Sermon 7/4/2010

Sermon for Proper 9 C
July 4, 2010
Michael Coffey

Text: Isaiah 66:10-14

How can we possibly describe God?
Some theologians in history have said
that you can only say what God is not,
because when you try to say what God is
it always falls short.
Yet, the Scriptures are bold enough to say many things about God.
More than describing what God is,
the Bible talks about characteristics of God:
Love, mercy, compassion, justice, power, holiness.
The first one, love, is probably the one that sums up most
what the Bible says about God,
although defining “love” is not simple.
That the source of all things
and the end of all things
and the being of all things
can somehow be called “loving” is astonishing
and Is not at all obvious or given in the universe.
But what that love is, and how we are to respond to it,
is always in need of clarification and example.

So the Bible gives lots of examples.
It’s just that today’s example from Isaiah is pretty surprising,
and not the way we usually talk or hear about God.
Isaiah is writing to a people who have come back home
from a long and despairing exile.
They had hopes and dreams.
They imagined building a new home
and ending the generations of suffering.
But they found out it was a lot harder
and would take a lot longer than they thought.

It reminds me of those home renovation shows on HGTV.
Someone buys a rundown house
with the promise of fixing it up
and selling it for a profit.
They think it will take 8 weeks and $50,000.
It ends up taking 16 weeks and $100,000,
and they might lose their shirt in the process.

That’s where the returning Jews in Jerusalem are.
Fixing up home, from architecture
to religious life to social structures
to economic viability,
is their hard work.
What once was home
has become a fixer-upper money pit endless nightmare.

So, they are despairing.
They are looking for hope and comfort.
They want to know why they shouldn’t give up.
And mostly, they want to know if God is still in on the project.

So the Lord says, first,
that Jerusalem will be prosperous
and will be for the people like a comforting, nurturing,
nursing mother.
The image is about motherly love and care.
And just as the people need to be nurtured and loved
and comforted and cared for,
so will the city be able to do for the people.

And then, in a shift that is subtle yet startling,
and might even have slipped by when it was read.
Instead of Jerusalem being the source of motherly love and
care and comfort and nourishment,
now, the Lord God will be motherly love for the people.

Wow. Did you catch that?
After you got over some shock and discomfort about
hearing it read in church that the nursing breasts
of Jerusalem’s well being will provide for the people,
did you hear that metaphor slip over into God-territory?

How do we describe God?
Not God really, but the characteristics of God,
the love, compassion, mercy, justice, and holiness of God?
We most often use the metaphors of king, father,
Lord, and ruler.
When these metaphors are understood in their best sense,
they are strong and assuring images of God’s plan and purposes
for the world, and the care and concern
God has over the people of the world,
as a noble king or a loving father would have.
Of course, when these images are understood at their worst,
God can seem like a tyrant, or an abuser of power,
or one who neglects the needs of people
for the pursuit of his own, private interests.
The Bible makes sure we know that God
is always looking out for the needs of even the most
vulnerable and neglected people.

But in Isaiah, and a few other places in Scripture,
we get this more maternal, feminine image of love and mercy:
Comforting. Nourishing.
Nursing. Holding.
Bouncing on the knee.
It is beautiful and wonderful when we aren’t too shocked by it.
Even Isaiah seems hesitant to say what has to be said
about God in order to fully understand God’s love.
He makes Jerusalem be the nursing and consoling mother first,
and then subtly switches it over to God.
“I will be that mother for you” says the Lord.

So, what’s going on in this unusual passage,
which isn’t unique but is not the major way we hear about God?
I think it is this:
The love and mercy and compassion and justice and holiness of God
cannot be summed up in a one-sided metaphor
or a single image.
God’s love is too rich for only one way of knowing and expressing it.
The parental love of God cannot be summed up
only by the masculine image of Father.
The fullness of who God is for us
needs the masculine and the feminine
in order to be whole.

It is interesting that even though the Scriptures
refer to God most often with masculine images,
even those start to take on feminine aspects.
We hear about a king and father God
whose primary characteristics include compassion.
Now, in Hebrew, compassion is an intriguing word.
It is the same root word used for the Hebrew word for “womb.”
So God is frequently shown to be compassionate, wombish,
holding and protecting and watching out for people
like a mother carrying her child.
So if we are hearing Hebrew in the Old Testament,
we are hearing God presented as a father and king God
with motherly love.
It simply won’t do to use only half of the human way
of understanding love to understand God.

We all know and say it:
God is not male or female.
God is not human or creature,
so those terms don’t apply literally.
And most often in the Bible,
idolatry is associated with actually making God
into a male or female person.
Yet, the Scriptures don’t hesitate throughout
to talk about God in masculine and feminine ways.

It seems that the love of God is a love that encompasses both sides.
God’s love is the fullness of what love is.
It includes the masculine:
God can be tough, demanding,
leading and strongly directing people
to a new and risky and better place
when they would rather not go.
And it includes the feminine:
God can be nurturing, comforting,
sustaining when folks are weak and helpless and hurting,
welcoming to a safe place called home.

I think this is important for us
because at different times and different situations
we need to hear the different sides of God’s love for us and the world.
In a time of confusion, hurt, loss...
God comforts and nurtures us like a nursing mother.
In a time of wandering, lostness, immaturity...
God calls us back to a disciplined, committed,
difficult but life-giving path out of fatherly love for us.
When we doubt anyone loves us
God’s maternal love embraces us and welcomes us home.
When we doubt we can do anything that matters
or move forward in life
God’s fatherly love believes in us and sends us out
to take chances and find ourselves in new ways.

One without the other is imbalanced...
and either leads to self-focused, narcissistic religion
of constant affirmation and comfort...
or rigid and demanding religion
without compassion and mercy.
Many of us have had one kind of love in life
with the other being absent or lacking...
or maybe neither one was embodied well for us
in our actual parents, or religious leaders,
or significant mentors.
Maybe we still search for motherly care and nurturing,
pulling us homeward to a place of safety and acceptance.
If so, God embodies that love for us in Jesus
and in all the faithful men and women who follow him.
Maybe we still search for fatherly guidance,
and someone who believes we can take risks
and venture out into the world,
and actually tells us to go do it.
If so, God embodies that love for us in Jesus
and in all the faithful women and men who follow him
in the path or risky discipleship.

Jesus embodies both so well that he confuses and astounds people:
the tough Jesus, calls disciples and all people
on the narrow way that leads to true life,
the ways of life and blessing,
away from the ways of death and self-interest.
The tender Jesus comforts, forgives, nurtures, supports
and picks people up when they are down,
tells them they are loved when no one else will,
and defends who they are in the face of rejection.

Of course,
you and I, men and women,
embody both kinds of love,
both sides of the love of God,
both sides of Jesus.
Men can be both wonderfully masculine and strong,
and yet show tenderness and compassion and nurture.
Women can be both wonderfully feminine and nurturing,
and yet show strength and firmness and risk-taking.
The eastern symbol of the yin and yang,
that circle with black and white
that contain white and black,
shows us this kind of fullness:
Both come together,
and one contains the other,
to show us a unified whole of what life and love are.
The love of God is too full and wonderful
not to reflect the fullness of love as we know it
in ourselves as men and women.
The masculine and feminine make up a whole
that God reflects and even surpasses.

God for us is all of love as we know it,
and as we have longed to know it,
as we live it,
and as we fail and struggle to embody it.
God fathers and mothers us
so we can grow into full maturity
as children of God.
God’s love comes to us in Jesus
so we can love others with the same fullness that Jesus himself
embodied and feeds us with even today.


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