Who Said God Can’t?

A local meteorologist described the recent F-4 tornado in Alabama. We know a thing or two about tornadoes in Oklahoma. The scene of the 24-mile swath cut by the massive tornado brought back memories of what we simply refer to in our area as, The May 3rd Tornado. It was hard to imagine the area described by a resident who lost her home as something like a forest. One of our local meteorologist looked it up and the affected area had never experienced a tornado before. 

I am waiting on Pat Robertson, or even John Piper, to declare what sin was being judged in rural Alabama. Like everyone else, those who rush to explain the why of these events represent our human need, at least our tendency, to look for the cause that produced the effect. Given our lack of omniscience, human beings often raise more questions in pursuit of the one answer.

For Christians, the available possibilities seem to have been explored and refined but often still leave us short on comfort. On the extremes we either submit to randomness or determinism. Honestly, neither of those two extremes requires Divine agency. When we add Divine agency to the equation, we get the picture of a God with no power or all-power. Most prefer the latter to the former. Even then, the consequent questions raised either leave us with deep mystery should we refuse to make God the culprit for it all.

Thomas J. Oord provides a different response to the issue. At once the title of his book provokes a startling possibility, God Can’t. Before you dismiss Oord’s proposal out of hand, consider that the matter for Tom is not centered on the normal depictions of power. Taking the more academic ideas from his earlier work, The Uncontrolling Love of God, Oord locates his proposal squarely within the framework of our lived experience. Rather than leave God with no power or with all-power, Tom invites the reader to consider the complexity of Theodicy through a hermeneutics of love. That is my interpretation.

When I learned that Tom’s new book would be coming out, I was looking forward to how he would present his ideas. The nagging question I had was what prompted Tom to look at something other than the available possibilities to the problem of suffering. It is not as if the subject has lain dormant and Oord resurrected it for us. Instead, Tom’s own experiences of life have made this an ongoing interest. You could say he is fully vested.

In this episode of patheolgoical, Tom and I talk about the big ideas in his book. He lays them out in a way that the reader may easily follow. Woven in and out of his ideas that center on essential kenosis are stories so common it is hard not to think with Tom about theodicy anew.

Pastors, counselors, lay leaders, if you are like me, you will find lots to chew on in God Can’t. Even more, I suspect you will want a copy of your own. Whether or not you arrive where Tom has, you will not be able to escape his deep commitment to the self-giving, other-directed love of God and its implications for how we understand, and maybe as importantly how we talk about, suffering.

If you find the podcast helpful, share it with your friends. Share it with your pastor friends as well as folks you know involved in leadership that touches on the pastoral. Also, consider heading over to iTunes, login, search for patheological and give us a five-star rating and a kind review.

Enemy Love Is God’s Love

Pastoral Prayer: Lord God, our world is short on mercy and long on judgment. The Good News that the Judge has become the judged for us means we are not needed to judge. Instead, you have planted your kindom where enemies are loved like family. May your Holy Spirit reveal in us that your mercy runs deeper than our lack. And all God’s people say . . . Amen.

Luke 6:27-38; Genesis 45:3-15

Who doesn’t like a good argument?! Think about it. What would we do for amusement if Fox or CNN did not set up their segments by pitting opposing sides as if there are always only two. Like the disciples, any time power is in play you can find human beings jockeying for position,

What were you arguing about on the way? Jesus asked. But they were silent, because on the way they had been arguing with one another about who was the greatest.

Why even this week a group of pastors took to the use of inflammatory language to describe those with whom they disagreed. Harassing a State Senator’s pastor who made a decision with which the group took exception. Nearly 1000 United Methodists are meeting in St. Louis where the issues stir some of the deepest emotions revealing long standing divisions. Right. Why bring this up? Onlookers and critics have enough with which to criticize the church. Pastor, we don’t need you pointing it out. 

Maybe so. But, since the perception is that we are always on the ready to point out how others fail to measure up to Godly standards, don’t you think we ought to at least admit when we miss the mark? Just yesterday a group working to respond to the revelation that some Southern Baptist Churches have covered up clergy sexual abuse, issued a report that will be proven in error, likely by the end of this week. The rush to respond has produced an insufficient statement and soon enough it will look like a cover-up on a grander scale, even if it isn’t.

The problem we face is not that we don’t want to be better, to do better. Our issue is that we have yet to trust that the kindom Jesus brings inverts the order of things. That rather than judge others, we trust that mercy is more reflective of the character of God. And what is worse, that our tendency to retaliate when we sense someone hates and curses us projects to the world that we believe our God’s primary character is retribution. God can’t wait to get us back.

But, that is not the story. That is not the Good News.

Jesus announces the world is now different. It is not an idea. It is not a future plan. It is not something that is waiting on us to bring it. Instead, it is a reality that we have been asked to believe. This is something different than asking you to articulate an orthodox position on the Filioque clause. The what clause you ask? Deep in the history of the church is a moment where leaders wanted to clearly express the relationship of the Holy Spirit to the Father and the Son. While I would not dare to minimize the importance of our attempts to explain things we believe, Jesus did not require the disciples to get their Latin right. But, the matter was divisive enough to create what we refer to as an Eastern Church and a Western Church since the tenth century. 

