Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Faithful Mercies

Faithful Mercies
Isa 55:1-9; Lk 13:1-9[1]
I think most people at one time or another will run headlong into the question, “God, how could you let that happen?” Usually it is in the context of something like your worst nightmare coming true. Whether it’s the loss of a child, or the loss of a marriage, or some tragedy on a broader scale than the individual, I think at one time or another we will all face that troubling question. It is a natural thing to ask when you’re in the depths of despair. After all, if God is truly infinite, truly beyond all that we can comprehend, it would only seem reasonable to assume that God has the ability to prevent tragedies from happening. For some, this becomes proof positive that there must not be a God, since the world is full of tragedies both individual and widespread, from Holocaust gas chambers to genocide in Rwanda, from the tsunami in Myanmar to the earthquake in Haiti.
This seems to be what was on the minds those who approached Jesus to ask him about a tragedy that apparently affected them deeply. Although our Gospel lesson doesn’t spell it out, I think we have to assume that they were troubled by this tragedy—the Roman Governor Pilate had not only executed some of their friends and neighbors, but also had desecrated their sacrifices. It would seem that what troubled them were questions about God’s character. “Couldn’t God have prevented this from happening?” “If so, why didn’t God prevent it?”
Jesus’ answer is a strange one, to put it mildly. He implies that they assumed the victims of that tragedy must have committed some horrible sins, whether publicly or in secret. That approach to God and tragedy was a traditional way of looking at things for the Jewish people, and it still is for many people of all faiths. If a tragedy befalls you, but I’m spared, you must be a “worse sinner” than me! But Jesus explodes the foolishness behind that assumption. One of the hard truths of life in this world is that tragedies simply happen. “Bad Things Happen to Good People,” to borrow the title of Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book. All the time, in fact. So letting God off the hook by “blaming the victim” just doesn’t work.[2] At first glance it would seem that Jesus doesn’t even address their question at all. It would seem that they come to him questioning God’s justice, and Jesus responds by rather bluntly reminding them that everyone must stand before a holy and just God someday, where God will do the questioning![3]
But in fact, I would say that Jesus does give an answer of sorts in the parable that follows. It is a story about a farmer and a fig tree. Now this probably wasn’t a single-crop farmer, like many we have in this country. This farmer probably owned a piece of land and grew several crops—in that day and time, probably some kind of grain, a variety of fruit trees, probably an olive grove and a vineyard. But water and soil were precious commodities, so the farmer checked the crops regularly to ensure that they were producing as they should. Apparently this particular fig tree was not. So the farmer tells the hired hand to cut it down. But the “vine-dresser” urged patience, promising to fertilize and cultivate it yet another year.
On the surface, it would seem fairly straightforward, as parables go. But the question this parable raises is where we find God in the story.[4] Do we see God reflected in the farmer who has every right to expect that the crops planted make good use of the soil and water invested in them, and demands that the tree be cut down? Or do we see God reflected in the worker tending the vineyard, who urges patience and promises to pay special attention to cultivate the tree and try to make it fruitful? To some extent, perhaps Jesus was trying to illustrate for us the truth that God is found in both. When we hear of tragedy that makes us wonder what someone must have done to deserve such heart break, Jesus urges us to remember that God has a right to expect us all to be the kind of people and live the kind of lives that we were meant for.
But when we hear of tragedy so terrible that it makes us question the goodness and mercy of God, Jesus reminds that God’s mercy is never failing, God’s goodness is inexhaustible, God’s compassion never gives up on us. God doesn’t “send” tragedies into our lives to punish us. God is the one who is always working to bring good out of evil, always working to bring life out of death.[5] God is the one who, even when dealing with those who are wayward, says, “come to me, you who have no money, come, buy and eat,” “listen to me and your soul will delight in the richest of food,” “come to me, that your soul may live” (Isa. 55:1-3).[6]
During this season of Lent we’ve been looking at what it means to take the steps of faith. It is important to confess “Jesus is Lord” for Christian faith because it is the first step toward moving out of the prison of our own selfishness.[7] And it is important to embrace faith because it enables us to move out of the essential hopelessness of our world and into the joy and freedom of God’s hopeful future.[8] When we struggle with faith in a world that can be heartbreaking, Jesus reminds us that God is the one who is with us in all our tragedy and our pain, sustaining us with mercies that are always faithful.[9]

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/7/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] See Barbara Brown Taylor, “Life Giving Fear,” The Christian Century (March 4, 1998): 229.
[3] Jesus was pointing out that “it is … God who questions the questioner” (cf. E. Schweizer, Good News According to Luke, 219).
[4] In a very real sense, Charles Hedrick, in “An Unfinished Story about a Fig Tree in a Vineyard,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 26 (Summer, 1999): 169-192, suggests the parable takes a “secular” approach to tragedy. He views the farmer and the “vinter” as incompetent at cultivating fig trees, the one through faulty judgment and the other through neglect. From this perspective, he suggests that the point of the parable is “as long as there is life, there is hope.”
[5] Cf. Barbara Brown Taylor, “Life Giving Fear”, 229: “for those of us who have discovered that we cannot make life safe nor God tame,” Jesus’ answer “is gospel enough.” She continues, “What we can do is turn our faces to the light. That way, whatever befalls us, we will fall the right way.”
[6] Cf. Tom Long, “Breaking and Entering,” The Christian Century (March 7, 2001):11. He interprets this Gospel text in light of the previous context in Luke, where Jesus chides the people for their inability to read the signs of the in-breaking Kingdom of God. He says, “the sign of the times, the clue to the breaking in of God’s reign” is “not the Hale-Bopp Comet, not invaders from space, not Clinton as King Belshazzar redux, not wars or rumors of war, but instead the gracious and patient hand that reaches out to halt the ax, the merciful gesture woven into the fabric of life that stays all that would give up on the barren and the broken, the merciful voice that says, ‘Let’s give this hopeless case one more year.’” Cf. also James A. Sanders, “Expository Article: Isaiah 55:1-9," Interpretation 32 (July, 1978): 291-95, who reminds us that the setting for this lavish banquet in antiquity would have been a celebration of the enthronement of a new king (i.e., in this case God!).
[7] See Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 38: “To be ‘lost’ is to be left to the arbitrariness and pretenses of the contingent ego, the smoke-self that must inevitably vanish. To be ‘saved’ is to return to one’s inviolate and eternal reality and to live in God.”
[8] See Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, 145, where he says that faith means “to trust God’s future and to live assured of that future even in the deathly present.” See also Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 31-32: “Where in faith and hope we begin to live in the light of the possibilities and promises of this God, the whole fullness of life discloses itself as … a life to be loved.”
[9] Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 24-25: “Neither in presumption nor in despair does there lie the power to renew life, but only in the hope that is enduring and sure.” It would seem to me that the “faithful mercies” of God are the only true ground for that kind of faith and hope.

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