October 2, 2011

Sitting at the Master’s Feet

So last week we started talking about our mission and vision once again.  Specifically, we talked about the first part of our vision: belonging.  We are a place of belonging.  We are a church where people can know beyond any shadow of doubt that they matter and find their place to belong.  As a church of our size, this God-given ethos gives us something that many churches several times larger than us don’t have. I just recently finished a book called The Strategically Small Church.  The basic idea is that in the rapidly changing world in which we live, small churches are poised to have real advantages over larger churches in terms of effectively bringing the Gospel to a searching world.  The author outlines several reasons why this is so, but the very first (and perhaps most important) is that small churches are able to develop and champion a spirit of authenticity in ways larger churches simply cannot.  And authenticity is quickly becoming the latest chief cultural value.  As a case in point, people used to buy things that were quality even if they were ugly.  Now, people tend to buy products they determine are authentic even if they are expensive.  Well, this cultural truth plays to our advantage.  Anyone who walks in our doors on a Sunday morning walks out knowing very well that they were not some cog in a large machine that was not noticed nor will it be missed.  Furthermore, though we’re not perfect at it yet we tend to be ourselves, warts and all.  People whose lives are not perfect can belong here because we are a community of people whose lives are not perfect.  Now, none of this means that big churches don’t have a very much legitimate place in this world.  I mean, their sheer size and volume of resources puts ministry opportunities within their reach that will never be for a church of our size, but then, God didn’t design us for those kinds of ministries and He did them.  All I’m getting at here is that belonging in a church like Central can happen a lot more quickly and easily than in a much larger church.

Getting to the point of all of this, what we talked about last week is the fact that background is no barrier to belonging in the kingdom of God—or at Central Baptist Church.  We are a family church and are interested in growing our family.  This is not so that we have the largest family around, but instead so that as many people as are called might share in our delight with each other; so that our family can continue having an impact on Dinwiddie County, Virginia and the United States, and to the ends of the earth long after we’re gone.  It matters not where you are from or who your Daddy is, if God has sent you here, you belong here and we’re glad to have you.

Moving forward, this morning we are going to talk about the next piece of our mission and vision: Learning.  As I said last week, learning is how people are empowered to engage their world for Christ.  But, simply having a lengthy discussion on the importance of learning or how people of different learning styles can find their educational appetites whet really isn’t the best way to get this point across, I think.  Instead, this morning, I want to tell you a story.  Then, after a time, we’ll talk about what it means for us.

Our story this morning is going to come from the prequel to Acts: Luke.  Luke, of course, is one of the four Gospels.  The Gospels, of course, are the theological biographies that tell the story of Jesus’ time on earth.  The Gospels tells many of the same stories (except for John), but they tell them in slightly different ways and for very different reasons.  Matthew wanted his audience to see Jesus as the royal, Jewish Messiah who came as the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets.  Mark wanted his audience to see Jesus as the suffering servant; as the Son of God who stepped down out of heaven to serve His people and give His life so that they might find it.  John sought to help his audience see that Jesus is in fact God the Father dwelling among us in the flesh.  He includes seven sign stories in particular that point to Jesus’ divine origins.  Luke, on the other hand, presents Jesus as the Great Healer who sought to turn the tables on how this world often works.  Luke presents Jesus as a champion for the least, last, and lost of this world.  He includes a number of stories throughout his narrative that display Jesus interacting with, caring for, and generally elevating the status of the folks His world often forgot.

As with all of the Gospels, though, Luke spends only the first few chapters introducing Jesus and writing about His Galilean ministry.  After this, everything Jesus does in the story is aimed at arriving in Jerusalem for His final Passover when He Himself would become the sacrificial lamb to take away the sins of the world.  To this end, starting in chapter 9 Luke begins a section of material that is almost entirely unique to him.  This section is often called Luke’s Travel Narrative because Jesus is…traveling…throughout the section (aren’t Biblical scholars creative?).  Well, during His travels, Jesus eventually comes to a little town on the outskirts of the Jerusalem metro area called Jericho.  When He arrives in town, He is invited to stay at the home of a woman named Martha—a woman we learn a great deal more about in John’s Gospel.  The story picks up at the end of Luke 10.  Let me tell you the story and then we’ll talk about it for a bit.

