A Free God
In a pivotal scene in the movie Then She Found Me, Holly Hunt plays a devout Jewish woman about to have a medical procedure. Her mother, played by Bette Midler, suggests she prepares by praying. Holly Hunt’s character refuses. Eventually she admits that she feels let down by God. She had thought God was loving and good, but how can he be when he has allowed her to get ill? Bette Midler’s character responds, “What if God is… difficult… awful… complicated?”
And that is my question to you this morning. What if God is difficult, awful, complicated?
When I was living in
There are some real advantages to using a cake mix. It takes all the guess work out of it – instead of beating the sugar and butter until soft – how soft? Or adding a spoonful or two of flour, just enough to stop the mixture curdling – how much is just enough? Instead of all that uncertainty - you just add eggs and oil and pop it in the oven and it comes out the same every time. It’s easy – good results are pretty much guaranteed.
Many people want God to be like a cake mix. They want God to be sweet, simple, uncomplicated and the same every time. They want a tame God who shows up on cue to solve their problems and help them out of their difficulties. They expect that if God exists he will answer their prayers and keep them out of harm’s way. If that doesn’t happen then either God can’t exist or if he does, he doesn’t care. How, someone asked me recently, can I trust God when he doesn’t answer my prayers?
God’s primary purpose is not to answer our prayers. Our primary purpose is to relate to God in friendship, love and worship. We are only truly fulfilled when we are living in relationship to God however we understand her. But our gospel reading today suggests that God may be a lot more difficult, awful and complicated than we would like to think. Relating to God is much less predictable than baking a cake from a cake mix.
Jesus is telling a story about some very disgruntled field workers. They started work early in the morning and agreed a fair wage with the owner of the vineyard. But at the end of the day they saw others who had worked only a few hours getting paid as much as they were expecting, and they were excited. Obviously the boss was in a generous mood – and they would get paid handsomely. But when it was their turn they were paid only what had been originally agreed. They were angry. Where was the fairness in that?
This is clearly not a parable about equitable pay for fieldworkers. Jesus is talking about the kingdom of heaven and how it is different from the ways we normally think and behave.
Assuming that the landowner is in some way representative of God, the fact that the landowner can spend his money the way he chooses tells us something important about God. God is difficult…awful… complicated… and free. That means that we cannot control God. We cannot take her out of a box, add the oil of prayer and the eggs of love and get the same result every time. Because it isn’t about us.
That may be the most difficult thing for us to really understand.
Yes God loves the world, and that means you and me, so much that she sent her only beloved Son, part of herself, to die on the cross so that we might know God. But it’s not all about us. It’s all about God. In the beginning was God. The one who is I AM Who I AM.
God is free to do whatever God wants. God created the universe and is continuing to create the universe and if God chooses to do that through
Now it’s up to us. It’s up to us to dedicate our lives to loving, serving and worshipping a God over whom we have no control. A God who is difficult, awful, complicated and free. A God who can reward people as she sees fit, not according to human systems or ideas of fairness.
None of this lets us off the hook, because it’s not about a relationship of equals. God is free to do whatever God chooses and God may choose to allow Godself to be limited in order to respect our free will. But just because we have free will does not mean that we can forget about ethical holy living. It does not mean that we can forget about loving God.
In fact, it makes everything a bit more demanding and a bit more exciting. Relating to God is not like using a cake mix, it’s more like following a recipe from scratch. A recipe that you haven’t cooked before which has slightly imprecise directions – a ‘dab’ of butter, a ‘rounded’ spoon of sugar, then beat until it coats the back of the spoon – that kind of recipe. You have to give up the need to get it right. You have to surrender to the process and trust that it’ll come out alright and if it doesn’t it’ll still be alright.
That’s the kind of relationship that God calls us into. A deep relationship is one of submission, of saying God’s will not mine, but not one of passivity. We do not get to sit back and say whatever happens is up to God, God expects us to be actively engaged in working for the reign of God. God expects us to be actively engaged in our spiritual work.
Just as God is actively engaged in our lives and the life of this planet. But it isn’t a simple cake in a box, God’s activity is not a panacea which takes away suffering and difficulty. God’s love holds us and supports us but doesn’t mean we avoid pain and suffering. It’s all much more difficult… awful… and complicated than that.