The Evolving Face of God

Part I

Spiritual understanding emerges over time from humanity’s long march of  relationship with God.  Christianity and Islam both inherit from Judaism a very historically rooted understanding of the evolution of God’s relationship with humanity. This historical understanding of God can be contrasted with the understanding of the great Eastern religions which hold a view of God as cosmic, outside historical time and place. In this view God is universal and unchanging.

In the Judaic historical view of God, God appears to be continually changing – evolving into human consciousness through events in time and place. The Scriptural record is the unfolding account that witnesses to this process of evolution. If we compare the images of God in Exodus:32 and Luke:15, God appears to grow and change over time. The point here is not the complex theological question of whether God changes or is unchanging. God appears to grow within an evolving relationship with humanity. With the evolution of culture our image of God, hopefully, deepens.

In Exodus 32 we see God entering into history very clearly through the long forty day conversation with Moses on Mount Sinai. Forty days is a long time, and in conversation with Moses, a clear picture emerges of a God  possessing strong feelings. The God of the Torah feels and reacts when things don’t go according to plan. Exodus:32 reveals a God who, when crossed can rise to heights of rage that threaten to obliterate Israel. God rages against Israel because God passionately loves Israel. The passionate God is revealed here to have anger management issues. God appears to have a poor tolerance for being disappointed and displays an alarming tendency for poor impulse control.

Part II

The people have become frightened by Moses’ long stay on the mountain. They feel lost and bewildered without Moses and the God who accompanies him. Lost and afraid, deprived of Moses they turn to Aaron, Moses’ brother for comfort and leadership. They ask him to restore their lost sense of God’s presence.

Aaron is priest and priests are usually more down-to-earth than prophets. So Aaron and the people construct a God who is more immediately available to them. It’s not so much that they confuse the Golden Calf for the unseen God of Moses. Through the Golden Calf they simply long to experience a God who is accessible and available.  In the Golden Calf, they can see God, and they can touch God. This image is an image of God with them, a God to whom they are able to pour out their concerns, to whom they can express their fears, a God before whom they can dance and celebrate with ecstatic joy. Feeling lost and abandoned, through the Golden Calf the Israelites have a God they cannot lose.

Exodus:32 seems to be one of those powerful cathartic moments in the history of the relationship between God and this small section of humanity, namely the Israelites. In the face of God’s rage and the threat of poor impulse control Moses discovers it’s possible to stand his ground and force God to calm down. Moses discovers that God can be reasoned with. If this is a first for Moses it is not for God, who earlier in time seems to have had a similar encounter with Abraham who convinced God to save the cities of the plain – Sodom and Gomorrah. In both instances a human being needs to remind God of God’s desire to remain faithful to his promises despite a sudden rush of blood to the head. There is a deep insight into the psychology of relationship here. No real relationship can exist where either party to the relationship lacks the power to make an impact upon the other!

God also seems to learn something from this encounter. God’s mood is changed by being reminded of the bigger picture of the covenant with Abraham, now being renewed with Moses. Despite his rage, God also seems to realize that human beings need a level of physical intimacy of encounter with Godself.  Rabbi Arthur Waskow commenting on this aspect of the encounter on Mount Sinai says:

The ancient rabbios thought there was a relationship between the Golden Mishkan (the portable Shrine known to us as the Tent of Meeting) and the Golden Calf. The way they understand the relationship was that from watching how the people dance for the calf, God ruefully accepts that the people need a physical focus for their experience of God. So God gives them the Mishkan in place of a calf. In this approach, the story as we have it in the Torah is “out of order” — chronologically reversed. For it is the experience of the calf that convinces God to design a Mishkan.

Rabbi Waskow ruefully notes the similarity between the golden calf and the golden altar to be placed at the center of the Tent of Meeting; both made of gold, both with horns. He says:

And the people? Dimly from the foot of the mountain, they hear the overtones, a blur: “Plenty of gold? Uh-huh. And — something about horns? — Un-huh. Must be a golden bull-calf!!” So they build it. For God as well as us, the truth is firm: What you sow, that you shall reap. Or to put it in another way: certainly earth is spirit, there needs to be a physical context for the spiritual path. (A “path” is very earthy.)

Part III

We also live in a time when idols abound. Since the Enlightenment, God has been in retreat from the stage of the universe, finally ending up well off stage, leaving us to strut with increasing self-importance center stage. Christianity takes a detour into Deism where the image of God is that of the prime mover who subsequently leaves the universe to run itself. God absents Godself, leaving us feeling alone because we are now like the Israelites at the foot of Mt Sinai, bereft of a lively sense of being in relationship with God and trying to get on with things the best way they can. Finding substitutes to fill the chasm of our loss we construct and worship our own golden calves. Amidst the many idols of Western Society the idols of science and morality particularly stand-out.

