Saturday, June 28, 2014

6-29-14


“Admirers or Followers?  
The Choice is Ours”
Matthew 10: 34-39; Joshua 24: 14-15

Are you a Christian? Interesting question, is it not? In today’s world of mass media the word “Christian” has been just about totally stripped of any real meaning. In fact, there are thousands of persons who currently strive to follow Christ 24/7, but for whom the designation “Christian” is so tainted that they refuse to use it. If you ask them if they are a Christian they will likely reply that they are a “Christ-follower,” i.e., that they strive to follow the person and the way of Jesus Christ.

Is this what we have come to after some 2000 years? The cause and person of Jesus Christ has been so distorted and abused that some of his most ardent followers refuse to allow this adjective to be applied to them. Why? What is causing this?

Part of the problem is the misuse and abuse of the word “Christian.” We apply this to businesses, nations, and institutions — which is patently false. They may have individuals who are Christians, and they may have principles and values which are central to Christianity, but an institution cannot have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. This relationship is only possible for persons, for individuals who have responded with a commitment to Christ as Lord and Savior.

Central to this issue is the reality that the church has promulgated a false faith, a pseudo-understanding of what it means to follow Christ. We have urged people to accept Christ as their Savior and be baptized so that they can go to heaven when they die. That is all well and good as far as it goes...but it does not go near far enough. We have given them salvation on their terms, without any inkling at all of the commitment and transformation needed to genuinely follow Christ with their lives. In the words of Soren Kierkegaard we have made people into admirers rather than followers of Christ:
The difference between an admirer and a follower still remains, no matter where you are. The admirer never makes any true sacrifices. He always plays it safe. Though in words, phrases, and songs he is inexhaustible about how highly he prizes Christ, he renounces nothing, gives up nothing, will not reconstruct his life, will not be what he admires, and will not let his life express what it is he supposedly admires. Not so for the follower. No, no. The follower aspires with all his strength, with all his will to be what he admires. And then, remarkably enough, even though he is living amongst a “Christian people,” the same danger results for him as was once the case when it was dangerous to openly confess Christ. And because of the follower’s life, it will become evident who the admirers are, for the admirers will become agitated with him. Even that these words are presented as they are here will disturb many – but then they must likewise belong to the admirers.1

Followers of Christ are not afraid to “take up their cross and follow him,” for they have already surrendered their lives to Christ, totally and completely. For followers of Christ the questions in any given situation are simple: What does Christ need? What would Christ do? How would Christ respond? The follower of Christ has already “taken up their cross,” so risking their fame, their fortune, and their very life for Christ is no big deal. That decision was made when they committed their life, wholly and completely, to Jesus Christ.

However, for admirers of Jesus the situation is a bit different. Their “acceptance of Christ” was about them, not Christ. It was about “going to heaven when they die,” not giving their life to Christ. Their Christian life is about what God can do for them, about how Jesus loves them and wants them to be happy, fulfilled and have every last want be met. Admirers of Jesus stand at a distance from any cross, from any realm of sacrifice — for they are not willing to risk their neck for Jesus or anyone.

These words of Jesus in Matthew 10 cause admirers problems, do they not? They even cause us to step back and reflect. Too often we think Jesus saved us so we can have nice little families, nice little homes, and nice little lives. Then we read a passage such as this and we are stunned, shaken to our core. Jesus says that he came not to bring peace to our families, but a sword...and that he would totally disrupt the family unit. Ouch...

Jesus does not idly state these words about taking up crosses...words which are repeated more than once by Matthew, just in case we missed them the first time. Jews knew what taking up the cross was all about...Golgotha (the place of the Skull) existed long before Jesus was crucified there. They had watched as the Romans had crucified literally thousands of their country men and women. These words about losing and finding life are not idle words to them. These words about commitment, sacrifice and experiencing loss and even death for the sake of following Christ — they are sacred words that the early church held onto — for they knew what Jesus meant. For us, these are words which go against the grain of our church culture of “niceness” and everything we hold near and dear as we admire Christ.

VBS begins tonight, so I don’t want to rattle too many cages. But let’s just understand something: we are not trying to make “Jesus admirers” out of your children. We’re really not. We’re trying to make “Jesus followers” out of them. We want them to so love Jesus, to be so devoted to Jesus, that they grow up, leave home and go follow Jesus wherever that journey may take them. They may go to Archdale, Asheboro, Romania or even Zambia as they follow Jesus. We want them to be such devoted followers of Jesus that the entire world is open to them as their venue and calling to serve Christ. We want them to see no boundaries, to feel no restraints, and to hold back nothing in their desire to serve and follow Christ.

Most of all, we want them to see that for true followers of Jesus Christ, there are no cultural barriers that the gospel cannot transcend — and does not compel us to transcend. Jew, Greek, slave, free — all are one in Christ Jesus according to Paul. Democrat, Republican, wealthy, poor, straight, gay, NRA or ACLU — you pick the divide and Jesus compels us to follow him from one side to the other.

There are several persons whom I have admired through the years. Some of these preceded my lifetime and others I knew. One who preceded and died before I ever knew him personally was Clarence Jordan, the founder of the Koinonia Farm near Americus, Georgia. It was set up to be an interracial community before anyone knew what Civil Rights were all about. Jordan himself was a pacifist as well as an integrationist and thus was not a popular figure in Georgia, even though he came from a prominent family. In the early ’50s Clarence approached his brother Robert Jordan (later a state senator and justice of the Georgia Supreme Court) to ask him to represent legally the Koinonia Farm. They were having trouble getting LP gas delivered for heating during the winter even though it was against the law not to deliver gas. Clarence thought Robert could do much through a phone call. However, Robert responded to Clarence’s request:

“Clarence, I can’t do that. You know my political aspirations. Why, if I represented you, I might lose my job, my house, everything I’ve got.”

“We might lose everything, too, Bob.” “It’s different for you.”

“Why is it different? I remember, it seems to me, that you and I joined the church on the same Sunday, as boys. I expect when we came forward the preacher asked me the same question he did you. He asked me, ‘Do you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ What did you say?”

“I follow Jesus, Clarence, up to a point.”

“Could that point by any chance be — the cross?”


“That’s right. I follow him to the cross, but not on the cross. I’m not getting myself crucified.”

“Then I don’t believe you’re a disciple. You’re an admirer of Jesus, but not a disciple of his. I think you ought to go back to the church you belong to, and tell them you’re an admirer, not a disciple.”

“Well now, if everyone who felt like I do did that, we wouldn’t have a church, would we?” 

“The question,” Clarence said, “is, ‘Do you have a church now?’”2


Every day that we live we are presented with a choice: will we today be followers or admirers of Jesus?

