintaining physical health.  It could tell us when we need to exercise more.  What foods or nutrients we need to take in and what foods are killing us.   But what about monitoring our spiritual health?  It’s one thing to kill your body by an unhealthy life-style, but what about killing your soul and dying within, long before you’re dead?  Isn’t it just as tragic to watch people neglecting their spiritual health and not realizing that they are playing with fire?  How many people have become spiritually passive and then one day, without realizing it, they are caught in their own moral and spiritual demise?   Isn’t there some way to monitor our spiritual health and take our spiritual vital signs just as we do for our physical body?

Today’s short story concerning Mary and Martha is a story that can work as a “sensor” for the examination of our spiritual lives.  It is a short story, but it leaves a long impression in the mind and heart.   Who can forget Jesus looking into Martha’s worried and over stressed heart and saying; “there is need of only one thing.” (Luke 10: 42).  Here we already hear an echo of some of Jesus greatest spiritual recommendations for a hurried, harried, distracted life: “Seek first (or strive after, NRSV)  the kingdom of God and all these things will be given to you as well”  (Matt. 6. 33).     

So, with this as our directive, let’s think a few moments, from this story of Martha’s distractions and Mary’s actions, about the most basic elements of a healthy, Christian spirituality which can help us monitor the health of our own souls.    Because it is one thing for the soul and for a church to have a past, but only good health can give hope for a future.   But before I continue, I want to remind you of the well-known slogan the United Methodist Churches uses to advertise their ideals and values.  On the UMC sign you often see these words, “Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Open Doors.”   Long before I ever saw this used by the Methodist I was using the same slogan as the outline for a healthy Church spirituality, replacing the word “open arms” instead of “open doors”.  But it’s all the same perspective, and most importantly, as we are about to see it is the prescription of a healthy spirituality as illustrated in today’s text.

At the “heart” of our Baptist spirituality was once a great slogan I heard much as a child:  “Whosoever Will May Come!”    Much of the greatest moments of our religious past was being a people whose spirituality was focused upon having open arms and open doors to make “room” for others.  

Isn’t this also what was at the “heart” of Jesus’ own spirituality?   The one thing that made Jesus stand out is that he was a man “for others” and this becomes clear in this text as Jesus “makes room” for Mary who “sat at Jesus’ feet.”  (vs. 39).   This one of the powerful moments in Scripture, because at that time, it was illegal for a woman to be “taught” or educated at all.   Even Martha, her sister takes offense to the moment, as Jesus makes room for Mary.

Do you realize that not only the ministry of Jesus but also the ministry and mission of the early church was remarkable, not simply because of what the church was, but because of what the church did.  It made room for sinners, Gentiles, outcasts.   The core of the church’s ministry was about “them” and it was never about “us.”     It was a ministry based upon who could be “included” and not built upon who was “excluded”.   It was built just like the best religion is always built, when it preaches “whosoever will may come.”

Right now, in my study I’ve got three new books I’m trying to have time to read.  They are books about being church with a future.   One of these books has a disturbing but needed title that catches attention.   The book is written by World Vision CEO, Richard Stearns, who claims that in most churches today, “There is a Hole in the Gospel”.  Instead of taking the gospel to the “whole world”, he claims there is a great danger that the gospel we live and preach in our churches has a “hole” in it.   Especially in our evangelical churches, where the emphasis has been on saving souls, Stearns claims we’ve turned the ministry of saving and rescuing souls into a ministry of saving and assuring our own souls.  He claims, we’ve turned saving “faith” into a kind a “kind of spiritual fire insurance” for ourselves rather hearing the gospel as a call to life-saving mission in the world.   Stearns even goes on to suggest that the most 16-29 years old are leaving the church, not because they aren’t spiritual, but because they think the church is out of touch with the real world.  They say, we’ve wrongly directed our ministries to be about what we are “against” rather than directing them toward “who” or “what” we are for.

Whether or not you agree with Richard Stearns and his concern about there being a “hole” in the gospel, there is little doubt that the early church was both spiritually concerned and socially concerned.  Time and time the gospel story and the church’s story is a story of Jesus and the disciples coming in contact with human needs  that were both physical and spiritual.   There was never simply work of spiritual salvation among people unless there was a healing and hope for meeting real human needs, whether it was helping the cripple, feeding the poor, or reaching out to the outcast.   The early church was more about “making room” for others than anything else.  Even as Jesus prepared to leave, he told his own disciples…. In my Father’s house are many rooms…..”   Having and making room was the core of Jesus’ ministry and if we want to be a church with a future, as well as with a past, we too must be about open arms, open doors and making room---for “whosoever” will.

But how can we be a church that “makes room” for others?    There is something else this story can tell us:  More than anything else, Mary wanted to be a disciple of Jesus, but Martha was “worried and distracted” (vs. 41) by so many things.   Here we see the deeper problem Martha has in her own spirituality.  She can’t make room for Mary to be a student of Jesus, because isn’t a student of Jesus herself.   She hasn’t made room in her own heart to spend time with Jesus for herself.   Jesus says the reason is that she is “worried and distracted” by “many things.”

We all know the dangers of “distractions” in this day of cell phones which people carry around with them at all times.   With all this wonderful technology that can so greatly simply our lives, isn’t it amazing how more complicated even less “connected” we can feel we are so “connected” all the time?  A story is told that a guy walks in a roadside rest stop and enters a bathroom stall when he hears a voice saying: “How’s it going?”   Feeling a little strange about having a conversation in a bathroom stall, finally he answer’s “not bad”.   Then, he hears the voice again ask: “How are you doing?”   Realizing this was just a little too weird, he still answers, “Well, I’m going to Colorado”.   The next words he hears are the person saying: “Hey look, I’ll call you back, every time I ask you a question, there’s an idiot in here answering me back.

The real dangers of being “distracted” in today’s world, is not just with technology?   The other day, a saw a news reporter talking about “change blindness”.   They put a woman with a “blind” date in a restaurant, and then after the date excused himself for a moment, another came back to change places, but the change wasn’t even noticed.   They also experimented with men too, and they didn’t notice either.     How could this happen?  It was not only something so “unexpected” the expert declared, but it’s also because our minds are so distracted and being wired so differently in today’s world.   Who we’re with has become much less important that what we have or what we are doing?  

