A couple of weeks ago I spoke of how we, as mainline protestants are in unknown territory. I quoted Phyllis Tickle about what she calls the Great Emergence, the Great Garage Sale that, according to Tickle, happens every 500 years. We are living in a post-Christendom world. The world is changing and the church has to change with it. The only problem is that we don’t really know where we are going. In fact, we can’t know where are going as a spiritual community. If we are to be true to our mission statement to be a community of Jesus Christ that nurtures spiritual growth takes social action and cares for ourselves and others then are speaking of responding to the suffering in the world. But I can’t tell you what that will look like. We can’t really know what that looks like. I wish I knew but I don’t. But there is one thing that I do know.
I know that God isn’t not unopposed to you. God… isn’t …not.. unopposed to you. That’s a triple negative. God… isn’t …not.. unopposed to you. So that means that two of the negatives cancel each other out, so we could say that God isn’t opposed to you. This really means that God is for you. But God isn’t not unopposed to you sounds so tepid so lukewarm. It doesn’t sound like God is really that much in favour of you. It sounds like God could take you or leave you. Each time I add another not or another negation it’s as if the strength of the feelings that God has for you, whether they are good feelings or bad feelings is pretty weak. It’s almost as if God doesn’t care about you. That God is way up there and far and doesn’t really care about us and our lives, that God just isn’t that into you.
Maybe God isn’t that into you. It brings to mind an episode of Sex and the City the raunchy TV show from the early part of this century. Sex and the City was a show about four women living in New York City. It was the story of these four best friends as they as they pursued love and career. In this episode the four women were out for drinks along with Carrie’s boyfriend, Berger. Miranda is telling them about a date that she had. At the end of the night she invited her date up to her apartment but he declined saying that he had to get up early the next morning. Miranda and her friends thought that was reasonable but the women wanted to ask Berger, the only man at the table. He didn’t agree. He told Miranda, “He’s just not that into you.” The women were aghast but Miranda wanted hear what he had to say. Berger’s point was that if her date was really into her, if he really cared about her, he would jump at the opportunity to spend the night. If he was really into her then he would accept her invitation no matter how early he had to get up, it doesn’t matter what time the meeting is if he was really into her he was going up to her apartment.
In so many ways that is how we have constructed God. We imagine a far away, all-powerful deity who isn’t that into us. If God really cared, then God would do something. God would do something about a child who runs out into traffic or a young mother with cancer. Surely if God really cared then God would do something. Platitudinous responses like God needs another angel or God doesn’t give you more than you can handle serve only to increase suffering. Trying to minimize pain in the face of suffering is not helpful.
When someone is suffering because of the loss of a loved one telling them that their pain and suffering is part of God’s plan causes harm. Mary and Martha didn’t want to hear that the death of their brother was God’s will. Indeed they reproached Jesus for his absence much like we reproach God for God’s absence the catastrophes of our lives. But God isn’t really absent; God is with us suffering with us. When faced with the death of his friend Lazarus, Jesus wept. He suffered with Mary and Martha. Jesus suffers with us. God suffers with us. God is the fellow sufferer who understands.
If it seems that I am equating God and Jesus that is not exactly what I am doing. I don’t want to get into the argument about the divinity of Jesus. That is not the point I am trying to make. It is not necessarily even the point the author. Assuredly the author of John was saying that Jesus was special, even that he had a special relationship with God, but the argument that Jesus was fully and human and fully divine was not fully developed for another 200 years and owed as much to Greek philosophy as it did to the biblical witness.
I don’t think that the author of John’s gospel, writing 70 years after Jesus was murdered by the government really believed that Jesus magically revivified the decomposing cells of his dead friend Lazarus. I don’t think the author believed this and I don’t think the first people to read John’s gospel believed this. They weren’t taking this literally. But they understood the point, which is that Jesus is our guy. The point of all the signs is that Jesus is the one. He’s the man. He’s the one we follow. This doesn’t mean that he’s the only one. That we look to Jesus doesn’t mean that those who look to Buddha, or Mohammed are wrong. It’s just means that we look to Jesus.
So while I don’t want to get bogged down in ancient dogma I do want to assert that as we read the Gospels we can read the message and actions of Jesus as the message and actions of God. We look to Jesus to see the properties of God. Jesus actions are God’s actions. And if we do that, if we look to Jesus to understand God’s actions and desires then what we see
Confronting the Roman Empire armed only with forgiveness and love and a radical hospitality. Jesus’ message is to love our enemies and to forgive our trespassers and to welcome all those that world considers the last and the least. Jesus confronted the powers that be, the brutal Roman Empire and all he had was love, openness and forgiveness. And this got him tortured and killed on the cross. And there was nothing he could do about it. There was nothing God could do about it.
This is not the image of a powerful and uncaring God who chooses not to intervene but the image of a weak yet loving God. When I say God isn’t not unopposed to I am lifting up the weakness of God, not how much God cares for us. God is unabashedly for us but can’t intervene. It is similar to marriage vows. When we say that we will be there in sickness and health we are not saying that everything will be all right but that we will be there when the chips are down. God is for us, God is with us; all the time and in every way.
But while God always with us God is no uber-being, waiting to swoop down and make everything better. There is no big other and the lack of a big other means that there is a contingency in our lives. There is a very basic level of unknowing that is intrinsic to our lives. We will never find the answer. Robert Frost writes:
We dance round in a ring and suppose,
And while this contingency, this state of unknowing can be uncomfortable it is also what gives life its charge, its energy. It gives life its promise and its risk.
But God isn’t not unopposed to you. God is for you. God is that into you. God is on your side against the snares and pitfalls of this world. God feels with you. God cares. Jesus wept. Jesus wept at the suffering and loss of his friends. And when he calls Lazarus out of the tomb, and says “Unbind him!” Jesus is calling the community to action. Jesus is calling the community to action in the face of suffering in the world; our own suffering but also the suffering outside of our community. Through faithful community we can make happen finite resurrections. While we may not have the power to raise the dead, we do have the power to change the world. That is the promise and the risk in the weakness of God. God is with us. God feels with us. We are not alone.
Sex and the City, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=01gDf_Tr6YU