So, if we take today’s Gospel conversation with Jesus and fast-forward it to the tragic events of our day, it might sounds a bit like this: so Jesus, tell us … did those who got killed in the mosques in New Zealand … sin more than us? And what about all those who were on that plane in Ethiopia? Oh, and the countless victims of mass flooding in Africa and the US? Were they … worse sinners … than us? Absolutely not!, replies Jesus, but unless you repent … What does he mean?
We spend so much time and energy on buying our way into freedom and happiness, exhaustingly so. But Isaiah portrays God as One who calls us to free drinks: Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come! Isaiah speaks of the things no money can buy. The free life-giving water is God’s everlasting love and mercy for saint and sinner alike, no matter who—when—where—how. Because all God cares about is our freedom, remember? We heard about that a few Sundays ago also.
God cared about the freedom of his people Israel, who lived in exile in the time of Isaiah. God cares so much about our freedom that God slipped … into … human skin … and gave us Jesus Christ as our redeemer and pattern for our living. God cares so much about our freedom that in Christ he decided that we are … to die for. Unacknowledged and unconfessed sin, failings and weakness can keep us in bondage or in an exile of our own making. God knows that we can only flourish and come to full bloom in the freedom of his love and mercy. God reminds us in Isaiah’s words that my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my way. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
Whew, what a relief that is! This is a good thing. The fact that God’s ways are higher than our ways, and God’s thoughts are deeper than ours, is a really, really good thing. It’s a very good thing that our God is bigger and deeper and more mysterious than our little minds can comprehend.
Several years ago I participated in a lively book club discussion on W. Paul Young’s book The Shack. This engaging novel turned into a successful movie, and touched millions of lives both in and outside the church. The story weaves fascinating aspects of God right into the arduous healing process of its main character, Mack. Several of these divine aspects are highlighted in today’s Scripture readings. Comparing The Shack with the Scriptures may seem far-fetched and a bit daring perhaps. But I’m always up for a challenge, so let’s see what we get and have some fun with this. Spoiler-alert here … just a little …
So in The Shack, when Mack asks why God keeps on loving a screw-up like himself, Papa/God replies with dry humour: “Because my love is a lot bigger than your stupidity.” God hears every cry for help, from the victims of hate crimes to the silent screams in our bedrooms, from the agony in war zones and flood plains, to the tears of despair in affluent suburbs, from the shreds in a plane accident to the screaming in a mosque: “I hear your cry,” says God, “and I want to come and deliver you.”
God’s deliverance comes in the form of an invitation, come, all you who thirst, drink the water of love and mercy. Loving, forgiving, setting free – all are of the essence in God. Because ultimately God is … a verb, not a noun; Mack in The Shack discovers this. The ever-moving circle of love in God the Father—Son—Spirit is a hard one for Mack to get his head around. The Trinity spirals love and mercy ’round and ’round while beckoning us to enter that never-ending holy circle. But just like the Israelites in exile, to whom Isaiah’s words were addressed, Mack … has a hard time getting this – as do we most of the time.
If our hearts remain under a cloud, that is unclean and closed, broken and fickle, even though we are all baptized, even though we all eat the same spiritual food and even though we all drink the same spiritual drink, we will likely not … taste … salvation. That’s another way of saying: unless you repent, you will all perish. Paul reminds us in his words to the Corinthians: Our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. But if you think you’re standing, watch out that you do not fall.
In the same way, spending energy on trying to figure out why we “deserve” suffering and death, is a futile exercise: Do we think that because refugees suffer so much more than others that they are worse sinners than all others? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those 50 Muslims killed in the mosques in New Zealand do we think that they were worse offenders than all the others? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. And the countless victims of mass floodings in Africa and the US, was it their time to go, or were they worse people than us? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Unless we repent, we will all die in chains of unconfessed sin. Jesus rebukes any effort to lay blame for suffering. Jesus rebukes any effort to compare and feel superior to others. If we don’t redirect this energy toward examining our own hearts and surrendering to God in repentance, we too will perish without tasting God.
As “Papa” tells Mack, “People cling to their independence (and pain). They hoard and hold their sickness with a firm grip. They find their identity and worth in their brokenness and guard it with every ounce of strength they have. No wonder grace has such little attraction. You all lock the door of your hearts … from the inside.” Mack is convinced in the depths of his being that he is responsible for his daughter’s death. When this conviction is reinforced by deep hurts that go way back to Mack’s childhood, and then get laced with generous doses of guilt, shame and rage, Mack has mixed a lethal cocktail for ultimate alienation from God.
If we really have the power to bring about our own destruction, and that of others, then Jesus has nothing to say. If we are really responsible for misfortunes and calamities that befall us, like the Israelites blaming themselves for living like slaves in Egypt, then God does not need to bother, does not need to meet us in the Shack, does not need to offer living water free of charge, or needs not send his own Son to open the way to redemption and mercy.
In God’s economy, analyzing who’s the greater sinner by measuring degrees of misfortune has no meaning. That’s why Mack got caught in a net of self-delusion. In one of Mack’s many attempts to justify his position, “Papa” retorts with familiar directness: “Mack, just because I work incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies doesn’t mean I orchestrate the tragedies. Don’t ever assume that my using something means that I caused it or that I needed it to accomplish my purposes. That will only lead to false notions about me. Grace doesn’t depend on suffering to exist, but where there is suffering you will find grace in many facets and colours.”
And so instead, Jesus told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none.” Our life is like the fig tree yearning to bear fruit. But our capacity to bear God’s fruit is inhibited by unresolved pain, nursing harsh judgments (of ourselves or others), cherishing impure motives and distorted attitudes in our hearts – all forming a cloud, all wrapping chains around our spirit. Jesus pleads with his Father on our behalf: Please, let me dig around her/him, prune her/him and put manure – manure! – on him/her. Give her/him time, attention, loving care and s/he will bear fruit.
Give God a chance this Lenten season. Let God prune and heal whatever obstructs our bearing Godly fruit. Give us another day, another week, another year, God. And God relents, saying, okay then, I will. As the popular novel and movie The Shack illustrates, God will use whatever it takes to get through to us, because pain can indeed spell judgment and death, and can lead us to perish. But despair kissed by hope, sin humbly confessed, pain courageously surrendered in love, becomes fertilizer for our spirit. Mack’s journey and today’s Scriptures ring loud and clear: despite everything that might happen, our own life is still God’s favourite hangout, our own pain is still the place of God’s liberating work. That God, the Lover par excellence who doesn’t force himself upon anyone, is eagerly waiting in all the shadows of life to be invited in and to deliver us: Come and drink, it’s free; come and eat, it’s free. Our eating and drinking Christ in the Eucharist is a foretaste and sign, indeed God’s free gift of mercy, setting us free. Like the fig tree, lovingly but firmly pruned and tended by the Master Gardener, we can then bear fruit in abundance, at last … AMEN
Homily preaching on the Third Sunday of Lent, March 24, 2019
Isaiah 55:1-9, Luke 13:1-9 (RC Lectionary had Exodus 3:1-15)