“I would like to but $3.00 worth of God, please.
Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep, but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk or a snooze in the sunshine.
I don’t want enough of him to make me love a black man or pick beets with a migrant. I want ecstasy, not transformation;
I want the warmth of the womb, not a new birth.
I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack.
I would like to buy $3.00 worth of God, please.
4


“...and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”5

1 Søren Kierkegaard, Provocations
2Stanley Hauerwas, cited in “When we don’t ‘carry’ Jesus far enough,” June 21, 2004, Odyssey Web Site, odyssey.blogs.com 3 Overland Park Jewish community shooting, Wikipedia.
4 Wilbur Rees.
5 Matthew 10: 38-39
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Monday, June 16, 2014

6-15

OF SHEPHERDS AND FATHERS...”
Psalm 23; John 10: 1-10
A college religion teacher was leading a tour of Palestine as a summer school class. He gave lectures as they visited the important places. One day as their tour bus was going through the countryside he was lecturing on the Good Shepherd. He noted that there was a difference between shepherds in Palestine and those in the United States. Whereas American sheepherders go behind the sheep and drive them where they are supposed to go, Palestinian shepherds lead their sheep and they faithfully follow him everywhere. He painted this wonderful picture of the warm relationship between the Palestinian shepherd and his flock. Just then the bus had to stop for a flock of sheep that was crossing the road. The students started to laugh when one their classmates asked, “Dr. Jones, why is the shepherd behind the flock and driving them across the road?” The professor was shocked to see that this was true. He jumped off the bus and went up to the shepherd saying, “I have always been told that shepherds in Palestine lead their sheep and the sheep follow because they love their shepherd and trust him. Why are you driving these sheep?” The man responded, “You are absolutely right. Shepherds here do lead their sheep. I am driving these sheep because I am not a shepherd, I am the village butcher!”i
The 23rd Psalm is one of the most beloved in all of Holy Scripture. Even those who are biblically illiterate and/or estranged from God know this Psalm. There is a magnificence about this Psalm which transcends its words and context. From it we all gather nurture and peace as we envision God looking down upon us and caring for us. There is a wonderful convergence this morning of this text and this day — Father’s Day. Let us look at this Psalm and allow the truths which it tells to enlighten us not only about our Heavenly Father, but also about the roles and responsibilities which we, as earthly fathers, have given to us.
INTIMACY: The Lord is my Shepherd. We must pause at this beginning phrase and acknowledge Christ as our Shepherd. In the 10th chapter of John Jesus portrays himself as the Good Shepherd who loves and takes care of the sheep. He says, “My sheep know my voice.” If Jesus Christ is our Shepherd, then we will know his voice. An American was visiting a village in Africa and saw sheep grazing all over town. He asked, “How do the owners know which sheep is theirs?” Came the reply, “The sheep know.” At dusk he watched in awe as the shepherds called and each sheep ran to the voice of his shepherd, not another. I googled this very event this week and to my surprise saw several videos of shepherds doing this very thing. When another called they ignored the voice. When the shepherd called, they all came running.
So it is with we who are fathers and our children. We should know them intimately, from the inside out — and they us. You cannot call yourself a Father if you ignore your children. Children know if you matter to them — and when they know it, they respond. If you know & love your children then they will prosper in that love, live out of that love, and face life with a confidence that they gain nowhere else. Children — both boys and girls — need the love of their father in order to handle the challenges of the teenage years. Without the security of this love and relationship they live in limbo, wondering if they are worthy of being loved or if they have what it takes to make it in life. When a young person knows the full acceptance and love of their father then they are enabled to grow, develop and prosper as God intends.
!
PROVISION: “I shall not want.” As the Shepherd, the Lord provides for our needs, both physical and spiritual. The Psalmist illustrates what it is that he shall not want:
green pastures—food;
  • still waters—water from which one can easily drink;
  • restores my soul—rest and refurbishment of our very being.
    Can we believe that God really wants to provide for our needs—even physical ones? Yes we can, if we remember that God does so in conjunction with our willingness to be responsible, to practice good stewardship, and to work at whatever we are able to do. God has never promised to meet our wants—God has promised to meet our needs. Too often I have encountered those who somehow expected that God would drop their needs right in the middle of their lap. My experience has been that as we work and serve God blesses us far beyond what we deserve. When the Lord is our Shepherd, “we shall not want.”
    As it is with God, so it is with our fathers. We live in a world where it is difficult if not impossible to have a one income home. Whether for good or for bad, the model of a father working and mother at home has all but disappeared from our cultural perspective. However, a father can still work with his wife and take responsibility to see that his children’s needs are met — needs far beyond those of a roof over their heads, clothes to wear or food to eat. Children have needs of acceptance, encouragement, and leadership which are vital to their development. Husband and wife may both work to “bring home the bacon,” — but both are also needed to ensure that the needs of their children are met to the best of their ability.
    !
    GUIDANCE: “He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.” As the Shepherd, the Lord leads us both in the right paths and through the dangerous valleys that await us. When we live life God’s way—then life works. This sounds extremely simple—and even Forest Gump-like in its philosophical approach. However, it has been proved true time and again. God really does lead us to where we need to be and walks with us through the trials that confront us. As Christians, as those who have pledged our lives to Christ, we are not immune to suffering and tragedy and even death. However, we go through these things so much better because of the power and presence of Christ in our lives.
    There is nothing more inspiring than seeing a father, a grandfather, an uncle or a friend providing a worthy and strong model for a young boy, a teen-ager, or even a young man. We all need role models to look up to and after which to model ourselves. One of the great crises in the modern, moderate Protestant church is the absence of men to serve as role models for the children. Children do not need just to be taught by women when in church. To do so is to tell them that church is for women...real men don’t have anything to do with it. Your children may be grown, but it is still vital that you be here and involved so that other children will know that this is important to their lives. Studies have shown that for boys, their entire attitude toward God, Christ, and the church is shaped more strongly by their father than their mother. All of us are needed to ensure that our children develop in their faith walk with Christ. All of us.
    !
    SECURITY: You prepare a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; you anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows.” God’s protection is provided for us in our hour of deepest need. The 5th verse requires some historical/cultural background in order for us to properly understand it. In Middle Eastern culture one was obligated to provide lodging and security to a stranger who asked for up to two nights and days. There being no motels or inns and this was the culturally developed pattern of providing safety for travelers. The Psalmist is affirming that God provides this safety and security for him even when enemies surround him. The blessings of God are his in abundance — the anointing of oil and the cup overflowing.

