In this Father’s Day sermon, I begin by focusing on words about fatherhood from comedian Jim Gaffigan, who has five kids. Being a dad requires sacrifice, he says, and these “five little monsters rule [his] life.” Whether we know it or not, we parents can learn a lot about Christian discipleship from raising kids. After all, we follow a Savior who rules our lives and asks us to sacrifice. In fact, all of us Christians, the apostle Paul tells us, live our lives “under assignment” from God. This sermon explores the meaning of our assignment.
Sermon Text: 1 Corinthians 7:17-24
[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3 version.]
The following is my original sermon manuscript.
So I was at Annual Conference last week, and I went to a clergy breakfast, and they had a buffet. So naturally when I got to the tray of bacon, I began piling it on my plate—because that’s what you do with bacon—it’s awesome. And my wife pointed to a sign in front of the tray that read, “Limit two strips of bacon per plate.” And I’m like, “Two strips? That’s not enough bacon!” But, you see, bacon is so good you have to ration it.
And I thought in that moment of my favorite comedian Jim Gaffigan, who is famous for stand-up routines about food, especially bacon: He says you feel like you never get enough of it. He said, “Whenever you’re at a lunch buffet, and you see that big metal tray filled with four-thousand pieces of bacon, don’t you almost expect to see a rainbow coming out of it?” Because you’ve found the pot of gold! And he notices that the tray of bacon is always at the end of the buffet line—at which point your plate is already full. And you look at your plate and think, “What am I doing with all this worthless fruit?”
Gaffigan is also famous for joking about being a dad. He has five kids. Recently, he reflected on why he has so many. He said,
I guess the reasons against having more children always seem uninspiring and superficial. What exactly am I missing out on [by having more kids]? Money? A few more hours of sleep? A more peaceful meal? More hair? These are nothing compared to what I get from these five monsters who rule my life. I believe each of my five children has made me a better man … Each one of them has been a pump of light into my shriveled black heart. I would trade money, sleep, or hair for a smile from one of my children in a heartbeat. Well, it depends on how much hair.
What exactly am I missing out on by having these kids? he asks. I have considered that question myself.
My friend Mike has been my best friend since college. Mike is single. Never been married. No kids. He wants to be married, but it hasn’t happened for him. But in moments of weakness, I’m tempted to look at Mike’s life with some envy when I consider the freedom that he has. The freedom of time. He has all the time in the world to devote to things that I like—he’s a musician. He plays in a band, for instance. He has all the discretionary income he needs to spend on musical instruments and recording equipment. He goes to all the concerts that come to town, and sees all the movies. He has the freedom to travel wherever he wants, whenever he wants—to exotic locales like Iceland. Who goes to Iceland? Mike does! And how can he have time and money to devote to all these things? Because he doesn’t have kids!
My family and I were watching American Ninja Warrior a couple of weeks ago, and I’m inspired by the stories of some of these men, some of whom are my age who are able to devote so much time to training, to working out, to exercising—literally hours a day—and I’m a little jealous. After all, I’m not where I want to be in terms of physical fitness. I don’t have the washboard abs that I desire. So I look at the American Ninja Warriors and think, “How do they have time to do that?”
Then I realize: nine times out of ten it’s because they don’t have kids!
I’ve complained recently about how my kids are at the age where all three of them, it seems, have to be in three different places all at once—nearly every day, at least during the school year! And so Lisa and I spend a lot of time hauling our kids around, coordinating schedules. And my daughter, who can be a little sarcastic at times, hears me complain about this. And she says, “My name is Brent”—that’s one of the voices she uses for me—“My name is Brent, and I’m sorry I ever had kids!”
But it’s hard—being a dad, being a parent. It requires so much sacrifice! We dads—and moms—can’t imagine how difficult parenting will be. It’s often not what we expected. If it’s not the hardest, it’s nearly the hardest thing we will ever do.
But rewarding? Like Gaffigan says, he would gladly trade money, sleep, or hair for even one smile from his kids. His children, he says, have taught him to be a better man.
In fact, I would argue that, in one small way at least, whether he knows it or not, his children have taught him to be what the apostle tells us that we’re all supposed to be as Christians: slaves of Christ. What does Gaffigan say? That these “five little monsters” rule his life.
And we fathers know exactly what he means. Because just by virtue of being a good father, we have to set aside so many of our own needs and wants and desires—and put their needs and wants and desires ahead of our own! That’s what we’re supposed to do as followers of Jesus. Our love for our children is a sacrificial love. That’s what our love for Christ and our neighbor is supposed to be!
In fact, we live our lives, Paul says in verse 17, under an assignment. Paul writes, “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him.”
Brothers and sisters, think about the power of these words: You are who you are in life; you are where you are in life; you’re doing what you’re doing in life—not simply because of your own choices, your own will, your own hard work, your own desires—but also because you are under assignment from God. God has assigned you this life, these circumstances, this job or career or vocation, this body. Living under an assignment means we don’t get to do whatever we want with our lives.
You were bought with a price, Paul says. And he uses these words to mean two things at once: first, through the cross of Jesus Christ you’ve been set free from slavery to sin; but also: through the cross of Jesus Christ you’ve been purchased as a slave by Christ! You belong to him now. You are his property now. You do what he says. You go where he says to go. You don’t do what he tells you not to do. He’s in charge. He gets to say.
And that’s more than a fair trade—his life for yours. We become a slave for Christ, because, as Philippians 2 says, Christ first became a slave for us: Though Christ was God, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. He humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on the cross. He lived the life we were unable to live. He suffered the death we deserved to suffer. He suffered the hell we deserved to suffer. So that we would have forgiveness of sin, eternal life, heaven, salvation… And in return we gratefully become his slaves, which means our life is not our own to do with as we please. It belongs to him. And as Jim Gaffigan says of the sacrifices he has to make for his children, that trade-off is totally worth it.
