based on Psalm 63, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13 and Luke 13:1-9
Each Sunday there are four suggested scriptures – generally a reading from the Hebrew scriptures, one from the Psalms, one from the letters to the early church and one from the gospel. I alluded to the Hebrew scriptures with the call to worship from Isaiah, but we heard from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, the whole of Psalm 63 – including the nasty bits at the end which are usually ignored because good Christians never have vengeful thoughts, do they; and included the gospel reading.
All four readings address the issue of obedience or repentance, and the issue of consequences of not repenting and obeying God. But their conclusions don’t all jive.
In short form Isaiah says, `God invites you to come to a free banquet, an all-you-can-eat feast. Repent, change your wicked ways, because God will not only give you an abundant feast, but abundant forgiveness.
Psalm 63 short form: Protect me God, and let wild dogs eat my enemies.
Paul to the Corinthians says, `Don’t make God mad, or God will kill you – by the thousands. That’s what God did to the Israelites long ago in the desert. From this passage we also get the oft misquoted `God won’t give you more than you can handle’.
Luke records Jesus as saying: `People who’ve been murdered while making sacrifices to God, or who have died in freak accidents weren’t any worse than any of you. They weren’t being punished by God. But you better repent or you’ll suffer the same fate. On the other hand… God might give you a second chance. Let me tell you about a fig tree.’
So are you feeling a bit crazy yet? You probably should be. How does God respond to our faults and failures; our complacency and downright wrongdoing?
In the awesome book Traveling Mercies, Ann Lamott talks about a crazy-making view of God, which, in part was rooted in her childhood experience with her friend’s family. She writes:
“My Catholic friend and I had been left with a baby-sitter and all those babies, and after we had sliced up and spiced the apples, we’d gone to bed without throwing out all those green snakes of peel, and I awoke with a start in the middle of the night because my friend’s father was smacking her on the face and shoulders, fuming alcohol breath on the two of us in our one twin bed, raging that we were slobs, and I don’t know how he knew to beat her instead of me because I don’t remember there being any light on.
We both cried in the dark, but then somehow we slept and in the morning when we woke the mother was frying up bacon, a baby slung over her shoulder, and the dad was happy and buoyant, thunderous in his praise of the pie now in the oven.
…Looking back on the God my friend believed in, he seems a little erratic, not entirely unlike her father – God as borderline personality.
It was like believing in the guy who ran the dime store, someone with a kind face but who was always running behind and had already heard every one of your lame excuses a dozen times before – why you didn’t have a receipt, why you hadn’t noticed the product’s flaw before you bought it. This God could be loving and reassuring one minute, sure that you had potential, and then fiercely disappointed the next, noticing every little mistake and just in general what a fraud you really were.
He was a God whom his children could talk to, confide in, and trust, unless his mood shifted suddenly and he decided instead to blow up Sodom and Gomorrah.”
Sometimes we lament that more people don’t come to church. But days when you read stuff like this, you wonder why any of us do! Well, when in doubt over various scriptures, I tend to side with Jesus, as least as close to Jesus as possible given distinct differences between the gospels, and filtered through the memory and theology of the particular writer…
So what does Luke have to say? Bad things do happen to good people. Tyrants and bullies will destroy people. Freak accidents and illnesses will take peoples’ lives. And even when we give God a hit list, `Look if you want to take out a few people, you can start with these’, God doesn’t seem to pay a lot of heed.
Still, we have to live our lives with as much integrity as possible. We can’t avoid our responsibilities and our need for repentance by finding justification for the deaths of others. We need to live responsibly, and God does want us to offer our best.
Jesus tells a strange little parable about a fig tree that wouldn’t produce any figs. The owner says to the gardener, cut this tree down. I’ve been keeping it around for three years and it hasn’t produced anything. But the gardener speaks to preserve the tree. Just give it one more year, sir. I’ll pay special attention to it, dig around it, mix in some manure, and let’s see how it goes. If it still isn’t producing, then you can cut it down.
It kind of back to the repent or perish thing, isn’t it? The question has been asked of the story, who is the owner and who is the gardener? Well, I think they are both God. (See? God – borderline personality! And yes, we are the fig tree that’s supposed to bear fruit. God says, `Hey, I gave you a life. What are you doing with it? How are you celebrating it? How are you cherishing it? How are you being a blessing to others? Come on. Use it or lose it.’ But then the same God gives us another chance, and another.
What’s the theology of the Psalm when it comes to God dealing out punishment? As I said, God doesn’t seem to be too cooperative when given a hit list. Yet, here David is, asking that his enemies be swallowed up by the earth, die by the sword, or be eaten by jackals.
There is a spiritual practice called the Examen prayer. This is a process of prayer where by you reflect at the end of the day on what was most life-giving; what are you most grateful for in the day? And what are you least grateful for? What drains you of life? David speaks with passion and poetry about his longing for God, and it’s beautiful. He also says what really bugs him, and what he would like to have happen to those who seek to destroy his life. Having acknowledged his feelings, he can go to sleep peacefully.
We may have been taught as good Christians to only express and think about the positive. The suggested psalm readings for each week often skip out verses of negative expression. The assumption may be that if we don’t express certain feelings, we won’t actually feel them. However this is not how feelings work.
A book about the Examen prayer called `Sleeping with Bread – holding what gives you life’ says, “When feelings are ignored or resisted, they grow inside us and are likely to eventually lead to an explosion in which we act out in even more destructive ways than we might have at first. We believe that what negative feelings or `desolations’ really want is not destructive behaviour but rather to have their story heard. When their story is heard, they are satisfied and they quiet down naturally. If we then take steps to meet the needs revealed by the story, this desolation is unlikely to recur.”
For example, a few years ago, I got scammed when I helped someone and they wrote a cheque on an empty bank account. Here’s the process I followed. First I was angry at getting scammed. Then I beat myself up for being so gullible. Then I wanted to beat up the person who took advantage of my crazy trust. Juanita – borderline personality! Then I went to my prayer room and did the Examen prayer. I prayerfully considered the source of my desolation. What made me sad and angry? What kept me stuck there? How could I move through it to healing?
Lovingly acknowledging my feelings, rather than beating up myself or anyone else, I was able to affirm my gift of genuine care for this person, acknowledge that I had been wronged, and remind myself that I have a right to ask for what I need, and to trust my intuition. I felt a little better. In all the brokenness of life, I am grateful that God gives us another chance, and another. Aren’t you?
p.s. the picture at the top is of my beautiful dad 🙂