A sermon for the Third Sunday of Lent, 2019. Readings include God calling Moses from the burning bush, revealing the divine name I AM. Paul uses the subsequent wanderings in the wilderness as a cautionary tale for the Corinthians, and tells them, in a frequently misused verse, that they will not be tested beyond their strength. Jesus puts to rest the notion that disaster only befalls the deserving, and tells a poignant parable.
I once met a man in the hospital. I don’t remember exactly what had put him there, but it was something sudden, irrevocable, and life-altering. He told me that it was God’s answer to prayer. He was, in his own estimation, a hopeless drunk, and he had prayed to God to stop him from his drinking, and the next thing he knew, to hear him tell it, he woke up in the hospital, helpless and weak as a kitten, having been detoxed by the doctors while he slept so that they could better treat his immediate and acute presenting problem.
I had my doubts. But it was not my place, as the visiting chaplain intern, to tell him that I doubted that God had deliberately reached down from heaven to touch the neurons in his brain, or the sponges of his lungs, or whatever it was that had landed him in the emergency room. It was not my place to tell him that I doubted that God had, as precisely as a surgeon, tweaked them just so as to bring on this medical catastrophe, so bad and no worse, calibrated to bring him to his senses but not yet to meet his maker; it was not my place to say that I thought it more likely a simple cause and effect of his chronic abuse of is own body.
It was not my place to ask him, What about the other disasters that filled the rooms around him, from whose teary and weary bedsides I had come to his? It was not my place to ask him, Then what about my mother’s stroke? Did God cause that, and to what end? To ask such questions was clearly not my place.
My part in this drama, my line was to ask him how it was that he found God in that moment of crisis, when so many would feel themselves abandoned. I was genuinely curious to know where he saw God at work in his life, and what help he might need, after the emergency, to sustain the relationship he longed to have with the God he knew had saved him, and with his sobriety. Because whether or not God had put this man in the hospital, the Spirit of God had certainly raced to his room quicker than the on-call chaplain, and was already hard at work pumping absolution through his IV and dosing him up with repentance, and sustaining him with mashed up mouthfuls of the hope of resurrection.
This man, had he heard the parable of the fruitless fig tree in that moment, might have recognized the voice of the gardener as God who said, “ Let me dig him around a little, and cover him in manure for a bit (only God used a different word for manure), and see if he comes out right.” One more year. One more chance. One more time.
There are times when I wonder how often the landowner and the gardener had this conversation; whether it was the same every year, by season; whether every spring anew the gardener pleaded the tree’s case, protecting it and promising on its behalf to do better; whether the tree grew its whole life on borrowed time.
In the readings we hear today, Jesus and Paul tell different stories of disaster, seeking God’s meaning in them. Paul tells a cautionary tale of the people in the wilderness, going astray and awry and being struck down, destroyed by serpents, and by the destroyer. Even Paul does not accuse God of killing the wilderness people, instead coming to the conclusion that it was their own evil and idolatry that destroyed them, and their own apostasy that led to their downfall. God, Paul asserts even in the midst of dire warnings, remains faithful. Jesus is clearer: the disasters, natural and unnatural, that befell the people of Galilee and of Siloam, murdered by the empire and destroyed by accident, were no judgement upon them. The physical consequences of Pilate’s actions and the laws of physics did not differentiate between the upright and the scoundrel, the deserving and the undeserving sinner. God did not pick winners and losers, still less appoint Pontius Pilate as an instrument of God’s righteous judgement.
And if we had visited the hospital wards in the days after that construction disaster in Siloam, my guess is that we would have heard some who wondered why God had abandoned them, and others who wondered what God was telling them; some who asked what they had done to deserve such punishment, and other generous souls who would have gladly traded places with one who had died, and some who cried out with simple gratitude that they had escaped with their lives, with one more chance.
It would not be our place in that moment of pain to correct them, nor to question their theology. It would certainly not be our place to say, “God does not give you more than you can handle” to those whose hands are overflowing with grief, or twisted with pain, or wrung out with sorrow; and anyway, the word that Paul uses here is “tested,” not punished, injured, or overwhelmed. Paul says that we will not be tested, or tempted or tried, more than Christ was tested in the wilderness, when Jesus told the devil not to put the Lord our God to the test.
So what is our role, as the church, as Christians, in community with one another and as an example to the world, when we are faced with the questions that naturally arise after a disaster, be it personal or communal, asking where is God when trouble happens, and what it means when God is or is not seen to intervene? What is our line?
In his Preface to Evil and the Justice of God, even N.T. Wright admits that “our primary task is not so much to give answers to impossible philosophical questions as to bring signs of God’s new world to birth” (Wright, 11). Samuel Wells comes closer, perhaps, to giving an answer we can use. It is difficult to reduce his collection of essays, Be Not Afraid: facing fear with faith, to a single quotation, but at the end of an essay titled “What’s wrong with God?” he offers this:
If we want to be bearers of God’s Holy spirit, and we want to make Jesus present to people like that fragile woman with cancer and that young man who’d just lost his father, we need to let ourselves be shaped by the astonishing, liberating, and exhilarating news of these three simple words. Here. Now. Us. (Wells, 162)
If you want to know what Wells means, and the stories that he refers to, you’ll have to read him for yourselves (see below). But thinking of the stories that Paul and Jesus tell, and my various encounters in the hospital rooms and the world, here is what those three simple words tell me:
Here. God is near. No matter how unlikely it seems in the moment, in the wilderness – and Jesus had those moments too, in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross – God, it turns out, is faithful, and has not wandered far from us. The old hymn sings, Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est. Wherever there is love and kindness, God is there. When we enter into the world of someone else’s pain, as we are able, it is our task to notice, sometimes, but not always, to name where God is already present and at God’s work of healing, reconciliation, loving kindness.
Now. God is present. Whatever the past holds over us in terms of shame, regret, or grief; whatever challenges, worries, or goals the future holds, God is present. When I met with that man in the hospital, it’s fortunate that his astonishing take on his situation struck me momentarily mute, because it gave me time to notice that God was already at work in the present moment, which was perhaps the most hopeful of all moments in that man’s life. God’s presence in that moment was enough to shelter him from his past and his future, and give him space to find some healing and hope, even in the midst of a medical emergency.
Us. This is the scary part. What if the help, the hope that God sends in the present moment, in the here and now, is us? What if we are the messengers of the gospel whom God has chosen to bring good news to the oppressed, the bereft, the imprisoned, and those in pain and suffering? What if we are to bring with us the loving kindness of God in Christ?
Maybe like Moses we might protest, “Who am I, that I should go?” Perhaps like him we will argue that we do not know how to speak God’s good news, how to stand before the forces that stand against God’s children, God’s will for the world. But we know God’s answer: “I will be with you. I AM with you.”
And who are we to say that’s not enough?
N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God (InterVarsity Press, 2006)
Samuel Wells, Be Not Afraid: facing fear with faith (BrazosPress, 2011)
Photo: the empires lie in ruins. In Jerash, Jordan