Sermon: Parenting Is Hard. Even When You’re God.

Sunday, September 4, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
watch this service online (readings start around 18:21; sermon starts around 24:58/25:17)
image source

I’m curious to know – nearly all of you here are parents – when your kids were growing up, did you set rules for them? (I’m guessing you definitely did.)  
What were some of the rules you gave your kids?
Why did you make these rules? What was your goal in setting these rules?

Good parenting involves setting healthy boundaries and guidelines for your kids. You make rules because you care. The purpose of making rules isn’t just to be arbitrary or controlling, or to suck the fun out of a kid’s life – it’s to keep them safe and healthy, to teach them values like responsibility and respect, and to help them grow into flourishing adults.

In our first reading, Moses is reminding the people of Israel about God’s rules. Almost the entire book of Deuteronomy is basically one long speech from Moses to the people of Israel as they are finally about to enter the promised land. And one point that Moses keeps hammering on again and again and again is the importance of abiding by God’s law – especially the ten commandments. It starts to sound kind of onerous. I don’t know about you, but I know for me, almost any time people start talking about the ten commandments, I tend to get this mental image of a distant, celestial, frowny-faced God, whose finger is perpetually hovering over the “SMITE” button, just waiting for us to screw things up.

But that’s not what I hear in the tone of what Moses is saying here. He presents the matter to the Israelites as a choice: follow God’s teachings and live and be blessed, or go after other gods and be lost and perish. It’s not a threat – it’s the reality of what lies before them. It makes me think of our reading from Isaiah from a couple of weeks ago, when Isaiah was saying that people needed to stop “trampling the sabbath”; it wasn’t that people were getting in trouble with God for failing to honor the sabbath – it’s that they were missing out on the gift of much-needed rest and reconnection with God. Like the rules you might set for your kids, the commandments are meant for our good, to guide us into living well.

Our psalm for today echoes this as well. The psalmist writes: 

Happy are they 
who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked, 
nor lingered in the way of sinners, 
nor sat in the seats of the scornful!
Their delight is in the law of the Lord, 
and they meditate on God’s teaching day and night.
They are like trees planted by streams of water, 
bearing fruit in due season, 
with leaves that do not wither; 
everything they do shall prosper. 

Psalm 1:1-3

The psalmist recognizes that God’s law isn’t for God’s benefit, but for ours. It’s rich, nourishing soil in which we can root ourselves deeply so that we can grow well and produce good fruit. Far from being some heavy set of requirements or expectations for keeping God happy, God’s law is actually a gift. It helps us to recenter ourselves, to center our hearts on the things that matter most. Rather than hemming us in, God’s law actually sets us free.

The law is one of many good gifts that God gives to God’s people. And God gives it with love. God has given us all that we have and all that we are. More than just the basics of food and shelter, God has given us the whole earth, the whole creation. God has even given us the gift of each other, our relationships – even life itself is a wonderful gift from God.

As good and caring parents, I imagine you probably also gave your kids gifts growing up.
What were some of the gifts you gave that your kids were most excited about?
Was there ever a time that your kids got so excited about a gift and so wrapped up in the gift itself that it was like they forgot you existed?
How did that feel? (Probably not great.)

You give gifts with the same love with which you make rules. We give gifts to show our love and care for someone else – and so does God. Gifts are a way of investing in a relationship, especially when the gift is thoughtful, or costly, or both. They are meant to cement that bond of love we feel for the other person. So when we give a gift – especially one that is thoughtful or extravagant, it can be incredibly frustrating and hurtful when it seems like the recipient cares more about the gift than they do about us.

All of this is a very long way of finally getting around to our very difficult gospel reading. This passage from Luke is a hard word to understand. But I think this perspective of a frustrated parent giving gifts and making rules can help give us some insight into what Jesus is saying.

Digging into the Greek doesn’t really help soften the blow here. We tried that route at text study on Tuesday, haha. We found that, when Jesus says: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple,” the word that he uses for “hate” in this verse pretty unambiguously does mean hate.

However, it’s also important to read anything Jesus says in the context of his ministry and teachings as a whole. In multiple places in the gospels, Jesus says and reaffirms that the two most important commandments are 1) to love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and strength and mind, and 2) to love our neighbor as ourself. It’s pretty hard to imagine that the neighbors we are called to love would somehow exclude our blood relatives and other loved ones. In fact, in Matthew 5, Jesus teaches his followers: “When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”

Going even further, later on in the New Testament, we also read  in 1 John 4: “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate a brother or sister are liars, for those who do not love a brother or sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.”

As followers of Christ, our ultimate call is to love, not to hate – to love as God first loved us – so what does Jesus mean by what he says here? Well, in classic Jesus fashion, he seems to be using some exaggerated language to make a point.

Rather than a question of love and hate, what Jesus seems to be getting at is a serious question about priorities. He’s emphasizing that, however much we may love our stuff, our lives, and the people in them, following the path of discipleship requires that we love God still more. Jesus is essentially saying: if you’re not willing to risk everything, to leave it all behind for my sake, then don’t follow me down this path. Jesus seems to be calling us to have such great love for God that our love for anything and anyone else practically looks like hate by comparision.

Jesus calls us to love the great Giver of gifts – our generous and caring Parent – more than we love the gifts themselves. He calls us to set our hearts on God, rather than on finite things or even on finite relationships. By setting our hopes on God and following in the way of Christ, Jesus knows we may well lose things in the short term. The cost of true discipleship can be quite steep. But God is the ultimate source of all good things, and God has promised us life and infinitely more both in this life and in the life of the world to come

God faithfully cares for us like a loving parent, generously giving us gifts and providing for our needs. God’s law and teachings guide us when we go astray. And God gives us all things for our good, to lead us on the path that leads to abundant life.

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