What is important is the way we talk about believe and trust. There are a number of things the disciples, the Apostles, came to believe. What they were asked to do was to trust that in Christ God became the judged for us. That is, when we assess the ways human beings exhibit their potential to mess things up, that Jesus became the judged in our place. Human authorities judged Jesus’ way as lacking, it did not satisfy the schemes and institutional requirements to replace the order of the world as it was. Instead of trusting in Jesus’ way, Jesus was judged and found wanting by human courts.

But, God, the Apostle Paul wrote to the Romans,

concerning his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who was a descendant of David according to the flesh and was appointed to be the powerful Son of God according to the Spirit of holiness by the resurrection of the dead.

God vindicated Jesus Christ our Lord by the resurrection.The One human agents would judge and put to death, God judged righteous and holy and brought from that death, life.

For what did the world judge Jesus? Well, for things like what we find here in Luke 6. He went against the order of things when he said,

Love your enemies, do what is good to those that hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If anyone hits you on the cheek, offer the other also. And if anyone takes away your coat, don’t hold back your shirt either.

How is this set against the order of things? Think of the business maxim, “The customer is always right.” What could be better, sound better? Nothing if you’re the customer. A couple of years ago we bought a gallon of milk. We chose a gallon well within the best buy date. We opened the plastic carton. The milk was bad. Now, if you like milk, like I like milk, the disappointment was immediate. I tagged Hiland Diary in a Tweet. In what seemed like no time, their social media person had reached out to me, asked for my address, and sent me coupons for not one but two gallons of milk. They are so nice. Right? Not really. That is patronage. They want me to choose Hiland milk every time I reach into the cooler at a grocery store. Our world works this way. Patronage is the order of the world. “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch your back.” Our world has always worked this way.

That is, until Jesus comes on the scene and tells those with ears to hear that the kindom he announces is characterized by a different rule. It is not that the customer is always right, it is that God is always merciful,

For he [God] is gracious to the ungrateful and evil. Be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.

Do you see just how out of bounds Jesus was? Is it hard to see that Jesus brings a different way the kindom of God works? If we self-select to protect ourselves by setting our relationships in order along the lines of mutual benefit, then our first step is to judge a person’s worth by their response to us. Jesus put it like this,

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. If you do what is good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you. Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners to be repaid in full. 

In other words, the Golden Rule that is tucked into Jesus words here is really just conventional wisdom. Everyone thinks that way. The world operates on the principle of mutual satisfaction. We will get along just fine if we understand what each of us brings to the relationship. If I let you down, it is over. We could lay over Jesus’ story this very idea. When Jesus, the Messiah, did not overthrow the Roman powers, the people turned on him. Rather than, Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, they shouted, Crucify him.

And, every time we take up the order of the world, where our relationships are governed by the principle, You scratch my back, I’ll scratch your back, we project for the world, the idea that God is the sort of deity that helps those who help themselves. He is the God who judges the lazy unworthy of help. We project to the world a God more interested in making sure our enemies get what they deserve. So, maybe now we see that it is important that we own up to the ways that these projections fail to point up the Good News that God in Christ has planted a new seed that has come to life ,in New Creation. If we make the connection, maybe now we see that it is startling Good News that Jesus says,

For he is gracious to the ungrateful and evil.

Moving about the world from the vantage point of mercy naturally results in reduced stress. How you say? Judging is hard work. Have you ever gotten someone wrong? Before you had a chance to get to know another person you formed an opinion based on something someone else has said. Or, worse. You internalized the opposite of that neat compliment, “Any friend of, is a friend of mine.” You know the opposite, “Any enemy of, is an enemy of mine.”

If enemy love is hard, Jesus sets us up for the impossible,

Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you;

Quickly we read these words, we hear them, and are drawn to make for ourselves a new list of things we must do. Maybe we would be better served by reading these words like Nathan has encouraged us to read 1 Corinthians 13. Rather than reading that chapter that describes love as a checklist for the way we love, he asked us to view it as the way God loves,

God is patient, God is kind . . . 

Here we may want to read these words of Jesus as Jesus’ Way in the kindom of God,

Jesus does not judge. Jesus does not condemn. Jesus forgives. Jesus gives.

Because we experience life as though forgiveness and giving run out, it is hard for us to assess that God’s mercy is more abundant than ours. But it is. In fact, since we tend to think along the lines of contract, Jesus actually explodes that idea in a simple, earthy illustration,

But love your enemies, do what is good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High. For he is gracious to the ungrateful and evil.

When we read reward, we immediately think we have earned something. We may hear this better this way,

Surprise! When you love your enemies, do what is good and lend expecting nothing in return, you look like your God who is gracious to the ungrateful and evil.

And, for those times that we are not surprised, we embrace the mercy of God as those who are ungrateful and evil for in Christ Jesus, God has been merciful to us.

Audio of this sermon may be found here.

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