Monday, March 7, 2016

Lent 3: God’s relationship to sin and sinners.

Exodus 3:1-15
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Luke 13:1-9
Psalm 63:1-8

Today’s readings led me to think theologically about the thorny problem of God’s relationship to pain, suffering and sin. 

In our Gospel passage today, the people who are with Jesus are gossiping.  They tell Jesus about the Galileans who were killed by Pilate.  Their blood was mixed with the blood of sacrifices.  Jesus adds to this terrible story of violence and suffering another—eighteen were killed with the tower of Siloam fell on them. 

Paul tells the Corinthians about a series of terrible things that happen.  Paul refers back to the Egyptians who were led through the sea by Moses but perished in the wilderness. Twenty three thousand struck down by the plague (Numbers 25:9).  God’s people who were killed by the serpents (Numbers 21:5,6). 

In our reading from Exodus, God speaks to Moses about the oppression of God’s people by the Pharoah.  He notices the suffering of the Egyptians at the hands of his task masters.

Here in our time, we look around and see God’s people suffering.  This week in the news, we heard about the innocent people gunned down in Kansas City—four dead and fourteen injured.  We heard about another 6 shot in Kalamazoo, Michigan.  We know that here in Marin, there is human trafficking and sexual slavery.  There is homelessness and economic hardship for those who work but cannot afford housing.  A father and his father in law were shot in a tragic domestic violence incident in Marin City this past week.

Where is God in the midst of this violence, oppression and suffering?

Traditional theology might have suggested that God is above this suffering.  God is separated from our human pain.  Death and pain are the fate of human beings.  We are finite, but God is divine and therefore does not suffer.  Some fundamentalists might suggest that this suffering is in fact punishment for sin.  God’s people are disobedient, and so God either retaliates or allows these terrible things to happen.  Theologians call this the “apathic” God—God who in God’s perfection does not suffer or experience pain.

But there are other lines of theological inquiry today that challenge this notion that God is above suffering.  I think that our readings today point us to the mystery of God in relationship to suffering and sin in new ways.  Let us begin by looking at what Jesus says when his followers tell him about the suffering of the Galileans who are murdered by Pilate or the suffering of the people killed by the falling tower at Siloam.    Jesus responds to his followers with a parable.  Jesus tells his followers about the man who plants a fig tree in his garden, but the tree does not bear fruit.  The man is angry and threatens to chop down the tree.  (Maybe the man represents an angry God who would cause the disobedient person to suffer.)  But the gardener suggests an alternative path—instead of chopping the tree down, let’s feed it with fertilizer and see if it can produce fruit.  If we hear this parable as a story about God’s relationship to us, we might see that we are the sometime unproductive fig tree.  We are ones who do not bear fruit, but instead of chopping us down as the man might do, God fertilizes and builds us up hoping that we might bear fruit.

Jesus’ parable reflects on the stories of suffering—instead of turning away from the horror of the Galileans who are killed by Pilate, instead of ignoring the people killed by the falling tower, God is working with God’s people, nurturing and building them up.

Elizabeth Johnson, a feminist theologian writes about this aspect of God—a God who responds to pain with creativity.  A God who knows suffering and pain and from that experience with us offers new alternatives, new life.  Elizabeth Johnson offers us the image of childbirth—out of the pain of that experience comes the joy of the child.  She suggests that when God experiences pain and suffering, that God may be angry—but the anger does not lead to judgment.  Instead of judging God’s people, God acts to right the injustice.  In this passage, we might hear Jesus’ outrage at Pilate’s injustice.  Jesus is furious about the deaths of the people of Siloam.  Jesus is angry about the killings in Marin City, in Kalamazoo, in Kansas City.  But from that anger comes new work.  The new work of justice.    The creative work of fertilizing the dormant seeds of righteousness.  Jesus reminds us that from this place of suffering and pain, there is an opportunity to create new life.

Elizabeth Johnson offers us the view of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, an association of Argentine mothers whose children were "disappeared" during the Dirty War of the military dictatorship, between 1976 and 1983. These mothers became activists, turning their sorrow and anger into work for justice.  We have so many examples of women who are present with people who suffering—the battlefield nurses, the mothers of sick children, the daughters of aging parents.  These quiet people who do not turn away from pain, but are present with it.  These feminine images suggest a different kind of God—a God who is non-judgmental, a God who is present and attentive, a God who turns pain into love, who turns anger into work for justice.

When we look closely at the story of the burning bush, we can see in this image a creative flame.  This is not the usual fire that consumes and destroys.  Instead Moses is called to look at the bush which burns, and God speaks to Moses telling him to remove his sandals for this is Holy ground.  Like our reading from Luke—in this Hebrew bible passage with a metaphor for God—the burning bush juxtaposed with stories of suffering.  In this passage, God recognizes the suffering of the Egyptians under Pharoah.  And he sends his reluctant prophet Moses to lead them out of Egypt.  In the story Moses doesn’t want to be the leader of the people.  He is afraid and might want to run away.  But God calls Moses towards the burning bush. Symbolically, God is bringing Moses in towards this creative flame—the anger of God.  God shows Moses that the way forward is to name God,  “I AM”, and to worship God on this holy mountain.  I am struck by the parallels between the elements of this Hebrew Bible story and our story in the Gospel.  Here’s a chart of the parallels as I see them. . .

God sees oppression of Egyptians
Jesus sees oppression of Pilate
God sees pain at the hands of task masters
Jesus recounts pain of those who died in Siloam
Angels shows God’s anger in the burning bush
Jesus shows anger of the landowner who threatens to kill the fig tree
Anger is turned to work for justice—God sends Moses to lead the people
Gardiner offers to fertilize the fig tree and help it produce
God is present with sufferers—Say to the Israelites—“I am has sent you.”
Landowner waited for three years, wait for one more.
A surface reading must suggest God’s judgment—The flame might have been destructive.
The fig tree might have been destroyed.
But God turns oppression into new life—bringing the Egyptians to the land of milk and honey.
Making the fig tree bear fruit.

If we conclude by looking closely at our passage from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, we can see how these themes fit together in a message to us.  Paul is reminding the Corinthians that they are God’s people.  They are the same as the people of Moses’ time who were brought out of Egypt and saved, but were disobedient, suffered and perished.  Paul is saying to the Corinthians—you are no better than those people.  He is warning the Corinthians that just because they are “believers” does not mean that they will not suffer or die.  Just because they have come together as a “Christ centered” community does not mean that they are immune from oppression and pain.  Paul is warning against “cheap grace”.  Belief alone is insufficient. 

God’s way is to be compassionate and non-judgmental.  God’s nature is to turn anger into work for justice.  God’s way to be with the people in their troubles.  But our creator God is working with us.  God is calling us not to sit and wait for God’s intervention but to work with God for what is right and just.  Paul tells the Corinthians,  God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.’
I hear Paul reminding us about God’s will for us and our part in God’s work.  When we see pain, suffering and injustice, when we recognize oppression and violence, God may be angry and we should be angry.  But instead of becoming judgmental and destructive in response to this pain, God’s anger is turned to creative energy working to build up justice.  Our response must be to remain present, to engage with suffering, pain and injustice.  Our response must be to engage with God.  In this interaction we may create justice, work for the Kingdom, provide a “way out” for all of God’s people.  It is up to us, like Moses to lead God’s people forward, naming God and worshipping on the holy mountain.  It is up to us to fertilize the barren trees, encourage righteousness so it may bear fruit everywhere.  It is up to us stay present, waiting as long as it takes to end suffering and obtain the new life that Christ has promised all of us.

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