Sermon for the Second Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 5, 2015

Ever since Dr. Benjamin Spock first published his famous book about baby and childcare in 1946, parenting books have been a boom industry. The market for this makes sense to me. Parenting, it turns out, is a lot harder than it looks. It’s always seemed a little odd to me that we live in a culture where a person needs a license or certification for almost everything. The one big exception is raising kids. It is just about the hardest and most complex thing a person can do, and it makes a huge impact on society, yet there is very little available in the way of intentional and formal training, so naturally lots of parents would eat up any advice that seems like it is trustworthy and helpful.

A book that is popular these days, which I’m currently in the midst of reading, is called “Parenting with Love and Logic.”[1] (Incidentally, we’re in the midst of lining up some community parenting classes this fall that are based on this method). The basic premise is that parenting is essentially a matter of helping kids learn how to make choices, and to live with the consequences of those choices. After all, that’s really what adult life is about: we all make a big and small choices every day–about our work, our relationships, our money, our time, whatever–and we all live with the positive and negative consequences of all these choices. Raising kids isn’t just about getting them to follow rules or behave in certain ways, it’s about helping them learn how to make the kinds of good choices rules and behaviors are meant to reinforce.

In our Old Testament lesson from 1 Samuel this morning, it seems to me like God is “parenting with love and logic;” he seems to be closely following the approach outlined in that book.

The story today tells us how the people of ancient Israel moved from one form of government to another. Up to this point, they had been led by a rather decentralized system of prophets and judges who helped interpret the divine law and sort out disputes. The people see one prophet aging, his time quickly growing short, and they don’t like what’s in line in his children. So they decide to ask for a king: “appoint for us, then, a king, to govern us, like the other nations.”

Both Samuel and God think this is a bad idea. God rattles of a list of things the people will not like about having a king. Be careful what you wish for, kings can very quickly become oppressors. Like a good parent, he outlines the consequences of making that choice.

But at the end of the day, God allows them to make that choice, and the rest of the Old Testament bears witness to how those consequences played out. Some of the kings were great, some were terrible; most, like all human leaders, were a mixed bag.

In fact, this story was written many, many years after the fact specifically to explain why Israel’s kings were of such an uneven quality. Writing history like this was a way of reminding people that this was their choice, and that they had been warned that the grass isn’t always as green as it looks on the other side of the fence.

But here’s the other thing about the rest of the story: God doesn’t ever give up on Israel. God continues to be present with them, to nurture them, to love them and be faithful to them, even as they sort through the consequences of their choice for a king. In fact, Israel’s king becomes a central part of God’s promise to them, and a central part of who we understand Jesus to be in the New Testament. It’s a bad choice now, but later on Israel’s king becomes a central part of God’s love and salvation for his people.

Every single one of us has made a lot of decisions in our lives. If you look back over the choices you’ve made—the big ones like who to marry, or where to live, or the small ones like whether to commit to that meeting last week, or whether to buy that car—I’m sure that there are some that were just right, and some you wish you could do over. All of us, right now this morning, are living with the consequences of the choices we’ve made in our lives. Some of them fill us with pride and gratitude, some with regret.

But the good news for us in this story from 1 Samuel, and the way it plays out through the rest of scripture, is that while we are always free to make decisions in our lives, God never abandons us to them. No matter what we do, no matter what we regret, no matter how far we stray, God is faithful to us. That’s the amazing thing to me about the Bible, and why all these strange stories in the Old Testament continue to have so much power, and are worth coming back to over and over again. They tell the story of how God’s deep love for us simply won’t let us go.

Like all children, like all adults, Israel made a bad choice in today’s story. But the consequences of that bad choice ultimately become an instrument of their redemption, and our salvation. There is no decision we’ve made, there is no regret that we carry, that God can’t finally redeem. God’s fierce love for us, God’s unfailing faithfulness to us, remind us that it’s never to late to turn things around, we’re never broken so fully that we can’t be put back together, we’re never so far gone that we can’t be brought back home.

Parents are always working to help their kids make good choices. God is always working to help us make good choices. That’s what prayer, and worship, and service, and Bible study—those foundational practices I talk about all the time—are meant to do. Help keep us on the rails so that we start to naturally live along God’s rhythm.

No matter where you are, no matter what regret you’re carrying today, no matter how you’ve stepped off course. God in here—God out there—is always pursuing you, staying faithful to you, working to help you know joy in the midst of sorrow, healing in the midst of shame, life in the midst of death. Amen.

[1] Cline, Foster and Fay, Jim. Parenting with Love and Logic. Navpress: Carol, IL. 2006.

