So, an unusual thing happened on Tuesday, I was working here in the church building and came out of the sanctuary into our welcome area, and there was a man who used to belong to Intercession, but who–when the Episcopal Diocese decided to allow same-gender marriages–who felt we had gone beyond the pale and chose to leave Intercession. So, I hadn’t seen him for 5-6 years.
But there he was and he said he needed to speak with me; that God seemed to have some lessons for him to learn. He started with reminding me that he was a pretty black and white thinker and then he shared that their grandson had recently come out as transgender. And he and his wife loved his grandson and they want to support him, but they had spoken with their pastor, and they believed his choice of lifestyle was a sin. The man was seeking a second opinion of sorts.
I tried to explain that his grandchild wasn’t choosing a lifestyle. She was choosing her life. I asked him what it would be like if he looked in a mirror and saw a woman staring back, and the world treated him like a woman—even though he knew he was a man. The pain that would cause. The unbearability of it. I told him his granddaughter was making it clear that she could not live the lie any longer—that the lie was more dangerous and harmful to her than the pain and struggle that will come from living her truth. We talked longer and further, and I am glad to say that when the man left he felt as if perhaps he would be able to sleep for the first time in a long time. And then I said, Following Jesus so often requires us to unlearn what we have learned in order to grow deeper, and go deeper, with God.
Unlearning….letting go of what we have learned—from society, from our parents, teachers, from friends, from experiences,--even (and sometimes most importantly) from the Church. Unlearning in order to make room for the Truth, God’s truth.
That’s at the heart of what I am taking away from these lessons this time around…
In the letter to the Corinthians, Paul says: Let’s not test Christ, like some of them did, and were killed by the snakes. Let’s not grumble, like some of them did, and were killed by the destroyer. These things happened to them as an example and were written as a warning for us to whom the end of time has come.
This is a way of understanding God that we see and hear all throughout the Hebrew Scriptures: If you are good, God rewards you and if you are bad, then God punishes. It is a way of understanding God that we still, all too often, believe today. This understanding leads us to say things like: Why did God make this happen to me? Why is God doing this to me? We think when bad things happen it is God’s doing. That God is choosing suffering for us; that God is causing our pain.
And then there’s also this nugget in Paul’s letter: No temptation has seized you that isn’t common for people. But God is faithful. He won’t allow you to be tempted beyond your abilities.
This nugget often gets reiterated as: God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.
Beloved: That is bunk. Absolute bunk. And, it’s a very poor interpretation of God’s Truth.
Frankly, Paul’s got it wrong. Wait! What! How can I say that? What’s that preacher woman talking about!
First of all, let’s remember—Paul is processing theology. Just like us, he has become enthralled and enraptured with the Way of Love, and as Paul seeks to expand Jesus’ movement, he is also trying to figure it out and what it all means—just like you and I. And even though Paul is living in the midst of Jesus’ recent life and has had an incredible story of transformation, he still gets it wrong sometimes. Just like you and I.
Too often, we think of Paul as unable to err, but Beloved, Paul is a human, like us. A human being who has become convinced that his life is God’s, and out of utter gratefulness, he seeks to share and spread what he knows of God. But, sometimes, he gets it only partially right, because like us, sometimes he has to unlearn in order to learn.
And the second reason I can say that Paul probably didn’t get it all right: Jesus. In Today’s Gospel the people come to Jesus and say: Didn’t those Galileans die because they sinned? And Jesus says: Nope. Jesus goes on to say: Do you think those that died when the Tower of Siloam fell on them were being punished? Nope.
Nope, Jesus says: And then Jesus says: if you don’t want to die —Then, Beloved: Change your hearts and lives. Live differently. Be transformed. Turn from your ways to God’s ways. Jesus unequivocally denies that God is a God who punishes us due to anger or disappointment. This isn’t the only time in Scripture Jesus says such things, but it is one.
And not only do Jesus’ words today make it clear that God is not a God of quid pro quo. God does not live by tit for tat. We do, but God does not. As Isaiah reminds us: My plans aren’t your plans, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. Just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my plans than your plans.
