3/20/22 Sermon: Handling It

Sunday, March 20, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Third Sunday in Lent
Preacher: Pastor Day Hefner
watch this service online (readings start around 17:58; sermon starts around 24:36)

Whew!  Our readings for this morning are kind of all over the place – they run the gamut from an abundant feast of rich foods in Isaiah 🥘 to smearing manure on a tree 💩 in our gospel reading.  This is not an easy week to be a preacher!  But I’ll do my best. 😉

I wanted to at least take a stab at unpacking the text I find most challenging, which is our second reading, from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.  Taken totally out of context like this, it’s hard to know what to do with a text like this one.  Paul’s words here about the Israelites who followed Moses almost sound like he’s threatening the Corinthians that they better shape up and get their act together, or else!  Not exactly the words of grace we’d expect.  But the most troubling part of this reading, for me, is the end of verse 13, where Paul writes: “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”  

This is a verse that has often been taken out of context.  It’s been turned into a bit of popular theology you’re probably familiar with: the idea that “God will never give you more than you can handle.”  Have you heard that one?  On the surface, it sounds nice: God will never give you more than you can handle.  And I think it’s often meant as a compliment, as kind of a roundabout way of saying that someone is strong and resilient and capable of handling the struggles they’re facing.  

But the longer you think about it, the more troubling it gets.  Saying that God never gives us more than we can handle doesn’t sound quite as nice when you stop and consider some of the terrible things that people have had to “handle”: people born with painful and debillitating diseases, for example; children suffering abuse and neglect, families uprooted and torn apart by warfare and violence – like what we’re seeing right now in Ukraine – parents having to bury their children before their time.  The idea that any of these things are from God is disturbing, to say the least.  It makes you wonder what kind of sick god would create all these strong, gifted people only to put them through the wringer because “they can handle it.”

That’s not the kind of God that we see reflected in our other readings for today – far from it, in fact!  In our psalm, we hear the psalmist crying out to God, who has been his helper and his strength.  He cries out to God, who shelters him beneath God’s wings, whose love is steadfast and better than life itself.  The psalmist proclaims that, in God, his spirit is satisfied, because God has fed his soul as with a feast of rich foods.  

Our first reading echoes this image of God.  In this passage from Isaiah (one of my favorites!), we meet a God who doesn’t just give what is needed, but who goes way above and beyond that.  Here God lovingly invites everyone to come feast at a table that is overflowing with abundance, with wine and milk and rich food, with all the good things of God.

Even in our gospel reading (though there’s some tricky stuff in there as well), Jesus gives us this story of a gardener who advocates for a fig tree that hasn’t borne any fruit.  By rights, this tree should probably be torn out.  But the gardener has mercy on the tree and decides to do whatever he can to help it.  Granted, being smeared with manure doesn’t sound particularly appealing – but the gardener doesn’t do it to make this tree suffer; he does it to give this tree the richest possible soil in which to grow.

The overarching message of these texts is that God is on our side.  God loves us and shows us abundant mercy and grace.  God is there for us, supporting us and helping us to live and grow and persevere, even in times of adversity.  God isn’t looking down on us and running some kind of bizarre spiritual science experiment to see how much we can “handle.”  God doesn’t give us what we can handle; God helps us handle what we are given.

In light of these other texts, our second reading may seem like kind of the odd one out – but that’s at least in part because we’re missing the rest of the story.  This passage from 1 Corinthians is actually taken from a much longer conversation, in which Paul is warning the Corinthian church not to slip into idolatry.  Paul devotes several chapters of his letter to this topic.  Now, “idolatry” is kind of an old-fashioned word.  So I’m curious to know: what does it bring to mind for you?

My guess is that you might be thinking along the lines of golden calves or of the Israelites worshipping the gods of the Canaanites (or if you’re a big bible nerd like me, you might be thinking of the Roman cult of the emperor) – things that we don’t really worry we’d ever be tempted to do.  But a fuller explanation of idolatry is that it’s about making a god out of something that isn’t God – it’s about putting our ultimate trust and faith in someone or something other than God.  

The reason that Paul is writing to the Corinthians about idolatry is because of a controversy about food that was tearing the Corinthian church apart – specifically a disagreement about eating meat.  (We’re from a big beef state – certainly we understand idolizing meat, haha.)  In first century Corinth, the only meat available in the markets was meat that had been ritually sacrificed to idols – so the disagreement in the church was over whether or not Christians were allowed to eat it.

On the one hand, many well-versed Christians – including Paul himself – saw no problem with eating this meat, because as Christians, they didn’t believe in any of those idols.  But for other believers – especially those who had only recently converted to the faith – this was a huge struggle.  For them, eating this meat had always been a religious act – so to see other Christians eating meat was disturbing to them, and in some cases was even damaging to their faith. 

Paul admonishes the meat-eaters, saying to them that just because a certain practice isn’t against the law, that doesn’t mean that it is good for them to do.  Just because it is lawful for an individual to do something, it does not mean that doing that thing contributes to the building up of the community.  If you’re harming someone else’s faith by the way you practice your own, then that’s actually not very faithful.  As Paul warns in verse 12 of our reading for today: “If you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.”

Paul is pointing out the irony that those who choose to eat meat because they don’t believe in idols are actually making an idol out of their own individual rights and beliefs.  They are choosing to prioritize their own rights and beliefs over the well-being of their neighbor and the community.  They’re trusting in their own rightness more than they are remembering that they are only made righteous through grace.  Paul kind of sums this all up in the very next verse that follows our reading, telling the Corinthians: “Therefore, my dear friends, flee from the worship of idols.”

Paul urges the Corinthians to avoid idolatry in any form, first of all because he knows that God is really not a big fan of it.  But perhaps even more than this, Paul knows that idolatry is actually pretty bad for us humans – and it’s not because it makes God angry or increases our risk of being “struck down” or “destroyed by serpents.”  It’s because true life and wholeness and salvation can only be found with God – only God can faithfully promise to be with us in this life and the next.  So putting our ultimate trust in someone or something other than God is eventually bound to lead us to disappointment.  Idolatry actually keeps us from flourishing.  It’s kind of like that fruitless fig tree in our gospel reading – it was rooted in soil that just wasn’t rich enough for it to bear fruit.  When we root our hearts in the hope of Christ – when we let our God be God – then we will find rich soil, abundant nourishment for eternal life.  Then we’ll find that God is the one who abundantly provides all that we need and more.

A saying like “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle” makes it sound like maybe we don’t need God’s provision.  It makes it sound like we should already be strong enough to handle everything on our own, without God’s help.  In effect, it discourages us from taking our struggles to God in prayer.  It’s a saying that twists Paul’s words into almost the exact opposite of what he actually meant.

By contrast, we are lovingly invited into prayer when we realize that God doesn’t give us what we can handle; God helps us handle what we are given.  God faithfully accompanies each and every one of us, inviting us to cry out in prayer like the psalmist – to trust in God to be our refuge and our helper when the worries of life overwhelm us.  God invites us to lay down our worries and to let our souls be fed with God’s abundant goodness.

Whatever troubles you carry with you this morning – whether it’s serious illness or grief or suffering, or whether it’s just trying to squeeze some good news out of a really challenging set of texts – rest assured that, whatever your struggle may be, God can handle it.

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