Re-Imagining God

Posted: March 20, 2016 in Sermons Year C - Advent 2015 to 2016

Luke 13: 31-35

Lent 2  21.2.2016

For some time now I have been advocating that we need to re-imagine God, we need to grasp a new concept of who God is for us. Today I want to add some depth to this challenge. I want to suggest that this re-imagining is not a simple one off event. I want to suggest that we might consider that our concept of God is already changed and rather than finding something new we need to let go of the old that no longer works and affirm what we already know. I know I have advocated hard for the new and novel but I now want to suggest that perhaps the new is too evocative and without some acceptance of an evolutionary reality we might get caught up in being curious, nervous, anxious, annoyed, or bored and then resist all that and prefer to not notice at all. Embracing the new is the ideal and recognizing the process is making it happen.

What is true is that we have already been exposed to this task of ‘Re-imagining’ despite the fact that many of us have resisted. Some of the patterns for re-imagining God, Christ, the church and more were encouraged with hymns that introduced The Christ as “Sophia” (from Proverbs) or a reintroduction of the Wisdom literature. For Roman Catholics the Marian school provided the place for feminine imagery but not for God or The Christ. Our reading from Luke again raises this re-imagining with the power and emotion of Jesus’ words to Jerusalem, when he asks, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

Here Jesus, is shown to employ a feminine image for himself and, to the degree that for many, Jesus reveals the essential character and disposition of the One who sent him, also for God. This leads us to ask that if Jesus can describe himself and God as a mother hen, can we not also employ a variety of images to describe God. Scripture, after all, is replete with a variety of images for God, both male and female. For instance, God is described also as a protective mother eagle (Deut 32:10-11), a fierce mother bear (Hosea 13:8), and a mother giving birth (Isa 42:14) and breast-feeding her child (Isa 49:15).

This then brings us to realize that when we only describe God with the typical male language of king and father, etc., we run the risk of limiting our imagination? And while we might be concerned with finding images that make God more accessible to women, the reality is that we are all impoverished when we can only imagine God in the narrowest of terms. To restrict our imagination to only male and female terms is to restrict our concept of God to anthropomorphic boundaries.

This of course invites a level of additional anxiety in that we become worried about going too far and getting it all wrong. When accepting our imagination as the boundary we quickly meet the assertion that “most of the heretics use biblical imagination and how do we know the difference? This indicates a fear that we’ll get our imagery for God wrong and that we’ll be declared heretical. The response to this is yes that might be true but isn’t all of our imagery ultimately, if not wrong, at least inadequate?

Tad DeLay, in his book ‘God Is Unconscious: Psychoanalysis and Theology’; states that: When you see a rainbow, you’re seeing something completely subjective. You see it at a certain distance as if stitched on to the landscape. It isn’t there. So, what is it? We no longer have a clear idea, do we, which is the subjective, which is the objective? Or isn’t it rather that we have acquired the habit of placing a too hastily drawn distinction between the objective and the subjective in our little thought-tank?

An answer to this supposed acceptance of the imagination is that the ability to look again at our scriptures with integrity is worth far more than our fear of inaccuracy? Trust the process, revisit the known which is the imagination of before and do so with integrity and experience the novel, the new. Understand the new subjectivity with a better objectivity. Another way of saying this would be to say that what we seek in re-imagining is a new more vivid Christian imagination – not the right or wrong imagination, or a progressive or orthodox imagination, just a Christian one, which we might define simply and expansively as the attempt to understand God in light of Jesus.

One of the really important things to come out of the historical Jesus studies over the last 100 years, is the rediscovery and the recognition of the utter Jewishness of Jesus, He was a Jew with a devout Judaism focus. He spoke with passion to Judaism, his faith and his message was to Judaism and to those who followed its tenets. For us this is a rediscovery of the man Jesus and thus a discovery of our real connection with him. The other thing we need to consider is that the gospel storytellers tend to present a Greekish Jesus rather than a Jewish Jesus. They are subjects of their time also and this is an invitation to ask of their context, their agenda, and their world view to authenticate their setting. Jesus, and those our tradition call ‘the disciples of Jesus’ during his lifetime, and the communities that formed soon after his death, have a clear identity. They are groups of Palestinian Jews within a complex and diverse Judaism under the Roman Empire.

There is also little to no evidence that Jesus had any conscious intention of founding a new religious institution either superseding Judaism or existing alongside it. So, I want to suggest, we can never really appreciate the depth of feeling a Jew like Jesus had for Jerusalem. For Luke’s Jesus, no earthly place was more precious. And no place brought out Jesus’ sense of compassion more, than Jerusalem. The storyteller Luke reminds us of this. All told, Luke mentions Jerusalem 90 times in the stories that carry his name. While all the other New Testament writers combined, mention it only 49 times. So it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Luke sees the place as important. Jerusalem is the dwelling place of God, the place where God’s glory shall be revealed. But let’s also acknowledge that Jerusalem is also the place where God is betrayed by those who would further their own subjectivity at the expense of others.

Barbara Brown Taylor’s comment sums it up well: “Nothing that happens in Jerusalem is insignificant. When Jerusalem obeys God, the world spins peacefully on its axis. When Jerusalem ignores God, the whole planet wobbles” (B B Taylor/Religion-online Web site 2004).