Like the Golden Calf our idols of science and morality comfort us with something more immediate and tangible in the face of an experience of existential loneliness. I am not suggesting that scientific progress is not a benefit to society but as an idol it comforts us with the illusion that through increasing control over the material universe we don’t need God because we can become the authors of our own salvation. Similarly, civilization needs a moral compass.  Yet, the idol of morality comforts us in the belief that if we just follow the rules we will be saved by being a good person.

Idols function well, up to a point. It’s lonely center stage with only the faintest intimation of God whispering from the stage wings. In our loneliness we question whether we really do have a relationship with God that is accessible to us in the here-and-now of our lives. In our need to assuage our existential loneliness the idols of science and morality promise more than they can deliver. The 21st century is a time when these idols increasingly fail to fill the gap created by our loss of tangible relationship with God. This causes us to plunge into even deeper despair!

Part IV

Many Christians might accuse me of heresy in suggesting that God is anything but unchangeable. Yet, my point is because we have a God made known to us through the particularity of human history and culture, as we evolve our experience of God and our images of God, evolve with us. In Luke:15 Jesus offers us profound images that reveal the evolution of God over the long march from Exodus to the Incarnation. Where the God of Moses is passionate and jealous, the God of Jesus is compassionate and extravagant.

The parables of Jesus are not morality stories. They are exhortations to discipleship. Through the juxtaposing of images that are at once familiar and at the same time absurd, Jesus challenges us to move beyond the limits of our idols, which limited by what we are able to imagine for ourselves. The expectations of the Kingdom of God (thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven) break into our safe but lonely experience, forcing us to draw uncomfortable comparisons between what we are prepared to settle for, and what God desires for us.

The God of Moses demanded obedience. The God of Jesus call us into a relationship of discipleship in which we find the courage to live and work for more than we imagine being possible. Only discipleship leads us to the discovery that in the midst of feeling alone and lost, we are already found. As David Ewart in his weekly sermon blog Holy Textures puts it:

There may indeed be joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, but the parables are more about the joy to be had on earth from hearing the good news of the extravagant God who risks all to search for each one of us personally, individually – joyfully. Our God isn’t sitting passively off somewhere in heaven waiting for someone to bring news that a sinner has repented today. Our God is actively searching for us.

My question is will we allow ourselves to be found?

Kingdom Priorities and Family Values

Our lives are live-out within a place of tension between the Tradition we receive and the demands of the times in which we live. As human beings we like to divide reality into past, present, and future. For us these divisions carry real meaning. The past is gone, the future has yet to arrive. So we are invited to pay attention to living in the present.

This neat division of past, present, and future breaks down when we consider the tradition is the presence of the living past in the midst of our present experience. At the same time the future is always breaking into the present through what we Christians recognize as the expectations of the Kingdom. Daily we pray the words: Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. In God’s sense of time Tradition as the living past, and Kingdom expectations as the direction of that which is not yet, flow in and out of our experience of present reality.

Two weeks ago I preached on the passage from Luke’s Gospel where Jesus heals the woman with curvature of the spine on the Sabbath Day.

I explored the importance of this healing lying not as an expression of physical cure but as the healing through which Jesus lifted from the woman the moral burden of sin, which popular Jewish belief of the time maintained was the cause of her deformity.

At issue between Jesus and the leader of the synagogue was not the fact of the woman’s deliverance, but that Jesus had infringed and interpretation of God’s command in Genesis to keep the Sabbath day holy through abstaining from all work. Jesus understood his action as releasing the woman from the bondage of Satan, an fitting action for the Sabbath Day.

I went on to explore Jesus’ reference to the bondage of Satan as an expression of the way the interpretation of Tradition becomes subject over time to the hardness of the human heart. For Jesus indicates that Satan is to be found in way the hardness of the human heart turns Tradition into an agent for human oppression rather than an instrument of our liberation.

My title for this sermon of two weeks ago was the Humanizing of Tradition. Luke shows us how Jesus’ uses the circumstances of the here and now to humanize the application of the Tradition of Moses by interpreting-out of the living tradition the distorting effects of human society’s need to find scapegoats to sacrifice.

Some have commented how helpful they found my sermon from two weeks ago. Episcopalians are very comfortable when we read how Jesus again and again seeks to humanize religious tradition. We particularly like the way Luke attends to the human realities encountered in this place of tension in the present time. As Episcopalians, we warm to this Jesus. Ours is a very human interpretation of Christianity. We are at home with there not being easy answers. In fact we are hugely relieved that life requires skillful negotiation of a world of grey rather than feeling locked into the certainties of a world of black and white. We embrace culture and are passionate advocates for the interpreting-out of the hardness of heart from the Christian Tradition. 