Our deepest and most basic affirmation of faith is that God never abandons us. We may not see the hand of God in the moment and we may not feel the presence of God but do not worry, God is there and God’s hand is there. Just as the shepherd knew his sheep personally and intimately — so God knows us. Every evening the Shepherd would call the sheep and they would come to him to enter the fold. He would stand at the door through which only one sheep could pass — and he would stop each sheep, check it for bites or scratches, anoint whatever wounds were there, and then let it pass into the fold. He would give each animal a cup of cold water to make sure that it would not grow thirsty during the night. Then, after all were secure in the fold, the shepherd would sleep in the doorway so that no wild animals would come after his sheep.
A deep sense of security is one of the great responsibilities of parents and especially of fathers. Our children need to know that whatever life may throw at them, we are there, standing with them, to take it on. In centuries past children were looked at as expendable, as workers on the farm or in the factory. With the coming of the 20th century and the child labor laws and increased education we see our children in an entirely different light: as gifts of God to be grown and developed as did Jesus “in wisdom, in stature, and in favor with God and man.”
The story is told of how a herd of young male elephants in the Pilanesburg National Park in South Africa — largest in the world — were going wild and destroying endangered white rhinoceros. They were virtually uncontrollable. The park rangers finally realized that these of young males had no older bull elephant around to control them and teach them how to act. Some older bull males were flown in and within a few weeks the younger elephants had calmed down and the rampaging ceased.ii
We have seen this in our own society, have we not. Most teenage boys or young men who get into trouble are either from a fatherless home or a home where the father is all but absent. Daniel Patrick Moynihan put it well over 40 years ago:
“From the wild Irish slums of the 19th Century Eastern Seaboard to the riot-torn suburbs of Los Angeles, there is one unmistakable lesson in American history: A community that allows a large number of young men to grow up in broken homes, dominated by women, never acquiring any stable relationship to male authority, never acquiring any rational expectations for the future – that community asks for and gets chaos.”iii
As men we must realize the role our God has created for us and fulfill it to the best of our ability. Our church needs us, our society needs us, and most of all — our young men and women, boys and girls, need us. The need us when they are young and they need us when they are older. Everyone needs a father — and a grandfather! “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want...”
Robert U. Ferguson, Jr. Emerywood Baptist Church
1300 Country Club Drive
High Point, North Carolina 27262 June 15, 2014

i Paul Larsen, unpublished sermon on Psalm 23.
ii http://www.npr.org/blogs/krulwich/2013/12/16/251672253/why-we-need-grandpas-and-grandmas-part-1 iii http://thesestonewalls.com/gordon-macrae/in-the-absence-of-fathers-a-story-of-elephants-and-men/

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Monday, June 2, 2014

6-1



What Are You Wearing?
Colossians 3: 12-17
Have we looked around at the variety of clothing that we are wearing this morning? Some of us are in suits and ties, wearing our “Sunday best.” Others of us are in casual clothes as if ready for the golf course or the shopping mall. Some of us are “dressed to kill” whereas others are dressed for comfort. Why do we wear what we do? Why does one person wear a particular color or style of clothing and another something entirely different? I am usually pretty good about picking clothes that match, but occasionally, as I leave the house, Debby will say to me, “Have you looked at yourself in the mirror? Are you really going to wear those together?” To which I want to say, “No...I just put them on to get a reaction out of you!

Why do we wear clothes? Most of us would say that we wear clothes in order to conceal parts of our body which we do not wish others to see. That’s not all bad – I am not in favor of universal nudity for anyone over three years of age. Clothes may conceal what we want to conceal, but they also reveal far more about us that we have ever dreamed. God may have made clothes for Adam and Eve to cover their sin, but we have taken clothing to such a state that it states to all who we are and how we see ourselves. A woman who wears tight fitting clothes is often saying, “Look at me – I need your affirmation of my self-worth which comes through my body.” A young man with bulging biceps and washboard abs wears a muscle shirt to show off the fruits of his labors and in so doing is saying, “Look at me – this is who I am!” Whether we are farmers in overalls or executives in three-piece Gucci suits our clothes say as much about us as any statement we wish to make. 

As human beings we divide ourselves into tribes or groups. Part of belonging to a tribe is wearing the uniform or symbols of the tribe. Go to an athletic contest at a college or university and see the supporters of each team dressed in the appropriate colors or wearing clothing emblazened with the logo of their team. We criticize gangs for wearing their colors, but in reality they are doing what humans have done for centuries: using clothing to express our identity. Clothing reveals our tribe, the societal group in which we feel the most comfortable. An offshoot of this is our concern with the logo or brand of clothing which we wear. If a shirt does not have a horse or a crocodile or some other “status symbol” then many will not wear it. Why do we believe a Polo shirt is worth more than a K-Mart special? Price alone does not establish value, but it does establish a “status symbol.” 

Clothing can also reveal our age and/or our generation. I have discussions with my sons about the generational differences in casual dress. My generation prefers boat shoes with no socks whereas theirs prefer tennis shoes or sandals. (The older generation prefers Hushpuppies but that’s another subject.) I once had a pair of bell-bottom, lime green, polyester, Sansabelt golf slacks. They disappeared from my closet several years ago and no one will own up to the crime. The only explanation I ever get is that they were “out-dated” and made me look older than I am.
Clothes not only express who we are but also psychologically mold us into who we wish to become. Gail Ramshaw put it this way:
“In Washington, D.C., are two clothing displays you ought not miss. One is in the American history wing of the Smithsonian, where you can lace yourself up into a nineteenth-century corset. You immediately understand why all those heroines spent all those novels fainting right and left. In a whalebone corset, you cannot bend at the waist; you must perch at the edge of your chair; and, most to the point, you cannot take a deep breath...
“Not far away is the Holocaust Museum where, if you are brave enough, you can see the piles of shoes that the S.S. guards stripped off the Jewish prisoners before, totally naked, all their human protections torn off, they were showered to death. Perhaps the bare feet helped the guards to justify the murders, as if their prisoners, only unclothed skin and bones, were no longer human beings...
“We have shoes on our feet and bows around our neck, and we like our clothes. In this culture, as in most, clothes protect us - give us sexual privacy, indicate our socioeconomic status, bond us with others who dress similarly - reflect our personality - However, though we choose not to admit it, even our jeans are something like corsets; for while announcing me, my clothing to some degree contains me, shapes me, forms me - I have been molded into something that people would rather see than me.”

