Sermon–Is Your Image of God Up-To-Date?–October 21, 2018


22 Pentecost—Proper 24-B/October 21, 2018

William Bradbury

Isaiah 53:4-12, Psalm 91:9-16, Hebrews 5:1-10, Mark 10:35-45

It has been said as children we get our image of God about the same time we get our image of Santa Claus, but while all of us soon update our image of Santa, many never update their image of God. (Author Karen Armstrong) This explains why many adults dismiss church. Now 159 years after  Darwin’s Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection began to destroy the notion that the earth was created 8,000 years ago, and 113 years after Einstein’s “Theory of Relativity” upset the world of Newtonian physics, it has become increasingly impossible to believe in the childhood image of God as “the old man in the sky”.  What kind of God do we have, when we can clearly see the world is not a machine, made up of tiny bits of inert matter, but rather is a 13.8 billion year old “complicated web of relations,” “an integrated whole”, and a process of energy in motion? (Ilia Delio, The Emergent Christ) If we don’t update our view of God we either stop believing in God altogether or live a schizoid life of believing in a childhood god on Sundays, but being practical atheists the rest of the week.

But how can we update our image of God when most adults stopped studying their faith and reading their Bibles after Confirmation? We’ve also largely stopped talking to each other about such things. A recent study by the Barna Group shows that three quarters of Americans do not often have spiritual or religious conversations and of those Americans who regularly attend church, only 13 percent had a spiritual conversation around once a week. As Jonathan Merritt said in a NY Times Op-ed recently, “…many people stop speaking God because they don’t like what these words have come to mean and the way they’ve been used”. But the end result of this silence is that “those who are causing the problem get to hog the microphone.”

Our view of Santa grows up, but our view of god maybe not so much.

So here’s an example of a discussion happening in some corners of the church. Most of us grew up with the phrase “Almighty God”. Our collect today begins, “Almighty and everlasting God.” But it turns out this is a bad translation of the Hebrew words El-Shaddai: El, is the word for God and Shaddai for thousands of years has been translated “Almighty”.

This has had several negative consequences: first, if God is almighty in a literal sense, that is, if God has all the power in the universe, then God is to blame for all the suffering and evil in the world and humans are let off the hook.

Secondly, if Almighty God is totally in charge of everything, then it must be God who is giving tyrants their power to enslave human beings and intimidate and murder journalists they don’t like.

And today, James and John ask Jesus for precisely this: that when Jesus comes into his glory, his almighty power, they want to be sitting next to him, so they can taste that power for themselves. And it’s not just James and John, but also the other ten.   

But please notice, Jesus is having none of it!

Listen to How The Message translates what Jesus says to his power hungry disciples: “You’ve observed how godless rulers throw their weight around,” he said, “and when people get a little power how quickly it goes to their heads. It’s not going to be that way with you. Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave. That is what the Son of Man has done: He came to serve, not to be served—and then to give away his life in exchange for many who are held hostage.”

Jesus reveals God’s true nature, not primarily as Almighty, but as All-Loving.

I imagine Jesus knew that El Shaddai didn’t mean God Almighty, but rather, what scholars tell us today—it means God of the Mountain Refuge or God of the Breast, or God is Enough. Jesus’ Father, his Abba, is the One we run to when we need protection, feeding, and peace.  Jesus, through the Spirit, seeks to lure us into becoming a community of lovers, because, as it says in First John, “God is Love”.  

And if God is love, then Triune God is all about relationship. God is not outside the universe pulling strings like a puppet master, but rather God is here with us in deep relationship with everyone and everything. God is working in us from the inside out, not the outside in. Love is always an inside job!

Franciscan sister, scientist, and theologian Ilia Delio, in her powerful book, The Emergent Christ, after talking about how the image of “God as Lover” fits into a world of evolution and quantum physics, says: “God is the cosmic Lover who tenderly, luringly, persuasively, faithfully,…relates to, cares for, and brings all possible good out of the world.”  She quotes John Haught who says, “The world is in evolution because God is a God of persuasive rather than coercive power.” Ibid. page 35

I believe it is this All-Loving God that explains what I heard in an interview from a sailing podcast my son sent me called, “On the Wind”. British sailing legend Pete Goss is best known for what happened in 1990 when he is in a solo racing competition across the Indian Ocean. He was in hurricane force winds and enormous waves, when he got word that a fellow racer 160 miles behind him had lost his boat and was now in a raft fighting for his life.

Pete Goss’s choice was stark: save his own boat and future, or risk everything by turning around to see if he could find and rescue a man in a tiny raft in raging seas.  Goss decides to head for the man. His boat is shaking so violently the engine is ripped off its mount. He said, “I was getting badly injured, being thrown around inside the boat. Got to where there was nothing more that I could do, so I crowded into a compartment, tied myself down and the boat would make it or it wouldn’t.” With help from the Australian Air Force, Goss locates the man, and then saves and nurses this stranger back to health.

There is more to this story, but what struck me most was his answer to the question what he thought when he received word of the imperiled sailor. First, he said an expletive, and then he said: “As a seafarer you don’t have a choice. Someone’s in trouble you help them.”

Jesus says: “I didn’t come to be served, but to serve, to give my life as a ransom for many.” This reveals not only Jesus’ character, but also the character of God. God is not some king sitting on a throne in splendid isolation away from suffering of the world, but God is Servant, sitting with the suffering, in every place of our pain. This is what it means to be a Lover.

All real relationships require such self-offering. Bishop Bill Burrill said to the vestry Tuesday night that when ushers pass the plate they are not taking up a collection—you collect garbage—rather we are making an offering—not a tip for a nice worship service, but a sacrificial love offering of ourselves back to Christ, who then turns our money into ministry for the healing of  others.

Every time we update our image of God we are also updating our image of ourselves, because we are made in God’s image. We find that offering ourselves in love is actually part of our DNA, we inherit from God.

To paraphrase Pete Goss: “As followers of Christ we don’t have a choice. Someone’s in trouble, we help them.”