“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). This is one of the most radical statements that Jesus ever made. Within it is the revelation of not only Christian but also Jewish morality. I read something similar from Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel, who said Torah was always meant to be a gift for the sake of humanity’s flourishing rather than a burden for the sake of entertaining God’s capricious fancy. But in evangelical Christian culture today, it’s as if Jesus never said these words. Because we measure our spiritual credibility according to how toughly we talk about sin, we are invested in making morality burdensome. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were the same way in their zeal for the self-justification they gained through the burden of the homage they paid God. What made Jesus’ Sabbath healing so offensive to the Pharisees was not merely His violation of Jewish law but the way that He called out their morality based on conspicuous gestures of “honoring” God by exuding a morality that really did honor God through its compassion for human need. Continue reading
When Christian Smith and Melinda Denton coined the phrase “moralistic therapeutic deism” in 2005, it described the way that many Christian teenagers have grown up with fuzzy theology in which God is basically nice and he just wants people to be nice and happy. Since that time, MTD has become a catch-all slur to use against any theology which doesn’t make God sufficiently strange or mean. The way to prove that you haven’t succumbed to MTD is to interpret the Bible in a way that celebrates the opacity of inexplicably arbitrary divine commands, because if God’s law is entirely benevolent and concerned with human happiness, then it must be a secular humanist projection. But Jesus creates a problem for this Biblical interpretive strategy when he says, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Continue reading
Deadly Sins Sermon Series, 2 out of 7 — 10/23/2010
Text: Matthew 25:14-30
Some of you might be aware that the country of France is in the midst of major protests because the government has proposed to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62. This has been an interesting backdrop for contemplating a sermon on sloth, the deadly sin of the week. Part of me wants to start singing Les Miserables. But another part of me wants to say to the French, “Are you serious? You have a 35-hour workweek with eight weeks a year of vacation! What are you retiring from? Where I’m from, we work 80 hours a week and we’re adding more and more hours every year.”
So maybe I need to go over to France to preach about sloth. How do I preach about it here in Northern Virginia? Are there actually any lazy people living in Fairfax County? I haven’t found them yet. This is one of the busiest places in America. The first challenge of preaching a sermon on laziness in northern Virginia is that, if anything, it seems like our problem is the opposite of laziness.
The other difficulty for me in wrestling with “sloth” is that I’ve been through periods of my life in which depression and anxiety caused me to be completely unproductive. I had days in which I would go into the office and literally stare at the screen all day. From the outside, I’m sure that I looked lazy; on the inside, I was acutely aware of what a failure I was. If I had gone to church during that time and heard a preacher say that lazy people need to “suck it up” and take responsibility for their lives, I’m not sure I would know what to do with that advice other than beat myself up even more and become even less productive.
At first glance, the message of Jesus’ parable of the talents seems to be that we do need to suck it up and throw ourselves full-throttle into the hypercompetitive world we live in. It’s like Apprentice. The go-getter servant who takes Donald Trump’s 5 talents and makes 5 more gets put in charge of bigger things – maybe a real estate company, a casino. But the servant who melts down because he’s scared and doesn’t know what to do gets kicked to the curb. If God handed me a million dollars (which is what a talent might amount to in modern day cash), I wouldn’t know the first thing to do with it. So is this parable saying that people who are insecure and doubt themselves better get over it if we want to be competitive applicants for the kingdom of heaven?
In a way, yes, but in a more important way, no. Our insecurity and self-doubt can be a crippling roadblock that keeps us out of communion with God, but the way around this roadblock is not something we can resolve by deciding to do so. One of the basic problems with how the modern world understands sin, and sloth in particular, is that we assume morality is mostly about decisions when it’s really about habits. We assume the way to avoid sin is simply to resolve in our minds not to do it and be strong enough to stick to our word. Since the time of the Enlightenment, when Rene Descartes said his famous maxim, “I think, therefore I am,” humans have put way too much faith in the power of our own minds.
The world is full of seemingly harmless clichés that follow this line of thinking, like “If you set your mind to it, you can do anything.” Sloth happens when we take advice like this seriously only to find out it’s a lie, when we discover the desperate truth of human reality Paul describes in Romans 7: “I want to do what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” The basic problem of our sinfulness is the impossible gap between what we know we ought to do and what we really end up doing. Sloth means giving up the hope that I will ever be who God wants me to be, which is understandable if I assume that I’m in this struggle all by myself.
