Sermon: Sunday 7 July 2013
The Very Revd David Monteith, Dean of Leicester
Who do you picture when I use the word God? That’s been a question of interest to the church for a long time because even in the first centuries of our faith people were marking their tombs with images of the Christian God. Like St Thomas, whose saint’s day was celebrated this past week, many of us need to see if we are to believe.
You will be aware that General Synod is meeting in York where yet again the question of women bishops is making headline news. And perhaps it was that background noise which alerted my antennae to our Old Testament text from the last chapter of the book of Isaiah.
The people have returned from exile and they have become rather disparate and fractious. They are unclear what life is going to be like and the Jerusalem they left is not the Jerusalem they have returned to – it is desolate. And so the preceding chapters of Isaiah provide oracles of hope that God had not abandoned them, and restoration will not only mean a return home but a renewed and restored life. In the verses which precede this there is a spat about the temple relativising its importance now. Others begin obsessing about the minutiae of worship, but worship is reframed as ethical demands – care for the poor; feed the widows. Only when that’s right, worry about polishing the candle sticks. All this reminding the church that the passionate arguments of one generation quickly become the irrelevant conversation of the next.
But in such a time of desolation the writer of Isaiah resorts to language which is unusual in our Old and New Testaments – unusual, but it is there in small measure and a bit like the few grains of salt in the cooking or the tiny glint in an eye; it is a little which makes a huge impact. Jerusalem is portrayed not as a broken, godless place in need of urban regeneration. Jerusalem is portrayed as a voluptuous woman recognisable because of her glorious bosom bringing nurture and nourishment – it says children will be dandled on her knees. And lest you think “Well, that’s a stereotype of womanhood”, she has the strength of a full river and because of her economic prosperity will be guaranteed – the wealth of the nations will come because the trade routes will be restored and the trade treaties will be functional. This the CEO of the blue chip company who has made the cupcakes before breakfast, ensured that the lunches are made and that there are enough socks and underpants ready and back in time at the end of the day for the school’s sports day and the joy of 20 minutes at the end of the day with a glass of wine and a magazine. This is Jerusalem, but then look what happens – God says, ‘As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you…. your heart shall rejoice; your bodies shall flourish’. Mostly in the Bible God is pictured like a man, and particularly like a Father – Jesus teaches us to pray ‘our Father’ but there is a minority voice in the Bible which pictures God like a mother. Jesus even uses the image of himself to be that of a mother – ‘as a mother hen gathers her chicks so I would long to gather you’, he says of the city of Jerusalem.
A few years ago William Paul Young published this book, The Shack, and it has become an international best seller. It divides opinion within the Christian world. I think it is well worth a read. It tells the story of Mack, who takes his 3 youngest children on a camping trip, with his youngest getting abducted from the campsite with all the local echoes of the McCann family. His daughter is never found but her blood stained dress is found in a mountain shack. Mack is devastated and angry with God. One day he gets a note in the post signed by “Papa” and inviting him to return to the Shack. “Papa” is the term of endearment his wife uses for God. Mack nervously risks a return to the Shack, bringing all his anger and hurt to the fore as he really comes face to face with the question how can a good God allow such things to happen? He has a gun and begins to contemplate suicide. But he needs to meet Papa. He hears voices inside and eventually moves to bang the door and as he does so it opens and he looks directly into the face of a large beaming African-American woman.
‘She shouted “Mackenzie Allen Phillips” with the ardour of someone seeing a long-lost and deeply loved relative. …. “I have really been looking forward to seeing you face to face. My, my, my how do I love you!” And with that she wrapped herself around him again.’ (p81-2)
This was Elousia, who sent the note. This was Papa. And soon two other figures emerge – a Middle Eastern man called Yeshua, Jesus and a slender Asian whispy woman called Sarayu who introduced herself as ‘keeper of the gardens, amongst other things’. The text goes on:
‘Since there were three of them, maybe this was a Trinity sort of thing. But two women and a man and none of them white?…. “Then,” Mack struggled to ask, “which one of you is God?” “I am,” said all three in unison.’ (p87)
I remember when I first read that chapter and simply having to stop and read no further whilst my mind did all the mental gymnastics needed to re-adjust to pictures of God that were not engrained within me and which were unsettling yet exciting.
Isaiah’s use of these female images points us to a number of elements within the character of God that become much hidden if all our imagery and language is solely and unbiblically male. This image in Isaiah suggests a God who does not simply stand on the sidelines but who is part of our lives always ready to announce her presence – this section in verse 6 begins with the word ‘Listen’ – a word very often found on the lips of a mother! Secondly, there is the announcement of birth rather than the continuation of barrenness. After labour comes birth. And such a birth gives rise to unrestrained joy. Remember the words of Jesus in John (16:20-22): ‘When a woman is in labour, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world’.
Such joy is not a private affair but is an overflowing stream – the Hebrew literally says ‘a river of shalom’, shalom being peace, but the whole of creation in right relationship – bellies full, hands with work to do, hearts satisfied and more than enough for all. All this becomes a judgement on those who sit outside Jerusalem but it is the kind of judgement which encourages change and inspires transformation in others.
I want to encourage you to use your imagination when you pray and to risk going beyond your fears to think and picture God in different ways. All of them are provisional but the Bible is full of them. They are limited ways of describing the wonder and glory of God. They are words and phrases which tell us what God is like.
And lest you think this is all very trendy and more the product of post 1960s feminism rather than the Christian tradition, I’ll finish with some words written in the 11th century by Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury:
‘And you Jesus, are you not also a mother? You have died more than they that they may labour to bear.
It is by your death that they have been born, for if you had not been in labour, you could not have borne death; and if you had not died, you would not have brought forth.
For longing to bear children into life, You tasted of death and by dying you begot them.
So you Lord God are the great mother.’
– Prayers and Meditations of St Anselm with the Proslogion
Penguin Classics 1979, p153-154
© The Very Revd David Monteith