Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent
February 22, 2015
“This American Life” is a weekly hour long radio show that explores different facets of life in America. Just recently, “This American Life” did an hour long, in depth story on a Jeep dealership on Long Island. Car dealerships are everywhere in America, but their inner workings are often a mystery to us outsiders. You know when the salesman says to you, “I need to talk with my manager about this deal.” Yeah, so “This American Life” recorded those conversations. It was fascinating.
I learned a couple of lessons. First, car salesman are not pleasant people. They are trying to manipulate you, and they are trying to manipulate their bosses, all so they can make the sale. One of the car salesman in particular said they he viewed selling cars as a war with the customer. Yikes. The second thing I learned, however, is that you can get the upper hand at the car dealership. If you buy your car toward the end of the month, you are much more likely to get a deal. That’s not urban legend, that’s truth. That’s why the salesman says, “what do I have to do to get you into this car?”
See, what happens is that the Jeep corporation gives out bonuses to dealerships that meet monthly sales quotas. By the end of the month, if they haven’t met that quota, the dealership will do anything to sell you a car just so they can get that bonus. In fact, dealerships will sell cars and lose money on the deal, just so they can get to that quota for the big bonus. They are willing to give up their small, short-term profits in order to get bigger, long-term gains.
Now, it would be a little blasphemous to say that God was a Jeep salesman. But, there are some similarities when God is trying to make a deal. And it’s mainly that God is willing to give up in the short-term in order to make bigger gains in the long run. In the passage from Genesis this morning, God makes a covenant, a contract, with Noah. God is saying, “what do I need to do to get you into this covenant?” So they strike a deal. God will never again destroy the earth by a flood. Noah, for his part, must ensure that he and his people respect the dignity of every human being. But pay attention to what just happened. God has given up an incredible amount of power, freedom, and independence. God, in a sense, has put himself in a bind by making this covenant. God is losing out on this deal in the short-term. The benefit that God hopes to gain through this deal is in the long-run. In the long-run, God hopes to make the big bonus. The bonus is that Noah’s descendants respect the dignity of every human being.
See, God is not out to win in the short-term. God is playing the long game. The Jeep salesmen do not care if they gain or lose on every little contract. God does not care if he loses a little power here and there in the short-term. God is out to get the big bonus. The big bonus is our hearts. God does this again in Jesus. God takes an incredible loss in the short-term by becoming a human. God gives up freedom, independence, and authority by taking on flesh in Jesus Christ. But that’s because God has his eyes on the larger bonus, the big prize at the end of the month. The big bonus, is our hearts. And God is going to do whatever it takes to get us into that contract with him. God will lose out in the short-term, in order to win big in the long run. God is not a car salesman, but he sure behaves like one.
Of course, covenants are two way streets. It’s not only the salesman, but it’s the customer. It’s not just God, it’s us too. And you know this, when you buy a car, you get stuck on the little things. We think about whether we want leather seats or cloth seats. Do we want turbo boost or all wheel drive? Should I get gray with black trim or black with gray trim? Just how many cupholders do I need? Meanwhile, the salesman doesn’t care at all whether you get a sunroof or not. He just wants you to buy a stupid car. In our relationship with God, we get all caught up in the little things. God just wants us to get into the relationship, God just wants our hearts, but we ho and hum about the little stuff. I experienced this first hand during our Drive-Thru Ashes.
As people would roll up and I would welcome them, many would ask me questions. “Is it okay that I’m not an Episcopalian?” Yes – God does not care about the little stuff, God just wants your heart. God does not care if you’re a Catholic or a Lutheran or a Baptist, or heaven forbid, a Methodist. Others would ask, “can I really come to church on Sundays, I haven’t been to church in forever.” Yes – God is willing to lose whatever it takes in the short-term, and will work until the very last minute to get that bonus. Look, God is eternal. So if you haven’t been to church in twenty-five years, that’s nothing for God. And we had multiple people ask us in our Drive-Thru, “what do I need to wear to church?” After standing out there for nine and half hours I got a little loopy. Somebody asked me yet again, “what do I need to wear to church.” I blurted out, “Clothes, you have to wear clothes.” God does not care if you wear a mink coat or flip-flops to church.
God wants your heart. In fact, God wants everybody’s heart. On Ash Wednesday, cars were actually lined up in our parking lot, full of people waiting to hear the good news of Jesus Christ. So when you are intimated, or embarrassed about asking someone to church or talking to them about your relationship with God, just remember that image. The people you know are hungry for a relationship with this God who doesn’t care about the little stuff. They were lining up in their cars just so they could have a little taste of who God is. So go for it. Tell them your friends and your family where you got this incredible deal with this incredible God.
On all the little stuff, God is willing to negotiate with us. The cupholders, the seat warmers, the GPS system, God will cut us a deal. What clothes you wear, which translation of the Bible you read, who you love and why you love them, all that is up for negotiation. God will negotiate on all of that, as long as God gets your heart. Do not think this is some sort of easy Christianity. This is actually a much harder way of life. It would be a whole lot easier if Christianity was all about going to the right church, wearing the right clothes, and saying the right things. It’s not. That’s the little stuff. Those are the negotiables.
This life with Jesus is hard because it requires our whole hearts, not just the little things on top. Everything we do, and everything we are, must be fully devoted to the Lord Jesus. That’s the deal God has made. That’s the covenant into which we enter. During these forty days of Lent, I ask you to sit down and re-examine your relationship with God. Sit down, and read over the contract you have made with God. We, as Episcopalians, use the Baptismal Covenant as the framework for our contract with God. It’s in the Book of Common Prayer. Go over it. Read it through. You’ll see that there isn’t any fine print at the bottom. God is actually not some shady car salesman trying to rip you off. God does not go off to some smoky backroom to cut a deal with his manager. God is completely transparent, and the contract is in plain English. All the little stuff that you are worrying about is of no consequence. What matters, is that your heart is given to the Lord Jesus.