Our last in the series of “Sermons by Request” continued this morning. Finding out that this was the passage chosen made my head spin a little… I didn’t know what I’d make of such. But in the e d thankful for this week’s theological wrestlings.
One of the most important questions of faith that we all must answer, no matter where we are on our spiritual journey is, “What is my relationship to God? And God’s to me?”
As we begin to answer this question, it is important to start in the beginning.
It has been said in countless formal and informal studies of the spiritual beliefs and attitudes about God of adults has much to do with the relationship he or she had with their parents. After all, our parents and our immediate family members are our first introduction to navigating the world of human relationships. From our connection with our parents, we gather a lot of inferences about the evil or the good in the world, whom we are to fear, who we are to trust, what it means to love and what punishment feels like.
But even more so than this, this association is important to pay attention to because of how we talk about God in our faith communities. After all, how we speak about God in church each Sunday usually includes a lot of parental language. We say, “Our father who art in heaven” as we begin the Lord’s prayer together. We pray spontaneous prayers to our “heavenly father” or “father God” and sometimes even to “Mother and Father God.” We baptize in the name of the “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” And, I know if you’ve been listening closely to my sermons, you’ve heard me say once or twice something about God as our heavenly Parent.
Blogger Lisa Beklin, recently said in a New York Times post, “Motherlode” the following about the relationship between earthly parents and attitudes about God:
When parents are more supportive of a child’s autonomy – giving her a sense that she is control of her own life – a child is more likely to see God as a more forgiving God. God is an authority figure to be respected, but he is less fearsome.
On the other hand, if parents are extremely strict and punishing – dictating every moment of a child’s life – their children are more likely to believe that God is punishing, angry, and powerful. Girls are more affected by this dynamic than boys, and the way Mom disciplines has more of an effect in this direction than the way Dad does.
And for children who have extremely strained relationships with parents – or when a parent is absent from their lives – scholars have found that children in those relationships increasingly think of God as a surrogate parent. God as the ultimate father figure. They endow God with the traits of an idealized version of the missing parent – someone who is caring, attentive, and highly involved in their day-to-day lives. He’s an understanding, patient confidant, always there to offer encouragement and support.
I don’t know what gifts or challenges your parents gave you which have required potential reframing or growing from in the spiritual life of your adulthood, but I do know this, there isn’t a person in this congregation this morning who didn’t get at least some of your ideas about God from your family situation.
And so when we arrive at our epistle lesson from this morning– one of your favorite texts (and in this case of how hard I found myself working to make something of this passage, I really want to know who you are)– it might be very easy for us to read into this text what we think we know about God from our own earthly parental experiences, especially if the parents we had related to us like “the great judge” or “the angry one” or “we could never do anything right” type.
For upon first reading of this text, when it begins with the words, “for the wrath of God” our minds easily can go toward emotions of God as an overbearing, chastising, hateful parent. For the word “wrath” associated with any person’s name, doesn’t paint pictures of someone we really want to spent much time with. In fact, we want to spent as least amount of time with them as possible!
But, is this who God is? What does it mean for us to claim God as our parent?
The book of Romans– a letter to the church at Rome, that we know was written by the apostle Paul, is one of the richest books of theology in the entire New Testament. It’s a book that seeks to help the earliest converts to Christianity understand this Jesus whom they had put their faith in. It’s a book that seeks to lay out the relationship between Judaism and the new movement called Christianity. It’s a book that provides the growing communities of followers of Jesus the opportunity to think in detail about who it is that they are worshipping. And from best that we know, Paul wrote Romans to a community of both Jews and Gentiles alike– who were living in a secular culture of worship of many gods, so they could also say as he did in verse 16 of chapter 1, that “they were not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Upon first reading of Romans 1:18-25, it seems clear to me that Paul is telling us that God has standards. And these standards of relationship begin in righteousness.
We read, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.”
Or, in other words, God’s original intention for humanity seems that we were created, Genesis 1 tells us as “very good” but we made choices early on to begin to live as people outside of the bounds of how we were created to live, in complete goodness of our good God.
Ultimately there is a way that God wants to live– in a world of all love, of all peace and all joy of the best things, but we’ve made choices throughout the generations and even within our own life that have robbed us of this best living.
And, in God’s emphasis on righteousness, we, who as a people have fallen short of God’s best for us, are loved with boundaries. We are loved– not in a “we get everything we want” kind of way, but loved within the parameters that model for us what is better choices kind of living.
Again, here we might want to turn our noses up at God and say, “You are still talking about sin again, and am not sure I can believe a God who uses words like that.”
But consider this, when is the last time you were around a family with children or a group of children that you knew didn’t have parents that focused much of their time (or focused too much of their time) on their children?
Think toddler throwing food across the floor hitting other nearby customers at the restaurant with noodles or remains of chicken fingers after they’ve repeatively been asked nicely not to . . .
