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Sermon – What language shall I borrow?

A professor wrote these words on the board and asked his class to punctuate them – “Woman without her man is nothing.”  All the men in the class punctuated it like this: Woman without her man, [comma] is nothing [period].  All the women in the class punctuated it thusly: Woman: [colon] without her, [comma] man is nothing [period].  Which is correct?  Depends on your point of view.  It depends on your perspective.

What language shall I borrow?  Language is so important.  It not only describes our reality, it creates our reality.  And when it comes to religion and matters of faith, the language we use can have far-reaching consequences.

You might be surprised to learn that I was not born a feminist.  My first words were not, “Equal pay for equal work.”  That came when I was two.  And my childhood images of God were quite conventional.  God was an old man, with a long beard, seated on a throne, the Book of Life in one hand, and lightening bolts in the other.  God was presented to me as a judge, and not a very understanding, compassionate or merciful judge, but a judge who was keeping meticulous track of all my sins, misbehaviours and bad thoughts in that Book of Life, and who would, on my last day, add them all up and decide whether I must travel down that greased slide into eternal torment.  Pretty scary stuff for a child.  As one writer put it, this wasn’t “God the Father, or God the Son, but God the Holy Terror.”  And I realize the people who taught me these concepts of God were, in large part, passing on what they themselves had been taught.  But I also know that these ideas were used to control the faithful and to cement and protect the power of the clergy, and I confess I still struggle to forgive that.  It’s not just that they made me afraid to sin, which might not have been such a bad thing, but they made me afraid to live.  I wasted years trying to placate an angry God who, I know now, was never angry with me, but loved me and thought I was wonderful.  And not just wonderful, but hilarious.  (God gets all my jokes.   I never have to explain them.)  Not only was the Church teaching me a very narrow image of God – that of an old man with anger issues – but it was also teaching me a very subtle form of idolatry.

In our first lesson this morning, we read about the idolatry of the Israelites.  Moses had just liberated them, ending 400 years of slavery to the Egyptians, and led them out into the Desert of Sinai on the way to the Promised Land.  And while they were encamped there, Moses went up Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments, the Law of the Lord.  God kept Moses on the mountain for 40 days and 40 nights, and during that time, the people began to get a little restless.  So they went to Aaron, the brother of Moses, and said, “Aaron!  You know what we need?  A god!  A god we can follow.  We were content to follow the God of Moses, but we haven’t seen Moses in over a month.  For all we know, he’s lying dead up there on the mountain.  So give us a god!”  And Aaron said, “Gimme your gold, and I’ll see what I can do.” 

Now Aaron should have helped the people.  He knew the one true God; he’d seen the signs and wonders; he was the brother of Moses for crying out loud, and Moses’ mouthpiece before Pharaoh.  But when the people cried out for a god, Aaron made them an idol, a golden calf, set an altar before it and said, “You wanted a god?  There you go!”

When Moses gets back from the mountain and finds the camp in an uproar, and the people on their knees before an idol of gold, he makes a bee-line straight to his brother and demands he tell him, “What did this people ever do to you, that you should lead them into so grave a sin?”

And Aaron says, “Now calm down, brother.  You know how evil these people are.  Evil, evil, evil!  They said, ‘Give us a god!’  And you know how people need a god.  Soooo I took their gold, melted it in the furnace and (I love how he puts this) and this calf came out.”

“This calf came out?”

“Yeah, I was as surprised as anyone!”

 “Aaron, you took the gold, you melted the gold.  If you didn’t pour the gold into a mould and fashion it into a calf, right now the people would be worshipping the Golden Puddle!  You knew what you were doing.”

Some commentators say that Aaron fashioned the golden calf to serve as a symbol of God’s strength – the strength and power of a young bull.  But the people took an image of God and worshipped it as God, which they were forbidden to do by the first and second Commandments.

I used to think the first two Commandments were outdated, that nobody commits idolatry any more.  It’s not like we have a little statue in a closet somewhere that we burn incense to.  But I was in a Bible study some years ago, and we were talking about the possibility of modern-day idols, and one of the women said that housework was her idol.  She spent enormous amounts of time, energy and money into keeping a perfect house.  And I thought, “Housework is your idol?  That’s the best you could do, make housework your idol, when you could be worshipping chocolate, or George Clooney?  Oh my poor sister, here’s a hug!”

I don’t mean to dismiss what she said, but I don’t think housework was her idol.  It didn’t keep her from worshipping God, it didn’t take the place of God.  It was probably more of an addiction or an obsession than an idol.  But there are idols today, some of them very subtle, and some of them we may encounter in church.

Have you seen the bumper sticker that reads, “God isn’t dead.  I just talked with her this morning”?  Why are you laughing?  Well, because everybody knows God’s not a “she.”  Quite right.  But if I had changed the pronoun, if I had said, “I just talked with him this morning,” would you have had the same reaction?  Would you have thought, “It’s funny because everybody knows God’s not a “he”?

