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Archive for July, 2010

Faith brings Risk

I am preaching on Hebrews 11: 1-3, 8-16 this Sunday in which the author recalls the story of Abraham and Sarah who faithfully follow God into an unknown place, an unknown people, and an unknown way of life.  About this incredibly huge and difficult move the text simply says, “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going.” This is one of those stories that requires us to use our imagination and read between the lines.  Because such a move, such a leap of faith on Abraham and Sarah’s part, could not have been as simple and as easy as the text makes it sound.

In fact, I imagine Abraham and Sarah really struggled with their decision.  Do we follow God into the unknown? Or do we stay here on this land that we have always known?  Do we step out in faith?  Or do we stay here where we have been happy and comfortable and secure?  Is it worth the risk?  Is God worth the risk?

I imagine the decision plagued Abraham and Sarah and consumed their thoughts.  I imagine Abraham getting up in the morning and going through his morning routine, washing his hair, brushing his teeth, combing his beard and then having to repeat the whole process over again because he was so distracted that he couldn’t remember whether he had actually washed his hair, brushed his teeth, and combed his beard.  I imagine Abraham driving his goats home after a days worth of shepherding, his head full of thoughts…..and then missing his exit—he just wasn’t thinking, he was so distracted—

and now he has to take the long way home.  I imagine Sarah up in the middle of the night in a fit of insomnia over the whole thing.  I imagine her folding the clothes and cleaning their home in the wee hours of the morning and then feeling just bone tired when the new day finally arrives.  I imagine the struggle.  I imagine the angst.  I imagine how Abraham and Sarah must have discussed God’s call, foremost in their thoughts, every time they were together.

Yet in the end they decided to take the risk.  This is why they deserve to be hailed as heroes of the faith in the book of Hebrews.  They took the risk and they stepped out in faith in spite of their fear, their discomfort, and their doubt.

Faith brings risk.  Faith means following God into the unknown without a signed contract or any legal proof that says all your needs will be met.  Faith means following God on the basis of a promise; a promise that God will be God, no matter what happens.  And that, no matter what happens, God will be with you.  So is it worth it?  Is God worth it?  Will you take the risk?

May the words of my mouth, the meditations of my mind, and the feelings of my heart, be acceptable to you, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.  Amen.

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Sunblock?

One of the reasons why being a parent of young children is so exhausting is because you always have to be paying attention.  This afternoon over a lunch of hot dogs and mashed potatoes our 3-year-old son said to me, “Mommy, I’m putting on my sun block so I won’t get a sunburn.”  “Mmm Hmm, that’s nice honey,” I said paying more attention to my lunch than to what he was actually saying.  Then he said it again.  “Mommy, I’m putting on my sun block so I won’t get a sunburn.”  This time I heard him because I could tell by his tone that he was practically begging me to pay attention, begging me to look.  So I looked.  He had smeared ketchup all over his face, legs, and neck – the part of him most likely to burn in the sun.

Paying attention really is important in life.  If you don’t pay attention you might miss something terrible—like your son smearing ketchup all over himself.  If you don’t pay attention you also might miss something wonderful—like your son smearing ketchup all over himself.

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Distracted by Many Things–Luke 10: 38-42

It felt great to get back into the pulpit after two weeks of vacation.  Although it is a bear to write a sermon week in and week out, I miss the rhythm of it when I am away.  I miss the spiritual rhythm and practice of giving Jesus my full attention.  What follows is the sermon from the 16th Sunday of Ordinary Time.

“Distracted by Many Things”

Luke 10: 38-42

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

July 18th, 2010

Imagine with me, if you will, that your spouse has just run into Jesus at the local Piggly Wiggly and invited him to your house for dinner tonight.  Knowing that this is a big deal, Jesus coming for dinner and all, your spouse appropriately calls you on the way home to give you a heads up.

Hi, honey, guess who I ran into at the store?  It was our old friend Jesus.  He was passing through town on his way to install an air conditioner unit in a friend’s mobile home.  I think he just needed a cold drink before heading out into this heat.  And well, anyways, we got to talking and I remembered what a great guy he is…so I just invited him over for dinner tonight.  Hope that’s okay with you.  He really seemed to appreciate the invitation.  What’s that? What time is he coming?  Oh…I guess around 6 or so.

You check your watch….it’s a quarter to 5.  Jesus will be in your home, sitting at your dining room table, eating your food, drinking your wine, and making conversation with your family in a little over an hour.

So what do you do?  How do you prepare?  How will you host the Savior of the world?

