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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