Sunday, July 14, 2013

Guest Moodler: Sermon on Images of God

This sermon makes more sense if you've read The Taskmaster from last week. Another good sermon  from my one and only guest moodler. I think I'll try reciting Hafiz's prayer when I wake up in the mornings from now on...

Images of God
Cathy Coulter
July 14, 2013

Last Sunday I read a story I had written many years ago that was a light -hearted look at how my image of God had expanded from the rather distant, judging male God the Father to the more intimate, relaxed and fun-loving female God the Mother. I now will give a disclaimer that these characters of God are not based on my actual mother or father but I did have some experiences in mind when I wrote them.  The church of my childhood, my time with born-again Christians in my teens and my rejection of all that in my twenties was based on a God that I had let down in some way but who forgave me despite the fact that I didn’t measure up. I was apparently a sinner and Jesus had to die for my sins. That was the God who sat up in the sky and kept a record of right and wrong and tested us. God was male and as the only girl in a family of boys in a farming society where boys did the important, valuable work of farming, I had the unspoken, unconscious message that females were less valuable. In my thirties, exploring why I felt like I didn’t measure up, I came across the phrase “the original sin of being born female” and a light bulb came on. At the same time I met a wonderful group of women through the local United Church who introduced me to the idea of a feminine God. It was those women on whom I based my story’s character of God the Mother. The idea of a feminine God blew my mind. For the first time, I knew what it meant that I was created in the image of God. My spiritual life was kick-started and I became so thirsty to learn more, more, more.  That hasn’t stopped. I still feel like there is so much to learn and understand.
So I thank God for the United Church and its openness to different images of God and its inclusive language. I believe including the feminine is important for everyone, but I think it’s absolutely critical for girls if they are to have a deep sense of their own value and worth.
I needed the pendulum to swing from a male to a female image of God for quite some time but it has swung back to a more balanced place. I can be ambidextrous (for lack of a better word) with God the Father and God the Mother. They’re all kind of mixed up now, like in my story at the end when they were at the barbecue together, flirting.
Many people say that they don’t imagine God as either male or female and that’s fine too. I don’t know that I can really do that. We seem to be hard-wired for relationship. There is something about seeing a loving face delighting in us that is necessary for our wholeness. Arms wrapped around us. The touch of a kiss. That’s how I like to imagine God. Christians don’t have the monopoly on the image of God as a loving person. Hafiz, a Sufi poet in the 1300’s wrote a poem that would be a good poem to recite every morning upon waking:
          In the morning
          When I began to awake
          It happened again –
          That feeling
          That you, Beloved,
          Had stood over me all night
          Keeping watch,
          That feeling
          That as soon as I began to stir
          You put Your lips on my forehead
          And lit a Holy Lamp
          Inside my heart.
When I read that for the first time, I had the picture of exactly that. God keeping watch over me at night and planting a kiss on my forehead when I first stirred. Is that a beautiful image, or what? I love how it makes me feel so cherished.
          The image of God as Beloved is a rich image that we find a precedent for among the Christian mystics as well as the Sufi poets. It seems fitting that as we mature spiritually we expand our image of God beyond a parental image. When we have the experience of falling in love with God, only the language of the Beloved will do.
I started thinking about this idea of the images of God this spring when I learned more about St. Francis of Assisi through an on-line course of Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest in New Mexico. I like Richard Rohr’s teachings and this particular course gave me so much to think about. The course was not a study of St. Francis’s life as much as a study about the theology that emerged from his life.
We know St. Francis of Assisi from his prayer:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
St. Francis was not born a saint. He was born in 1181 or 1182 to a wealthy family, and spent his youth drinking and partying. During a local war he fought in, he was imprisoned for ransom for a year. It was in prison that he received a vision to follow Jesus and live a life among the poor, forsaking his wealth and comforts.
Francis is perhaps best known for loving the birds and animals and is often seen in pictures  surrounded by little creatures.
