“This is God’s Will.”
Hurricanes. Flooding. Thousands in South Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, South Asia, without power, food, water, schools, homes.
Is this God’s Will?
A devastating earthquake. Horrendous forest fires. Those in Mexico City and Montana left with char and rubble.
Is this God’s Will?
Over 60 people killed by guns over the weekend. 58 in a horrendous terrorist attack in Las Vegas. And three on our own streets in Lawrence. Just yards from where we held our Bible study this summer, with our children playing on the playground next to us. Just feet from where the Family Promise 5K kicked off this spring, a place of celebration at the finish line. Just a stone’s throw from where church members work, sleep, drink soda or eat tacos.
Is this God’s Will?
Some will say it is. That God is in charge of all of this, and so this death and destruction must be a part of God’s Will….
- Some will say that God is a mad scientist conducting experiments on humans, testing us to see if our faith stands up.
- Some will say that God is a coach, using trauma to make us stronger.
- Some will say that God is a weaver, that we only see the ugly underside, but there is a beautiful tapestry being woven here.
- Some will say that God is a judge, proclaiming judgment on the world based on their actions: “This death and destruction happens because these people deserve it.”
- Some will say that God is a controlling and micromanaging CEO, directing every moment of history from his place on high.
Some will say, “of course, this is God’s Will! Everything is God’s Will! This is God’s judgment for things that other people did that I don’t like!”
But some will doubt. To many of us, these metaphors of God ring hollow. To say that God is manipulating what is happening here – pulling the strings in any way, shape or form – feels like it indicts God in moments of tragedy. To say that God wills this seems to bring forth a God that I don’t want to worship. To say that this is the backside of the beautiful tapestry doesn’t seem to work for me anymore.
You can tell me that this is God’s Will. But I doubt it.
These events seem separate and unconnected, but let me suggest that they are indeed connected. Let me suggest this morning that in our world and especially in our country, we suffer from what I would call an arrogance problem. We look at the terrible natural disasters around the world and wonder if God is willing such destruction. Of course, our world has always suffered the effects of earthquakes, hurricanes, and fires, and yet, as we watch these “natural disasters” increase in number and severity, I would argue that these tragedies are connected to what I call our arrogance problem. We pave over the wetlands that used to be a natural barrier to hurricanes. We pump fossil fuels into the air and make it hotter and more volatile. We pump fossil fuel waste into the ground and make earthquakes a thousand times more common. We throw up our hands and say that God must be willing this destruction or that disaster, when if we took a hard look in the mirror, I would suggest that we would see that our arrogance and our greed are partially to blame.
But what about guns? Perhaps you have seen the Facebook meme: “we don’t have a gun problem…we have a heart problem.” Let me suggest that perhaps we have both…
Of course we have a heart problem. So much of our culture is in direct opposition to the ways of Christ. There is a deep anger and a deep fear in our country. You see it every time that someone screams “I want my country back!” They grieve a waning culture and the power they had in it. It is not a coincidence that 70% of the terrorists involved in mass shootings are white males. Because they have been used to a power in the culture that is weakening, and they don’t know what to do about it. They are afraid and they are angry. And we can take every single gun off the streets and that anger will still be there. That fear will still guide many of us. If we don’t address it, then there will be a thousand other weapons with which we kill each other.
Of course we have a heart problem. But let’s not fool ourselves…we have a gun problem, too. Two-hundred mass shootings in two years. 33,000 gun deaths annually. Politicians unwilling to stand up to special interests that fund their campaigns. While the heart problem of anger and that fear drive these terrorist attacks, what changes the number of victims exponentially is the assault-style weapons that they use. If you get mad at me for being political, so be it. Because I don’t think this is a political issue. It is a moral one. If we are serious about saying that every human is a child of God, then we have to ask ourselves hard questions about why so many of God’s children are being murdered in this way. Even in our own streets! I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid, people got in silly fights all the time, but the end result was not three people dead on the street in front of the ice cream shop. We have a gun problem.