What Jesus says about Mary that is so favorable is that she knew what was the “better part.”  The other day, I had to have an ingrown toe-nail removed and the receptionists at the doctor’s office was so sour, from the very beginning, that I almost recommended to by doctor that he either send her to get some politeness training or he get a new receptionist.  You could just see “uptightness” and “unhappiness” written all over her face and expressed in her tone of speech.     Life is going by her and not doubt, is filled with so many things, but where’s the joy and where’s the skill of social interaction?   The joy is being lost in the lives of so many who are “so distracted” and seem to be missing the “better part”.
Jesus also tells us that Mary knew “the one thing that was needed”.   Do we?   Right now, many churches are trying all kinds of methods to “attract” people to church.   Some churches, especial Mega churches, are spending Mega bucks on all kinds of “technology” to try to draw people in.   I believe we can and should use technology to enhance our witness, but the truth is, that you just can’t manufacture an experience with God on Sunday unless you spend time with God in the week.   No technology, no change in music style or new approach to worship can give you what you don’t have already within.  

This is why is it so important for Martha to learn to deal with the distractions, or she will not get to be with the Jesus she loves.   Her stuff, even all the good stuff she does to serve Jesus, can  get in the way of her own spiritual need, to stop and let Jesus serve her.   And Jesus can only “serve her” when she takes time to slow down and sit down and spend time with Jesus.   It’s not what she is doing in the kitchen with the “pots and pans” that is her distraction, but it is that she has no time to “stop” and be with Jesus.   This is what is “most needed”, not just doing something for Jesus, but the experience of being with Jesus.   Someone has said that once, religion was Moses going up the mountain and reporting to others what it was like to talk to God, but that kind of second-hand spirituality will not work any longer, if it ever did.  The great need of our time, the “better part” is the experience of being on the mountain with God ourselves.   To be “with God” on the mountain, means we must take time to go up to the mountain and make ourselves available to God.

If you want to have a spirituality that keeps you “fed” and keeps you “focused”, then you must  “make room for others” and “spend time with Jesus”, but there’s only one way this will work.    You’ve also got to “have heart”.   Notice one more thing that appears in this revealing story about the spiritual life. 

Did you notice how Martha “welcomes” Jesus to “her house”, then turns to the tasks of being a good hostess, but ends up working in the kitchen with one eye on what she’s doing and the other eye what her sister Mary is doing; sitting at Jesus’ feet?  You can’t be completely sure what gets under Martha’s skin, but you can be sure what she is doing isn’t “whole hearted”.  Is it the work she has chosen that is bothering her, or is it missing out on what Mary has chosen?  While Martha accuses Jesus of not “caring” that she is left with all the work, Jesus reminds Martha that Mary has chosen the “better part” and the text flows as if Martha probably knows this already.    The great spiritual discovery Martha makes, and that we should make too, is that the problem is not what Mary has chosen, but what Martha has not chosen for herself.   And it wasn’t the kitchen work that was any less of a service to Jesus, but Martha’s own complaint proves that her own “heart” was not in what she was doing.  For some reason, she just could not let herself want with her whole heart, what Mary wanted.  

Do you recall the words Jesus spoke the Lawyer just before this encounter??   When Jesus asked the man what the law said about gaining eternal life, the lawyer answered that he was to “love the Lord God with ALL HIS HEART, SOUL AND MIND.  (10:27). Loving God with all her heart is what Mary does, and what Martha must also do.    Martha’s heart must be in it for it to be a work for God.  As Billy Graham once wrote: “Our most basic human problem is only one thing.  Our most basic problem is not a race problem.   Our basic problem is not a poverty problem.  Our basic problem is not a war problem.  Our basic problem is a heart problem.  We need to get the heart changed and transformed” in order to get ourselves going in the right direction.

A story is told of an eminent doctor who successfully saved a sick child.  Realizing the service of this doctor was priceless, she took him ahand-made embroidery which was labored over for many hours.  When the esteemed doctor saw the gift, he quickly responded in a rather sharp tone to the lady: “Presents do not pay bills and keep up families.”  Hearing his cold response, the woman opens up her wallet and pulls out 5 $100 dollar bills.  “What is your fee, she asked.  His response was $200 dollars.   She handed him the money and then departed without a word.[iv]

A world without “heart” is a world where our souls stay unfed and hungry for love and compassion.   But how do we move from “worrying and working” and being distracted by “so many things” to taking time to come together and “sit at the feet of Jesus?”  How can we find the activity that settles our hearts and saves our souls?    In an old Jewish tale, a pupil comes his Rabbi and asks, ”Why does the Torah tell us to “place these words ON our heart not IN our hearts?  The Rabbi answers, “because as we are, our hearts are closed, so we cannot place these holy words IN our hearts, so we must place them ON our hearts.  There they stay until one day, our hearts break and the words fall in.   As the Psalmist wrote, “A broken and contrite heart, God, will not despise.”  When our hearts break, God does spiritual surgery on us, slowly healing our hearts and opening us to feel not only our pain, but the needs of others.   Only broken hearts grow tender to produce soul saving fruit.[v]   

