Monday, August 26, 2019

Sermon: "You're (Not) Excused", Jeremiah 1:4-10/Luke 13:10-17 (August 25, 2019)


Excuses, excuses. We’ve all made them at one time or another, right? Sometimes, we do it because we want to communicate a legitimate reason for being unable to do something. More often, though, we make excuses because we don’t WANT to do something. We want to get out of some obligation or responsibility, but we don’t to face any consequences for it. So, we make excuses.

Our excuses grow and change along with us throughout our lives: as children, we justify not doing our chores; as teenagers, we make excuses for missing curfew; and as adults we’ve all had to explain at one time or another why we couldn’t possibly make it to a social engagement (and I was SO looking forward to it too, gosh darn it). Over the years, our excuses are met with varying degrees of acceptance, depending on their veracity and our ability to be convincing. But no matter what, we keep making them anyway. It’s like a compulsion.

This compulsion is so strong and so habitual that we even make excuses to God. Take a moment to let that sink in, and to realize how ridiculous that is. When God, the creator and sustainer of all that was, is, and ever will be, who knew us before we were created in the womb and even knows the number of hairs on our head, asks us to do something, we actually have the AUDACITY to try and explain why God’s request is impossible. You may chuckle, but we’ve all done it. I know I have.

Making excuses to God is a grand, albeit absurd, human tradition that stretches back millennia. Let’s take a look at some of our greatest hits, shall we? Maybe we can learn something about ourselves.

First on the list: “But God, I’m too [fill in the blank]!”

This is the most common excuse that human beings use whenever God asks us to do something we’d rather not do. “No God; you couldn’t possibly want me. I’m too young to lead worship. I’m only a lay person; I can’t teach a Bible Study. I dropped out of High School; I’m too uneducated to preach. I’m too new of a Christian to talk about my faith. I’m too old to start a new ministry.” They all sound like reasonable excuses in our heads, but somehow, God never seems to agree. For example, I don’t know a single clergyperson who didn’t at one time try to escape the call that God had placed on their life by pulling out this old chestnut of an excuse, myself included. I truly believed that I wasn’t smart enough, articulate enough, faithful enough, talented enough—I had excuses coming out of my ears. And yet, every single one of us wound up as pastors, anyway. Funny how that works.

The prophet Jeremiah tried to pull this, too. “Oh no, God,” he says, “I can’t be a prophet to the nations; I’m too young! I’m just a kid!” But take another look at the seven verses in our scripture reading: verse six is Jeremiah’s excuse; the other SIX VERSES are God telling him why it’s bologna. “You were literally made for this,” says God. “I’m the Lord; you need to do what I say,” says God. “I’ll be with you the whole time,” says God. “I’m personally giving you all the language and authority that you’ll need,” says God. In other words…no dice. God isn’t letting Jeremiah—or us—evade our call with this excuse.

So then we move on to the next one: “It’s just not the right time, God.”

Ah, yes, the old “If you’d asked ANY OTHER TIME, it would have been fine!” This excuse conveniently places the responsibility squarely on the askee, allowing us to avoid responsibility entirely. This one seems to have found new life in our modern culture of over-scheduling : “Ah, I’d love to come to worship, but Sunday morning is my only day to sleep in” “Ooo, I’d absolutely serve as a Deacon/Elder/Sunday School Teacher/Usher/Candle Lighter/Door Unlocker/Light Turn-er On-er, but I already did that back when I was younger; now I feel like it’s time for me to take care of me, you know?” Now, of course, if it’s me asking, I have no right to tell you where you should put your time and energy; I can only ask and hope that the timing works out. If GOD asks, on the other hand, we should think REAL HARD about whether it’s truly not the right time, or if we just…don’t want to.

This particular excuse becomes especially problematic when the stakes are higher than our weekly worship attendance. When Jesus healed the bent-over woman, the synagogue leader was incensed, not because Jesus had done something wrong in and of itself, but because he had done it on the Sabbath—the wrong time. “If only you’d done it on one of the OTHER six days of the week, it would have been fine. But today? Totally unacceptable. We can’t be helping people willy-nilly on the SABBATH!” Sounds ridiculous, right? But what if Jesus had thought this way too, making this excuse? The woman may have suffered for another eighteen years.

We regularly put off doing good because the timing isn’t right. On many occasions, I’ve felt overwhelmed by the work of justice that God calls God’s people to do. I think, “I just can’t do this right now. It’s too much.” But there’s a quote from the Jewish Talmud that says, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly now, love mercy now, walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” So this excuse clearly doesn’t fly with God, either.

And now, we’ve come to the most sinister of the excuses we tend to make. Number three: “I want to, God, but the rules say I can’t.”

