Rev. Sarah Buteux February 3, 2020
Epiphany 6, Year A Deut. 30:15-20 Mat. 5:1-12
I think I can honestly say that there was a point in my life when I had parenting all figured out. I really understood the importance of discipline and consistency, obedience and tough love.
I shook my head at all the other parents out there who would count to three, not get their way, and then count to three all over again. I chuckled at the bribes and shuddered at some of the threats I overheard at the grocery store, in the parking lot, on the playground.
And I’d think to myself: come on people, it’s not that complicated. Seriously, it’s all about follow through. If you say you’re going to take the toy away when you get to three, then just take the gosh darn toy away and be done with it. Enough with the negotiating. Enough with all that wishy washy, back and forth, coddling. Look, you just have to gently but firmly show them who’s boss. If you say you’re going to do something then you have to do it. Consistency, man, it’s all about consistency.
Yeah, there was a point in my life when I had parenting all figured out.
Then I had kids.
Before long I was the mother in the grocery store calmly explaining that, “no we were not going to open the cheddar bunnies till we got home and that’s final. O.K., o.k. we are going to open them, but not until we get in the car. I mean soon, very, very soon. As soon as we pay for them at the check out then you can open the cheddar bunnies. Oh for goodness’ sake, whatever, just don’t spill them on the floor.”
After I had kids, I learned to count to three with such incredible gravitas and underlying menace that it surprised even me when I was forced to start all over again three seconds later.
To this day I am as unashamed to bribe as I am horrified by my capacity to threaten.
And as for consistency, well, let’s just say that consistency is great, in theory. In fact, I’m all for it. It’s the kids who seem to find it so problematic. I think they should always listen to me…consistently. After all I am eminently reasonable and have only their best interests at heart.
When I say – “No, you cannot stick a fork in the toaster, yes you need to turn the i-pad off and go to sleep, no, Rice Krispie treats are not a breakfast food – I’m not being arbitrary. I’m not asking them to obey me just for the sake of making them do what I want them to do. I want it for them. I want it because I know that ultimately fork free toasters, a good night’s sleep, and unadulterated Krispies are what will keep them safest, healthiest, and hopefully happiest.
And I admit that sometimes I want what’s best for them so badly that I yell. Sometimes I want it so badly that I threaten. Indeed sometimes I want it so badly that I say stupid things I’d rather not repeat here. Things that used to involve absconding with Thomas the Tank engine such that he would never be heard from again and have somehow escalated to involve the banishment of i-pads forever, or the promise that “until you can start demonstrating enough personal responsibility to not lose something as big as your winter coat, you’ll be getting a smart phone over my dead body.”
But of course Thomas inevitably did reappear, the i-pads are still in circulation, and my children will eventually own their own phones while I continue to draw breath upon this earth, because the truth is, I am not consistent. It doesn’t seem to matter how serious my threats are or how firm my resolve is in the moment, because somehow the moment always passes.
Invariably something shifts in my beautiful boy. Something changes in my precious girl. Somehow they turn it around. Obedience is offered, peace is made, and the love I feel for them sweeps all the fear and anger and frustration away such that what was lost is found, what was taken away is restored, what was broken is somehow made new, and we get to start again.
I guess I’ve learned that when it comes to parenting, consistency is extremely important.
It’s just not as important as love.
Well, you all remember Moses, right? Moses was sort of like a parent to the children of Israel. It was Moses who led them up out of their enslavement in Egypt, Moses who got them all safely across the red sea, Moses who kept them all on track even as they wandered for 40 long years in the wilderness. And before he died, Moses spent a long time talking with his children. Actually the book of Deuteronomy is essentially his farewell address, his attempt to send his people down into the promised land with all the knowledge and the rules they will need to prosper.
And believe me when I say there are a lot of rules. Ten, in particular, that we still hold dear, along with rules about everything from what to eat to what not to wear. And you know what? As strange as some of those rules might seem, Moses wasn’t being arbitrary either. He truly believed that following those rules would keep his people safe, healthy and happy.
But there are a lot of threats laced throughout the book of Deuteronomy too; a whole lot of ultimatums. In fact, one of the recurring refrains throughout the book –indeed the refrain that dominates our reading for today, might best be paraphrased: “you better do what I say… or else.”
You better worship the Lord your God and not bow down to idols… or else. You better remember the Sabbath and keep it holy… or else. You better honor your father and your mother… or else. You better not lie, murder, cheat, or steal… or else. You get the idea.