Jesus tells us, and then Jesus shows us in his life and death, that God is not a God of punishment. God is a God of covenant, a covenant from which God refuses to walk away. God is a God who delights in life, not death. God is creative and recreative, not destructive. God is loving, life-giving and liberating. On the cross God says: I forgive. God says, come with me to Paradise, God does not say: now you just wait and see what I’m gonna do to you. Boy, are you in trouble. Beloved,God says: Forgive. Come.
Yes, sometimes, like with the Galileans, our actions have terrible and painful consequences—for ourselves and for others. But God does not cause our suffering—sometimes our actions do. Sometimes our words do. Sometimes our choices and beliefs do. And then, God comes to us and finds us in the midst of the healing, the reconciliation, the forgiveness, the mercy and the grace that must follow.
And yes, sometimes towers fall upon us. Accidents happen. Bad luck, bad timing falls our way. Disease happens. God is not choosing those things for us to see how we will handle it all. God mourns with us. God despairs for us. And then God comes. God comes in the healing, the reconciliation, the reparation,the rebuilding that must follow.
If you walk away with nothing else, here is the unlearning I hope sinks in today: God does not cause our suffering. God does not give us suffering. From the Book of Wisdom, chapter 1, verses 13 and 14: God did not make death, and God does not delight in the death of the living. For God created all things so that they might exist; that they might live.
God is a God of life and resurrection. And God, the Creator, knows that pain and suffering will happen, does happen, and in fact, is inevitable. Death and resurrection is part of what sustains and equips this Creation.
Beloved, God’s promise is not if you are good enough or follow the rules closely enough or that if you show up into a church building 52 Sundays a year you will not have pain or suffering. That you can, somehow, avoid death. And none of this—not a lick of the Way of Love—is about getting into heaven. But, when we live the Way of Love–we taste heaven. We experience heaven; we embody it for others and make it reality for others.
God’s promise is not about a golden ticket into the happily ever after. God’s promise is that God will carry us through. Carry us through whatever life brings. Carry us through when our choices have mucked it all up. Carry us through when our boat is swamped in the storm. Carry us through as we stand beside the tombs and wail our pain. Carry us through when we feel alone in the wilderness, when we hunger and thirst because we know that there is more to be had but it seems beyond our reach, when we are besieged by injustice and the cruel inhumanity that we serve up to each other.
And Beloved, our God of the covenant just keeps showing up. God shows up in the silence , during the storms, in the war-torn maternity hospitals and at the empty tables of hunger and poverty. And in Jesus, the promise is that God will show up for us and with us in human form. God shows up in the friends who listen, bring us dinner, write us cards, lift up prayers. The family who comforts us, sits by our bedside while we heal. The strangers who show up just when we need it. The neighbor who reminds us of our own humanity. The child who reminds us that we are made in God’s image.
So, let’s end back up to where we started—with the story where I began. The man who came to see me admitted that he was a “black and white thinker” —often having trouble accepting folks he called “atypical.” Beloved—we often want a binary world: this or that, good or bad, male/female, friend or enemy…..And when things, or people, do not fit our binary schematic—we deem them “atypical” or “broken” or a “mistake.” Recently, someone asked me why God would create someone whose body didn’t match their gender.
All I can say is that God created a Creation that includes male, female, and many other gender identifications. God created a Creation that includes heterosexual, homosexual, asexual, pansexual, polyamorous…..
These spectrums are not only in humanity but are all throughout Creation. What if the unlearning we need to have is that the “normal” isn’t binary? What if Creation’s normal is a spectrum? Not this nor that, but all of the beautiful above. Just imagine what letting go of that learning might do in leading us toward Shalom.
To quote W.H. Auden:
All I have is a voice
to undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.
Beloved, we must love one another or die.
Jane Johnson is the pastor and priest of the Beloved Community of Intercession Episcopal and Redeemer Lutheran.