June 5, 2016 – The 3rd Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 5C
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
Her name is Michelle Gregg. But most of us don’t know that because most of us don’t care who she is—only what she has done. To the world, Ms. Gregg will forever be known as the “Gorilla Pit Mom.” Some call her “the worst mother of all time.” Others label her “Harambe’s murderer.” A few sympathetic parents call her “the unluckiest mom in the world.” The truth is that she lost track of her three-year-old boy long enough for him to fall into the silverback gorilla habitat at the Cincinnati Zoo. Worried that the animal might hurt or even kill the boy, zookeepers shot Harambe, and the world is outraged.
I don’t know what your reaction to that story has been. I don’t know what you think about the outcome. And I’m not asking you to feel any particular way about the tragedy. You can blame whomever you want to blame. But we have to stop pretending that that would never happen to us. It doesn’t matter who the mother is. It doesn’t matter who the father is. It doesn’t matter whether that three-year-old is well-behaved or a total hellion. That doesn’t matter because the hard truth is that none of us would do any better. Quit sharing hateful posts on Facebook. Stop telling people that today’s parents aren’t attentive enough to their children. Quit shaking your head in disgust because you think that today’s kids don’t know how to behave like you and yours did a few decades ago. You and your kids aren’t any different.
How many of us have ever taken our eyes off the road to read that text message even though our children or grandchildren were riding in the back? Has anyone ever buckled the kids into the car even though you had a margarita or two at the cheap Mexican restaurant where they begged you to take them for dinner? Ever looked up at the grocery store or the baseball field or the playground and felt that overwhelming panic that comes when you realize that you have no idea where one of your kids is? Ever had the police knock on your door in the middle of the night to tell you that they found your third-grader out exploring the city? We’ve got to stop pretending that the gorilla pit would never happen on our watch. It can. It will. It does.
What’s even harder than that is to stop pretending that the only reason it hasn’t happened is luck. News flash: it has happened. It is happening. The only difference is that there weren’t video cameras to record the moment when your kid fell into the pit. There isn’t a parent in this world who hasn’t lost control of his or her kids. I heard a podcast the other day in which a would-be father said, “A willingness to have a child is a willingness to embrace a future that you cannot control.” That’s exactly right, but parenthood is just one way of discovering that universal truth. We aren’t in charge. No matter how hard we try, we won’t do a good enough job. Sooner or later, in one way or another, we all learn that our very best just isn’t good enough. The question is what do we do about it?
Could it be that the answer is so ridiculous that it isn’t contained in any parenting textbook, isn’t taught in any prenatal class, isn’t espoused by any pediatrician, and isn’t followed by any preschool? Could the answer be so illogical, so unpredictable, and so incredible that no one on earth could ever make it up? The apostle Paul thought so.
“I want you to know, brothers and sisters,” Paul wrote in his Letter to the Galatians, “that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” For Paul, this wasn’t a minor point. All the way through chapters 1 & 2, he stresses over and over that he didn’t learn the gospel from any human being but got it straight from Jesus. Why was this so important? Partly, it was because some rivals had started preaching a false gospel to the Galatians, and Paul wanted to be clear that the message he had taught them had come with the authority of Jesus himself. But it was also more than that. Paul had experienced the life-changing power of the unadulterated gospel, and he knew firsthand that the gospel was a truth so wonderfully strange that no human being could ever have made it up. The good news of Jesus had literally knocked him off his horse and caused him to see that everything he thought he knew about being faithful to God—every instinct he had ever had about what God wanted him to do with his life—was completely wrong.
“You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism,” he explained to them. “I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.” Devoted to his faith, committed to the pure religion of God’s people, Paul made it his life’s work to persecute those who proclaimed Jesus as Lord. He ravaged the church, doing everything in his power to destroy it. But God had a different plan. As Paul wrote, “God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles.” How could this be? How could it be possible that the arch-persecutor of the church had become the chief-apostle to the Gentiles? How could the one who, in the name of God, had sent Christians to their deaths for following Jesus now be proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ to anyone who would listen? Because the gospel of grace had totally and completely turned his life around in a way that not even Paul could have ever seen coming.
Grace is the foundation of our faith. It is the way God works. It is the way God invites us to live. It is God’s totally unconditional, unmerited, unearned favor. It is God’s eternal “Yes!” spoken directly to you no matter who you are or what you have done. It is God’s absolutely free gift of love, and it is nearly impossible to believe because who can believe that what we do doesn’t matter? Who can accept that no matter what—whether we succeed or fail or even if we don’t try at all—the result is exactly the same? Everything we know about the universe tells us that there are consequences for our actions and our inactions. Every instinct in our heart and mind and soul tells us that whoever it is up there that made us wants us to be good. We grow up learning from the very beginning that our parents and teachers and little league coaches want us to try our best. And that’s exactly why the gospel of Jesus Christ could not have come from a human being—because the gospel tells us that the sum total of human effort—what we do or don’t do—isn’t worth squat. And, that, my friends, is the only possible answer to the reality that our very best will never be good enough—well, that and hopelessness or damnation, and, given the choice, I’ll take the gospel.
That’s the human condition. No matter how good you are, you’ll never be good enough. No matter how diligent you are, something will always get away from you. No matter how much you want to be the perfect mom, the perfect dad, the perfect spouse, the perfect child, the perfect priest, the perfect person, you can’t, and you won’t. Pretty soon your limitations will catch up with you. (Psst! They already have!) But the good news is that God has set us free from our failures. And, even more importantly than that, God has set us free from the illusion that there was ever anything we could do about it in the first place. When Jesus Christ revealed himself to Paul, Paul discovered that there was nothing he could ever do to satisfy God, but he also discovered that God didn’t care because, in Christ, God had already made him 100%, without-a-doubt, undeniably right with God.
The shocking, unbelievable truth of the gospel is that, even though we are destined to screw up and fall short, God loves us anyway—exactly how we are with no conditions and without exception. That is the good news spoken to the Gorilla Pit Mom within each of us. We will mess up. Even our very best isn’t good enough. But in Jesus Christ, God gives us his best, and God’s best is all that matters.