Tuesday, December 9, 2014

How We Name God

November 23, 2014

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
Matthew 9:10-17

How many names do you have?  Most of us answer or have answered to several names.  If you have been a teacher, your students and their parents might have called you by your last name with Miss or Mr. or Mrs. in front of your name last name.  If you are a professional person you might hear Doctor, or Professor, or Pastor, or Reverend with your last name or perhaps just your title: Mr. President or Madame Secretary.  Maybe today you are mom or dad, or Aunt Sally or Uncle Bob, or maybe Grandpa or Grandma—and maybe there is a special name that indicates which grandparent you are: Grandma Betty or Grandpa Peters or Gramps or, if you’re from the south, Meemaw.  One of our sons is Geoff to his friends and spouse, but he prefers for his parents and siblings to call him Geoffrey.  How we name ourselves and each other often has to do with function, sometimes with power, and sometimes with intimacy.  The same is true for how we name God as well as for the images that we have of God.
We’ve just spent thirteen weeks in the Hebrew scriptures looking at images of God.  In the very first stories, God is the Creator.  In the story of Abraham and Sarah, God is the God of the improbable and is willing to barter.  God is a conversation and covenant partner.  In the exodus stories God was portrayed as both rescuer or the Hebrew people and punisher of the Egyptians.  God is experienced as a bush that is on fire but not consumed, and as thunder and lightning and so terrifying that the Hebrew people choose not to encounter God first hand, but send Moses to meet with God.  We heard God described as a ruthless general demanding genocide.  We heard pleas from captivity that God would rise up as an avenger.  We hold close to the image of God as a tender shepherd in the 23rd Psalm.  Sometimes very human negative emotions are projected onto God in times of upheaval and suffering—that God is jealous, that God avenges, that God hates and kills.  At other times, the prophets blame the people for having blood on their hands and claim that God is angry.  Sometimes what we need is forgiveness and acceptance, and God becomes a tender shepherd.  Sometimes it is hard for us to remember that the images of God that we read in scripture are mediated through very human vessels.  The genius of the tradition is holding all of these together so that we might catch glimpses of God in spite of the human lenses through which God is mediated or imagined.
Why it is so important to examine, question and interpret our images of God is captured in the quote on the front of your bulletin:
I changed when my image of God changed.  Most of us recognize that we become like our parents whom from early on we adore, even with all their faults.  We may not realize that we also become like the God we adore. . . .We find that a key to personal and social healing is healing our image of God.
If our primary image of God is as a judge, we become judgmental.  If our primary image of God is of a parent, God will be like our parents, which may be fair and kind or may be arbitrary, easily angered, or even abusive—and that is how we will become.  If our primary image of God is love, we become compassionate.  
It’s even important to recognize where we envision God existing.  I have a friend from seminary who prays to her “Heavenly Father” and asks God to come down to be with us.  There are many who imagine God to be male.  Which is okay, as long as your male model of authority are not abusive.  The same can be true of female images.  One of my colleagues once led prayer using Native American prayer images and we prayed to Grandmother.  I remember having a visceral reaction to the image of Grandmother, not because I don’t honor Native American spirituality, but because my own grandmother was often mean spirited and I couldn’t associate God with that image.  That’s when it became obvious to me that we need to include many images of God in our prayer, hymns, and the language we use to speak for God.
I was invited to be the camp pastor for a family camp because the dean of the camp knew that his pastor was going to retire and it was possible that his church could receive its first female pastor.  He wanted to give the members of his congregation a small taste of female pastoral leadership and he wanted it to be a good taste so he asked his sons for a recommendation.  They had been at camp with me before, so I was invited.  We had a great four days together, laughing, playing games, singing, and praying.  On the last morning, I served communion.  Two of the women received communion with tears streaming down their faces.  Afterward they told me that they had never imagined that God could look like them.  The hands that served them in the name of God were women’s hands and it rocked them to the core.  They could know God intimately because they could perceive a feminine image of God.  If you are a man, you may not understand how naturally you understand God through male images, but for women a change in image can be transformative.  
As human beings we experience something greater than what we are, something that transcends our existence.  We make meaning the best ways that we can of these experiences.  We sometimes name God by what we need or hope for from that power greater than ourselves, and sometimes we name God out of our darkest emotions. When we are at our best, we name God through what we long for in terms of healing, peace, love, and joy.  When we are at our best, we model our behavior after how we perceive God to be, not the other way around.  We are going to be moving into more incarnational images of God as we transition into the gospels of Jesus as we start the new church year.  We will begin to see God through the eyes of Jesus.  That is the lens that I choose to look through for the clearest image.  Because, as the Linns so wisely observed, we become like the God we adore.  Jesus became like the God he adored, and that’s the God I want to adore, so that my life might look more and more like Jesus’ life.

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