Sermon, May 11, 2014
Phil Campbell, Northern Light United Church, Juneau, Alaska
Isaiah 49: 8-16a
8Thus says the Lord: In a time of favor I have answered you, on a day of salvation I have helped you; I have kept you and given you as a covenant to the people, to establish the land, to apportion the desolate heritages; 9saying to the prisoners, “Come out,” to those who are in darkness, “Show yourselves.” They shall feed along the ways, on all the bare heights shall be their pasture; 10they shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them down, for the one who has pity on them will lead them, and by springs of water will guide them. 11And I will turn all my mountains into a road, and my highways shall be raised up. 12Lo, these shall come from far away, and lo, these from the north and from the west, and these from the land of Syene.
13Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing! For God has comforted the people, and will have compassion on the suffering ones. 14But Zion said, “God has forsaken me, my God has forgotten me.” 15Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. 16See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.
Luke 13: 31-34
31At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” 32He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. 33Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ 34Jerusalem, 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!
One of the occupational hazards of being a preacher’s kid is showing up in your parent’s sermons now and again. This happens on occasion in my sermons, but it is almost always with permission. Such is the case today. I spoke with our daughter (who will be here to visit next month), and she said, “Sure, why not. Do it to me again, Dad!”
This particular instance happened when she was about three. If you remember being three, or are or have been around three year olds, this might sound somewhat familiar. It is the time when youngsters exhibit a growing awareness of their bodies. They notice things and begin distinguishing themselves from others. This is particularly apparent with regard to male and female anatomy. Different body parts are objects of curiosity. One evening, as was our custom, Teresa and I were in conversation with our daughters at bedtime. Story telling was over, and conversation about the day commenced. Out of the blue, our younger one asked, “Does God have a . . . ?” I probably could, but I won’t, say the word in church. It names a male body part. She used the anatomically correct designator. It starts with a “p.” Does God have one, she asked? In moments such as those, I would try not so much to answer the questions, but to learn more about them. “Why is it are asking about that?” And she started giggling and said, “Well, why not? He’s a boy!”
In and of itself, this is a cute story, and not something to be alarmed about. I certainly was not concerned about her budding awareness of anatomy and difference. But what struck me was the theological significance of my three-year-old daughter’s understanding. The second chapter of Genesis tells us that “male and female God created them.” But my daughter, created in God’s image, had already absorbed the message that she was not really created in the Divine image – that there was distance between her and God that wasn’t there for boys. Three-year-olds are literalists, of course. As we mature, we begin to think abstractly; we develop an understanding of symbolic meaning. We learn that God is not literally male. We can comprehend that “mankind” means everyone, male and female; we can conceive that when someone says that we are all created in “his” image, meaning God, that females are included. A female can think, “Oh yes, I have learned that means me, too.” But does it? I mean, really, foundationally, in what we believe in our heart of hearts? Or do the words we use, subliminally that unconsciously, impact us?
Hebrew Bible scholar, Walter Brueggemann, in his article, “Covenant as subversive paradigm,” asserts that “The way that we imagine it to be with God reveals to us what we believe is possible for us.” How we imagine it to be with God tells us what we think is possible. If all our imagination about God is filtered through a male lens, do we really believe that women and girls are created in God’s image? You may think I am making too much of this. It may be possible to make too much of it. But I believe that what the historian Wallace Steven’s observed is true. He told us that we do not live in our place. We live in our description of our place. This testifies to the power of language.
