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2015 06 21

 

“God the Father?”
Copyright Dr. Jeremy Garber
First Mennonite Church of Denver
21 June 2015
Texts: Isaiah 66:7-13; Luke 11:9-13

My favorite childhood memory is the day I spent alone with my father. I remember him waking me up very early in the morning, while the sunlight was just barely peeping through the window shades. I remember making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and filling the metal thermos up with milk to go along with them. I remember driving to the zoo and my dad singing “Daddy’s Taking Us to the Zoo Tomorrow” on the trip there. I remember the zebra-striped railroad cars, and the tigers, and napping in the car on the way home. And I remember my dad laying me down when we got back home and whispering me to sleep. Not that this invalidates my memory, but I later found out that my dad took me to the zoo for that day so that my mom could get a major project done for her college coursework. If anything else, it reinforces to me that he was caring both for me and for my mother. I saw my dad’s love in his waking me up, in his preparing me food, in his spending time with me, and in his arms around me all day long.

Not everyone has a father like mine. Not everyone has a father present. Father’s Day is a difficult one for many people, especially those whose father whose behavior toward their children is the exact opposite of mine. If you have memories of a father who was distant, or cruel, or inaccessible, then Father’s Day won’t mean a whole lot to you – or worse yet, can bring up painful memories that you would rather stay tucked away. And the numerous images of God as Father can make us react in exactly the same way. So this morning I want to look at what some of the possible problems with God the Father are, and then turn to two important pieces of Scripture to see if we can find some answers – and if God can be our Father or not.

Feminist theologians argue that seeing God as male translates in society as men being God. Perhaps the most famous critique of God the Father comes from ex-Catholic theologian Mary Daly, who saw male images of God (and in her later most radical days, males in general) as the cornerstone of rape, genocide, and war. For Daly, religion was both patriarchal and oppressive, and she wanted nothing to do with it; she infamously compared women wanting to be equal in the church with black people wanting to be equal in the KKK. Famous psychologist Sigmund Freud, meanwhile, argued in his book Moses and Monotheism that religion is rooted in the original sacrificial death of the father figure, like the Greek story of Oedipus – it’s nothing more than an imaginary story made up for original humans to feel less guilty about killing their father. (Scanty on evidence, Freud’s theory makes a better plot for an episode of Game of Thrones than a scientific argument.)

In response, theologian Paul Ricoeur observes that the symbol of father is not a fixed concept but an “enigmatic and fluid one.” Ricoeur argues that the Bible moves beyond the phantasm of our actual fathers and the repressive authority figure to a relationship of kinship and mutuality. Rather than a father automatically being a stern, grouchy old man who dispenses out punishments when you break the rules, a father can be a kindly figure who cuddles you, reads books to you, and makes you dinner. More importantly, Ricoeur observes, it is impossible for human beings to relate to an abstraction. He says, “How difficult, if not impossible, it is to reverence a being who is absolutely imageless, lacking any identifiable features! Such a being could scarcely be called a being at all. But the Bible did not shrink from giving literary form to its apprehension of God, and in so doing pictured God to the mind and also retained the sense of God as different from the images....The fact that we find images rather than clear, prosaic descriptions reminds us that a ‘gap’ between the reality and the image comes with every image.” I have observed both in worship and in art that it is better for us to have a multiplicity of images rather than none at all. And as my friend Dave says, “I know I can’t have a relationship with a ‘trajectory.’” The imagination is the bridge between the abstraction of our minds and the reality of our senses. And luckily for Christians, the Bible is full of images as a bridge between God and us.

“Anthropopathic” images of God are those that attribute human qualities to God, rather than human form (anthropomorphic), e.g. “God is wise” rather than “the hand of God.” The Hebrew Bible is full of both. The name “El” used for God in the earliest manuscripts is derived from Canaanite mountain god who was elevated to king of all the gods; you can see the echoes of this in the story of Moses ascending to the top of the mountain to get the Ten Commandments. What changed with the Hebrew people, however, was the shift from an emphasis on a god dwelling in a specific place to a God who lived everywhere and had a relationship with specific people. Instead of the God of Mount Sinai, Yahweh became the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And instead of a God who controlled a place, God became a God who was relational. God adopted the children of Israel (and later the whole world). And the later prophets of the eighth and ninth centuries BC introduced mother imagery into the pictures of God in their prophecy, to highlight the Hebrew God’s role as parent, life-giver and nurturer. It is this turn from God as conquering patriarch to nurturing mother that we see in the very last chapter of the book of Isaiah.

The last part of Isaiah – approximately chapter 56 through 66 – is written much later than the earlier portions. The first part was written before the Babylonians swooped into Israel and Judah, tore down the temple and basically the whole city of Jerusalem, and broke up their countries entirely, carrying the elite back to Babylon as per their usual policy while leaving the ordinary people behind to live off the land. After the Persians defeated Babylon, they enacted their customary policy of colonization by returning the elite people back to their homeland and letting them rule in their original customs. Most significantly for the Hebrew people, this meant the rebuilding of both Jerusalem and the temple that was the center of their worship of God. In a completely unforeseen move that (like in verse 7 of our text for today) is as miraculous as a woman giving birth without any pain, the nation of Judah was restored and the people of Israel were whole once again.

