Sermon 003 My Father, My Mother

Good evening, brothers and sisters.

I invite you to turn to the book of Deuteronomy 26.

About 3,000 years ago the Israelites, led by Moses, were about to enter their Promised Land for the very first time. Their story is well known but is one that deserves repeating.

In Genesis chapters 1 and 2, God creates the world. Out of chaos, came beauty. Out of nothing, came life. The Spirit of God hovered over the waters, said, "Let there be light, sky, ground, veggies, sun, moon, stars, things that live in water, things that live in air, things that live on the ground." Then God said, "Let us make human beings in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule." And God blessed them and told them to be fruitful, to multiply, and then He said, "This is very good."

But the human beings, made in God's own image, were deceived. And so humanity fell. All of creation was cursed. And humans were kicked out of a Garden that provided life into a Wilderness that caused toil and pain.

But just a few chapters later, Yahweh calls a man named Abramham out of a land called Ur and declares to this man--

"I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you. I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse, and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you."

Abraham and his wife Sarah give birth to Isaac. Isaac and Rebekah give birth to Jacob. Jacob's name is changed to Israel. And Israel has 12 sons, who eventually move down to Egypt. In Egypt they live for 400 hundred years, eventually put into slavery.

But then an 80 year old man named Moses is called by God to call the Israelites, the descendents of Israel, out of Egypt and into what was then called Canaan, what we now call Palestine or Israel. After a series of miracles, Pharaoh the king of Egypt releases the Israelites out of Egypt. And so the Israelites leave, off to make a three hundred mile journey to the Promised Land. Three hundred miles is admittedly a long distance to walk. But even if you only travelled at the excruciatingly slow rate of 1 mile per day, you could still make the trip in less than a year.

But Deuteronomy is written at the end of a forty year wandering. An entirely new generation of Israelites has been born and few even remember the events that happened in Egypt. God, still speaking through a now 120 year old Moses, is aware of this. And so this new generation of Israelites is asked to do a few things when they enter The Land the Lord Is Giving. We pick up the story in verse 1. Moses tells Israel--

"When you have entered the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it, take some of the firstfruits of all that you produce from the soil of the land the Lord your God is giving you and put them in a basket. Then go to the place the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name and say to the priest in office at the time, 'I declare today to the Lord your God that I have come to the land the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.' The priest shall take the basket from your hands and set it down in front of the altar of the Lord your God."

So essentially, the Israelites, after wandering for 40 years, and after finally arriving to the land promised to them, are to grow some food, put it in a basket, and give it as an offering to the priest, who will then use it to feed the poor, the widow, and the orphan. After this happens, the Israelite is to offer up a prayer or a creed. Take a look at verse 5--

"Then you shall declare before the Lord your God: 'My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, subjecting us to harsh labor. Then we cried out to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression. So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; and now I bring the firstfruits of the soil that you, Lord, have given me."

Everyone has a story.

Everyone has a prayer or a creed they could say at the end of the day. It may not have the words 'Egypt' or 'milk and honey' in it. But we may be more familiar with phrases like "My father was a&" Or perhaps words like misery, oppression, and terror are too common for comfort.

My story goes like this:

My mother was a paranoid schizophrenic. And she, believe it or not, actually wanted to go down to Egypt. I was baptized Roman Catholic and lived alone with my biological mother Toni in a crime and drug infested apartment complex in Northern Indiana. I never met or knew my father. It was just Toni and me, scrapping by. Toni's mental condition went un-medicated and so she couldn't keep a job or any sort of income. When I was seven years old, Toni's mother died, my biological grandmother, and left Toni a car and a large chunk of money. And so Toni's very broken and very diseased mind decided to pack up the car with trash bags full of all of our belongings and drive the two of us out of Northern Indiana and into Egypt.

