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Luke #42 When Service Becomes Servitude

When Service Becomes Servitude

Reading: Luke 10:38-42

Introduction: When I was preaching for the Western Hills church in Temple, Texas in the early 1990’s, the congregation had its 85th anniversary as a church. The congregation had been in the same location for the last 25 of those years, and there were people who still remembered the early years and the previous locations of the building. The preacher before me, James LeFan, was minister for almost half of those years. He preached for 39 ½ years and became an elder of the church in his “semi-retirement.” I loved to listen to James and others reflect on the changes that had occurred in church life over those decades. There were marvelous stories about the growth of the congregation, the birthing of two other congregations in town, the great gospel meetings, the saints who had served faithfully year after year. While I was there Mollie Spoonts retired from teaching the third grade. She had been the Sunday morning third grade teacher for 37 years.

Thirty-seven years without a break teaching a Sunday school class! You may know of people in this congregation that have been at it that long or longer. But such continuous years of service are rare anymore. Life is too full; there are too many working moms, too many other activities that vie for our time and attention. Most Sunday school coordinators are hoping to get one or two quarter commitments, not two or three decade commitments. The same is often true for most other areas of service in the church. Just finding people to fill and clean communion trays month to month is difficult. That is true in spite of all our technological advances and time management solutions and apparent flexibility of schedules. We seem to all live in a world in which time is such a precious commodity and we have too much to accomplish and too little time to get it done.

With such tremendous competition for our time, we now talk about workaholics and burn-out—people whose stress levels and work loads finally reach a breaking point and they need to reduce their load and activity, either at church or at work or both. I don't know that it was any easier to find teachers or committee leaders in 1965 than it is today. I do know that in any age, the call to service can create feelings and attitudes that lead to problems--not just burn-out, but animosity and bitterness. Those who serve become exasperated by those who do not. Many of us are familiar with the old 80-20 rule: 80% of the work of the church is done by 20% of the people. George Barna claims, by the way, that as we begin the 21st century, the 80-20 rule has become the 95-5 rule. Now 5% are doing 95% of the work of the church. And how many of the 5% aren’t surviving in service and ministry? They keep serving when they would love to have a break because no one else will step in and help out. They begin to resent the fact that they have to work while others merely watch. They resent the fact that their Sundays are filled with three or four meeting times while others have trouble committing to one; their Saturdays or Monday nights are always committed because others won’t commit to one a month or once every two weeks. They begin to focus not on the service they are rendering and the knowledge they themselves are gaining, but on their burden of overwork. The resentment can be even stronger among the server’s family. The spouse resents the husband or wife always being gone, especially if it is for extra things at church! The meeting times and the committees and the activities themselves turn into curses instead of blessings, not just for those who don’t show up and perhaps feel pains of guilt, but for those who do show up, for whom church activities become a competition for their time instead of a blessing from God. When church becomes a chore and one more activity to squeeze in instead of an oasis, then something has gone wrong.

The story read earlier from Luke 10 reminds us that the tension over serving has been around a long time. But here more is at stake than showing up for a meeting. Remember the context of Luke chapter 10. Jesus has just told the parable of the good Samaritan to a lawyer who came asking Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. The lawyer was not satisfied with keeping the two great commandments—love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; love your neighbor as yourself. He wanted to specify his responsibility by getting Jesus to define the term “neighbor.” In telling the parable, Jesus forced the Jewish lawyer to identify with the neighborliness of a hated Samaritan, in contrast to the priest and the Levite—two respected Jewish religious leaders. The Lawyer had to give up his biased attitudes about Samaritans by being called to act like a Samaritan instead of like the Jewish leaders.

Now, Jesus comes to a village where he goes against all the rules of decency according to those same Jewish leaders. A Jewish teacher would never enter the house of a woman--the Pharisees would not even speak to women on the street. Jesus enters the house of a woman--Martha--and is received by Martha and her sister Mary. Martha immediately busies herself doing what women do and did in that culture—the honorable thing for a woman to do was to serve the male guest. The sister Mary, on the other hand, does something outrageous and unheard of—she sits at the feet of Jesus. The phrase “To sit at the feet” denotes becoming a disciple, a student of a great teacher. The apostle Paul is described as having sat at the feet of Gamaliel, a great Jewish teacher. Women were never allowed to be students of the rabbi. Even in Greek and Roman culture, women never could teach others because they were not allowed to be taught themselves. Jesus does the unthinkable, first by entering a woman’s house, and then accepting a woman as a disciple.

