Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The Old White Guy in the Sky

Genesis 1:26-27

I love going over this story of Creation with the youth group during confirmation classes. There are a few of these quirky events in the Bible where you think you know the details but it turns out they are made up—like the number of wise men who visit baby Jesus—we think there are three because three gifts are listed but the actual number of people who traveled to see the Christ Child is never revealed. The youth are always surprised when they find out there are two creation stories—this seven day one with God saying things like, let there be light and then creating humankind and then the story in the next—you know the one where the man is created and given the job of naming all of creation and God feels sorry for him being all alone and creates a woman from his rib. Two very distinct stories of creation. Anyway, the creation story Donna read for us is from chapter one and takes place after God has created everything in the world, except for humans. We don’t know much about God at this point other than how powerful God must be to have created so much out of nothing. Over these next three weeks, Stephen and I will be exploring the images that we have for God. Many of us grew up in a time in which there was not much question of how we would describe God if asked—the answer would likely be, an old white, bearded man, living in heaven up in the sky. I don’t know about you but when I was younger I couldn’t help but think of Charleston Heston like in this photo—he was actually playing Moses but to my mind, this is how I thought of God while I was in Sunday School.  It’s hard to know when this older male image of God was created in the imagination of humanity—perhaps Michelangelo had something to do with it when he revealed his painting in the Sistine Chapel—you know the one, where God is creating humanity by reaching out and touching fingertips with Adam.

Translating the Bible into English would likely also have been a factor. The Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, were written in Hebrew. Hebrew does not have pronouns such as the English language—no ‘he’ or ‘she’. But the Hebrew language does assign a gender to all things in a similar way of the French language. As such, God had a masculine designation, not necessarily because the early Hebrew people understood that God was a man, God was just happened to be masculine. I suppose, it’s just as likely God could have had a feminine designation just as the Hebrew words for grapevine or sun. Of course, later in the Christian Scriptures, the New Testament, Jesus refers to God as Abba, which is Aramaic for father—abba refers to a relation of personal intimacy—which is exactly what God is to Jesus. Jesus was likely very aware of the story of how his mother was made pregnant through divine intervention and so it follows that Jesus would have thought of God as his father, therefore directing humanity’s imagination to the image of a older man. The lighter features of God comes from the very fact that it was western Europeans who have had authority over the church for so many years. Using English, Bible states, God created humankind in his image. The word for God is masculine and the English language requires a pronoun to be used in this situation, so the sentence is God created humankind in HIS image. Our history had men interpreting the Word of God for the people, and so they read this bit of information revealing what God was and they looked at themselves. Their logic probably went like this…if God made us in his image, we must be what God looks like. Which leads us to the pervasive uses of older, male imagery for God today. Even in the TV show, The Simpsons, the character of God is light skinned and has a long white beard. Here’s a fun fact that I’ve shared before but I still like to point it out…God is the only Simpson character to have five fingers, the other characters all have four fingers on each hand.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this older male imagery for God other than it can be restrictive when portraying God if other perspectives are not permitted. The English language is limited when it used to describe the Holy Mystery that is God. Last week we heard the early Christians speaking about the Holy Spirit using images of fire and the sound of wind because they did not have the language to describe the fullness of how God was moving in their lives on the day of Pentecost. As much as we try, developing a comprehensive image of God is very, very difficult, impossible even. But humanity, as a general rule, likes order in the world. And, let’s admit it, we the faithful, like rules and organization. If you need any proof that humanity values consistency as a virtue, have a look at the success of McDonalds or stand behind someone at Starbucks as they discover the location they are at has run out of earl grey tea. You can’t possibly make a tea latte with anything other than earl grey. And, no, English breakfast is never, ever an option for a London Fog, thank you very much! As much comfort rule and order offers to us, sometimes consistency can be filled with ruts that are hard to escape. And when our religious structures become too rigid with the portrayal of God, there is not room for those people who do not find comfort or peace in those portrayals. If a child suffered at the hand of their father growing up, perhaps the image of God as the loving Father cannot be reconciled with their abusive father. If a person has been sexually assaulted by a man, it might be hard to find comfort in praying to a man for strength and courage. There are also people who find it challenging to consider the greatness of God’s mystery being contained within any type human form. It is helpful for those folks to be given space for God to be more, to be bigger, to be wider than any one person. For people whose vision of God does not include Charleston Heston, we to allows for an expansive view of the one we call the Almighty.