Imagine this for me if you would.  Jesus and His disciples arrived in Jericho late one afternoon and they were tired.  It had been a long day of walking.  What they were seeking when they got to town was what any of us would have sought: a place to stay.  But, this wasn’t as simply a thing as it is today.  They didn’t have inns and motels and hotels scattered throughout the countryside with heavy concentrations on the highway exits on the edge of town like we have today.  In fact, very few people ever stayed in common houses of this sort.  Those kinds of place had about the same reputation as massage parlors do today.  Instead, in a culture where hospitality was a much, much bigger deal than it is today, people stayed with someone—friends if they had them there, otherwise strangers sufficed just fine.  It was a great point of honor to show hospitality to someone else and true to cultural form, as Jesus and the disciples arrived in town a woman named Martha invited them to stay in her home.  Now Martha was a good hostess.  What this meant is that she was an eager servant of her guests.  When it came to hosting guests in that culture a woman’s place was not out entertaining them, it was making all the preparations to serve them.  Providing food and beverages for a group of at least thirteen people, however, is a lot of work to pull off at the drop of a hat.  Thankfully, Martha was not alone in this venture.  We don’t know if she had any servants to help her, but we do know that she had a sister named Mary.

For Martha, this would have been a time to rely on the help of her sister if ever there was one.  The only way she was going to be able to have dinner for their guests before the cock crowed was if she had help.  But, when she went to look for Mary to enlist her help, her sister was nowhere to be found!  “How typical,” Martha must have irritatedly thought to herself.  “Here I am trying to get everything prepared to serve our guests and maintain the honor of this household and Mary is idly flitting about again!  This is because of all the extra attention Father gave her as a child.  She always was his favorite.  He left Mother and me to take care of all the service while ‘his little angel’ got to play at his feet.  Here we are twenty years later and nothing’s changed.  How I wish Lazarus weren’t away on business.  He would have intervened to protect the honor of our family.  I guess I’ll take the burden on myself once again.  I just hope the rabbi and His disciples notice how hard I’m working to meet their needs and esteem our household fittingly.”  And so with all of this on her mind, Martha threw herself even harder into the work of serving her guests.  She was nearly killing herself trying to get everything ready on her own.

Eventually her curiosity regarding the location of her wayward sister was too much for her to ignore.  She stopped what she was doing, bravely risking the honor of her family, in order to go investigate.  When she did she had her worst fears confirmed.  She found Mary, not only not helping her, not only out trying to entertain the guests as if she were the head of the household, but in fact sitting at the feet of the rabbi learning from Him!  The scandal!  How could this distinguished rabbi tolerate such a faux pas?  It certainly spoke to the humility and patience she had heard from others were so central to His character.  He must be twice the man of God she thought to bear with such an obviously errant woman.

At first she tried to ignore it her sister’s behavior and get back to her preparations.  After all, there was bread to be baked, a lamb to be roasted, beds to be made, cleaning to be done, and the list went on and on and on.  But she just couldn’t shake her shock at seeing her sister sitting at His feet!  With unfortunate rapidity the shock and hurt and anger turned into a little ball of rage in Martha’s gut and started to grow until it couldn’t be contained anymore.  Walking as calmly as she could muster, Martha walked into the courtyard where the rabbi, His disciples, and she were gathered “ahemed” herself into the conversation and with great dignity said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone?  Tell her then to help me.”  I have to think she wanted to but didn’t add, “It’s not fair that I should be doing all the work while she sits there like an ignorant man in need of being taught.  It’s not like she’s ever going to do anything more than help me run this household in her life.”  But again, Martha was the dignified hostess.  She wouldn’t debase herself so much in front of her guests.

I have to think this was another one of those moments when Jesus had to be thinking to Himself, “Father, You sent me to earth to be their Savior and all they really want is a fairness referee!”  He doesn’t say this, but what He does say certainly gives the disgruntled hostess some things to think about.  He does not debase Himself to join in what could have quickly become a mudslinging fray between the two sisters.  Indeed, anytime anyone tried to force Jesus to come down one side of what seemed to be a two-sided issue, He revealed a third way.  Jesus looked at Martha and said: “Martha, Martha…”  Let me stop there and say we should probably hear this intoned as a gentle, loving rebuke and not fraught with irritation à la Jan in the Brady Bunch.  Continuing: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things…”  Indeed, she was anxious and troubled about many things.  She was trying to live up to her culture’s expectations of hospitality and the proper role of women.  She had a very much distinguished guest staying in her home and she wanted to make things as nice for His stay as she possibly could.  I mean, it’s not every day you get to play host to the Son of God.  She was worried about the quality of His stay, the state of her home, the appearance she was putting forth for Him to see, the behavior of her sister, and so on and so forth.   In saying this, however, Jesus is not criticizing Martha for busying herself with serving instead of soaking up His teachings; His spiritual food.  He is in fact honoring her by recognizing how hard she is working to show hospitality to Him.  But again, He does not stop here.