Would you run around frantically cleaning and shoving clutter into drawers and under beds?   Would you suddenly notice all the spots on your glassware and all the stains on your rugs that certainly aren’t good enough for the King of Kings and Lord of Lords?  And as you are cleaning and worrying and wondering if your home will be good enough, would you start to wonder if you are good enough to host Jesus?  So would you go in search of that 1 Corinthians 13 cross-stitch someone gave your for your wedding and hang it in a prominent place?  Would you dust off the old family bible and leave it casually opened on your coffee table?  Would you pull out all the crafts your kids made at VBS and arrange them as if they were still prized possessions?  Would you go through your home and pitch all your trendy magazines and all your romance novels and replace them with devotionals, and prayer cards, and maybe even something heavier…like the Book of Confessions?  What would you do if Jesus was coming to your place in a little over an hour?

Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part.

Lots of people have struggled with this story from the Gospel of Luke.  It doesn’t seem fair of Jesus to take Mary’s side who has left Martha to do all the work.   It doesn’t seem fair of Jesus to ignore all of the hard work that hospitality requires.  I mean, c’mon Jesus, somebody has to cook the dinner, and set the table, and wash the dishes.  Somebody has to make sure the house is presentable, and the kids’ faces are clean, and the dog has been put out.  If Martha had ignored her many tasks, if Martha had wiled all of her time away sitting at Jesus’ feet like Mary, then Jesus would have gone home hungry.  And–as all you folks trained in Southern hospitality know– you never let your guest go home hungry.

So why is Jesus so hard on Martha?  Why does he say that Mary has chosen the better part?  The story that precedes this is Jesus telling the lawyer that he needs to go and do good, just like the Good Samaritan has done good.  Aren’t we supposed to be doers of the Word?  Aren’t we supposed to be people of action?  So why has Mary done better here?

Hospitality was very important in Jesus’ day.  So I believe that Jesus appreciated all of Martha’s hard work, I believe he appreciated what it takes to make someone feel truly welcome.  But in Martha’s welcome, in Martha’s hospitality, there was one crucial missing ingredient.  She did do lots of things.  But in all her doing, in all her busyness, and distractedness, and worrying, Martha didn’t pay attention to her guest.  A warm meal and a comfortable place to rest are wonderful but true hospitality means giving someone your full attention.

I’m sure we have all entered a conversation with someone who, after the conversation has started, you realize that that person is not all there.  That her mind is elsewhere, that she is distracted and that she is only pretending to be interested in you and in what you have to say.  Remember those conversations?  They don’t feel good, do they?  They don’t leave you feeling appreciated, or respected, or welcomed.  And that’s because they are inhospitable.  True hospitality means giving someone your full attention.  And this is what Martha failed to offer Jesus.

Which is odd seeing as Martha certainly would have understood the rules of hospitality. She too was living in a society and a culture where hospitality was of the utmost importance.  So why did Martha ignore her guest?  Why did she allow herself to get so distracted?  Why was she only half-listening when Jesus spoke?

Well, I think part of the answer lies in Martha’s own fear.  Jesus was sitting and talking to Mary in what was obviously a very intimate conversation.  Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet listening intently to everything her Savior was saying.  And Jesus, no doubt, was also directing all his attention to this beautiful woman at his feet, to this beautiful woman who had not only welcomed him into her home, but also into her mind and into her heart and into her life.  Mary and Jesus were fully wrapped up into one another.  And this, I believe, frightened Martha.  It frightened her to get that close to Jesus.  It frightened her to have all of Jesus’ attention fall on her.  It frightened her to be known by Jesus in such an intimate, close conversation, because Martha knew that she wasn’t good enough for Jesus.  So she avoided him.  She distracted herself from the whole situation.  She worried herself over the food that she was serving and over the house that she could never get clean enough.  She fussed over little things like the 1 Corinthians 13 cross-stitch that just never would hang straight and the bibles that always looked so dusty and unread.

Small talk is an interesting thing.  We make small talk when we don’t have the energy, or the time, or the interest in making ‘big’ talk….or real talk….I’d prefer to say.  Real talk delves deep.  Real talk allows us to really get to know each other.  Real talk brings us close.  Oftentimes I believe our spiritual lives and our relationship with Jesus amounts to a bunch of small talk.  We go to church, but our minds are sometimes elsewhere.  We offer up prayers to God, but we are only half-listening.  We do the right thing and we live good lives, but we don’t let Jesus come too close.  We don’t sit at Jesus’ feet and offer him our full attention.  Why? Well perhaps because we know that we aren’t good enough for Jesus either. And perhaps because we’re afraid that once Jesus gets a load of who we really are, once Jesus trains his attention on the real me, then he won’t be interested in coming around anymore.  So we avoid Jesus.  We distract ourselves and we worry ourselves with many things.

