The scripture is full of invitations to act – to set things into motion. In worship on August 30, the folk in Crafton Heights thought a bit about ways in which “going through the motions” is helpful and ways in which that becomes a distraction or even worse. Our scriptures for the day included Mark 7:1-8 and James 1:22-27.
If you were around after worship last Sunday, you might have overheard Brad discussing a rather unusual problem: he was trying to give away Steelers tickets and he couldn’t find any takers. He had a number of seats to the game between the Steelers and the hallowed Green Bay Packers, and he was having a hard time finding anyone who was interested in going along. Who passes up Steeler tickets? FREE Steeler tickets at that!
Oh, wait, you say – it was last week’s game? A preseason game? No thanks. I’d rather water my lawn or sort out the coins that have piled up on my dresser.
Preseason football is meaningless, some people say. Not only that, it’s dangerous for some players: just last week the Steelers lost at least two key players for some time due to injuries incurred during the preseason game. But perhaps worst of all, preseason football is BORING. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has gone on record as saying that he does not play preseason games to win. When asked what his goal was in a recent preseason contest, the coach said this: “We’d like to keep penalties to a minimum. We’d like to play assignment-clean football. At this point we’ll see where we are in that regard.”
Yes, because nothing says “excitement” like “assignment-clean football.”
But the fact that the coach isn’t playing to win doesn’t imply that he doesn’t care about the game. Far from it: Coach Mike believes it’s important to see who is growing as a player and who has lost a step; he wants his team to try out new formations, and the individual players to develop some muscle memory in terms of how to do what they’ll need to do once the season starts. “I think the preseason is very necessary to develop regular-season readiness,” Tomlin said, “and the only way to do that is to play. I’m always a healthy guy play type of guy.” He remembers that almost every single good team in the NFL ended last year with a loss. Coach Mike is one of the best coaches in football because he usually knows why he is doing what he is doing.
So maybe, in spite of the fact that very few of us in the room are ready for life in the NFL, we can “be like Mike” when it comes to being ready for whatever comes our way. Sometimes, you put yourself through the motions because that’s what gets you ready for the things that really count.
The Pharisees in Jesus’ day were amazingly adept at going through the motions. In fact, they were so good at going through the motions that they challenged Jesus about it one day.
The Hebrew scriptures command the people of God to be grateful for the food that they enjoy and the land from which it comes, but there is no commandment specifying exactly how that is to happen. Over the years, the religious leaders built up a number of traditions so that by the time that Jesus was born, the way that one demonstrated one’s gratitude to God was to pour a specified amount of water (that which could be contained in one and a half medium eggshells) over the hands in such a way so that it covered at least the middle knuckles of each finger. Having done that, your hands were clean, your gratitude was apparent, and you could enjoy the meal.
When the Pharisees condemned the disciples for failing to wash their hands, they weren’t concerned about hygiene, or spreading germs. They were offended because Jesus and his followers didn’t go through all the motions – they were not keeping the traditions that came, not from God, but from other Pharisees.
Jesus’ response is quick and to the point: “Why do you care more about trying to prove to other people how holy you are than you do about pleasing God? You’ve left your relationship with God out of the equation here, and you’re not honoring him with your life, your thoughts, or your hand-washing. You’re just showing off. Learn the ways of God first, and then see how human traditions fit into them.”
So if you’ll allow me to extend the sports analogy a little further, I might say that for people like this, all of life is like a preseason game. There is a repetition of the basics that just goes on and on and on; there are dozens of opportunities for people to get hurt or inflict injury on someone else; there’s not much connection between what they do day in and day out and things that matter eternally; and there is real uncertainty as to why they do what they do.
Which leads me to the story of another Mike. It is a true story.
On September 10, 1945, Clara Olson, of Fruita Colorado, sent her husband Lloyd out to prepare a chicken for the evening meal. Clara reminded Lloyd that her mother was coming for dinner, and that her mother really enjoyed, of all things, the neck of the bird. So Lloyd selected a strapping young rooster that weighed about two and a half pounds and took it to the chopping block where he lined up the axe in the hopes of making Clara’s mother a happy woman. He struck the blow and the chicken went running around the barnyard as is typical of these animals once they’ve lost their heads.