This image of childbirth connected to God was no accident. Like Sarah giving birth to Israel’s namesake Jacob in her impossible old age, the creation of the second temple was a miracle of unexpected creation – like pregnancy and birth itself. And new birth and new creation both come from God, the original creator of everything in existence. God is the one who both creates and delivers; God’s creative nature means that God gives life to Israel, not destroy it. Isaiah’s message to God’s people was that they should be joyful about their new creation instead of mourning about the past. To look back at the way things used to be is to be stuck in the mud rather than looking up to the stars. God promises new life to the people of Israel, like the productive earth. Isaiah urges the Hebrew people to rejoice with abandon at God’s mothering and consoling ways – even God’s glorious bosom! The people of Israel are cared for by God like a child cared for by its mother. And in return, they should be as happy with pleasure as a newborn infant drunk with milk at its mother’s breast. The references to the pleasures of eating, drinking, and nursing symbolize the joy of God’s new creation.

Jesus also emphasized the loving, nurturing side of the parent image of God. Jesus calls God “Father” 170 times in the Gospels. The particular word “Abba” that the Bible records Jesus using for God is a “babble-word” like “mama” or “dada” imitating children’s speech, never used by other Jews of Jesus’ time and therefore likely original to him. Another commentator remarks about Jesus’ addressing God as Abba, “The relationship between God and Jesus is like that between a father and a son; nobody understands a son like his father, and nobody understands a father like his son.... Invoking God as ‘Abba’ entails modesty, humble trust, and mutual forbearance.” To call God Abba is like a toddler lifting up their arms to their father to be held.

But Jesus’ community in the Gospels is not exclusively a man-and-boy club. The gospel stories highlight the importance of women as primary witnesses to the resurrection, especially in light of harsh treatment of women in Jewish times – e.g. Jewish prayer thanking God the speaker was not born a Gentile or a woman, could not witness in court. In fact, Jesus calling God Abba was a way of breaking down the stern law-giving kingly image in favor of a father who loved and related to his children as equals and friends. “The effect of Jesus’ using ‘abba’ was to deprive the patriarchy, along with everything else that is compared with the sovereignty of God, of its absolute power. The fact that Jesus chose the ‘father’ symbol for this purpose suggests that he intended to direct his message especially at the patriarchy and to reorganize it by freeing people from its clutches....Jesus broke the forms of the patriarchal family in the name of God the Father, and recognized the natural right of women to equal humanity with men.” Jesus included women in the disciples, spoke with them in public, and even let one wash his feet (a customary sign of a wife’s duty to her husband). “The heart of his message, in word and deed, was that God is a father who frees us from oppression by including us in his family; that when God’s will is done on earth all will be included and none excluded; that his fatherly care means equal dignity and worth for all. This message was a threat not only to the interests of a religion that used the law to establish an elite, but also to a society which used religion to oppress the weak.”

Only when the church began to institutionalize itself later in the tradition did patriarchal power try to reassert itself in the later additions to Paul’s letters like the injunction for women to not speak in church. The mutual equality of men and women is still present in early authentic Pauline letters like Galatians, Ephesians, and Colossians. 1. Paul sees Christians as adopted members of God’s family. His writing shows that early Christians regularly addressed God as “Abba” in worship. “Paul used the experience of God’s fatherhood in worship as a basis for his argument that Christians need not lead a life of fear-inducing obedience to divine law, but could rather live in the freedom of a mature relationship with God. Matthew used the same experience to combat competitiveness and cement the unity of the church.” Mark 3:31-35 and Luke 2:48 show that “the call of God the Father takes precedence over the summons of any earthly father, and justifies the breaking of family ties and the apparent neglect of natural obligations. Jesus’ call brings a new family into being whose father is God and whose ties are the free adherence of faith. Not blood relationship but the doing of God’s will makes one a member of God’s family.” (65) Matthew explicitly addressed vindictiveness within the early church and the attempt to impose patriarchal order from up top with the repeated references to a father who includes his little children and does not turn them away. “Jesus proclaimed that the breaking of bonds of human kinship was a revelation of God’s sovereignty. When God is king no one will be bound to another by fate; only love will keep us together.” (69)

Nowhere is the picture of the loving father and how he relates to his children more explicit than the Sermon on the Mount, and especially the Lord’s Prayer. It’s important to remember that the passage we heard this morning about God answering prayer is immediately after Jesus teaching the disciples the Lord’s Prayer. It is not any prayer that Jesus promises God will answer, but prayer that aligns itself with the will of a God who wants the world to love just as God loves the world. Jesus tells the disciples that if they look for God’s will (as in the Lord’s Prayer), they will find God. Ordinary human parents give their children what they need. As good parents give their children good gifts, God gives God’s children the best gift of all – the Holy Spirit, the power of creativity, growth, and newness, which will lead them into things of which they have never dreamed, miracles of birth that explode the old ways of doing things with the power of divine creation.

We, the people of God at First Mennonite Church of Denver, are simultaneously living in a time of exile and a time of miraculous rebirth. As Vern, our longtime parental figure, moves on, we are discerning together new ways to be a church family. As we’ll discuss more in the second hour of church, in two weeks the whole Mennonite church will be getting together to decide what kind of a family we want Mennonite Church USA to be. There are some people who are looking down at the ground, mourning the loss of the safe, familiar, authoritarian ways of being leaders and being church and even being men and women. They are ignoring the message of Isaiah, that we are children of God the Father/Mother. God’s ability to create something new is a miracle like giving birth without pain. God is the one who both creates and delivers. God gives life, peace and justice, not death, war, and oppression. God calls the church to be joyful about the new things being created in our midst instead of mourning about the past. We should rejoice with abandon at God’s mothering and consoling ways – and get drunk on God’s love!  God promises new life to creation, like the productive earth. We are cared for by God like a child cared for by its mother. If we look for God, we will find God. If we look for what God is doing new in our midst, we will be part of God’s will for the world. Good mothers and fathers give their children what they need. As good parents give their children good gifts, God will give those in the church paying attention the gift of an entirely new creation in the Holy Spirit.

 

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