Images of God

What is your image of God? Yet, more significantly, how does your image of God assist you or impede you in realizing the purpose of your life? These are the questions that God is inviting us to address as our response to the conversation he is seeking to have with us through the proclamation and reception of the Gospel passage from Luke 13:31-35.

The Gospel narrative in Mark, Matthew, and Luke follows the same pattern even though the telling of the story is not identical.  For each Evangelist and the community for which they are writing has its own story to inhabit, just as we have our own story to inhabit as the Body of Christ at the intersection of Roosevelt and Central. The pattern unfolding has a beginning, middle, and an ending. And this Lent the Lectionary has us journeying with Luke as he tells the story of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem.

Luke sets the scene as Jesus is leaving the Galilee on the road that will take him to Jerusalem. He encounters a group from the Pharisee religious party, who in this instance warn him about their common enemy, Herod, Tetrarch of Galilee. Herod was called Tetrarch, because he ruled only a quarter of what had been his father, Herod the Great’s kingdom. Jesus calls Herod the Tetrarch a Fox and this alone conjures a delightful image of cunning and shiftiness.

Jesus’ response to the Pharisees is to assert in the clearest terms his sense of purpose in the face of their warning. He tells them: Listen, I am casting out the demons and performing cures today and tomorrow…. He hints at the implication of his purpose: …. And on the third day I finish my work. This is clearly an allusion to the Resurrection further strengthened by his reference to Jerusalem as the city where Prophets meet their death.

Jesus then offers a startling image of God as a mother hen gathering her brood under her wings. The image of the mother hen is not only a powerful and unexpected image of God. It leads me to ask: What is my image of God? Does my image of God assist or impede me in realizing my life purpose?

Our Images of God

I question my image of God. I am uncomfortably aware that my default image of God includes the attributes of a solitary, majestic, kingly, male figure, omnipotent, all- powerful, and omniscient,  all-seeing. In short my default image is of God, self-contained within his own potency and invulnerability. When I allow myself to examine this default image of God, I become distressingly aware of how poorly this image serves me. How can I be made in this image? It is impossible for me to project those very same attributes as my self-image into the world?

Each of us carries a dominant or default image of God that we rarely examine. Such images of God are given to us. We imbibe them along with our mother’s milk, as it were. Except that in this instance our mother’s milk is the socially conformist message of conventional, hierarchical, patriarchal, Christianity. Our image of God is communicated to us through a dominant interpretation of the Tradition we receive. This dominant interpretation serves patriarchal interests because the impossibility of attaining to the potency of such images of God casts us as docile children who must remain obedient under the protection of our heavenly Father.

It comes as a surprise to many that the Episcopal Church still has something called a Catechism. It can be found on page 845 of the Book of Common Prayer. I invite you this Lent to make a study of it. The opening question in our Catechism is: What are we by nature? The answer given is: We are part of God’s creation, made in the image of God.

We find or fail to find our sense of purpose in the images of God we harbor deep within us. There is a profound link between our sense of purpose and these often unexamined default images of God. If we are to examine the purpose of our lives we need images of God that encourage and enable us to realize the purpose of our lives both as individuals and as community. Are our images of God up to this task, I wonder?

Does our image of God lead us to assume the Universe is fixed, unfolding according to a distant God’s omnipotent plan?  When people tell me with such confidence that God has a plan for them I want to ask – so how is that working out for you? Or does our image of God enable us to realize that life is not fixed and unfolding according to plan, but fluid and dynamic? Do we have a sense of God inviting us to be more than obedient children and to play a meaningful part in the unfolding of creation?

The second question in the Catechism asks – What does it mean to be created in the image of God? It answers – It means we are free to make choices: to love, to create, to reason, and to live in harmony with creation and with God. 

Realizing our Life Purpose

Within each one of us are a number of competing voices. We usually don’t realize this because we are so used to listening only to the most dominant one. This is the default image. When I become aware of my default image of the omnipotent heavenly Father who has already worked out the plan, I consciously search within myself for the echo of another voice which directs me to my actual experience. It also directs me to look within the Tradition for the signs of another image of God. When I do I discover an image of God who is dreaming me into becoming myself. This image sounds lovely. However, it can be frightening to make a stand against the inner and outer voices that offer me an image of God as all-powerful and invulnerable. In some ways this image suits me and letting it go causes me a sense of loss. It’s comforting to know I have a God who is so much stronger than I am.