The bad news is that sloth is not a decision but a habit, and bad habits are about as easy to get out of as quicksand; they require more than just resolving in our minds to change; we must engage in a patient, continual battle that is pretty well impossible to fight on our own. With sloth, I think about the battles of the kitchen sink and the laundry pile; it’s so hard to gain the discipline to wash the dishes right after we eat or put the laundry away right after it’s dry; and these are the least of our bad habits.
But the good news is that we aren’t on our own. Jesus is patiently waiting for us to acknowledge His hand reaching out to us in the quicksand of our bad habits. Twelve step programs are effective in dealing with bad habits because they dispel with the myth that our minds are all powerful. What are the first three steps of every twelve-step program? 1) Acknowledging that we are powerless over our problem. 2) Believing that a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity. 3) Turning our wills and our lives over to God’s care. The way out of sloth and every other sin for that matter is to get rid of the motto of modern life – I think, therefore I am – which places so much responsibility and faith in the power of my mind, and replace it with a new one: I trust, therefore I am, in which my basis for being is the faith that Jesus can change me in ways I never could change myself.
If we say, I trust, therefore I am, that means accepting the gift of freedom that God has given us by turning our wills and our lives over to His care. Sloth properly understood is rejecting this gift and burying it in the ground, which doesn’t necessarily mean that I stay in bed all day. There’s plenty of ways to bury the call and gifts that God has given me. Throwing myself into my career and working hard enough that I’m too busy for God is a form of sloth. Going through the motions of church life without being attentive to my need for spiritual growth is a form of sloth. Trying to prove my worth as a pastor by launching new ministries and giving eighty hours a week to church work so that I no longer really have time to listen to God is no less slothful than lying on a couch in a Sluggie covered in beer and potato chips.
This is because sloth doesn’t have to do with the failure to make our lives busy; sloth is the failure to trust God enough to give our lives to Him and let Him set our agendas. All the worldly life accomplishments we could imagine – being made CEO, a full partner, a full professor; having successful, well-adjusted children; building a company from a shoe-string budget into a giant multinational corporation – all of these accomplishments are worth about as much to God as a couch potato’s loud belch when we are completely uninterested in following God’s will for our lives, when we do what we do to prove that we’re worth something rather than receive our worth from being part of Christ’s body and then give our lives to the advancement of God’s kingdom.
Too often, under the pressures of life, we settle for the mediocre goal of living in such a way so that nobody has any claim on us. This means working hard enough in school to keep my parents off my case, getting a decent job so I’m not mooching off anybody else, staying out of other peoples’ business, and, of course, making sure my lawn is cut on a regular basis (at least in the front). It is this approach to life that is embodied by the servant burying God’s money so that he can give it back to God intact. Thanks but no thanks, God; I prefer mediocrity to the scary prospect of trusting you to develop my gifts and use me in ways that I never would have imagined. I’d rather have a simple, basically good, inoffensive life in which I’m in charge.
What Jesus is warning us about in this parable is that even living cautious and inoffensive lives if we’re uninterested in God’s plans for us and the world can keep us out of the joy of God’s eternal presence. Jesus doesn’t want us to live with the regret of not using the gifts that God has given us. Such a life is an outer darkness of weeping and gnashing of teeth, despite whatever mask of busy-ness or worldly success we wear. As St. Augustine once wrote, “our hearts are restless till they find their rest in God.” And that is the final truth about sloth: there is nothing restful about it. What is truly restful is allowing God to order our lives into a rhythm of worship; true Sabbath rest is an embrace of complete trust in God that is the opposite of sloth and in fact the antidote to sloth.
Truly un-slothful people don’t come across as being busy, because they have given their time to God, which gives them a peace that underlies whatever level of activity their lives contain. I’m not there yet, but with God’s grace I’m going to keep on trying. Let’s not be the people whose anxious response to God’s call for our lives is to bury His gift in the mud and busy ourselves with other things. Let us be the people who trust that God will fulfill His purpose in our lives, so that, following His lead, we will have the surprising joy of harvesting fruit that we never thought we could grow: new talents to add to the ones that He first gave us.
