Sermon: Tempted and Tried

11 March 2007

Rev. Bryn Smallwood-Garcia
Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)
March 11, 2007

Third Sunday in Lent

Tempted and Tried

Isaiah 55:2-3, 6-9
1 Corinthians 10:12-13
Luke 13:1-9

Prayer:   May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts and minds be acceptable to you, O
Lord, our rock and our redeemer.  Amen.

Oooh, these texts raise some meaty theological issues, don’t they?  Repentance, judgment, temptation, and of course, that classic, age-old question that crosses many religious boundaries:  Why do bad things happen to good people?  It’s the question that made Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book a 1980s best-seller.  That’s good stuff – thick and juicy theology.  It’s the sort of question that you can really sink your teeth into.  That’s why I chose more than one text for today, because this is an exciting debate that is still going on – and Isaiah, Paul, and Jesus all have interesting things to say about it.  It’s a debate that deserves to have more voices at the table, like yours maybe.

From the beginning of time, people have tried to understand and obey the ways of God (or for pagans, the ways of the gods).  But something often goes wrong, like the tragic death of Richard Nolan, and we get knocked off the high horse of our certainty again and again.  We no longer understand the potency of ancient sacrifice theology, which was supposed to guarantee the people’s health and safety: we cringe to hear that certain peoples would sacrifice a baby, or a virgin, to ensure a bountiful harvest.  But when we look to the roots of our own faith, it makes very little sense to us any more to take a sheep to kill at the temple as a thank-you offering to the Lord.  And, as we take this annual walk through Lent, toward the cross of Jesus, we may dismiss as old-fashioned any focus on his blood-sacrifice for our sin and as gruesome any thoughts of his suffering.  We’d rather dismiss the idea of sin, or temptation, or even the cross, as kind of quaint, or irrelevant to us today – rather than wrestle with tough theological questions about the kinds of trials and temptations the world inflicts upon us today.  We’d rather not go there.

I had a friend, a Catholic theologian, who was writing her Ph.D. dissertation, and she could clear a room when anyone would stumble into the obvious question, “So what’s your paper about anyway?”  “The theology of suffering,” she’d say, and people would kind of slowly back away.  We prefer to leave it with Isaiah’s words:  “God’s ways are not our ways.” OK then.  It’s all a big mystery.  Let’s go downstairs for our juice and cookies.  But we can’t just leave it there, because “God’s ways are not our ways” is a big pill not everyone is willing to swallow. 

I entered into this debate myself when I was just 5.  I was expecting a baby brother.  My mother was pregnant, but that was before we were allowed to use the P-word, remember?  She didn’t know what she was having, but I was sure it was a boy.  I had asked God for one.  Nearly every other kid in my Kindergarten class had a brother or sister, and finally I was getting one of my own.  But the thing was, he died 2 days before he was born.  That was not supposed to happen.  I had never heard of such a thing.  My mother tried to be strong, so she said to m my tears, “God’s ways are not our ways,” and as she waited for labor to begin, I went off to my grandmother’s house.  I was stunned, and I cried a lot.  But my grandmother held me close, and told me the story of how her mother had died, when she was just 9, after giving birth to her 10th child.  It’s not so much what she said, but she bore testimony to Christ’s compassionate understanding with her presence.  She had the guts to stay there with me in my place of deep grief and pain, and NOT try to explain it all away.

You see, to a young person, or to a nonbeliever, “God’s ways are not our ways” can sound like a mere platitude, a dismissal of deep feelings, or worse, like “check your brain at the door” theology, what Marx would call the “opiate of the masses.”  To be vital, healthy, and strong disciples, we need to be willing to do the tough stuff.  And, despite what you may think, this is the GOOD stuff:  a real, theological meat for us to chew on.  I think I was lucky to get to be weaned off baby food early in life.  It made church, and holy scripture, very exciting to me from then on – because it had something to say about the meaning of life, and the true nature of reality.

See, to the writers of these 3 texts – to Isaiah’s people, to the Greeks of Paul’s day, and to the faithful Jews of Jesus’s day – it all made sense: follow God’s laws and you will be rewarded with a blessed and prosperous life.  Yet when Isaiah reveals the word of the Lord, saying “my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways” he provides a different perspective – a perspective his people needed after being taken into exile in Babylon.  They needed to rethink their theology in that light.  Prior to that tragedy, they, like the Babylonians and nearly every other people in recorded history, had endorsed as “common sense” the idea that the culture or nation that was the most successful, prosperous or victorious had the most powerful God or gods and the most righteous people.  The losers, like the sick and the poor of Jesus’s day, were clearly in the wrong.  But Jesus, we know, had something else to say.

I want to close with a story about one memorial service I did back in California for a woman who died of cancer.  Her family and friends were really shocked and stunned.  For most of them it was the first of their friends who had died, and to them, it was not “supposed to happen.”  She was just in her early 50s, was very physically fit, and had taken very good care of herself.  After her diagnosis, she had endured all the painful, recommended treatments, and even a few more her friends recommended – like acupuncture, biofeedback and herbal alternative supplements.  Their beliefs in the power of science and medicine, and their illusions of their own immortality, were shattered.  Maybe for that reason, everyone was very responsive to the service, and said it was like no other funeral they had gone to – like no other experience of church.  I promise you, I did nothing extra special:  I didn’t preach the walls down.  It was just worship as usual, where the Good News of God’s steadfast love was proclaimed.  I was moved to share with them this story from Luke, where Jesus cautions people not to judge those who have suffered tragedy, to find ways to justify it, and somehow blame them for their pain.  In God’s great mercy, the Holy One of Israel is more like the forgiving vineyard worker, who gives that poor fig tree another chance.

It’s just the guests at that memorial service were all completely unchurched – the widower had asked me to do the entire service at the country club, so her friends would come.   But these people were so spiritually starved, my simple words and prayers (the plain bread and butter of faith) tasted to them like pure heaven.  As we mingled at the reception after the service, they began to open up to me and share their stories.  With a little champagne to let down their inhibitions, they began to relish some heated theological debate with the clergy.  They were, every one of them, so hungry, deeply hungry for meaning, to chew on meaty theological bones, and yet they were all completely dead-set opposed to coming to visit my church.  I told them, at church this is what people do:  people gather to try to make sense of things and tell stories about what’s most important to us, we appreciate and give thanks for the delicious portion of love that each of us is blessed with in life, and we offer support for all of those temptations and trials of human existence that beset us.  The amazing and wonderful and mysterious Spirit of God makes all that happen.

People of faith, with Isaiah, this is our call: to share the Good News of God’s gracious love with a very spiritually hungry world.  Especially in this Lenten season of our turning back to God in the darkness, let us continue to extend this open invitation to our family, friends, and neighbors: Come, O people, and taste what is good; delight yourselves in the rich food our faith has to offer.  Find a home here with us, in the everlasting covenant of the Lord’s steadfast and unwavering love. 

Thanks be to God for this Good News.  Amen.


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