Isn’t this the real goal of Christian spirituality?  All the way back to the great prophet Ezekiel was the hope was that one day God would make his people of “one spirit” and give them a “new Spirit” by taking out the “heart of stone” and putting in a “heart of flesh” (Eze. 36.26).  The way to spiritual health only comes as spiritual transformation of the heart---not simply a change in the head, in the way things are done, but it is a change that must take place from the inside out.  How do we go about this change?  What does this story finally tell us?
Do you remember the classic Billy Crystal movie “City Slickers,” where three long time friends face middle age.   In their middle-age crisis they find themselves losing their focus and in danger of losing their families.
To reignite the fire in their lives, the guys sign up as “cowboys,” helping a dude ranch move its herd of cattle from high in the hills down to the lower valley.  “Curly,” the grizzled old experienced cowboy who leads them, seems to be the toughest, canniest, wisest person they have ever met.  Billy Crystal asks the usually tight-lipped cowpoke what his secret is. What makes his life so strong and centered and sure. Curly smiles, raises his grubby, gloved index finger and proclaims, “It is just one thing,” then he rides away to leave these three guys spending the rest of the movie frantically trying to figure out what Curly meant. What IS that “just one thing?”
Psychologists, marriage counselors, relationship gurus of all stripes, warn us not to expect one person to provide for all our emotional, intellectual, and relational needs. We need a variety of relationships, a network of spouses, friends, colleagues from work, basketball buddies, quilting club comrades, children, elders, and peers, to meet all our relational needs.  But what might be true for our human connections does not hold true for our greatest spiritual need. Our soul needs only “one thing.”  No matter what your denomination. No matter if your spiritual temperament is exuberant, reserved, flamboyant, or meditative. Whether your soul craves cathedrals, or soars under the blue dome, it is all the same as long as we have that “one thing.”[vi]
What is this “one thing” Mary knew,  Martha needed to know and so do we?  It is that our spiritual health as Christians is never dependent on the “next best thing” but will always dependent on the “one thing that is needed.”   This one thing is not a thing, but a who.   It’s like when a child came home from the first day of Sunday School. His parents were curious about how things went, and begin by asking him what the teacher’s name was.
“I don’t know. I don’t remember her name.”
“Well, do you remember anything about her?”
“I think she is Jesus’ grandmother.”
“Why would you think that?”
“Because all she did was hold up His picture and brag on him.”[vii]

When we can say from our deepest heart, “Jesus, you are my One Thing” we have discovered how we keep our spiritual focus.  No matter how much “Martha” work we do in this world, if we neglect the “Mary” thing, we will miss the very words our hearts crave to feel and hear.   Like that other famous Martha: Martha Stewart, we can only be concerned with “how” the  house looks, “how” the food tastes, or “how” the drinks are served.  The problem with this kind of life, is not what you get into, but who and what you never get into and most of all, “who” never gets you.   Jesus is and will always be the sure way we open our hearts to God, open our minds to the truth, and open our arms to the love that matters most.  Amen.

© 2010 All rights reserved Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, B.A., M.Div. D.Min

[i] Homiletics Magazine, July-August 2010, p. 30
[ii] As reported on the Today Show, Monday, July 11, 2010. 38223150/ns/38220044.
[iii] McKeough, Tim.  “A smart sensor.”  Fast Company, December 2009-January 2010, p. 66. 
[iv] From Homiletics Magazine, July 2010, p. 30.
[v] Ibid, p. 28.
[vi] From a sermon by Len Sweet, Christian Globe Networks, from
[vii] Ibid.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

First Show, Then Tell

A sermon preached by Luke 10: 25-37
Charles J. Tomlin
Zion Baptist Church
Homecoming, July 11, 2010

Last year, I read an interesting little book entitled “When the Buddha meets Bubba.”  It’s a very uncommon fiction story written by southern writer Richard “Dixie” Hartwell”.   It tells of a red-neck, whose life is falling apart and who’s Christianity, which he inherited from his parents, wasn’t worth a “plug nickel”.   Bubba’s life is wayward, lost, and going downhill, until he comes upon a little “Buddha” who pops out of a suitcase and begins to teach him ancient spiritual teachings about life, living and loving.   Actually, the spiritual truth which the Buddha teaches Bubba is as much Christian as it is Buddhists.  He teaches him how to forgive, how to treat women and people with respect, and how to find peace for his troubled heart by accepting himself and making peace with people around him.  

But didn’t I just tell you, this is also a “fiction” novel?  

What seems so “fictitious” is not whether or not there are great saving lessons to be learned from ancient spiritual truth, but what seems most fictitious today is a person actually contemplating or considering what needs to be done to “save” their lives.  Who has time to “save” our lives when we have so much to do to live?   Even in the story of fiction, Bubba doesn’t think about saving his life without a lot of arm twisting from The Buddha.

In our text, Jesus has to do some spiritual “arm twisting” too; and this is non-fiction.  For you see, the great story line here is not just how this lawyer comes to Jesus asking about eternal life, but how Jesus teaches him what it means to have God in your life right now. To answer his question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life”, Jesus gives this lawyer a whole new question, not simply an answer. 

Notice how the conversation starts with a rather “casual” question about “inheriting” eternal life, which the lawyer already knows how to answer.   There is already a problem.  Do you see it?   In order to help this lawyer find true healing springs of salvation, Jesus has to move him from thinking he can “inherit” this from his parents, from religion or from what he already knows, and moving him to ask about “who” he should show love to right now.  Have you ever thought about the question “Who is my neighbor?” as the ultimate “saving” question?   Most of us don’t think about our faith this way.  We normally think about faith in regard to what it means for ourselves and how to get to heaven when we die.  So did this lawyer, that is, until Jesus passed by. 

Jesus’ conversation with this lawyer help us rightly define “how” God saves us.  It helps us see how showing love to others is a very important part of the “plan of salvation”.  Most evangelistic tracts don’t include this part, and that’s part of why I don’t like “soul-winning” tracts.  Besides the fact that “tracts” are seldom about the soul and seldom very winning, my main problem is not with what they do say, but it’s because of what they don’t say.  Remember how Jesus’ word to this lawyer is latter echoed in the living church when John asks in his letter: “How can we love God we can’t see, when we don’t love the person we can see?”  (1 Jn. 4:20).  This question of “how” to love the ones we are with is, according to Jesus, not the afterthought of God’s plan, but it is the first and the greatest “saving” question of all.  It means more than all the religious viewpoints, teachings, interpretations and doctrines altogether in the Bible or in the Church. 

But do we get this?  We haven’t always.  Remember how the Catholic Church once condemned people to death for heresy during the inquisitions, but did not realize their murderous approach to enforcing their viewpoints was a worse sin?  Don’t you know how even today, still there are people who will resolve to ‘hate”, even their own brothers and sisters in faith who have differing opinions or understandings of faith.  But if we want eternal life, but we don’t know the truth about loving our neighbor, Jesus says to this lawyer and to us, we’d better think again.