Sermon for 7/17/2010
Text: Luke 10:38-42
Martha! Martha! It sounds kind of like “Marcia! Marcia! Marcia!” How many of you are old enough to have seen that famous episode of the Brady Brunch? Jan Brady is tired of people praising her perfect older sister Marcia so finally she just explodes. I didn’t see the original; I saw the parody on Saturday Night Live in the early nineties. In the story of Mary and Martha, we have another case of sibling rivalry. But in this case, it’s the perfectionist Martha who’s mad at her good-for-nothing sister Mary lounging around at Jesus’ feet when there’s work to be done.
So who gets to be Mary? And who gets stuck being Martha? I’m very good at playing the part of Mary. Last year, I was the stay-at-home parent in our house while my wife was a hospital chaplain who had to work a 24-hour shift at least once a month and sometimes once a week. I pretty much let the house go, because I figured the house is Martha’s job. Now I was a volunteer youth pastor at the same time and part of my ministry was to make Christian hip-hop music for my youth, so when our house got too chaotic, I would go on a “spiritual retreat” by putting on my headphones and shutting everything else out except for my music (which was about Jesus so it was like sitting at Jesus’ feet). I was really good at being Mary.
This year, our roles are officially reversed so I’m tempted to be even more of a Mary than before. Unpacking the house? Martha’s got it. Health insurance forms? I’ll let Martha cover that. I can delegate all my parenting tasks, such as poopie-diapers and bedtime, to Martha. Oh and I always say thank you.
I’m good at making time for myself to keep a good spiritual balance. I go to the gym every morning and take a sauna with God. On my day off this past Monday, I went and sat by Burke Lake with a spiritual devotion book. The last thing I want to do when I’m off from work is get stuck with honey-do lists or be stranded in a room full of boxes with two little boys who are capable of rapidly dismantling any and all forms of established order. Because if I spend all my free time helping to get the house set up, I’ll be stressed out and it’ll make me a lousy pastor.
I’m good at being Mary. And what’s great is that any time my wife has needs that conflict with my spiritual balance, I can look at this passage and realize that she’s just being like Martha: “Jesus, can you tell Morgan that he needs to pick up after himself, not to mention be a father and a husband?” “Cheryl, Cheryl, you worry too much; Morgan has chosen the right thing and it will not be taken from him.”
I could go on with my sarcasm for a lot longer; my point is this: just like most other passages in the Bible, we tend to read Mary and Martha’s story to our own advantage. Whichever character Jesus praises – that’s me. Whoever Jesus rebukes – those are the people who judge me and misunderstand me. We tend to oversimplify Jesus’ conflict resolution, as though He’s taking one side entirely and dissing the other side. Just because Jesus says what Martha needs to hear for her spiritual edification doesn’t mean that Martha is 100% wrong and Mary is 100% right. They were probably at different points in their spiritual journey and thus needed to hear different things from Jesus. Mary needed affirmation; Martha needed to be challenged.
When I really think about it, I’m not like Mary at all; I’m just a more dysfunctional version of Martha. Martha’s problem is not that she’s a detail-oriented person who takes care of all the unglamorous work that nobody ever thanks her for doing. The text says that Martha’s mind is “distracted”; in the original Greek, the word is periespato, which means getting yanked in every direction at the same time. If the difference between Martha and Mary is that Martha’s distracted while Mary’s focused on the “one good thing,” then I’m certainly not Mary.
Now some of you men out there are probably thinking what’s this guy doing comparing himself to two women. Isn’t this a story about women? I’m sure we’d like to take ourselves off the hook, but anybody can be Martha, men and women alike, whether we work at home or outside the home. All it takes is getting so overextended and yanked in every direction that we don’t think we have time for Jesus, much less our family. Mary was focused on making Jesus feel welcome in her home and she was willing to waste time with him so that he would feel at home. Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes a little child in His name welcomes me.” And so when I refuse to waste time with my sons, by playing with trains and doing things that don’t seem important, I am refusing to welcome Jesus.
But who can be Mary in a Martha world of busy-ness? Life in the information age is like being caught in a giant wave pool at one of those water theme parks. I’m yanked around by the waves of to-do lists and paperwork just like Martha was. The difference between me and Martha is this: while Martha tries her best to surf through that wave pool, I don’t even bother. I climb out on the side and find things to criticize about everyone who’s fighting the waves.
