A Sermon for October 16, 2011, Luke 10:38-42, 18:15-17 & I Peter 4:8-11
I have to confess that I’m a bit tired and worn out today. I’ve been quite busy over the last three weeks. First, I accompanied 15 adults on an 8-day mission trip to Haiti. I put in a fairly good week at the office, doing various youth and mission-related work and then the next weekend, a Middle School Youth Group adviser and I took 8 youth to the Presbytery’s Middle School Retreat at the Calvin Center, about an hour and a half south of Duluth. In the middle of the retreat, I got a call from Elizabeth saying that she and Katie both had pretty bad colds so I contacted another Youth Group adviser who cancelled his Saturday afternoon lake trip to come and take my place while I rushed home to tend to my girls. The following week, the most recent one, was again full of various tasks to check off the list, including the planning of today’s worship service. Then, this past weekend, Anna Brown and I co-lead a session of the Youth Ministry Leadership Initiative at Columbia Theological Seminary for 11 Christian Educators, Youth Directors and Leaders from various parts of the South. And finally, I came home at 3 pm yesterday to write the sermon I’m preaching to you now…and the pace I’m afraid is not going to let up for at least two more days. Even if the church work slows down a bit, I’ve still got family and home responsibilities that include a 6-month-old high energy black lab and a equally high-energy precocious 3-year-old.
The busyness I’ve been experiencing reminded me of one of my favorite TV shows of all time, The Andy Griffith Show, and a particular episode from the fourth season, which aired in 1963, entitled “The Sermon For Today.” The episode opens with the townsfolk of Mayberry North Carolina, singing a hymn during worship:
After the sermon, Andy, Opie, Aunt Bea, Barney and Gomer head to the Taylor residence for a big lunch and then head out to the front porch to relax. Andy and Barney lazily decide to “run” down to the store and pick-up some ice cream for later while Gomer says he is going to casually “run” over to his cousin Goober’s house to watch him wash his car. The word “run” sets off Aunt Bea who reiterates the importance of the preacher’s message about slowing down and not being in a rush.
So everyone sits back down…but only for a couple of minutes because they immediately come up with the idea that they should put on a band concert in the town square that evening, just like the preacher suggested! Sure the band hasn’t played together in years, and the uniforms need patching up and the gazebo requires some serious carpentry repairs, but that can’t stop them from doing something that will, at least from their perspective, be ultimately relaxing!
The results of their efforts, however, are a complete and utter disaster. The citizens of Mayberry waste an otherwise leisurely afternoon rushing all over town to complete an impossible to-do-list that ultimately results in more stress and frustration. After several hours, they abandon the project and return to the front porch they never should have left in the first place. Exhausted, Andy and the gang realize that in their attempt to heed the preacher’s words, they missed the point entirely. They allowed their hearts to be distracted from being calmly present with one another.
But of course, that’s the way things were in Southern towns in the early 60s. More than half a century later, we’re not nearly as busy as those folks who skip breakfast, quickly scan a news headline and dash off to the office, working from morning to night. With all the technology we have at our fingertips, life is more efficient and easier to manage. …right?
Heh …well, not so much.
To be completely honest, we’re busier now than any other point in the history of time. Technology and progress for all the good it does has made us more stressed, more frustrated, more anxious, more hurried and more inclined to go, go, go, and do, do, do, and fix, fix, fix… in every aspect of our life! Job. Family. Friendships. Hobbies. And yes, even Church.
We as Americans have a tendency to think that missions and serving others is ideally reflected in our completion of physical labor or applying a tangible solution to a complex problem. And while developing a project or building something tactile to help the poor and suffering is done with the best and most loving of intentions, at the same time, it also can be—more often than not—an act of stroking one’s ego:
“Hey, take look at this bathroom/bench/classroom/house we’ve built that is going to make a difference in someone’s life!”
Maybe this tendency we have to want to show off what we’ve accomplished for someone else is because we’ve gotten the concept of “giving and receiving” all wrong for too, too long. Samir Selmanovic, a Christian pastor in New York, explains it this way:
Ever since I became a Christian, I have been taught to give. That’s what I was told over and over again, and it’s what I taught others as a pastor, all the time… We call each other to minister to others, and that ministry always means serving others, caring for their needs, teaching them what they need to know. Giving, giving, giving to them. Blessing, blessing, blessing them. Loving, loving, loving them.
Since we have been teaching and acting in our Christian churches to love others and to organize our lives to love others how curious, I thought, that polls report that non-Christians perceive Christians as not loving! How can that possibly be?
After adopting a practice of regularly stepping out of my evangelical religion and its meanings to look at them from the outside, here is what I have noticed. By and large, we don’t really love because we don’t know how to receive. We may love enough to take some help others have to offer in terms of material possessions, compliments and friendships, but we are not willing to let them teach us anything about God, goodness and grace—the stuff that really matters.
Yes, we receive their kindness in a spirit of thankfulness, but in matters of God, we think they have nothing to add in our search for the eternal kind of life. In our minds, we are givers and they are receivers. And this is not just true of Christians.
We give because givers are in control. We bless because blessers are in charge. To receive on the other hand, means to lose something. Gifts inevitably change relationships. As the Eskimos say hyperbolically, ‘Gifts make slaves.” The recipient is usually perceived as the weaker party in the transaction and can become obligated and lose independence. Giving, in contrast, keeps us in control, subtly communicating the superiority of our worldview. 
