‘Alive In Our Pictures Of God’

Posted: June 27, 2017 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 4A, 2017 Matthew 10:40-42

Alive In Our Pictures Of God’

In 1926, the English/American philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote these words: “Today there is but one religious dogma in debate:  What do you mean by ‘God’…”  (Quoted in Pittenger 1982:1). This morning we have heard two Lectionary stories. One, about Abraham, from the Hebrew scriptures. And one, about Jesus, from the experiences of the Jesus Movement. Both stories have within them images or pictures, of God. There is the image of God as a great and all-controlling power manifested in the unusual and the extraordinary. And there is the image of God as known in acts of compassion and love, present and active in human interaction.

These are of course, summary statements that are an over-simplification. They are also not meant to be seen as set one over against the other as if one is ‘good’ or ‘right’ and the other ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’. However I want to suggest that to a modern progressive mind, one story, one picture, does seem to be repugnant.

Uniting Church Minister Bruce Prewer talks about the story of Abraham and the near slaying of Isaac, and says; ‘I can still remember (my Sunday school teacher’s) picture book from which she read the story…  That scene was the stuff from which nightmares are constructed.  It troubled me greatly.  I was left with the question; Would my father kill me if God asked him to?

‘One evening, after dinner when his father was sitting in his favourite chair, and Bruce was sitting on his dad’s knee, he plucked up the courage to ask his father if he would be like Abraham if God asked him.  Looking back Bruce now feels for his father who was totally unprepared for that question.  Torn between his desire to uphold the Bible and his love for Bruce, his father made a mess of answering his child.

Bruce reflects; ‘I did not know the word prevaricate then, but that is what he did.  I took his response as a grim warning.  It did not do much to alleviate nightmares’  (Prewer.www site 2002).

If I asked you to describe how you picture God now today, I wonder what you might say? If you think about the almighty, all powerful, always seeing, vengeful God that we read about your picture might just be almost too intimate, too threatening to share. Or perhaps some of you might push those images away and replace them with Jesus as the shepherd, or the gentle one, or the reflective one, Or maybe some of you may feel you have little pictures or images to share. I want to suggest that if you can’t find and image that works for you then you might still be in the process of moving away from what you have taken for granted for most of your life, taken for granted that the most central events reported in the Bible really happened. I am not saying that you are caught in fundamentalism but perhaps it might be a kind of ‘natural’ or ‘soft’ literalism. I am not suggesting that your thinking is stuck in Sunday School images, nor am I suggesting that you are avoiding change and an alternative approach but I am suggesting that we are struggling with the extremes of difference. We choose to be either fundamental, traditional, liberal or radical when it comes to our models of belief. All of us can be very suspicious of another’s picture of God especially when they do not match our own sense of ‘theological correctness’. Yet, we inherently know that the way we understand or picture God is very important.

They are important not because we are religious and need our pictures of God but rather because they are in danger of not being alive within us, shaping our approach to life. Sure, we can replace them with rugby, racing and beer but if we do we will remain passive consumers of a second-hand culturally immature faith, a faith of our Sunday School years. We will become the ‘couch potatoes of the spiritual world’ as Katharine Henderson described it.

When we read the scripture we see that both Abraham (if he was indeed ‘historical’) and Jesus, were alive with pictures of God. And their pictures of God are shaped, indeed, edited, in the stories we read in the Bible. Many of us can admit to reading these biblical stories as one who sees the Bible as a human product… Stories told as a response by these two ancient communities to their experience of God or the Sacred. That’s what makes us liberal or non-fundamentalist. Or as one scholar of the biblical tradition puts it; it contains their stories of God, their perceptions of God’s character and will, their prayers to and praise of God, their perceptions of the human condition and the paths of deliverance, their religious and ethical practices, and their understanding of what faithfulness to God involves’ (Borg 2001:22-23).

Out of all of this I think I am suggesting that God has an image problem. Or at least much of the church has a problem with the way it speaks about God. Both in the pictures it holds on to and the way in which it responds to these different images. In a digital, visual culture that we find ourselves in today this is even more crucial.

The traditional way of speaking about God has for so long been about a God above and beyond us. And who for the most part, simply sits as a threatening presence to reward or punish us for the way we have lived. The prevailing thing that comes to mind when God is mentioned is about something up there, out there in charge making things happen. Even if we have to do some mental gymnastics to deal with a God who lets bad things happen to good people. It is easier to just move on and not deal with the intellectual problems. It is also thought that we generally believe in that kind of God, often sung about in traditional hymns and contemporary choruses, that has many people today rejecting the church. The challenge of this is that the problem is not just theirs.  It is ours.

As Morwood and Spong and Borg and many others have claimed, we need to rethink our image, our picture, of God. Even those pictures of God that have sentimental significance for us from childhood days and happier times. And on that note, I want to borrow from a sermon by Rex Hunt where he talks about a couple of most unlikely theologians. Both feature in Alice Walker’s book (and later the film), The Colour Purple

The first theologian is called Celie.  She says: ‘When I found out that God was white and a man I lost interest.’ Celie is not alone in her thinking. As long as traditional Christianity emphasizes a white, male puppeteer God who favours the privileged, then many people will continue to lose interest. This comment is borne out here in our own congregation where more than one young person has said that they come to our community because we understand their struggle for a God that they can picture and image in their living. While this may be seen to be patting ourselves on the back it is a significant affirmation.

God is but one of the names given to the mysterious ‘Source’ of life so what sense does it make to limit the imagery to imagery that limits our imagination of this mystery or, what sense does it make not to search for a God who is God for us. And it seems that in our time this imagery needs to reflect that God is in all and all is in God. A God that reflects what we believe. This imagery needs to reflect and invite one to understand and value that which is interconnected, interdependent, dynamic, holistic.  Serendipitous creativity, perhaps?

The second theologian Rex notes is called Shug.  She says: ‘One day when I was sitting quiet and feeling like a motherless child, which I was, it came to me: that I was a part of everything, not separate at all.  I knew that if I cut a tree my arm would bleed.  And I laughed and I cried and I run all around the house.  I knew just what it was.  In fact when it happens you can’t miss it… ‘I think it annoys God if you walk by colour purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it…  People think pleasing God is all God cares about.  But any fool living in the world can see it’s always trying to please us back…’ Maybe our imagery need to reflect this co-creative, present, relational God

Rex suggests that Celie and Shug, as theologians, have found the immanency or the present-ness of God in the midst of ordinary daily events. Not as a person. Nor as a supernatural, intervening, celestial being. But as that creativity within us and within all life which makes it possible for us to love, to act compassionately, to offer even a cup of water…  in a style after Jesus.

To conclude my proposition today I think this call to rethink is a challenge to see difference differently. To see it as a challenge to move on, to think again and to create images that work today, to get past the debate about the negatives that difference evokes, not to deny them but rather to see them as contributions to shaping our own pictures of what God is for us. The question of Abraham’s motives and action, Bruce’s question of his father need to be asked because they are the sorts of questions that encourage us to make this kind of shift in our seeing and thinking and talking. It is the kind of God-talk that may help us think again about God, and how we can help others to a new picture of God.

Notes: Borg, M. Reading the Bible Again For The First Time. Taking the Bible Seriously But Not Literally. New York. HarperSanFrancisco, 2001. Pittenger, W. N. Picturing God. London. SCM Press, 1982.


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