The next thing Jesus said must have really sent Martha for a loop.  “…there is need of only one thing.”  Now, we are not told what this “one thing” is.  But, the context gives us some clues.  The next thing Jesus said is: “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”  This combined with the fact the text tells us Martha was “distracted by her many tasks” from joining Mary at Jesus’ feet suggests that this “one thing” is in fact sitting at Jesus’ feet.  It suggests that the one thing in this life is to sit at the feet of Jesus.  Quickly then, what does it mean to sit at Jesus’ feet?   Well, in Jesus’ day, when folks were gathered in a home setting like this, they generally gathered around a long, low table.  Instead of chairs, there would have been a variety of pillows and cushions around the table for guests to lean on.  They would lean on their left side (since everyone was right handed …) with their feet sticking out away from the table.  On some occasions, the guest of honor might be raised up a bit higher than the others to indicate His high position.  When this guest was a rabbi such as Jesus, however, the rabbi’s disciples would not take places at the table like everyone else.  They would instead gather around the feet of the rabbi.  They wanted to be as close to Him as they could possibly get so they wouldn’t miss a word He said.  To be seated at the feet of a rabbi like this, then, was to be in the position of a learner; someone who was actively being taught.  This position, however, was culturally reserved for men.  Because women were not ever going to be teachers in this fashion, they had no need for learning in this fashion.  The woman’s place was only a little above that of a servant.  She should serve the men ably and otherwise stay out of the way.  It was thus a scandal that Mary was seated at Jesus’ feet, but in truth, the scandal was not solely her behavior, but his.  No self-respecting rabbi would have ever allowed a woman to behave in such a manner as this.  Why he could have experienced temptation or otherwise fallen into this obviously wild woman’s wiles.   But, then, Jesus wasn’t your average self-respecting rabbi.  He knew who He was and He knew what He had to offer.  When people recognized this enough to seek it, Jesus never turned them away no matter what their background was.  After all, background is no barrier to belonging in the kingdom of God.  The reason for this is that there is one thing in this life that goes before everything else: sitting at the feet of Jesus and learning what He has to teach.  The one thing in this life is to sit at the feet of Jesus.

So that’s the story, but what does it have to do with Central’s mission and vision?  I hope this is obvious by now.  I have said that we are a place of learning here at Central.  One of our must-haves in terms of what someone who has been here for very long should experience is the empowerment of knowing who they are, what their gifts are, and how to use those to further the spread of the kingdom of God.  Well, step back from this for a minute and look at the narrative sequence we’ve been traveling for the last two weeks: Background is no barrier to belonging in the kingdom of God and the one thing in this life is to sit at the feet of Jesus.  As we grow in our ethos of belonging, of bringing people to experience the kingdom of God within our sphere of influence, we have to do something with them.  More specifically, we have to do something with them that renders us of more value in their life than the local Ruritan Club or Moose Lodge or pub community or any other group to which they might also belong.  In other words, what is it that makes us more than a local service club with expected-but-not-mandatory membership dues?  Let me say it again: learning.  The one thing in this life is to sit at the feet of Jesus learning from Him and by the blessing of God we are a place where people can come and do just that.  We are a place of learning.  We are a place of empowerment.  And not the pithy, make yourself a better person kind of empowerment of this world, but the empowerment to pursue the life that God actually designed you for in order that you might become fully the man or woman He created you to be.  This is all because the one thing in this life is to sit at the feet of Jesus.

Let’s go back for a second and talk about all of this in the context of our story.  What was going on there?  Mary was sitting at the feet of Jesus.  She had assumed the position of a learner, of a disciple.  Disciples know that there is a time for action, but they also understand that there is a time to simply sit at the feet of Jesus and learn from Him.  In the final analysis, the time at Jesus’ feet will carry us much further in the direction of the kingdom than will the time spent in action.  This is because the one thing in this life is to sit at the feet of Jesus.  Martha, on the other hand, was worried about the many things.  She was distracted, the text said, by everything she was trying to do.  Guess for a minute which of the two women was doing right in the eyes of the world?  Come on, that’s a set up question: Martha was.  She was doing everything she was supposed to have been doing as far as the world around her dictated.  She was hosting guests, she was busy serving them, she wasn’t trying to take a man’s place at the feet of the rabbi.  She was doing everything right.  And yet, when she asked Jesus to make things right, she got the rebuke.  Have you ever been there?  You were out doing all of this good stuff and saw someone else apparently not involved in serving the Lord at all and you felt pretty angry because they were growing spiritually while you were constantly exhausted.  But look at all the good you were accomplishing.  There’ll be plenty of time to rest in the kingdom.  Right now, we need to serve the world around us in order that by our good works they might come to know Jesus.  And there’s nothing … inherently … wrong with that attitude.  We’re going to talk all about serving next week.  If we are not out actively doing good works as a demonstration of the faith we claim to have our professions of fidelity to Christ are meaningless.  But listen, listen: those good works are the many things.  The one thing in this life is to sit at the feet of Jesus.

