Dirty Dishes, Bilbo Baggins and Slow Club

The following is a sermon preached on July 21, 2013 based on Luke 10:38-42.  I haven’t spent much energy editing it from my original manuscript, so please forgive any typos.

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So, Ash and I have two kids.  Arianna is turning 3 in November, and Zach is almost 5 months.  As you may know, life with little kids at home can be a bit chaotic, at times. 

On Wednesday, Arianna was picking her nose at the dinner table, and after repeatedly telling her to stop, I pulled her hand away.  Her reaction was to pull her arm back to her nose at a very high speed, and in the process knocked over her chocolate milk, spilling it everywhere.

“Oh man, my chocolate milk!”  she exclaimed, fighting back tears.  And then she looked at me and said, “Daddy, clean it up.”

This was all happening while Ash was changing Zach’s diaper, who apparently has a rash because a certain parent didn’t dry him well enough after a bath or two.  I mean, who knew you had to pull apart all those baby fat creases and dry in there?

So needless to say, our house is usually a healthy dose of complete chaos.  There are usually toys and spit rags everywhere, Arianna likes to use the broom on the windows, Sophie the giraffe is constantly missing, and that’s not to mention the times Arianna feels the need to assert her independence by going to the bathroom all by herself.

So, one day, I was alone with the kids, doing my awesome daddy thing.  Ash came home to the usual amount of chaos caused by the kids, but in addition, there may or may not have been a kitchen full of dirty dishes, a dishwasher full of clean dishes (that could have been put away hours ago), garbage cans filled with diapers that may have needed taken out, the daily newspaper strewn over the table that could have been put into the recycling, and a bunch of clothes in a pile in our room that probably been put into the laundry. 

Ash came home, saw the complete chaos, and started cleaning up.  I was really videos with the kids, having a good time, laughing it up, and after a while Ash exclaimed:  “Don’t you care that I have to clean this all up myself!  Help me!”

To which I replied, “Ashley, Ashley.  You are worried about many things, but few things are needed – or indeed, only one.  I’ve chosen what’s better, and don’t take this away from me.”

And then I spent the rest of the week sleeping on the couch.

Parts of the above story are true, and parts aren’t.  I’ll let you guess which parts are which.

At first reading, this story of Martha and Mary is ridiculous.  Like, really, anybody who has lived with roommates knows that the crux of the relationships depends entirely upon washing the dishes.  You just have to pull your weight.  One time, my brother was living in a townhouse with some other guys while they were studying, and one guy didn’t do the dishes.  So the other 3 got so upset, that they put all the dirty pots in his bed.  The roommates response to this not so passive aggressive move was to simply put the dirty pots back on the counter, unwashed.  Needless to say, that didn’t go over so well.

So what’s with Jesus here, taking the side of the lazy roommate? 

The key word here is “distracted.”  The Greek word, if you care, is periespato, which has the connotation of being pulled or dragged in different directions.

I think, that while we all understand how important doing the dishes is, we also understand what it feels like to be pulled in too many directions. 

Or, to quote Bilbo Baggins from Lord of the Rings, as he was telling Gandalf how he was feeling… “I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”

 Part of it is that our jobs demand so much of us.  Part of it is these silly smart phones we have that mean we’re always connected to someone, somewhere.  Part of it is keeping up with Jones’.  Part of it is that we don’t want to be missing out on anything.  Part of it is that we don’t want to deprive our kids of anything or any experience, so we enlist them in as many sports and music lessons and camps as we can.  Part of it is that we are richer than we have ever been in history, and that extra money means more toys and bigger homes and more cars and more vacation options.  Part of it is that we rarely take time to stop and rest.  Even I mow my lawn on Sundays…

Regardless of why, I think Jesus telling Martha that she is like butter scraped over too much bread resonates with most of us. 

So… what do we do?

Jesus doesn’t actually say.  He says that a few things are needed, or indeed only one, and that Mary has chosen it, but what these things are, or thing is, is left up to the reader.

Well, I’m going to suggest one thing, which may not be that far off…

I think Jesus is telling Martha to be present in the moment. That her eyes be open to God in all things.  That she be attentive to the Spirit.  That she be aware.  

I think that’s what Mary was doing here.  She was present in the moment, giving her guest her full attention. 

Being present in the moment.  Being aware of all things.  We’re not very good at that.  I’m terrible at it.  But we all know people who make us feel like we’re the most important person in the world.  When we are with them, we are WITH them, and we know we have their full attention. 

Being truly present to each other is one of the best gifts that we can give each other. 

In my own experience, I have found 3 things to be quite useful in my attempt to be present in the moment.

The first is having a two year old child.  That’ll make you present.  During my one week of parental leave, we were camping at Clear Lake, and I took out my phone to check the Bomber score. 

“Daddy! Put your phone away!”  she screamed.  Okay.  I have even heard of one teenager, while on vacation with their family, throwing their mom’s smart phone in the lake.

