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From Spock to Snowplows

“From Spock to Snowplows”        

The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry

Matthew 23.1-12;23-24;37-39

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted. 

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel! 

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you, desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”


I stumbled upon a new term recently.  The snowplow parent.  I had heard of the tiger mom, the one whose child must be the best, valedictorian, not the salutatorian.  I’d heard of the helicopter parent, the one who constantly hovers and checks and aids to meet the child’s every need and desire.  But the snowplow parent was new to me.

A snowplow parent is someone who removes obstacles, cuts a path, clears out the challenges so the child is without difficulty.  They plow through all the hard parts of life so there is no worry.  I must admit I have a deeply negative response to all of these. I have a visceral response to the parent who puts their kid in nineteen different activities, or the idea that a parent is there to serve the whim of the child, provide hyper vigilance.  Hyper vigilance is never a healthy part of life. 

The tiger parent, well, that just scares me.  It is a kind of white-collar child labor violation.  Instead of a garment factory, the poor child is learning Mandarin and the violin at three.  I can remember hearing an interview of a mother whose father and extended family were all professional football players, a family legacy with the Detroit Lions.  Of course, her son would play football, she said.  He has a genetic advantage, generations of experience to guide him.  The boy of ten was asked by the reporter for NPR, “Is there a sport you would like to play?”  The young boy thought for a moment and said, “Yes.  I would like to do synchronized swimming.”  Synchronized swimming?  Now there is a cool kid.

The snowplow parent worries me the most.  You see, kids will find trouble no matter how much you hover.  Kids need a bit of trouble to find boundaries and their own sense of safety.  And the tiger parent, well, there are only so many Tiger Woods out there, so for the most part the children of the tiger parents will just need to find a healthy sense of self-acceptance later in life.  Middle management does wonders for this.

But the snowplow, the removal of obstacles, the sense that life is a clear path, a wide-open road without challenge or rejection or set back, that is dangerous.  To be a late adolescent teen and only then begin to discover the power of trial and error, to understand what it means for you to be rejected or cheated or denied, well, that one is going to hurt. 

I can remember a tough moment with our eldest.  He was in his senior year of high school and had made a poor choice.  Before this such a choice would mean grounding or punishment or restriction, but now I said, I can’t punish you anymore.  You’ve reached the point where life is now the one who will reward and punish you.  You may find that life is a much harsher critic than I am.  Years later he recounted that conversation to me and said, you are a lot more kind than life is.

That was a tough moment.  No one likes to be the mean parent, the hammer.  I found it exhausting.  There is a fine line between being a responsible parent and being a jerk.  It takes a lot of energy and time to find a balance here.  On the one hand, you don’t want to be the one who brings judgement; but on the other hand you know a child growing up without boundaries and rules and a sense of discipline is a child poorly prepared for the day when life is the judge.

I have a visceral response to the snowplow parent for one simple reason: it creates a false sense of freedom.  The child whose life is free from obstacles is not free, they are just unaware of what it means to rise above difficulty.  The child whose life is free from rejection or opposition does not live in freedom; they live in a bubble that will burst.  And this is significant because the most important gift you can offer your child is this: in your life they come to see the power to live unto freedom is possible; in you they witness freedom guarding dignity, a freedom that loves the truth.  The gift is the example: if they are bold enough, they too can live a life free to find mercy and forgiveness; they can if they are courageous enough to try and fail and try again just like you did.

Here is my one piece of parenting advice.  Your child, this little one, Hailey, just baptized, you cannot give her freedom, you cannot buy it or guarantee it.  She will have to claim it for herself, take the leap of faith on her own.  The parenting advice is this, you can't give freedom, but she can see it in you, she can trust freedom is real if you live it.  It is your example not your cash; it’s your example, not your vigilance.  Kids are smart if they want to be.  And they watch us.  She will find freedom on her own; but you need to be a living example of freedom for her.

If you are a tiger parent or a helicopter parent or (God help us) a snowplow, then what I said is not for you.  No rambling sermon will ever convince you that you need to let go of control.  For people in need of control, my advice is hogwash.  “So you just want my child to fail” or “life is dangerous and you want me let them all run with scissors” or “you have no idea how destructive life has become, if I don’t make a way, my child will just be cheated of what they deserve.”  You can’t argue with reasoning like that.  Control, like anger, is based in fear.  And you can never argue with fear. 

