A Beautiful Faith

Sermon on Isaiah 66:12-13; John 14:1-14 for Easter 5 A, Mothers Day, May 14, 2017

Isaiah 66:12-13

For thus says the Lord:
I will extend prosperity to her like a river,
and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream;
and you shall nurse and be carried on her arm,
and dandled on her knees.
As a mother comforts her child,
so I will comfort you;
you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.

John 14:1-14

[Jesus said:] “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”

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The Sunday of Mother’s Day in America is always complicated. Many of us came from stable families in which our mothers raised us with love and care. Others did not have that experience. Some women here are mothers, and others are not, for a variety of reasons, some quite painful. Some of us have lost our mothers recently. Some mothers have lost children, which makes this day complicated.

So, today we rejoice where rejoicing is possible, and we grieve along side those who grieve. My prayer is that whatever you are feeling about this day, that you will sense God’s loving presence with you, and that you will sense that this community is here for you.

God, Beyond Gender

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Mother’s Day does give us the opportunity to reflect on God. Our theology is very clear that God is beyond gender. God is not a man. Neither is God a woman. God is above  gender. Genesis says that the Lord created male and female both,

“in the image and likeness of God.”

But because we come from centuries and centuries of patriarchy, including the centuries in which the bible was written in, we have deeply entrenched habits of referring to God in masculine terms. In the bible, God is king, father, Lord, and Master; even shepherd is masculine.

But that is not the whole story. There are moments in which the biblical writers use feminine imagery for God, specifically mothering imagery. God is a mother bird who shelters her brood under her protective wings. Today’s reading from Isaiah pictures God as a nursing mother, with a baby on her lap. As a mother, God comforts her child. So, while it may feel dangerously modern and progressive to think of God in feminine terms, it is not; Isaiah’s words were written centuries before Jesus.

In fact, the ancient world was full of female deities. From Mesopotamia to the land of the Canaanites and from the the Greek to the Roman pantheons, goddesses abounded. It is the opposite of a modern innovation to think of God as female.

Mothers and Beauty

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Now I want to make a gross generalization, knowing that there are exceptions. The vast majority of mothers bring beauty to their families. Not just their own beauty. Mothers, in my experience, love to make their homes beautiful. They often make their gardens beautiful. They make their tables beautiful. They also take care that the food on the plate is not just tasty, but also beautiful. They even care that the plate is beautiful.

It should not surprise us that this love for beauty is part of how we are made by a God who is both Father to us and Mother. As mother, God gives us a love for beauty.

I have heard mathematicians and physicists interviewed on Krista Tippet’s “On Being” program; it is remarkable how many speak of beauty as an indication of truth. The right equation is the beautiful one. The correct formula is the elegant one. The beauty of symmetry and balance are things they notice and value in their scientific work.

Beautiful Faith

Should we be surprised then, as we try to do theology today, that we are increasingly able to understand our faith as beautiful?

We use a song in the contemporary service that speaks of how our theological concepts have evolved over the millennia. It says, speaking to God:

“We thought you wanted temples, and blood above our doors,
We thought You wanted vengeance and all our holy wars,
We thought that You were distant, You were far away
But You are here, and You are love” Eastlake Music “Thank God”

The song is called “Thank God.” Thank God that we have moved on from those ugly days of blood and sacrifice. Thank God that we have left behind the ugliness of a God hell-bent on wrath and judgment. Thank God for the beautiful way Jesus showed us of a God of compassion, of grace, of forgiveness, of inclusion, and of love. It is beautiful.

John’s Beautiful Story of Jesus

Today, thanks to the careful work of biblical scholars, we have some understanding of the way the gospels came to be written. We understand that John’s gospel was written probably sixty years or more after Jesus. We accept that the words Jesus speaks in John are not literally from his mouth, but reflect the theology of John’s community that continued to find, in Jesus, the source of their beautiful spiritual life together.

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So, in ways that are very similar to the way children say, “You are the best mother in the world” and give mom a mug with “best mom” written on it, to prove it, we hear the community celebrating how much they have come to love the beautiful spiritual life Jesus has shown them.

So John’s Jesus says what they all believe:

“I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me.”

Instead of hearing those words as another ugly exclusive claim, we can hear them as a beautiful affirmation. We can hear them as the community saying:

We have found Jesus’ way beautiful.

We have found Jesus’ truth liberating.

We have come to know a beautifully rich life in the Spirit from Jesus.

