February 6, 2011 – 5 Epiphany A
© 2011 Evan D. Garner
You can listen to this sermon here.
A while back, I knew a father who was having difficulty relating to his youngest son. He had never really had a close relationship with any of his children, but, as he had gotten older, he seemed to have even less patience to deal with this latest installment of rebellion and angst that any adolescent boy directs at his father. Although his love for his son was genuine and unreserved, there remained a distance between father and son that left both feeling uncomfortable whenever they were alone together. For whatever reason, this youngest child had never developed the confidence that his older siblings possessed, so, when his father asked whether he had studied for a test or remembered to do a chore, the son always took it as an expression of doubt rather than as good-natured parenting.
Finally, the unspoken tension between the two became too much for the son to handle. He came home from college and confessed that he wasn’t sure of anything anymore. His grades, although decent, were not spectacular, and his looming graduation with no specific plan beyond that had created within him a feeling of desperation. He wasn’t quite able to put it into words, but his conversation with his parents revealed that he felt like he had failed them. Over and over, his father had asked him about medical school, probing to see whether a long-ago expressed dream might come true. The father was trying to encourage his son to make that childhood aspiration a reality, but the boy felt pressure rather than support, and the conclusion that his academic performance probably didn’t merit an admission to medical school had sent the son into a tailspin.
Beneath the surface, the father loved his son more than anything. And he loved him without regard for his son’s successes or failures. Ultimately, it didn’t matter to the man what his son did. Whether he went to medical school or nursing school or ski school, his love for the boy was certain. But the son didn’t know that—at least not for sure. Perhaps, if he thought about it long enough, the boy could convince himself of his father’s unwavering love, but that love was hidden within a world of paternal expectations.
How do you convince a teenager that you love him no matter what? That question first occurred to me ten years ago, when I sat in the office of an experienced youth minister. At the time, I was exploring a possible call to ordained ministry. And, since I didn’t know a whole lot about what goes on in a parish office, I took turns meeting with various staff members at my church to see what it was that they did all day. When I asked the youth minister to tell me about his job, he replied, “My job is to convince kids that God will love them no matter what they do even though their parents are constantly telling them that there are consequences for their actions.” I was amazed. I had only recently finished my teenage years, but no one had ever pointed out to me that God’s unconditional love and my parents’ desire for exemplary behavior might be in conflict.
Can you convince a teenager that he or she is loved unconditionally and still put conditions on that love? In a Sunday school class a while back, we toyed with the notion of how to be a responsible parent and still embrace a grace-over-law philosophy that says to a child, “You can do anything, and I’ll still love you.” We came up with a great summary situation for the dilemma—that of prom night. Right before your child walks out the door, would you say to him or her, “I will love you no matter what you do tonight?”
Unconditional love means that nothing you could ever do would ever change, diminish, inhibit, restrict, or limit the love that I have for you. It means that our relationship, which is built upon that love, will never be damaged no matter how badly you mess things up. And that might be true in many households, but often that truth is buried deep beneath a surface which says, “I’m watching you, and I’ll be disappointed if you screw this up.” How many of us grew up with parents who routinely uttered the phrase, “Remember who you are and whom you represent?” How many of us say something similar to our children? But is that grace? Is that unconditional love?
When I read this morning’s gospel lesson, I find myself transported back to my childhood. Jesus speaks to the crowd much as my father or mother once spoke to me: “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored. It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.” My parents did a good job of reminding me both that I could do anything I set my mind to and that they expected me to do great things. That created a good balance in our home between recognizing one’s potential and then living up to the expectations that accompanied that potential. But that combination of encouragement and obligation could have been disastrous. Had I bumped up against any real adversity or had I ever felt as if my parents’ love for me was conditional on my success, I could have been paralyzed by the pressure of earning their love and affection.
How do you hear Jesus’ words? This week, as I’ve read and reread this passage, I find that it hits me in two very different ways. Is Jesus offering us the assurance of unconditional love, or is he chiding us with paternal expectations? Parts of this passage are so full of hope and promise that they seem to liberate us from any doubt or anxiety: “You are the salt of the earth…You are the light of the world.” But the rest of Jesus’ teaching seems to question whether we’ve lived up to his expectations of us: “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket…Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Which Jesus is it? Can his love for us be unconditional if he sets conditions on his love?
It’s a difficult passage, and I admit to you that I don’t have an easy answer for the questions it presents. But I do believe that God loves me no matter what—even more so than either of my parents. And I also know that it’s easy for me to invent divine expectations where they don’t actually exist. That’s because I look at God a lot like I view my own father. I can’t help it—he’s the only father I’ve ever known. And, more than anything else, I want my father to be proud of me. That’s not because I’m worried he won’t love me if I screw things up—though there is a little bit of that mixed into our relationship. Mostly, I want him to be proud of me because I already know that he loves me. When someone tells you that they love you, you want to live up to that.
For me, finding grace in this gospel lesson is the same as finding grace in parental expectations. In order for either to be redeemed, we must begin with an unquestioned belief in our belovedness. Only when we are fully confident that Jesus loves us can his words come across as an expression of unconditional love. Likewise, only when we trust completely that our parents love us without regard for our actions can we receive their expectations as an expression of unqualified love.
When Jesus tells us that he expects great things from us, his commandments would be too much to bear unless he had already demonstrated beyond a doubt his unwavering love. As Christians, you and I don’t need to worry whether Jesus will love us no matter what. The cross upon which he died is the ultimate expression of his selfless love. Remember that he died for you even though you are imperfect. In fact, he died for you because you are imperfect. Our response to that love is a deeply felt desire to please God—not out of obligation but as a gracious response to God’s overwhelming love. What that means is that your faith begins when you hear Jesus say, “You are the light of the world,” and you actually believe it. Amen.