Like a Monday Morning Church
Luke 4:1-13; Romans 10:8-10
Back in 2001, a songwriter who had achieved limited success stumbled upon a line in a poem that captured his heart, soul and imagination. The songwriter’s name was Brent Baxter and the line came from a poem that had been written by his own moth-er. The line that so captured his attention spoke of a person who felt as “empty as a Monday morning church”.
Baxter, who is a person of faith, was taken by the strong reli-gious overtones of that statement. In essence, he began to build a story around the line about a man who looses his wife and who as a result feels abandoned. In time, he looses his faith and control of his very life. Without her as a part of his days anymore, the man feels “as empty as a Monday morning church”.
Brad Baxter who is a native of Arkansas eventually gave his lyrics to an aspiring country singer by the named Erin Enderlin. Erin was also from Arkansas but at the time was studying mu-sic at Middle Tennessee State University. The lyrics to that song, with that stirring line – “empty as a Monday morning church” – also spoke to Erin. It just so happened that she was reeling from a real life experience that allowed her to identify. She had recently had a friend who had died in an automobile accident. As a result, she knew what it was like for the loss of someone to completely turn the world upside down and leave a person with a sense of emptiness. Captivated, Erin began to circulate the song which found its way to Country Music Su-perstar Alan Jackson.
It was Alan Jackson, not Brad Baxter who wrote the words or Erin Enderlin who shared it with others, who made the song famous. He recorded and released their song in October of 2004 under the name “Monday Morning Church”. The song went all the way to being the 5th most popular song in the country at the time. (“Monday Morning Church” in wikipedia and “Story Behind the Song: ‘Monday Morning Church’” in Nash Country Weekly, March 28, 2005)
I think the reason that song strikes a chord is because so many of us can relate. We know how easy it is to end up in that very same place.
Life is fleeting. When we loose our first love, that is to say the most important love in our life such as a spouse, a child, our job, a financial safety net or anything else which has captured first place in our lives, it is easy for everything, including our faith, to quickly spin out of control.
This reality, I think has tremendous connections to the tempta-tion of Jesus in the gospels.
On the one hand, there is a connection that centers on the temp-tation to allow the lines in our lives to be blurred. This happens when the other loves in our lives push God out of first place. When this happens our pursuit of loving God can quickly be-come a servant of other loves and thus no longer our first love.
Think about the temptation story for a moment – the devil tempts Jesus with scripture. In other words, the devil works to get Jesus to embrace the idea that scripture supports a quest to satisfy himself. He throws verses at Jesus to support meeting his physical needs, that affirm his right to power or that affirm the positive end result of using his power to build a name for himself through a religious trick.
We blur the lines too. We don’t give up on God, we don’t quit coming to church, and we don’t stop serving. Instead, we do something much more subtle and quite frankly much more sin-ister. We swap Christ as our first love for other things while finding a way to convince ourselves that our faith actually sup-ports the shift we have made. God wants us to have wonderful families so the church becomes a servant of our family. We are commanded to make a difference in the world and so God be-comes a promoter of our causes and agendas. God wants us to be successful and thus the church supports our quest for suc-cess. The goals we have are really there to make the world a better place and to change society for the better and thus faith plays the second fiddle and supports what have become our new first loves.
Again, this is so subtle and thus so sinister. We are doing good things, rights things, noble things and we find a faith backing for it. But, in truth, we are developing other first loves. God is no longer first. Instead God and faith provide the backing and validation for what we want to do.
I recall a children’s program from our days in Atlanta that exist-ed throughout the city. The program even had the name Chris-tian in it. I think the program probably had good, right begin-nings. It was an outgrowth of faith. But, over time, and when I encountered the program, I really couldn’t figure out what faith had to do with it. It wasn’t a way of serving God. God wasn’t the first love and the program an extension of it. No, the pro-gram was the first love and the name Christian was just co-opted and used as a way of validating the program.
Like the devil quoting scripture in the temptations, faith be-came the advertising or marketing aspect of the program. The program was now the first love.
Which leads us to the second connection and temptation. When this becomes our life and our new first love fails us or falls apart as they all inevitably do, we find ourselves left with an emptiness that breaks our hearts and shatters our souls and of-ten damages our faith.
You see, Jesus resisted because he knew all of those tempta-tions would ultimately fail to satisfy. They were fools gold. He recognized he could only have one first love – as good and grand as all of those other things were. He could only have one first love – God. All else must play second fiddle.
Any other love, no matter how wonderful, will go away either by choice or by the result of the natural consequences of a life that never goes on forever. When that first love leaves us – we too will be as empty as a Monday morning church.
So what is the solution? Its very simply – we must, we must, we must keep Jesus as our first love. We can have other loves, other passions, other commitments but we can only have one first love that all others at all times are servants unto. It must never be the other way around. We cannot serve two masters and we definitely cannot let our faith be mastered by something else.
We begin, therefore, by falling in love with Jesus. This is where the Romans passage that was read earlier comes in. Faith begins by saying to Jesus that we love him and that we want to love him more than any other person or any other thing in this life. Today, if you have never done that, I would chal-lenge you to do so. Invite Jesus into your heart, make him your Lord and your first love.
After that, we must continue the practice day after day of keep-ing Jesus in that place – as our first love no matter how tempted we are and no matter how appealing the other loves may be. Jesus must remain the object of our greatest love, not a second-ary figure that we use to follow other loves.
Do you remember the classic Shel Silverstein book called The Giving Tree? Years ago, an older person in our church at the time gave me a collector’s copy of that book and I have kept it in my office ever since. The Giving Tree really is one of those stories that we need to read about twice a year not only while we are children but throughout our lives. Its lessons are deep and profound.
As you know, it is the story of a boy and a tree. At first, the tree itself is the object of the boys affection. They are friends. The boy makes a crown from the tree’s leaves, climbs in the tree for fun and rests in the shade of the tree.
But, over time, the tree is no longer the boy’s love; the tree is used by the boy to pursue his other loves. The tree provides its apples so that the boy can gather them, sell them and make money. The tree provides its branches so the boy can build a home. And then the tree provides its trunk so that the boy can build a boat and sail away from his problems.
One day, the boy, now an old man, comes back. The money has run out, he is the only one left in his home, and even with a boat he could never run away. He has forsaken the tree and used the tree in the quest for other loves and they have all fallen away. The boy, you could say, comes back to the tree, feeling as empty as a Monday morning church. He pursued other loves, only to be abandoned by them and to discover that they could not provide that long lasting, ultimate fulfillment that he longed for.
The boy, now old man, at this point, sits down, on all that re-mains of the tree – its stump. And yet, used and abused and abandoned by his love, all which remains as a constant in his life, is this tree. (The Giving Tree, Shel Silverstein, HarperCol-lins, 1964.)
Jesus, is this first love, who will not abandon us, will not fail us, will not leaves us empty even when all others will. So, we will love him – with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength? Will he be our first love? Or, we will use him, to pursue other loves while failing to truly understand what he lovingly, long-ingly and faithfully offers to us.
Using God in the pursuit of other loves – it is the great tempta-tion. The greatest wisdom is pursing him and him alone while leaving all else in second place. Here lies the great temptation and the great wisdom. Will we pass the test?