Sermon from February 28, 2016
We hear it, frequently, when disaster hits, someone points the finger and says “They deserved it!” or “It was because of those people, those sinners who angered God!” Hurricanes, tornadoes, floods – many natural disasters are declared to be God-given punishment!
Now, we might laugh. We might look with disdain at those who proclaim such a simplistic view of the world. Yet, it is so often the way we look at the world – on a smaller scale. “You reap what you sow!” That’s a Biblical statement. And we hear it as proof that God will judge us and others. So, when something bad happens, it is easy to assume that God has judged us (or them) and found us (or those people) guilty – and we are being punished. I did a quick search for Biblical quotes about reaping what we sow. I found a particular website that listed all the places in the Bible where this idiom occurs. The top of the website declared, “Most professing Christians are going to hell!! Your life depends on it. Find out now. Are you truly saved?” “Most professing Christians are going to hell!”
God is the harsh judge – waiting to hand out what we and the world deserve for the ways in which we have lived. Therefore, when anything bad happens, we must assume that we have displeased God.
“At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them – do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.’”
This is a hard passage to hear. How quickly do our ears go to Jesus’ words of warning, “Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did”? We hear it as a promise that we will reap what we sow, that God will judge us for our deeds. This image of God as the waiting judge hovers over so much or our understanding of the faith.
We have to hear the entire conversation that Jesus had with those who told him about the Galileans. His response is a reminder that the idiom about reaping what we sow has to be heard with another Biblical message. We’re told that the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike. The story of Job wrestles with this very notion of we reap what we sow. When bad things happened to Job, his friends assumed that he had done something to deserve God’s wrath. The book challenges Job to embrace a larger vision of who God is.
Bad things happen—to good people and bad people. That’s what Jesus was telling those who approached him. They couldn’t assume that those who had died were somehow more deserving of their fate than those who lived. The world doesn’t work that way. And God doesn’t work that way.
Yet, he follows with those words about repentance – words that sound like “what you will sow you will reap.” “If you don’t repent you will perish.” It sounds like the church signs you see all around. “Repent or perish!” And we hear, “God’s gonna get you!”
Contrast this image of God with the image in Isaiah 55. “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters. You that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”
We are to imagine the homeless, the poor, the despairing and suffering walking into our grocery stores and filling their carts with good things. We are to imagine banquets spread for all to enjoy. It is an image of God that is filled with grace and mercy, with love that overflows in abundance. “Come to the waters!”
Daniel Debevoise wrote about being thirsty, but not knowing it. He wrote about signs in the Grand Canyon National Park that warn hikers to stop and drink water. “You are thirsty, whether you realize it or not!” What if repentance is learning to acknowledge our thirst for God? When we reduce life to a reaping and sowing equation, do we leave room for God? Or, do we limit God’s presence and activity to that of making the equation equal? God dishes out the appropriate consequence – or maybe a severe consequence for human failures.
Do we not thirst for the God who is not the harsh judge but the nurturing, welcoming, healing, host? Is our world not thirsty for this God? We hear enough about the God waiting to mete out harsh judgments, even eternal judgment.
“Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” the prophet asks on God’s behalf. Perhaps, when Jesus spoke of perishing he was speaking not about God inflicting punishment, but life which was not truly nourished. There is nothing nourishing in a life that is lived in such fear of God that the world becomes small and calculating. There is nothing nourishing in a life that sees only scarcity and the need to look out for oneself or one’s own. There is nothing nourishing in a life that is focused on getting more and more and more.
Debevoise wrote about a movie titled Millions, so I rented it and watched it. It’s the story of a young British boy who found millions of stolen Pounds. The movie looks at the mayhem that this discovery caused as each member of the family made decisions about how it should be used. Chaos ensued. We hear about lottery winners, those who receive unimaginable amounts of money, and find, not happiness, but chaos, struggle and heartache. In the movie, the boy who found the money, Damien, constantly looked for ways to use the money to help others – a way of dealing with his own grief after his mother’s death. Finally, he was joined by the rest of the family. They gave the money to dig wells in Africa so that people could have clean water. (An appropriate story for our preparation for the CROP Walk!)
Repentance isn’t about living carefully to avoid God’s impending judgment and wrath. It’s about discovering the God who desires that we satisfy our thirst and our hunger with God’s very presence.
“Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food,” it says in Isaiah. We perish, not because God threatens us, but because we do not seek the very banquet that God offers. The world hungers and thirsts for God – yet seeks the food that does not satisfy – things, status, safety, fear, judgment, condemnation, isolation.
I thought of a wonderful piece by Ann Weems titled “Happy Birthday, Church.” It starts, “There was once a church that had only party rooms: the Session’s Party Room, the Music Party Room, the Feasting Party Room, the Touch Lepers Party Room. In the center of the building was a large round room with an altar and a cross: God’s Party Room. There was in the church an air of festivity and brightness that could not be denied.” The piece speaks of a congregation that didn’t collect canned goods for the poor, but bought pizza and went to the apartments and ate with tenants. Members went to the hospital and sat with dying patients, holding their hands, mopping their brows and speaking of life.
When accused of heresy, the people said, “We ask you to sit at our table and sup with us… We are celebrants of the gift of Life. We are community. We are God’s church. Why are your faces red when we are trying to do justice and love mercy? Why do you shake your fists at us when we are trying to discover the hurting and begin the healing? We are overjoyed that we can be the church, a community of people who are many, yet one – who are different, but who walk together and welcome any who would walk with us.”
Come to the waters. Come to the banquet. God wants to slake our thirst – our true thirst. God wants to feed us – with God’s very presence.