God's Rom Com
[I preached this sermon on August 21, 2016 at Northminster Presbyterian Church in Slidell/Pearl River, LA]
God’s Rom Com
Text: Isaiah 58
If you google “why doesn’t God bless me”, a lot of pages come up. Almost all of them say basically the same thing: God doesn’t give you what you want because you haven’t grown up enough, or you're not patient enough, or you have something else you have to work through first, or maybe you’re asking for the wrong thing, like, maybe instead of asking for a car, you should ask for a minivan. In short, if God doesn’t bless you, it’s basically your fault. You’re just not holy enough.
You can google “why doesn’t God bless my church”, but you end up with most of the same pages. I actually think that last question gets asked a lot, but probably not on a public website or forum.
I know this might come as a shock to you, but the internet is wrong.
I know. Who’d a thought?
A lot of our attitude about blessing comes from jealousy, I think. Or maybe self-entitlement. We think if other people, people who are, quite frankly, complete jerks, get to vacation in the south of France, then good, church-going, God-fearing, flag-waving people like us ought to also. We think God ought to be as impressed with us and our church as we are.
Well, here’s the thing, and why the internet is wrong about this. God is actually more impressed with us, and with our church, than we are. God is actually very impressed with you. God loves you as much as God knows how, or in other words, as much as possible. God looks at you and smiles. You are God’s creation, and God called God’s creation “very good.”
And in Isaiah 58, God tells you about God’s love.
Oh, you didn’t catch it? God does sound really mad.
Well, God is angry here, but not angry in the “you-worthless-slime-why-don’t-you-go-hide-under-a-rock” way, but in the “I-can’t-believe-you’re-putting-ketchup-on-that-$100-Kobe-steak” way.
God is so in love with us that God can’t stand to see us throw our beautiful, amazing lives away on things that, well frankly, make us look ugly.
It’s like in some romantic comedy (rom com, for short).
You know the kind of thing: like Sleepless in Seattle or Love Actually.
Let’s get some tissue handy and watch.
It’s a really good one, the kind of movie that captures you, draws you in, like you’re actually in the movie.
Let’s skip ahead to the part where the girl finds the boy broken and bruised and defeated and sick on the ground in some alley. She takes his face in her hands, and tells him how much she loves him, how he looks in her eyes.
God wipes the dirt from our face and says to stop trying to be so doggone holy and pious. “Stop trying so hard,” God says. “You had me from the moment I set eyes on you.”
I know, you want to impress God with your feats of strength. It seems like showing up at every church event and bringing the name of Jesus into every conversation and putting religious stickers on everything you own and posting smug, self-righteous religious comments on facebook ought to make God act like Sally Field at the Oscars (“You like me! You really like me!”) and then like Oprah Winfrey (“YOU get a blessing and YOU get a blessing and YOU get a blessing!”), but it doesn’t.
God’s love for you isn’t at all dependent on your love for God, much (MUCH) less on your demonstrated love for God. Yelling “Jesus loves me and so do I,” doesn’t make you look dashing and heroic. It makes you look childish and insecure.
Then in that alleyway, God holding our face in her hands, God spells out the kind of things we do, or things we could do, which show off all the beautiful things about us that God already loves.
God says we really show off when we value workers (no matter their salary or status), when we treat them as people, instead of like business expenses or tools we can manipulate and use. That’s so important, God mentions it twice. Treating the janitor or waitress with as much respect and dignity as we treat the CEO or president is really showing off, God says.
The camera pans a bit, centering frame on God’s adoring face. God says, “I love the way you look when you use religion and the church to bring people together, rather than using the church and your religious knowledge to drive wedges between people.” God says peacemakers are so much more attractive than warmongers, even if it’s a culture war or a holy war or a just war or whatever.
God says, “I love to look into your eyes when you break the chains of injustice.” God mentions that twice too. When God says we are to “free the oppressed,” injustice is what God’s talking about.
Just a quick note, though. When God speaks through the prophets of injustice, God’s not talking about that guy in front of you at the grocery with 21 items in the 20-or-less lane, or those kids that won’t get off your lawn. God’s talking about economic and social injustice, the kind where people are brought low, kept starving, and told they are worthless so that the powerful can be comfortable and feel good about themselves.
But back to the movie:
God helps us get to our feet and straightens our sport jacket. God says, “You know, I think you’re at your most handsome when you cancel debts, just write them off. Forgiveness makes you look dashing.”
God says, “You put the sunset to shame when you feed, clothe and house people.” God repeats that too. “Taking care of people is so attractive,” God says with a little smile that melts our heart.
God says, “Remember that Sabbath thing we do? I love that.” Not just taking a day off so we can do a little networking with the boss. God says God loves us resting in God’s competence, having enough faith in God to regularly stand back and enjoy the world we’ve been given.
God says, “I can’t get over how fantastic you are when you share your lives with your parents and your kids -- and your brothers and sisters and uncles and aunts and grandkids and cousins too. I love it when you’re more concerned with each other than you are with being right all the time.”
Then, God frowns a bit and the camera pans back. The background music changes subtly.. “You think you’re acting like some kind of important muckety-muck when you manipulate laws to ensure your own ease and security at the expense of others, but it doesn’t mean you’re important. It mens you’re cruel. Stop doing that. I hate it.”
God says, “You’re downright ugly when you make the poor and the lost and the lonely and the outsider think that they’re to blame for everything that happens to them.” God says, “I hate it when you call people you’ve never met freeloaders or lazy or dangerous. That is not the way a beautiful creation of God acts.”