In the PC(USA), this excuse gets a LOT of traction. As wonderful a tool as our Book of Order is, we sometimes use it as an excuse to avoid the hard work of life-changing ministry. Over the last several years, General Assembly has worked to change some of the rules that have historically been used this way: for example, in 2010, they voted to remove the last restriction against LGBT folks serving in ordained ministry, and in 2018, they voted to allow anyone (not just baptized Christians) to take part in Communion. Before that, many Presbyterians would shrug and say, “I’m sorry, God, but this person can’t serve in ordained ministry, even though you’ve clearly called them and we desperately need leaders. It’s against the rules!” or “I know you’ve invited everyone to this feast that you’ve prepared for us, Jesus, but this person can’t join us because they haven’t completed the prerequisites yet. It’s against the rules!” We conveniently forget, of course, that the purpose of the rules we set for ourselves is to help us do what’s right. If the rules prevent us from doing the right thing, then those rules need to be changed. God would expect nothing less from us.

This excuse was at play in Jesus’ interaction with the synagogue leader, too. Work of any kind was forbidden on the Sabbath. It was against the rules, so they all should have been excused from having to heal this woman. But Jesus wasn’t having it. To him, rules are worthless if they prevent us from doing kingdom work when it’s most needed. He didn’t think twice about whether or not to heal the woman: he didn’t consult the rules; he didn’t question whether the timing was right; he didn’t wonder whether he was the right person for the job. Jesus didn’t make any excuses. He saw a human being in need, and he acted.

There are lots of reasons we might make an excuse—fear, doubt, confusion, ignorance, or just plain laziness. But no matter what reason we have for making excuses, God renders all of them inconsequential. God knows us intimately and completely, so there’s no worry that God’s asking the wrong person. Rest assured that God knows exactly what God is asking and who God’s asking it of. God also promises to be present with and among us, so we know that God understands what we feel and walks alongside us. That’s what the incarnation is all about. And God loves us, deeply, completely, eternally, so we can trust that anything God asks of us is what God knows to be right for us. Maybe not easy, maybe not fun—but right. As for laziness…God created the entire universe in six days. Whatever your excuse is for your laziness, it’s entirely irrelevant.

Even if our excuses WERE persuasive, though, making them too often is damaging to a relationship. What would our lives look like if God gave as many excuses to us as we do to God? I mean, God has plenty of valid ones to choose from:

“Ugh, I WOULD send them guidance, but they never listen to me, anyway.”

“Well, I can’t answer that prayer because they didn’t follow the rules I gave them.”

“If I DO help them, they’ll just find a way to mess it up, anyway.”

“I’m not gonna give them what they’re asking for. They don’t deserve it.”

Sit in the discomfort of that thought for a minute. Think about how many times you’ve used an excuse like that to keep from loving your neighbor as yourself, to keep from helping someone in need, to keep from showing mercy, to keep from living out God’s call on your life. Think about how valid that excuse really was when YOU made it. Now, think about how many times GOD has used these excuses to keep from having to do something for YOU…I’ll wait…

Can you think of any?

Of course not. God doesn’t make excuses, even though we deserve them. God doesn’t make excuses because God loves us. God WANTS to give things to us; God WANTS to answer us when we call; God WANTS to help us, even though there are plenty of reasons not to. God WANTS to be in relationship with us, so God pushes through the temptation to just make excuses and give up. We’re important to God, so our requests are important to God. When WE make excuses to avoid doing the things that God asks of us, we’re reflecting OUR true priorities. We’re revealing that our own comfort and preferences are more important to us than our relationship with God. Think about it: the excuses that we make to God are, without exception, self-serving and narcissistic. If we truly want to grow in our relationship with the divine, excuses definitely aren’t the way to go about it.

When God asks us to do something, it’s not for God’s sake, but for ours—for our community, for humanity, and for the Holy Kingdom that God is creating with us. So let’s STOP making excuses. Let’s STOP saying, “I’m too insignificant for our leaders to listen to me”. Let’s STOP saying, “It’s not the right time to care for God’s creation because there’s still money to be made in earth-destroying industries”. Let’s STOP saying, “We can’t protect vulnerable people because the laws say they deserve what they get”. God is appointing YOU, not only within your family and this church community, but over nations and empires, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.[1] These excuses (ALL of our excuses) are feeble and inadequate. They reflect what’s weak and selfish about us, rather than what’s good and holy—what God sees.

No more excuses. Let’s listen to what God is asking us to do, and let’s say “yes” to the hard things, the scary things, the things we don’t feel prepared to do, the things we wish were happening at another time, the things that the rules say we shouldn’t, but God says we must. Let’s be God’s people, and let’s get to work. Amen.


[1] Jeremiah 1:10.

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