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Involved, Yet Detached
March 12, 1989

PHILIPPIANS 3:8-14, JOHN 12:1-8

Friday, I again sat in the dentist's chair. I now have my bridge! We will receive a special offering later to help pay for it! My mouth is now worth more than the rest of me. This time, Harriet Attig, who works in Dick Lubman's office, sang in my ear. She sang, "Crown him with many crowns, the lamb upon his throne." When the reminder call came to the church, Neal Yowell, who is our temporary receptionist, said, "You've got time to work it into another sermon!" Last week I made the point that no one else can substitute his/her mouth for mine. I have to get dental work done by myself. But, I'm not alone in the dentist chair; I have my friendly dentist to help me. He is solicitous, warns me when it's going to hurt, and makes me as comfortable as possible. He becomes involved in my life. In fact, the dentist becomes totally involved in my mouth. He puts two hands, a drill, cotton wads, suction tube, and one foot in my mouth; totally involved, yet detached. Dick is still the dentist, and I am still the patient. We do not exchange roles or places. The dentist is detached. He retains his perspective, identity, and objectivity. In fact, if he did become totally involved in my toothache, and volunteered to take my place in the chair, he wouldn't help my toothache. Involved, yet detached, is the goal of love, neighborliness, and Christian service.

We have just sung a hymn about responding to God's call and the needs of people.

Whom shall I send to succor my people in their need?

Whom shall I send to loosen the bonds of shame and greed?

I hear my people crying in cot and mine and slum;

No field or mart is silent, No city street is dumb.

I see my people falling in darkness and despair.

Whom shall I send to shatter the fetters which they bear?

There are two extremes of response to a call to serve. At one end of the spectrum, there are those who do nothing, who can't be bothered. They are quite content to live self-centered lives, looking out only for themselves and their own welfare.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are those who sincerely respond to the call to serve, and proceed to get too involved. They get burned out. They are consumed by the task. How do we feel the pain of the world without it destroying us? This morning I want to speak to those folks who are tempted to get too involved in the lives of others.

Some parents are too involved in their children's lives. Some parents today are not involved enough; but some are too involved. They even try to sit in the dentist's chair for their children. They are over-protective, make all the decisions, violate any sense of privacy, and smother their children.

Some Christians get so involved in church work or in social causes, they lose their identity, perspective and energy. They burn out. Some spouses lose their identity. They no longer have any goals, dreams, or life of their own. Some women have found the world to be too threatening, so they allow themselves to be consumed by their husbands. They live vicariously through his name, his goals, his career. I doubt if God calls anyone to the sole vocation of help-mate, lost in service to the other.

A Japanese wife of an American serviceman caused quite a stir on the air force base by her devotion and attentiveness to her husband's every need. She waited on him hand and foot. However, on the day she received United States citizenship, when her husband sank into his easy chair and called for his slippers, she announced, "I'm an American citizen now. Get them yourself."

How do you love without being consumed? How do you serve without losing your identity? How do you become involved in people's lives, yet maintain perspective, objectivity, and identity? How do you become involved in peacemaking, ministry to the homeless and hungry, justice causes without burning out? How do you become involved without being swallowed? How are you involved, yet detached?

Is detachment too strong a word? By detachment, I mean the art of loving, befriending, working for social justice and peace, without being consumed. By detachment, I mean the art of being involved without losing perspective, objectivity, and identity. We look to our model, Jesus, for example and guidance. No one can be more loving, self-giving, dedicated to people and their welfare than Jesus. Yet, Jesus practiced detachment in at least five ways.

1) Jesus knew about organization, how to divide the task into steps, and accomplish one step at a time. When Jesus sent the twelve disciples out to the villages to preach the kingdom of God and heal the sick, he carefully took them through steps. He trained them, giving very explicit details, even telling them what to wear, what to pack. He taught them what to say. He anticipated difficulties they might encounter and taught them how to handle conflict. He divided the large task into measurable and definable intermediary goals.