When I was a child growing up in church, I remember one man who almost missed his chance to forgive, show mercy and love.   It was one of those difficult moments every church has, when it gets hard for people to love.  The church needed to make a decision, which some would be for and some would be against.  The decision being made was about the cemetery.  Up to that time, the cemetery was maintained by sand.   The entire cemetery was covered with several inches of sand and had to be constantly maintained by hand weeding and raking.  This was the easiest way it could be done until modern lawn equipment.  But it was being reasoned by some in the church that it was right time to sow grass.  So, since we were a “democratic” church, it had to come to a vote; and as you can imagine, some were for the change, and others were against.

What shocked me was not that my neighbor was one of those “against” the change, but what I could not understand, as a child of the church, was how it made him so angry he decided to he had to leave the church.  I just couldn’t understand how someone could “love” how you should take of the “dead” over loving and trying to get along with the “living”.   We humans, both inside and outside the church, can be and do some really “strange” things when it comes to being loving or neighborly.  We can get our values, our ideas, and our ideals all mixed up and we seldom like to admit that we saw or said it wrong.   Do you ever hear this Lawyer admitting Jesus is right?   What we all know too well, whether we admit it or not, is that it is a lot easier to love the God we can’t see, than it is to love “love” the neighbor we can.   This is especially true when we don’t agree with them or when we don’t believe in what they do.  My neighbor wasn’t a mean, bad person.   He was a sinner, like you and I.    He fell short of the glory of God every day…just like we all do.   What he couldn’t do, however, was love and live with the person and the neighbor, he thought was wrong.  Even if his judgment of the situation was right---that is, even if the cemetery did need to stay sand, he should have valued loving his neighbor for more than getting his way, even if the vote was wrong.

What I don’t want you to think is that my neighbor was a bad person.   Though he decided to go to church somewhere else, he remained in the community and was a good citizen.   Maybe he just couldn’t stomach losing the vote.  I really was too young to know why he did what he did.   But I can tell you what he almost didn’t do.  He almost didn’t come to realize, until much later in his life, that learning how to love and live with his neighbor (even at church) could be as much the right “saving” response for his life as saying he loved God.   After our neighbor left the church, years went by and I missed having my neighbor at church.  But one day, many, many years later, after I had grown up and moved away, I heard from my parents that my neighbor finally came back.  For some reason, and I never asked him, he decided to come home and back to the church to be with the people who were his neighbors and was suppose to love. 

Understanding that way to “eternal life” to be a path that leads toward our neighbor as much as it leads to God was big step of growth for this lawyer, as it could be some of for us.   But we still haven’t even yet arrived at the main course of this conversation.   Before I get to the answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?”, I want to know how important this question has come for us.  

Put yourself into the historical context of Jesus’ conversation with this lawyer.   This lawyer was not just another lawyer.  He was a religious scribe.  In that world, there was no separation of church and state.  The law the lawyer was supposed to know was God’s law, but he had missed the point of it.   He wanted eternal life, but he was still unsure about loving his neighbor.  

As you think back to that lawyer, think also about Jesus.  Jesus was not just a teacher or savior, but scholars remind us that Jesus was an “apocalyptic” prophet.  The end of the world was coming.  For Jesus this meant his impending death on the cross.  For this Jewish lawyer and scribe, this meant within 40 years of Jesus’ discussion, there would be no nation left.   The Romans would come and destroy Jerusalem and most everything would be gone.   There would be no law, no community of faith, and no life left at all; nothing, unless something eternal could rise up out of the dust.

When you think about eternal life, not just of the individual, but the future of a community of or people of faith, do you ever think about the future of the church?  I first started to entitle my message for homecoming: “Saving Zion”.   I would have been referring to Zion as Jerusalem and the hope of Jesus that God’s Zion would be able to rise up out of the death, destruction, and dust that was coming.   I believe Jesus wanted to save Zion so that it could one day rise up with a new kind of religious life and love; a love not just for God which could easily be faked, but even more  so, having a love for their neighbors, which cannot be so easily faked.   But how this story Jesus tells would save Zion could have a double meaning.  I want us to look straight into this story to see what it can say about our own future, as both individuals and as a church.  
The story Jesus told this lawyer begins with an unknown person having a very unfortunate, life-threatening moment, anyone can have.   He was beaten and robbed.  The Jericho road was known to be a dangerous, risky road, just like life is also dangerous and risky.  Life cannot only kill, one day it will kill us, all of us.   You don’t have to take a trip to the Holy Land down the dangerous Jericho Road to understand the road this unknown traveler was on.  It is the road we all travel.  Some fortunate ones get through without much trouble, but for others, without giving us any explanation, evil can open up and try to swallow you whole.   That is the given of this story as it is the “given” of life.

The next part of the story, may or may not be surprising to us in the church.    As we watch both of these religious leaders walk by this hurting person lying on the side of the road, we can already know who Jesus is talking about.  They are part of the religion that is about to meeting people only with judgment or worse, neglect.   Theirs is the kind of religion that is about themselves, their own salvation, the salvation of their own people, but it is the kind of religion that has no real future.

Finally, we come to the most surprising part of the story.   The person who actually stops to care for this injured person is not who this lawyer would have expected.   He is a Samaritan.  A Samaritan is not only a half-breed Arab, but they also have their own differing place of worship and they have their own differing translation of the Law.   They are the people whom this Lawyer would say do not have eternal life.   They may think they serve the same God, but this lawyer, who knows his Bible begs to differ.  He thinks they don’t have a clue who God is and no matter what they do it doesn’t give them salvation.  

Jesus has a very differing view of this outsider called a Samaritan.   Jesus believes that this Samaritan has more of God than this Jewish lawyer.   In a turn of a events, it is this Samaritan who has salvation and this Jewish lawyer who does not.  It is this Jewish lawyer who need to learn the way of salvation from the Samaritan, and not the Samaritan who needs to learn from the Jew.