And the truth of the matter is that our fears are justified because we aren’t good enough for Jesus. We aren’t.  But Jesus comes anyway.  Jesus comes and gives us his full attention.  Jesus comes to us and welcomes us and offers us his hospitality, because even though we aren’t good enough he loves us anyway and he wants more from us than just a bunch of small talk.

I think the other reason why Martha didn’t offer Jesus her full attention was because Martha didn’t trust that Jesus really had anything for her.  Sure she’d heard all the stories of healings, and exorcisms, and miracles.  But what could Jesus do for her?  What could he possibly offer her?

We might think Martha is crazy for thinking this.  It would be crazy to think that a man whom you actually knew could heal people and perform miracles had nothing to offer you.  But she must have doubted.  She must have lacked in faith, or else she would have paid more attention to Jesus.

I shouldn’t be too hard on Martha, though, because I / we too often don’t trust or believe that Jesus has much to offer us either.  Sure, Jesus is great and all, but he isn’t a magician.  He can’t make all our troubles go away.  He can’t pay our bills or find us that great job or keep bad people away from our children.  Jesus can’t do all the paperwork that has piled up on my desk.  Jesus can’t get rid of that boss that I hate. Jesus can’t fix my relationship with my spouse or my friend.  Jesus can’t make my painful arthritis go away or bring back my loved one whose loss I am grieving terribly.  Jesus doesn’t have much to offer me.  Jesus doesn’t have what I really need.  So I give him some of my attention.  I mean he certainly deserves some of my attention.  But I don’t give him my full attention.

But, again, Jesus gives us his.  Jesus gives us his full attention.  Because apparently he has something he wants to give us that we’re just not getting.  Apparently he has something to give us that he thinks is worth our time and our attention.

Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.

Yes, Jesus is not a magician.  Yes, Jesus can’t solve all of our problems.  But by sitting at Jesus’ feet and offering him our full attention we will choose what is better.  We will choose what is better than all that is worrying us and distracting us.  We will choose what is better than all of our fears and all of our small talk.  We will choose what is better than all of our grief, and all of our pain, and all of our hell on earth.  By sitting at Jesus’ feet and offering him our full attention we will choose what is better.  Because by sitting at Jesus’ feet we sit in the presence of a peace that passes all understanding, we sit and receive words of truth and words of challenge said with care, we sit and focus not on the things of the world but on the things from above, we sit and receive an understanding of our own significance, we sit and receive a vision of hope, not of despair.  When we sit at Jesus’ feet and offer him our full attention we choose that which is better.  And according to God’s Word to us today, that which is better, that which Jesus offers, will not be taken away from us.

Now to the God of all that is better be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.

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Distracted by Many Things

I am preaching on the Gospel text from Luke this Sunday.  It’s the story of Jesus visiting Mary and Martha.  Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and listens.  Martha runs around the house, busying herself with many tasks, until Jesus finally says, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Imagine Jesus has just been invited to your home for dinner on short notice.  Take a look around.  Are you ready for Jesus?  Or would you make some changes?  Would you run around frantically cleaning and shoving clutter into drawers and closets?   Would you suddenly notice all the spots on your glassware and all the stains on your rugs that certainly aren’t good enough for the King of Kings and Lord of Lords?  And as you are cleaning and worrying and wondering if your home will be good enough, would you start to wonder if you are good enough to host Jesus?  So would you go in search of that 1 Corinthians 13 cross-stitch someone gave your for your wedding and hang it in a prominent place where Jesus might notice?  Would you dust off the old family bible and leave it casually opened on your coffee table?  Would you pull out all the crafts your kids made at VBS and arrange them as if they were still prized possessions?  Would you go through your home and pitch all your trendy magazines and all your romance novels and replace them with devotionals, and prayer cards, and maybe even something heavier…like the Book of Confessions?

What would you do if Jesus was coming to your home, to your private space, to your personal haven?  Could you let go of all worry and simply sit at Jesus’ feet?  Or would you be distracted by many things?

May the words of my mouth, the meditations of my mind, and the feelings of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.  Amen.

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Pacifists Will Die

Just a quick quote from Dan Dombrowski’s Christian Pacifism: “Pacifists are well aware of the fact that we will die, a fact that is tragic if we die too early or in a gruesome way, but they gain some small solace in knowing that they will not kill.  This solace makes all the moral difference in the word, however.”[1]


[1] Daniel A. Dombrowski, Christian Pacifism, p. 124.

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