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A Hand-on-the-String God

John 15:9-17

May 10, 2015

Sermon peached by Rev. Donald Ng at the First Chinese Baptist Church in San Francisco.

There was a story about a mother whose son was preparing for college wrote the following note to the college president:

            “Dear Sir: My son has been accepted for admission to your college and soon will be leaving me. I am writing to ask that you give your personal attention to the selection of his roommate. I want to be sure that the person he will spend the next few years with is not the kind of person who smokes, drinks, uses foul language or is a troublemaker or rabble-rouser. I hope you will understand why I am appealing to you directly. You see, this is the first time my son will be away from home, except for his three years in the Marines. Sincerely…”

Today we have what we call, “helicopter parents” who are always hovering and monitoring the activities of their children. They are controlling, manipulating, directing and micro-managing the child’s life. All of the adults here can remember the days when we would roam around the neighborhood by ourselves without adult supervision until it was time to come home for dinner. Today, parents are like flying a drone into their children’s classroom to spy on them.

On this Mother’s Day, what we want to do is to honor Moms and to talk about Moms. But we also want to talk about God. How do we see God in our lives? Do we think of God as a “helicopter God”—always hovering around, controlling and interfering? Or do most of us think about our mothers and about God in a different way?

What if God is more of “a hand-on-the-string God?” Let me explain.

Hand on the Balloon Line

Getting a balloon is great but getting a helium balloon is better. Instead of “helicopter parents,” Rabbi David Wolpe of Los Angeles’ Sinai Temple proposes parents to become “helium parents.”

In his words: “We should hold on to our children as a child holds a balloon. Let them rise, float on their own, but keep a grasp on the string so that they do not float away to unknown parts. The time will come when we need to release the balloon, but, in the meantime, instead of hovering from above, we should be holding lightly from below.”

The outcome of this style of being a mom, Rabbi Wolpe continues, is different: “So often we forget that we are not trying to create ‘good kids,’ but competent, kind adults. Self-reliance is the fruit of practice, nurtured by failure, encouraged by appropriate risk. Cuddle a kid and you get a coddled kid. Let them soar and you get an adult.”

Hand-on-the-String God

If this is the kind of Moms we need to become competent and kind adults, what kind of God do we want who would nurture us to become competent and mature disciples? What sort of maternal oversight do we prefer the Almighty to exercise over us?

Some of us are inclined to visualize God as the helicopter parent: always hovering overhead, training a spotlight on us to highlight our misdeeds. This is a stern, judgmental ruler, the ultimate micromanager; surveying our lives with disapproval, swift to mete out punishment.

Yet, what if God relates to us in a very different way? What if God is more like Rabbi Wolpe’s concept of a helium mom, holding gently to the end of a string as we float and dance in the wind currents?

Thankfully, God doesn’t seem all that interested in micromanaging our lives. To the contrary, the Lord seems content to leave us alone for long periods, with only the lightest of tugs on the balloon string. Sometimes that touch is imperceptible, barely there. At other times—episodes of trouble or temptation happen to us, in particular—and we may suddenly feel a strong pull on the line, calling us back into a closer relationship with God.

The truth of the gospel text for today is that it tells us how we want God to mother us. It tells us how we want God to take care of us. It is with love. What does the text say about this love?

Love

Here are five points to remember. First, it’s a love that is specific to you. “You did not choose me but I chose you” (v. 16). We love it when mom chooses us, singles us out for some love and praise. Jesus says that we, too, were chosen by him, even as God chose Jesus.

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Over the course of 40 years of ministry, I have kept an active listening ear to what God wants me to do. In retrospect, God chose me to leave Boston, the Hub of the Nation to come to San Francisco in 1975. I believe God chose me to return to San Francisco in 1998. God chose me to go to Northeast India where I met so many faithful Baptist Christians that I am praying when God may ask me to go again. God chooses you to be in mission at FCBC. We may think that we made this dramatic decision to choose the Lord but in the end, we realized that God first chose us because of his love for us.

Secondly, it’s a love that gives us a job. We loved it when mom gave us a job to do. We love it when she asked us to help her, to work side by side with her—whether it was helping to bake some cookies, or to put our finger in the string when she was tying a knot on some packages. It didn’t matter. We loved it. We weren’t crazy about doing chores, but we did them because we knew we should, and it was mom! We found out that our almost 9 year-old granddaughter Sage is now washing dishes. She loves it because her mom gave her this job.

God loves us this way too. We are tasked with helping God with the chores. We are called to “bear fruit—fruit that will last” (v. 16).

Thirdly, it’s a love in which we remain. “Now remain or abide in my love,” the text says (v. 9). Jesus says we remain or abide in his love when we obey his commands (v. 10). So, in one sense, God’s love is conditional. Mom loved us this way, too. We remained in her love as long as we weren’t bad. And she knew when we were bad, no matter how hard we tried to conceal it. And we felt badly when we knew she knew!