Consider early grade school child stopping crowds around them with their screams in the middle of the mall or in the parking lot of a grocery store when their mom told them they could not buy something . . .
Think smart mouth of young teen child talking back and then storming off from an adult conversation and slamming the door behind them . . .
Not that this is an occasion to single out children who like us adults, are just having a bad day and may be without the words yet to express their pain (you know, sometimes we all just need to have a good cry, even in public) but the larger point being: that without constantly reinforced consequences of poor choices– boundaries directed toward appropriate behavior, we are not going to find our way to a better, more healthy path.
And the same is true of God, I believe, as Romans 1 lays it out for us. God loves us enough to not always say “YES” to us. Just as author Anne Lamott once wrote, “No is a complete sentence,” so too God also tells us no sometimes. Saying no to us is just what God does from time to time. Look with me at verse 24, “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their own hearts.” Or in other words, God allows us to reap what we sow: not to be mean, but to love!
But this does not mean that we are eternally screwed– left out in the cold on our own, with grave consequences of our shortcomings forever damming us to a place of unpleasantness. Not, God is faithful. We are allowed to taste the bitterness of our own poor choices so that we can learn and come into deeper relationship with the Divine.
If you hear nothing else today, here this and bind these words of hope in your heart: God is a relentless pursuer of relationship with us. It doesn’t matter who we are. It doesn’t matter what we’ve done. It doesn’t matter how alone we feel. God will make a way for us to be in relationship.
God is like the parent who sends their child to time out for a while to think about the consequences and then later when time is up, crawls on the floor to sit beside them to talk through things. Holding them, hugging them close, then suggesting and going with the child to an activity or way of being in the world that is more appropriate for them. Loving through presence.
Ultimately, it is that God shows us through Jesus how much we are loved. Just as we talked about last week– through the incarnation of the holy in Jesus Christ, we are given opportunity to know and experience God as one of us. God became our Parent in Jesus Christ who came close.
Fredrick Buchner in his book, The Magnificent Defeat this about our relationship of children of Parent God:“We are children, perhaps, at the very moment when we know that it is as children that God loves us – not because we have deserved his love and not in spite of our undeserving; not because we try and not because we recognize the futility of our trying; but simply because he has chosen to love us. We are children because he is our father [and I’d add mother]; and all of our efforts, fruitful and fruitless, to do good, to speak truth, to understand, are the efforts of children who, for all their precocity, are children still in that before we loved him, he loved us, as children, through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Jesus shows us the way of the love of the Father. Jesus shows us what God as Parent looks like.
But what about those, we might wander who have not heard of Jesus? What about those who have not been given exposure to the glorious grace of faith, as we have, all sitting in this room this morning? What about them?
Well, to this Paul, tells us something else about the relationship between our Parent God and all of us as God’s children. We, who are made in God’s image have all been given a seed of longing within us for what is greater than ourselves, for what is whole, for what, I dare say is even righteouss. In particular, our text for this morning, tells us about creation– about the splendor of the colors, of the textures, of the peaks and valleys, of the breeze, of the sounds, and of the night lights all around us. Creation is just one example, Paul writes of how we have been given post-it notes all around our lives. We’ve been given post-it notes all around the house call this world in which we all reside that lead our longing back toward what can ultimately fulfill it.
Didn’t the great hymn writer once say, ” O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder, consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made; I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, thy power throughout the universe displayed. Then sings my soul, My Savior God, to Thee, How great Thou art, How great Thou art?”
And, if not creation, something else. Unexpected relationships that just show up and redirect our paths to what is holy. Intersections with communities of faith seekers, like those found within a congregation like this one. Groups of people who are doing works of charity, not just for the sake of feeling good about themselves, but in the name of our Lord. And in all this things we are pointed on our way to God.
Bottom line– the longing for God is something that is in all of us. If we pay attention to its tugs, it’s going to put us on a search to find our truest home with God, our Parent.
Therefore, to claim God this day as our Parent, is not about what was or wasn’t done to us as a child. It’s not about the big man up on the throne looking down on us shaking his iron fist at us. It’s not even about our shortcomings dangled in front of our face as a way of the Divine saying to us, “You are awful. I hate you.”
No, rather, in spite of our sin– our missing the mark of God’s best for us, God is a loving parent who helps to draw us back to center, back to wholeness, back to healing, and back to peace through whatever means necessary. God shows us more of Jesus.
I don’t know about you, but I need a parent like this. A parent who lovingly pursues relationship with me. A parent who tells me the truth. A parent who teaches me how to grow more comfortable in my own skin each day. A parent who says no. A parent who teaches me how to love others in the same way too.
Let us give thanks this day to the Father and Mother of us all- our God who has called us God’s own.