What does your God look like? Learning Time for Harrow United Church on March 20, 2022

Audio recording of the learning time

What does God look like? There’s an old story about the little one who decides to draw the picture, and someone says, but nobody knows what God looks like… and the kid says, they will when I’m done!

It’s an interesting exercise. What would you draw?

We might be better off with the kid’s drawing, or one of yours, than we are with some ideas about God that float around.

In 2010 an earthquake devastated Haiti. At least 100,000 people died, and the country, one of the poorest in our hemisphere, is still in recovery. John Blair could probably tell us more about that, as he was there helping out just weeks after the earthquake, and many families connected to the school he supports lost their homes.

Within days of the disaster the tv evangelist and Southern Baptist preacher Pat Robertson used the platform of his tv show, and his tv network to proclaim the earthquake was God’s punishment on that country. He said that in 1804, people of Haiti made a pact with the devil so they’d be able to defeat the French colonizers who held them in slavery.

I don’t have time to delve into how toxic it is for an old white guy to claim God punished a whole nation because their black ancestors fought to be free from slavery.

This image of God as a harsh judge that lies in wait, scheming ways to punish people is not new. It’s the same image that led people in Jesus’ time to ask him about the people from Galilee who were killed by Pontius Pilate while presenting their offerings at the Temple in Jerusalem. Were their deaths at the hands of Roman soldiers punishment from God, because they were sinners?

There may be some racism, or at least elitism in this question. Jesus was himself a Galilean, and he would have experienced being looked down upon as a backward, country bumpkin because he did not grow up in a larger centre.

It’s also possible that the Galileans died because they were part of the peasant resistance to Roman rule. To say that God allowed their deaths because they were sinners would suggest that to speak out against oppression is a sin, and they deserved what they got.

Either way, Jesus wasn’t having it. He answered by saying no, and that those who asked the question needed to repent, unless they wanted to face judgment. He spoke their own language back to them. I think it must have been as wearying then, as it can be now, to try to be loving and kind with folks infected with such unhelpful ideas.

I read something this week by the modern-day mystic Fr. Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest who has made it his life’s work to help people re-connect with God. He wrote:

“We have to break through our ideas about God to find out who God really is. Our early and spontaneous images of God are typically a mixture of our experiences with our own mothers and fathers. If our mother was harshly critical, so is our God. If our father was domineering or authoritative, likewise our God. It’s almost tragic to witness how many people are afraid of God, experience God as cold and absent, and even have a sense of God as someone who might hurt and betray them.”

We can extend what Rohr says about parental figures to all the other authority and power figures in our lives, because that’s what humans do, as we try to imagine God, we work from our life experiences, and in our imaginations we assign to God the qualities of those who have been strong influences in our lives.

Many of us humans are stuck in the pattern of anthropomorphizing God- creating or accepting an image of God that looks kind of human, but not always in a good way.

I see Jesus as a mystic, who felt a close, personal link with God as the source of all the love, all the deep connection in the universe. A major part of his mission was to communicate, in his words and actions, his experience of God’s love, that was so uplifting, encouraging, comforting, strengthening, that he was able to carry on, even when faced, day after day, with a religious tradition that taught people to live in fear.  Keeping people cowed by fear often suits the aims and goals of kings, and other power figures.

I believe Jesus was so steeped in, shaped in, empowered by love for all people, that rather than argue with these poor people with their scary picture of God, he worked instead to show them something different. He used things familiar to them, to tell a story with a twist to it, that opened the possibility of seeing God in a new light.

That’s what the parables of Jesus do. They are a bit subversive, sliding under the preconceived notions people had, enough to make them question, wonder, look at things in a new way.

Jesus told them a story about a man who owned a vineyard, in which there was a fig tree that did not produce fruit. These characters and props were typical parts of prophetic preaching that called people, and the nation of Israel to account for what the prophets called faithlessness.

Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist was that kind of fiery preacher. In one of his tirades, found in Matthew’s Gospel, John said, “The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

When Jesus started his story, about a tree that did not produce fruit, the crowd might have thought they knew where it was headed. They grew up on a steady diet of “Be faithful or else.” But I think he surprised them.

The vineyard owner said to his gardener, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’

For the people in the crowd, this may sound like every king, every boss, every landowner, every judge they’ve ever encountered. Life is hard. It’s dog eat dog. The strong survive. Produce or be cut down. If you don’t do well in this world, it’s because there’s something unfixably wrong with you. You were born the wrong race. If only you weren’t a Galilean. Maybe if you were a Roman, you’d be big and strong.

The crowd may have been very surprised to hear what the gardener, the one who’s been literally hands on with all the trees in this vineyard, said.

“Leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’”

Someone in the bible study group this week wondered why the gardener hadn’t given the fig tree that kind of TLC up until then. I didn’t have a good answer then, except to say it’s a parable, and we can only stretch it so far.

But I’ve been thinking about it, and maybe the gardener looked upon the tree with compassion. Maybe he could relate to not doing as well as expected and being under pressure to produce. Perhaps he saw a living thing that deserved some care and attention, and a second chance.

The twist here is that the gardener, who might actually have less work to do with one less tree to care for, advocates for saving it.

I think Jesus subtly used his story to ask his audience, “What if the way we are meant to live is about second chances, and helping those who need help, offering care and feeding of souls, rather than condemnation? Wouldn’t that be good? Wouldn’t it be better to love, than to live in fear? What if that’s actually what God wants for us?”

What if what Jesus was doing was pointing not to another image of God as a static image that looked something like a person, but showing us that God is actually the power of love, the energy of compassion, the possibility of connection at work in the universe? Amen