The Bible is not silent about clothes. Adam and Eve began “naked and not ashamed...” but soon were wearing clothes of fig leaves and later from skins provided by God to cover what had become shame to them. The Old Testament scholar, Gerhard von Rad, says of this passage: “God himself had the shame of men covered, he had through this covering of them a new possibility given and thereby established a basic element of human culture. ii George Herbert said it this way: “Nothing wears clothes but man; nothing doth need but he to wear them.”iii 

All this Bible talk about clothes raises the question of what clothing means for us and for God.
  • ♦  Psalm 104:1-2 says that God is clothed in light. In Exodus 28:2ff. Aaron, the first of priests, is said to be dressed in “sacred vestments” to give him honor and holiness. It does appear that, at least in this text, “clothes make the man.”
  • ♦  Psalm 132 talks about the clothing of priests. God’s priests are said to be “clothed with righteousness” (v. 9).
  • ♦  In Isaiah 61:10 the prophet talks about God clothing him with “a robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland.” Clothing is again here, as it was earlier in Genesis, an expression of grace. The clothing makes something out of me that I would not be without the special clothes. I put on this robe and I am a priest. Put on another robe, and I’m a judge.
To give someone clothing is to give something of yourself.
So Jonathan and David exchanged clothes, and “the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David” (1 Sam 18:1).
  • ♦  Elijah gave his mantel to Elisha (1 Kings 19:19-21). It was his way of him giving his whole authority by giving him his clothes (2 Kings 2:12-14). With the clothes comes the power.
  • ♦  The biblical writers speak of the clothing of Jesus as having power. If the woman merely touched the hem of his garment (Lk 8:42-48, Mk 5:25-34, Mt 9:19-22), she would be healed. Later, in the book of Acts, if the sick touch the apostles’ garments they are healed (Acts 19:12).
  • ♦  When the prodigal son returns home he is given the best clothing as a sign of his sonship (Lk 15:21). A robe, a ring, shoes show forth to all that the son has all that the father has. Our clothes show forth our identity, our deepest personality, our commitments our tribe. iv

    What does all this have to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ? In our text from Colossians Paul uses clothes as an image of the virtues which we are to have and to display in Christ Jesus. Because we belong to Christ we are different — from the inside out. Just as the clothes one wore in Paul’s day revealed the status and social group to which one belonged, so the virtues one displayed in one’s life revealed the inner person. 

    Did we hear the first part of the twelfth verse? “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved...” These attributes which we are to wear come as a result of what God has done in our lives. They/we are God’s chosen ones, i.e., those whom God has elected to be God’s people. We wear the clothes of the kingdom by God’s choosing, not ours. The result of God’s election, God’s choosing of us, is that we are deemed “holy and beloved.” Just pause with me a moment and think through the ramifications of this statement. These qualities are not something we have done — they are what God has said about us in Jesus Christ. In Christ we are holy and in Christ we are loved. 

    As a result of this new status we are to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” These attributes, these clothes which we are to now put on, come to us as a result of what God has done for us in Christ Jesus. We do not earn nor deserve them — they come as a gift, a gift of grace.
    Have you ever had an old sweater or shirt with which you just could not part? (I tend to agree with Henry David Thoreau, in Walden, who said: “...beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.”) I know I have — and Debby will say to me, “That sweater/shirt is too old and looks drab. Wear one of your nicer ones.”
    “But I don’t wish to wear a nicer one...I want to wear this one.”
Why? Because it fits me in all the right places. So it is with these virtues of Christ. We are called upon to so live out these virtues that eventually they will fit us like a suit of old clothes. We wear them because we could think of wearing nothing else.
In the movie The Lion King the spirit of the dead king says to his son: “You have become less than you are.” One commentator noted that this is a parable about Christian salvation.
To be saved by Christ does not mean that we are radically changed into something we are not. Rather, it means that we become as we are, that we are clothed in new garments that reveal our true nature. Therefore in baptism in the church of the first centuries, the newly baptized was given a new white robe showing forth to all the new status of the baptized - we had returned to our true nature as children made in the image of God. We had become as God intended us to be.v

For Paul the relationship we have with Christ is one of total union. Elsewhere Paul will speak of “dying to self and rising to new life in Christ.” The idea is both simple and profound: as believers in Christ we are one with Christ – our identity is no longer that of ourselves, but of Christ. As we wear clothes to reveal who we are, so we are to put on Christ to reveal who and whose we are. In putting on Christ we gain a new identity but also new relationships. When we put on Christ we put off all other status symbols which are but reflections of our broken world. Our logo is now Christ and we all stand on equal footing before Almighty God. As much as clothes were and are used to separate us into class and economic strata, so how much greater does Christ break down, eradicate, and supercede those worldly distinctions. When we put on Christ we put on the one who unites us wholly with others.

Consider this perspective on our being clothed with Christ:
Special clothing signifies a change, a change from the way we act at work, to the way we act at a party. We are naked, frail creatures, says Genesis. We are not so much physically naked as spiritually naked. We are called upon to fill roles that are too big for us. We must act, decide, function in ways that frighten.
A doctor once confessed to me that one reason why he wore the white uniform, and the mask, and the rubber gloves, was not only for hygiene, but also for encouragement. “If you are going into surgery to cut on another human being’s body, you need to be a doctor, even when you don’t feel like it. When I put on all this stuff, I’m a doctor, no matter how I feel about it.”

What about us? Are there some days when we do not feel like a Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ? On those days can we remember the clothes of our soul that we put on at baptism, even Jesus the Christ? Can we remember that through Christ we have a new identity, a new status – Christian? Can we recall that through Christ we have a new tribe – the Body of Christ, the church? Can we recognize our new standing before God: forgiven? What are you wearing this morning, anyway?
i Gail Ramshaw, "Rechely Clad," Weavings, January/February 1996, pp. 30-31
iiGerhard von Rad, The Theology of the Old Testament I, 1957, p. 163
iii George Herbert, The Temple, The Church, Providence, stanza 28. ivFrom Will Willimon, “Who are These Robed in White.”
vAllyne Smith Jr., "Image and Likeness," Weavings, January/February 1996, pp. 26-27

Sunday, May 25, 2014

5-25


“On Sensing the Sacred...”
Genesis 28: 10-17 

There is no more enigmatic character in all of the Bible than that of Jacob. In one moment he is conning his brother out of his birthright and cheating him out of his blessing by deceiving their father. Then in another moment he is dreaming of or even wrestling with Yahweh.1 Jacob, it seems, is a hard character to get one’s arms around. In fact, the nation Israel found herself in the same position of not being sure that she liked this character. When he experiences the call of Yahweh his name is changed from Jacob to Israel — you cannot have a Cheater to be the blessed of Yahweh. 

Jacob is traveling — away from home, away from Esau and away from the “terrible” Canaanite women whom his father Isaac detested. He is on his way back to the region of Paddan-aram and to the city of Haran from whence his grandfather Abraham had journeyed. Back to find a wife — and away to escape the enmity of his brother, Esau. 

Darkness arrives and so he sets up camp at an out of the way place named Luz and later to be called “Bethel” — but I get ahead of the story. In good Middle Eastern fashion he lays down on the ground, finds a smooth stone to use it for a pillow and before he knows it he is fast asleep. Walking all day while traveling makes sleep quick and easy. Then he begins to dream and in so doing envisions a ziggurat, a stair-stepped, pyramid type structure extending to the heavens. On that structure are angels, ascending and descending — but to what purpose we have no firm idea, only conjecture. Suddenly his dream is interrupted by a vision of Yahweh speaking to him. In this vision is communicated the same promise, the same covenant which had been given to Abraham & Isaac now is extended to him. He shall be the father of a great nation and all the lands which he can see will one day belong to his descendants. 

