Surprised by God – The Rev. Dean Lawrence – Church Building

November 26, 2017


    My Wife, Sarah, and I were recently thrust into parenthood, and I would like to tell you that we prepared for it like we were studying for a college entrance exam, but the truth is neither of us felt particularly equipped or even prepared. Perhaps this is part of being adoptive parents, and biological parents don’t experience this as often, but daily we find ourselves returning to a book or asking the pediatrician, about some relatively trivial question. Are we feeding her too much, have we fed her too little, oh dear lord we are starving her. But so far our little girl is still quite content and even if we have overfed or underfed her she surprisingly just keeps plugging along with little concern for this world.

    But what I have become most aware of is the parent judgment zone. I can feel the hotly opinionated eyes of other parents when we go to restaurants or grocery stores. More than once we’ve been told by complete strangers, you really shouldn’t… or you really should…. Not to mention our own family’s volunteered opinions, which come seemingly hourly and with a heaping helping of shame. I suspect that this parental judgment zone will only get more intense as our daughter gets older, throws public tantrums, screams through her dad’s entire sermon, or just lives into the PK (Preacher’s Kid) standard persona. Yes, judgment stands waiting at every corner, not to mention the self-inflicted judgment we place on ourselves. And judgment is not just reserved for parents; it rules our work lives, our personal lives, our married lives…yes, I suspect even the hermit occasionally feels judged for how effective a hermit they are being. When we focus on judgment, we rob ourselves of the opportunity for surprise, surprise by the unexpected ability, or the unforeseen friendship formed in strife, or the unpredicted outcome.

    When I first read this morning’s gospel text for this Christ the King Sunday, with its analogies of kings, sheep, and goats, it was the harsh judgment that fellow parents heap on each other that came to mind, the harsh judgment that robs us of the joys of parenting. You cannot find joy when all you feel is shame. Just look at the internet trend of “Parent Shaming.” We love to judge one another if only to build ourselves up. Jesus’ words in this morning’s Gospel, like those of our well-intended friends, family, and other parenting advisors, have been interpreted and used to make a great number people feel insufficient, like they are a goat. This comes at a significant cost, the sudden awareness of failure, a singular focus on where we fall short. We begin to wonder are we good enough, are they good enough…for that matter, who could be good enough?

    Which of us has not looked at our neighbor, our spouse, father, mother, sister, brother relative, friend, or ourselves and wondered, are they in or are they out. Are they sheep or goat? Well, if you haven’t you probably are now. This text from Matthew, however, was intended to provide hope to disciples and early Christians, who were daily persecuted for their faith, who were daily challenged with the question: “do I continue this life set forth by Jesus, or do I give in.” These are encouraging words for people who must daily decide and are daily challenged. For those of us who rarely find our faith challenged and are seldom persecuted for what we believe, these words rarely come across as comforting. The other side of this coin is that we too often simplify our faith with a set-it-and-forget- mentality. Say this prayer, get baptized, just go to church every Sunday and all else will fall into place. We set the judgment aside and consequently, we don’t think of our faith as a daily challenge.

    But do we need another daily thing about which to worry? We can quickly turn faith into something else on which to be judged, assessed, and found wanton. Faith, after all, is supposed to make us feel good, confident, happy, right? But I wonder, is happiness what faith is about OR is faith about a life oriented not on happiness, but instead on God. I wonder if faith is not about a specific set of steps to a better you, but opening ourselves to be surprised by God in ways we could not plan for or expect.

    Yet, for us Christians, this end-time judgment thing looms so large, making us feel anxious. We state, after all, every week when we recite the creed, or at least occasionally that we believe there will be a Judgement, there will be a time when we must account for ourselves and the lives we have lived and the faith we have displayed. Using today’ parable, we expect Jesus will sit upon a throne as a king, and we will stand before him like sheep and goats to be sorted.

    There are two interesting points about this analogy that we miss as modern Christians. The first is that it was only the professional well-acquainted shepherd to discern between sheep and goats. They were herded together and only needed to be sorted at certain times of the year. Therefore, this is not a judgment we are entitled to make or indeed even to be focused on. You will notice, in the text, that even the sheep are “surprised” that they are sorted as sheep. Blissfully unaware, is perhaps not the right term, but certainly not focused on how sheep like they are. Instead, they are focused on God, the Shepherd, and the actions that reflect a God who loves all, sheep and goats alike, especially those on the margins… “as you have done unto the least” feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned.
    The second point we miss is that this text is at the end of a long discourse about the end times and marks entry into the passion narrative, the road to the cross. The text is introduced with “When the son of man comes in his Glory…” I wonder if this coming in glory and judgment is being directly linked to the crucifixion and resurrection. I wonder if the throne we are talking about is not a golden, velvety chair, but a rugged wooden cross. I wonder if judgment occurs not in the light of earthly power and glory, not in getting it all right, or all your ducks in a row, but in light of what appears to be the very much the opposite. I wonder if judgment is not so much a future event, as a daily, hourly, minute to minute event that occurs in the shadow of the cross. A place where we open ourselves to the potential of God being in the most unexpected of places.

    Maybe from this perspective, that of the cross, the requirements for being a sheep instead of a goat begin to make more sense. Glory is not about success, power or happiness; it is about reaching out and being surprised to find God among the powerless, the marginalized, and those who stumble. It is about resting your faith not on a judgment to come, but on the judgment of the cross today, on the action of a God that shows us what heavenly power is really like through earthly powerlessness. This is the perspective that opens us to the possibility of being surprised by God in the most unexpected of places.

    Now, I hope that parenting is not about getting it all right, because no book or preparation guide can suffice. I know that Sarah and I will fail regularly, we will let our daughter down, we will let each other down, we will let ourselves down. But perhaps if we remind our daughter that she is loved, wanted, and desired by God that will be enough. Perhaps if we open ourselves to being surprised by the person she becomes as opposed to the person we want her to be. Perhaps if that is all we do for anyone in our life or in the margins of our life, that will be enough.

    This morning we have acknowledged the work that God has begun in Zachary, we have agreed to walk with him daily through life’s struggles and challenges. We have consented to remind him that he is loved, wanted, and desired by God. We have promised to open his eyes, even as our own eyes are opened, to the possibility of being surprised by God.