At The Fish Tank: Proper 19C

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Her face is round
and before she was aware of my presence
I saw her staring at the fish tank
as she sat in the entryway outside my former office.

She was sitting very primly
as she stared at the fish,
evoking the image of a small girl
though she was not young.
Her girlish face held tired eyes
and she was riding that wide meridian
we call mid-life.

I knew her.
She was poor
and the aura of poverty was a gray cloud
through which her otherwise light presence shown.
Wide gaps between her teeth
whispered neglect like broken windows
on an abandoned house.

Her valiant attempt to make out-sized,
second and third hand clothing
appear neat and muss-free
could not conceal a limited capacity
for personal hygiene.

I knew her by name
and for a split second before she realized
I was there, I studied her face.

I knew her story, at least part of it.
She had labored at the most menial of jobs
but in her thirties became determined
she would go to school and earn an Associate’s degree.

Working full time
and going to school full time
seemed obvious to her.
What else would you do?

“Some people have parents,” she once confided to me
with reverential awe, and a slight
but barely perceptible hint of judgement,
“that don’t want their children working
at all during school.”

The concept seemed mystifying to her
and I hid my embarrassment
at my own parental and class prejudice on the subject.

The tiny bit of public assistance she received
was suspended when she lost her job.

“If you don’t work twenty hours a week,”
she explained to me,
her words drenched with earnestness,
“the county can’t help you with school.”

Then she looked down at the floor.
After a silence she mumbled that no one would hire her.
She had applied to more jobs than she could count.
Now, sitting outside my office,
she was out of school,
out of work,
out of a place to live,
out of money,
out of food.

She looked at the floor again
as she asked if I had any food cards left.
She probably remembered that the last time she was in
I turned her down.
But before I could answer her question,
she asked me another.

It wasn’t a casual question either,
not something that just popped out of her head.
Clearly she had been thinking about this question
for a while.
She had been stewing on this question –
its moist heat sweating through her thoughts.

She straightened up her already prim posture,
hands still folded neatly in her lap
and ankles crossed as if some long ago lesson
from Catholic school.
Then she looked me straight in the eyes,
her eyes big and wide open with expectancy.

“What parent,” she wanted to know,
“would sit and watch her baby fall?”
She pointed to an imaginary toddler in the room with us
as if she were the mother
watching an imaginary baby fall down.
I could tell she knew that I knew what she was asking,
but I allowed silence to hang there between us.
“What parent would do that, just sit there, I mean,
and watch his baby fall?”

I asked her point blank, “What do you think?
“I don’t want to think bad thoughts,” she whimpered.
“I don’t want to think bad thoughts about, you know;
I don’t want to think bad thoughts about…God.”

Just then the fish tank bubbled and burped.
It’s funny how we remember little details
and so often forget the big ones.

Maybe you want to know what I told her, but maybe
you would rather think about your own answer.
Your own answer is a lot more important than mine.
Maybe there is no answer?

You see, one of the hallmarks of 21st century
Christian spirituality
is that we are faced with asking really big questions
but we do not get really big answers.
And another hallmark of Christian spirituality
in the 21st century is that we are able
to live within the tension of those two things:
really big questions and little or no answers.

In this century, in post-modern, secular society
we have to ask a question like,
“Why would God
watch us fall on our face
and not do anything about it?”

Then, when we acknowledge we do not really have
an adequate answer to that question,
we are still able to live in the faith that God loves us,
and even wants every good thing for us.
It is a crazy faith that is stubborn and flexible enough
to live between a rock and a hard place.

Does a loving parent watch as his or her child
fall hard and not do anything about it?
Not just fall,
but does God sit idly by
while that child is pushed and shoved
and trodden upon
by ordinary human greed?

Does a loving God do anything
to help an earnest single woman
simply struggling to work for a living?
Here is what I said to her.

I told her that I don’t know the answer to her question.
I told her it confuses me too.
I told her that it is easier for me to imagine
her troubles are the result of human failure and neglect more than God’s indifference –
and by human failure,
I told her I meant prejudice and greed
and hardness of heart.

I told her it was a good question to ask,
and that everything I ever read about God in the Bible
indicates that God can handle our anger
and even our suspicion.

I told her that I get angry with God fairly often;
and that I question God’s judgment on a regular basis,
even as I laugh at myself for doing it.
I told her that all of my confusion
and anger
and frustration with God
usually leads me right back to thinking about people;
about how we act
and when we are negligent
and what differences we could make
if we had a mind to make a difference.