There is valuable discussion of the importance of placed-based education. In Juneau, this means understanding that we live in Tlingit Ani. That we dwell in the place of the Auk Kwan people. But really understanding this means learning about it in Tlingit. Knowing it in English is not the same. Understanding is lost in translation. This is part of the significance of the Alaska Languages bill that passed during the last session of the legislature. I was part of a conversation yesterday about the languages bill. A comment was made to one of proponents of this bill, UAS Tlingit language professor, X̱’unei Lance Twitchell. They said, “that bill is just symbolic.” Like somehow it was “less than” because it was symbolic. But this is not so. As church, we know the power of symbol. We are in the symbol making business. To live in our description of our place, is to live with our symbolic meaning. How we envision our place and our lives in it makes all the difference. It tells us who we are and how we are to be. Nothing is “just symbolic.” We should say, “Wow, how amazing. This language bill is symbolic! It recognizes the power of symbol!” Our symbols make all the difference. They change everything. Our symbol systems shape how it is that we see reality, and how we see reality influences how we live.
Analogously, our God language is symbolically significant. It shapes how we understand God. When it comes to gender, what do we affirm? Is God male? Or is male and female and more than male and female? Can we embrace this possibility and comprehend its implications? Or do we whisper, is this really all that important? Can’t we just say, “I know women are created in God’s image, but all I know is male God language. It doesn’t matter does it? Besides, Jesus called God, ‘father.’” Intellectually, we can translate, but unconsciously, our male descriptions of God mean that we live in the maleness of God. Subliminally, the message is that maleness is closer to Godness. God really does have male body parts. Isn’t that the conclusion? Some religious traditions still exclude women from the clergy based on the fact that Jesus was male and so were all the disciples. They also say women are created in God’s image, of course. They don’t deny that. But does their practice belie their claims? And for those traditions like ours that ordain women, do we fully support this? And is one of the barriers to so doing the “generic” male language for God and humanity that we use? Our language shapes our worldview.
It is not only about gender. A controversy erupted in Denver when we lived there. The city commissioned a statue to pay tribute to fallen firefighters. Women as well as men were part of the constellation of figures depicted. But some complained because the statues looked “too ethnic.” Everyone has ethnicity, so what did that mean? “Ethnic” is code for people of color. Some white people, it seems, could not identify with firefighters of color. Why not? They were meant to stand for all firefighters. But those in the dominant position who claim their perspective is universal are not comfortable when someone from an historically oppressed group is used as the universal symbol. Some whites said, “I can’t see myself in this statue because it looks Latina.”
In our scripture readings this morning we hear first the prophet Isaiah’s word from God about God’s compassion for the people. The Hebrew word for compassion is the plural of the word, “womb.” God’s compassion for us is womb love. Can we, especially men, wrap our minds around being created in the image of the womb-love God? Can we claim it, embrace it, and celebrate it? In the second reading, Jesus describes his love for the children of Jerusalem by depicting himself as their mother hen. Men, can you get your mind around this image? Can you feel good about being described as a mother hen?
I suggest to you this morning that the feminine imagery in our scripture readings describes what is at stake. The descriptions are powerful and inclusive when juxtaposed with more common male images. How we imagine it to be with God tells us what we believe is possible for us. May all of us imagine ourselves as truly created in image of the all-inclusive God. May we live in this description and know ourselves created in the image of warm father God, and strong mother God. May we know ourselves created in the image of old, aching God and young, eager God. May our lives give testimony to the image of the great, living God. Symbolically speaking. Yes, symbolically speaking! This is the good news of the descriptions in which we live.
Is it important? Some of you have read about the abduction of 234 female teenage students in Nigeria as they were taking their exams last month. They were kidnapped by Boko Haram and are being used as pawns in a war between the government and the rebels. If those who perpetuate such violent violation could experience themselves as created in the image of mother God, would it be possible for them to perpetrate such an act of kidnapping? If they could see the 234 teenage young women as images of God, I mean really, could they do this? And, would being able to see God completely and fully as female make a difference in Alaska? We know the statistics. A 2011 study revealed that 58% of females in our state have been subjected to intimate partner violence or rape. Is it possible to execute such violence on God’s image? Is it possible to be created in the image of God and to perpetrate such violence? It depends on the image of God in which we are created. How we imagine it to be with God reveals what is possible for us. I pray this day that we will all embrace our identity as those created in the image of the loving God, mother, father, parent, child. May it be so. Amen.