Can the world, know more about “eternal life” than even the church.  Sounds really strange, but I believe Jesus would answer “yes!”  When even the world, the Samaritans, the Buddhists, the Hindus, or the Muslims or even the secularist, knows how to love the neighbor they Jesus says we should go and “do likewise” if we want eternal life.   When the church doesn’t know how to love its neighbors and only knows how to pass judgment or pass by on the other side; then the world ends up closer to Jesus than we do.

Do you know what I think this story of the good Samaritan can teach us, not just about being the church, but about saving the church for ministry in God’s future?  I think it is tells us that we want to live, if we want this church to survive, and if we want even our own faith to mean something, then we too must understand how we too, must learn from this Samaritan, who very much like Jesus, “when he saw him (injured on the road), he had compassion.  So he went to him.” (vs. 33).  And do you see what else, speaking of real evangelism; this Samaritan did not go to this guy and try to win a convert or meet a soul-winning quote, but he went to the person to meet him in his hurt.  What Jesus wants us to see very clearly and not overlook is that even the person who loves like Jesus is with Jesus, even when he doesn’t know he’s with Jesus.  But this lawyer who might think he’s with Jesus, is far, far away from gaining eternal life.

If those who love like Jesus share in the future with Jesus, what does this story say to us, the church who really wants to continue to be God’s church and who want to minister to this world of sin, hurt, pain and tragedy in the name of Jesus?  I started out this sermon speaking about the difference the right question can make in getting the right answer.  I also spoke how in our text, Jesus had to figuratively twist this lawyer’s arm to get him focused on the kind love that saves; not just love for God, but also love for neighbor.  Now, I want to conclude about another little word that can make all the difference in the world. 

In a very important book about the future of the church, entitled, “The Eternally Focused Quest: Becoming the Best Church FOR the Community, the authors, Rick Swanson and Rick Rusaw, open the book with some challenging words to the church and he comments, as this text has shown us, that “one good question changes things.  Let me give you the full quote:
“Christian magazines love publishing lists of the best churches---“The 100 Largest Churches,”  “The  50 most Innovative Churches,” “The 50 Faster-Growing Churches,” and so on.  Some pastors whose churches make these coveted lists often frame and hang these outcomes to display to the world that they are doing a good job.  But what if “largest,” “most innovative,” and ‘fastest-growing” were the wrong measures?  Is there something else we could be working toward?
            One good question changes things.  One great question has the power to change a life, a church, a community and potentially the world….   [Once our] big, provocative question was “If your church were to close its doors, would anyone notice---would anyone in the community (outside the church) care?”….  Jesus was a master of asking great questions….How we answer such questions shapes our lives and our futures.
            We’ve discovered that questions are malleable and that rearranging a word here or there can result in a totally different answer.  “Pastor, may I smoke while I’m praying?”  “No!”  “Pastor, while I’m smoking, is it OK to pray?”  “Why that would be a wonderful idea!”  Changing the beneficiary of a question is a power way to transform a question into a quest.  As Martin Luther King Jr., noted, the question that the Good Samaritan asked was not “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?”  but “If I DO NOT stop to help this man, what will happen to him”   A powerful question has implications for life…..
            Most churches, blatantly or subtly, have an unspoken objective----How can we be the ‘best church in our community?”---and they staff, budget and plan accordingly.  How a church answers that question determines its entire approach to its members, staff, prayers, finances, time, technology and facilities.  Becoming an eternally focused church is not about becoming the best church in the community.  The eternally focused asks, “How can we be the best church FOR our community?”  That little preposition changes everything….”  (From “The Externally Focused Quest: Becoming the Best Church FOR the Community,  by Eric Swanson and Rick Rusaw, Jossey-Bass, 2010, p. 2).

One way we could actually begin to act on this strategy is to think about how the ministry of Jesus was basically a ministry of mercy and how this is what Jesus recommended for this lawyer to do, when Jesus told him, “go and do likewise.”   How can we become a church that focuses more on the needs in the world than our own needs?   

One church took on this ministry of mercy in a very simple way.   Healing Place Church in Baton Rouge, LA is not a place to play church….   They do something God specifically commanded the church to do each Thursday.  They feed close to 70 widows in this small, very poor community where the average income is $8,900.   When the widows can’t come to eat at the church they go house to house and give them their meal as they pray for them.   These are people the world has forgotten, but this church proves that God hasn’t…. A whole lot of ministry and life took place in that church, which gives everybody love and hope for a future in God.   This church listened to Jesus’ words and said to themselves, “Mercy is God’s attitude and action toward people in distress.”   Their qualification for our ministry to them is not worthiness, but distress, not merited favor, but undeserved favor and grace.  

Mercy is also what the Good Samaritan did when he saw the man, had compassion, went to him and bandaged up his wounds and took him to a place to rest and covered the cost, without any strings attached; pure mercy.  Jesus tells this lawyer and us, “to go, and do likewise”.  Jesus does not say, go and think likewise, go and believe likewise, but he says “go and DO likewise.”  If we become an externally focused church, doing what Jesus did, I believe we can become a church with the promise of eternity for the future.  

All the way back in the Old Testament, the great prophet Micah does not say “God wants us to go out and tell people about fairness and justice, and mercy, but Micah says, “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God.”  Did you notice that with the prophets, as also with Jesus, how we do justice and mercy comes before walking with God.  It does not come before because it is more important, but because doing justice and loving mercy is what it means to walk with God.   That’s why I titled this message, “First show, then tell.”   If we want to be a church with a future, we are must show who we are, being compassionate in Christ, before we can ever think about telling who Jesus is. 

So how we do take hold of the future?  We don’t.  If the Samaritan had asked how to survive or how to guarantee his future, he’d done nothing.   It was all too risky and dangerous.  But the Samaritan took great risk and paid great costs to show mercy.  This was his ministry and Jesus wants us to know this is his ministry too.  Will you take this moment to think about “how we will love our neighbor by being the best church FOR our community?”   I believe this is the best way to celebrate not only the history of Zion church, but also to continue to work toward our future in ministry with  Jesus Christ who is offers all people to partake in his eternal life.  Amen.  

