Among last month's tributes to the late naturalist Roger Tory Peterson was Jerry Adler's Newsweek piece."Before Peterson," Adler wrote,"birders had to rely on reference works that...were most useful if you shot the bird first. Peterson was among the first to grasp the potential for a book that would help people identify birds while [the birds] were still alive."
What Roger Tory Peterson did for our study of birds, the authors of the Bible do for our study of God. Sacred Scripture presents us with a living God, not a divine, dead specimen, dissected by theological experts.
Because organized religions spring from a longing for structure and order, they usually present us with a structured and ordered God. They strive to give us an image of God that matches their cozy, preconceived notions. But in order to reach such an image, they lop off an arm here, a leg there" until they end up destroying the living, divine person whom all people should be able to experience, independent of any religion.
Sunday's three readings are concerned with faith, not religion. They work in God's element: life. They show us a God of contradictions, a God defying orderly description and classification because He is alive.
Deutero-Isaiah begins with his famous invitation (Is 55:6-9):"Seek Yahweh while He may be found, call Him while He is near." Nice to have God so close. But before we get too comfortable with one static image, the prophet does a quick 180:"For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says Yahweh. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts."
Scholars call these verses a dichotomy: an expression of the tension between God's immanence (closeness) and God's transcendence (distance). We who experience a living God aren't working with an"either/or"; we're dealing with a"both/and"" contradictory qualities present in the same person at the same time.
We have no better expression of God's living characteristics than Matthew's disturbing parable of the workers in the vineyard (Mt 20:1-16). If we were one of the early morning workers, we'd also yell loudly,"This last group did only an hour's work, but you have put them on the same basis as us who have worked a full day in the scorching heat!"
Prompted by the admission of Gentiles into an originally Jewish Christian community, this story exposes our desire to limit God's actions to those we can predict or direct. Organized religion paints a picture of an objectively fair God, someone always giving the same rewards for the same actions, no matter the recipient.
Yet when the first Christians reflected on the living God's actions in their lives, they discovered a tremendously generous God, a God who put people who knew nothing of the Torah or the prophets" people who never heard of the Law of Moses" on the same level with those who had faithfully followed Yahweh's commands for over 1,200 years.
Neither God nor the vineyard owner act fairly. They're more interested in needs than principles. They're alive and moving, not caged or shelved.
Paul shows the same insight in his Philippians passage (Phil 1:20-24, 27). Facing the possibility of death, the Apostle, who once thought he would survive until Jesus' Second Coming, weighs his alternatives:"Life means Christ; hence dying is so much gain. If, on the other hand, I am to go on living in the flesh, that means productive toil for me" and I do not know which to prefer."
Paul's early, preconceived notions about following Jesus hadn't prepared him for this. No matter what he learned about God in the past, he's now facing a new set of circumstances. What does the living God expect of him now?
Only a living God can help us in our living situations. Those who follow a fenced-in or dead God can do so only in a fenced-in or dead existence. We don't need a Roger Tory Peterson Field Guide in a room of stuffed and mounted birds. Neither do we need the Bible in a world in which we've stuffed and mounted our God.