Here’s why I know this.  I’ve been accused of being a smart guy before.  The last B I had was in junior high and it was a B+.  I was the valedictorian at both of the institutions of higher learning I attended.  I have an office here and at home with over 1,000 books on all kinds of subjects.  But do you know what?  All of that is totally meaningless unless I know the one thing.  I’ve known people before who could serve circles around pretty much anybody.  They oozed Christian service out of their pores.  They were involved in every mission project and trip and venture that they could get their hands on.  They worked themselves into the ground for the sake of the Gospel.  They were by all visual accounts the kind of Christians that everyone wanted to be.  But do you know what?  All of that was totally meaningless unless they knew the one thing.  Do you know the one thing?  Have you taken up the posture of a learner and simply sat at Jesus’ feet?  Or do you find yourself distracted by the many?  The one thing in this life is to sit at the feet of Jesus.  I don’t care how much you know—or don’t know—if you don’t know the one thing, you don’t know anything.  When was the last time you simply sat at the feet of the Savior and learned from Him?  What’s keeping you from it?  Have you convinced yourselves that you pretty much know what you need to know and a little Sunday school or the occasional worship service to top off your tank are good enough for you?  Or are you perhaps letting the expectations of the culture have their way in your life?  The culture tells us that busyness is next to godliness.  It tells us that in order to be happy and successful in this life we need to kill ourselves and go deeply into debt in order to have the next best thing.  It says that the one thing is to feel good about yourself by any means necessary.  But this isn’t it.  And for those who choose better part, it won’t be taken from them.  The one thing in this life is to sit at the feet of Jesus.

Here at Central, you can do that.  In fact, providing that opportunity for Christ-followers of all ages is part of what makes us, us.  We are a place of learning.  In fact, if you are coming here and you don’t feel like you are being provided adequate opportunities to be empowered to make the biggest impact on your world for Christ that you possibly can, I want to hear about it because we’re going to do something about it.  We are a place of learning.  We are a place where people can pursue the one thing.  We do that together in this room once a week.  But this isn’t the only place and in fact if this is the only place or time you are getting to sit at Jesus’ feet, you are missing out.  Now, I totally get physical limitations, but generally speaking, the folks for whom physical issues are truly limiting their involvement are taking time to sit at the feet of Jesus on their own and probably do so better than most of the rest of us.  They’re not making excuses, they’re wishing they could be here like Libby Harrison did to me nearly every time I went to see her.  Or how about this: If you have not yet done so, join a Sunday school class.  There is room for more in every single one of our classes and if any of them should fill up, we’ll start new ones.  And I don’t want to hear excuses about space.  A few months ago the temperature upstairs was not suitable for classes to be held there on a Sunday morning and there were enough unoccupied rooms that, although we didn’t have to, we were able to put every single class up there somewhere else for the morning.  Now, we need teachers, but we’ll talk more about that next week.  Perhaps some of you haven’t gotten involved in a class because there’s not one you really connect with.  Get together with other folks who are in the same boat and start a new one.  Or maybe some of you haven’t joined a class because you haven’t been invited.  Let me make to you a formal invitation: join a Sunday school class.  I would be delighted to talk to you to help you find the right one.  The other place where you can sit at Jesus’ feet is at Bible study on Wednesday nights.  If you are missing out on Baptist cooking and the great time we have at Bible study each week you are the one poorer for it.  Before some of you object: I get work.  I mean, I have to work every Wednesday night (yes, I know it’s different), but hey, at least you don’t have to worry about dinner.  We’ll even keep a plate warm for you if you can’t there get in time.  And if you can’t find a place and time to sit at the feet of Jesus in all of this, we’ll look into starting something new for you. My point here is this: the one thing in this life is to sit at the feet of Jesus.  At Central Baptist Church, this is one of the things we are all about.  We are a place of learning and we are going to do everything we can to make sure you have the chance to learn what you need to be a fully devoted follower of Jesus; for you to sit at His feet and soak it in.  The one thing in this life, my friends, is to sit at the feet of Jesus.  Are you sitting?