The fancy word for all this quid pro quo is “covenant,” and the covenant between God and his people, that Moses delivered, basically stipulated that if the Israelites kept the commandments then they would be blessed. However, the opposite was also true. If they broke the commandments then they would be cursed.
And as dire as the warnings sound, you have to admit, there is something kind of comforting about living in accordance with a covenant, because if you have a covenant then you not only know the rules, you know where you stand with God. It’s kind of nice to have everything laid out in black and white: do good and you will live long and prosper, do evil and you will suffer and die. Yes, there is great potential for disaster, but at least it’s clear.
I mean a covenant like this could really help one make sense of life, except for the fact that life doesn’t always make sense. I mean, yes, on the whole, if you behave well, typically good things will come to you.
Which is to say: if you live as a good, upstanding, generous, loving member of your community, people will typically respond to you in kind and your life will be filled with blessing.
Conversely, if you go out there and act like jerk, if you push people around, take advantage of others, lie, cheat, and steal, you too could be president one day.
And that’s just it, isn’t it?
Good things happen to good people all the time, but so do bad things…bad things like abuse and Alzheimer’s and addiction. Bad things happen to bad people too, but so do good things like accolades, amnesty, and acquittals.
And I’m just in the a’s. I could go on, but I don’t need to because you all know as well as I do that life isn’t fair. Life, no matter how you live it, comes with everything but a guarantee.
So what do you do then?
How do you make sense of a covenant like this in a world like ours?
Where is the consistency?
How can we trust these words in our Bibles when our experience calls them so thoroughly into question?
Well, believe it or not, I think I have an answer. I’m just not sure you’re going to like it. But here goes: just because certain words and ideas are present in the Bible, doesn’t mean they are universally true for all people in every time and place. Yup. And yes I know that opens a big fat door into an infinite world of ambiguity, but that’s where I live as a person of faith, and if you’re not afraid to question, there might be a place for you here too.
Just because certain words and ideas are present in the Bible, doesn’t mean they are universally true for all people in every time and place, so you shouldn’t force them to make sense when they don’t, anymore than you should throw the baby out with the bathwater and ditch the commandments outright because keeping them can’t guarantee you a life devoid of suffering.
The truth is that the baby is still a good baby. On the whole it still makes sense to live a Godly life in spite of the fact that things can still go horribly sideways.
Likewise, if people are suffering, it’s not always because of something they did wrong. In fact, if you actually read the Bible as a whole – and I’m pretty sure Jesus did – you’ll come to realize that the Bible doesn’t always agree with itself on this matter, or a whole host of other matters for that matter, but in this case in particular it doesn’t agree with itself much at all.
Even before you get the Beatitudes, or any of the New Testament, you find that there are actually numerous passages in the Hebrew Bible that recognize and empathize with the fact that life isn’t always fair; that life doesn’t always make sense.
Think of Job, or all those passages in Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, and the Psalms that call God’s justice into question because of the suffering of the innocent. Throughout the Bible people realize that we have a problem here, a big problem. It’s called the problem of evil and it’s so big that it still hasn’t been solved.
But remember as well all those times when the people of Israel did go astray and didn’t get what they deserved then either. All those times when they bowed down to foreign idols and turned their backs on God. All those times when they turned away from the suffering of others, when they ignored the pleas of widows and shunned the refugees in their midst.
And yet, in spite of all they did wrong, God still waited patiently for them. God continued to implore them to turn their hearts back to God. And when they failed, even then, remember how over and over again, God went and found them, bound up their wounds, and carried them home.
Because God, like every other parent I know, isn’t consistent either, at least not when it comes to punishing. Actually, I don’t believe that God punishes us at all. As far as I can see, in spite of all the pain some of us suffer through, the pain we bring on ourselves and the pain that just seems to come out of nowhere, the only thing God seems to do consistently is love us.
Love us in spite of it all whether we deserve it or not. Love us and seek to be loved in return.
Actually, I think that’s the real truth at the heart of the covenant God made with her people through Moses. I think the promise at the heart of the covenant is that life, blessing, the promised land – what Jesus later calls the Kingdom -are always as close as our willingness to receive them.
We have only to turn toward God, no matter how dark or depraved our present might seem, and God will be there, still there. Because God is always there, waiting with open arms to greet us, hold us, and carry us back home.
That is who God is, and as inconsistent as all the rest might be, that part of the covenant will never change. Yes, it still makes sense to choose wisely, to keep the commandments, to follow God, but it’s also good to know that even when we fail or give-up trying to follow in God’s way, God never fails or gives up trying to find her way back to us.