March 17, 2019
Rule of Life: Relationship with God
2019 Lenten Sermon Series, Part 2
Here’s something I’m struggling to understand: My father died a week and a half ago. I was there when he died, sitting with him through the hard, final hours. My sisters and I took care of the arrangements for his cremation. With my mother, we planned a celebration of his eternal life and reveled in the love that his life had brought us. I’ve received prayers and good wishes from so many of you, loving offerings of your beautiful hearts. All the evidence points to my father’s absence from the life we shared here, and I know his death to be a fact. But here’s the thing: I don’t feel like he’s gone.
Now, maybe that’s denial. I do know grief doesn’t keep a schedule but comes in waves when you least expect it, and those waves will continue to crash on me. But even when I confront my sadness about the distance between my father and me, it doesn’t feel like the relationship is gone. So, rather than what I’m experiencing being denial, maybe instead what I’m experiencing is friendship, just now at a distance.
Friendship with a parent isn’t a given. Early in my life, my father was the authority figure, the provider, the guy who went to work each day, and my partner in playing catch in the back yard. Later, he was the guy who didn’t understand me and whose advice seemed tired and worn. Still later, there didn’t seem to be very much for us to talk about, and getting together for family gatherings kind of felt like a routine. My father and I did share an annual special event – a trip together to see baseball games – and those were good moments of remembering something deeper. But then there were the other 51 weeks of the year. There wasn’t anything wrong, exactly. We were just on hold.
And then, my father did something out of character: He told me what he needed. One of his great strengths was his willingness to put the needs of others first; but the shadow side of that is how hard it is, then, to say what you need yourself. Well, several years ago, my father found the words. He simply said, “I’d really appreciate it if you’d call home more often.” He wasn’t looking for some huge change in my life or wanting me to feel badly for the ways I’d been missing the mark. He just wanted more connection. So – through regular phone calls, and more-frequent visits, and those annual baseball trips, too – my father and I took stagnation and turned it into a relationship that connected us even when we weren’t together. We took a good-enough parent-child dynamic and turned it into friendship instead.
So, here we are at the second Sunday of Lent, the season when the Church calls us to mend the ruptures in our relationship with God. As you know, through this Lent, we’re encouraging you to think about creating a rule of life as way to hold up and nurture your spirituality. Now, for those of us who find it hard even to give up chocolate or remember to say the Lord’s Prayer at night, creating a rule of life probably sounds way over the top, something more for nuns and monks than for folks like us. But a rule can be just a few simple practices that encourage us to focus on and strengthen our spiritual lives. So, through these weeks of Lent, the sermons will flesh that out and ask us to consider what we might do to build our relationship with God, with ourselves, with others, and with God’s creation. You can also join the Café 9:15 class, or the parents’ class, on Sunday mornings to learn more about a rule of life – or you can just take home the green booklet in the entryway.
So, this week, the focus is building our relationship with God. And as you might have guessed, the experience of my father’s death is making me think about my relationship with God differently.
I sort of missed the boat with the start of Lent this year: I skipped Ash Wednesday and the first Sunday of Lent; I haven’t really figured out something to give up or take on; and I’ve been feeling kind of badly about all that. It’s not great form for the priest to ignore Lent. But I’ve also heard God saying – especially through the kindnesses so many of you have shared – I’ve heard God saying it’s OK give myself a break and let go of the sense of failure, despite how well I hang onto that. Because building our relationship with God isn’t about getting good grades in religious observance. Building our relationship with God is about turning an acquaintance into a friendship.
We hear an example of that in today’s Old Testament reading. As we come to this story, Abram and God are in the process of building an extraordinary relationship. A few chapters earlier, for no apparent reason, the God of Israel tapped Abram on the shoulder as he was enjoying his life in Mesopotamia and told him to leave his country and his people to receive great blessing in a new land. And Abram went, apparently persuaded by the power of God’s self-revealing. But over time – as Abram encountered famine, and used his wife as a bargaining chip to save himself in Egypt, and rescued his nephew’s household from warring tribes – over time, things didn’t seem to be going so well for Abram, who’d risked everything he had on nothing but a promise.
So, God comes to Abram again, which is where we pick up today’s reading. Abram is thinking God’s promise of a new land hasn’t really panned out. Plus, even if he does hang onto the land he’s occupying in Canaan, he’s got no one to leave it to; so, it’s basically an empty gift. So, even though it may seem disrespectful to talk to the Lord God this way, Abram turns to God with some honest questions. He says, “Look, you brought me here, but how am I supposed to know this land’s really mine? And if it’s mine, who will it go to once I’m gone?” So God says, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. … So shall your descendants be.” (Genesis 15:5) Look at the signs I give you, God says, and know that my word is good. Well, Abram trusts their relationship enough to believe what God has told him. And God honors Abram’s trust by renewing the promise of blessing beyond his dreams.
This kind of honest exchange between God and Abram keeps going for several more chapters in Genesis, through blessings and crises alike. There’s God renaming Abram and Sarai as Abraham and Sarah, deepening the covenant they’ve made. There’s the question of whether Abraham’s son with a slave will be his heir, or whether God can provide a child through Sarah in her very old age. There’s Abraham’s negotiation with God to save even a handful of faithful people in the doomed city of Sodom. And there’s Abraham’s time of deep testing, when God asks him to offer his only son as a sign of Abraham’s dependence on God alone. This relationship between Abraham and God isn’t easy; it’s full of twists and turns. Their relationship takes work, and faith, and honesty, and investment, and patience. Above all, it takes connection – like any friendship. And that’s how later books of Scripture describe Abraham, as nothing less than the “friend of God” (2 Chronicles 20:7, Isaiah 41:8, James 2:23).
OK, so, we’re not Abraham. Few of us receive the word of the Lord in visions or witness holy fire and smoke to assure us of God’s promises. But we, too, can be friends of God. We, too, are inheritors of Abraham’s covenant, the mutual promise that as we invest our hearts and lives to follow God faithfully, so God will invest God’s heart and life to bless us in ways we can’t imagine. And though we might not see visions, I do think we should listen for the voice of God calling us to a friendship we might never have expected was possible. Because God asks for our friendship with the same surprisingly vulnerable request that I heard from my own father: “I’d really appreciate it if you’d call home more often.”
In churchy language, we call it prayer. But as it says in the guide to a rule of life that we’re using this Lent,1 prayer is not about saying the right words at specific times, no matter how much we may love our prayer book and its liturgy. Prayer is about how we live – being responsive to God’s presence in all the facets of our lives. It’s seeing God’s hand in the beauty of creation and hearing God’s voice in the insights of people we trust. It’s looking for God’s direction in situations that might otherwise bind us in anxious fear. It’s saying “thank you” for momentary gifts of beauty and blessing. It’s saying “I’m sorry” when we find ourselves headed the wrong direction, and then turning a different way instead. I think that’s what St. Paul means when he writes about “praying without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17) – prayer that’s like breathing, prayer that offers nothing more and nothing less than our whole selves, prayer that brings us divine love in response. In the same way that God takes mundane bread and wine and makes Jesus Christ present within it, God inhabits the mundane moments of our lives, sitting beside us as our true companion. As Jesus said to his followers at the Last Supper, “I do not call you servants any longer, … but I have called you friends” (John 15:15).
Growing a relationship with God isn’t nearly as imposing as it seems. God’s not asking for heroic efforts. God’s not demanding that we get all the answers right. Our heavenly parent is simply asking us to pick up the phone and call home more often.
1. Society of St. John the Evangelist. Growing a Rule of Life workbook. Available at: www.ssje.org/growrule. Accessed March 15, 2019.