Management talk sounds familiar to us, but do we practice it with our families and in our personal lives? What we have to do sometimes seems so overwhelming. Sometimes I wake up about 4:00 a.m., and think of all the things I didn't do, and have yet to do. My head swirls. Then I pray, "Lord, I give it all to you." The next morning, in the light of day, I make my plan, step by step, and the tasks cease to be so overwhelming.

Practice detachment by detaching yourself from anxiety over the entire journey, task, or problem, and deal with it one step at a time. Hopefully, there is a sense of reward and accomplishment for each step. "A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step," is ancient Chinese philosophy. And, we might add, the journey continues with one step at a time.

2) At times Jesus needed space. At times he needed to get away from the crowds. He needed space to regain perspective on his mission. He would then go into the wilderness on a retreat. Sometimes Jesus took his disciples with him, or a few of them. Sometimes he went alone. Jesus detached himself physically and mentally by finding space. Our church offers quarterly day retreats with high quality leadership. This August we again offer the Walk to Emmaus, a weekend experience that is life-renewing and life-changing.

3) Jesus practiced the rhythm of: involvement/detachment/rest/prayer/renewal/reinvolvement through the keeping of the sabbath. Early America similarly kept the sabbath. In modern, complex, stressed, pressurized Silicon Valley, we have lost the sabbath; and by losing the sabbath, we have lost detachment. In order to keep a sense of perspective, we each need to detach ourselves weekly from the daily routine and pressures, worship God with our church family, and then spend the rest of the day resting. No cleaning the house, doing the laundry, mowing the lawn, or sneaking back to the office. We need to rest our minds, rest our spirits, and let our souls catch up to our bodies.

4) Jesus knew the importance of fun times, special moments of relaxation and even indulgence. The gospel lesson this morning included a saying of Jesus which has given us lots of interpretation trouble over the years. Jesus said, "The poor you have with you always." Was Jesus resigning himself to the inevitability of poverty? Was Jesus giving us a way to cop out of our responsibility to care for people? Jesus' words have been used by some to undermine efforts to combat poverty.

What did Jesus mean? What I think he meant is so simple, the scholars probably dismiss it. Look at what was going on. Jesus was in Jerusalem. It proved to be his last days on this earth, now called Holy Week. Opposition was growing. There were plots to take his life. Jesus needed to detach himself from the hostile scene. He needed a time of relaxation, a time to be with friends. He and the disciples walked to the village of Bethany to the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Good friends. They had a party. Mary washed his feet with expensive oil. We don't practice foot washing anymore because we wear shoes. But, in Jesus' day, after a long walk on the hot sand, washing one's feet provided a moment of pleasure and joy. Mary added to the joy.

Judas reprimanded her for wasting costly oil on Jesus' feet when the money could have been given to the poor, which, of course, Judas would not have done. Have you noticed how often those who oppose spending money that could be given to the poor, don't! What I think Jesus is saying is: yes, give to the poor; yes, get involved in ministering to the poor; but there are times when it is necessary to detach ourselves, relax, be indulged a little, and get renewed. It's okay to go out for a nice dinner. Jesus is talking about balance.

5) Jesus practiced the art of ultimate detachment, and detached himself from his own life. He gave his life for us. "For the joy that was set before him, he endured the cross." Detachment means to cut ourselves loose from attachments, attachments to things and possessions. Detachment means we possess nothing and nothing possesses us. In the Epistle lesson this morning, Paul wrote, (Philippians 3:8) "I count everything as loss for the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him."

Look at it this way. If tomorrow your house burned down and you lost all your possessions, would it really matter to you in the long run? What is really important? If you can free yourself from undue concern about things, if you can detach yourself, you free yourself from much anxiety, stress, and "possessiveness." Likewise, if you should die tomorrow, would it really matter to you in the long run? If you can free yourself from undue concern about your physical being, if you can detach yourself from your physical life, you free yourself from a great deal of anxiety and stress.

Then, free of worry about yourself, detached from things, finding moments for space, rest, prayer, and fun with family and friends, you are free to really love your friends, spouse, parents and children. You are free to become involved in doing good and worthwhile things, yet retaining perspective, objectivity, and identity.

© 1989 Douglas I. Norris