All of this suggests that Luke’s Jesus lived in the context of danger because of what he was saying and danger because he was probably being grouped together with zealots and other political agitators, by the powers that be – the Empire. Danger, also because, it is claimed, Herod Antipas was never backward in coming forward to deal “decisively with the leader of a religious movement whom he perceived as undermining the authority of his government…” (Funk. 1993:349). A danger that is emphasized in Jerusalem – the centre of power.

The complexity of this danger is noted in the text earlier where Jesus has been on his way to Jerusalem and he is not going to be dissuaded from that course.  He is leaving the region of Galilee anyway, but, in the face of a threat from Herod Antipas, he makes clear that he will do so in his own way and on his own timetable.

“Some Pharisees” bring the warning:  Herod wants to kill you.  Some have suggested that Herod might have sent the Pharisees to Jesus in order to encourage the troublesome Jesus to get out of his territory, but this seems unlikely.  Luke treats the Pharisees more positively than does Mark or Matthew. This is not to say that Luke doesn’t take a hard line on the Pharisees–he does–but not so much as Mark or Matthew.  In Luke, Pharisees invite Jesus to dinner. So when Luke tells us that “some Pharisees” came to Jesus to encourage him to save his life by leaving Galilee, it is most likely that this was a friendly warning and not some kind of trick.

Jesus and the Pharisees had quite a bit in common and some scholars now suggest that without the Pharisees there would have be no Christianity.  The Pharisees were a reform party and part of the diverse expressions of Judaism present in the time. This is supported by their lack of support for dishing off the practice of Judaism to the Temple alone.  They were in favour of Jews living the Torah all the time in daily life.  As God cared for creation 24/7, they would live the law 24/7.  Jesus and the Pharisees shared a common devotion to God which, they both believed, could be lived out in daily life.

The rub came in how it was lived out.  The Pharisees grounded their devotion in Torah and living the law as a way of life.  Jesus, on the other hand, identified with the prophetic tradition.  In Luke, the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry is marked by strong prophetic identification (4:16-30).  In fact, Jesus again identifies with the prophetic tradition in our text this week.  In the prophetic tradition, the “spirit” of the law trumps the “letter” of it.

Though the Pharisees as a whole are identified as enemies of Jesus in all four gospels, they do not make an appearance in the actual passion narrative in Luke.  This is probably true to actual history.  The Pharisees were more of an influence outside of Jerusalem than in it.  Inside Jerusalem, the prime movers behind the assassination of Jesus were Sadducees and Temple bureaucrats.  At the time of Jesus’ death, two-thirds of the membership of the Sanhedrin was Sadducee, only one-third Pharisee.

Jesus calls Herod a “fox.”  Foxes may be crafty and clever, but they are not very powerful.  Jesus dismisses Herod as a mere pest.  True, Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, could be dangerous.  He had beheaded John the Baptist (9:9), for example.  On the other hand, he was a small fry compared to the concentration of power in Jerusalem.

Jesus tells the Pharisees that he is not going to alter his plans on account of Herod.  He is on his way out of Galilee and toward Jerusalem, but he will not hurry his timetable or change his local mission just because of Herod’s threats.  “Behold,” he says, “I am throwing out demons and accomplishing healings today and the next day, and the third.”

Another challenge in our text today would have been a significant challenge to its readers as it has been to some of us. The challenge to consider the strong feminine side of imagining God.

‘How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!

Luke is digging deep into the Wisdom tradition of Judaism here and the observation has been made that there is hardly a more feminine picture of Jesus available in the gospels tradition, than the vivid picture of a hen rounding up her chickens and fluffing her feathers protectively over them. She has ‘no razor-sharp teeth, no claws, and no steroid muscles’. All she has is her willingness to shield her chicks with her own body. Such is Luke’s picture of the compassion of Jesus. Luke uses the feminine image to convey the level of anti- cultural, anti- establishment, Jerusalem centered passion of Jesus.

Its important here to get a grasp of just how important this passion is because it takes it out of the intellectual, out of the well-schooled academic world and places it firmly in the heart. It also seems, according to Bill Loader for instance, that the warning given to Luke’s Jesus by some of the Pharisees, indicates that engaging in acts of compassion and caring which restores dignity to people, can have wide ranging implications: both personal and communal. It is paradigm shift stuff.

William Loader sets it up like this: “Why should Herod worry about such a ‘nice person’?  Because Jesus’ vision went beyond the individual to a transformed society. That had social and political implications. Both dimensions matter…” (WLoader Web site 2004)

The other point to remember here is that many scholars, our own Judith McKinley for one, claim that in Jewish literature, ‘Wisdom’ (always feminine) was pictured as God’s treasured companion… and again Bill Loader comments that “Behind the image of the hen is the image of Wisdom and behind that is an image of God, the compassionate and caring mother.  Jesus embodies that” (WLoader 2004 Web site).

So maybe this is what Luke is challenging his small community to be. Be compassionate. And so maybe this story to us many generations later says, we might embody compassion also. Gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, Amen.

Notes: Funk, R. W.; R. W Hoover. (ed) 1993.  The Five Gospels. The search for the authentic words of Jesus. New York. Macmillan Publishing.

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