This is why Jesus didn’t speak his woes to the Pharisees.  He spoke to the crowd; he spoke to us. He said, follow their rules, but don’t follow them.  Like the old parenting claim, do what I say, not what I do.  Jesus calls the pharisees hypocrites because they are living a false sense of freedom; their freedom punishes others so to enjoy control.

As a pastor I don’t get called in for a lot of parent/child disputes.  When I do, it is almost always the fruit of our reading today.  Parents have maintained the power of control and not prepared their child for the freedom of self-determination.  Rules were rules to be followed not a training for independence.  Restrictions were never grounded in a deep connection as to why such restrictions should be followed.  This lack of preparation comes to roost when the child who was just in your control is now in a college dorm.  The child who never roamed now has a driver’s license.  This creates some conflict.  I have had parents who hoped the Good Lord could be brought in to pick up the load now their child is off to college.  Not a role Jesus is likely to play I say.

For good or for ill there is little to say.  The time it takes to nurture a depth of discipline ready for freedom cannot be conjured in an instance; the example that needed to be cast is either what will be enough or it will prove one more obstacle.  The control of a child’s time as we see in the bells of their classes has come to an end.  Life now rings the bell.

What Jesus is saying to the crowd was not about parents per se.  It was about authority and power, and more specifically, the temptation to use authority and power to gain control.  The list of woes, the seven woes, seem strange or odd, but they are something we see every day.  These are the challenges of power and authority, something we all possess, be it for ourselves or others.  The challenges though come down to a choice: Do you use power and authority for freedom or for control?  Are you empowering and granting freedom or are you forcing conformity?

The seven woes of control are these: you lock people out of heaven (the control of fate); you seek a convert (the control of fortune); you speak as God (the control of religion); you tithe mint and dill (control of tradition); the uncleaned cup (control of moral codes); the ornate grave markers (the control of generations); and the grave itself (the control of time).  That is a lot control.

If you are caught up in any of these, if control is important to you, then a warning, a teaching doesn’t suffice to bring change.  This is why Jesus doesn't speak to the Pharisees.  You must give up the life of control to find the life of freedom would have been dismissed.  If you want to keep freedom you must surrender control.  Pharisees would have called this lawlessness. This is why he spoke to the crowds not the Pharisees. 

Contemplating the woes of the pharisees some memories of hypocrisy came to mind.  People whose lives were lived with too tight a grip, too much judgment, too much certainty, and so on and so on.  Yet, as I walked the woes I come across a lovely memory of someone who offered his power and authority so others, especially his children, could find freedom.

I met Bruce Baird in my first congregation.  Bruce was a farmer, an educator, a realtor, a mayor, and someone you could count on being in the pew on Sunday morning.  With a quiet presence and a boyish grin he came along side me and showed me what it meant to be part of community, part of a very long conversation about fairness and honesty and the need to count on your friends. He showed this to me.

Bruce and Judy had four children, three daughters and a son.  I liked to watch him with his kids; and I liked to watch Judy as well.  It was clear that she was the adult supervision of the operation.  But they were a team.

I watched Bruce at funerals and fellowship hour.  He didn’t command the room or work the crowd.  He was simply there; he never pushed a decision.  The right way would come clear when it was ready to come clear.

Bruce and Judy’s son, Jay, was a bit like both of them, but then something more.  Jay was a force of nature, a whirlwind of ideas and projects.  Like his dad he somehow made you feel at ease despite his energy; and he was like his mom in that he was ambitious and determined.  Bruce ran for mayor of a small farming town.  Jay ran for the legislature.  Bruce had a few acres to raise sheep.  Jay had hundreds.

One could look at Jay's success and say his parents made a way.  And they did make a way.  But their way was not as a tiger, or a helicopter, or a snowplow.  They were living examples of freedom, courage.

A memory I will always cherish is walking with the Baird family in a county fair parade.  You know the type where the candidate walks along and shakes hands and his supporters hand our flyers to voters and candy to kids.  I remember watching all the Bairds helping Jay to victory.  This memory is a glimpse of what it means for a parent to use power to provide freedom, not control, a living example of making a way for others.

Parenting is not easy, but neither is life.  We cannot control fortune or fate; we cannot control time or morals.  The best we can do is live unto freedom.  Be a living example of what it means to follow Jesus, freed and forgiven.  This will help children far more than tigers or helicopters or snowplows.  Each of us possess the power to be free, to overcome the fears control conceals.  May we ever be a living example of power giving birth to freedom. Amen.

Speaker: Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry

February 26, 2023
Matthew 23:23-39

Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry

Senior Pastor & Head of Staff

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