a priest's musings on the journey

Friday, March 09, 2007

Sermonette: 3 Lent C The God Who Will Be There

Erin (not her real name) had asked to meet with me first thing Monday morning, and so I had made an appointment to talk with her right after Morning Prayer. She came to the church for the service and we chatted pleasantly on the way to my office. When we got to my office she continued to chat nervously; she was uneasy, tense, nervous. Then, when she had mustered up the courage, she told me she had left her husband. He had been abusive and finally a friend persuaded her to just go… and she did. But she was afraid. She was uncertain of what would happen next. She had recently lost her job, and one reason she had stayed with her husband was for the security that marriage offered. Now, she did not know what to do. She had moved in with her mother, and that was a solution for now. The stress, though, was getting to her, and she was feeling weak and vulnerable; she was a recovering addict, she had been addicted to prescription drugs- and she was being tempted in every moment to use again. Finally and tearfully she asked, “what did I do to deserve this? Why is God punishing me?”

This question is fairly universal; this thought of attributing the bad things that happen to us to some divine retribution or punishment for our sins is an ancient idea. I have to admit that even with all of my theological training, that question has passed my mind a few times in my life. This is in fact the same question that Jesus was asked in the beginning of today’s gospel reading. A group of Galileans had been murdered by Pilate, and the common consensus of the day taught that their murders had been the result of their sins. It was their “just desserts”- as the old prayer book put it. Jesus was quick to reply that this tragedy, and the recent tragedy in Jerusalem that had killed 18 people when the Tower of Siloam fell, was not a result of the victims’ sinfulness. They were just ordinary people; no better nor worse than anyone else. Furthermore, these horrible events were not God’s actions. They were the consequences of human evil, in the case of those murdered or the nature of accidents, and traumas that just happen- part of the universe’s groaning for redemption, perhaps. But Jesus adds these sobering words: “but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

Jesus words are harsh and - to blatantly understate it, make us feel uncomfortable. And yet, they reiterate what he has previously said. The bad consequences of our life are not a result of a retributive, angry God- Judge who is punishing us. Even the death that Jesus warns about is not a result of a punishing God; rather, it is a result and a consequence of our own choices and actions. A failure or refusal to repent and turn back to God leads to death, because we can not sustain our own life when we have cut ourselves off from the Source of Life.

Jesus then tells a Parable, the Parable of the fruitless Fig Tree, in which he explains God’s relationship to human beings who are either fruitless and barren as a result of their unrepentance , or who are unable to yield fruit because their ability to be life-giving is being disrupted and hindered by other forces. The parable tells of a man’s desire to cut down a fig tree that has not produced any fruit in three years. The gardener, however, asks the man to be patient, and to allow him to fertilize and care for this tree for one more year- if it produces figs- it will have been worth the wait and the extra work. If it doesn’t, then it must be barren and can be cut down.

Of course Jesus is not really talking about a vineyard. The fig tree is us. How many times do we insist on our own selfish desires? How many times do we refuse to surrender to God? How many times do we sin in thought, word and deed, by things done and left undone? How many times do we fail to be honest with ourselves enough to amend our lives and intentionally make more Christ-like choices? Because of our sin and our inability or refusal to love God and our neighbor as we are called to do, we lose our ability to be life-giving; we become fruitless. When God sees us in our stubborn, prideful, self-centered fruitlessness, God could easily cut us down, discard us, and allow us to reap the consequences of our choices without any intervention. But, God does not act in this way. Because God is love, God’s nature prevents Him from abandoning us. Instead, God is a patient nurturer; God does not punish us, leave us, or even allow us to die in our sins without reaching out to attempt to rescue us. God can not just let us walk away; it’s true that God can not force us to love Him; but He can not stop loving us; and like a desperate Lover, he chases after us, calling after us to come back to Him.

Our story from the Old Testament tells of one of those times when God ran after us in order to rescue us and to demonstrate His eternal love. You probably remember the story from Sunday School. Moses, who had fled Egypt after he had killed an Egyptian whom he witnessed beating a Hebrew slave. Is in exile in the desert. Moses had married Zipporah and was living as a shepherd. One day as he was tending his flock, he saw a bush on fire.
At first he probably did not give it a second thought. But as time passed, he noticed that this blazing bush had been on fire for a while, and yet it was not being consumed by the fire. Moses had to go investigate. Who wouldn’t? As he approached the burning bush, God called out to him, and told him to remove his sandals because he was standing on holy ground. Afraid, and again who wouldn’t be, Moses hid his face. God continued by telling Moses that He was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob- the God of the forbears of the Hebrew people. God declared that He had witnessed the suffering and oppression of His people, and had heard their cries for deliverance. Their cries had moved God to action- because God is always on the side of the oppressed. So God had decided to enter human history and act to liberate the Hebrews and to lead them out of the land of slavery into the land of freedom. Then God told Moses that He had chosen him to be the conduit through which God would lead His people to salvation.

Moses could not imagine that God would chose him of all people for this task. “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” Moses asked. And here Moses, the fruitless fig tree, is faced with the archetypical biblical dilemma. Will he trust God and obediently attempt to do an impossible task because God had asked him to do it? Or, will he refuse to obey God because there is no assurance that he will be successful? Moses decided he needed some assurance from God. So, he asked God for a sign. God replies,

I will be with you and this will be the sign for you that it is
I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt,
you shall worship God on this mountain.