By contrast, for me the image of a dreaming God is a limited God. The dreaming God has chosen self-limitation to make room for my participation in the dreaming. God’s dreaming is a mutual and social activity. Unlike the image of the omnipotent God, majestic in masculine splendor and power, in the image of a dreaming God, who self limits to make room for my participation in the dreaming, I can see myself projected upon my world.

The image of a dreaming God is an image of a social God who delights in the loving interplay of relationship within the community of the Trinity.  The image of a dreaming God gives me the courage to step out and to risk moving beyond the confines of my own narrow and fearful imagination. Being true to the deeper sense of purpose for my live, beyond my desire for material protection and success, requires the courage to risk, or as Paul Tillich called it, the courage to be.


Here is how I think the relationship between us and God works. Embracing the central purpose of our lives triggers a reciprocal responsiveness in God. We live in a Universe that is responsive to us; yet, we need an image of God that connects us with this reality.

We come to understand that our purpose is so much more than a realization of our own potential through self-fulfillment.  Our response to God this Lent is more than a program for self-improvement.  Risk, which is stepping beyond our own limited imaginations opens us to becoming the persons God is dreaming us into being. I need to issue a product warning here. The process of our becoming, may also involve pain and suffering as well as joy and fulfillment.

Jesus’ Purpose and His Image of God

In Luke 13: 31-35 we see Jesus refusing to be distracted by the warning of the Pharisees from pursuing his life purpose. His life purpose is to take the road to Jerusalem. Jerusalem here is a place on a map. It is also a symbol for all the centers of power and vested interest, which following Jesus’ example we are likewise called to challenge. Jesus further reveals how his image of God – as a mother hen gathering her brood – is instrumental in supporting the realization of his life purpose. Could he do what he must do if he imagines God any other way?

In this passage from Luke’s Gospel we see clearly the essential connection between Jesus’ God image and his determination to fulfill the purpose of his life. Let us pray that the same may be so for each of us both in our individual lives and as the Body of Christ at the intersection of Roosevelt and Central.

Moments in Time

Commentary on the Transfiguration

The event we know as the Transfiguration – recalls Jesus’ ascent of Mount Tabor to commune with Moses and Elijah, with Peter, James, and John in tow. This event concludes the season of Epiphany – a season of making manifest, things otherwise hidden.

On the 6th January, the feast of the Epiphany itself, I likened Epiphany to that internal ah hah moment we have when at least for a spilt second we glimpse the larger meaning, or the larger picture forming  the deep background against which our lives, are lived out .

Today it is quite common to refer to the term mountain-top experiences. In psychology we refer to these as peak experiences. As a society we are somewhat addicted to them and this addiction finds no more potent a focus than in the area of our spiritual lives. We read the story of the Transfiguration with a conscious nostalgia for that Biblical world of enchantment, when such things happened. In contrast, the world we live in is one in which we feel profoundly disenchanted, alienated from, yet longing for those moments in which we are transported beyond the narrow confines of our limited imaginations.

The season of Epiphany begins with a glimpsing into the truth that this infant Jesus is none other than the Messiah, the Christ. It ends with another glimpsing of Jesus’ divine identity as he is transfigured in the presence of Moses, Elijah, and three of the disciples. In this experience of Jesus’ transfiguration the significance of Tradition buts hard up against the experience of contemporary life.

At Trinity Cathedral, another version of our tag line where traditional worship encounters contemporary ideas, is, where tradition encounters contemporary life. This is often a hard place to sit, yet it is the place where Anglican Christians insist on sitting. Our Celtic ancestors referred to this hard place also as a thin place. Thin places are those points of experience where the boundaries between tradition as an expression of that which is greater than, and experience become very permeable allowing a deeper insight into the true nature of things to emerge.

A conventional reading of the Transfiguration tends to focus on Jesus, brilliantly illuminated and God’s voice, shrouded in cloud declaring you are my Son. This is usually seen as the central focus of the event, and in one sense it is. However, here I want to emphasize two points.

  1. It’s the way the Tradition, embodied in Moses and Elijah, and contemporary human experience embodied in the Disciples, encounter one another, that draws my attention. It seems necessary that Tradition and contemporary human experience both witness the glory of God in Christ.
  2. Jesus leads his disciples down the mountain into the hard reality of every day events. Not only are the disciples disappointed by this, but can we not also hear a tinge of disenchantment when Jesus himself despairs of having to endure life at the level of human experience limited by the imaginative poverty of what he calls perverse and faithless generation?