From my earliest recollection, every Scripture passage I read, every hymn I sang, every bit of catechism I learned, every prayer I prayed all used male images and male pronouns for God: he, his, him.  So what’s wrong with that?  Can’t God be described in male images?  Sure.  Is God a man?  No!  Can God be described in female images.  Yes!  Is God a woman?  Nooo.  (That would be too much to hope for, wouldn’t it?)  No, God is not a woman and God is not a man, but you would never know it by the way we speak.

In 1993, the Catholic Church decided to update its catechism.  I was in theological college at the time, Catholic theological college, and this was a very big deal.  Here was a wonderful opportunity to incorporate more inclusive images of God, and develop a language to reflect that.  Inclusive language, as it’s called, avoids male pronouns and exclusively male images for God, but it’s tricky.  Sometimes it can come off sounding very laboured and contrived, but when it’s done well, you aren’t even aware of it.  So I had great expectations for this new catechism, and I was greatly disappointed.  Here’s a sample from the new catechism describing the nature of God:

God transcends the human distinction between the sexes.  He is neither man nor woman: he is God.

            Where does one begin?  I am willing to cut theologians and bible scholars a lot of slack.  I will tolerate their dreary exclusive language…to a point.  But when it reaches the stage of absurdity, like here, I tend to freak out a little.  How hard would it have been to have written this statement in a way to make it sound less ridiculous?

God transcends the human distinction between the sexes, being neither man nor woman.  God is Spirit.

            Ta Dah!  Now, I recognize it’s not always this easy to write using inclusive language.  It takes focus and concentration and great creativity.  But more than anything, you have to want to do it, you have to think it’s worth it.  And the Catholic Church at that time, clearly did not.

            But what about the Bible?  That’s where we get our images of God, and the God of the Bible is male, right?  True, the pronoun used to refer to God in the Bible is always “he,” but that is in large part because Hebrew (the language of the Old Testament) has no neuter pronoun.  God could only be “he” or “she” and guess which one they chose?  Sometimes though, the masculine pronoun doesn’t fit very well.

            Right at the beginning of the Bible in the book of Genesis, God says, “Let us make humankind in our image.”  Male and female, both are the image and likeness of God.  I don’t think there can be any reasonable debate on that point.  Women and men are created in, and show forth the image and likeness of God.  That’s a pretty good rationale for using more inclusive language right there.

            When Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden, God fashions animal skins for them to wear, and at the time Genesis was written, according to Tim Bulkeley, sewing clothes was woman’s work.  There’s an interesting image for God – seamstress.

            In Deuteronomy 32:18, we find this:  You were unmindful of the God that bore you; you forgot the God who gave you birth.  In Hosea 13:8, God is portrayed as a mother bear robbed of her cubs.  Again Hosea 11:3-4 we read, Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms…I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks.  I bent down to them and fed them. 

And don’t get me started on Isaiah!  42:14 – For a long time I have held my peace…now I will cry out like a woman in labour.  49:14 – But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.”  Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?  66:13 – As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.  46:3 – Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been borne by me from your birth, carried from the womb.

            OK, but that’s all Old Testament.  In the gospels, doesn’t Jesus call God his Father?  Indeed, he does.  He even goes further than that and calls God, “Abba,” which some commentators translate as “Daddy.”  Other commentators suggest an even more primitive translation, that “Abba” is the sound made by a baby just learning to speak, and can best be translated as “Da Da.”  That was pretty radical for his time and culture, that Jesus referred to God the Almighty as “Da Da.”  But if he had dared call God his Mother, I doubt the gospels would ever have been written.  Most likely he’d have been ignored, locked up or killed before he got a chance to say another word.  So yes, for Jesus, God was Father, but not only Father.  Jesus did use feminine images for God – the woman who hides yeast in a batch of dough (Lk.13:18-21), and even more significantly, the woman who loses a coin in Luke 15, who sweeps the whole house, and when she finds it, invites all her friends to rejoice with her.  The parable of the woman and the coin is sandwiched between the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of prodigal son, to show how God can be imaged as a shepherd or a father…or a woman.  But although we have seen many stain glass windows dedicated to the prodigal’s father, or the Good Shepherd, how many have we seen depicting the woman and the lost coin?

            Jesus even used feminine imagery to refer to himself.  In Luke, chapter 13, verse 34:  O Jerusalem, Jerusalem… How often have I wanted to gather your children together as a mother bird collects her young under her wings, and you refused me!

            In the Book of Acts, when Saul is knocked off his high horse on the road to Damascus, he hears a Voice cry out, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”  And when Saul asks, “Who are you?” the Voice replies, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”  Was Saul persecuting only male disciples?  No!  The Scripture clearly states, ‘Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them both to prison.’  So when Jesus says, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting,” he is identifying himself with both the male and female disciples who are suffering for his name.

            And I am grateful to Sister Sandra Schneiders for that insight.