Here is the thing that mucks up our thinking
about God
and human evil
and why bad things happen to good people.
We think it is supposed to be a well-ordered universe
in which the good guys get rewarded
and the bad guys get punished.
We can see that is not true
but we keep trying to think that way
because that is the way most of us were raised:
rewarded for good things
and punished for bad.
We earned praise and approval
and we received discipline and punishment.
That is the world we want
because it is predictable
and seems fair.

On the other hand,
we know from experience
that is not the world we have
and we presume something went wrong
because we do not think God wants it this way either.
But then we have a Gospel story like the one from Luke.
It really messes with our penchant for order.

“Now the tax collectors and sinners,” it says,
“were coming near to listen to Jesus.
And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling:
‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them!’”

That little word in Luke
that Elizabethan English preferred to translate
as “sinners”
is rooted in a more ancient Hebrew word: Resha’im.
Resha’im refers to people who have
“sinned willfully and heinously and who did not repent.”
(J.P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism).

In rabbinical literature,
Resh’im is always translated as, “the wicked.”
What Luke is saying with the accusation in this story
is that Jesus welcomed and ate with the wicked.

Now in Jesus’ world the wicked
were mostly people who had professionalized their sins:
not only did they do bad stuff
but they made money doing it!

The wicked refers to
crack and meth dealers,
Executives of credit card companies,
people who sold those ridiculously bad mortgages
to customers they knew could not afford them.
You name it,
any professionalized sin we can think of
and it qualifies for the category of the wicked.

Jesus, Luke says without debating it,
welcomed the wicked to his table,
to our table actually.
You see, in Christianity,
we adopted that silly formula that
IF we repent
and change our sinful ways,
THEN God will forgive us.
It is a very nice, very tidy,
almost economic formula that works pretty well for us:
Do the right thing
and get the reward.

It is a great formula
if what we are aiming for
is a well-ordered society or
a Church that insists upon orthodoxy:
God will like us
IF we have the right belief.
And conversely,
if we do not believe the right things,
THEN no matter what we do
we will not be able to gain God’s forgiveness.

IF…THEN: a conditional phrase
that makes clear what the bargain is.
But Jesus mucks it all up.
He says: “God forgives you, NOW go and repent.”
Hear the difference?

You are forgiven IF,
which is our formula,
and Jesus’ formula: You are forgiven, now go…

This is a critical difference.

Jesus declares that the wicked,
not just the every day, ordinary old sinners like us,
but the wicked,
those who haven’t repented yet,
are included in the kingdom of God
whether or not they repent.

The wicked are welcome at the table.
The wicked are brought into the kingdom of God
even while they are still wicked.
The wicked are welcome even before they make restitution,
even before they have confessed,
even before they pay for their crime.

How wrong is that?
It is a total violation of the way we like things.

According to Luke,
Jesus ate with the wicked while they were still wicked,
and Jesus announced that God loves them.
THEN – if you can believe it –
Jesus forgave them even before they had earned it!

What is the punch line for us? Go and do likewise.
So here is our predicament.

At the fish tank,
which is a metaphor for events and encounters
in every day life we do not anticipate or plan for,
we have to make decisions and act
with insufficient information
about what God does or does not do.

We have to choose answers
that do not come from above
and only belatedly, if we are lucky,
come from within.

In the absence of certainty
and without big answers to life’s big questions
we still have to decide
and we still have to choose
how to act
and whether to act.

Instead of making those decisions
based upon of what we will get for our reward
or if and how we will be punished for our crimes,
the more faithful
and just plain better human response,
will be based upon what we value
and what we care about.

We know the universe does not operate
on reward and punishment
so the question is whether we will be as radical
in our embrace as God is,
and whether or not we will make our decisions
based upon the values we claim to hold
rather than the hope of reward
or the threat of punishment.

Those are two big questions we can answer
because we hold the answer to them:
Will we be as radical
in our embrace of the wicked
as God is?
And will we base our decisions
on what we value
or the hope of reward and fear of punishment?

Honestly I do not know why
God would order a world
in which the wicked get loved and accepted
just as they are –
even before they have changed
and even if they never get punished for their sins.
But according to Jesus, that is our world.
If we are followers of Jesus,
that is also our value.

The question we face is if we will go with it or not?
Some days I do better than others
with God’s crazy and bizarre way of doing things,
and on other days, not so much.
It is on the other days,
the days I just can’t go along with God
that I am grateful even the wicked are loved.