God says, “Gossipping too. You do that a lot and I hate it.” God says, “I mean, why do you think the only way to make me think highly of you is to try to make everyone think less of someone else?”
God says to value people instead of using them. God says to be willing to change our own lives in response to the people around us, even people we don’t trust or like. God says to bring people together, instead of separating them into enemy camps.
The camera pauses a moment on God’s face...
And then, some guy in the fourth row stops munching on his popcorn long enough to shout at the screen, “Hey! What about sin?”
Clearly a Presbyterian.
When I was a teenager, I learned that sin was, and I quote, “anything that separates us from God.”
Only nothing can separate us from God. God won’t allow it. That’s what Jesus’s death and resurrection is all about. God will die for us rather than let us go away. Like in the old song, “I know you want to leave me, but I refuse to let you go.”
Sin is disappointing to God, even frustrating to God.
It’s drawing a moustache on the Mona Lisa, pouring salt on a king cake.
We could be these amazing, wonderful people, but we spend all our time trying to prove that we’re more worthy of God’s love than that schmuck over there.
Thankfully, the woman in front of the Presbyterian with the popcorn turns around and goes, “Shhh!”
Clearly another Presbyterian.
In the movie, God starts talking again, brushing the hair out of her face. But she doesn’t say what we think she will. God doesn’t promise that feeding the hungry and treating all people with respect and dignity will increase our bank account balances. God doesn’t promise that forgiving debt and being available to our family will make us a household name. God doesn’t promise that caring for the poor will make our lives easier.
God does make promises though:
“You’re going to give light to the world,” God says.
“You’re going to be full even when everything else is empty,” God says.
“You are going to bloom and grow,” God says.
And then the most amazing promise: God says, “You’ll see that the life you had before you started showing what a handsome guy you are, that life is beautiful too. The mistakes and stupid things and ‘wasted’ years you went through will be the foundation for something amazing.
“In other words,” God says, “you’ll understand that I loved you all along.”
And God keeps talking!
“Then,” God says, “you’ll bring life and love and community to others. Even if people can’t stand the sight of you, they’ll realize that you can rebuild ruins, make chandeliers out of shards. And you’ll see life forming around you, and you’ll wonder where it came from.”
God says, “This is who you are. You are beautiful, amazing, awe-inspiring creations that I, who created the world, I love you so much that the world seems too small to contain my heart for you.”
And then God is quiet for a moment, breathing hard.
The movie dissolves to a shot of us, bruises mysteriously healed and hair mysteriously combed as happens in movies like this.
What are we going to say?
This summer, we fed and gave value and love to nearly 30 families who needed all of that. We’re joining with other churches to bring food to hungry people in Pearl River. We’re giving books and supplies and love and more to children in the Philippines most of us will almost certainly never meet, kids who the world at large passes by with a click of the tongue. We’ve made totes and blankets for people who need them, and, just as importantly, we’ve prayed for them and showed them that they mean something. In a few weeks, we’re going to walk -- no, we’re going to march -- along the Mandeville lakefront and show everyone we see that hunger is a problem and that we can solve it. And we’re just starting.
Of course, the camera is not just on us at Northminster.
In Georgia a few months ago, a gas station and convenience store was bought by an India-born Muslim immigrant named Malike Waliyani. His store was burglarized and damaged. He could barely keep it going. Nearby was Smoke Rise Baptist Church. The camera was on them.
“Let’s shower our neighbor with love,” their pastor, Chris George, said. More than 200 people started going the store to help, buying stuff. One guy drove around until his car was out of gas just so he could buy gas from Mr. Waliyani.
“Our faith inspires us to build bridges,” Pastor George said. “Our world is a stronger place when we choose to look past labels and embrace each other in love.”
But the camera comes back to us as the focus softens and the music swells.
This past week, rains fell and flooded the homes of thousands of people, pushing people already close to survival’s edge even closer or beyond it. This is terrible. But, if you look around, you’ll see hundreds, even thousands of people reaching out to these folks, bringing them clothes and food and shelter. We’re going to be part of that. Of course we are. Our Katrina offering, the offering where we remember the gifts and sacrifices of people who helped us through the hurricane, the grace God showed us. That money goes to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, which helps people all over the world, and people right here, who need help. And we’re going to find more ways to help, too.
It’s what we do.
And one more thing, before the camera fades to the scene where God walks away with us, arm-and-arm.
A while back, a broken, pitiful child of God walked into a gay bar in Orlando and killed 50 people, including himself. While many were shocked and hurt and tried to figure out what to say, a bunch of other people laughed and applauded because they thought the killer had made the world better by taking culture back. And the fact that the shooter was some kind of Muslim made it all the sweeter to them.
But then, thousands… no… no… hundreds of thousands of people loved by God did make the world better by reaching out with love and grief and compassion to the families and friends and lovers of the victims, letting them know that they, and the loved ones they lost, are valued for who they are and worth more than anyone can imagine. These people took the rubble they found, and they’re building a city.
The camera’s on us too. We have ministered to, loved, and nurtured gay men in this congregation, and we’ve done it as if it was no big deal, but it’s time we do more. No one knows that this is who we are if we don’t tell people that this is who we are. Gay and lesbian and transexual and bisexual and non-binary people will not know that this is a community of faith who values them as people unless we tell them, because they will assume that when we see them, we see an issue and not a person. We need to say, formally, in large letters. “We’re a church that loves gay, lesbian, bisexual, transexual and non-binary people.”
But whatever we do, we’re not going to do it because God’s going to be mad if we don’t. We’re doing this because we love the way God looks at us.