Sermon by Paul Holmes
April 21, 1996
Rejoice, We Are Children of God
Thanks Sonya, and good morning. Speaking here for the first time, I am reminded of an English sign I saw several years ago in French speaking Africa. It read something like, "If this is your first visit to Burkina Faso, you are welcome to it." Actually I’m glad I’m here and, I guess it’s about time I preached.
A few weeks ago, as I was preparing to go to Ukraine, Sonya announced the theme for Easter. REJOICE. As soon as that one word was out of her mouth, I had completed the sentence, REJOICE, WE ARE CHILDREN OF GOD. That same phrase kept playing through my mind the whole time I was in Ukraine. Is it reasonable that I interpreted this as some sort of call?
The basic message this morning relates to another sort of call, Caren’s call at 2 A.M. My message is simple — that the experience of parenthood has opened for me a whole new understanding of and appreciation for God. Because of this new understanding, I find myself at times overwhelmed and in awe of the love God has for me — and for all of creation.
In preparing this sermon, I had the option of talking more about the tremendous sacrifice God made as Jesus’ parent (and therefore take the lead from the 1st Peter passage) or of talking more about seeing God in the ordinary, as the disciples discovered Jesus in the breaking of bread in the Luke passage. I’m going to talk about both.
Since a first Seekers sermon is supposed to wax a bit autobiographical, I will admit, from the outset, that I have been extremely fortunate in life. Yes, there have been disappointments, setbacks and challenges, but I have always felt loved — by my parents and brothers, extended family, friends and worship community. And for most of my life I have consciously felt loved by God.
Despite my good fortune and a background of having been loved, however, it is only since Sallie, Andrew and Caren have come into my life that I have begun to fully appreciate God and have really begun to understand God’s love.
"Anthropomorphic" is a big word attaching human characteristics to things not normally considered human. I tend to attribute a lot of human characteristics to God. That makes Him more accessible to me. Yes, I said "HIM." While I know it’s difficult for some of you here to think of God as Father, that has always been a very positive and useful image for me, particularly since becoming a father myself.
For me, one of the mysteries of God is God’s capacity for love for all creation. When Andrew was born, Sallie and I were totally absorbed in our love for him. When Sallie became pregnant with Caren, our biggest doubt was whether we could ever love another child as much as we loved Andrew. It sounds almost silly to me now, but then it was a deep concern. As Caren developed in Sallie and was born, we felt our love expand, not divide, but actually expand, so we are able to love Caren just as much as we ever loved Andrew.
As miraculous as that experience of our own expanding love has been for me, it pales in comparison to the limitless love that I believe God has for creation. A love for humans, elephants, caterpillars, catalpa, kitty cats and cockroaches. Creation simply shouts God’s love. And what about God’s love that stretches billions of light years beyond anything we humans can even begin to fathom?
Easter is a time to focus on the blessing of forgiveness. But only since becoming a father have I begun to understand how truly incredible the blessing is that God gave us in offering up His son for our sins.
I can’t stand it when Andrew or Caren are hurting. Sallie and I have been extremely fortunate that the kids have been very healthy, but the feelings and worries are there nevertheless. A few years ago, following repeated inner ear infections, Andrew went to Children’s Hospital to have tubes put in his ears. It’s a quick and easy operation, but it does require general anesthesia. When the green robed and masked operating room team came at him, he was scared and screamed to be left alone. As he was forcibly restrained by the staff, his eyes pleaded with me for help. When the anesthesia took hold, the screaming and squirming stopped. It was like the life had been drained from him, and several of the hardest seconds of my life.
As a parent, that experience allowed me to appreciate a tiny fraction of the terror and pain that other parents have felt in actually losing a child. Brenda, Keith, Joan, Doug, Muriel, Ed, Abagail, Gary.
That experience also helps me begin to understand the gift and sacrifice that God made on Good Friday. Looking at this cross in front of us, I cannot imagine anything more excruciating than seeing Andrew or Caren nailed to it and watching as life drained out from them. But what I couldn’t stand is exactly what God the parent did.
God watched as His special child, in some ways God’s only child, died.