While we long for an enchanted glimpse of God on the mountain-top, I invite us to realize that the descent from the mountain is more significant for us, living as we are -within the confines of our human experience of the here and now! While the mountain top experience is never quite forgotten, its meaning only becomes clear through the lens of a convergence of the Tradition with the issues faced in life, as we are actually living it!

Exploration of a Point of Convergence

Some weeks ago Rob Smith who is the coordinator for Trinity Outreach Ministries asked if I would address the theme of environmental degradation on February 10th to coincide with the release by the Arizona Interfaith Power & Light of a statement by religious leaders on global climate change. My first response to his request was to want to say no. My intention was to preach a sermon on the psychodynamics of the Transfiguration. Fortunately, one of the things I have learned in those moments such as the one that followed Rob’s request is to allow the no to sound in my head but not come out of my mouth. I smiled and looked meaningfully at Rob as I said – ‘an interesting idea Rob let me think about it.’

The more I thought about it the more intrigued I became with the idea of exploring a possible link between transfiguration and global climate change. For it has become clear to me that there cannot be any more urgent need for convergence between tradition and contemporary life than that presented by the task Rob inadvertently set me. Convergence takes me into a hard place where I am uncomfortable sitting. As a preacher, I would be devastated if any of you thought I was being political from the pulpit.

Exploring my discomfort a little more deeply I came upon my desire to avoid thinking about environmental degradation, which is a probable cause of global climate change. My unease is not because I’m a global warming naysayer. For me the discomfort is that the link between environmental degradation and climate change is such a frightening prospect, over which I feel I have no control. I don’t like being confronted by my helplessness in the face of such a terror.

I am not alone in feeling this way and the question is what are we to do? Alone we feel impotent, yet joining our voices to the chorus that increasingly comes to be heard on issues of crucial importance to the future of the human race, confronts our sense of impotency.

At the Heart of Convergence

Oikos is the Greek word for house. In English, we have a number of words that share the root meaning of oikos. Ecumenism is the obvious one – meaning all under one roof. I was somewhat surprised to also realize that economics –good management of the house, and ecology – study of the health of the environment provided by the house, are all related. Environmental degradation is an ecumenical, an economic, as well as an ecological issue.

Ecumenism confronts us with the urgency that we are all on this planet together.  The human race lives under one roof in a more profound state of interdependency than we like to admit. As other parts of humanity are affected by environmental degradation and climate instability we in the US are not immune to the devastating effects caused by climate change. Trinity Cathedral, through our Millennium Development Goals Group (MDG), is deeply committed to addressing global inequalities. Yet, our energy and financial resources expended in furtherance of the MDG’s will be jeopardized by climate change. We can love and praise God as much as we like, but God will not take us seriously if this is decoupled from Jesus’ second commandment to love our neighbor as our selves.

Ecologically, we are impacted in numerous ways as climate change puts the environment under stress and restricts the range of the human habitat, not to mention the habitat of other species with whom we share, in the words of the Book of Common Prayer, this fragile earth our island home  (Eucharistic Prayer C). You don’t need me to point out the obvious signs for concern about climate volatility in our own back yard let alone in other parts of the world.

Economically, we note the debates about sharing resources more equitably through a more just global economic system. We automatically fear such developments for our fear is that what we enjoy will be taken from us. Yet, for the first time, Americans are being given a taste of the inequalities inbuilt into the global economic order as whole industrial and manufacturing sectors disappear with the outsourcing of jobs and skills.

There is an even more profound discussion to be had concerning philosophies of growth and sustainability. We can all go a little wonky in this area, with some of us advocating more and more growth through business as usual while others seem to preach the only alternative being a back-to-the-future regression to a pre-industrial economy. Sustainability does not mean no to any development.

A Theology of  Right Action

It’s fashionable to decry Western Civilization because of its legacy of industrialized exploitation of the earth. This exploitation has been and continues to be justified by misinterpreting God’s command to subdue the Earth in Genesis 1:28. Yet, the more profound character of Western Civilization is its mastery of technology to provide solutions to the problems of environmental limitation. I refer readers to Langdon Winner’s (1992) Autonomous Technology esp. chapter 3 for an in-depth discussion of this theme which lends itself to the view that sustainability and technological progress go hand in hand.

Ecumenical, ecological and economic solutions to the current issue of environmental degradation and global climate change as one of its inevitable consequences, require two complementary actions:

  1. We must recommit ourselves to a robust theology of stewardship first enjoined upon us by God in Genesis 1:28. Here, God commands us not only to subdue, but also to replenish the Earth. God commands us to exercise dominion over the Earth, but dominion means to take responsibility for the resources of the Earth entrusted to our care – in short exercise good stewardship defined as tender care.

