Pentecost 4A, 2011
A Liturgy is also available
ALIVE WITH OUR PICTURES OF GOD
Eighty plus years ago, the English/American philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote these words:
“Today there is but one religious dogma in debate: What do you mean by ‘God’…” (Quoted in Pittenger 1982:1).
The ‘today’ to which Whitehead referred was 1926.
But it could just as easily be ‘today’ - 2011.
This morning we have heard two Lectionary stories.
One, about Abraham, from the Hebrew scriptures.
One, about Jesus, from the experiences of the Jesus Movement.
Both stories have within them images or pictures, of God.
• God as a great and all-controlling power manifested in the unusual and the extraordinary.
• God as known in acts of compassion and love, present and active in human interaction.
Now I am sure each of these summary statements are an over-simplification.
And I do not mean to set one over against the other.
As if one is ‘good’ or ‘right’.
The other ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’.
But to the modern mind one story, one picture, does seem to be repugnant.
About that particular story, the story of Abraham and the near slaying of Isaac,
retired Uniting Church minister Bruce Prewer tells:
‘I can still remember (my Sunday school teacher’s) picture book from which she read the story... That scene was the stuff from which nightmares are constructed. It troubled me greatly. Would my father kill me if God asked him to?
‘One evening, after dinner when my dad sat in his favourite chair, and I was sitting on my dad’s knee, I plucked up courage to ask him whether he would be like Abraham if God asked him. Poor dad! Looking back now I can see that he was totally unprepared for that question. Torn between his desire to uphold the Bible and his love for me, he made a mess of answering his child.
‘I did not know the word prevaricate then, but that is what he did. I took his response as a grim warning. It did not do much to alleviate nightmares’ (Prewer.www site 2002).
If I asked you to describe how you picture God I wonder what you might say?
It might be almost too intimate, too threatening to share.
Or perhaps some of you may feel you have little to share.
You have, for most of your life, taken for granted
that the most central events reported in the Bible really happened.
But a kind of ‘natural’ or ‘soft’ literalism.
And then all of us can be very suspicious of another’s picture of God
especially when they do not match our own sense of ‘theological correctness’.
Yet, the way we understand or picture God is very important.
If our pictures of God are not alive within us,
we will remain passive consumers of a second-hand faith.
The ‘couch potatoes of the spiritual world’
as Katharine Henderson described it.
Both Abraham (if he was indeed 'historical') and Jesus, were alive with pictures of God.
And their pictures of God are shaped, indeed, edited,
in the stories we read in the Bible.
In my own case, I admit to reading these biblical stories
as one who sees the Bible as a human product...
Stories told as a response by these two ancient communities
to their experience of God or the Sacred.
Or as one scholar of the biblical tradition puts it:
‘...it contains their stories of God, their perceptions of God’s character and will, their prayers to and praise of God, their perceptions of the human condition and the paths of deliverance, their religious and ethical practices, and their understanding of what faithfulness to God involves’ (Borg 2001:22-23).
Out of all of this I guess what I am suggesting is God has an image problem.
Or at least much of the church has a problem
with the way it speaks about God.
The traditional way of speaking about God has for so long
been about a God above and beyond us.
And who for the most part, simply sits as a threatening presence
to reward or punish us for the way we have lived.
Indeed, it is the thought that we generally believe in that kind of God,
often sung about in traditional hymns and contemporary choruses,
that has many people today rejecting the church.
So the problem is not just theirs. It is ours.
As Morwood and Spong and Borg and many others have claimed,
we need to rethink our image, our picture, of God.
Even those pictures of God that have sentimental significance for us
from childhood days and happier times.
Well, let me borrow some suggestions from perhaps a couple of most unlikely theologians.
Both feature in Alice Walker’s book (and later the film), The Colour Purple...
The first theologian is called Celie. She says:
‘When I found out that God was white and a man I lost interest.’
Celie is not alone in her thinking.
As long as traditional christianity emphasises a white, male puppeteer God
who favours the privileged, then many people
will continue to lose interest.
G-o-d is but one of the names given to the mysterious Source of Life.
How could this be limited to male imagery and understanding? (ILawton, Christ Community Church).
God is in all and all is in God. Serendipitous creativity!
The second theologian is called Shug. I have shared this with you before
but here goes it again. She says:
‘One day when I was sitting quiet and feeling like a motherless child, which I was, it come to me: that feeling of being a part of everything, not separate at all. I knew that if I cut a tree my arm would bleed. And I laughed and I cried and I run all around the house. I knew just what it was. In fact when it happens you can't miss it...
‘I think it annoy God if you walk by colour purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it... People think pleasing God is all God care about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back...’
Celie and Shug, as theologians, have found the presentness of God
in the midst of ordinary daily events.
Not as a person. Nor as a supernatural, intervening, celestial being.
But as that creativity within us and within all life
which makes it possible for us
to act compassionately,
to offer even a cup of water... in a style after Jesus.
We too are being encouraged to make this kind of shift
in our seeing and thinking and talking.
For it is just this kind of God-talk that may help us
think again about God,
and how we can help others to a new picture of God.
Borg, M. Reading the Bible Again For The First Time. Taking the Bible Seriously But Not Literally. New York. HarperSanFrancisco, 2001.
Pittenger, W. N. Picturing God. London. SCM Press, 1982.