Disclaimer: this is the sort of sermon you want an intern to preach. It shakes things up in a way that the head pastor can't really do. I had many strong positive and strong negative reactions, and apparently I didn't quite spend enough time telling people that by quoting from The Shack I was not endorsing it, and that it's FICTION NOT DOCTRINE. The problem on that is, my worship committee is (by happenchance) quite a bit farther to the left of the rest of the church, and when I asked how they thought such a sermon would go over, they shrugged and said "go for it."
Right. Next time, more careful. But, although I did have negative reactions, there were such strong positive reactions too! I had some full-body hugs from people who aren't really the huggy type.
And my favorite reaction came from an old rancher with a twinkle in his eye:
"welll, we'll let you git away wit' it because yer from New York City..."
Although I’ve always been the one to preach without a joke, we’ve got an exception today! Ready for the sermon? Here we go!
So two old friends are visiting with each other. They were close friends in high school and thereafter but they haven’t seen each other for about twenty years now so they have a lot to catch up on. And one is telling the other about some health problems he’d had. He says “I was really pretty badly sick, and those doctors did a tremendous job. But I did get very near death. You know, I was in the dark looking for the light at the end of the tunnel, and all that….”
His friend says “wow! Tell me about it! What did you see?”
And he says “well I got through to the light, and up to heaven, I guess, just for a short while, yknow I thought I was there to stay but I wasn’t. I even got to meet God before I got pulled back to the hospital and came conscious again.”
And his friend is REALLy interested in this now and asks “so tell me! What was THAT like?”
This guy hestitates for a second. “well… it wasn’t quite as I expected… okay, there are a few things about God that surprised me. For one, she’s black.”
How does it feel to be surprised with a different image of God?
Is it confusing? A little bit uncomfortable? Most of us at some point got used to the image of God with a flowing white beard, as he is pictured on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. He’s old. He’s white, and male. When I was a child, I thought God was kind of like – grandpa. This worked because my grandfather was a nice person, but he had already died when I was young. So grandpa was in heaven, just like God was in heaven, and both grandpa and God were generally nice, lovable people, with white hair and wrinkles. This is an image that worked well for me.
But what if your grandfather was not so easy to love? What if he was depressive, or violent, and didn’t like children? The image of God as a grandfather that worked so well for me might be a terrifying image to a child who is afraid of their earthly grandfather. The image that works for one person is harmful to another.
We find the same problems when we try calling God our Father, or our Mother, or calling Christ our brother, or our King, or our lover, or our friend. All human titles we can use are tainted by human sin, and failings, and the pains we experience in this life.
I’m wondering how many of you read this book. Can I have a show of hands? (The Shack, by William P Young). For many people this is a deeply meaningful book because it shows us a different image of God. But it’s also very difficult in some ways, and definitely controversial. It is completely surprising.
Just to give you a sketch of what happens in this book, the main character Mack gets an invitation from God to visit a shack where his youngest daughter had been murdered. There he meets the Trinity. There are three people waiting there for him, and he asks which one of them is God and they all say “I am” in unison. Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Jesus is pretty identifiable - he looks like a middle eastern carpenter. But the Holy Spirit is a small Asian woman who is half-invisible and keeps disappearing. and the Father God is called Papa, but she takes the form of a woman. Mack is completely surprised by this. Listen to just an except of how Papa greets him when he comes:
Mack decided to knock on the door and see what happened, but just as he raised his fist to do so, the door flew open, and he was looking directly into the face of a large beaming African-American woman.
Instinctively he jumped back, but he was too slow. With speed that belied her size, she crossed the distance between them and engulfed him in her arms, lifting him clear off his feet and spinning him around like a little child. And all the while she was shouting his name – “Mackenzie Allen Phillips!”—with the ardor of someone seeing a long-lost and deeply-loved relative. She finally put him back on earth and with her hands on his shoulders, pushed him back as if to get a good look at him.
“Mack, look at you!” she fairly exploded. “Here you are, and so grown up. I have really been looking forward to seeing you face to face. It is so wonderful to have you here with us. My, my, my, how I do love you!” And with that she wrapped herself around him again.
