What Is God Like?

A sermon preached at the Church of the Holy Innocents, San Francisco,, California on February 28, 2016.

How do we know what God s like? Maybe someone told us something: your mother or father, maybe; Maybe a church school teacher; maybe a friend. Maybe you read a book – or lots of books. Maybe you just sort of picked up ideas here and there.

I think the readings you heard this morning, one from the Old Testament one from the Gospel, throw some light on the subject. I think they give us several different ways to think about God and who God is. First there’s a story about a burning bush in the desert, (Exodus 3:1-15) then there’s a story about a wall that fell on some people, (St.Luke 13:4-5) and then there’s a third story about a gardener and a fig tree (St. Luke 13:6-9). Three stories that give us clues about how we know God.

So we hear the stories and then it’s up to us to think about them and see what we can learn. That, by the way, is the plus and the minus of being an Episcopalian: we are asked to think. And I think most of us do that at least a little bit and once in while and what we know about God is the result of that process. We know about God by thinking about something we heard but thinking is hard work and I think how we want to know about God is in the first two stories where thinking is not required. we want to see a burning bush or have a wall fall on us. We want evidence. We want to be sure.

I remember a scene in an Ingmar Bergman movie (The Seventh Seal) years ago in which the hero says, “I want God to reach out his hand and touch me.” Wouldn’t it be nice to be sure? Sometimes that happens. It happened to Moses at the burning bush. Moses was Jewish, you know, but he had been brought up Egyptian. He had all the privileges of the royal palace and saw his brothers and sisters being slowly killed off in slavery and it upset him. He got angry enough one day to kill one of the slave drivers and he fled from Egypt to escape punishment and he found a job taking care of a flock of sheep in the desert, and there in the desert, as he stood and watched the sheep, with nothing to do burning bushexcept ponder the mysteries of life, God got his attention beyond doubt or question with a burning bush. He saw a fire that burned the bush but did not consume it. Now that’s unusual; it calls for a response, and Moses responded and he was told what he had to do. God spoke to him and gave him clear directions. Go speak to Pharaoh and tell him, Let my people go. Don’t you wish God would do that for you?

But I think Jesus is telling us in the Gospel that it’s time to grow up and not wait for God to hit us over the head with something so miraculous and wonderful that it leaves no room for doubt, something that compels our response, that eliminates our freedom. Maybe there was a time in the childhood of our race when we needed burning bushes and a path through the sea and all that sort of thing. But we’re grown ups and we need to be free to think and understand and free to choose.

Isn’t that what Jesus is telling us in that story about the wall. He asked the crowd, “What about those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them–do you think that they were worse people than all the other people living in Jerusalem?” You get the impression it was a big news event, something the disciples might have seen on the evening news the previous day. There was this new building going up and maybe the construction company cut a few corners, paid off the building inspectors, put too much sand in the concrete, and at a point the whole thing collapsed and some people were killed. That’s not something unique that never happened before or since. It happens still. You hear about it. You hear about it more when there’s an earthquake in a third world country where it’s easier to bribe the building inspectors and there are lots of buildings that will fall – not, unfortunately on the cheating contractors who deserve it but on innocent people who became their victims. And sometimes it happens here too. And not always because someone cut corners. Sometimes they do everything right and it still falls down. But the point is that people got killed and the conventional wisdom then was that there was a reason for it: the people who died must have been bad people, they brought it on themselves.

That does two things. It gives us a nice easy explanation of something awful and it makes us feel a bit safer ourselves — at least it does if we’ve been behaving ourselves lately. It gives us an explanation but it also provides a picture of God as an angry parent that maybe raises more questions than it answers.

So what is God like? How do we know? I think God wants us to know God; God wants us to know the love of God and God wants us to respond to it and obviously God could do whatever it takes: God could put a burning bush in our path or drop a wall on us – whatever it takes to get our attention. God could – but usually God doesn’t and that leaves us free to ignore God if we want. We can live our own lives, make our own mistakes, and God seems generally to leave us alone as if it doesn’t matter. How come? Why doesn’t God work harder to get our attention? How come it’s so easy to ignore God most of the time? Wouldn’t you think God would want us to notice, plant a few more burning bushes here and there, drop a few more walls on people here and there.

Well, think some more about that tower that fell. Did God make it fall? Give it a push? That would certainly get people’s attention. But there are problems. First of all, if a wall falls on you and kills you, you don’t usually learn anything from it because you’re dead. It’s too late. Of course, there will be lots of other people who can learn something from it: all the people that hear the news. If you hear about it, you can explain it as God dealing with bad guys, and that will be a good lesson for lots of other people, but what does it tell you about God? It tells you that God is like an angry parent. And some people do think that and it gives them a framework for understanding the world.