Now, we don’t intentionally mean to keep control of a situation through our giving. Many of us truly want to lead a life of humility and not ever seem as if we are delicately expressing to the recipients of our gifts that our worldview and way of giving is unsurpassed. But what we know to be true doesn’t always match up with what we actually do, as Henri Nouwen, the renowned author on Christian spirituality, eloquently puts it:
More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them. It is a privilege to have the time and freedom to practice this simply ministry of presence. Still, it is not as simple as it seems. My own desire to be useful, to do something significant, or to be part of some impressive project is so strong that soon my own time is taken up by meetings, conferences, study groups, and workshops that prevent me from walking the streets. It is difficult not to have plans…not to feel that you are working directly for social change. But I wonder more and more if the first thing should be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories, and to tell your own, and to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them, but truly love them.
That’s Jesus’ message for us in the two stories from Luke’s Gospel—be in the presence of God, and don’t allow your hearts to be distracted by anything else. You see, Martha is not doing anything inherently wrong by cleaning and straightening and cooking. Martha doesn’t despise the work. On the contrary, she quite enjoys it. And she is merely following Jewish customs by making the home a hospitable place for the visiting rabbi. But she has allowed her to-do list and her frustration with Mary to distract her heart from the presence of God.
In similar fashion, the disciples don’t mean to scold the parents and their children. They don’t despise the parents for bringing their toddlers to sit in Jesus’ lap. They are trying to protect their rabbi from being mobbed by a crowd of people. And they might be pondering the to-do-list of pastoral visits, teaching and preaching engagements, healings and making meals for the poor. The disciples aren’t inherently doing anything wrong. But they allow their anxiety over the busy ministry schedule and their need for control to distract their heart from the presence of God. Worse, the disciples try to keep others from God’s presence.
Jesus reminds Martha that her sister Mary has chosen the most important thing and that is to be present in Christ—the unconditional and merciful love of God. And Jesus tells the disciples that the little children shouldn’t be prevented from being with him for it is the children “that the kingdom of God belongs.” Jesus says to each and every one throughout time and space: Receive me. Receive God’s free gift of grace. Receive the kingdom. Selmanovic reminds us that:
It is in the act of receiving that we concede God’s presence in the other. … Sharing of the good news is first and foremost a process of receiving the good news not as a once-in-a-lifetime event but as a way of life. We are to approach others by saying, “What I don’t know about God, goodness, and grace, this person might.” … By receiving a blessing from the other, we become partners with God. Each time we receive, we complete one circle of blessing that God began with them. It is by receiving that we give.
What if ministry is not mostly about the particular work or things we make or do? What if it’s not solely about us making quick Band-Aid fixes or attempting to make permanent changes to the system? What if it’s not just about being nice so we can feel good about ourselves before moving onto the next scheduled activity? What if it’s more about building loving relationships with the disenfranchised through laughter, play, conversation, comfort and prayer? What if it’s more about setting aside our own goals, agendas and to-do lists, and immersing ourselves in another culture and story? What if it’s more about receiving blessings that will shape our faith in ways we could never imagine?
In the context of church life at Pleasant Hill Presbyterian, what if it’s simply about:
- gathering at the table to receive communion with family, friends and strangers or worshipping together in this space
- playing games and talking about faith with the youth
- sitting by the bedside of a loved one who is ill
- listening to another church member share memories from their childhood
- embracing someone who is sobbing in pain over a broken relationship
- getting to know the Family Promise guests who are finishing up their week-long stay in the church
- having breakfast and fellowship on an early Friday morning with the men of the church
- laughing and swapping stories with some of the women of the church, including two refugees from Burma, while sewing more than 200 blankets or “lovies” for children at an orphanage in Haiti
In the context of the mission trip in Haiti, what if it’s simply about:
- holding an orphan baby longing for human touch.
- deferring to the wisdom of the Haitian church leaders on how best to feed a hungry and restless crowd of 300 children.
- watching an 8-year-old girl share a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a friend.
- twirling a giggling 2-year-old boy around in the air.
- listening to a young man share his hopes for the future once he completes his academic work
- witnessing and sharing the stories of Haitians and American transplants whose soul purpose is to stay in the country the remainder of their lives, working for social justice and change.
What if it’s all about practicing the ministry of presence—of just being with God? Joyfully. Humbly. Lovingly. With. God. What if it’s about receiving God in our lives like the children receive the love of Christ and the kingdom of God in Luke’s Gospel. What if it’s about simply living “out of the joy and generosity of our goodness,” as retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu beautifully notes:
When we slide across the threshold from living our goodness to “doing good” in order to “be good,” we work in the mistaken conviction that what we are doing will enable us to merit God’s love or that it will, perhaps, increase God’s love for us. But God already loves us perfectly. There is not task we must complete to earn God’s love. God already loves us perfectly; God cannot love us one iota more.
In a letter to Jewish-Christians living in exile in Asia and other parts of the globe, the apostle Peter frames it this way: Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received…so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ.
To be good stewards, we must humbly receive the gift of love that God has given us. To value and nurture what we’ve received means we must fully be in relationship with God and others. Before we make our financial pledge to the church for Stewardship Season or make a missional pledge to sign up at the Time & Talent Fair (both important acts of faithful discipleship), we must not let ourselves get distracted by the work we are doing…but instead focus our hearts on what God has done, is doing and will continue to do for all of humanity.
To verb our faith, as the Stewardship Committee creatively refers to the Time & Talent Fair, we must first and foremost be in God’s presence. To receive the kingdom, we must remember we are children of God who are called first and foremost to be in the love of Christ that has, is and will always be our reason for living.
Nothing more. Nothing less.
 “The Sermon For Today” from The Andy Griffith Show, Season 4, Paramount Pictures, 1963.
 It’s Really All About God: Reflections of a Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian, by Samir Selmanovic, Jossey-Bass Publishing, 2009.
 Gracias: A Latin American Journey, by Henri Nouwen, Orbit Books, 1993.
 It’s Really All About God by Samir Selmanovic.
 Made For Goodness and Why This Makes All The Difference, by Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu, HarperCollins Publishers, 2010.