Sunday, June 25, 2017

if there's a plan, it's love

My last sermon preached at City Road this morning.  This feels a little bit like sharing a private love letter, but at the same time, it helps explains some major thoughts I've been having.

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Matthew 10:29-31

29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30 And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31 So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

Image result for two sparrows for a penny

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the phrase “God has a plan.”  Probably it’s because I’m trying so hard to figure out what God’s preferred plan is for my life at this point in time.  I have heard that phrase tossed about over and over.  Sometimes we use it in casual ways, to dismiss coincidences or happenstance – a way of saying “everything happens for a reason; the universe is not as random as it seems.”  Sometimes we use it in big ways, usually when we are trying to explain the major disappointments or unfairnesses or catastrophes of human life.

But . . . does God have a plan?  When God finished the initial act of creating the earth and the skies and the sea and all animals and humankind, did God then decide what the fate of every particle on earth would be?  And if so . . . how can we possibly reconcile that understanding with the idea that we are free to act in ways both good and evil?  I am perfectly free to act in a way that I think God might admire, or a way that God might find evil.  God created me, and each person here, with the capacity for enormous goodness or enormous evil.  Did God then plan for me to act in that evil way?  Does everything happen for a reason?  Did God plan natural disasters and cancer and the death of children?  I just can’t square it up in my mind or in my soul.  My understanding of God is of a tender parent who cares deeply for every inch of what God has created, and refuses to surrender any of it or exclude it from his sweep of reconciliation.  However, we still always have the freedom to deny our end of that reconciliatory action.

I think that a lot of this conception of God as totally “in control” comes back to the way that we prefer to characterize God.  Each of us has our favorite metaphors or images for understanding the inscrutable Godhead.  Some like to think of a father, some to think of a mother.  Some like to think of a powerful warrior, others like to think of a tender best friend.  None of these are wrong, and each of them just begins to describe one tiny corner of what God contains.  Historically, we have tried to protect three major characteristics of God, and I think that this is where we get this idea of “God having a plan.”  We want to understand God as omniscient – that is, all-knowing.  We want to know that God is omnipotent – all-powerful.  And we need to feel that God is omnipresent – that God can see and be aware of all happenings both small and huge in God’s creation.  If we were to consider the fact that some happening might be outside of God’s plan, then we might be surrendering some of God’s power or knowledge. 

But I’ve been thinking of a different way that I would prefer to understand God.  Even more than omniscient or omnipresent or omnipotent, I would love to know that my God, in whom I trust completely (or at least try to!), is omnamorous.  By this, I mean that God is all-loving.  Before God is powerful or present or knowledgeable, God is loving.  And this brings us to our Gospel reading for the morning.

We hear many different ideas in this mash-up of sayings that Jesus gave to the disciples as they were sent out on their mission.  The part that has always captured my attention is the bit about the sparrows.  Jesus says, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?  Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.  And even the hairs of your head are all counted.  So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”  Two sparrows for a penny.  This sounds like a quaint little turn of phrase for us today, like “shave and a haircut – six bits.”  But for Jesus’ audience, it would have been as mundane as “strawberries four dollars for two quarts at Kroger this week.”  See, sparrows were the cheapest items for sale in the temple courtyard for sacrifice.  The poorer folks in the audience would have bought two sparrows for a penny more times than they could remember.  Each time they brought this for their sacrifice, they would have been reminded of how poor and meager it was, but that God still found it acceptable.

Jesus is telling his listeners that even those two sparrows, worth only a half-penny each, are of great value to their Creator.  They do not fall to the ground apart from the love of God.  So, then, how much more must God love and fiercely care for each one of those of us made in his image?  His love for us is so great that he knows, without glancing at his notes, how many hairs we each have on our heads.  Of course, for some of us, that is quite easy, as there haven’t been any hairs there for years!  But the idea still carries weight:  God knows everything about us, the admirable parts and the parts that shame us, and God loves every bit of it.  Before God can be powerful in our lives, before God can have knowledge and presence in our lives, God shows us the depth of his love.

This is the last Sunday that I will preach for you at City Road, at least for the foreseeable future.  This is the last Sunday that I will worship with this congregation, as we are gathered here together now.  These last sermons are always bittersweet, and I hate how much focus is placed on me in the giving of this message.  One of the primary things I try to do, especially in preaching, is to be a sign that points beyond myself to an eternal reality.  I never want the focus or attention to only stop at me.  I am not doing my job well if I don’t create something for you to see that is beyond me.  But if there is one thing that I have tried to do here, in the last five years, it is to love you well.  You have allowed me into your lives in a way that is sacred and deep.  I have seen intimate moments and been privileged with secrets that are far beyond what I deserve.  I have observed fights and the brokenness of human nature – and I have been so guilty of that brokenness, too.  All I have been able to do, in return for this trust, is to love you. 

