Rev. Caroline Lawson Dean
August 12th 2018 at Christ Church, Summit
“Healing our Image of God”
Exodus 3:1-15: Moses & The Burning Bush
3 1-2 Moses was shepherding the flock of his father in law Jethro. He led the flock and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. The angel of God appeared to him in flames of fire blazing out of a bush. The bush was blazing away but it didn’t burn up.
4 God saw that Moses had stopped. God called to him, “Moses! Don’t come any closer. Remove your sandals from your feet. You are standing on holy ground.”
6 Then God said, “I am the God of your father: The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.” Moses hid his face, afraid to look at God.
9-10 God said, “The Israelite cry for help has come to me, and I’ve seen for myself how cruelly they’re being treated by the Egyptians. It’s time for you to go back: I’m sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the People of Israel, out of Egypt.”
11 Moses answered God, “But why me? What makes you think that I could ever go to Pharaoh and lead the children of Israel out of Egypt?”
12 “I’ll be with you,” God said. “This will be the proof that I am the one who sent you: When you have brought my people out of Egypt, you will worship God here at this very mountain.”
13 Then Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the People of Israel and I tell them, ‘The God of your fathers sent me to you’; and they ask me, ‘What is God’s name?’ What do I tell them?”
14 God said to Moses, “I-AM-WHO-I-AM. Tell the People of Israel, that the Great ‘I-AM sent me to you.’”
15 God continued with Moses: “This is what you’re to say: ‘God, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob sent me to you.’ This has always been my name, and this is how I always will be known.
Let us pray: God of the ancestors, God of wind & fire, give us a renewed sense of who you are this day, that we might re-imagine who we are and how we draw out your love in this world we pray – Amen.
There is an anecdote about a student who comes to her spiritual teacher with the confession, “I don’t believe in God.” And the teacher says, “Tell me about the god that you don’t believe in.” As if to say, “I might not believe in that god either!”
Moses, herding his flock, runs into a burning bush. And he has the good sense to stop and take a look. God says, “Moses! This is a holy place, this is a moment you might want to pay attention to.” God gives Moses an amazing homework assignment, “set my people free.” An enormous task. And Moses begins to hedge, perhaps stalling in order to wrap his mind around what is going on. “Who am I to do this?” Moses asks God. And God says, “I will be with you.” As if to say, “that’s all you need.” So Moses searches for another excuse to stall, “When I say to the people ‘the God of your fathers has sent me,’ and they ask ‘What is God’s name?’ What shall I say?” And God says, “I-AM-WHO-I-AM. Tell the People of Israel, that the ‘Great I-AM’ sent me to you. The God of their ancestors.” And we know the end of the story, Moses faces Pharaoh and eventually the people of Israel are set free on the other side of the Red Sea.
But let’s back up, what kind of name is “I-AM-WHO-I-AM.” That feels like a non-answer or at least a really odd name. Perhaps it’s hard at the end of the day for mystery to come up with a name. And so we are left with God’s actions, God’s relationships (the God of Jacob, the God of your ancestors) and the metaphors given to us to help us take in a tiny part of who God is…
When we look at the story of Moses in the ancient scriptures we find out that God is a liberator, God comes in fire and in cloud, God provides food in the wilderness, and yet God is also willing to use, or at least channel, nasty means in order to set God’s people free. Remember the plagues? Imagine blood, darkness, insects, hail storms and even the death of innocent children. If we are honest it’s not ok nowadays to believe in a God that saves your child by killing another. I’d rather root for a God that liberates both sets of kids…
And this is a perfect illustration of our current mixed feelings about the Judeo-Christian portrait of God. Is God truly “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” if God is willing to punish people in eternal torment? Personally, I am all about the liberating God, the God who provides in seasons of trouble. I am good with the God who helps us reform the evils of the world and brokenness within ourselves. A God who helps us turn back to love. But the vengeful, even violent images of God in the scriptures are tough to swallow. I’m sure there is still truth to be mined from these stories, but can’t we also strongly disagree with them?
Sheila Linn one of the authors of the book “Good Goats: Healing our Image of God,” tells a story about a therapy session she had with a woman named Hilda:
“Hilda came to Sheila’s office crying because her son had tried to commit suicide for the fourth time. She told Sheila that he was involved in drug dealing and murder. “What bothers me most” Hilda said, “is that my son says he wants nothing to do with God. What will happen to my son if he commits suicide without repenting?”
Linn writes that at the time she had a more traditional image of God at the time. She repressed the thought “God probably will send your son to hell.” And opted for a more compassionate approach.