Stewardship is further defined within the Biblical Tradition in the theology of Jubilee, first set out in Leviticus 25. Here is a recognition that injustice and inequality inevitably come to mark human social and economic relations. The function of the Hebrew Prophets was to provide the social critique that articulated God’s view of how human society should operate.

2.We urgently need to adopt in all our social and economic planning a philosophy of sustainability. A contemporary definition of sustainability is set out in the Brundtland Report as:

… development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. (Micah Challenge page 10 )

A Moment in Time

The encounter between the lives we are living and the Tradition we receive, although a place of tension is necessarily a place of convergence, a moment in time that gives birth to something new. It is now imperative that we glimpse and  grasp this moment in time to displace the theology of subjugation and exploitation with a renewed theology of stewardship supported in the secular world by a philosophy of sustainability.

It seems to me that we have reached a tipping point, that moment in time, where future development and prosperity is no longer supportable through the practice of subjugation of the Earth. Our future as a species and as a planet now requires that we replenish the Earth, and where we encounter limitation of supply we resist further plundering the Earth and rely on the ingenuity of our technological cunning to provide sustainable solutions.

All of this relies on a serious changing of our hearts. The Christian Tradition informs us about who we now are through showing us who we have always been.  Convergence is a moment in time when who we have been and who we now are mutually inform each another in order that we might discover who we need to become.

Are We Not All Corinthians?

I want to talk about the various ways God’s Spirit gets worked into our lives. It’s complex and often bewilderingly difficult to understand. One of the things people say about coming into the Episcopal Church is that it is an experience of not having to leave your mind at the door. This assumes that understanding is one of the ways God’s Spirit gets worked into our lives.

Yet, understanding, the application of our rational minds to the mystery that is God is like sailing in shoal, infested waters. It is easy to come to grief on the shoals of over-inflation and self-importance in our individual thinking. We can come to grief on the shoal of rational analysis itself, which runs the risk of reducing mystery to the point where there is no longer anything left to understand, let alone to trust.

The Limitations of our Mental Process

Our minds are pattern-mapping machines. New experience is pattern mapped onto earlier memories. Therefore, our minds usually only recognize what we already know. Our thinking often is simply a confirmation of the limitations of our own impoverished inability to glimpse beyond the boundaries of imaginations corralled within memory. I have commented before on a dominant theme of memory, which is the need to stay within the safety afforded by the familiar.

An Enigmatic Question

This last Thursday evening those of us who arrived for our weekly adult formation evening were sitting in the subdued lighting of the Auditorium. This is a space not normally available to us on a Thursday night and so we make do with Atwood Hall, which though suited to our eating together, is particularly inflexible and uncomfortable for the class that follows. For those who have ears to hear – yes I am complaining!

Invariably the conversations I instigate rarely follow the pattern I envision at the outset. Thursday evening was no exception. I set out to invite a conversation picking up on last Sunday’s sermon in which I used Brad Kallenberg’s exploration of precritical, analytical, and postcritical approaches to story. You can read more of that on last week’s sermon blog Inhabiting our Story either on the Trinity Facebook site or at or listen again to the podcast at

On Thursday evening I posed the question:  what would inhabiting our story as the Body of Christ at the intersection of Roosevelt and Central, look like?

As we wrestled to find a response to this somewhat enigmatic question, we found ourselves sailing in those shoal, infested waters I referred to earlier. We kept coming to grief on the particular shoal represented by the tension between perceiving God’s Spirit through our own individual experience (God’s Spirit as a source for personal self-fulfillment) and a perception of God’s Spirit acting in us as the Body of Christ (God’s Spirit as a communal experience).

Everyday we wrestle with how to live our lives in a world that, forces upon us difficult and conflicting choices with regard to self-interest and reaching-out in relationship with others.

Understanding how God’s Spirit gets worked into our lives is fraught with tension. This tension goes to the heart of Paul’s letter to those notorious Christians at Corinth. 2000 years does not, it seem, appreciably alter some aspects of human experience. Like the Corinthians Paul is addressing the way we orchestrate our lives in the midst of often difficult and conflicting choices, choices that polarize between following self-interest and acting in ways that build up our shared lives of relationship.