As you should be able to figure out, driving to Egypt has a few logistical issues, not the least of which is a small pond in the way called the Pacific Ocean. But Toni was unaware of any such logistical issues and so we drove. For a month we drove, through North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, into Washington, and finally up Canadian Highway 97 into Alaska, until we finally arrived in a small berg called Seward, population 3000, on the southern shores of Alaska.

Toni drove into a gas station that day and did something that changed everything--she put gas into the oil tank and oil into the gas tank. Here might be a good time to make a joke about the dangers of mixing women and automobiles...but that would be inappropriate.

The point is that the gas station attendant saw all of this--an apparently mentally unstable woman with a small child and a car stuffed to the brim with trash bags. He could have brushed it off as simply weird, but instead he called the authorities.

We continued on, however, and our car putt-putt-puttered down the road until it finally died from having all sorts of wrong fluids flowing through its inner parts. And so not only car died, but so did our source of shelter and warmth, something rather important while it's autumn Alaska. We stayed with a young couple for a few days but when we had returned to the place where we had left our malnourished vehicle, it was gone. It along with the trash bags of belongings inside of it. We soon found ourselves at City Hall, who had towed the car since it had been abandoned. As Toni sorted things out with the authorities, I remember a woman politely coming into the room and asking me to follow her. Innocently--I was seven at the time, remember--I followed and soon found myself in a car with a woman I didn't know, but who had been just given foster custody of me.

And I haven't seen Toni ever since.

I lived in Alaska for only a couple of months with my foster family. It didn't take them very long to realize something was wrong with my health. I was taken to a hospital in Anchorage and they ran some tests on me. It came out that I had several holes in my heart and had had them since birth. It was a defect that should have been repaired at birth but Toni, with her paranoia in action, trusted a doctor as far as she could throw a doctor. And so for the first seven years of my life I lived with large portions of my blood never receiving oxygen. Any amount of walking, standing, much less running and playing would turn my fingernails and my skin blue. After only a few steps I would squat down in exhaustion and pant for air. And I just thought I was normal. I thought every mother yelled at every child for being lazy and slow. I thought no one, certainly no one my age, was running around and playing much more than I was.

The fact of the matter is that someone with the severity of my birth defects shouldn't live to age seven. And mothers who drink while pregnant and refuse to take their schizophrenia medication probably shouldn't raise children for more than seven years at a time. But these things happen.

It was decided that I was to move back to Indiana, this time to Indianapolis, to live with my maternal uncle his wife, and to receive immediate open heart surgery. Before the surgery, I was baptized for a second time, this time Lutheran, but still having no real clue as to why. Even at seven I was aware of the concept of God, but had no real idea as to why I was supposed to care.

I had the surgery. If you couldn't tell, I survived. The doctors put a patch--a literal, high-tech fabric patch--on one hole and sewed up another. I lived with my uncle and aunt and their daughter for 3 years, receiving a proper Lutheran education at the private school I attended and recovering from a literally broken heart as well as recovering from being torn away from Toni. Toni, with all of her faults--verbal and occasionally physical abuse, drinking and smoking, and complete inability to take care of a child--was still the only mother I had ever known. And I missed her.

I was never meant to stay forever with my uncle and aunt. My uncle's wife was more than a little anxious about raising the son of a schizophrenic, who himself had gone through three different therapists. I remember those therapy sessions. Ink blots and games of Candy Land. One time, after learning about John the Baptist in school, I went on and on to my shrink about wanting to become the next John the Baptist. I'm pretty sure I wasn't aware that Johnny only ate locusts and honey. I once threw up at the smell of sauerkraut; I'm pretty sure locusts aren't for me.

Anyway, after living with my relatives for three years, I was put back into the foster system for one last time, this time to live with Deb and Dale Parrott and their five other kids. They had had three kids of their own, fostered almost 40 kids before me, and adopted 2 others. Before I came along they had actually decided not to take in anymore foster kids. Why they decided to take me in, I'll never understand. In the foster system I was known as a throwaway kid. I was ten years old, had a congenital heart condition, had been raised by a crazy person, and had gone through three therapists myself. But to little Anthony the Parrotts opened their doors one last time and I will be forever grateful.