But, if you don’t have children to scream at you or to throw your iPhone into the lake, there are other options.

Find a time to pray.  It sounds generic and so preachy, doesn’t it.  But I am convinced that something beautiful happens when we do.  When we start to pay attention to what’s going on inside of us, we start to change the world.  Because how we live on the outside is simply a symptom for how we are on the inside.  There are many ways to pray, and there really isn’t one right way.  But I know that when I do make an effort to pray, then beautiful things happen.

For Lent this year, I tried every morning to wake up early and pray.  It was tough, as I hate mornings, and I was often interrupted by kids, but I did it.  And I kept a little journal of it, which you can read on my blog.

On day 24, I wrote this:

Day 24 –  Centering prayer got interrupted by Arianna making space for me in bed for a family “bed in”. What’s the point in centering prayer increasing my awareness if I miss out the beautiful things around me?  So I stopped praying and jumped into bed with my family.

I am finding that during my Common Prayer “pray for others“, my list is getting longer and longer. There is a lot of brokenness in this world. I’ve also told a lot more people this lent that I am praying for them.  I love praying. It centers me, saves me, and makes me more loving. I love praying. I could not have said this 24 days ago.

I officiated at a funeral today. I am aware of the gift he was.  I am more aware of a lot things. The world is on fire… I must walk humbly and be aware of God around me.

I’m not going to pretend that I’m good at praying.  I am way too wired and high strung for it to come easy, and often sitting and praying are the last thing I want to do.  And sometimes it is the last thing I do.  I know that right now I can’t say that I am centered and more aware.  But I know what it was like when I am present in the moment because of prayer.  And it’s beautiful.

And finally, and here’s an easy one… You can join slow club.

Mark Yaconelli is one of my favourite authors, and he tells the story about his 2 kids, age 6 and 4.  It was his responsibility to get his kids out the door every morning to school on time, and, like most parents, there was always the:  Let’s go!  Put on your shoes!  Where’s your backpack?!  You have to go pee?!? Argh.

And then, when they’d get out the door, his 4 year old would walk like this… <slow>  Mmmm… Look at that crack in the sidewalk.  Come on! Come on!  We gotta go!  We’re going to be late!  Oh… look at the bug. 

One day, at the dinner table, he looked at this Dad and said:  Daddy, I started a club at school today.

“Oh really?  What kind of club”

“It’s called Slow Club.  I’m the president.”

“Slow club?  How do you join?”

“You have to follow two rules.  Number one:  You can’t run.  Number two:  You can’t hurry.”

“And has anybody joined your club?”

“No.”

And so, every time anybody came over for dinner, they were asked if they wanted to join slow club.  And nobody did.

So one dad, this kid asked his Dad:  Do you want a one day pass to join the slow club? 

He himmed and he hawed.  Sure.

And that day, they saw jack rabbits.  They saw the clouds.  They saw the flowers.  They saw the sun set.  And it was beautiful.

Life wasn’t hectic.  They didn’t feel like butter spread over too much bread.  Sure they didn’t get much done, but it didn’t matter, because they were fully present, in the moment. 

They were present to each other.  They were aware of everything going on around them.  They were present to God. 

And so, you’re homework this week, is to find a way to be present in the moment.

Turn off your phones.  Find time to pray.  Slow down. 

And if you need help doing this, as most of us do, a first great step is to take your bulletin and carve out 15-30 minutes of one day this week and go for a Sabbath walk.  I got it from a book (Sabbath:  Find Rest, Renewal and Delight in our Busy Lives) written by a guy (Wayne Muller) who runs a retreat centre for burned out pastors.  Apparently there’s lots of us out there.  And he writes that the Sabbath Walk is one the favourite disciplines of burned out pastors.

The Sabbath Walk is a walk without any purpose, no need for insight or revelation.  Simply let your soul catch up with you.

For thirty minutes walk slowly and silently – preferably outside in nature, but it can also be done indoors – without trying to get anywhere.  It is more of an amble, a stroll.  Let your senses guide your walk.  If you are drawn to a leaf, a stone, a colour, a chink in the concrete, a shape in the floor, the fragrance of the grass, simply stop, and linger, and allow the moment to be, to smell or touch or thoroughly observe whatever is available for you, to hear what it says, to see what it looks like, to feel what it has to say or teach.  Do not hurry.  There is no place to go.  Take all the time you need to hear its secrets.  Then when it is time, when the rhythm of being there gives way to the rhythm of moving along, when it is time to be again, simply move on.  Follow your own timing and curiosity.  When you are called to stop, stop and investigate.  When you are called to begin again, move on. 

That is all.  

Rehearing the Good Samaritan (with Stories)

The Good Samaritan is probably one of the best known parables of Jesus.

Here are some stories that, I hope, add to the question of how we show mercy to our neighbours.

