Rev. Dr. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd, Westworth United Church, Feburary 28, 2016
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, our God.
A minister was on a plane recently when his seat companion asked him the question most ministers dread: “So what do you do for a living?” When the minister confessed, the seat companion replied, “Oh I don’t believe in God.” Usually that response changes the topic, but this particular minister (and it wasn’t me!) persisted, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.” The seat companion replied, “I don’t believe in some judgemental being seated in the heavens, punishing anyone who doesn’t believe in a particular faith.” The minister replied, “I don’t believe in that God either.”
A few people in this congregation have asked me what I think about the United Church minister who has made the news lately because she is an atheist. While I have many concerns, she has raised some interesting questions and provoked some deep theological conversations. What we may not realize is that her questions are neither new nor radical. When you ask her to describe the God she doesn’t believe in, she will give archaic descriptions of a distant, judgemental and randomly interventionist God. I don’t believe in this God either, nor did Jesus.
Our gospel lesson refers to two horrific events that had just happened in Jerusalem. The first was a Roman slaughter of Jews. The Romans then desecrated the temple by mixing their blood with that of the holy sacrifices. The second was an accident caused by a tower collapsing and killing 18 people. Some people were talking to Jesus about these events. Assuming that bad things only happen to bad people, they mentioned to Jesus that those who were killed must have done something wrong to deserve it. Was God punishing those who were killed? “No,” Jesus answered unequivocally. But he also picked up on their judgement of those who were killed and told them that they all needed to repent or they would all be killed.
What was Jesus saying here? First, he dismissed the picture of God as a judgmental avenger, striking down anyone who commits serious sins. God is not the author of evil, choosing to inflict suffering as punishment. This was not the God that Jesus believed in.
We might shake our heads at such vengeful theology until we realize that we still carry a semblance of it today. How many times have you heard yourself or someone else say, “What I did I do to deserve this?” We still have a residue of belief in a punishing, vengeful God.
Jesus’ second point was that we would do better to stop judging others and turn this critical attention on our own failings. Otherwise, we might all suffer the consequences—not because of divine punishment but simply due to the results of our actions or inactions.
Jesus wanted to make sure that his audience understood that God is a God of love, forgiveness and mercy—not an angry ogre of revenge. And so, he then told them a parable of the fig tree. There was a little fig tree that refused to bear fruit. For three years it was barren. The owner was impatient—it was taking up land and nourishment for nothing. He wanted to cut it down, but the gardener begged the owner to give the little tree one more chance. “Give it another year,” he pleaded, “I will give extra attention to this little tree. I will fertilize it, loosen the soil around it, and make sure it is well-watered.” Although he didn’t say it, he also knew that it would be well loved. For the gardener, tending the orchard was not just a job. It was his passion. He must have caught the owner on a good day, because he agreed.
This is the God Jesus believed in, and it’s the God I believe in. This God will always give us one more chance. God is not the source of evil. Rather, God is love.
The second part concerning consequences tells us that God is not an interventionist God. In other words, God does not come down and change the course of history. If we believed this, then the burning question is why God would intervene so randomly. Why would God keep one person from flying on a plane that would later crash while allowing all of the rest of the passengers to die? Why would God change the course of a hurricane so that a town would be saved when another hurricane would wipe out an entire city block? If I believed in an interventionist God, then this God would again be a source of evil, for random intervention is cruel.
Instead, God gives us free will to do as we choose. This doesn’t mean that God is absent and distant. God is very much present, suffering with us in our bad choices, sustaining us and giving us energy and wisdom to try again. Instead of God stepping in to change things, God gives us the impetus to effect change.
I expect that some of you have heard the parable of the flood. Please bear with me as I tell this story for those who haven’t heard it. A small town received an urgent flood warning. A truck went through the town with a loudspeaker warning people to evacuate immediately. There was a very religious man who lived in one house and began to pray for God to save him. He felt a strong assurance that God was going to answer his prayer. When he heard the loudspeaker, he went to door, waving the truck on. “It’s ok,” he yelled out, “God will save me.” The flood waters began to rise. Soon someone came along in a boat, picking up anyone who was still left behind. He refused to leave his house because he was sure that God would save him. The waters came up fast and he was able to climb out onto the roof. A helicopter then came overhead with a ladder dangling down. He believed that God was testing his faith and so he declined the ride. God would surely save him. His house began to crumble under the torrent. He was swept away in the flood and drowned. As he stood before God, he cried out, “I had complete faith in you. Why did you not save me?” God replied, “I tried to save you—three times, in fact—but you kept turning me away.”
God sends us impulses of love, courage and wisdom so that we can be the hands and feet of Christ. God has chosen to save our world through us, as impossible as this sounds. It can only work because God is love, picks us up time after time, and keeps sending us back into the world.
God is our gentle gardener. Even if everyone else has given up on us, God is still there, fertilizing our soul with love, loosening the earth around our stuck feet, giving us strength and courage to try once again.
This is the God I believe in—a God who is radically present through Jesus and through one another; a God who suffers with us, laughs us, grieves with us, dances with us. The God I believe in is also radically transcendent, is wholly mystery, whose thoughts are not our thoughts nor whose ways are our ways, as Isaiah writes. The connector between God as Holy Mystery and God as incarnate through the body of Christ is God the Holy Spirit. The Spirit infuses us with divine impulses of grace that ask us to give ourselves and one another one more chance.