Let’s take a moment to look at our scriptures to examine what they tell us about God. There are many, many descriptions for God throughout the whole Bible—metaphors such as fire, wind, the quiet after a storm and also characteristics such as being just, loving, wise and in all places at all times. So, in this very first chapter of the entire Bible, we find ourselves at the end of a rather impressive list of things and creatures that God has managed to create and we know that all of it is good. Then God makes humankind. In a stunning revelation we find out suddenly that God does not seem to be alone. God says, “Let US make humankind in OUR image.” It turns out that God is not an ‘I’ but rather, God is an ‘us’. As an aside here, this is a piece of scripture that certain Christians use to explain the Trinity and to ‘prove’ that Jesus was with God since the very beginning of time. However, the same Christians then ignore the next few lines and use only the creation story from chapter two to explain how women are to be subordinate to men. But I’ll leave that for another Sunday. So, to recap, God is an us, not an ‘I’ and God wishes to make humankind in their likeness—again plural rather than singular. God goes ahead and makes humankind and AGAIN we hear plural not singular—God created THEM. Male and female.

Did you notice that the male is not named Adam in this story? That happens in chapter two. The Hebrew word for red dust is adama and it is believed that Adam is named for the dirt from which he was created. Back to chapter one and the male and female being created together. One thought is that this one being had the male facing from one side and the female facing from the other. Psalm 139 says, "You hem me in—behind and before, you have laid your hand upon me.” At some point, they were separated. Or it could simply be that both were created at the same time as individual beings. What is important to take away is that both men and women were created in the likeness of God. Which then begs the question of how it is that we haven’t used other images for God alongside the father, an old man with a beard? If we, each one of us, are made in the image of God, we do not have to look very far to find out some of the possibilities of what God is. Male, female, transgendered, homosexual, heterosexual black, brown, white, tall, slim or wide.

Last summer, in Zambia, in response to the question as to why the United States and Canada had so many gays when Zambia had none, I told the Zambian taxi driver that we, in Canada and in the United Church know that a person has no more control over whether they are born gay or straight than they are born black or white or male or female. We are born the way we are, just as God would have us be. And each and every one of us is made in the image of God. God can be many things. I’ve shared here before that when she was four years old, Abigail described God as being big and blue and riding a bike. I think of God as being a big cloud type of thing, like a massive flock of birds that move in tandem together in the sky—as the love from which we are born and the love to which we return when our time on earth is at an end. But it is helpful for me, particularly when I’m in the drive through line at Tim Hortons and I’m feeling tense about who might cut into the line to remember that each and every one of us reflects God and all the possibilities of God. However, individually we are not the sum total of all that God can be. Remembering that God created humanity, both male and female together from their likeness—from the plural we were created into community. Neither one alone is the full image of God—only in the community of humankind is God reflected. For us to begin to understand the Mystery of who and what God is and the power of God in our world, we need to be with each other. We need to be together, acknowledge one another, try to understand one another, be loving to one another, offer grace to each other just as God’s grace is given to us, to ensure justice for our neighbor as we would want for ourselves, to be compassionate and full of mercy just as God is, for each and every one of us is made in the image of God. God has created us into a community in which we are encouraged each and every day to call each other into full being in fellowship, a fellowship that can only be accomplished when we look at the other and recognize that God is as reflected in the person before us as God is reflected in ourselves. And, if you need reminding of all the possibilities of who the US is that is our God, of the US that made humankind in their image…here are some photos of just a few in this world who bears God’s image…

**At this point a slide show of images of a diverse group of people, including Donald Trump, Syed Soharwardy and Wab Kinew- photos and selfies - appeared on the screen while Donna and Karen sang I Am a Child of God - #157 More Voices - by Cheryl and Bruce Harding, 2002**

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