So I think that both sides of the debate are right…we have a gun problem, and a heart problem. Some will claim that all of these things are happening because it is “God’s Will,” when I see so much of this destruction as a result of our will. Of our arrogance problem. We say that we offer our “thoughts and prayers” to the victims, but are we willing to take the hard steps as Christians to listen, to dialogue, to ask what we might do differently before the next tragedy? The next shooting? The next “natural disaster?”
But don’t just take my word for it. What does the Bible say about God’s Will? Of course, there a lot of voices throughout Scripture, but today’s passage strikes me as particularly relevant. In today’s passage, we get this bold argument from James. In the NRSV that I read, verse 15 says that “God wishes.” Other translations say, “God wills.” It is in the context of a parable that James tells about rich merchants who say that they are going to do this or that, without asking what God would have them do. I don’t think it is an accident that James uses the rich as the badguys in the parable. It’s not the first time in his book that he does. James seemed to make it clear that those who have the security of money are in danger of treating others as a commodity, and treating the world as something that can be bought and sold. He doesn’t come out and say that rich people are bad, and I don’t think that he thinks that. But he seems to say that their spiritual challenges of the rich are greater than those who are not. And so, in this parable, it is the rich merchants who suggest that the future is up to their control: “I will go here. I will do this. I will sell that.” James rejects this model as non-Christian. Not spiritual. In short, James says that they have an “arrogance problem.” “As it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil.”
What is his alternative? Instead of arrogantly assuming that we can do whatever we want, James tells us to ask “Does God wish it? Does God will it?”
But the question remains, “What is God’s will?” How do we know if it is God’s will or not? Would James suggest that God is the micromanager of our lives? Or the angry coach or judge? I think that a lot of Christians actually espouse this worldly model. They believe that the nature of power is lording over. Micromanaging. They offer this false alternative: Just replace the rich in the parable with God.
They believe that God lords over. God is a micromanaging CEO. God’s will is iron-tight. But I read the Scriptures and I don’t think that this is what God was up to, especially not the God in Christ. I’m not saying that God could not micromanage us…I’m not limiting God’s power…just saying that it doesn’t appear that a “lording-over” God micromanages us or his Creation to accomplish his will. If that was the case, then we are still left with God willing Houston. And Puerto Rico. And Las Vegas.
But what if James were actually talking about something else? What if God were not a mad scientist with captive subjects, nor a weaver with a tapestry, nor a coach with an axe to grind, nor a micromanaging CEO?
What if God were a loving parent? Catherine Keller tells the story of one of her friends. She was a parent with several children of her own, and beyond that, she watched several other children in her home. She learned quickly that micromanaging was a lost cause! Instead, she learned to give the children boundaries, protections to keep them from straying too far, rules to live by, and then mostly let them figure it out on their own. And just about every time, they did! Keller says that this is actually a pretty amazing way to look at God’s will:
“parents and all who relate in love have to let be. So do good teachers, pastors, and leaders….Love does not control. It opens a space of becoming. The space is not without protective boundaries, not without rules. The healthy parent is not merely permissive, but constantly teaching ideals of fairness, cooperation, and creative development. This space comprises neither rampant disorder nor imposed order.”
What that means is that God’s will is not the death and destruction that surrounds us, but that in the death and destruction that we bring on ourselves, God wills another way! God suffers with the victims! God is just as heartbroken to see the death and destruction that we have seen over the last month. God does not control, but invites. But that doesn’t mean God is powerless.
Just because God doesn’t micromanage doesn’t mean that God has no power. But it means that we have to redefine what we mean by power. Again, it is Keller who tells us that this seems to be what God has been up to all along. She helps us rethink our notions of power, this time quoting Paul: “A ‘power made perfect in weakness’ is neither omnipotence nor impotence. Paul is straining to give voice to a new idea of incarnational vulnerability: the idea of a God who participates in human flesh, and therefore in all of our human sensitivity and pain. And the point is not that God is causing or even willing the pain…the open-ended interactivity of power means that change happens at the edge of chaos. Hope takes its next step, even if a very small one – a tipping point of spirit. This is a power that does not overpower but empowers.”