Yet our mood changes to unease when we encounter Jesus proclaiming the expectations of the Kingdom. We puzzle at his call for us to take up our cross and follow him on the road of discipleship. We don’t usually think of ourselves as disciples. That’s a little too intense for us. Passages such as Luke 14: 25-33 really disturb us if we allow ourselves to pay attention to them. Our response is to take comfort in Jesus’ use of hyperbole as a teaching tool, whispering reassuringly to one another that when Jesus says: Whoever comes to me and does not hate father or mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple – he doesn’t really mean it, he is just exaggerating for effect!

Yet, Jesus does mean what he says. If he teaches and demonstrates the humanizing of tradition, he also calls for the radicalizing of culture through the expectation of the coming of God’s Kingdom. We welcome the expectations of the kingdom through embarking on the path of discipleship. This is a path that requires us to place relationship with Christ as our first and highest priority. Only if we do this can we become agents of the Kingdom.

Episcopalians may not have much enthusiasm for the notion of discipleship, especially because those Christian’s who do, give it such a bad name! Yet, we really do care about the coming of the Kingdom. We are a Christian tradition that is passionate about social justice and the eradication of discrimination that results in the evils of racism, sexism, homophobia, and poverty.

It’s not possible to ignore Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom and the radical implications of the coming of the Kingdom for our culture. Neither is it enough to explain away his words as simply the use of hyperbole, although this is also true. So what is the way forward for us in relation to this text and other texts in which Jesus proclaims Kingdom expectations?

At Trinity Cathedral summer is passing. Two things for me mark the passing of summer: the Choir returns after its summer recess and we move into the period of the annual renewal program. Financial stewardship is a significant element of our annual renewal. Following the custom developed last year we will commence the annual renewal program on the 6th of October and run through to the Sunday before Thanksgiving. A departure from previous years means that we will have a pretty clear draft budget for 2014 in advance of the renewal campaign so no-one can remain unaware concerning the urgent financial priorities facing us in 2014.

It is urgent that we meet the financial challenges presented by the 2014 budget. Yet, we will not do so if we only rely on those who can afford to be more generous. The only way we will grow into the challenges in 2014 is through taking seriously Christ’s call to discipleship. Generosity without gratitude is not sufficient. Members can be generous. Only disciples experience and are able to express gratitude.

For me the pivotal section in Luke 14:25-33, God’s invitation to conversation with us as a community, comes at the very end when Jesus says: So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.  

Unfortunately, the English translation uses the word possessions, which implies things to be given up. However, the Greek can also be translated as possessing. Possessing implies that what is to given up is not a thing – a possession, but an attitude to possessing. Our relation to possessions lies not in having them but in the meaning and importance we give them, i.e. our attitude towards them.

The same is true with relationships. Our relationship with the people we call husbands, wives, sons, daughters, brothers or sisters becomes a spiritual problem when we seek to possess them. What offends many of us when we hear the phrase family values is the way this phrase operates as short hand for relationships of control and possession. We possess others when we see them as objects to satisfy our own need for security. We glory in them as extensions of our own needs, thus bringing us social approval and acceptance. However, relationships are gifts to be enjoyed. Even our own life is a gift which is given back to us again and again. The danger here is of clinging to a view of our life as the result of our own self-assertion, of something we earn, the success of which we is in our control.

It’s not a matter of hating family members and our own lives in the literal sense. Jesus is inviting us to see our relationships, our possessions, and our own life as flowing from the priority we give to our longing to love God.  As Augustine put it: our hearts are restless Lord, until they find their rest in thee.  

The message of this Gospel passage is this:

  • Success does not lie in the numbers of followers, in fact numbers alone pose a danger, because nothing attracts like success and success alone will not provide the staying power and stamina needed to bring about the expectations of the Kingdom.
  • The problem lies not in family relationships, but in the attitude we harbor towards others as objects to possess, with the power of possessing being the source for our own sense of security.
  • If we cling to our relationships and even our own life as something to congratulate ourselves on having earned through the hard work of self-improvement, we will lose the only thing that is certain, the enjoyment of life as gift and the fruitfulness of life that flows from this.
  • As a community of Christians we will not be able to fulfill our passion for the coming of the Kingdom unless we first accept the call to discipleship. The Kingdom is not furthered simply by our being good people doing what good people like to do.
  • We become disciples through our membership of the self-denying, cross- bearing community of the Body of Christ at the intersection of Central and Roosevelt. This alone defines us as a community of disciples. Discipleship alone has the power to provide us with the resources to complete the task God calls us to.

Discipleship is an expectation of the Kingdom of God. Through responding to the call to follow Christ, the expectations of the coming of the Kingdom break into the present through us as daily we pray: Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

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