Children ask difficult questions. When my oldest son Andrew was in first grade, he asked me, “What exactly is sex?”
That was a little awkward.
My wife Joy was just in the next room and heard both the question and my stunned silence. She did what any thoughtful spouse would do. She laughed silently and waited with amusement for what I would say next.
Falling back on my philosophical training, I asked Andrew, “What precisely do you mean by that?”
Children’s questions are sometimes difficult precisely because they are big questions that require big, involved answers. People frequently bring very different perspectives to these big questions and, as a result, offer a range of answers.
For instance, the question “What is sex” involves anatomy and physiology, but also psychology, ethics, anthropology, and theology. Understanding sex includes coming to terms with its meaning in our personal lives, in our relationships with others, within our social fabric, and in our relationship with God.
Sadly, some children come to think that these big questions are stupid. These children are really echoing the message they get from some adults when they say to each other, “Everybody knows that!” Those grownups assume that they have really arrived at a final, stable, unassailable answer to the big questions and, once asked, they never need to be (or maybe shouldn’t be) asked again.
But that’s not how it is for the genuinely reflective, intellectually honest among us.
Big questions are big precisely because we spend our lives being guided by them and being stretched by them. We make progress by way of forming and then reworking inadequate answers. Along the way, we grow in our ability to frame increasingly helpful questions.
Let’s ask one of those big questions today: What does God look like?
Children ask their parents and teachers and clergy this question without realizing what a puzzle they have posed. After all, this is a difficult question. Think of the questions it involves. Can you see God? What does it mean to see God? How do you see God? What is God really like?
One thing that Christians believe about God is that he wants us to know him. Since God is a person and not a thing, God has to show himself to us so that we can know him. He has to open himself up to us just like any other person has to reveal herself to us if we’re going to get to know her.
Seeing God means grasping something about who he is, not just what he is. His character and his personality, his thoughts and desires, his dreams and his griefs tell us who he is. God created us to see him not with our eyes alone but with our mind, our heart, and our imagination.
God reveals himself in a variety of ways. In nature. In other people. In the voice of our own conscience. But above all, God reveals himself in his son Jesus.
That’s just what we see in today’s Gospel. (Luke 13:10-17) Jesus heals a woman on the Sabbath, and he has a conflict with a religious leader because he healed the woman on the Sabbath. Both the healing and the conflict tell us some central things about Jesus, hence some essential things about God.
Let’s start with the healing.
The woman was beset by a spirit that disfigured her. For eighteen years she had been unable to stand up straight. Jesus caught sight of her while he was teaching and called her over to him. And then he said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” (Luke 13:12)
Listen to that again. “You are set free.” Our God is the great liberator. He sees the many ways that we are held captive and pours out his very life to break the chains that bind us.
The woman’s bonds were obvious. Her disfigured body made her a social outcast and consigned her to a life of poverty. With a word and a touch, Jesus made her body whole.
Some of the chains that bind us are more subtle but no less oppressive.
There are personal, spiritual chains.
Grievances, resentments, shame, and fear fill us with bitterness, isolate us from others who might give us the comfort and understanding we crave, and mire us in an ever-deepening pool of self-loathing.
There are economic chains.
Millions of people are born into grinding poverty. Beset by hunger, served by poor schools, and surrounded by violent crime, some young people begin life inside a social prison whose bars are just as real as the ones we find in Angola. There is nothing equal about the opportunities presented to them.
There are social chains.
We have made remarkable strides in civil rights in this country. And yet, we still suffer from mistrust and misunderstanding based on the color of our skin. Regardless of your take on the Trayvon Martin case, you cannot help but see the racial tensions and misperceptions woven into that whole story.
God has sent Jesus to set us free. Free to be comfortable in our own skins. Free to pursue our dreams and exercise our gifts. Free to accept and be accepted by one another as wonderfully made in all our differences.
God is our liberator. Our redeemer. That’s what we learn about God in the healing. Now let’s turn to the conflict. God, as it turns out, may not be who you’ve thought he is.
To hear some of us talk, you would think that God is principally a rule-giver whose main preoccupation is to hold us accountable for following or breaking the rules. But the conflict in today’s Gospel tells us that God is about mercy.
Maybe it’s just me, but if I saw a woman who had been piteously twisted for nearly two decades suddenly stand up straight and dance a jig, I would be uttering some version of “wow” for days. Instead, the religious leader in the synagogue blew a gasket.
Jesus, it seems, should have waited until after the Sabbath was over before healing the woman. How dare he work on the Sabbath when there are six other perfectly good days to make the lame walk, the blind see, and the lepers whole!
The synagogue leader is a God representative, and alas, he’s really doing a lousy job of it. He has put his concern for adherence to the rules above his desire to show compassion.
Jesus lets him have it. Here’s what he says: “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” (Luke 13:15-16)
In other words, you mean you would free a dog from a cruel leash on the Sabbath but you wouldn’t free a person from bondage? Seriously? Then you really don’t get what God is all about!
God is not merely a moral accountant. He is a redeemer. It’s not that he doesn’t know that we have a lousy bottom line. On the contrary, he sees that we’re in a debtor’s prison and can’t get ourselves out. No matter how hard we try.
When Jesus sat and ate with the prostitutes and the tax collectors and the various shabby characters he encountered, think about what he said to them. Do you really think he said, “Cut it out and straighten up!” Or do you think he said something more like this: “I’m really glad you’re here. It’s good to be with you. Pass the gravy.”
I’ll tell you what I think God looks like. I think he looks like his Son. And his Son looks like my friend. The friend who makes me a better man just by being my friend.
This sermon was preached at St. Andrew’s, Mer Rouge. The text is Luke 13:10-17.