What I can’t stand is seeing people who’ve got both sides covered. They’re up-to-date on their taxes; and they’re excellent conversationalists at parties. They’ve got their kids enrolled in all the right extracurricular activities; and they’re reading Henri Nouwen books on the sidelines. They keep their houses like museums; and they go to fun places with their families every single weekend. Maybe such people don’t exist in real life; but they sure do in my head. And it makes me so mad that I can’t seem to get anything done and my Martha pile never seems to get any smaller. So I go looking for holes I can poke and things I can criticize about people whose lives seem perfect from the outside.
Let me share some of my Martha pile with you. I want for this room to be packed out with people every Saturday night, who all know how much God loves them and express their gratitude by worshiping God with all our hearts, minds, and souls. I want this to be a place where people who are as cynical as I was in college will hear something or feel something that makes them give God a second chance. I want to have a banging young adult ministry that reaches a hard to reach population with the right formula of fun outings, intellectually stimulating activities, and Biblically-sound discipleship. I want for this church to be like the Jerusalem church in Acts 2 where everyone gets what they needed and shares all that they can. I want for us to be so opened to the power of the Holy Spirit that we take to the streets to share the gospel with the world.
It feels good to say all that, but I don’t have any earthly idea where to begin and what the steps are for getting where we need to go. So I get short-tempered and huffy like Martha when she was rushing around getting the house together for Jesus. Or I find “spiritually-edifying” books to read instead of getting started on the nitty-gritty detail work from which I am so easily distracted. I’m good at being Mary on the outside to hide the Martha in my brain. And the whole time, Jesus is trying to cut through the whirlwind of my thoughts in a still, small voice: “Morgan, Morgan; you’re worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.”
What is this one thing Jesus is talking about? I don’t think he’s giving us permission not to wash the dishes as long as we sit on the couch and read the Bible instead. There’s a place for taking Sabbath and resting, but Jesus’ one thing has to do with our attitude about what we do rather than a single action we’re supposed to take. The one thing that should motivate all of our actions is our love for God and by extension our love for the people God cares about.
The Old Testament story about Abraham hosting the three angels offers a good contrast to Jesus’ visit with Mary and Martha. From the time that his visitors arrive, Abraham focuses his attention on one thing: making them feel welcome. He gives them water to clean off from the road and kills off his choicest cattle to prepare a feast for them. Abraham is able to pull off being both Mary and Martha at the same time (largely because he has a crew of servants helping him out). Now few of us are going to have a team of people working in our houses like Abraham had. But there’s work to be done and there’s going to be a division of labor, which includes not only getting the floors clean but also entertaining our company.
Our challenge is to do what we do out of love for God as though every day is a day when Jesus is a guest in our homes. We need to remember this love whether we’re frustrated with our spouse for slacking off or we’re tempted to slack off ourselves. Because Jesus is with us, we don’t need to get bent out of shape about our inadequacies and start looking for someone else to blame. With Jesus’ help, we can put one foot in front of the other and do what needs to get done, which in my case means facing the boxes that we still haven’t unpacked from our move. Trusting Jesus means I don’t run away from the detail work. What I do is what Paul says to do. I go to the Cross, taking all the built-up guilt from time that I’ve wasted in the past and all the fear that I’m never going to get everything done; I throw off these things that hinder me and the sin that so easily entangles and run with perseverance the race that’s marked for me to run.
Jesus has a plan for me; He’s got a plan for you; He’s got a plan for this church; and we don’t have to know that plan right now. I don’t have to get my head swimming with ideas like Martha that make me testy and short-tempered and unable to move forward. What I need to do is trust Jesus with the big picture and take one piece of the puzzle at a time. It’s not going to be perfect; it’s not even going to be efficient. I will make a thousand mistakes that teach a thousand lessons. But the good news is this: God’s going to win and He had the mercy and compassion to use even a scatter-brained guy like me for one small piece of His victory.
So whether we’re busy or lazy, whether we’re detail-oriented or big-picture people, let’s admit that we all lose focus sometimes; let’s do the thankless chores that we need to do in gratitude for the grace of Jesus Christ that makes it okay to be Martha.