If we encountered God in such a suprising, overpowering, in-your-face kind of way, I bet most of us would do just what Mack did in this book – he stood there, with his jaw gaping wide, while God practically ran circles around him in her excitement to see him. This is a funny image of God. It shakes us up. It’s not what we expect to happen. If we expect God to be majestic, slow, deliberate, and reserved, what are we going to do when God breaks our expectations and our social conventions? If we expect to bow on the floor in front of God and worship him, or maybe kiss his feet, what are we going to do if he picks us up and hugs us?
But God’s love comes to us in many different forms. God will use any method available to get a message through to us, and this is what is ultimately important -- getting across the message of God's love. In the Shack, both the Holy Spirit and the Father God chose to be seen as a woman for Mack because they knew he had had a bad experience with fatherhood – both in that his father treated him cruelly, and in that he felt he was not a “good enough” father to his own children. So since Mack had trouble with fatherhood, God appeared as a woman. It wasn’t a problem for her. She was happy to appear in any way that would help her communicate to Mack with nothing in the way.
This has happened before. It’s not about whether God is male or female, or black and white, or anything like that. It’s about using a new image to really get our attention. There are many times in the Bible, in the Old Testament writings especially, where God drops the usual images of Father or Master or King in order to make a very important point. When God people are particularly stuck, or suffering, or being oppressed, God will come to them in a different form.
Take a few examples.
In the book of Hosea God appears as a husband, with the nation of Israel his faithless bride. This is written at a time when Israel was particularly unjust, with the rich oppressing the poor, and people worshipping false gods. To deal with this, God appears as a husband and uses the images of intimacy to try and try and try to draw the people of Israel back to a righteous life of justice, promising them the love a person would reserve for their spouse. Times of injustice call for strong images of love and desire, coaxing, wheedling, trying to seduce the nation back into walking in justice and faith once again.
And another time, when the rulers of Israel were oppressing the people, God promises to come not even as a human but as an angry mother bear. Hosea writes: “I will fall upon them like a bear robbed of her cubs. I will tear open their breast.” Talk about using a vivid image! This is not an image of comfort, but of vengeful protection. You don’t want to be on the wrong side of that mother bear, but you probably would be pretty well off being one of her cubs who is being protected.
When God was preparing the people of Israel to come back from a long hard time in exile, the people were reluctant and afraid. They didn’t believe that God would help them get back to the land they had left. They may have thought God would bring them back to the land and abandon them there. So God says through the prophet Isaiah (42:14) “I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant.” With this God expresses how hard he will work to give success and prosperity to the returned exiles.
When God’s people are in real tough times, feeling a real struggle, the prophets and poets who speak for God have to use extra vivid images. The regular words just aren’t strong enough to cut through.
Today we read a lesson from Isaiah, which gave us a vivid image of God as a mother. Let me read just a bit of it again:
But Zion said, “The LORD has forsaken me,
my Lord has forgotten me.”
15 Can a woman forget her nursing child,
or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
yet I will not forget you.
See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.
What’s happening here is that God’s people are afraid, or cynical, or just for whatever reason they don’t trust God. They say, “he has forgotten us.” God sends a prophet and says “I will not forget you.” Has anyone ever been there? Afraid of the future? Not going to trust God? Accusing God of forgetting you? Yes, I have been there – we have been there.
We say “our master doesn’t care.” God says “I care – I care more than you know.” And to try to get it across to us, God compares himself to a nursing mother.
How many mothers here have nursed their babies? If you were to leave your baby with someone else, how long do you think you could forget about it? (ten minutes? I don’t know, I’ve never been through that)
At the risk of being indelicate, I have to say that nursing a baby is different from giving it a bottle. Anyone can administer a bottle. You can leave the baby with a sitter or a relative and just pack up enough bottles to keep the baby happy… and forget about him or her while you have a nice evening out. But if you are nursing, you can’t do that, even if you have made up an extra bottle ahead of time, even if your baby is perfectly happy with the sitter. You can walk away from your baby for a little, but then: your body starts reminding you that you left a baby behind. You have milk building up inside you, with no child to drink it and bring you relief. Even you men, if you have not experienced this first-hand you probably have seen animals separated for a time… the baby will get hungry, yes, but the mother animal also will be uncomfortable. She can’t think of anything else.