But, on the other hand, there’s a sense in which we can never be outside of God’s love, even as we were never outside of mom’s love. Yes, we exasperated her on many occasions. Yes, we got her mad. Yes, she put us in “timeout.” But we were always in her love.

And even in a more perfect way, we are always in the love of God. In Romans 8:35-39, Paul said, nothing can separate us from God’s love.

As a parent and now as a grandparent, I think the biggest mistake I made is the one that most of us make while doing this. I did not live in the moment enough. This is particularly clear now that the moment is gone, captured only in photographs. If you were to take out a picture of your children when they were younger, what do you see?

I wish I could remember what we ate, what we talked about, how they sounded and how they looked when they slept that night. I wish I had not been in such a hurry to get on to the next thing: dinner, bath, book, bed. I wish I had treasured the doing a little more and the getting it done a little less. We want to remain and abide in the love that we have with one another because we know that nothing can separate the love that God has for us. God’s love remains.

Fourthly, it’s a love that asks us to play nice and share. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (v. 12). At the end, of the reading, Jesus says it again” “This is my command: love each other” (v. 17). Can’t you hear mom asking us to play nice? “Be nice to your brother!” “Take your sister with you.” Well, God loves us this way, too. God loves us enough to ask us to share love with others.

On social media networks, there’s been this captioned image of “one-job fail.” The picture shows some glaring mistake. In one such picture, there’s a painted yellow line zigzagging from one side of the road to the other, with the caption reading, “You had one job…”” The implication, of course, is that the driver of the line-painting truck was not especially good at doing his one job.

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In another picture, there’s two halves of a bridge under construction. They don’t meet in the middle. “You had one job…”

Today’s scripture describes one job the Lord assigns to us all: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” How many one-job fails do we all manage to rack up in a single day, when it comes to Jesus’ great commandment? None of us want to have our picture go viral on the internet of failing to do this one job of loving one another.

And finally, it’s a love that is sacrificial. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life” (v. 13). When we think of all the things that mom did for us, well…it’s amazing. Is God’s love any less? Did not God in Jesus Christ lay down his life for us?

Writers Rob and Kristen Bell have come up with three degrees of love-relationships that may be helpful to us on Mother’s Day. There are three stages of drawing closer to the one we love, of becoming more committed. The three stages are: spark, substance and sacrifice. It’s easy to remember the 3 Ss.

Spark is what first appears in those beautiful, early days of romantic relationship: the feeling of joy, even ecstasy, at simply being in the presence of that special someone. We hardly need to say more about that, because it’s all over the entertainment media: the movies, the TV shows, the romantic novels.

The relationship matures, over the years, and the love between two persons weaves back-and-forth into a different quality of relationship. The spark is still there, but even more wonderful than that is the growing substance—a solid relationship that’s more like having a best friend, the ease and comfort in one another’s presence, the building together of a home eventually. There’s something there, something real, something trustworthy and lasting.

I hope most of our relationships with our spouses are with substance.

Far rarer—and far more precious—is the third stage: sacrifice. It’s not something anyone looks for, nor desires. Often it’s associated with significant loss, even pain. Something happens: something bad, something unforeseen. The beloved is at risk. Yet, because of love, the sacrifice is simply what one has to do; and one offers it to the beloved out of abiding joy, a joy so deep it issues, not in laughter, but in sighs and even tears.

Such is Christian love in all its delight, its complexities, its joy. This is the kind of love that Jesus said, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life” (v. 13).

All of this is suggestive, not of a helicopter God, but a helium God, a God whose hand is on the string. We feel the tug at times. We sense the slack of the string at times. But we always know the hand is there.

The relationship we have or have had with our moms—indeed, to any parental figure in our lives—is complex. This is no less true of our relationship with God, a relationship based on love, requiring a firm, but gentle, hand on the balloon line.

Our spiritual relationship with God is often experienced in similar ways. At times we may feel God hovering, and at other times we feel the hand of God on the string, gently letting us rise.

In any case, on Mother’s Day, we give thanks for those people in our lives who have been willing to make such a sacrifice, for our sake. For surely, we know that God in Jesus Christ lay down his life for us.

Let us pray.

Gracious God, in your eternal and divine wisdom you made us for relationship, and we celebrate the people you have brought into our lives, especially our mothers. For all those who teach us to love, we praise you. For all those who inspire us to be generous, just and kind, we thank you. For those who nurture our relationship with you, we rejoice. And, for those who disappoint us, we ask for grace to be compassionate and forgiving. In all of our relationships may we live the truth of your love for us which knows no bounds. Amen.

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