I Never Get It Right – 4th Sunday after Pentecost / Proper 6B

A young lady came to the church office the other day asking for the pastor.  I owned up the fact that I was the pastor. Before we were all the way into the office, she began her refrain: “I never get it right,” she said. “I never get it right.” And then she launched in to her tale about how everything she tries comes to a bad end. “It’s never right. I never get it right!

Part of her problem is that she’s been sold a bill of goods by some prosperity gospel preachers that if she gives them her money, prays in a certain way, and behaves according to a strict code of conduct, that she’ll climb right out of poverty and start living the American dream. As it is, she’s living in a shelter; every effort she makes seems to come to naught; and she’s feeling terrible . . . convinced that she’s not only going to hell someday but is living it right now.

Wouldn’t it be great if it was that simple—that living our lives was like following a tried and trusted recipe? A cup of this, a teaspoon of that, a quarter pound of something else and then bake at a certain temperature for a specified period of time—and out comes a perfect life?

I’m guessing that we would all like to have a workable plan, a recipe, a path to follow that leads around the pitfalls of our existence. We’d like to think that we have life figured out. But as we all know—at least those of us who’ve been around for awhile and have been paying attention, it doesn’t work out that way. Robert Burns, the Scottish poet, had it exactly right: “The best laid plans of mice and men oft go astray.”

Life is a mystery, much like a parable. Some parables, like that of the mustard seed, don’t make a lot of sense on one level. Turns out that mustard seeds aren’t the smallest of all seeds. David might have been a youth, the youngest of all his siblings, but he was no slouch when it came to being a warrior.

Part of the struggle of faith is that it is parabolic . . . not spelled out, often  unclear, and always with a sense of “Well, here’s the story. Now you figure it out.”

When the sons of Jesse came, Samuel looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the LORD.” But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” (1 Samuel 16.6-7)

Tom Erich, a writer and blogger tells of his own experience:

I came out of my youth thinking I could learn anything. Then I met ice skating.

A friend named Pat taught me how to skate forward. Under her patient tutelage, I learned to turn one direction and do a hockey stop on one side. But turning the other direction eluded me, as did stopping on the other side and the utter mystery of skating backward. So much for playing ice hockey.

The list of things I didn’t understand grew and grew, until now it’s beyond counting. I don’t feel negatively about things I fail to understand. I just don’t get them. How do people climb the vertical faces of cliffs? How can people remain in confined spaces without panicking? How can an artist draw a face and have it look like a face?

Most confounding, of course, are other people. How do people who quote the Bible to justify hatred and cruelty sleep at night? How can people beat their partners, abuse their children, bully classmates, shout violent words against strangers? By the same token, how can targets of abuse become decent people, as many do? How do people keep showing up for work when they get no respect and minimal pay? How do soldiers and first responders move toward danger?

And perhaps most confusing, how does God stand us? God set in motion something glorious, and we are trashing it. God showed us how to love and how to sacrifice for others, and we turn away. God gave us bread, and we demanded gold. I don’t understand how God can continue to believe in humanity.

The answer, as it says in 1 Samuel, is that “the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” God must see the brokenness that causes us to be so cruel and unrepentant. God sees the wounds that drive us into our bunkers. God sees the goodness just waiting for an opening. God sees the need for love, the as-yet-untapped font of kindness. God sees our character, even as the world rejects our ugliness. God sees our desire to serve, even as the world preys on our naivete.

I’ve learned that it’s important to see the things I don’t understand – to try to sense the mystery that God sees.

On this Father’s Day, there are probably many of us Fathers who are very aware that we often got it wrong. We found ourselves in situations where there were no road maps, recipes, or directions—whether it was changing a diaper the first few times, trying to figure out a way of doing math that didn’t even exist when we were in school, or attempting to soothe a mostly adult child’s broken heart. The proper words and templates didn’t or don’t always exist.

But we love as best we can, we advise with hope that it will work, we tutor even when we’re not certain—because, in some cases it needs to be done and we’re the only ones at hand. We pray that God looks at our hearts and our children and spouses overlook or ignore our failures, and that everyone of us has had enough glimpses of, if not outright success, that we don’t have to ever tell ourselves that we never got it right.

So happy Father’s Day to those to whom it applies. Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, and all other days that call attention to family—remind us to be humble, grateful, and so glad that there are those who love us in spite of ourselves. May your day be blessed.

Amen.