(Do you think God ever questioned His own ability to raise Jesus from the dead?)
"God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. "God loves me, an imperfect "non-begotten" child so much that God offered up His special son Jesus for me. God’s gift is free. All I, have to do is accept it. Do we need any better reason to rejoice?
It’s not easy to be a parent. How our children turn out is not always up to us. But, is a child who doesn’t do as its parents wish any less their child? Are children who don’t pick up their rooms, do their home work, wash the dishes or mow the lawn, any less our children, any less loved? Of course not. There may be disappointment or even anger, but love is not diminished.
So I believe it is with God. How we turn out is not always up to God. But God still loves us. God loves us, despite and perhaps even because of our weaknesses, as well as because of our strengths. We merely need to accept that love.
We don’t need to do good things for God to love us. Rather, from my perspective, it’s the other way around. Because God has first offered blessings to us so freely, we are freed-up to do good things and pass on those blessings to others.
We are all children of God. With the blessings and benefits also come obligations, responsibilities, and awesome powers. Jesus healed the blind, the lame and raised the dead to life. Since we, like Jesus, are all children of God, God’s spirit is already in us. We too have a tremendous capacity to love and the ability to achieve miracles. All being children of God is the great unifying and equalizing factor. We all are products of greatness and holiness and capable of both. The question is, do we choose to recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit in us and, if we do recognize it, what difference does that make?
One of the choices I made as a father has been to love Andrew and Caren and to help them to understand God’s love. The reality is that I have learned far more than I have taught. Intellectually, I always accepted the truth of God’s love. But only through the children, have I really come to know it. There are even brief moments now when I feel it in my bones.
Andrew and Caren have drawn me closer to God than all of the discipline and prayer I have so guiltfully neglected. They are altering my relationship to God. I feel God’s love most strongly in the love that I have for Andrew and Caren and in the love that they have for me. Knowing how much I, as a parent, love the kids is compelling evidence of God’s love for me, for them and for everyone else.
I believe there are many ways to God, and I don’t want to suggest that my understanding of God or God’s love is any deeper than the understanding of a single person or of couples without children. I merely want to recognize and appreciate the power of that parent/child relationship in deepening my own appreciation of God.
Some people pursue a path to God through extensive reading, quiet and contemplation. That is a difficult path for me. I am reminded of a nasty February morning in Ukraine walking through the tiny chapels and catacombs that have been carved out of the limestone caves under Kiev. We walked only with the light of one small candle cupped in our hands. In those caves, monks have spent months of their lives in absolute darkness, contemplating life and exploring their relationship to God and Jesus. The turmoil, revelations, pain and enlightenment that many of them have experienced has been a pathway that is not available to me, and probably available to very few of you.
Just getting a few minutes of daily time for myself and God has been a struggle I have lost… I simply don’t seem to find the necessary time or energy for that or for a lot of other desirable activities.
Generally, I feel content with my limited options. In some ways, life is even easier when the number of choices are reduced. Nevertheless, at times I also feel that my creativity, career-path and sense of "achievement" have been compromised. The kids take a lot of energy. Sometimes if seems as if all my energy is being transfused directly from my arm through a long and very flexible tube into the kids; so that their legs and mouths can keep on going, and going, and going. Both in the sense of resurrection and in the sense of the Everready bunny, our kids are life everlasting.
I wonder whether God feels exhausted or constrained by the obligation to love and care for us? If God were not loving and caring, what else would God do? Read more books? Get more exercise? Meditate? Paint more sunsets? Build more mountains? Lead a more exciting social life?
With the path of quiet and contemplation not open to me right now, I’ve felt fortunate to have discovered a heightened understanding of God on a different path: a path of dirty diapers, sleep deprivation and temper tantrums. I’ve been offered a glimpse of God’s love. That glimpse has been extremely powerful for me, but it still only a glimpse of all that’s out there.
What I have learned about love from Andrew and Caren?
- First of all, I’ve relearned some of the pure wonder that is God’s. The mystery, the fascination, the limitless possibilities. This for instance, is not an Easter egg… It is a rainbow sun, which for all I know, may be out there somewhere.