Suddenly Jacob awakens, sits up — and begins to realize what has happened. Yahweh has shown up in his life; Yahweh has come and spoken to him. What seems like a dream is reality, pure, true reality. When one deals with the Sacred the line between fantasy and reality is often blurred, is it not? I love his statement: “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it! How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God and this is the gate of heaven.”

What does it take for us to sense, to feel, to see, to sense the presence, to hear the voice, to experience the Sacred One? Where does this happen for us and why? Do we come to worship expecting the Sacred One to show up on Sunday? Do we ever look around and wonder why it is that the Sacred One seems to show up for others, but not for us? Could it be that the ability to experience the Sacred lies within each of us, but too often we are so caught up in ourselves that we are blind to the pullings and tugs of the Sacred? 

The Jews believed that there were places on earth which were “gates” to heaven, i.e., doorways through which one could experience Yahweh. Later the Celts would develop an idea of there being “thin” places through which one could have similar experiences. Unfortunately, in our pragmatic, mathematical, rationally logical and logically propositional world, we rarely experience these. We are so caught up in “belief” and “proof of the Sacred” that we rarely have time to experience the One who is already here and knocking on our door. 

Being children of the Reformation and the Enlightenment we believe in scientific methodology and theological proof. Unfortunately, (for us) faith is more mystery than it is knowledge, more of the poet and less of the mathematician. True faith is more about dimly seeing the hand and perceiving as through a fog the face of the Sacred and less about certainty and assuredness. We confuse belief with faith and so we impoverish our souls. The Sacred of the universe will not be contained in our little boxes nor imprisoned in our feeble minds. As with Jacob, so with us: the Sacred shows up in dreams which seem to be fantasy but which, upon examination, bear nothing less than the reality of the Sacred. 

So often in reading a text such as this people will look to the minister to give them the “correct” interpretation. Tell us what it means, preacher, so we can eat our meals and rest easily in our beds at night. And we preachers, wanting you to think that we are really smart, give you the answers which sound reasonable or rational to us. There’s just one problem with that — the Sacred is not always reasonable or rational or easily understood. Who really knows what this text, with its image of angels ascending and descending means? Commentator after commentator, scholar after scholar have all intoned as to their particular understandings...but the exact truth escapes us all. Yes, this is about Jacob receiving the blessing and experiencing Yahweh in the process...but that’s about as far as we can nail down. In this occasion, as in so many other, the meaning often depends upon who is doing the interpreting, i.e., upon the life experiences and understanding of the reader. This is a text for poets, not lawyers. (The Book of Leviticus — now that’s a lawyer’s text!) 

Let’s take a few moments and review our lives in recent days. Did the Sacred show up for us? How did we know it was the Sacred? Were we anticipating the Sacred? Seeking the Sacred? Could it be that the Sacred has tried to show up for us and we were not looking? 

I am afraid that we ministers have done you a disservice in this “Sacred One” business. We have told you that if you come to church, behave yourself, and treat people nice then you will go to heaven when you die. We have even promised that maybe, just maybe, if you are pious enough, then the Sacred may show up here at church one day. 

Now, to be sure we who lead worship work very diligently to prepare our worship so that we all might have a chance to experience the Sacred. However, I can assure you that you are just as likely to experience the Sacred anywhere else as at church. Why? Because here we put on our blinders and expect the Sacred to show up in the sermon or the hymns or some other designated point in the worship service. We serve and worship a Sacred One who doesn’t fit so well into our boxes or follow our patterns as neatly as we think. We are just as likely to experience the Sacred on a seashore, in the mountains, at a homeless shelter or sharing a meal with family and friends as in a Sunday morning worship. There is something about this structured, formalized nature of worship that so constricts our soul and our senses, that most Sundays the Sacred would have to use a sledgehammer to get our attention. Now, to be sure, the Sacred is not above using such devices...so I would beware when I came to worship. But I also would beware when I lay down at night...or when I wake up...or when I eat...or think...or reflect...or stare off into the distance. For if I believe anything, I believe that the Sacred is ever trying to awaken us out of our slumber and come alive in our souls. 

Why come to worship, then, you ask? Simply, regular worship builds in us an awareness that the Sacred is present and calling to us. You may never have a “eureka” moment in church...but over time what you do and hear in this place will make a profound difference in who you are. One day, after years of worshipping and serving in a church, you will realize: “I am different...my values are different and my faith is deeper than it was...” Slowly but surely, over the cascade of time, like a river pouring over rock, your soul has been shaped in this place and time by the Sacred. 

If there’s one thing that attracts me to Jacob it is that he was nowhere close to being a good person. Conning his starving brother, then deceiving their father and cheating his brother out of the birthright — later he will even cheat his father-in-law out of the best of the herds. No, Jacob was a con artist, a flawed “hero” if there ever was one. He represents the Cool Hand Luke type of character as played by Paul Newman in the movie of the same name; or “Will Hunting” as played by Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting. They are the intelligent, likable but rogue character who lives on the edge of civility. Yet, because he was alert and awake to Yahweh, he sensed Yahweh’s call and promise when others missed it entirely. Me — I would have chosen Esau, a man’s man. Not Yahweh — he goes for the Jacob character every time. Tells us something about Yahweh, does it not? I wonder how we missed that clue? 

Experiencing the Sacred is not a matter of proper theology, correct ethics, or a flawless resume and life. Coming to faith and experiencing the Sacred is about being aware, awake and alert, i.e., conscious to what is going on in the world and to the Sacred’s presence. Remember how a poet put it?
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries...



For all his flaws Jacob had a sensitivity to the holy, to the presence of Yahweh in and around him. Esau — when it came to Yahweh he was as dumb as a bag of hammers. He had no sense of values, of priorities or of Yahweh’s calling. Jacob sensed Yahweh’s presence and so it was Jacob who answered the call. He even piles up stones — builds a memorial — and calls it “Bethel” — the house of God. Bethel becomes rather famous as an altar and house of God until it is destroyed centuries later.
If we were to go backward in our lives, where would we build our monuments, our memorials to those times when we experienced the Sacred? Where would we pile up the stones to commemorate how the Sacred has worked in and through our lives? Would we go back to an “old home place” and there pile stones together? Would we go back to a church, a school, a camp, or a time? Would we pull out a book, a text from the Bible, or a song as symbolic of those times when the Sacred was so close and so real? Would we walk along a shoreline or venture up into the Appalachians? 

It is my belief that potentially the entirety of life is holy and sacred — there is no place or time that is too far for the reach of the Sacred or that cannot bear the presence of the Sacred. There are no people who are too far removed to hear that Voice, see that Face or feel the touch of the Sacred’s hand upon their shoulder. What there are, however, are people who are so blind, so deaf, and so
insensitive to the presence of the Sacred One that they, rather than worship, are just picking blackberries. There are Jacobs and there are Esaus...which are we? 