            Finally, after his Resurrection, Jesus appears first to Mary Magdalene (Jn. 20:1-8) and commissions her to go and tell the men that he has risen.  And she goes to the brothers, who are the image and likeness of God, and proclaims Christ’s message with Christ’s authority, she who also bore the image and likeness of God.  And for a time the Church is balanced in a new sign, or actually the old sign from Genesis renewed, women and men together in a holy unity, both blessed and consecrated by God to witness to the world the Good News of Jesus Christ.

            It didn’t last long.  Within a couple of centuries, the Church decided that only men could represent God, could stand in God’s stead.  Women could not.  Even today in the Catholic Church, one of the reasons women cannot be ordained as priests is because, and I’m quoting here, they do not bear “a natural resemblance” to Christ in his maleness.  That is why I left the Catholic Church, when they said I could not image Christ because I’m a woman.  Because everyone knows the defining characteristic of Jesus wasn’t his heart, his generosity, his self-giving, his radical compassion, his saving love; no no, it was his maleness.  And what’s not said here, but strongly implied, is that if I can’t image Christ because I’m a woman, than neither can I show forth the likeness of God because I’m not a father.  By that logic, I can’t embody the Holy Spirit either because I’m not a dove!  Sister Sandra Schneiders wrote a wonderful article on the Trinity cheekily entitled “The Trinity is More Than Two Men and a Bird.” 

When we confine ourselves to one representation of God, when every reference to the Divine, every image, every presentation is masculine, we are no longer saying God is like a man, but God is a man, and that is idolatry.  When we compress God into one human image, we compress the power of God, we limit it by insisting it conform to our preconceived notions, and most importantly, we are in danger of using that image to support conflicts and perpetuate injustice.  God is not a man anymore than God is a golden calf.  God is God.  Richard Rohr said, “God is always bigger than you imagined, or expected, or even hoped for.”

            So, what should we do in the face of this?  It’s been 2000 years celebrating the Divine as masculine.  Should we switch everything over to the feminine in our public worship?  We could, but I don’t advise it.  Liturgy is literally, “the work of the people,” and the people aren’t ready.  The churches have done too good a job.  You start blessing people in the name of God the Mother, there’s going to be a backlash.  It might surprise you to know I don’t have any problems with male imagery for God, per se.  Same thing with Christ – I don’t have any problem with him being a man, unless you deny me ordination because of it, and then I might have a problem.

            As long kids are taught God loves them, I don’t think it matters if God is presented as a loving Father or a loving Mother.  Might be nice to work in a few images of God as mother, but the truth is God isn’t a father or a mother, but God is Love and that’s the important thing, that’s the reality, however you express it.  What I don’t ever want to see is a child wasting years of their life worshipping a false god – a cold, indifferent, judgemental, masculine god, who’s just waiting for them to step out of line so “he” can inflict some awful punishment on them.  And I don’t want any little girl thinking she doesn’t bear the image of Christ or the very likeness of God because she was born female, and only males are created in the Divine image.  That is anti-Scripture and that is a pernicious idolatry.  There is an agenda at work there and it must be confronted and stopped.

            But I don’t see any of that in this church at all – never have and I doubt I ever will.  I’ve been in this church long enough to know that if God has a message for you, you are open to hear it, whether it comes from a man or a woman.  If Christ comes to this church in need, you will do whatever you whatever you can to answer that need whether he comes as a man or woman or child or cat.  OK, I may be getting into some tricky theology with that last one, but it shows that you have a heart for the very least of God’s creatures.  So, if in our liturgies we make reference to the Father, or call God “He,” as long as we recognize that this is not God, but an image of God, a convenient way of speaking about God, as long as we keep that in mind, then we’re fine.  We’re better than fine. 

That said though, if you should ever feel led to expand your images of God, maybe to sing our great Doxology – Praise God from whom all blessings flow/ Praise Her all creatures here below/ Praise Her above ye heavenly hosts/ Praise Mother, Son and Holy Ghost – there’s room for that in this church.  I know, because that’s the way I sing it, and they haven’t kicked me out yet.

            Again, if you feel a stirring within your spirit, if you are hungry for something more, then I would encourage you to pray the first three words of a very ancient prayer: Come Holy Spirit, just that, and then, as Christ said in our gospel today “Be open.”  Be open to how the Spirit comes to you.  If the Spirit comes as a father or brother, be open!  If the Spirit comes as a mother or sister, be open!  If the Spirit comes as a soaring eagle or a mother hen, or yes even a snow white dove, be open!  If the Spirit comes as a bakerwoman, or a woman anxiously searching for a precious lost coin, or a mighty rushing wind, or tongues of fire, be open and rejoice!

            I grew up in a fortress of patriarchy, so familiar to me, I didn’t realize it was a prison.  But my heart was open enough to want something more.  Then the God of Love came searching for me, and I rejoiced greatly the day She found me.

            Let’s bow in prayer… 

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2 Comments

  1. Nancy Smith
    Posted October 5, 2013 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    Marvelous & spot on Penny-Anne! How freeing this could be to so many! Thank you for writing, preaching & sharing the good news.

  2. Penny-Anne
    Posted October 5, 2013 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, Nancy, for taking the time to read my sermon and for your kind words and support! So deeply appreciated!

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