The 3rd Sunday of Lent
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
We want life to be predictable, orderly, fair; we want it to make sense. There’s nothing wrong with that. Much of life actually turns out that way. We get up in the morning and do our routine. We go to work, where there are procedures, plans, progress. When we go to the doctor, we usually get a diagnosis and treatment, and we get better. If we obey the law, the police leave most of us alone. If we’re good to others, generally they are good to us.
Without this predictability and fairness, we’d live in constant anxiety. And so it is a good thing, and it is natural to try to create and maintain it.
But this isn’t all there is. There is also disorder, unpredictability, meanness, and injustice. Some people don’t get a clear diagnosis and effective treatment. Some are stopped and harassed for the crime of Driving While Black. Some are innocent victims of war, mental illness, or domestic violence.
And so here is the conundrum: on the one hand, we seem to have some measure of control. Most of the time, we can create a healthy, safe, and sensible life for ourselves. But on the other hand, there are no guarantees, and we can’t completely prevent disorder and unfairness. How do we live with this?
This was the problem that faced those in our gospel story today. They went to Jesus, who had a reputation as a wise rabbi, and brought up a horrible current event everybody knew about: Pilate’s soldiers attacked some people who were in the very act of worship at the Temple in Jerusalem. Their own blood was mixed with the blood of the sacrifices they were making. It’s like those in our own day who are gunned down or bombed in churches, synagogues, mosques. What kind of God would allow this?
Jesus’ answer to them is basically this: You’ve assumed this happened to them because they were worse sinners than you, and therefore you’re safe. That’s not true; you’re sinners too. So don’t assume that nothing bad will happen to you. Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.
Now I don’t particularly like this answer, because it sounds to me like Jesus thinks that everyone, being sinners, deserve God’s punishment. I wonder if it is an example of Jesus’ humanity - that he shared some of the beliefs of his day, a few of which we don’t hold any more: like the one about demons causing seizures and mental illness.
But there is something in his answer that I think is true, and it strikes at the root of a very common but mistaken assumption: that if we do the right things, life will always go well for us. He says that it doesn’t work this way. Bad things happen can happen randomly to anyone, and it isn’t always related to whether we deserve it or not.
Which brings us back to our dilemma. How do we live with the normal fairness of life that is occasionally interrupted by random unfairness? How do we try to be good, knowing that usually this results in good, and then deal with things that don’t fit this formula?
There are many who answer this by saying that this proves that there is no God. For God is either fair - in which case bad things wouldn’t happen to good people - or unfair, in which case your so-called “God” is not worth worshiping. Others say that everything happens “for a reason,” that God has a plan for everyone that includes even random and unjust suffering.
But neither answer satisfies me. I just don’t believe that God has to fit into our ideas of being fair or making sense. That would make God as small as our comprehension, and that is pretty scary. God is not a big human who thinks and acts and plans as we do. God is Spirit, the Source of all that is, seen and unseen.
While Jesus may not give us a way to deal with our dilemma, the first lesson from Exodus does. It is one of the most powerful and mysterious passages of all scripture, and it is at the heart of the Judeo-Christian faith.
Moses encounters God in the desert in the form of a burning bush that is flaming, but never consumed. Impossible. Can you imagine? A voice then tells Moses - who is a former slave, now a lowly sheepherder on the lam after having killed an Egyptian guard - that he will be the liberator of his people. He is to go to the great Pharaoh himself and tell him that God wants him to free the Israelites.
Right. And just whom shall I say has sent me? The answer is stunning. I AM that I AM. Being itself sends Moses. I AM, the God who IS, who is all existence, is God.
This moment in the desert is a revelation of who God is. And in that very moment, Israel begins to worship one universal God, not many gods. Israel enters a relationship with the divine that is imbedded in all existence, not a mythological super-person in the sky. And the Israelites now are asked to accept that this divine existence is mystery, beyond all comprehension, even beyond our understanding of right and wrong, fair and unfair. I Am that I AM, and that shall be enough for you.
Like the rest of us, the people of Israel sort of got this and sort of didn’t. From time to time they made idols, little deities that were easier to understand and manipulate. Here and there they believed - and wrote scriptures saying - that if you don’t sin, God will protect you from harm, that if you make the right sacrifices God will reward you.
But then, at other times, they would return to the mystery of I AM, the God who refused to answer Yes or No, who sometimes refused to answer at all, and worshiped this God anyway. The place where we see this most definitively is in the book of Job. After all Job’s pious and rational friends have tried to explain Job’s tremendous suffering in ways that might make sense out of tragedy, the final answer from God is this: Where were you when I created the heavens and the earth?
And so it is with our own attempts to make sense out of difficulty. Today many of you will receive anointing for healing. Every week we pray for God to act, to intervene, to do something about the suffering of those we love, and the suffering of the world.
And yet we know that what we ask for may or may not happen. This disturbs us, and some eventually give up on God. But if we are to be faithful to our Judeo-Christian tradition, this 3,000 year-old wisdom, we will take a different approach. We will ask for what we need, and we will let go of the outcome. God - the unfathomable I AM - has ways that we should not presume to understand. God’s love and healing and grace are not limited to how we think they should operate.
And so our faith is not faith that something in particular will take place. It is faith alone. It is trust alone. We place our trust not in outcomes but in the unfathomable goodness of God. When we step back from the present difficulty, we see that good often comes out of bad things. And even if we can’t see this, we step back further, and see that in human history, goodness tends to prevail. And even if we can’t see this, we step back even further, and trust that while God’s love may not win the day in this world, it does in eternity. Ultimately, there is nothing to fear.
Faith therefore is the discipline, the choice, really, to place our trust in something other than the immediate moment. It is to see ourselves in the big picture, with all people, with all creation, in the hands of a good and loving God. When we can do this, we know that all shall be well.
So today, if you seek healing for yourself through anointing, or if you stay in the pews and pray for others, make your needs known to God, and then release your grip on the outcome. But in doing so, you needn’t drift in a chaotic and meaningless void. You are in the hands of the God who IS, who always will be, the I AM of all goodness and love.