An older man was once admitted to a hospital, terminally ill, angry and striking out at anyone and everyone who tried to help him. After a week or so the staff were beside themselves and out of answers as to how to help, so they summoned the chaplain. He engaged the patient in conversation but then left after 10 minutes or so. “Not ready” was his summation. 

A few days later a nurse called the chaplain: “Mr. Smith is crying and cannot stop. He’s completely broken and wishes to see a minister.” As the chaplain rounded the corner to enter the room he was heard to mutter under his breath, “Well, the Sacred got another one.”4

What will it take for us to wake up and see the the Sacred One who is before us? How hard will the Sacred One have to hit us before we awaken and say with Jacob, “Surely the Lord is in this place — and I did not know it?” 

Amen.

1 In this sermon I am avoiding the generic term “God” and using Yahweh for the God of Israel. I am also using the term “the Sacred” for the God whom we meet. The term “God” is so over worked and misinterpreted that I believe it is virtually meaningless. The only change to this practice is when the Hebrew prefix/suffix “el” is used to designate God.
2 Genesis 8: 16, 17.
3 Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora.
4 Dr. Will Willimon, The Dark Adversary, February 4, 1996. 

5-18



“Overcoming Our Anger”
I Samuel 18: 6-16; Ephesians 4: 25-27, 29-5: 2

We live in a world of anger, hostility, and rage beyond our wildest comprehension:

  • “Road rage,” violence and killing on the highway are becoming normative in the densely packed cities.
  • Spousal abuse and violence in the home continues to plague our society.
  • Terrorism, both political and religious, seems to never cease.
  • Young people, seemingly frustrated by their lot in life, take guns and go to their schools where they inflict unbelievable horror.
  • For a while so many postal employees started acting out their rage that we developed a new phrase — going postal. 

    Why? Why are we so angry? Why do we have such violence and rage within so that even the least little act produces the desire to kill? What can we do about our anger?
    Saul is angry -- better yet, let’s name his anger: he is jealous, resentful, and full of bitterness toward David. David has killed Goliath -- a feat that Saul should have accomplished but was too cowardly to try. David and Jonathan -- Saul’s son and heir to Saul’s throne -- had become best friends. David was living with Saul and Jonathan, but Saul soon perceived that David’s popularity was getting out of hand. David was a highly successful soldier and commander -- even though he had no military training. David was musically gifted and a great writer of poetry as many of the Psalms attest.

    Yet, there was another reason for Saul’s jealousy. Verse 12 of the 18th chapter of I Samuel says it best: “Saul was afraid of David because the Lord was with David but had left Saul.” Saul is unfaithful to God and now he sees that God has sent another to take his place. Saul’s sin was in disobeying God by not destroying all the property of the Amalekites. Rather, he kept the property for himself thereby showing that his Kingship was not about serving the Lord, but he was out for himself. God rejected Saul as king and uses the prophet Samuel to deliver that message. Now Saul realizes that the rejection is not just of himself, but of his lineage and that Jonathan will never become king after him -- David will be the king for the Lord is with him.
    How hard that must have been for Saul to watch as David’s actions were blessed by God! Anger built up in him as guilt and jealousy mingled to create resentment and bitterness. Time and again he sends David out on dangerous missions where he should have been defeated and killed. Time and again David returns victorious. For the rest of his life Saul will vainly pursue David trying to kill him, somehow believing that if David is eliminated then Jonathan will be king. 

    Anger is one of the more difficult opponents we will ever face in our lives, because anger works subtlety to convince us that we are not in the wrong. The phrase “she is so mad she cannot see straight” illustrates this point completely. Saul was so angry that his thinking had gone completely haywire and he was now out of control. Anger distorts our perspective and as such is used as a tool of the Evil One to disrupt our world. Evil thrives on self-deception and when we allow anger to rule us we open ourselves to evil.
Anger masks itself in so many ways. Rarely do I see incidences of violence in congregants lives or families. What I see is passive-aggressiveness in anger — where a person smiles at others on the front-side but works behind the scenes to undercut and to bring doubt and confusion. Many a family presents the image that all is well — yet when you talk with the children you discover that the emotionally weaker or “passive” parent is undercutting the “dominant” or stronger parent.
Inherent in our struggle with anger is our supposed “Christian” understanding of anger as a sin -- and therefore wrong. We were not allowed to express our anger -- that would be blatant sin -- so we repressed it, pushed it inside. We developed other words to deny and conceal our anger: hurt; disappointment; frustration; upset. When we repressed our anger it was as if we placed a lid on a boiling kettle and turned up the fire: sooner or later that kettle would explode. And explode it does -- either through violence to others or to ourselves. We are like the rattlesnake, which in circumstances where it is angered and has no other option, will bite itself, poisoning itself. Anger repressed creates the situation in which we turn upon ourselves in destructive behavior. Crucial to understanding anger is the reality that no one else can really make us angry — they can only reveal the anger which is inside of us. If we blame another for making us angry then we are but allowing them to control us. 

Anger is a normal human reaction that is both primarily physiological in origin. When we become angry our blood pressure rises, adrenaline is secreted in larger doses than normal, and sugar is released into our bloodstream. Our heart beats faster and our eyes dilate. This physiological response goes back to the origins of humankind and our living in situations where, when threatened, we had to “fight or flight,” to physically defend ourselves. The physiological response is a means of increasing our ability to defend ourselves or to escape danger. The problem is that, in our culture, threats are rarely of the type that demand a physiological response. However, the response mechanism — along with the adrenaline secreted in our system — is still there. When we repress this response we create the aforementioned pressure cooker. 

The desert monastics had an understanding of the human personality as a chariot pulled by two horses (passions): desire and anger. The charioteer was reason, but when the passions took over reason was lost and the chariot would careen out of control.
What can we do so that when we become angry we do not careen out of control or sin -- as Paul says -- but deal with our anger creatively and constructively? 

RECOGNIZE
First, we must recognize our human propensity to anger and discover the sources of our anger. Have you ever had someone tell you to calm down and you replied, “Mad? I’m not mad!” We need to reflect upon our behavior and understand what reveals our anger. Where is the threat to us or our family? Is it real or is it imagined? Why are we threatened? Is it financial? Social? Spiritual? Vocational? Is our response appropriate to the situation or are we overreacting? Is our anger indicative of our own lack of self-esteem, the sin of not seeing ourself as a child of God?
There is one type of anger that can not only be useful, but has its source in God: righteous indignation. The Bible speaks of God being angry toward sin and evil and what they have done to creation. God’s wrath is not sin, but his conscious and never failing opposition to all that is evil. When we see people being taken advantage of, used, and abused by others, then there is something that rises within us. This anger can be an incredible positive as we use its energy and passion to focus us in the proper perspective. I have never met a person who accomplished anything in life who did not have a fire burning inside, who did not have a passion about what they are doing. However, successful people learn how to manage that passion rather than to let it control them. 

