June 25, 2016
A sermon manuscript
A psalm of David. Let all that I am praise the LORD; with my whole heart, I will praise his holy name.
Let all that I am praise the LORD; may I never forget the good things he does for me.
He forgives all my sins and heals all my diseases.
He redeems me from death and crowns me with love and tender mercies.
He fills my life with good things. My youth is renewed like the eagle's!
The LORD gives righteousness and justice to all who are treated unfairly.
The LORD is compassionate and merciful, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love.
He will not constantly accuse us, nor remain angry forever.
He does not punish us for all our sins; he does not deal harshly with us, as we deserve.
For his unfailing love toward those who fear him is as great as the height of the heavens above the earth.
The LORD is like a father to his children, tender and compassionate to those who fear him.
For he knows how weak we are; he remembers we are only dust.
Our days on earth are like grass; like wildflowers, we bloom and die.
The wind blows, and we are gone--as though we had never been here.
But the love of the LORD remains forever with those who fear him. His salvation extends to the children's children
of those who are faithful to his covenant, of those who obey his commandments!
"You parents--if your children ask for a loaf of bread, do you give them a stone instead?
Or if they ask for a fish, do you give them a snake? Of course not!
So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him.
"Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets.
I walked into a jeweler's store near my house to get batteries replaced in a couple of Karin's watches. The woman behind the counter took my watches and looked them over. headed toward the work bench. The last time they replaced batteries it had taken a little while, so I asked if I could leave them and pick them up later in the morning. I said I was just around the corner working at Starbucks . She asked what I was doing at Starbucks.
“Writing,” I said.
“What are you writing?”
“I'm working on a novel about a preacher and his son. The preacher is a man of great integrity. Kind. Generous. Devout. Honest. Now, in his old age he is facing an excruciating dilemma. His son has died in a car accident. Tomorrow, Jim is going to preach his son's funeral, and Jim, the preacher has to choose between the gospel he has preached for forty years and his son.
The son, Keith, was a good man, but not a believer. Because of his integrity, Jim cannot even hint that his son will be saved, not unless he also admits the gospel he has been preaching for forty years is inadequate. If it were a funeral for anyone else, Jim could hide behind the idea that judgment is up to God and leave it at that. He could say that only God knows the heart. But this was his son. And Jim did know his heart. And Keith did not believe. They had talked and talked. Keith knew the gospel and had decided it did not ring true. He understood Romans and refused to believe it was the word of God. If Jim preached hope of eternal life in the face of what he knew about his son it would be a denial of the gospel he had preached through four decades.
So Jim faces the terrible choice of saving his religion or saving his son, a terrible, awful dilemma.
“I know people like that,” she said. “One of my friends has been devout all her life. Now her son has come out as gay. She doesn't know what to do.”
I left the watches and headed back to Starbucks where I lived with Jim's agony.
Working on this sermon, I replayed that conversation in my head. As a dad, if I were faced with the choice of saving my kids or my theology, which would I choose? Which do we love more, our religion or our kids?
This past Sunday was Father's day. One of my girls gave me a card, the sweetest possible card. According to her card I was the perfect dad. She did not mention the time I swatted her across the room when she bit my leg. She overlooked the times I was an hour late picking her up from school. She graciously neglected to mention other failings and imperfections. For the moment, and in that beautiful card, I was the perfect father. That's what we do on Father's Day and Mother's Day, right? We celebrate the good stuff. We omit reference to failures and inadequacies. We recall the best. We practice selective attention.
The Bible builds its vision of God on similar selective vision.
In Psalm our Old Testament reading this morning we heard these words
The LORD is like a father to his children, tender and compassionate to those who fear him. For he knows how weak we are; he remembers we are only dust. Psalm 103
Not all fathers are tender and compassionate. And even tender and compassionate fathers are not unfailingly tender and compassionate. But we build on the goodness we have observed in fathers we know and imagine a God who is even better.”
Karin talks of the special relationship she had with her father. Her mother was strong, smart, and good. But when Karin needed some tender compression, when she needed empathy, she went to papa. When she had messed up, she knew she could find sanctuary in papa's presence. An embrace. Understanding. Shelter.
God is like that. God is the perfect father, the daddy we who are older wish had been, the kind of dad younger men aspire to be, the kind of father some of us wish we had.
The LORD is like a father to his children, tender and compassionate
Throughout the Bible, the most frequent metaphor for God is Father. Old Testament and New Testament. Moses and the Psalms. Jesus. All repeatedly invoke"father" as a word picture of God. Which raises the question, what kind of father? Answer: God is the Father's Day dad. The sum of the best we can imagine a dad to be.
Regrettably, I acknowledge there are other kinds of dads.
My friend John Benedetto used to tell me stories of abuse he received at the hands of his father. I still shake my head in disbelief and horror when I recall John's stories.
My friend Russell endured unspeakable abuse from his mother and beatings from his father throughout his entire childhood. I don't know how he functions as a human being. It is difficult. He has fractious relationships. No wonder.
I tell these stories just to make it clear that I am aware of the dark side of fathering. if we are going to understand God as father we must decide what kind of father we mean. Not every version of father is worthy of serving as an illustration of the character of God.
Rooted deep in humanity is a conviction that fathers are supposed to be protectors and sustainers. As the Psalm states, the natural, good character of a father is tenderness and compassion. It is when fathers are like that that they serve as reliable illustrations of God.
