(You may view video of me delivering this sermon here.)
There are certain ideas that we can have about God that actually end up getting in the way of God. Certain ideas about God can end up keeping us from knowing and loving God in a deeper, truer way, that can keep us from receiving God’s knowledge and love of us, they can keep us from knowledge and love of ourselves and knowledge and love of each other.
If we’re honest we know that sometimes there are some beliefs we can hold onto about God that just serve as excuses for us not taking responsibility for ourselves and our actions and how they affect people and the world, help us dodge the ways we are responsible to others.
An example is in the Good Samaritan story that Jesus tells. A savvy story.
Some bandits jump on a traveler and beat him and rob him and leave him on the side of the road. Then along comes a couple of religious authorities – priests, elders. These are people who a lot of talking about God and have a lot of ideas about God. But when they see this guy, moaning and broken and bloodied, all alone on the side of the road, they pass him by.
They didn’t care to help him. And their ideas about God actually help them justify this to themselves. There’s the belief that whatever happens to somebody, God causes to happen or God allows to happen. God is all-powerful, large and in charge, Lord of the Universe. So, if bad things happen to someone, God is ultimately responsible for either willing it or permitting it, and we can’t doubt that God had a good reason. So bad things happening to someone is proof enough that they had to have done something to deserve it. And then the opposite is true: if good things happen to someone – or what we consider to be good things – well, they deserve that too, because of what they did or who they are. They are blessed, right?
So, this man by the side of the road, covered in mud and blood is clearly guilty before God. It doesn’t matter what the sob story is. And someone passing by him who happens to enjoy wealth and power and prestige, and even is so righteous they get to speak to people about God and maybe even for God, well they’re not going to dirty their white robes by stooping to help this guy splattered in sin. Maybe at most he can pity the tragedy of this man’s folly, from a safe distance.
Now, there are lots of ways we do this kind of thing, subtle ways, If someone is suffering, especially if someone has been the victim of violence or abuse, people are quick to make up reasons to blame them for it. This is especially true if the person who suffered the violence doesn’t look like us, and especially, especially true if the person responsible for the violence is someone with authority. But we can do this even to ourselves. A lot people, if they happen to find themselves to be in need, they feel guilty about it.
In many ways, still, a lot of Christians and perhaps we ourselves worship a God who is basically a tyrannical king, and who ordains tyrannical kings, a God who wields violent power with impunity, and who ordains the human authorities who wield violent power with impunity. A God who is quick to punish us with misfortune, even if we can’t quite figure out why.
This is exactly the kind of image of God, the kind of false idol, that Jesus just disintegrates. He does it in one sentence: “God makes the sun shine and the rain fall on the righteous the same as the unrighteous.”
The Good Samaritan story goes deeper into the implications. It is the religious authorities with their authoritarian view of God who totally fail to actually do the will of God. Rather, it’s the Samaritan, who is himself an outsider considered unrighteous, who makes the choice to stop to care for his fellow-human in need. It is he, unencumbered by haughty talk about God, who becomes the hands and heart of the will of Divine, on earth as it is in heaven.
Responsibility: response-ability, our ability to respond, with integrity and courage and love to the actual reality in front of us. How does that feel, to be responsive with integrity? How do we experience God in that? How does God support us in that?
What are the images of Divinity that support our response-ability?
You know what I just learned? I have to share this. I’m surprised I hadn’t learned this earlier, so I want to pass it on right away.
You know in the Bible, one of the ways God gets referred to is as “The Almighty.” All Mighty. A king’s might multiplied by infinity – that’s God, right? The King of the Universe.
This is an image that, for me at least, I’ll be honest, does not inspire the best in me. It does not inspire in me love, courage, moral responsibility; more like fear, guilt, resentment, and resignation.
I’m all for awe, wonder, humility before the cosmic scope of the sacred creative power of the Divine. But, sorry, I don’t worship kings. And the inner tyrannical judge hasn’t served me so well. I’m speaking for myself here. But I suspect a lot of you can relate. This is some of our shared Christian baggage.
Well, it turns out, the word in the Bible that calls God “The Almighty” doesn’t mean that.
The Hebrew is El Shaddai. Shad means “breast.” El Shaddai means, the Holy Breasted One. This is an image of God as a Mother nursing her baby. This is a God of life-giving power, life-nurturing power, a Divine Power that empowers.
The early Jesus followers were accused of being “atheists,” because they did not worship a god of Caesar, a god that helps one nation dominate another. And what kind of God is that? What kind of God is it whose Son does not lead conquering armies but rather is servant to the least, the last, and the lost? The Romans thought that is no god at all.
But here were these Jesus freaks, these little Christ-lings running around saying, “What you call “no god at all” is the God of all.” This is the God of all life, the God who gives all people – all people – existence and dignity and free will. This was a radical idea at the time. It was why the Christ movement cut across all divisions of class and race and tribe and nationality. It was a radical idea, and got those Christians into trouble, and it still is a radical idea. The God of all creation empowers each of us with existence and dignity and free will. The choices we make contribute to how creation unfolds. Part of what this means is, as Galen Unruh, who is our liturgist for this service, likes to say, “We may not be responsible for everyone. But we are responsible to everyone.”
So, for the love of God, vote. At the very least.
But, deeper than that, I invite us to just, with a spirit of grace and courage, really reflect on the beliefs and the images we have for God and whether we are holding onto certain beliefs that are actually blocking our ability to respond to the urgent needs in front of us. Do we have some assumptions about God that are serving as clever excuses? I know it’s hard these days, because the needs and the compounding crises can feel overwhelming. But this is important to do. And that feeling of overwhelm is worth being curious about.
What abilities and freedoms do we have, not just as individuals, but as a church, and as a community, that we could be embracing more courageously? And are there deep-seated beliefs we have that are justifying that, beliefs about ourselves, beliefs about the world, beliefs about God?
And then I also invite us to really reflect on the ways we have been responding with integrity, to honor that, and to celebrate that. What are the images and experiences about God that really contribute and support and inspire this?
The truth is that God is at work in our world, among us, with us, through us, and always ever beyond us.
For that I give thanks.
“God’s Anointed set us free so that we could live free. So stand your ground, and do not be subject again to the yoke of slavery … Friends, you were called to a life of freedom. Don’t use your freedom as a license for self-indulgence but, out of love, serve one another. After all the whole law is summed up in one injunction: ‘You are to love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you bite and nip at each other, watch out that you don’t eat each other up.” – Paul’s Letter to the Galatians 5:1,13-15
“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.” – Reinhold Niebuhr
“We become what we love and who we love shapes what we become. If we love things, we become a thing. If we love nothing, we become nothing. Imitation is not a literal mimicking of Christ, rather it means becoming the image of the beloved, an image disclosed through transformation. This means we are to become vessels of God’s compassionate love for others.” – St. Clare of Assisi