An all too common practice is to misplace the focus of our anger. When someone or something disappoints or frustrates us, but we cannot respond to them for whatever reasons we will repress that anger and then let it out at someone or something where we feel safe. The typical analogy is not far from the truth: The boss makes us mad so we go home and fight with our spouse. Our spouse makes us mad so we take it out on the kids or the dog. 

If overcoming our anger is to be of vital importance to us, we must understand the devastating effects of anger upon the soul. Roberta Bondi lists three such effects noted by desert monastics:
Resentment blinds the reason of the one who prays.
Brooding over injuries and wrongs suffered destroys our memory of God and God’s grace.
Anger irritates the soul and during prayer it seizes the mind and flashes the picture of the offensive person before one’s eyes. 

These effects upon our soul are the reason Jesus taught us to make peace when we want to come before God. If we are not at peace with our fellow human beings we will find ourselves unable to pray, unable to focus, unable to do the things that we should do. They and the situation, not God, will be first and foremost in our lives.
CONFESSION
After recognizing our anger we need to accept responsibility for our wrong use of anger and confess it to God. Confession is an admission of helplessness, that without God there is no telling what we would do. Through confession we are liberated from our anger. 

Anger unresolved can be a terrible, terrible burden, which becomes like a ball and chain so that we are condemned to pull it behind us. In time this anger becomes so much as part of us that our identity is wrapped up in this anger. Who would I be without my rage? My indignation? Too often we accept the role of victim and in so doing condemn ourselves to a lifetime of anger and bitterness. Confession allows us to give that anger and bitterness to God and walk away from it -- ready to start a new chapter in our lives free from the bondage of the past. 

Prayer can be a meaningful practice to release our anger. Have you ever what we call the “imprecatory Psalms?” Wow, there is some anger let out in those! The Psalmist asks God to bash his/her enemies and to destroy all their enemies’ heirs. Listen to Psalm 58: 6-7:
“Break the teeth in their mouths, O God; tear our, O Lord, the fangs of the lions!
Let them vanish like water that flows away; when they draw the bow, let their arrows be blunted.

Like a slug melting away as it moves along, as a still-born child, may they not see the sun.” 

These are honest prayers, confessing the depths of our anger to God. I am not sure we ought to pray these prayers regularly, but I am sure that we should confess our anger to God and the reasons for our anger. Jesus taught us that central to our prayer is praying for our enemy, for the person with whom we are in disagreement. Despite what we feel, any disagreement is a two-way street and we can never assume that we are totally in the right and the other is completely wrong. If we can see them as a fellow child of God that will go a long way toward dissipating our anger. 

EXPRESS ANGER APPROPRIATELY
After confessing our anger and praying over it, we need to express our anger appropriately. This may include going to the person and discussing the situation; going to counseling to work on healing the wounds of the past; getting involved in changing a social situation; or going to marriage counseling to work on our relationship with our spouse. There is no law that says that anger cannot be used to build rather than destruct, to create rather than to tear down. The positive nature of anger is that, if we will allow it, anger will reveal to us the places in our soul where we need work, our weak spots where we need healing. 

“I am redeemed...but there are unredeemed parts of me....There are parts of me that have not yet heard the good news of Jesus Christ.” When I first heard that statement something clicked in my understanding of human nature and our relationship to God. For years I had been tormented by the fact that Christians, those who claim the name and power of Jesus Christ, continued to act in ways decidedly out of sync with our Lord. Paul may call us saints, but deep inside we know ourselves to be sinners. Nowhere is this more vivid than in the arena of anger. Despite all our professions about transformation to the contrary -- we still struggle with anger and its composite parts: rage, jealousy, frustration, resentment, bitterness and the like. It was only after hearing this statement that I began to understand life in Christ as a progression of development and growth. Rather than Christ instantaneously removing all the imperfections of sin from our lives, they are left for us to slowly remove through the power of the Spirit. 

Crucial to creatively dealing with anger — and to our entire pattern of spiritual growth — is to become “other centered” rather than “pleasure centered.” A fellow minister wisely said, “If we do not make that critical shift, we will not only be unchristian, we will also be miserable.” Depression can be nothing more than anger repressed and held onto for years and years and years. If we cannot make the shift from the pleasure centeredness we knew as babies, children and adolescents to the other centeredness required for maturity we will be miserable. None of us are the axis around which the world resolves. At best we occupy a small portion of this terra firma for a few years and move on. If we cannot move to servanthood as our modus operandi we will build up residual anger and be completely unaware of it. Then one day, boom: the heart attack, stroke, ulcers -- or we lose it completely over nothing. 

So there you have it: recognize, confess, and appropriately express our anger. Let us not be a Saul, controlled by our anger so that we become a tool of evil rather than good. Let us be a Paul -- in our anger do not sin. We will all be better for it -- and so will our world. The Kingdom of God does not come through anger and force, but through the wind of the Spirit. Hear the words of St. Paul
which close our text: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Ephesians 5: 2

Thursday, May 15, 2014

5-11


“Reflections on God and Motherhood...” 
Believe it or not, one of the greatest challenges of the Christian year for ministers is Mother’s Day. Now, I know that sounds crazy to most of you, for you’re thinking: “What’s so hard about Mother’s Day? Just talk about motherhood and apple pie and everyone will be fine.” As a congregant once said to Robert Fulghum: “I’m bringing my MOTHER to church on MOTHER’S DAY, Reverend, and you can talk about anything you want. But it had better include MOTHER and it had better be GOOD.” Fulghum added: “She was joking — teasing me. She also meant it.”

Why is Mother’s Day a problem for ministers? Well, consider the fact that on that day most of us want to worship some sort of syrupy, sentimentalized, Hallmark version of how great motherhood is and how wonderful all our mothers were. Except for the fact that motherhood is not great for everyone. The reality is that not all mothers were wonderful; not all women enjoyed motherhood and not all children were easy to raise. In fact, raising children may be the hardest job any one could possibly have. Now, add in the fact that many women who would like to be mothers are not — for all kinds of reasons — and you have a prescription for conflicted emotions and potential disaster. 

Now, consider the truth that we come to church not to worship any human being — mothers or fathers — but to worship God. There have been some Sundays on Mother’s Day when I questioned who we are worshipping. So, the dilemma for us ministers is critical: We must recognize these realities, but also know that if we ignore Mother’s Day we are digging our own grave — and quickly. Most congregants want the minister to say something good about mothers, motherhood and God, usually in that order.

So, the more I thought about this the more I came to see that we can use this day to answer a simple question: Being people who believe in Incarnation, who believe that God dwells in us, how does the image of motherhood and women reflect for us the reality of God? What do we know about God through the lens of mothers and motherhood that we otherwise would not know? 

