Sunday, July 31, 2016

Not Perfect

Not Perfect from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.

Colossians 3:1-11
1So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that on earth, 3for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him glory.

5Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly; fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). 6On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient. 7These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life. 8But now you must get rid of all such things - anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. 9Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices 10and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. 11In that renewal there is no longer Greek and jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

Hosea 11:1-11
1When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. 2The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.

3Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. 4I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.

5They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me. 6The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because of their schemes. 7My people are bent on turning away from me. To the Most High they call, but he does not raise them up at all.

8How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. 9I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.

10They shall go after the LORD, who roars like a lion; when he roars, his children shall come trembling from the west. 11They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, like doves from the land of Assyria; and I will return them to their homes, says the LORD.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.

I’m grateful to be back in the pulpit after spending two weeks on paternity leave. After two weeks of a sleep schedule that was determined by a new-born, I can say it was the least-restful leave I’ve ever taken.

Between the joyful stresses of new-parenthood and only being back in the office since Wednesday, I was tempted to coast in for this Sunday, write an easy sermon, or even just dust off an old one, and get back in the rhythm of worship leadership without the added mental and spiritual strain of sermon-writing.

But something told me, as I pulled in to work on Wednesday morning, to look at the suggested texts for this Sunday and see what they were.

O great. The suggested Old Testament passage directly addresses parental relationships. I guess the Holy Spirit is not interested in letting me take it easy. Instead a difficult and often abusive prophet shows us pictures of the parent-child relationship between God and Israel. 

The beginning of the passage is filled with facebook-worthy portraits of Israel’s childhood. In days gone by we’d have called them “Kodak moments.” Remembered by the LORD and preserved here in the words of the prophet Hosea: “…it was I who taught Ephraim to walk. I took them in my arms… I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.” Hosea pours out images of a loving parent so that we might understand the loving closeness of God.

I never saw myself as the kind of person who would post a thousand pictures of his kid on the internet. I kind of rolled my eyes at my friends who did. Yes. Your baby is cute. We get it. Yet as soon as he was wrapped up in his first hospital blanket, minutes old, I started doing the same thing. The adorable face, the entertaining little poses as he explores the world for the first time.

If we only look at the Facebook-worthy posts, if we only remember the Kodak moments, we can gather a collage that makes our lives look perfect to an outside observer. We’re not. No adult is perfect, and we pass our imperfections on to our children, generation after generation. If we ignore the ways we are not perfect, we’re only getting part of the picture, and I’d much rather love a whole person than a flawless facade.

Hosea doesn’t overlook the imperfection of Israel. Hosea puts their sins at the forefront of this prophetic speech. “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.” No matter how much God reaches out to his children, they continue to turn away. Their rejection breaks God’s heart, and their sinful practices offend his holiness.

God, the loving parent whom Jesus called Father, taught his people to walk in faith only to see them run away from him instead. That loving Lord, filled with a desire to nurture his covenant people, is heartbroken and offended. A little wrath is in order, but we’ve got to remember that “God’s wrath is the fire of God’s love, ordered toward restoration, not destruction.” This is a punishment that is meant to bring the people back. “They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me.” Rather than the freedom of following God, they will find themselves again in bondage, living under the violence and oppression of the Assyrian empire.

Yet, even in this moment of wrath, ”The rebels are still ‘my people,’ an indication that while the relationship to God has been strained, it has not been broken.” God does not abandon his people even when they insist on abandoning him. In this Hosea passage, God may not raise them up when they call on him, but he still hears their cry, still feels their suffering.

The rebellious moments, the not-perfect moments, those never make it into the photo albums. Even so, they shape who we are and help form our relationships. The not-perfect moments give us an opportunity to deepen relationships, to hold fiercely to those imperfect people who God has given us to love. Insisting that things need to be perfect is either naive or oppressive. Acknowledging that things can be imperfect and still be wonderful anyway is an opportunity for grace.

So don’t call my son “perfect.”

Call him handsome, call him smart, call him handsome or pretty or beautiful. But perfect, he is not.

Say that his mother adores him, that his father is proud of him. Say that his grandparents and great-grandparents love him dearly. But do not say that he is perfect.

When in days to come he is baptized at this font, call him child of the covenant, call him beloved of the LORD, call him brother in Christ. But he is not perfect.

He’s not perfect at four in the morning when he’s been screaming since midnight. He’s not perfect when a birth difference in his mouth makes it difficult for him to nurse, and his hunger drives his parents insane.

Call him wonderful, say that he is loved, affirm that he is one of the little ones who belong to Jesus. Those are all true. As he grows in wisdom and stature and as this congregation honors the baptismal vows you haven’t even made yet, he will need to hear words of encouragement and affirmation many times.

I do not call him perfect, but I do call him mine, and remind him constantly that he is loved, even though he can’t understand it yet. Maybe because he can’t understand it yet.

Because even in the middle of the night when his well-developed lungs are standing between us and a good night’s sleep, he’s still ours. Even as he grows and begins to test the boundaries his mother and I set for him, we will still love him. No matter what kind of man he grows up to be, I will have loved him since before he can remember. I will show him that in my own flawed way, because I’m not any more perfect than he is. And I’ve got a whole lot more practice at making messes than he does.

I’m a not-perfect father. I have plenty of practice turning away from God. I see myself, therefore, among the Israelite rebels who break God’s heart time and time again. Yet God’s overwhelming love, his irresistible grace, shines out in this closing stanzas of Hosea’s poetic prophecy: “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel?…My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.” the LORD cannot bear the sight of our suffering, even when we deserve it, and intervenes to save us from our own destructive habits. Seemingly stuck between the odiousness of our sin and God’s yearning to hold us as his children, “[The LORD] will cast aside all reasonable objection and act on this powerful sense of yearning and caring that runs directly against the self-regard of this God who has been profoundly affronted.” God will allow himself to be hurt by us because he will not be separated from us.

We know how that story plays out. We know the story of the Son of God who cried out in abandonment on the cross so that we would know that no matter where our sinful ways took us, God would be there with us. The Holy One is in our midst even when we would rather turn away and hide. We also know that  “The Lord’s compassion expresses itself in the announcement that punishment will not be the final stage in the Lord’s dealing with his people.” The cross does not end the story, the resurrection follows relentlessly after, restoring humanity to what we should be and breaking the power of sin and death for all time.

We have been raised with Christ. Our relationship with the loving parent of Israel, whom Jesus called Father, is restored for all time. Even though we all too often seek things that are on earth. Even though hold on to the things that our Colossians passage tells us to give us, “anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language.” Even though we are still not perfect, nowhere close, God loves us still, and refuses to let us go.

After all, the news is good because of God’s greatness, not because of our perfection. And that is good news indeed, because we are the not-perfect children of God, but we are beloved anyway, not because of who we are, but because of who God is.“…Whenever God promises pardon to us, from which proceeds the hope of salvation, how much soever he may have previously terrified us by his judgments, let this come to our mind, that as he is God, he is not to be judged of by what we are.” Instead we know that we can trust his promise of unending compassion and love.

God sees the imperfect moments that we would leave out of our photo albums, and loves us anyway. God knows that imperfection that never make it to facebook, and loves us anyway. Just as we are, the not-perfect children of God, whom he loves not matter what.

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