- I’ve learned that love is a place of trust and vulnerability. Only when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, do we put ourselves in a posture to receive love. Kids are vulnerable and very open to love. They also trust and so are more accepting of love.
- Most of the time, love is given freely, with no preconditions or criteria
- I’ve also learned that while love comforts and protects. It also lets us go, in search of our own way.
- As it was for the disciples on the road to Emmaus, a challenge for me is recognizing God in the ordinary, and being a conduit of God’s love and holiness through the small everyday things. To a significant degree, the kids can know God’s love only through Sallie’s and my hands and voice. And the kids have helped me learn that I can feel love in the routine: changing diapers, reading books, dressing, holding, washing bottles, coaching and teaching.
I cherish those moments when I feel God’s presence in the smiles, the hugs, the wobbling, the tears and the fears. At those moments, I just see things differently. When I change a diaper, that’s a child of God smiling up at me. When I scrub a mud-caked face, I’m uncovering a child of God. When I’m on my hands and knees playing donkey, that’s a child of God on my back.
It’s humbling how much God loves me. The limitations of my love only serve to emphasize the strength, depth and intensity of God’s. For me, caring for and loving the kids is an opportunity to somehow participate with God in a continuum over time and distance. I’m able to convert a small portion of God’s infinite love, passing it on, participating in creation. It’s like I’m a partner with God in that process.
Love is life everlasting and God is a bottomless well of sweet and refreshing love. The more we take, the more it is filled up. The more we give away, the bigger it grows. For me, that is another important part of the Easter message.
Recognizing God in the ordinary. How could the disciples have walked so far with Jesus without recognizing him? I/we do it all the time.
I know a woman who has suffered from severe cerebral palsy all her life. A very smart and proud woman who is unbeatable at Scrabble yet struggles to get out the simplest sentences. A woman who through strength and determination, earned a college degree but has never held a real job. A woman who is fiercely independent but has never walked unaided and needs help with everything she does. Her mother has attended to her virtually every day of her 48 years of life. Her mother is performing ordinary tasks in the extraordinary care of a child of God. Though feeble of body, that child of God is strong in mind and spirit.
I know another woman who has written weekly letters to each of her four sons since they went off to college — more than 7,000 letters. In addition, she’s constantly making pies for church suppers, visiting nursing homes, teaching Sunday school, and being fervent in prayer. All mundane and ordinary things, and nothing extraordinary by themselves, but things which all minister to the children of God and things which allow her love to grow still. And Mom is 85.
Regardless of how many examples of love and caring and sacrifice we come up with, the awe inspiring part for me is realizing how these heroic, ordinary acts, even when all added together, pale in comparison to God’s love for me, for each of us, and for all of creation.
Whenever I think of it I’m still amazed at the miracle of gestation and birth. Though there were billions of births before Andrew and Caren’s, theirs were still unique. Each a miracle. Why? Because God and I both loved that tiny child.
What of the unloved children? The children of the streets? The victims, the forgotten and downtrodden? I don’t know the answers, and I’ve always struggled with why bad things happen. But I am convinced that, by being with and for those who feel unloved, like Jesus, we help convince them that they too are children of God.
A couple of weeks ago, Marjory mentioned a line in "Dead Man Walking" which was also a poignant part for me. (I presume that Manning is still guaranteeing tickets to that movie) Anyhow, to a statement by Sister Helen, the condemned man responded "No one ever before called me a child of God." For me, the resurrection is the going forth of God’s beloved children to spread and multiply God’s love among other beloved children. Easter gives us those obligations and opportunities.
And yet, I walk by those very same obligations and opportunities every day. This picture on the alter, of three young boys was taken about 6 a.m. one morning on the streets of Antenenarivo, Madagascar. The clothes and sores display poverty, but the smiles and stance show that these boys know they are children of God. I keep it on my desk at work as a reminder of why all that paper work is important.
In closing I would simply invite you to reach out and touch someone near you. Joining hands, know that God is with us and in us. We are ordinary and extraordinary. Know that because God loves you, you are lovable, you are loved and you are able to love.
Rejoice, we are children of God.