This human knowledge is endorsed in the Gospel. In the synoptic gospels, Jesus frequently pictures God as a father. In every instance, Jesus assumes that "father"means the Hallmark version of father. Every time Jesus mentions God as father, Jesus is offering reassurance, confidence, and hope. Jesus does sometimes speak of God's authority, but when he does, uses other metaphors like kings and judges. “Father,” for Jesus is not an "authority figure." Father is an attentive provider.
When we drink deeply from this vision of God, we view some traditional religious concerns in new light.
The question: what do I have to do to be saved, gets turned on its head and becomes what could I possibly do to be lost? Can I be forgiven changes into "richly forgiven I am!
In the most famous “father” story in the Bible, there is a father and two sons. One, the younger son, son is a total jerk. He asks his father for his share of the inheritance. He can't wait for dad to die. He the wants the money now. Dad gives him the money. And this younger son goes off to a foreign land where he blows all his money on parties, drugs, and women. When his money is gone, he ends up working for a farmer feeding a pigs—the ultimate come down for a Jewish young man. He is so destitute he envies the pigs their slop.
He suddenly thinks, “Wait. Even the servants in my father's house eat better than I do. I'll go home and ask for a job as a servant.”
He heads home. Entering the neighborhood, while he's a long way off up the road, his father spies him. Dad races down the driveway to meet him. Embraces him and welcomes him. Dad orders a calf to be slaughtered and preparations for a feast started.
Meanwhile the older brother is out taking care of the farm. He comes back to the house, sees all the preparations for the feast, and learns it is a welcome-home party for his ne-er-do-well brother. The older brother is ticked off. He refuses to come into the house.
At this point, we realize the prime villain in the story is not the younger son. He has already been redeemed. He has seen the light and come home. The villain is the older brother, the responsible one.
Noticing his son's absence, dad goes out and begs the older brother to join the party. The older son huffs, “All these years I have slaved for you and did you ever give me a calf or even a goat for a feast with my friends?”
The story ends with one of the most magnificent speeches in all literature. The father says, “Son, everything I have is yours.” --the rest of the inheritance, the entire farm, the whole operation. It's all yours.-- Son, you're being a jerk. Still, everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate. Your brother who was dead is returned to me alive.”
Everything I have is yours.
In this story who is saved? In the end, who is at home in the father's house? Everyone. The only question is, will the older son join the party.
The Father's Day dad is perfect. A paragon of strength and virtue, compassion and hope, faithfulness and understanding. And this kind of dad is successful. He saves his family. He saves his kids. All of them. This is the best picture of God.
After last week's sermon, someone asked me in the lobby. “Are you a closet universalist?” I said, No, I'm not a closet universalist. I'm a very public “for all practical purposes universalist.” If someone genuinely, with informed consent, preferred damnation, I'm sure God would honor the request. But who, I wonder, would actually make such a choice?
In Corinthians 15 we read that all will be changed. At the last trump. No one is ready—as we are—for eternal life. So, at the Second Coming all must be fixed in preparation for their life in paradise. Everyone who enters Paradise will be changed to prepare them for happy citizenship there. How many people, given the option of repair, would decline it?
When we view God as father, the divine, perfect, Hallmark father, it is natural to ask who is God unable or unwilling to fix? Who is so messed up that God cannot heal them and create for them a welcome place in his house?
After writing this sermon I was back at campmeeting Friday evening. Pastor Mika and I were standing together talking when a young woman walked up. “You guys are from Green Lake Church, right?”
We did introductions. Then she jumped straight to it. Her uncle had told about a sermon I had preached. The uncle said she should hear it. She hadn't gotten around to watching it, but she wanted to know how Green Lake Church treated gay people. We talked for a few minutes. Her family had connections with our congregation a generation or two in the past. She talked about several non-Adventist congregations she had investigated in her search for a church home. But she was Adventist. No other church would do. Initially, I had thought her question was theoretical. I imagined her as a young person putting her church under the microscope of youthful idealism. But as she talked I realized she was asking a personal question: is there room in the Father's house for me?
What would you tell her? What would you have me tell her? Do we love our religion more than our kids?
The minister I described earlier, Jim, has preached Paul's gospel for forty years. That Gospel rescued his soul from darkness and gave him hope and purpose. Like the majority of Christian theologians through the centuries he had imagined the machinery of salvation that worked for him was the only apparatus available to God for the salvation of his children. If you did not believe and confess just the way it is described in Romans 10, there can be no salvation for you.
So Jim's son who could not believe Paul's theories was necessarily damned. Anyone like the young woman at campmeeting who could not embrace Paul's sexual ethic was damned.
I imagine traditional expressions of the gospel to be like a lifeboat discovered by floundering, shipwrecked sailors. As they clamber into the boat, they give thanks for their salvation and immediately fret that everyone who did not make it into the lifeboat must necessarily drown. But what those inside the boat cannot see is that God has an entire armada of whales swallowing people and spitting them up on the beach while the good folk in the life boat are still waiting to be picked up.
The preacher's son, Kieth, is outside the lifeboat of the church. That is true. He is outside the historic Christian formulas for salvation. He is not beyond the reach of God's whales.
The young woman at campmeeting is outside Paul's sexual ethic. Like nearly all of us she disagrees with some of what Paul wrote about sexuality. (Remember, according to Paul the highest spiritual life requires celibacy. Marriage was allowed only to hormone-driven people incapable of sustaining celibacy.)
Neither Keith nor the woman fit inside our understanding of good and wholesome religion. So what do we do?
Will we guard the door against the unworthy or will we join the father in scanning the distant road for the slightest hint someone is heading home? Will we, when we notice an absence in the party--will we leave the party, leave the comfort of our secure religion and go looking. And when we find a son or daughter outside will we remind them and ourselves, all that we have is theirs.