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The parable of the Good Samaritan involves asking hard questions.

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There was once a village along a river.  The people there were good and kind, and life was good. 

One day, a villager noticed someone floating down the river.  He quickly dove into the river, swimming out to rescue the person from drowning.  He dragged the person onto the bank, saving a life.

The next day, the same villager noticed two people floating down the river.  He called for help.  Another villager came running.  Together, they saved both people from the river.  The next there, there were four people caught in the river, and the next day, eight!

The good and kind villagers organized themselves to save as many of the people as possible.  They built a watch tower, to better see people rushing by in the river.  They trained their strongest villagers to swim through the swift waters.  Soon, they had watchers and rescue teams all day and night.  And yet, each day more and more people came down the river.

The good and kind villagers rescued many people, but there were just too many coming down the river.  Not every person was saved, though the villagers felt they were doing good work to save as many as they could each day.  For many weeks, life continued this way. 

Until, finally, one villager asked the question:  Where are these people coming from anyway? Who’s chucking them into the river?

(Note – I did not create the above story, but can’t find an original author).

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I was at an ecumenical gathering of Christians recently, and an offering was taken up for the local food bank, soup kitchen and homeless shelter.  Which is a good thing.  Someone got up to say a prayer for the donation.  In it, we thanked God for belonging to a generous community, and we asked God to bless the work of these organizations, and we prayed that their work would prosper.

After the prayer, me, the cynical pastor, leaned over to my neighbour, and said:  None of these organizations want to prosper.  They all wish they didn’t exist.  Our prayer should be that God would close their doors because nobody needed them. 

But to do that, we have to swim up the river and ask all sorts of hard questions.  Questions about affordable housing, tax rates, social assistance, mental health supports, minimum wage increases, the chronic underfunding of education on First Nation reserves… Those questions are hard, though.  Really hard.  I mean, do we really want to start praying about affordable housing and tax rates?  I’d rather just put 20 bucks in the offering plate and pray that these good organizations prosper.

“When I feed the poor, they call me a saint.  When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.” – Hélder Câmara

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The parable of the Good Samaritan involves questioning our agendas.

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There was a rural church in Irisvale, Zimbabwe, about an hour south of Bulawayo.  That church continues to change my life.  One of the times I visited, the church people were a upset.  There was another church down the road that had received food aid, bags and bags of mealie meal used for the corn porridge called isitshwala that they ate 3 times a day.  My friends were upset because the other church said that people would receive a bag of food only if they came to a church service.  They said that what the other church is doing isn’t right…

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When I was a pastor in Winnipeg, I took some of our youth on an Urban Plunge, where we explored the issues of poverty and homelessness in downtown and the North End.  We split our group into two, and one day half of us served at a faith based soup kitchen and the other half another faith based soup kitchen.  And then the next day we switched and compared our experiences.

The biggest difference my kids noticed?  One soup kitchen made the guests sit through a sermon before the meal.  Another made all religious activities optional, and served a meal regardless of one’s religious affiliation. 

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Hopefully, the above stories make us cringe.  They’re using the power of food as a tool of coercion, all in the name of Jesus.  That’s not good news.  That’s manipulation at its lowest level.

I’m grateful for the story of the Good Samaritan, for there we see one example of loving without an agenda.  He didn’t help the stranger based on church attendance or sitting through a sermon.  I know it’s more complicated than that at times, and that we’re allowed wanting the best for the people that we love, but as soon as our love is conditional on our agenda, I think we begin to miss out on what loving our neighbours really is.

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The parable of the Good Samaritan involves ensuring our prayer lists are also to-do lists.

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I lived in Zimbabwe for year 10 years ago.  At the time, the Zimbabwean economy was ranked among the worst in the world, so times were tough for most people there.  There was 80% unemployment, and inflation was in the millions of percents (actually).

One day, my friend came home from work and realized that, after her rent and transportation, she would have no money left over for food.  I sat with her, not quite knowing what to say. I looked her in the eye and asked “What are you going do?”  She looked back at me, smiled and said, “It’s going to be okay.  I’ll just eat sand.”  We laughed, and then I went to my room and cried. 

I’ll never forget her words… “I’ll just eat sand.”

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“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?  In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”  – James 2:14-17

For me, the challenge of prayer lists is not so much that I commit to praying for people or trusting God with those prayers, but rather knowing that my prayers are a reminder that God is trusting me with that very prayer list. 

“Prayer is not so much about convincing God to do what we want God to do as it is about convincing ourselves to do what God wants us to do.” – Shane Claiborne and Jonathon Wilson-Hartgrove

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So, I think the parable of the Good Samaritan isn’t only about loving everyone. 

I think it involves asking hard questions. 

I think it involves leaving a lot of our agenda behind.

I think it involves treating our prayer lists also as to-do lists. 

As we rehear the parable of the Good Samaritan, may we remember that he was one who showed mercy.

May we go and do likewise.