It did not take long for me to realize that the Parrott household was an altogether different kind of place. Christianity was not simply a religion or a denomination they subscribed to. Jesus pervaded their entire home. By the age of twelve I got baptized one last time, this time by my own choice and with full awareness of what was going and why I was doing it. I loved Jesus and--more importantly--I realized that He loved me, had died for me, had been raised so that all of Creation would be restored, and He wanted me to be a part of that Re-Creation of all things.

At fourteen I was adopted into the Parrotts. Anthony James Rohn ceased to be the day I was adopted. I became a new person. I was even issued a new birth certificate. I was in a sense born again. If you don't quite understand what salvation is all about, take a child who has physical and mental health problems, love that child as your own, and then tear up their old birth certificate and write them a new one. You might then get a glimpse of what Jesus wants for every single person.

I started taking piano lessons when I was twelve. The girls in the sixth grade choir would constantly play the song "Heart and Soul." I went home one day to the family piano determined to learn it. Within a day or two, I had. Within a week or so I was writing my own stuff. And so Mom and Dad got me lessons with Dr. Matthew Hill. He had two graduate degrees--one in piano performance, one in teaching piano. The man could have taken Pinky the Local Drunk and made him into a great piano player. I studied under Dr. Hill for almost six years. By the time I was fifteen, my youth pastor had pulled me into the youth worship band and I haven't stopped leading worship since. Electric guitars, organs, Beatles songs, Gaither songs--I've been a part of more worship services than I can count. And I've loved doing it.

By the time I was 18, I decided to go Bethel College, Indiana, which was about half an hour from home. I started out as music major, actually. It took me all of a month, however, to realize that I had studied classical piano for six years and really didn't want to do it for four more. I dabbled in theater, communications, and writing, but I realized my true passion was in teaching, teaching God's Word. So I ended up with a degree in Bible, Ministry, and Philosophy. I studied with Bible translators, commentary writers, and an archeologist.

My freshman year, I met a wonderful sophomore named Emily. We became close friends and eventually I asked her out on a date the summer after my freshman year&she said no. I, however, have been known to be quite persistent. And so we started dating 4 months later in the fall of 2006. We got engaged the spring of 2008 and got married January 2009--2 years and 13 days ago.

That first year of marriage was a combination of bliss and trial. Emily had graduated the year before me, so when we got married I still had one semester of college to finish. Emily had a full-time, well-paying, full-benefits secretarial position at the college. The plan was for me to get credentialed in the denomination I had grown up in and for us to start looking for a ministry position.

However, Emily was laid off in May. I had just graduated with absolutely no job prospects and Emily had just had ripped away our secure source of income and health insurance. I did become a credentialed pastor, but the simple fact of the matter was that the economy had affected churches just as much as everything else, so churches were shedding associate staff, not hiring them. Emily worked a couple of retail jobs. I worked as a housekeeper for the college.

And so there I was. A college graduate with a degree in Bible and philosophy, a credentialed pastor of a small, struggling denomination, and I scrubbed 30-40 toilets and urinals a day.

In Deuteronomy 26, the Israelites are getting done with a 40 year wandering in a wilderness, a desert, a forsaken place where they have to completely and utterly rely on the miraculous in order to eat and drink. When they enter the Promised Land, they are to declare something, to proclaim something about themselves. And what are they to say?

"My father was a wandering Aramean."

An Aramean was a nomad, someone who moved from place to place constantly seeking their next meal, source of water, day-to-day sustenance. The Israelites, who could be understandably bitter about this whole wandering around--seemingly lost--in a desert for 40 years, are to not try and forget about this wandering, not try to put it out of their memory like some bad dream. Instead they are to grow food, take it to the altar of the Lord, give it the priest, and proclaim, "My father wandered."