© 2010 All rights reserved Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, B.A., M.Div. D.Min

Sunday, July 4, 2010

What you can do for America!

A sermon based upon Luke 10: 1-11, 16-20            
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Independence Day, July 4th, 2010

Jesus and politicians have a lot in common.  

I know this sounds a bit weird.  We normally think of politics as being dirty, deceitful, full of trickery and sometimes stretching the truth, or out-right lying.    Sometimes it is.  On the other hand, we most often think of Jesus as being honest-to-God, full of grace and truth, and helpful to people in every way.  Besides, we normally say that politics and religion just don’t mix; like oil and water.   How could Jesus have anything in common with politicians?

Our text today shows us something when Jesus preaches the good news about the kingdom.  When politicians get elected they normally promise us a better world.   Remember how the late president Ronald Regan once asked that infamous question: “Are you better off now, than you were 4 years ago?”   The first time the people answered “no” and elected Regan as the 40th president of the United States.   The second time Regan asked that question was four years later and the people then answered “yes”, re-electing him to four more years.  

In this one way faith, by promising something better, politics and religion do mix.  But what we also know is that what our hope for the “best” comes in very different ways.  Once a little girl asked her mother, “Do fairy tales always begin, “Once upon a time?”   The mother responded, “No dear.  Sometimes fairy tales begin, “If I am elected…”   Ouch!   None of us want to think about our deepest hopes and faith in Jesus as being reduced to an “if” or becoming a “fairy tale” dream of a mere political promise. 

Here in our text, Jesus is sending out 70 of his choice disciples into the towns announcing that a better world is being made possible, by saying things like, “The harvest is plentiful” (vs. 2) and “The kingdom of God has come near.” (vs. 9).  That kind of talk sounds really good!   But is it as good as it sounds?   Was this hope for a better world also too good to be true?    This is really a relevant sort of question on this day we are celebrating our Independence as a nation.  Sometimes the promises and hopes are not realized as we once believed they would be.         

Think about politics first.   In many ways our nation was founded upon hope and promises of new opportunities that new opportunities of freedom can bring.   While there were probably as many people coming to America for reasons of political and financial freedom as for religious reasons, it is true that when our forefathers “brought forth this new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”, they were also living toward the hope that liberty would give us a better life than possible before.  Not a few of those early Americans settlers were people of faith, even using religious language to say that America has been given the unique chance to be a “holy nation” or “a chosen people” who must shine their light, not keeping it under a bushel basket, but becoming a “shining city on a hill” or a “beacon of light” beaming the light of freedom around the world. 

This is certainly a lot of good, promising and hopeful talk.   It’s the kind of “talk” that makes all of us “proud” to be Americans who still have freedom and have good reasons to celebrate.  But sometimes, as we all know especially now, it is hard for many Americans to celebrate their freedom.   Today, many Americans are facing struggles that freedom has also invited to table of celebration, perhaps unwittingly, but these problems are present.   Especially in these hard economic times of continued recession and joblessness, especially when some reputable people are saying that we are fighting a “losing battle” in Afghanistan, and especially when all our spirits are doused by all the oil gushing into the gulf, both our freedom and many hopes seem to be in trouble.   Many feel just like those brown pelicans who have oil on their wings and will die, unless something is done to rescue them.   

Now think about faith.  As I read first read our Bible lesson for today, I got to thinking about not only what Jesus was promising (like a politician)  about the hope of “harvest” or about the “kingdom of God coming near”, I also observed what Jesus, unlike a politician, told us some about some of the things that few politicians will admit.   Jesus not only told them that the “harvest is plentiful”, but he also told them that “the laborers are few”.   He not only told them to pray and “ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers”, but he also warned them “I’m sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves”.   Finally, Jesus not only told them to “enter a town…saying the kingdom of God has come near…” but he also told them “if they do not welcome you” to move on, “wipe the dust off of your feet in protest”, and then he says something hard to bear:  if people don’t seize the promise, or if they abuse the chance they’ve been given, this hope can turn to  tragedy and it will even be more “tolerable for Sodom than for that town” (vs. 12). 

Certainly this might be the kind of judgmental “disaster” some people are feeling these days.  Some have put all their hopes and dreams of prosperity in the fishing business or in the tourist business on the gulf coast,  so that with all the oil gushing, with fishing grounds closing and with more and more holiday seekers staying away, it seems it would have better to have trusted something else.   The same goes for the economic hopes or monetary harvest in our nation right now.  People have bought homes, sometimes big and sometimes small and cannot afford to keep them.   People have depended upon having a certain job but those jobs have dried up and we are now experiencing what experts call a “jobless recovery”.   (How can anybody recover without a job?)   You can see and feel the pain all around on this July 4th, and for many Americans, it is getting harder to have something to celebrate.   At least for some in America on this July 4th, as it did for some in this text, the kingdom coming near can mean trouble coming, instead of hope.      

Many of us might be wondering too, whether or not, in today’s economic, political and even religious climate, can the “harvest” ever be plentiful again?   Just a few days ago, it was reported ( that one charter boat Captain in the gulf, named “Rookie” Kruse, did not think so.   When he realized that his charter boat business would never be the same and that he would have to charter his boat for BP, he decided to take his own life.   Locals say he wasn’t any more aggravated at what was happening than the rest.   The mayor of that beach town said people are breaking down in his office every day.  But what seems to have pushed “Rookie” over the edge, according to some reports from family and others, was when he realized his own independence and livelihood as a businessman was being taken away, he felt his life was too much “like  prison”.   This was not the kind of situation that “Rookie” was willing to endure.   It was suggested that “Rookie” did not like having to go to work for BP or for anybody, but he only seemed to be willing to work for himself.   If he couldn’t do that, he decided he wouldn’t do anything and that is when he decided to end his life.   

How can the kingdom come, when we are only willing to work only for our own private dreams?   How can freedom be maintained, when we get caught up in only what we want for ourselves?   The possibility or the problem of the harvest, whether it is the harvest of freedom we are thinking about today, or whether it is the harvest of God’s kingdom, is not the greatest problem.   According to Jesus, the greatest challenge we face is not “can” this or that be done, but the most critical question always is “who will do it?”   Remember the question as it once came to Isaiah: “Who will go for us?”  That question is always in need of being answered in every generation.   The hope of harvest is never the main issue, but the main issue is who will do the work?      