But it’s wrong. That’s what Jesus was telling the disciples. It’s wrong. That’s not who God is. “Do you think the people that died, were worse than anyone else in Jerusalem?” he asked. “Do you think God arranged that the eighteen worst people in Jerusalem were all at the right place at the right time to get their come-uppance? Is that how God works?” I mean, yes, that would be a nice logical world to live in with clear laws and clear punishments and a God who couldn’t be doubted. But it’s not the God of the Bible. We might want to run the world that way, but God doesn’t.

And there are reasons: think of the problems it causes. Suppose you can mix sand with the cement and get away with it; people will keep on dying, and even worse things will happen. There will be famines and wars and unfair tax laws and children starving and politicians conniving and no clear evidence that there even is a God. You can live your whole life as if there is no God and seem to get away with it. You can be rich and famous and lie and cheat and no towers ever seem to fall on you while someone else, good and decent and going to church every Sunday suddenly has the wall fall on them, What kind of world is that? What kind of a God would have that kind of world? Well, our God. The God made known in Jesus of Nazareth.

We get a glimpse of that God in today’s gospel, because Jesus also tells his disciples a little story about a man with a fig tree that never seems to produce figs. What does that have to with falling walls? Everything. These are not two totally disconnected stories – not at all. Listen again. “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none.” So he tells the gardener to cut it down; why waste space in the garden on a tree that bears no fruit? But the gardener says, Let’s give it another year; let me give it a little more help; let’s wait and see.

And the point is that God is like that gardener and we are like that fig tree, and the years go by and we produce no figs or certainly not very many and the logical question would be, “Why?” Why shouldn’t God expect some return on the investment? Isn’t it time to fish or cut bait? Isn’t it time to put that land to better use? Why not a burning bush or falling wall to get our attention, remind us that we’re here for a reason? Why should God continue to be patient? But God is patient. The God Jesus tells us about, the God we worship here, is very patient. Year after year, we make our mistakes, we mess things up, and you do have to wonder why God doesn’t either put a burning bush in our path or say, “Enough already.” Why doesn’t God do that? It’s because God is patient, and because God is merciful: that’s why.

God wants us to think and to understand. And, yes, it means that sometimes the walls fall on the wrong people but after a while people begin to notice that we have some responsibility in the matter, and someone suggests that we need to create a system of laws to protect us and others from the unscrupulous builders who put up faulty towers, the unscrupulous polluters who endanger our health and our climate, and do something about it and create better building codes and environmental protection and indict more corrupt building inspectors and more self-serving politicians – which would never happen if God always pushed over the faulty towers and always had them fall on corrupt politicians and we didn’t need to worry. Why should we fix the building code if God keeps us safe anyway? Slowly and unpredictably, we do learn from these things.

And yes, innocent people suffer along the way but unfortunately we would never learn if they didn’t and we would never act responsibly unless God insisted that we be responsible, that we are responsible. I think God wants us to grow and take responsibility and it seems as if God will not protect us from the consequences of our failure to do that. There’s a price to pay for our failures. But one of the annual lessons of Lent and Holy Week and Good Friday is that though innocent people suffer God in Christ has shared that suffering. If the cost of our freedom is the suffering of innocent people, God knows that and God suffers also. So it’s about all these things: it’s about a merciful and patient God and a bunch of slow learners who test God’s patience daily.

But not forever. There is an end to it. The epistle reading reminds us of that. “If you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.” Sooner or later, we will be judged. We test God’s patience at our own risk and God is not mocked. I think it would not be smart to put off any real commitment on the off chance that we are so important to God’s plan that we will find a burning bush on our path home today to convince us beyond doubt or question of what we have to do. No, God wants us to grow up and respond freely out of love, not force.

So how do we know God? One way is by thinking about things we hear about: like today’s readings. Here God is revealed, God is made known, no longer in a burning bush not at all in a falling tower but in a simple story that Jesus told about a farmer and a fig tree. What is God like? God is like the gardener. God is patient and God is merciful, and that’s more than enough reason to be patient and merciful ourselves and to be here week by week and to be on our knees day by day to give thanks for God’s mercy.


Nancy CarlsonMarch 25th, 2016 at 9:36 pm

Wonderful sermon! I do know God is patient. I am so grateful and thankful for patience. I think about that daily. We must all be gardners.
Thank you for your words.

I am from Sag Harbor, NY and wondered if it is your father who was a Priest at Christ Episcopal Church many years ago.

Thank you. Nancy Carlson

ChrisMarch 25th, 2016 at 10:41 pm

Yes, indeed! My father was Rector of Christ Church with St. Ann’s in Bridgehampton from 1949 to 1968. I had just started college when he moved there so it was never quite home for me, but I spent at least one summer working in the Bulova and have good memories of picnics at Long Beach and fishing off the bridge – among many things! Thanks for your comment.

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