Martha, on the other hand, is hard at it, doing what women do. And it dawns on her that she is being cheated. She’s doing all the work while her sister sits around, breaking all the social boundaries of acceptable behavior. Martha is doing the honorable thing in serving; Mary is acting as a student with (HER!) teacher. That which is honorable becomes enslaving and bitter. Martha finally appeals to the teacher to make her sister get off the ground and do some work. In so doing, Martha also violates the boundaries of social behavior by asking a stranger to intervene. But more than changing Mary’s behavior, she is trying to correct Jesus’ behavior in giving private instruction to a woman. But Jesus rebukes Martha—rebukes her, the one doing all of the work! “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and trouble about many things” (your priorities are all messed up!). “One thing is needful—Mary has chosen the good portion.”
“Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” Rather than acting according to the social customs and demands of her time, Mary had chosen to sit at the feet of the teacher--a socially unacceptable thing to do for a woman. Martha’s business had cost her an opportunity to learn, to spend time with the Word of God that came in the flesh.
It is possible for Christian service to become embittered slavery. It is possible for a good servant to lose the focus of love and the spirit of Jesus in serving and instead be just like Martha—missing the presence of God because of one’s Christian duty. It is possible for teenagers to feel like they’re forced to be here, and to never experience the presence of God or find any meaning in being here. No matter what the length of your own Christian walk, it is possible to lose sight of why any of this is important. It becomes a job, a duty to be performed. I heard the story this week, of a minister who had preached for over 45 years who retired. The day he retired he stopped going to church—been there, done that for too long.
So what is Luke trying to say to us through this story? Perhaps it is this: Loving God with all one’s heart, mind, soul and strength means that one first has to spend time with Jesus before service can be rendered and sustained. It takes time to become holy, to grow into the identity we have received as a trust in Christ. Those who fail to take time away from the busyness of life, those who fail to take time to be in the presence of Messiah, to take seriously the promise of presence, to listen to the Word of God in scripture and in prayer—such people do not have much of a relationship with God in the end. People who get so busy serving in the church that they fail to sit at the feet of Jesus. Those are the people who suffer burn-out and disappear. Multiplying activities at the church building is helpful only if those activities contribute to holiness. Your being here today is helpful only if it contributes to holiness, to your becoming more like Jesus. If you come to church thinking you are doing God a favor, if this is your contribution to God, you’ve got it all backwards.

But there is another problem that many of us who see ourselves as the real workers in the church share with Martha. We object to all of those others we see around us who don’t hop up and help us out! We suffer from the comparison game! On the one hand, we need to do the right thing, so that has us scurrying around in activity. But it’s not long before we begin to tire, and we then notice that so many others aren’t scurrying with us. In fact, we’re carrying their load as well as our own! Never mind that, like Mary, the activity of others may be less visible but no less needful. Never mind that we are wearied in our well-doing to the point of turning our frustration on others and accusing them of laziness or false motives or even false spirituality. At that moment, our own spirituality in service has proved false.

Do not misunderstand me this morning. To become like Jesus is to lay down one’s life in service to others. To become like Jesus is to seek and save the lost. But only those who sit at the feet of Jesus and take time to become like him have the power and spiritual strength to sustain their service to others. Christian maturity is just like physical maturity. We begin as infants and grow into adolescence and hopefully into Spiritual adulthood. If we assign the jobs of the church to the infants, what will happen? If we fail to train the infants and feed them and help them grow, what happens? If we fail to train them to be responsible in those pre-teen and adolescent years, what will happen?

I suggest to you that Christian burn-out usually has to do with the failure to take time to be holy, the failure to spend time at the feet of Jesus. Yes, service and deed are important. But if the activity precedes the listening, if prayer and Word get sacrificed in the time crunch, even the most dedicated servant will grow cold and lose sight of the one thing that is needful. As we look toward a new decade and a new millenium, it is hard to imagine more exciting opportunities, a more vibrant life together than what God is giving to us now. It is also easy to envision the current pace eating people alive, with service turning to servitude, and today’s joys and successes becoming next year’s flame-outs and cynics. Only time at the feet of Jesus will see us through. Is there that time built into your life for 2000? Or is it time, today, to make a change?

Have you given your soul, your life, your all to Jesus? In Christ Jesus, God offers to make us SAINTS! Holy ones. Such identity can only be the gift of God. Living that identity can be reality only we nurture the vision of who we are. Is this church business all a chore that upsets you because others aren’t pulling their weight? One thing is needful. Choose the good portion.

Delivered at Brentwood Hills, January 15, 1995 a.m.




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