All of us who live out in the country or on farms, know what happens to the harvest that does not have enough workers or equipment to gathered it in.    Even when the harvest is good, or especially when the harvest is good, if you don’t go out into the field to gather it, or you don’t have enough harvesters to go out and harvest it, even the best of harvest will end up rotting in the field.   So, the point Jesus seems to be making right at the beginning of this text is about the laborers.   Even Jesus cannot gather it all in himself, but he needs laborers to help.   I was once the pastor of a church, or maybe I should say, I’ve been the pastor of many churches, where people can get excited what “should” be done, or even energized to come and talk about what is going “wrong,” but the truth is, that kind of desire to know rather than to be willing to do is exactly the problem.   Too many want to be chiefs of opinion without  taking responsibility for anything, and too few are willing to be an Indian who does at least one thing.   The success of the harvest mostly depends upon the willingness of workers to work.   

Since this is the 4th of July, let’s especially consider this need for “workers” when it comes to politics and patriotism for a moment.   We can think of people going out to parades, to shoot firecrackers, or to enjoy a Hamburger and a Coke.   But what America needs from us as both as citizens and as Christians is people who will also take the time to relearn, reconsider or regain what it means to be “workers” and “laborers” for freedom and for the hope we have and want to keep.    When I conducted Minnie Ruth’s Brown funeral last spring, some of the family told me how she and others, came to church each Wednesday evenings to pray for the soldiers who went off to war.  We are in a war today that has proven harder and longer, but where are the laborers in prayer who realize the need to pray?  

In the same way, we can see all kinds of issues, problems or even politics some of us would like to see change, but instead of getting involved, learning or working constructively to help make changes, too many are content to have opinions, sit on the sidelines, and complain about how bad and ugly politics have become.  Just like it was in Jesus’ day, it is still so easy to make a person, even a person trying to do good in the world a “scape goat” for everything, saying that if we get rid of this or that person, then all our problems will be solved.   You and I know that they got rid of Jesus around 33 AD, and by 70 AD Jerusalem was burned to the ground by the Romans.   The problem wasn’t Jesus, just like the problems today is not just leaders and politicians.  The problem has to do with having too many who want to enjoy freedom and too few who want to do hard work of freedom. 

So, my concern today, from reading this text, is how can we learn to be part of the solution instead of being just another part of the problem.   In other words, what can we as Christians and as a Church do for America in these difficult days?  How can we be not only people who have been blessed to participate in the “harvest” of freedom, but how can we now become laborers in our freedom to help the harvest  continue to be reaped and gathered in the future?  

PACK YOUR HEART, NOT YOUR SUITCASE (vs. 3-4).  Right in the middle of this passage, Jesus gives specific instructions on how to be disciples on a mission.  His words are applicable for preparing for most any kind of social or spiritual work in the world.   Look at how his words begin in verse 3.  “Go own your way….”, he says, as if you are to begin where you are, but then it begins to get, not just demanding, but even scary.  Jesus says, “See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves….”  Don’t expect it to be easy, and if that’s not enough, he doesn’t tell you and I to take shot guns, rifles, knives or ammo, but he says, “carry no purse, no bag, no extra sandals and don’t greet anyone on the road.”  Take nothing with you and don’t stop even to say Hi!    Are you interested?  You are not to take any protection of any sort.   Besides, even though you are surrounded by threats, you are to have no back up plans and no extra supplies.   They tell you to have more than this ready in case you have a storm at home; like flashlights, batteries and such, but Jesus is talking about going out without  much of anything; no preparation, no protection and no provision, except for what is in your heart. 

Maybe this is the most important thing when you are working for freedom or working at anything, is not what you have with you, what tools, what equipment, but it is what you have in your heart, and the sense of vision or mission you have.   I use to see this mistake made on all kinds of mission trips.   I’d tell the volunteers, don’t over pack, you’ve got to carry all that stuff around.  They’d never realize what they can do without.   They’d never understand how the train leaving the station won’t wait on all your stuff.  They failed to realize that the success to their mission did not rest on what was in their bags, but what is in their hearts.  

DON”T INSIST ON HAVING THINGS YOUR WAY  (vs. 5-7).  Besides getting your heart right, when you are working for good and for God, be ready, be flexible and ready to try something new or you’ll miss the whole point of why you were born with nothing and you leave this world with nothing.   Jesus says, when you get where you are going, trust the good will of others, and more than this, he says you completely trust in their hospitality, their choice of food, and their choice of sleeping quarters.    When someone invites you in, you don’t rush, you stay!  You don’t go away when you feel like it.  You don’t visit on your terms, but on their terms.  Then, he says, if there is food offered, you eat what you are given.  You don’t complain nor do you ask for something else.   “Remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide” (vs. 7).  Even more than this, you are to let other people’s agenda be your agenda, as we are to look for the sick person and offer prayers for them.   Don’t just suggest they seek a doctor, but also pray with them.  Seek out their needs and meet them.  Go for them, not just for you. 

DON”T TAKE IT PERSONAL  (vs. 8-11)  Then, besides all this, Jesus says the really big thing that we all worry about when we try to do something good in the world.  What if they don’t like you, don’t welcome you, or if they complain about what you are trying to do?   There is always somebody who will reject what you’re offering, even when you do it out of love.   What do you do when people you worry about people criticizing you?  Jesus says, basically, don’t take it personal.   It’s really not about them rejecting you, but its about them rejecting what’s right, what’s good, or about them rejecting Jesus.  Remember his words: “Whoever rejects you, rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me?   Can you see that as a necessary part of the laboring for good?    If you take everything personal, you won’t do anything, and nothing will get done, for God or for freedom.