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Sermon for Trinity Sunday

Our Wednesday Bible studies are currently reading through the Gospel of John. A few weeks ago, when we were reading through chapter 3, which is what we heard this morning, someone remarked that in John’s gospel, Jesus sounds like Yoda; he’s always speaking in these weird and inaccessible riddles and redundancies. I thought that was a great way to describe John’s Jesus. The Gospel of John is a lot like good poetry, or a great symphony: it rewards spending a lot of time with it, chewing it over, coming back to it again and again, just sitting with it, more than it rewards analysis and explanation. The trick to appreciating John’s gospel is to hone in on one idea or phrase, or image, and just sort of sit with it, rather than trying to take in too much of it at once.

Today’s lesson contains a concept that has become a bit of a lightning rod in contemporary Christianity: the idea of being born again, or born from above. For a certain segment of Christianity, this has become a kind of litmus test: have you been born again becomes another way of asking, are you legit? In this context, being “born again” usually means having a one-time, permanent, emotional conversation experience. For those of us whose faith hasn’t worked like this, listening to Jesus talk about being born again becomes a stumbling block that is easy to dismiss.

I’ve known a lot of people who have had dramatic experiences of God’s love and, and who have had their lives turned around on a dime. But of course, not everyone’s faith works in quite that way. I think we miss something really important if we limit being born again to a dramatic conversion experience. So it seems to me that there are at least three important things to take from Jesus’ words this morning.

First, to be born from above is to have a life which is pointed toward God, and oriented around God’s love. There’s a story of a navy warship that is sailing on a foggy night and sees a light coming toward it in the distance. The captain walked to the helm and heard a voice come over the radio saying, “Attention, adjust your course thirty degrees immediately.” The captain got on the radio and responded, “No, you adjust. I am an admiral in the U.S. Navy. Who am I speaking to?”

“I am an ensign in the U.S. Coast Guard.”

“Then I suggest you adjust your course.”

“No, sir, you adjust yours.”

The two argued back and forth about who was going to adjust, until finally the admiral shouted:

“We are a U.S. Navy warship. You adjust.”

And the ensign replied, “Well, sir, we are a lighthouse.”

Everyone is willing to adjust the course of their heart, and mind, and life for something. If it’s money, you’ll spend all your time arranging your life so that you have money. If it’s popularity, you’ll do everything you do so that people will like you. If it’s career, you’ll spend all your time and energy pursuing that. If it’s another person, your whole life will be about making that spouse or child or parent or whoever happy. To be born from above means that we become willing to adjust our course and be driven in our thinking and acting by God’s love, God’s justice, God’s mercy.   It means that those things are the lighthouse that we have to adjust for and shape ourselves around. Those are the things which drive us most and guide what we do.   Life can be hard. Life can sometimes feel like a series of annoyances and crises. Keeping our eyes fixed on God, letting him be the lighthouse, helps us keep the daily struggles we face in perspective.

The fact that Jesus gives us the possibility of being born from above also means that we always have the possibility to turn around, to point our lives in another direction. No matter how bad things have become, we can always start again. We can always turn to God, and have his help in turning from bitterness to forgiveness, from vengeance to mercy, from sadness to joy. With God, it is never too late. We can always turn around, adjust course, and begin again. Always.

And the third thing that being born from above means is that this turning around is from above, not from ourselves, and not from anyone or anything else. In some ways the whole point of this dense and complex passage is that Jesus is the Savior, and no one else. Not me, not you, not money, not a nice house, not your spouse, not your children, but Jesus.

Everybody’s looking for a savior. Every single one of us has experienced pain in our lives, and we are all searching for something or someone to help us know love, and peace, and joy. We all try to get that from lots of things and lots of people. But we are never truly, deeply joyful or peaceful until we seek that salvation in the only one who can give it: in Jesus. The one whom God has sent.

Today is Trinity Sunday, and so I hope at the very least you’re happy that I’ve spared you from a long explanation of a complex doctrine. I haven’t even used the word “perichoresis.” But I will say this: if you think that the doctrine of the Trinity is hard to believe, that it is weird and irrational, then you’re thinking about it correctly, because in some ways that’s the whole point. The whole point of concocting a dense, and irrational, and complicated way of describing God is to remind us that can’t be limited by our ideas and formulas. Faith isn’t something we do by our intellectual might and understanding; faith is a gift we receive from God. Faith itself is part of being born from above. The crazy, irrational, dense doctrine of the Trinity forces us to remember that.

Since we’re talking about being born again, we should also have an altar call. As Episcopalians, we often don’t know what to make of the altar calls that happen in some churches, where people are invited forward after a long sermon to have one of those emotional conversion experiences, but we too have an altar call. Every week, every-one is invited to this altar, no matter who you are, or where you are. And when you come and hold out your hands to receive the bread, your also invited to hold out your spirit, to re-orient your life to God. You’re invited to reconnect with what is most important, to adjust your course in the midst of all that life is throwing at you, toward the lighthouse that is God. Jesus said, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Come to this table, and be reborn each day, each week, and each moment, from God’s power, and God’s love, and know the kingdom in the midst of your life. Amen.