It’s not an easy thing to be a child of God.
Just ask Moses. He led God’s people, at God’s command, for forty years, through famine and thirst, heat and dust storms, temptations from followers of lesser gods, and then what happened? He died before he got to bring his people across the river into the Promised Land.
Just ask Paul. He wrote to the church in Thessaloniki, and shared his pain at how he was “treated shamefully at Philippi” while trying to preach and teach.
Just ask Jesus’s disciples. In the gospel today, they’re watching their teacher Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem. The Pharisees are asking leading questions that might cause him problems. It’s a high-risk time for Jesus, but also for the disciples – not a good thing to have the powers that be think that you are a bunch of troublemakers.
Our God has high expectations of us. He also makes no guarantee that it will be easy to meet those expectations, or that other people will support us in this work. And at times, it feels like God has left us dangling in the breeze trying to do the right thing all by ourselves.
As Jesus says, there are two commandments: love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Easy, we think, until we try to do it. Then we discover how challenging it sometimes is to fulfill these two great commandments.
This past week, at the Bishop’s Clergy Retreat and Conference, I was in conversation with some friends who are colleagues. They talked about the problems they encountered in their work, and I was dismayed at their difficulties. People who were bullying and disrespectful, rump caucuses who were working behind the scenes to stir up trouble, staff who were not doing their jobs or undermining their boss.
And once again I breathed a sigh of thanksgiving for being your priest, in this place where we aren’t perfect but we do treat each other with consideration and love. We follow our baptismal covenant, which calls us to respect the dignity of every human being, and I am grateful for that.
The conflicts and struggles which my colleagues described are not unique to the church. They are around us every day, whether it is the mom at the PTA meeting who highjacks every meeting for her pet peeve, or the boss who teases a coworker until she cries, or the neighbor who posts offensive signs on his property.
It’s not always easy to love your neighbor, is it?
And yet I think of the neighbors I had in Arlington when I was sick, who brought food over for us. I think of folks who gathered together to raise funds for children with special needs by rappelling down the side of the SunTrust Building downtown a few days ago. I think of someone who housed a young homeless couple as they awaited the birth of their first child, and an immigrant boy who was trying to save up enough to get a place of his own.
For every example of people in Philippi who mistreat Paul, there are the ones in Thessaloniki who treat him well. For every example of Pharisees who test Jesus with stupid question, there are people who hear him and follow him and celebrate what he teaches.
But we are not asked to love only the nice neighbors, we’re asked to love all our neighbors, including the ones who don’t keep up their yard or who allow their children to run wild or bully others.
And we don’t always get rewarded for that nobility…Moses surely didn’t, and he really did a whole lot more than I ever did to serve God. We do the right thing at work, and we still don’t get the promotion. We talk to our child about how to handle that bullying child with grace instead of just popping him in the mouth, and the child comes home the next day with a black eye saying, “That turn the other cheek business didn’t work so well, mom.”
But what of the work of following those two great commandments in the church?
You might think it comes automatically – it IS church, after all – but it doesn’t. It takes work here just like in other places.
For starters, we don’t always agree about everything. Your vestry, for example, discusses different ideas, different options to help us serve God better and to reach folks who might become a part of our parish family. We brainstorm, we talk pros and cons, we sometimes decide to let things sit for a month or two while we pray and digest what we discuss. We pray. We study Scripture. All of this informs how we try to faithfully carry out this parish’s unique mission. And it isn’t always easy. The same is true with other committees. It is joyful, but it isn’t always smooth, and we don’t always succeed. Sometimes we don’t get to lead a project across that final river into the Promised Land. Sometimes we find our work isn’t received as we had expected.
We get frustrated or disappointed. We think there is every reason in the world that we might say, “Enough of this! I want to just stay home and read the paper and drink my coffee on Sunday morning.” It is not easy to be a child of God.
And yet…and yet…
There is something that carries us in this work as a parish family. Two things, actually. Love God, love your neighbor. We see that in action in this place that we all love so much, in our worship, in our work, in our music, in our children, in our elders. It creeps out beyond these walls into the larger world. Love God by helping another. Love God by sharing our values with our coworkers. Love God by partnering with others with different beliefs. Love our neighbor by speaking up for a classmate who is a target of cruelty. Love our neighbor by bringing food for Lamb’s Basket, or for the ISH Thanksgiving baskets. Love our neighbor by calling them, or taking them for a ride to run an errand, or sharing a book or DVD.
And suddenly, being a child of God makes perfect sense. It is the only way to live.
And suddenly, we feel some fresh energy in our souls and bodies, much as I did after my time up at the Clergy Conference. We find ourselves asking what we should do next for the God who loves us and for our neighbors who need us.
We say “Yes” when God says “Will you?”
That’s what it means to be a child of God. It doesn’t mean it’s easy, or always successful, or without effort. It does mean it will make a difference in our relationship with God and with each other.
We are children of God. We take on the challenge, whatever God puts on our path. It’s the acceptance of that challenge that makes us beloved of the one who created us.
Scary, that. Scary to be a child of God, but not Hallowe’en scary. Awesome. Can you be awesome? God thinks so, and so do I.