Because true power, God’s power, is about love and grace and fierce vulnerability. About being God with us. About loving in spite of. About demonstrating trust even when God doesn’t kick butt and take names like the traditional notions of power in our world….and doesn’t plan to, in this life or the next! About God as a loving parent, who teaches us, invites us, stands beside us.
Remember, this is the God who chose the weak in the midst of the strong, the Israelites instead of the Egyptians, or the Assyrians, or the Babylonians, or the Romans. Hope takes its next step.
The God who chose the unlikely kings, the unlikely warriors, the unlikely heroes and taught them how to save the day. Hope takes its next step.
The God who brought a baby into the world by way of an unmarried girl, weak and powerless in the eyes of the world. Hope takes its next step.
The God in Christ who walked into the homes of lepers and showed himself vulnerable before the pain and tragedy of the world. Hope takes its next step.
The God who sought not to overcome or lord over, but save by way of sacrifice. Hope takes its next step.
This is the God of Scripture – a God of fierce vulnerability. And this what Scripture tells us God’s Will is! Not a micromanaging lording over, but an undying vulnerability.
So what does that say about God’s Will in our world? I think it shows us that the alternative to human lording over is not divine lording over, but fierce vulnerability! The antidote to our arrogance problem is to redefine what we mean by power.
In James and in the whole bulk of Scripture, God’s power, God’s will is redefined from our traditional definitions. Just like the parent who sets the boundaries, who proclaims rules to live by, God’s will is not powerless, nor is it imposed control, but it is taught love. Instead of power as “lording over,” power is fierce love. Power is undying grace. Power is eternal sacrifice. Where there is violence, God’s will in Scripture is love. Where there is fundamentalist terrorism, God’s will in Scripture is grace. Where there is lording over, God’s will in Scripture is sacrifice.
God’s power, God’s true will looks like American Baptist missionaries and churches in Puerto Rico. Hurricane Irma hit the island in early September, and instead of arguing about how to help, or if we should help, they helped. Between September 12 and 17, they served 2,550 meals to those in need. The poorest of the poor, seniors, single-parent families, individuals with HIV. Others were standing out of harm’s way and pronouncing God’s judgment, while they saw need and rushed in. They participated in what they believed was God’s will. Radical good news. Hope takes its next step.
God’s power, God’s true will looks like Rob Schenck. He is a conservative pro-life advocate, and subject of a movie we watched last year in Sanctuary of the Cinema called Armor of God. Schenck came to the realization that if he were going to be pro-life on the issue of abortion, he also had to be pro-life on the issue of guns. And so he took on the gun lobby and told them that his Christian faith demanded that he would no longer support unregulated access to guns. He minced no words when he wrote, “Those who should be all about the good news of God’s saving love for humanity are instead being led astray by a popular gun culture that contradicts the teaching and model of Jesus and the apostles.” That takes guts. That takes vulnerability. He has taken serious heat for his passion, but he stands by what he believes is Gospel. Radical good news. Hope takes its next step.
God’s power, God’s true will looks like those who rushed into the tragedy in Las Vegas. Victims who used their bodies as shields to protect their children or loved ones, even when it cost them their lives. Survivors who used their own vehicles not to flee the scene, but to transport the wounded to hospitals. First responders who headed into danger instead of running away from it. That is a picture of God’s will. That is fierce vulnerability. That is saying in the face of one who would lord his power over another, “there is a stronger way. There is something more powerful than hate. There is a love and a grace that is more amazing than the hate and fear and anger of our world. That is God’s Will!”
That fierce grace comes from the God that we worship. That is why we gather. And that is why we sing.