But our life is not our own. We were bought with a price.
Speaking of which, now’s as good a time as any to talk about that person—that man—formerly known as Bruce Jenner. Now that he has paid doctors to supposedly change his gender, he wants the world to call him Caitlin. I can’t—I won’t. Because in order for me to do so, I’d have to agree with Jenner that he was given the wrong body at birth—that he should have been female, instead of male. Which is another way of saying that God messed up, that God gave him the wrong body at birth. That doesn’t jibe with scripture at all: It was no accident that Bruce Jenner was male. God assigned him the body that he had at birth, and he has sinned against God’s will by trying to change that!
Honestly, I had an argument with a fellow Methodist pastor who disagreed with me. And this pastor really thought he had me when he said, “Suppose something else was wrong with his body—let’s say he had cancer or something—would you be willing to say to him, ‘Well, God gave you this body with this cancer, so you’re not allowed to have surgery or receive chemo or radiation for it?’”
To which I replied, “I’m sorry. Since when is being a man a deadly disease that needs to be cured?”
It’s just ridiculous! We have lost our minds as a culture if we’re not allowed to look at someone like Bruce Jenner and say that at the very least we have a deeply confused man, who lives in a culture that is deeply confused about sex and sexuality, who has mutilated himself in a sinful way. Yet we say it’s good! And we say, along with the producers at ESPN, that he’s a hero! God have mercy on us!
God assigned Jenner this body and this life, and Jenner said, “I know better than you, God, what I need. I know better than you, God, who I am. I know better than you, God, what I require in order to be happy. So instead of trusting in you, God—instead of trusting in you to supply what I need to be happy, I’m going to take matters into my own hands—or, I should say, into the hands of doctors and surgeons.”
Now, lest you think I’m being too hard on Bruce Jenner, I wonder: Do we ever do the same thing, except on a smaller scale, in a far less extreme way? Do we live our lives as if we’re in charge instead God? Do we second-guess God? Do we fail to trust that God knows what’s best for us?
I think about my own life. I was telling one of you just a couple of weeks ago how much I regretted my first job out of college—which was working in large system sales for AT&T. I wasn’t very good at it; and I was miserable. So much so that I went back to school, got a new degree—and started over. And I was talking about how much I regretted taking that job, and going through all that. And this person said to me, “Are you kidding? I’m glad you were such a failure in your first job. I’m glad it didn’t work out. Because if you had been a huge success in sales, and you made a lot of money, and all your dreams came true, you might have never decided to answer God’s call into ministry. And, believe me, you’re in the right job now.”
I appreciated his kind words. And I know he’s right: I’m sure I’m in the right job now. So I ought to look back on even that painful experience with gratitude because I now see that God assigned me that job for that period of time in order to prepare me for the work I do today.
So regardless how I got here, regardless the mistakes I made along the way, regardless the pain I’ve endured along the way, regardless whatever regrets or disappointments I’ve experienced—if that’s what it took to bring me to this place that I am right now, well… Thank God! Because it was totally worth it! I serve this church under assignment. And you serve this church under assignment. And you have been assigned your place of employment—your career, your job, your vocation. And you have been assigned your spouse, your family, your home, your possessions.
So wherever you are, wherever you go, whatever you do—you are on assignment from God. You don’t have to go to the Dominican Republic to be on assignment, although next week many of our youth and their chaperones certainly will be!
Someone posted a meme on social media a couple of weeks ago: It’s a quote from actor Michael J. Fox, who, as most of you know, suffers from Parkinson’s. Back in 2007, Fox told an interviewer with Esquire magazine about living with Parkinson’s. And he said these profound words: “My happiness grows in direct proportion to my acceptance, and in inverse proportion to my expectations. Acceptance is the key to everything.”
My happiness grows in direct proportion to my acceptance, and in inverse proportion to my expectations. He’s saying, in other words, the more he learns to accept what life throws his way—instead of resenting the fact that his life hasn’t met his expectations—the happier he becomes. I mean, let’s face it: being stricken with Parkinson’s in your 30s—with all the limitations that it imposes—would have been the last thing he expected when he was a breakout star on Family Ties, and when Back to the Future was the number one summer blockbuster—back when his future couldn’t look brighter.
So the key to happiness, he said, is learning to accept what life throws our way—instead of resenting that life isn’t living up to our expectations. And that’s very nearly true, except we need to add some theology to it: We can learn to accept what life throws our way because we understand that, in a sense, God has given it to us, as an assignment. It may be incredibly difficult. It may be costly. It may even cost us everything.
As you know, there are some families in Charleston right now—the relatives of the victims of last week’s shootings at Emanuel A.M.E. church—who couldn’t be more heartbroken, more disappointed with the particular assignment that God has given them. But based on their words, spoken at the bond hearing for Dylann Roof, their loved ones’ murderer, to their loved ones’ murderer, it seems clear that they’re going to handle this assignment just fine.
They spoke of mercy. They offered forgiveness. They invited the suspect, who was linked in by video from jail, to please look for God.
There was no rage, no accusation—just broken hearts undefended and presented for the world to see. They sobbed as they spoke…
A family member of Anthony Thompson [one of the victims] said he forgave the shooter. “I forgive you and my family forgives you, but we would like you to take this opportunity to repent . . . confess, give your life to the one who matters the most, Christ, so that He can change it—can change your ways no matter what happens to you, and you will be OK. Do that and you will be better.”
If they can be faithful in their assignment, surely we can be faithful in ours! Amen?