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The Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 22, 2009
Pastor Brad Davick and Pastor Caroline Satre
Galatians 3:27-29; Luke 13:34
She Who Is
Grace and peace to you.
Pastor Brad: In August of 2004, Pastor Caroline and I traveled to San Francisco. Pastor Caroline had been asked to officiate at the wedding of her cousin Luke and his fiancee, Stephanie. The wedding was to have taken place at a resort in Lake Tahoe. Unfortunately, the week of the wedding, Stephanie was hospitalized with bacterial meningitis.
With the Lake Tahoe wedding cancelled, when it appeared that Stephanie would be released from the hospital, alternative arrangements began to take shape. Both were committed to the original day because the rings had already been engraved with that date. The decision was made to have a family-only marriage service at a State Park which was known for its breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean. The wedding place settled, dinner reservations were made, and everyone settled in to these alternate arrangements.
Since we stayed in San Francisco and did not go to Lake Tahoe, Caroline and I stayed with Luke’s uncle, John Satre and his partner, Richie. In addition to seeing the sites, John, Richie, Caroline and I each offered our own unique contribution to making Luke and Stephanie’s wedding day feel festive and special. My contributions were to make…
- Colored tissue paper flowers to decorate a few presents that would have been difficult to wrap.
- A three-tiered Lemon-Blueberry White Chocolate Buttermilk wedding cake decorated with assorted rose petals.
- Then I ironed and pressed all the clothes that John, Richie, Caroline and I had chosen to wear.
As I was finishing up the ironing, I heard Richie say to Caroline,“Wow-the tissue flowers, the three-tiered cake, the ironing...Brad would be very popular and quite a catch among our circle of friends!”
Pastor Caroline:Those of you who know us even moderately well know that there is a bit of role reversal between the two of us… which makes days like this all the more interesting. For example, Brad is crafty; I pay the bills and balance the checkbook. He can talk and tell stories for hours; I want to know the bottom line. He can cook a gourmet meal; I can make toast and Lean Cuisine.
Pastor Brad: If we only looked for stereotypically female traits in Caroline, we would be missing a significant portion of who she is.
Pastor Caroline: If we only looked for stereotypically male traits in Brad, we would be missing a significant part of who he is.
The same is true of God. Because God is beyond comprehension, we use things we know about to help us understand who God is. Most of the time, the language and images we use are masculine. We often describe God as YHWH, Elohim, El Shaddai, Jehovah, all-powerful, all loving, all-knowing, all-wise, all-merciful .Those things are helpful; it’s just not the whole story. Or as Frederich Buechner has written “we bore to death both God and ourselves with our chatter. God cannot be expressed but only experienced. If we only use things that are stereotypically male, we miss experiencing a significant portion of who God is.
In the beginning of each council meeting we have Bible time. We are now reading a book called Manna and Mercy. This sentence was part of last Thursday’s reading,“God felt like a mother who had birthed a child.” From our discussion, it was clear that this was an unusual way to think about God. Yet, the Bible uses this kind of language… this kind of feminine image. The Bible talks about God as giving birth, nursing, mothering, protecting, and comforting. Today’s Gospel even compares Jesus to a mother hen.
We recognize this is a difficult topic and that it pushes some people’s comfort zones because of how faith and church have been taught over the years. It will take a long time to get over gender bias when it comes to describing God, but we have to try!
This may seem like a current trend along with all the 20th Century “degenderization” of American English. Do you know what I mean? Well… the person who helps you to find your seat on an airplane used to be called a stewardess (female). Now that person is a flight attendant. A person who fights fires used to be called a fireman (male). Now that person is a firefighter.
In my lifetime, God has always been referred to as “he,” male. But I was taught in seminary to do the best I can to refrain from using a pronoun at all. God isn’t he or she, God is God. This is happening along with the “degenderization” in a lot of our American English, but it is certainly NOT something new. The degenderization of God is not fad theology or a result of women’s lib. Actually, it’s getting back to an early church understanding.
All languages formative in the Judeo-Christian tradition had grammatical gender for nouns and pronouns. This is somewhat new to us as English speakers, but those who have taken Spanish, German, or French know that, in many languages, nouns are masculine, feminine, or neuter.
Sometimes these designations are obvious. It makes sense that “mother” is in the feminine gender in most languages. Sometimes they aren’t so obvious. Why is “young girl” a neuter noun in German? Sometimes these grammatical designations are conflicting from language to language. For example,“chair” is feminine in French and masculine in German. As you can tell, the fact that a noun is masculine, feminine, or neuter, is a matter of grammar, and not a matter of biology or sexuality.
Such is the case with the noun “God.” Again, all languages formative in the Judeo-Christian tradition had grammatical gender for nouns and pronouns. “God” was a masculine noun. We don’t know to what degree thoughtful speakers of those languages imagined God as male in gender, but we do know that, because the use of the male pronoun “he” has been retained into the present day, many people think about God in masculine terms, even though early Christians taught against attaching any gender significance to God.
As Gail Ramshaw writes in the book God Beyond Gender,“Aquinas defended the expression Qui est (The One Who Is) as the most appropriate name for God; disregarding any significance in his use of the masculine relative pronoun, he judged that the term “does not signify any particular form, but rather existence itself.”
Pastor Brad: What does it mean for each of us to embrace a God beyond gender? Does it detract from our faith, or does it enhance it? Familiar picture of Jesus from our garage. Has hung in many homes and churches throughout the years. When I was a kid, this was my image of Jesus. But now I have all kinds of images for God. Sometimes see my in my mind’s eye the “Swedish” Jesus, but sometimes I see the wisdom and compassion of my Grandpa Davick. Because she took care of me for 2 years while my Mom finished school, sometimes I see my Grandma Johnson.
Pastor Caroline: Something that has stuck with me since seminary days is a quote by the main character in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. This character says,“God is different to us now, after all these years in Africa. More spirit than ever before, and more internal. Most people think he has to look like something or someone—a roof leaf or Christ—but we don’t. And not being tied to what God looks like, frees us.”
Pastor Brad: Jesus said that God is spirit. And spirit has no shape, it has no form, it has no physical essence. I agree with Rob Bell when he says,“God is in essence beyond male and female. Or perhaps you could say it more accurately: God transcends and yet includes what we know as male and female.” There is a masculine dimension to God and there is a feminine dimension to God. This is what was so revolutionary about the early Christian church. Women were witnesses to the resurrection which was ground breaking enough in its day. In this early church you had women leading, organizing, making decisions. It was women who supported Jesus, his teachings and travels. It was women who paid Jesus’ bills.
Is it important to be able to embrace/acknowledge feminine images/aspects of God so that our daughters are clear in their understanding of being created imago dei… in the image and likeness of God? Does helping our sons embrace feminine images of the divine help them respect and cherish women? As difficult as it may be, what might it mean for us individually and collectively as a society to allow Paul’s words according to Galatians 3:28 to extend to our understanding of God?