In his love of Jesus and of nature, Francis saw how God revealed God’s self in everything. Francis was able to step out of seeing himself as the centre of the universe, perhaps by stepping out of his comfort zone and living a life of poverty. He began to see everything for itself. When we take a break from seeing everything in the world in terms of how it affects us, when we look at something for what it is, we see that by being itself, a thing is good and true and beautiful.
By being ourselves, we are good and true and beautiful. We can see that in ourselves and in others.
Francis saw God as a part of everything and that included each person that walked down the street. He would walk through the streets of Assisi, greeting all the people he met, saying, “Good morning, good people. Good morning, good people.” When he reached the edge of town he would say, “I have preached my sermon.” We can only wish that all sermons were that simple and that short.
Francis saw the goodness of people because he saw God in them and he knew God is good. Francis also knew that God is totally humble. Humble is not an image of God that usually springs to mind. “God is humble.” Let’s think about that. When I think about the words for God that we grew up with, ones that come to mind include almighty, all powerful,  Lord, King. Michael W. Smith’s popular and catchy Christian song has a refrain that goes,
Our God is an awesome God
He reigns from heaven above
With wisdom, power and love
our God is an awesome God.
That’s a God that we bow down to but is it a humble God? Francis spent his life finding God in the world around him, not in heaven above. He let the smallest creature, the smallest flower or weed or stone speak to him of God. The outcast, the drunk, the poverty stricken, the infirm…Francis saw the face of God in these humble people. And his model was, of course, Jesus, who did as well. Our Christian faith teaches us that God chose to be revealed in Jesus. As our Creed says, God “came in Jesus, Word made flesh”, not as a king but as a baby born to a poor, humble couple. Jesus lived his life in humility. Jesus didn’t take the side of the powerful or the “in crowd”. Consider story of the Good Samaritan that we heard this morning. Think about that story again, this time considering the Good Samaritan as an image of God, who does not pass us by, who binds up our wounds and pays for all our expenses. If Jesus is the face of God, then our God is a humble God.
We also grew up with a theology that because we were born sinners, we weren’t good enough for God so He sent His son Jesus to make amends on our behalf through a violent death. St. Francis and the Franciscan theology that grew out of his life, did not teach that. St. Francis recognized our original blessedness and believed that God came in Jesus to show us that God is totally good and totally humble. Richard Rohr, the teacher of the course that I took about Franciscan theology says that “Christ didn't come to change God's mind about us, but to change our minds about God.”
During the course we were asked to reflect on what is our real, operative, de facto image of God? And that got me thinking about the story that I wrote a dozen or so years ago, the one that I read last week. I thought about my God the Father figure, the one I didn’t measure up to, who saw me as hopeless, who had an enormous rule book and set up tests that I surely couldn’t figure out. With my God the Mother figure, I could be myself and I was liked for who I was. I could relax and play and trust my own inner voice. I realize now that those two versions of God weren’t as much about gender as about how I saw God generally. But which image of God is operating in my life now? I’m still a bit of a rule freak, find myself judging others too often when they don’t follow the rules, worry if I measure up, if I’m doing things right, still have a voice telling me I have to be productive to be worth anything. I think that image of God is still hanging around.  
Richard Rohr says that if we want to grow spiritually, "we must first deal with the often faulty, inadequate, and even toxic images of God that most people are dealing with .... Jesus as the image of the invisible God reveals a God quite different and much better than the Santa Claus god who is making a list, checking it twice, going to find out who's naughty or nice... We must be honest and admit that this is the god that most people are still praying to." 
Somebody is knocking at your door. Is that somebody calling you to explore your own images of God? Where is the mysterious image of God beckoning you to expand?
The poem that I taught the children this morning about the squirrel was written by St. Francis and I would like to end with another of his poems:
Such love does
the sky now pour,
that whenever I stand in a field,
I have to wring out the light
when I get
May all our hearts open to such love.


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