Paul’s First Letter to the Church at Corinth

Over the last two weeks the Lectionary Epistle has come from the 12th chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. The essence of Paul’s message here is that God’s various gifts can be seen everywhere and in everyone. Each person is given a gift capable of revealing God to others. All gifts originate in God’s intention that they be used for the building up of community life. The image he employs to communicate this is that of the human body.

In our human society we value different parts of the body with greater or lesser significance. There are parts we like to show in public and other parts we conceal with clothing. We tend to focus on the parts that are perceived as beautiful. We rank different body parts and functions in importance, with those most visible being given most value. Yet although we can live without an eye, or a full head of hair we can’t live without a bowel or without a heart.

Following this analogy, we value ourselves, and others by the degree of physical beauty or intelligence, or other attributes that ensure success. When we regard the personal attributes of our bodies, our intelligences or our personalities we are defining our significance. Yet, Paul reminds us that our significance, our success, our honor, is given to us only because of what we are part of, i.e. part of The Body of Christ.

Hyperbole, Soliloquy, Idealization and Reality

Inhabiting our story of being The Body of Christ at the intersection of Roosevelt and Central means two things. Firstly, that it is within community as a whole that each person receives the gift of a calling. Secondly, it is only through the lens of community viewed as a whole that our individual calling reveals who God is to one another and to the world.

At the very end of Chapter 12 with the words: but now I want to lay out for you a still more excellent way, Paul takes us from his analogy between the Body of Christ and our human bodies into the greatest soliloquy in all of human literature, his soliloquy on love in chapter 13.

The word Paul uses for excellent is huperbolen, which gives us our English word hyperbole. Chapter 13 is hyperbole – exaggerated statements or claims not intended to be taken literally. Perhaps this explains why I Corinthians 13 is the most powerful love soliloquy ever recorded. It also explains why this passage finds its way to the wedding section of the Hallmark gift card range. At countless weddings this passage is chosen and I often wonder why as two people embark on the most difficult and complex emotional negotiation of their lives, joining two lives together as one, they want to be burdened by such an impossible idealization of love, such as Paul offers here.

As poetry, which relies on hyperbole, Paul’s definition of the attributes of love in Chapter 13 moves me deeply. Yet, as a prescription for loving amidst the day to day choices and tensions that comprise my life, these words only convince me of impossibility of my ever successfully loving.

Psychologically, I am familiar with the way idealization inhibits living. When we idealize we measure ourselves against an unobtainable standard, and this leads to disillusionment as we continue to fail to obtain that for which we long.

So is Paul intending to set an impossible standard? The overall theme of Paul’s writing to the Corinthians is one of encouragement rather than criticism. To invite them to understand love by measuring themselves against an impossible ideal would not make much sense.

Paul’s intention in this section becomes clearer when he begins to describe the impermanence of all spiritual gifts. He eloquently articulates the task of moving from childish ways of thinking, feeling, and acting to embrace more mature ways of living.  In the process we become only more and more aware that our own perception of things is only ever partial and incomplete.

Paul is not telling the Corinthians that no matter how hard they try they will never succeed in becoming a community of love. His purpose is to point out to those who think they had already achieved perfection, how short of the mark they really are falling. Here, his point is not just to bring them down a peg or two, although he can’t resist doing this. He is saying that it is all right to be a human being and to acknowledge that we all have a long way to go.

For me, being human is an experience that despite my often, inflated sense of my own success, I always still have a long way to go. Yet, God manifests God’s Self through that very imperfect human vulnerability. Vulnerability is not weakness or inadequacy. Being vulnerable requires a capacity to put away childish ways, and for childish ways read omnipotence and self-importance.

Inhabiting our Story

My Thursday night question: what would inhabiting our story as the Body of Christ at the intersection of Roosevelt and Central, look like, now takes on a deeper relevance.  Firstly, what always remains incomplete and partial in each one of us is made more complete and more comprehensive through our participation together in a community we call The Body of Christ.

Secondly, the gifts that God gives to each of us only find their fuller expression within the experience of interdependency within the Body.

Thirdly, to inhabit our story as The Body of Christ is to be at ease with love as vulnerability, not successful achievement. Vulnerability opens us to receive a deeper power of love, originating in God’s Spirit, flowing into us from within the life of God. Flowing from the life of God through us into the life of the world.

Paul’s concluding words in chapter 13 invite us to trust steadily, to hope unswervingly, and love extravagantly. I rather hope that this is what it means for us to inhabit our story as Christ’s mystical Body at the intersection of Roosevelt and Central.

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