I think Moses was hoping for a sign before he agreed to confront Pharaoh- and I can imagine God laughing at Moses for having even asked for a sign; wasn’t the burning bush sign enough? But God does not mock Moses nor does God get frustrated with Moses. Like the gardener in Jesus’ parable, God is patient with Moses. God takes the time to talk to Moses and to nurture him. God is willing to wait on Moses to be converted to the willingness to accept the call God had given him. God is willing to wait on Moses and to gently encourage him to do the right thing.

Moses finally realized he was not going to get any more signs, so he changed his strategy and offered God another excuse. Moses claimed that he could not liberate the Hebrew people because he did not know the name of the God of the Hebrew ancestors who was calling him. They would never believe his story if he could not tell them God’s name. Given what the ancients believed about the power of names, Moses’ excuse was a valid one. The ancients believed that the name of a person and especially a deity, disclosed some characteristic attribute of that person or deity. In the case of a deity, the invocation of a divine name would give that person access to the deity’s power and authority. God answered by revealing the Name of God that came to be so sacred that no Hebrew would speak it… the Tetragrammaton written in Hebrew as yodh heh vav heh… transliterated into English as Yahweh. In this story it is often translated “I am who I am” or “ I will be who I will be.” The Sacred Name revealed to Moses communicates a God who is ever present, a God of enduring love who is always engaged in the affairs of His people. Martin Buber, the Jewish existentialist, translates this Sacred Name in a way that clearly articulates this attribute of God: He translates the Sacred Name of God “ I will be there as the One who will be there.” The Rev King Oehmig of Sewanee says of Buber's phrase:

This is what Moses needs to hear. Not just that God is, but that God exists with him in the form of a promise. God is not simply "Being itself." God is Being with a purpose - being present, being effective, leading the way, liberating. God will be there. God will be with them in unfailing, steadfast love.

As we continue our Lenten journey and continue to hear the call to turn back to God in repentance, these are the words that we need to hear. God sees our barreness; God sees how hard it is for us to be fully converted; God sees our struggles, he hears our cries for help. God is as concerned with those of us who are oppressed by our own sins and bad choices as He is with those oppressed by poverty, dictators and social inequality. God has heard our cries of despair; God has heard our longing to be free from ourselves and from our self-centeredness that drives us to make the wrong choices. God continues to reveal to us that He is the God who will be there for us. He is the God who will walk beside us and show us the road to freedom; He is the God who will be there when we are about to drown in our own sin, and He will reach out His hand to rescue us if we will only take his hand.

We can believe God’s promise because God has proven His trustworthiness to us. There have been other burning bushes in our history in which God was revealed to humanity. One of those bushes was set ablaze at the Annunciation, when the Ever Blessed Virgin Mary consented to receive God into her womb. With Blessed Mary’s yes, she reversed the decision of Adam and Eve to say No to God- and her Yes allowed the uncontainable God to be contained in her womb.

St Gregory, the fourth century Bishop of Nyssa, was the first to see in the Virgin Mary the same thing that Moses saw in the burning bush. Gregory wrote in his On the Birth of Christ that as the bush was in flames, but not consumed, so Mary had God present inside her and was not consumed. Mary was herself like the burning bush. God was fully present, as the God who will be there, and yet she was unharmed. Once again God had entered human history in His fullness, this time to be born as one of us, to be there with us, to show us that He was true to His word, to remind us that we can rely on his promise to be present and to lead us to liberating life. God appeared as faithfully as he had to Moses, but this time, in order to assure us that God’s promise would be fulfilled, God Himself acted as the one who would liberate us. It is God Himself that we see revealed again on the hard wood of the Cross, as it is set ablaze by the love of God- a love that God wants to burn within us; a fire of love that enlightens our hearts, warms our spirits, and illuminates the path to life. A love that once and for all reveals to us that God is the God will be there as the One who will be there!

This Lenten journey will be a difficult one. We all have dark places within our hearts that we would rather hide from and ignore. We all have secret lusts and passions which compete with the love of God for our attention. The good news is that God understands;
God is patient, loving, and merciful. God allows us the time we need to grow into the people who reflect His image in the world in a faithful way. God is willing to nurture us and tend to us until we bear an abundant harvest. And we need not think we have to “fix our brokenness” during these forty days: NO, this is the work of a lifetime; and, our patient God can wait a lifetime, and will be there throughout our lifetime, ever burning in the flames of love that draw us to turn aside and commune with God, where God can be revealed to us again.
:: posted by Padre Rob+, 9:31 PM


Do you know this is one of your best sermons?

I am very proud of you... Especially because you ended up adding the Blessed Virgin Mary to it!

Blogger Luiz Coelho, at 5:06 AM  
So what did you tell Erin?
Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:28 AM  
Amen, though at this point in Lent, I must confess my desire that this word is true is greater than peace in knowing that it is.
Blogger KJ, at 1:42 PM  
The verses of Luke 13 regarding those who had died at the hands of Pilate and those who had died under the fallen tower ring out loud with arguments that God is not some culprit behind tragic events. Being reared in Christian fundamentalism, I am well aware of the mentality that large-scale tragedy (and sometimes small-scale tragedy) is the result of God’s punishment for sin. Thankfully, Jesus refutes such an idea in Luke 13.

I believe Jesus makes the case that tragic events do not speak of God’s punishment, but they rather reveal the fragility of humanity. Tragic events should not lead us to an interpretation of God’s punishment, but should foster a time of reflection upon our own fragility, our shared humanity, and a remembering that our earthly life comes from God and it could be lost at any moment. This, in turn, puts things in perspective as to what is important and what is not.

I would say more here, but I have a post on my blog in relation to this text if one is interested in my thoughts: http://blog.greggriffey.net/2007/01/tragedy-and-god.html

Thanks for this great post!

Blogger tumbleweed, at 8:51 AM  

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