This passage from Isaiah tells us that if God had a body, we would be “written on the palms of her hands.” Talk about unforgettable! Hands are the MOST visible part of someone’s body except maybe the face. Our names would be tattooed right there. In bold black ink. If God had a body, it would have given birth to us, and we would be in such a close relationship of sharing that God’s body would hurt to be away from us. God would experience pain at our absence. How could God forget us? Not like a human mother who can suffer through the pain of abandoning a child and eventually walk away. God will never do that to us.
So that is the message today: God loves you. God misses you. God cannot forget you. And God is willing to use any image to communicate that to you.
What is getting in the way between you and God today? God wants to love you, and care for you, and to give you direction and help you live a righteous life. Is there something in the way?
First is probably the question, do you believe that God loves you and cannot forget you? Can you imagine God sweeping you up in a big, exuberant, embarrassing hug? Can you imagine God walking around up in heaven with your name written on his hands? Even if you have known abandonment and rejection in your life, know that God is not faulty like we humans are. God is not like a human mother; She is a divine mother who WILL take care of you. It’s written all over this book of ours. (bible) In so many ways and in so many different images God has tried to get our attention to tell us how much he loves us.
Those are the basics. And please, if that’s where you are, don’t leave them. Don’t be ashamed to spend some time really trying to accept this simple message of God’s love. It has made a profound difference in many of our lives, and it can do that for you too. Stay with that message of love, and repeat it until you feel it in your heart, and let it give you peace, and strength, and clarity, and courage. Repeat it in your heart – God loves you - and let it take root in your soul.
But I’m thinking of some others, who have been through the basics before. Maybe this sounds like baby talk to you. You’ve heard it your whole life long in church every Sunday, and it’s no big deal for you. I had a professor at seminary who was getting old and starting to repeat himself a bunch, and one of his favorite points to repeat was “I’m sick and tired of being called the Children of God whenever I go to church! I’m not a child of God, I am an ADULT of God and I’m ready to be treated like one!” I heard that repeated several times during his lectures.
Well guess what. You adults of God – even if you’ve been in church more years than I have been alive on this earth – I can still tell you – you are still under the same call of God. Because it’s infinite. It never ends. God never says, “well, thanks, I’m glad I got to express my love to you, so, I guess I’ll see you in heaven.” It’s every day, every hour, every minute of your life. God wants to see you grow in righteousness, in love, in doing justice, and walking in the particular way that God has appointed for you. God wants to hear your confessions of wrongdoing and help you to do what is right. God is not going to forget about you just because you’re “on the right path,” going to church every Sunday, praying regularly, going through the motions. God has infinite treasures to give us. If we get satisfied too easily we’re in danger of blocking the flow of grace. So, you adults of God, keep opening yourself. As we did in the prayer of preparation today from Psalm 139, keep opening your hearts, and asking God to show you whatever might be keeping you from receiving God’s wonderful gifts of grace. It might be something big… you’ve ended a certain relationship, but God wants you to reconcile. It might be something small… a habit you are clinging to… a cynical belief that’s keeping you unhappy… keep opening your hearts, and ask God – “have your way in me.”
Adults of God… children of God… wherever you are in your journey… God loves you. As we sing the next hymn let’s open our hearts to God to receive God’s love, and care, and blessings. And I am offering you a choice on this hymn. If the image of God as a woman, or a mother, is a powerful one for you today, then on the first verse please supply feminine words for God, like “she” and “her” instead of “he” and “him.” If that doesn’t work for you, you don’t have to. It’s not important. just sing it as written. And the second and third verses will all be sung as written. Let’s open our hymnals to 325, and our hearts to receive God’s love.
This would have been a perfect time to have an altar call and say “come on up, give your life to Jesus, let God love you” but since this is a shy and traditional church with only a few so reckless Teenagers of God we stick to the routine, and sing the hymn and contemplate things from our pews.
You internet people: and my future non-shy church: you’ll get an altar call. STAND UP AND SAY TO GOD: I WANT TO LET YOU LOVE ME HOWEVER IT IS YOU ARE GOING TO LOVE ME. For richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, ‘til death do us unite forever, down whatever paths we are led (and even if there’s an upside-down cross in the way - that’s another sermon). GOD HAVE YOUR WAY IN ME.