See, if I had come in here five years ago and begun to proclaim about my power, and my knowledge, and my presence, but I had never shown any love for you . . . would you have trusted me in the way that you have?  If I had insisted that you honor “my plan” for your lives, even when it included hardship and suffering, but I hadn’t shown you any love, would you have accepted my leadership?  I don’t think you would have. 

And so it is with God.  God loves us so desperately that he is not particularly concerned with how we feel about his power or presence or knowledge.  I have said for a long time, regarding atheism, that I don’t think God really cares that much whether people believe in God or not.  God’s reality isn’t changed by someone’s belief or disbelief in it.  God’s primary agenda is love and relationship, and everything else falls in line behind that. 

I do believe that, on a grand scale, there is a plan for the redemption and rebirth of the entire creation.  I believe that, in the end, goodness and mercy triumph over the power of sin and evil and death.  But as far as the details?  I’m just not sure that God has such a strict plan for any of us.  It’s pretty terrifying to begin to think about that, especially when we have spent our lifetimes reassuring ourselves and each other that the things that befall us were placed there by our deity.  In fact, it forces us to accept a whole lot of mystery and ambiguity and unknowing, which is a terribly uncomfortable place for most of us to dwell.

My former professor and friend Viki Matson posted this poem the other day, and it seemed to fit so well with the scripture I was studying, and with this idea:
God does not go around pulling birds out of the air.
God is not a guy sitting at a control panel.
God does not “plan” your victory or defeat,
cancer, your accident, the moment of your death.
Things do not happen “for a reason.”
Stuff happens. Birds are free.
So are germs, and hurricanes, and idiots. 
Love is God,
the pure energy of being, setting us free,
with us in every moment and movement of our freedom.
Jesus didn't say
sparrows don't fall without a plan,
he said they don't fall without God. 
God's plan is not a mechanical routine.
God's plan is that you are free,
and that you thrive and love.
God's plan is that whatever happens
God is with you with love and grace.
Stop trying to figure out God's plan
and pay attention to God's presence.
After all that's what you want:
not luck
but to be with God.

“Stop trying to figure out God’s plan and pay attention to God’s presence.”  Wow.  If only each of us could really absorb that.  No matter what, God is with us.  No matter what, God loves us deeply.  No matter what, God is striving constantly to restore the relationship that has been lost and broken in the ups and downs of being human. 

City Road Chapel, I leave you with this idea.  When we think of what we want to lift up most about who God is, before we rush to these three big ideas (omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence), recall that God is love.  God is constant love.  God is freedom.  Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is love.  I love each and every one of you, and that will never change. 


This is the word of the Lord for this morning, thanks be to God.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

on hope

 I preached this sermon this morning, and I thought it was pretty okay.  Maybe it can speak to you.
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Romans 5:1-8
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. 
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.  (NRSV)

When was the last time that you let yourself hope for something?  Not just a little hope – like for a good parking spot, or for a friend to get over being mad at you.  I mean a big hope.  One that really changes some things about what you want and how you act.  A hope on which some big stuff hinges.  I have hoped for a couple of things recently, and been disappointed in the outcome.  I will tell you about one of them.

I have shared with many of you, over time, that I feel that God may be calling me into the field of teaching, in a seminary or college setting.  Nothing brings me more joy than being able to dig into a text of some sort, and bring out the ideas that I think are meaningful and useful to a body of people.  I have been able to do a lot of this sort of work here at City Road – in creating curriculum for Vacation Bible School; in teaching the Thursday morning Bible study; in studying scripture and drawing out themes for preaching.  But I have felt for several years now that perhaps this is the work that God wants me to do with my whole heart and life:  writing and research and teaching and helping prepare other leaders in the church.  One of my goals in my upcoming year of leave is to discern more fully where God might be calling me in this way, and to apply to many programs for doctoral work, which would be necessary for this kind of teaching.

As I began to dig deeper into the scholarship that I’m interested in (which is very boring – church history and British Wesleyan studies!), I found a woman at Stanford University who is doing the very thing that I want to be doing.  I read her books.  I read her articles.  I contacted her.  I visited with her in Palo Alto.  I felt sure that my future was opening up in her direction.  I began to think about what it might look like to move my family to California.  I had hard and heartfelt discussions with Jeff and other family members about how we might maintain our family structure in this scenario.  And, last December, I made my application for doctoral work there.

Then, the waiting.  I waited for what felt like six millennia, but it was really just a couple of months.  I got the email on a Friday, and I opened it immediately.  And it began: “we regret to inform you . . .”  I was completely deflated.  I had allowed myself to experience this hope so deeply, so totally, that when it wasn’t fulfilled in the way that I preferred, it was a really hard blow to me.  I spent at least a month in a mode of self-pity, wondering why I had ever let myself think I could get into such a challenging program.  I allowed the outcome of this situation I had hoped for to determine my self-worth, and so my self-worth suffered badly.