Several months ago, I learn that the greatest fear most people have, that keeps them from trying new things, or from even doing the right things, or anything, is the fear of looking stupid.   It used to be that the greatest fear in America was the fear of public speaking.   I think this “fear of looking stupid” is on to something important.   When you are going to be on mission for good, whether it be for the kingdom or for freedom, you’ve got to be willing to risk looking stupid.  If you remember, the Bible says that God is so smart, he’s not afraid of looking stupid, because he uses the “foolish things” of the world to shame or confound the wise…(1 Cor. 1.27).  This means God can use all of us.  Having all the smarts, nor even always having the “know how” is not the main problem.   The main problem will always be “want to.” 

When the first American colonist stood up against “Great” Britain, the main issue was not “not how” or “smarts.”  Great Britain was “great” could have beat us by any count.  Those early colonist were not bigger nor better prepared.  What they had was heart.   They were willing not to focus on what they had to have, but what they had to do.   They were willing to sacrifice comfort for the bigger cause.  More than anything else, it wasn’t about proving ourselves right to the world, but it was about doing the right thing, even about making the world right, and if we risked looking foolish to the rest of the world.    We declared our Independence because of what was in our hearts, not what was in our hands. 

Perhaps the zeal of a being a on a “mission” for freedom is what’s missing today.   We are much more worried these days about what we have with us or on us than what we have in our hearts.   We also are more worried getting our own way than about sharing the pain of the world.  Our minds have been far too much upon how good we look, or how good we feel than on what good we must all do to get the job done.  How can we recapture our place of mission in the world, for God’s coming kingdom and for freedom?

Len Sweet once began a sermon with a question:  “Who is our newest parent here this morning?"  He went on to talk about the baby: "This little baby is embarking on a journey. And it’s an awesome journey to be a part of. All new parents here - is there anything as exciting as watching your baby go from a snuggly little lump you cradle in your arms to a roller, then a crawler, then a “cruiser,” and finally a walker?  Babies seem absolutely driven to get on their feet. No matter how many times they tumble and topple, crash and burn, bump and bruise, babies in the “cruiser” stage keep letting go with their hands and start moving their feet. Standing upright, walking and running with a straight back and straight legs — those are the marks of the human being. It is this posture that sets us apart from all other living creatures on earth.  Or is it?"

"There is another position that reveals even more about the uniqueness of being human. Standing up defines our most remarkable physical gift. Kneeling down reveals our most miraculous spiritual gift.  If you’re a disciple of Jesus, to move up, move down. The future is on our knees. The future is knee-deep. The future is bottoms up. We don’t know when we’re stretching on our tip-toes. We know on our knees. The depths are knee-deep. And we’re weak in the knees . . . . .Repeat after me: insects crawl [response: insects crawl]; fish swim [response: fish swim]; birds fly [response: birds fly]; humans pray [response: humans pray].  Praying, with body, heart, mind, and soul, is the hallmark of humanity. So why is it that although we spend just one year learning how to stand on our own two feet, it can take us a lifetime to learn how to get back down on our knees?   Almost all churches used to hold weekly “prayer meetings” — a time set aside, not for a sermon, not for singing, not for announcements, but a time just for contemplation and prayer. A time to be down on our knees, head bowed, heart open, listening for the “still, small voice” and sometimes hearing the thunder roll.
What kind of “meetings” do we hold now?  We’ve given up our “prayer meetings” for planning meetings and committee meetings: strategic planning meetings, long-range-planning meetings, curriculum meetings, worship planning meetings, budget meetings, mission and outreach meetings.  In the traditional Quaker “meeting,” prayer time was silent — each soul a quietly opened door, each spirit tuned to a frequency that didn’t register in the human ear.   In other traditions prayer time is when “the thunder rolls.” During prayer time in Korean churches, called tongsong kido, the thousands of gathered worshipers pray simultaneously out loud — but not the same prayer. The sound of all those voices, all those prayers, flowing out into the sanctuary seem to physically fill the air with prayer. In those congregations the prayer you breathe out will not be the same prayer you breathe back in. Respiration brings transformation."

Finally, Sweet remarks:  "Maybe the church today needs a conversion . . . a conversion to prayer.   Maybe that would be the greatest “thing” we can do for freedom and for America.   Here in the US, we’ve tried to become every other kind of church imaginable — a planning church, a seeker-sensitive church, a purpose-driven church, an organic church, an Emergent church, an National Church Development church, a house church, a missional church. Isn’t it time we got off our feet and back down on our knees and became first and foremost, a praying church?  What was it that made Jesus so angry, at least angry enough to throw a Temple tantrum? We turned God’s house into everything else but what? “My house shall be a house of prayer!” (Mark 11:17; Luke 19:46).

Then Dr. Sweet asked the most relevant question for us today:  "Has anyone ever told you, “You are an answer to prayer!”  As a kid, his wife, Elizabeth, was required to visit a great-great aunt who lived nearby, every Sunday evening.  Their family would send with her a plate of cookies or some other treat. In return Auntie would always exclaim, “Oh, aren’t you just an answer to prayer.”   Elizabeth says she didn’t feel like an answer to any prayer. She felt like an impatient kid, still sweaty from playing ball in the yard, and wanting to get back to it as soon as possible. But for this shut-in, ninety year old Auntie, Elizabeth was, in all her imperfection, an answer to prayer. “I now know that her prayer was not for cookies. Her prayer was for family, for fellowship, for the touch of love and compassion to come into her life.”

All of us in attendance here today are an answer to an ancient prayer. That prayer is two thousand years old. It was a prayer uttered and answered in today’s gospel lesson. In that ancient prayer Jesus prayed that his Father would send him workers to “help bring in the harvest:”   The prayer is:  “The harvest is plentiful, but he laborers are few, therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest (Luke 10:2).   (From a Sermon entitled “In Prayer’s Way”, by Len Sweet, in  Leonard Sweet Commentary, Leonard Sweet, ChristianGlobe Networks, Inc., 2010).   

Are you willing to be the answers to a laborer for freedom and for the kingdom by being the answer to someone’s pray?  The kingdom of God only comes near, when we draw near to God.   The work of freedom only gets done, when we are willing to do our part.   What kind of answer are you?  Amen.

 © 2010 All rights reserved Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, B.A., M.Div. D.Min