What happened next, however, was surprising. Instead of eventually dropping over and expiring, as you might expect, the bird shook off the effects of the decapitation and never looked back (which would have been impossible, given the fact that he no longer had eyes). He walked around the barnyard and made as if he was pecking for food. Lloyd left the bird and presumably made other arrangements for his mother-in-law’s evening meal.
The next morning, Lloyd found the bird, whom he came to call “Mike”, sleeping with the stump of his neck under his wing. He decided that if the bird was that intent on living, he’d find a way, and so he began a regimen of feeding Mike grain and water through an eyedropper.
In the next 18 months, Mike the Wonder Chicken grew to weigh more than eight pounds and was a feature at sideshows and other venues where the eager public lined up to pay a quarter a head (pun intended) to see this oddity. He was insured for $10,000 and his fame was broadcast in Time and Life magazines. I’m sad to say that while the Olsens were bringing Mike home from one of his trips to Los Angeles or Atlantic City, they woke up in the middle of the night to find Mike choking. They were unable to find the eyedropper and because of that, “Miracle Mike the Wonder Chicken” passed onto whatever eternal reward awaits barnyard chickens.
It is amazing to me that a chicken can live for a year and a half without a head…but perhaps it should not be a surprise. The reality is that far too often, churches and Christians are like this Mike: they exist, but not fully. Somehow, they have become cut off from the head of the body, which is Christ, and found a way to perpetuate their existence in isolation from the One who first called us and who directs and sustains us.
Think about it: a lot of churches have clean and shiny buildings filled with busy staff people and very efficient programs, but there is no apparent connection between all of the business inside and God’s movement and purposes in the world.
A lot of Christians get up in the morning and sit in front of their bibles or TV screens for a few moments, and then run out the door to make it to the church work project or to volunteer at the clothing drive or the strawberry social but somehow, in the midst of all of this energy and excitement, there is not any vital connection with the One who called them into being and charged them to follow. They are simply running through the motions, doing what Christians are supposed to do because that’s what they do.
“Miracle Mike” the Headless Chicken is indisputable proof that it is, at least in some cases, possible for an organism to exist and even grow while severed from its head.
But why? Can we really call that “living”? Is it wise for us to emulate that kind of existence?
As we wrap up this summer and turn the corner to fall, I’m here to tell you that you’re going to receive a lot of invitations from your church family. Can you volunteer with the kids from time to time, or fold the newsletter? Do you plan to come to the All Church retreat in October? You know, the folks at Real Food and the Table are looking for some energetic hands. And don’t forget small groups like FaithBuilders and the Tuesday morning ladies.
There is a lot of church-related busy-ness that goes on in our lives. And to be honest, on a lot of days, a lot of us show up at these programs and feel like we’re just going through the motions. If we’re not careful, we’ll find ourselves employed in a series of worthwhile activities that repeats itself again and again and again but fails to lead to any greater meaning. Imagine how terrible football would be if every game ever played was like a preseason game!
James warns us about this (about collecting activities and practices without meaning, not about preseason games) when he calls us to live life with the “revealed counsel of God” foremost in our thoughts. We listen for the call of God and then we respond with actions that have meaning and purpose and lead us in a particular direction.
Jesus leads us in this way of reflective action, and is perhaps assisted unknowingly by Mike Tomlin. In the weeks and months to come, we’ll be taking a hard look at Jesus’ call to come out and go through the motions of faithful living – to be present to people who are in need, to be open to God’s call in Bible Study, and to be focused on building a community that forms and shapes us.
We go through these motions not because serving others, reading scripture, or spending time with the community are ends in themselves, but because these exercises are the means by which we stay connected with our head, who is Jesus. These practices, carried out with faithfulness and diligence and joy under the guidance of the Holy Spirit can lead us into the fullness of life in Christ – so that when we are presented with a challenge, an opportunity, a burden, or a new set of circumstances, we are able to respond to it as Jesus would. We engage in these behaviors so that when Christ calls us to be his functioning, alert, alive Body in this time and this place, we’ll be ready to do that. Thanks be to God! Amen.
 This quote and the one to follow are both taken from http://espn.go.com/blog/pittsburgh-steelers/post/_/id/8038/tomlin-wont-play-to-win-preseason-games