As American Christians, we are completely uncomfortable with wandering. The American nature is to have purpose, drive, destination, mission, vision, constitutions, declarations. The American temperament gets prickly when our lives and our plans get waylaid by things we didn't plan. Things we didn't set out to do. We are at A. We want to get to B. Show me the straight line of how to get from here to there. We are never comfortable or content with "here." We always want "over there."

And yet in Deuteronomy 8:2 Moses tells the Israelites, "Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years."

The Lord your God led you through the wilderness.

Never in Scripture will you find a calling to accept a Three Step Plan. Never in Scripture will you find a presentation of how the Gospel is as easy as A, B, C. Instead we find words and phrases like, "God has watched over your journey through this vast wilderness." (Deut 2:7). Or "walk in God's path; journey in God's way." (Deut. 5:33; 8:6; 10:12; 11:22; 19:9; 26:17; 28:9; 30:16). Or "follow the footsteps God." (Deut 13:4). "Or take of your cross and follow me." (Mark 8:34-35). God doesn't call us to a point-by-point, bullet-point outline of an existence. Rather we are to follow a Way, a Journey, a Road, a Path, a Wandering (Deut. 5:33; 8:6; 10:12; 19:9; 26:17; 28:9; 30:16). We are told the Way is narrow (Matt 7:14). Christians are called Followers of the Way (Acts 9:2). Jesus does not call Himself the Destination, the Truth, and the Life.

When we reach the Promised Land, we are to look back and remember our history and proclaim boldly and proudly, "My father was wandering Aramean, a nomad, someone who simply followed the path that God put in front of him."

My mother was paranoid schizophrenic. And she really wanted to go down to Egypt.

Two years ago, I was scrubbing toilets and urinals; removing maggots from the trash that students had left in their dorm to rot over the summer.

I was asked to share my story here tonight because New Life realizes that our stories are important. Crucial. Just as God told the Israelites to remember, to not forget, I want to urge you to remember, to not forget where you came from. Even if your story includes words like toil, pain, suffer, or you could end the phrase "My father was a&" with several expletives, God wants you to remember. Why? Because Revelation 12 tells us that we can overcome evil by "the blood of the Lamb and the word of our testimony." Because Paul tells us 2 Corinthians 12 that in our weakness--even the weaknesses of our past or our present--in our weakness God is made strong.

There are some of you here today who feel lost, dazed, confused, and alone. Your life doesn't look at all like what you planned and purposed it to be. You thought you were on the way to the Promised Land and instead you find yourself in a wilderness. Maybe your body is rebelling against you, giving you pain and ache. Maybe your spouse has decided that your marriage isn't worth keeping alive. Maybe your career has been lost or you're in a career and you don't know why anymore.

Maybe you just got your college degree and now you're scrubbing toilets.

And yet in Deuteronomy 8:2 Moses tells the Israelites, "Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years."

To those lost and confused--

God is on your side.

To those beaten and broken--

God is on your side.

To those who feel abandoned and forsaken--

God is on your side.

To those whose body is sick and diseased--

God is on your side.

To those who can't keep a job--

God is on your side.

To those who struggle with addiction and sin--

God is on your side.

To those who battle with sadness and depression--

God is on your side.

When Jesus was baptized, Matthew 4 says, "Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tested&and after fasting forty days&he was hungry."

Deuteronomy 8 says, "The Lord led you in the wilderness to test you. He humbled you, causing you to hunger."

If you are in a place where you are hungry, where you feel like there's no water, no food, no shelter from a blistering sun, maybe you are exactly where God wants you to be. And if you are in a place where you are well-fed and well-watered and sheltered from anything the world sends your way, maybe it's time to allow to Spirit to lead you into the wilderness.

Not all who wander are lost.

Our father was wandering Aramean. My mother was paranoid schizophrenic. Our Savior took up a cross and was obedient even onto death.

So may you not be afraid to journey and to wander in the path God is leading you in. And may you never forget that no matter where you are on that journey, God is on your side.

Anthony Parrott

Anthony Parrott

Washington, DC