What God Does
The Rev. Jennifer L. Adams – March 3, 2013 – Lent 3C: Luke 13:1-9
This morning’s sermon is all about God, who God is, what God does. It’s important for us to always be asking what we should be doing in response to God, but I think that, ironically, sometimes we can actually forget about God by getting overly immersed in our own doing, our own responses to the holy. Even in our talks about forgiveness this Lent we’ve occasionally fallen into the trap of actually overemphasizing our own role in that process; we need to allow at least some room for God’s doing in the holy project that is redemption. So here are a few minutes in which our doing is certainly invited in, but can take a back seat. Let’s make room for God and focus in on the one who creates, redeems, and sanctifies.
First is the story from Exodus. Moses was going about his everyday work tending the flock of his Father in Law, Jethro and he had taken the flock beyond the wilderness, to Mt Horeb. Now this was already a holy place for Moses’ people, but on that particular day it was a little holier than usual. An angel of the Lord appeared to Moses in the flames of a burning bush and then God spoke to Moses out of the flame. And the first thing God did, once Moses had taken off his shoes and established the presence of holy ground, the first thing God did was to introduce and identify himself, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob. I am the one to whom you and your people pray,” God told Moses, “The One who created you and has been with you since the very beginning.” And then God told Moses why He has was there and why He was there then. God was there on that mountain, at that particular moment out of divine compassion and mercy, and those were God’s only reasons. “I have observed the misery of my people” God told Moses, “I have heard their cries. . .Indeed I know their sufferings and I have come to deliver them.” So here we get a wonderful glimpse of what God actually does: First, God listens. “I have heard their cries,” God told Moses. And then God responds to the people with compassion and mercy in order to deliver them. And notice how God then proceeds: God doesn’t respond by picking up the people and plunking them down right that moment in the land of milk and honey. God’s response is intimately bound up with the work of the people.
In this story, and really in just about every story in Scripture, God invites the people into their redemptive process; it’s always grace sure enough but it’s often participatory grace and so our response to the holy matters, it just can’t take over. With the Israelites, God planted a new vision and made room for the people to step out into the wilderness with Moses. And then God held up his end of the deal the whole way, providing signs, parting the waters, setting the desert tables with manna every morning. . . So, God listened. God responded with compassion and mercy, God invited participation and over the course of God’s time, with God’s help, a new reality came into being.
In the Psalm, we hear of God beautifully as the one who helps and upholds. The psalmist proclaims, “O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. . . for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy. My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.” There’s that divine compassion and mercy stuff again. And this psalm gives us a glimpse of God on a more intimate level – helping and upholding not an entire people but one person, through one person’s prayer. But notice that while micro instead of macro in scale, God’s process is absolutely consistent with that in Exodus: God listens, then God responds, then God helps and a new reality (in this case for each person) is allowed to come in to being.
Now the people that Jesus was addressing in the gospel were sure that there must be a formula behind this divine mercy. They figured that there must be some connection between the presence of human suffering and the mercy which seemed to be God’s response to it. We know that formula too. No matter how theologically mature we are, it probably lurks somewhere inside of each of us and it goes like this: “Bad people experience bad things. Good people get good things.” Or this, “Good people deserve forgiveness and get it. Bad people don’t deserve it and shouldn’t get it.” Well, today’s gospel story turns that theology on its head as Jesus does a little clarifying regarding the workings of God.
The people to whom Jesus was speaking were sure that suffering of any kind was the direct result of individual sin, “That’s why the bad things happened to those particular Galileans,” they told Jesus. “And that’s why the tower of Siloam fell on those particular people. It was all because they were worse sinners than any else.” And while that might make logical sense, if we hear anything in Scripture it’s that human logic is not the basis for the workings of God. “Any of those tragedies could happen to any of you,” he told them. “What you’ve been given is a choice about how to live in the midst of it all.”
Notice similarly that in the story from Exodus, deliverance from slavery had nothing to do with the sinfulness or sinlessness of the people; the bad guys who were slaves and the good-guys who were slaves were all offered the same opportunity for a new life. There was no exam prior to the parting of the waters to see whether or not the people “deserved” deliverance or not. They had a choice granted them by God, a choice about whether or not to drop the chains, pick up their sandals and hike across the waters. Or to remain in slavery. God had responded with mercy and compassion to their cries, not to their purity or their goodness. And in the psalm that basis for response is there too: mercy was assumed as something God would grant whoever placed their trust in Him – there was no prerequisite to that promise: presumably, the rich, the poor, the slave, the free, the good guy, the jerk, were and are all offered this gift of God’s help and God’s peace. And that’s what Jesus was telling the people in the parable we heard today.
In so many ways it makes way more sense to cut down trees that aren’t producing fruit or even worse, whose fruit has gone bad. But the Gardner in that parable, the God in that parable, took an entirely different approach. “Let’s dig around it,” the Gardner said, “Let’s open it up and air out the roots a little bit. Let’s help it breathe, feed it, care for it and see what happens.” And if you’ve been listening that rings bell. “Let’s dig out the people and set them free.” “Let’s ask them to bear new fruit and walk into a whole new place.” “Let’s help and uphold rather than strike down.” It might all sound completely illogical, even a little crazy, but apparently holiness is.
And so if you are the one who longs for more freedom in this world, waiting for the waters to part, know that they will; we’ve all been invited to stand up, to move to a new place where there is freedom for all. Or maybe you’re out in the wilderness hungry for milk and honey. Know that God will provide and we’ve all been called to prepare and participate in that feast. If you’re like the psalmist and you’re praying a private prayer for help, know that it has been granted you. Help is on the way; it might even already be there. Or if you are that tree whose fruit seems non-existent or a little stale, there are shovels here and God has taught us how to use them. We can help provide the air and even the manure (kind of fun to have that in the story), and somehow because God is God, we be be led to new life.
So today we thank God for being God. For listening. For responding with mercy and compassion. For delivering and upholding. And for inviting us into new ways of being that ultimately reveal a holy and resurrection-like sense of peace.