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.


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.

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