We cannot imagine any other way of relating to to God than to know God as Father as Jesus did (or, as mother, as scripture also does).

Jesus’s beautiful way was an open-hearted way that was always reaching out with God’s love, past the ugly barriers that separate humans.

It is in John’s gospel that we see Jesus conversing with the Samaritan woman, as he crossed those ethnic and gender boundaries, and engages her theological questions with respect. It is in that conversation that we hear that it is not a matter of worshiping on sacred mountains, but that

“God is Spirit and the worship of God is in spirit and in truth.”

The beautiful truth that Jesus was so famous for, was that God can be approached as Abba. That the holy, mysterious God that people were afraid of at Mt. Sinai, the God known so cryptically as Yahweh, or as I am who I am, could be addressed in intimately personal, familial terms, as Abba, or daddy – this is a beautiful truth.

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And of course we are able to understand that as un-gendered, the God who is Father is also the beautifully nurturing, compassionate mother as well. “There is no fear in love,” as 1 John says, because “perfect love cast out fear.” This is the beautiful truth we come to know in Jesus.

Jesus is the source of beautiful life as well. The life we share is the life of the beloved, in the beloved community that gathers, to bear witness to God’s love and grace, and then scatters in courageous mission to bring the beauty of that love into every situation of the ugliness of suffering.

God Like Jesus

The way our faith is the most beautiful, to me, is that beyond the beautiful way, truth and life, we actually affirm that in Jesus, we get to see what God is like.

John writes of Jesus in dialogue with Philip who wants to understand God. Philip wants to have what mystics and spiritualists throughout human history have sought: a vision of the divine.

There was a form of mysticism that Jewish people practiced in Jesus’ day called “Throne mysticism.” They meditated and fasted, and longed to have a vision of God, as king of the universe, on the throne, as God is so often pictured in the Hebrew bible. Maybe, Philip believes, Jesus could be the spiritual guide to help them have that vision.

“Show us the Father, and we will be satisfied” he says to Jesus.

In John’s story of Jesus, we hear him reply:

“Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”

Let those words sink in a bit:

“Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”

In other words, do you want to know what God is like? Look at Jesus. Look at the one who is best described as the Good Shepherd seeking his lost sheep. Look at the one who opens blind eyes to new realities.

Look at the one whose passion for justice moved him to act, as he did at the temple that day, confronting systematic abuse on behalf of suffering people.

Do you want to understand what God is like? Look at Jesus. Look no further.

The Beauty of Trust

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The bottom line for us, in this beautiful faith, is elegantly simple: it is trust. The word for trust and belief are the same in Greek, so the translation can go either way. So we can hear Jesus say,

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, trust also in me.”

We can live lives in the beauty of the peace that comes from trust; from knowing that we are being upheld at all times. That there is a depth dimension to life that we feel and sense, that gives meaning, even when we do not understand the specifics. We know that God is with us; that we are at home in God. Surely this is what John is getting at when he has Jesus say,

“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places.”

We live in God. In God, our Mother, “we live and move and have our being.” We are surrounded by goodness. In every unfolding moment there are new possibilities in which to respond to the lure of love, to be a part of the beauty of a life of trust.

We can drop the small, ugly ego defenses we used to think we needed. We can turn away from anger and self-justifications and from bitterness and envy – all the ways that take beauty from our lives, and instead, open to a better way.

God, as mother, comforts us, as Isaiah said, because God is with us in our suffering, in fact sharing our suffering. God is present in our pain, experiencing our pain along with us. God is present in our joy, rejoicing with us.

Beautifully Personal

Finally, our beautiful faith boldly asserts that God, whatever can be said about that ultimate mystery beyond words, is personal. God is not merely a force or a power, or even an impersonal spirit. God may be more than what we can ever mean by personal, but cannot be less. So, as person, God can be addressed. We live with the beautiful mystery of prayer.

In John we hear Jesus saying that we can ask for anything in Jesus’ name and receive it. We know that this is not literally true, but we know that the affirmation we are making is that God can be personally addressed, and that God has our best interests at heart. God cares. She cares just as a mother cares for her child. So we come to God in prayer, in the beautiful confidence that God listens and responds.

It is deeply sad that these words from John’s gospel have so often been read to support ugly, exclusive or triumphal versions of Christianity. The Jesus we read about in the gospels did not live that way.

Rather Jesus shows us a beautiful God whom we are not afraid to call mother as well as father. We get to live in the beautiful way, the beautiful truth, and the beautiful life of the beloved. Thank God!

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