Before you jump out of your seat and call me a heretic, let me tell you from whence I come. I believe, as does orthodox Christianity, that God does not have a sexual identity, for God is Spirit — not a physical being. Genesis tells us that God created human beings in his image, “male and female created he them.”2 The reality is that Holy Scripture affirms from the beginning that both male and female are contained within the Being we call God. To be sure we have historically used male images for God, primarily because Scripture developed within male dominated cultures. As we humans have matured in our understandings we have realized that God is neither male nor God a female — for God is Spirit and as such both images are contained within God’s Being. 

A quick word of caution is appropriate when we come to talk about the feminine nature of God. A perusal of religious history also allows us to realize that a vital distinctive of Judaism and Christianity was their ability to separate sexuality from their understanding and worship of God. As a result of this foundational separation Christianity does not have gods and goddesses — a la other religions. When we talk about the femininity or the motherhood of God, we are not referring to goddesses in any shape, fashion or form. We are talking about a wholeness, a unity, a oneness of God such that God’s essence is reflected in all of humanity, male and female. 
Are we aware that Holy Scripture backs us up here? In our texts this morning we see God being understood in feminine imagery:
Like birds hovering overhead, so the Lord of hosts will protect Jerusalem; he will protect and deliver it, he will spare and rescue it.3 God is seen as a hovering mother hawk who watches over her nest and protects her offspring. 

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!4 God is envisioned as a mother hen who gathers her chicks under her wing and protects them. 

As mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.5 God is portrayed as a mother consoling and comforting her child. 

Though we have ignored the feminine reality in much of our religious life and heritage, envisioning God as male and female enhances our images and understandings of God. Our vision of God is cloudy at best. When the task is understanding God, we do “see through a glass darkly.”6 We use images, metaphors and analogies to help us comprehend the infinite, the Spiritual, the One who is beyond us in so many, many ways. In the Christian church God was understood as revealed in Jesus Christ — and quite particularly in his suffering and crucifixion. These are symbols of loss, of self-sacrifice and of the ultimate in self-giving. The God whom we meet in Jesus Christ is the God who works from beneath, not from above. Despite how Jesus has been co-opted through the years, his is not the image of a militant God who leads us to victory. Jesus is the image of the crucified God, who lays down his life. When we omit either the male or female side of God we worship a false God, an idol made in our own image. 

There is one caveat we all must hear: we dare not confuse the symbols and images of God with the reality behind them. To identify God as exclusively male or female is to de-sacralize God, the result of which is idolatry. When we use these symbols we are allowing them to picture for us the characteristics of this one whom we cannot “see” in any complete sense of the word. They are, however, all mere symbols and images of the divine. 

So, to restate the question: How does understanding God as encompassing female and motherhood within God’s Being enhance our understanding of God? 

The first thing I notice is that when we emphasize this aspect of God, we tend to look more at the loving, compassionate and tender nature of God. To be sure, there are women who are neither loving, compassionate nor tender — just as there are men who are this way. However, on the whole, when we talk about how we see and understand God through our mothers, we tend to come to these aspects. 

When we use solely masculine images for God, the result is a male-dominated version of God that is patently false. Exclusive male images for God too often result in our worshipping a “warrior God” who leads us into battle and supposed victory. Though these images may have dominated the Hebrew Scriptures’ understanding of God, they did not do so in the early Christian church. 

The reality is that for most of us our first experiences of love, compassion and tenderness came through our mothers. The nurturing Mother is for us, when we are infants, a substitute for the nurture of God. For most of us (and I am extrapolating from personal experience to generalization) loving acceptance came through our mothers more than our fathers. I know that in my home, even with five children, my mother was the one who listened, who comforted and who forgave. My father was the goal setter, the rules-oriented parent, the one who doled out discipline and punishment. 

Now, to be sure we could not play one against the other. If one parent said something, the other backed them up. But, more often than not, if Dad was being overly strict (as he was prone to be) then Mom was the one who would talk with him and get him to relent.
In my Mother I experienced love so accepting and so complete that there was literally nothing I could do that would stop her from loving me. She had a capacity for love and acceptance that was boundless. I know this same love in Debby (my wonderful wife) — not only for me but also for our sons, their spouses, and yes, grandchildren as well!! At the risk of stereo-typing (a risk I have long ago run roughshod over) the feminine expression of love is much greater than the male. I have often wondered how much of God’s love I would really, really know if it were not for my mother and my wife. They have helped me immensely to change the very nature of the love which I show to others.
Mothers are about “ensouling” us — developing and nurturing our soul. Through these women in my life I have developed my senses of feeling, of loving and of intuition far beyond what I had known. These values, so necessary for our success and survival, are often lost in our male- dominated world. We men can become so bottom line, results-oriented that we fail to remember that the journey is the destination. 

Years ago a colleague told of looking into a shop window and seeing price tags which seemed to be inherently wrong. What was expensive was cheap and what was cheap was expensive. He entered the shop and inquired if the prices were right. After examination by the shop owner it was discovered that someone had switched all the price tags. In order to get the true price and value, they had to be switched back. 

We live in a world where all the price tags have been switched. What the world says is of value — possessions, things, material goods, etc. — these are but trinkets in the larger understanding of life. What God says is of value — love, grace, mercy, forgiveness — the nature of one’s soul — these are seen as worthless in our material world. Mothers can be a strong dynamic in allowing us to put the price tags back on properly. 

In the play, A Raisin in the Sun, the young man comes home, having lost all the families’ money and in so doing destroyed all their hopes, their dreams. His sister, Beneatha, calls him every despicable name imaginable. After she curses out her brother, the mother speaks and says: 

 "I thought I told you to forgive him.” 

"Forgive him? There's nothing left to forgive."

There is always something left to love. And if you ain't learned that, you ain't learned nothing. (Looking at her) Have you cried for that boy today? I don't mean for yourself and for the family 'cause we lost the money. I mean for him: what he been through and what it done to him. 

Child, when do you think is the time to love somebody the most? When they done good and made things easy for everybody? Well then, you ain't through learning - because that ain't the time at all. It's when he's at his lowest and can't believe in hisself 'cause the world done whipped him so! 

When you starts measuring somebody, measure him right, child, measure him right. Make sure you done taken into account what hills and valleys he come through before he got to wherever he is.”
Through our mothers we learn to “measure him right,” and to share with one another the love and grace of Jesus Christ. So, even if this is a difficult day for you — celebrate and rejoice. Through our mothers we are given life and an understanding of the One who calls us to life and life eternal. Thanks be to God for motherhood — and our Mothers. May they ever nurture, strengthen and lead us to God.

1 Robert Fulghum, “It Was on Fire When I Laid Down on It.”  
2 Genesis 1: 27
3 Isaiah 31: 15
4 Luke 13: 34-35
5 Isaiah 66: 13
6 I Corinthians 13: 12
7 Lorraine Hansberry, “A Raisin in The Sun.”