Sheila Linn said to Hilda, “close your eyes and imagine that you are sitting next to the judgment seat of God. Imagine also that your son has died without repenting. Squeeze my hand when you can imagine that.”
After Hilda squeezed her hand, Linn asked, “How does your son feel?” “My son feels so lonely and empty.” “What she would like to do?” Hilda said, “I want to throw my arms around my son.” She began to cry as she imagined herself holding her son.
Finally, Linn asked her to look into God’s eyes and watch what God wanted to do. Hilda imagined God stepping down and just as she had done embracing her son.”
This encounter changed Sheila Linn’s image of God forever. Linn writes, “I was stunned. What Hilda taught me in those few minutes is the bottom line of healthy Christian spirituality: God loves us at least as much as the person who loves us the most.” Seila Linn shifted her dominant understanding of who God is from a “God who judges” to a “God who loves.”
There is an eastern fable that describes a dark room full of mystics gathered around an Elephant, grasping for truth. One reaches out and exclaims, “I’ve got it, it’s an ear!” Another “No, it’s a foot!” Another “An eye!” Another “A leg!” God is mystery. And we are at best grasping in the dark when we talk about who God is. And so we talk about God in metaphors. God is a rock, wind, fire, cloud. God is a mother hen, Abba father. God is the first and the last. Or a few of my favorites, God is a potter, a shepherd, or a vineyard tender. The strongest metaphor for God comes in the person and ministry of Jesus. If someone asks “what is God’s name?” “What is God like?” We as Christians point to the person of Jesus.
One beautiful thing about reimagining our image of who God is – orienting
the God of our ancestors around love and around the life of Jesus – is that we have a beautiful opportunity to reorient our own worldview. You see, when you believe in a self-righteous, judgmental, all-powerful God it is easier to project these values into the world and feel justified. If you believe that God’s most important characteristic is that God is “holy” or set apart, then you are likely to work hard to maintain your own holiness, and to, at least subconsciously, categorize the “holy” and “unholy” amongst us. But if God is love, if we are to mimic the life of Jesus, then perhaps that provides a better model. Now of course there are folks who “believe God is love” and still struggle with judgment, self-righteousness, vengeance or grasping at power. But if we can hold up a God of unconditional love, then we each have a place to return to when we catch ourselves in cycles of suffering or judgment. We can always return to love, the invitation is standing when God is defined by unbounded grace.
And one last important caveat before we leave the subject of “the image of God.” We need to say this mantra over and over and over again to undo the cultural misappropriation of who God is and who God isn’t. Repeat after me “God is not an old white man.” And let’s try one more “Jesus is not a white man.” Let’s try that one again, “Jesus is not a white man.” And to be clear we are not dealing in mystery here. Jesus was born in the Middle East. He was most certainly a person of brown skin and dark features. If we close our eyes and imagine the stereotyped image of a “terrorist” we are statistically closer to what Jesus looked like than we are when we imagine Jesus as a fair skinned hippie with long brown hair and blue eyes.
And even when we teach our kids from a young age that “God is not male,” maleness is still so often the default when we pick a dominant metaphor or image of God. “Why?” might you might ask, “Why is it so important that God’s maleness is balanced with other images of who God is?” Think about the folks who have had an abusive relationship with their father? Or an absent father? Think about folks who have never seen a female leader in their vocational space or in their church? Think about our girls and our boys – growing up imagining God as only “he.”
A few years ago, the youth choir sang this Bobby McFerin’s rendition of “The Lord is my Shepherd.” Let’s take a few meditative moments to let this new image of God’s shepherding love sink in:
Here is the truth, I know intellectually that God is not a man. And I also operate in a space that has been historically dominated by men. So you don’t have to remind me to the power and importance of women in leadership. But when I hear this song as a woman, a daughter, and a mother, it is always a fresh reminder.
When I hear this song – these stunning images of the divine feminine, I know that there is a space for me within God. There is a connection with God that is renewed. God sees me. God knows me. She is mine in a way that an white old man on a cloud could never be. Don’t we want to give this precious gift to our girls? And for the boys and men in our community, isn’t it good for all of us to see the divinity in feminine form, in genderless form – even gender queer form? We all need to let go a bit of the subconscious lie that masculine is power, masculine is better, masculine is safety, masculine is God. Because that is what we accidentally say when we say that God is a man we say that man is God.
And so now beloved go out in peace, reimagining how your image of God has shaped you. Try on a new divine metaphor, “God is love, those who remain in love remain in God, and God remains in you.” (1 John) When we stumble upon burning bushes – may we have the courage to stop and see God in a new way, over and over and over again.