Our sermon yesterday was preached by Lauren Gallant Cochran, our Christian Formation Director. Here’s what she had to say:
I find deep spiritual comfort in believing that our God is a God of paradox, a God who is the possible version of impossible. I believe God is unchanging, and ‘still speaking’. I believe God is three, and one. I believe God was then, is now, and will be in the future. I think God is unknowable, and yet intensely intimate in my life… everywhere and nowhere all at once. I take comfort in these contradictions because while I will never fully understand everything there is to know about God, God still approves of my questioning and desire to learn and understand. I thank God every day for the opportunities to talk about these paradoxes of God with other people: those who agree with me, and those who do not.
In the Presbyterian Church, every candidate for ordination must write a very concise statement of faith, and I have just read you the opening paragraph of my statement. It seems a bit self-righteous to quote myself, but I want to talk about the paradox present in our scriptures today, which points to the paradox of Lent, and the paradox of our God. I want you to start thinking about all the things in our faith that are opposites but both true and complete all at the same time.
Last week Father Jonathan asked the question “what does Lent mean to people today?” He said traditionally it has been a time for people to focus on an angry God who demands repentance—but noted that that’s not really what it seems to be any more. The lectionary texts- including last week where Jonathan highlighted that God’s covenant with Abram was both terrifying and trustworthy—the lectionary texts of Lent are handing us paradoxes.
Let’s look first to Exodus—to the burning bush.
Moses finds himself in a scary situation. Here he is, peacefully keeping his flocks of sheep when he stumbles across the burning bush. God yells out Moses name and commands him to remove his sandals. The presence of God is so overwhelming that Moses hides his face in fear. Moses knows that this is the same God he has been hiding from after killing a man back in Egypt. But even beyond the wilderness, God has found him and now commands him to return to Egypt and demand that Pharaoh free the Israelites. When Moses musters the courage to respond, he asks “well who should I say sent me?”— God responds “I AM WHO I AM”.
I would be terrified. God in these verses is very powerful, demanding, and frightening. But don’t forget, I want to talk about the paradox in this passage. It was hard for me, at first, to recognize that there is more than a powerful and scary God in these verses… But then I realized that I was thinking about this story with preconceived notions that didn’t have anything to do with the real words of scripture.
It’s even a little embarrassing to admit what these notions were. First, is that when I was 12 years old, the animated movie The Prince of Egypt was released. I loved that movie, and the scene of Moses and the burning bush is what I picture in my head when I read this passage. It is a dramatic point in the movie, of course they chose to make it seem very powerful and slightly scary. Once I found out that the actor Val Kilmer voices the roles of Moses AND God, it seems a bit more comical to me when I picture Val Kilmer talking to himself. But, the point is that an animated movie with dramatic effects was placing a lens over how I read this story.
Secondly, every time I read this scripture—as silly as it may sound—the capitol letters “I AM WHO I AM” always make me think that God is yelling those words. Scholarship tells me that the use of capital letters signifies that God’s name cannot be clearly translated, so in order to get all of this fictional yelling out of my head, I decided to read the passage to myself in the most calm and loving tone that I could.
I imagined God as a mother speaking to her son who is wandering beyond the wilderness, trying to bring him back to help him and their family. “Moses… Moses… “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey”.
This presents a completely different picture of God– now it should be also noted that nowhere in this conversation does God ask Moses to repent for his sins. Nowhere are there any conditions for Moses to change—Moses sins aren’t even mentioned. In this light, the passage is not an angry God looking for repentance of sins.
Here is our first paradox. God in this passage IS all powerful, and certainly makes a point to Moses about God’s power to free the Israelites—and Moses is scared. Moses hides his face. But God is also reaching out to Moses, God has compassion for the chosen people serving as slaves in Egypt. God is the shepherd reaching out to a lost sheep from his flock. God is I AM WHO I AM, and I am who I am. God is showing Moses that this task will not be easy, but with the power of God it will be done.
And so we come to the paradox of a parable from Luke.
For our youngest children here at Grace, the Godly Play curriculum (loosely based on the Montessori System) shares the Bible in a story telling format, including the parables of Jesus. All the parables are stored on their own shelf, and each is kept in a special white box. Gwen, their wonderful teacher, patiently shares each story with them, but before they begin she reads these words about the parable they are about to experience.
“The box is closed. There is a lid. Maybe there is a parable inside. Sometimes, even if we are ready, we can’t enter a parable. Parables are like that. Sometimes they stay closed. This box looks like a present. Parables were given to you long ago as a present. Even if you don’t know what a parable is, the parable is already yours.”
I think these words can give us comfort as well when faced with a parable such as this. These verses also show a powerful God in a frightening way. God has the power to remove us from the vineyard not only because we might do something wrong, but also because we have not done anything at all. And then we are left with a cliff hanger ending. I don’t think a more terrifying literary tactic exists- we are left wondering about the fate of the fig tree, about our fate if we lead unfruitful lives. Don’t forget that immediately before the parable, Jesus left us with the words “unless you repent you will all perish”.
Because Jesus was a man who frequently used agricultural metaphors in his parables, he probably knew that it can take up to five years before a fig tree bears fruit, much longer than the 3 years the owner of the tree has come looking for figs. The point is clear, we must be fruitful and we cannot wait to do it, otherwise we are wasting the precious soil in the garden.
So this parable shows us a powerful vengeful God, who demands active fruitfulness. But there is a character that I have not mentioned yet. The gardener. If the parable portrays God as the owner of the garden and the fig tree as you and me… then who is the Gardener? The first time I heard a sermon that suggested the idea that Jesus is the gardener, I thought… Whoa… That changes everything!! Here is Jesus! Interceding on our behalf. But who is Jesus other than God himself? Thus we arrive at the second paradox. God is expecting great things and threatening to throw us out, while still giving us another chance, giving us the nutrients we need to make it happen—fighting for us to stay.
As I shared with you at the beginning of this sermon, I find comfort in believing that God is a God of paradox, that God can be many things at once. Both the owner and the gardener of a vineyard, both a powerful burning bush and a loving mother calling out into the wilderness, both terrifying and trustworthy.
Our reading from first Corinthians reveals that Paul felt the same way. “So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure.”
It is not a coincidence that our scriptures confront us with so many paradoxes during the season of Lent. Lent is a time to repent, but also a time to take joy in our forgiving God. Lent is a time to prepare for the death that we know is coming on Good Friday, but also a time to prepare for the resurrection that comes on that mighty Easter Sunday. There is talk of darkness and light, ashes and life, our pasts that sometimes haunt us and the future of the kingdom to come. Lent is a paradox in itself, leading us to the moment of Easter, preparing us to entertain the notion of an empty tomb. Lent is preparing us to experience the paradox of a God who dies, and rises… for us.