It’s my instinctual response to decide, in these down moments, that I will just stop hoping for anything.  Easier that way, right?  If you don’t dare to hope for what you desire, then you will never be disappointed by not having it.  Or at least that’s the logic of this world.  But in our Scripture today, Paul tells us something radically different:  hope will not disappoint us.  More fully: “we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance; character; and character, hope.  And hope does not disappoint us.” 

Paul exposes for us the idea that suffering is inherent in our current world.  We know this to be true – just look around.  Do you see and sense that things aren’t right?  Do you wonder why there is so much hurt and injustice around us?  We know that suffering is part of life.  God never desires us to seek additional suffering, no; what life gives to each of us will be plenty.  But the suffering that we will inevitably encounter produces perseverance.  There is only one way through suffering – you have to hold on.  As Vicki Jo tells me when we play, “I’m Going on a Bear Hunt,” and we come to the river: “Can’t go under it, can’t go around it, can’t go above it.  Have to go through it.”  And then that perseverance produces character.

I want to stop for a moment to discuss character.  It’s all the rage these days to talk about “character education” in schools.  That means helping kids learn to be good people, basically, in addition to all the academic skills that they need.  But when I think of what have been the “character building” experiences in my life, they have all involved failure and suffering.   Breakups, mistakes, bad gambles, wrong calculations, death and separation.  These have built character.  Suffering (and, to be honest, sometimes self-inflicted suffering) has produced this character.  So, if we want our children to have strong character, we have to allow them to fail in ways that sometimes seem terrifying to us – ways that have high stakes and real consequences.  As a parent, I understand exactly how difficult it is to allow kids to fail and suffer, especially when we know we can swoop in and save the day.  But how, then, will they ever develop the character that Paul describes?

Indeed, Paul is acting like this kind of parent in the letter that he’s writing to the Romans.  He is reminding them that the hope we hold as Christians is patently absurd.  We hope for the day when Christ will return, and we continue to hope that God is in the process of healing the brokenness of this world.  This is the hope that does not disappoint us.  But Paul was also working with a group of early believers who had very specific expectations about how that hope was going to be fulfilled.  They were quite certain that Christ would return within their lifetimes, and so the organization of a church and a set of guidelines around that church was really not high on their agenda.  But this kind of attachment to outcome is what leads to disappointment.  Paul is outlining for his listeners the process that will lead to hope (suffering, then perseverance, then character, then hope).  But he is careful to specify that this is the hope that does not disappoint. 

This was my problem in my situation with Stanford, I’m afraid.  I had become far too attached to one very specific outcome of my hope.  That attachment produced expectations, and when those expectations were not fulfilled, it was crushing for me.  But I think what Paul is getting at in our scripture is that it’s not the outcome of our hope that is particularly important.  It is the kind of people we become when we continuously hope for something, without disappointment.  It is the actual process of hoping, rather than the goal orientation of seeing a specific end result to that hope.  Hope is such a crucial ingredient to the human spirit.  We have all known someone who has simply given up hope, and has died.  Even in the absence of all other disease or affliction, the loss of hope is fatal to life.  It’s not too much, I think, to say that hope is necessary for life. 

Emily Dickinson wrote a beautiful poem about this. 

Hope is the thing with feathers /
That perches in the soul, /
And sings the tune without the words, /
And never stops at all, /

And sweetest in the gale is heard; /
And sore must be the storm /
That could abash the little bird /
That kept so many warm. /

I’ve heard it in the chillest land, /
And on the strangest sea; /
Yet, never, in extremity, /
It asked a crumb of me.

I love how she describes hope as “singing the tune without the words.”  This is the kind of nonattachment to the outcome of hope that I believe Paul is encouraging for us.  We know the tune – we feel it inside of us.  But we aren’t quite sure of the words.  God will provide the words that we need in the time that is right.  Meanwhile, our task is to become refined by suffering into people of perseverance and character who hold this kind of hope, for ourselves and for our world.

Hope also involves waiting, at which I am absolutely the worst.  In researching this text, I read a sermon that my favorite theologian Paul Tillich wrote, entitled “Waiting.”  He describes the tension that waiting produces, but he also encourages us to remember that waiting for something implies that we already have some part of it inside us.  He writes, “Our time is a time of waiting; waiting is its special destiny.  And every time is a time of waiting, waiting for the breaking in of eternity.  All time runs forward.  All time, both in history and in personal life, is expectation.  Time itself is waiting, waiting not for another time, but for that which is eternal.”

We do hold that hope that does not disappoint, and that hope enables us to wait patiently for the way that God will work this whole mess out. 


And what about me, then, and my disappointed hope?  Well – it’s a funny thing about hoping.  You think that you’re just completely done with it.  You think you can just stop.  But we are programmed, as healthy humans, to hope for things.  It’s an instinctual urge that is a necessary ingredient for the human spirit.  So I will be throwing my hat back in the ring this December, to Stanford and to a slew of other schools.  I have earned some character stripes in this whole experience, and I have learned an important lesson about hope:  when we can cease a tight attachment to an expected outcome of our hope, it will never disappoint us.