Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Many Images of God

Christ the King Sunday, Nov 21, 2010 - Lutheran Church of the Cross, Berkeley
Jeremiah 23:1-6; Palms 46; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43

So, today is Christ the King Sunday. It’s the day the Church is supposed to celebrate the image of Jesus as the great king, the one whose might and power has destroyed death, the one who rules over the kingdom of God, who brings us into paradise. On Christ the King Sunday we celebrate the glory and triumph of the risen Christ in all his splendour before we move on to Advent, and Christmas, and the images of Christ as a tiny baby in a manger. It is the last image we have of him in the church year, kind of a last hurrah, before we start all over again with the cycle of birth, life, suffering, death and Easter resurrection. Today is supposed to be a celebratory Sunday - it’s why we have the white paraments. It’s a feast day, and yet... Yet for me, this Sunday leaves me kind of cold.

I’ve never actually related to this Sunday. To tell you the truth, I’ve always avoided this Sunday. As a pastor, I managed to take this Sunday off every year, so this is actually the first time I’ve ever preached on Christ the King. There’s something about the imagery of this Sunday, the picture it paints for me of God that I just can’t relate to. I find it alienating, actually. This triumphant Christ, who comes in glory, victorious over all evil - I don’t really get it. That’s not how I understand God or Jesus, and these kinds of images make me feel really far from God.

Have you ever experienced that? Particular images of God that you just can’t relate to? Images of God that maybe even make you feel disconnected from God altogether? It might not be Christ the King - maybe that image works for you. But maybe there are other images of God that make it hard for you to feel like you’re connected to God; images that make you question what kind of relationship Christians are supposed to have with God, or more importantly, what kind of relationship God has with us.

After all, we’re all different. We are all looking for different things in our relationship with God, and so we all find that different images either work, or don’t work, for us. But I want to tell you today that that is not a bad thing. That is, that God actually provides us with a multitude of images of who God is, so that no matter where we’re coming from, we will always know that God is in relationship with us, and that God cares for us. So today, rather than focusing on only one image of God - that of Christ the King - I also want to explore a few other images that the Bible gives us, with the hope that these images might be helpful for you in your faith journey.

But the first image of God that I do want to look at is Christ the King. Although it doesn’t work for me personally, it is a good image. The God who relates to us a monarch, who takes care of us, protects us, gives us the answers when we don’t know what to do - this image is very comforting in certain situations. When we’re feeling lost and like things are completely beyond our control, when we feel threatened, it can be very comforting, very reassuring to know that through Christ, God is taking care of things, that God is looking out for us, that God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. Sometimes that image of Father knows best - that kingly image - that image that we get from Karl Barth, of God as infinitely superior to us and in charge, sometimes that’s what we really need. It can bring us true and genuine comfort.

But sometimes it doesn’t. It doesn’t work when what we need is to feel less distance between us and God, when we need to feel like God is closer to us than high up on a throne. If God is king, then it means we are subjects, distant servants. If God is all-powerful up there, it means that we are power-less down here. For those of us who find meaning in a God who is closer and less distant than a monarch, this image doesn’t always work.

But we have another image, a more personal one, that of the Good Shepherd. Our reading from Jeremiah today gives us this image, God saying, “Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply.” This image of God is seen in Psalm 23 - the God who cares for us, leads us to still waters, good pastures, protects us from wolves. The shepherd God lays down with us in the fields like all good shepherds do, goes searching for us when we’re lost - remember the parable in Luke? - picks us up when we are lonely little lambs and cares for us ever so gently and tenderly. God as shepherd is a lovely, pastoral image, that brings great comfort when we’re in need of personal gentleness and nurturing. It’s one of my favourites.

Sometimes. Sometimes it doesn’t work for me at all. Sometimes, to be honest, I don’t want to be a sheep. Sheep are kind of dumb, they don’t think for themselves, they’re defenseless in the face of violence, they’re like perpetual children - never growing or maturing or developing. The image of God as a shepherd is certainly much more personal than that of God as a monarch, and yet it’s still one that upholds a hierarchy. They are both images that highlight the authoritative nature of God’s relationship with us. They’re both images that maintain a power differential between us and God.

Well, our Gospel reading from Luke today most definitely gives us a more democratic image. The passion stories all give us an image of the suffering and crucified Christ. This image shows us God in all weakness, co-sufferer with us, one of many victims of oppression. This image helps us live through times when we’ve been victimized, helps us to know that we are not alone in our suffering, gives us a reason to endure the trials of life because we know that God is with us. God as the crucified Christ is an image that works very well in liberation theology, an image that upholds the solidarity between God and us, and one that has given comfort to many people who have felt alienated by more powerful images of God.

On the other hand, though, as feminist theologians have rightly pointed out, this image of God has the potential to lead us to “idealize weakness and passivity” and lead us to “unjust suffering,” as Catherine Keller puts it. It can make suffering seem heroic. This image of God has been used to encourage victims to stay in their place, to suffer as Jesus did, it has unfortunately been used to keep the victims of domestic violence at home, under the thumbs of those who beat them. Not a very comforting image in those particular cases, is it?

There’s one last image of God that I want to look at today, this one also from Luke. Do you remember the story of the disciples on the way to Emmaus after the crucifixion of Jesus? There are two disciples leaving Jerusalem to walk to Emmaus after the events of Good Friday. They’re depressed because Jesus has been crucified, but as they walk along, a man appears to them who walks with them along the road, helps them to understand what the story of their crucified leader is all about, shares bread with them, and then disappears, but leaves them feeling hopeful and empowered to carry on to the rest of the disciples with the good news of Jesus’ resurrection. This image is of Christ as a relational companion - God walking with us in our journeys, not making decisions for us, or telling us what to do, but acting as a companion who offers us guidance and walks where we choose to walk. This God lives with us through change, relates to us as equals on the road, definitely works for those of us who feel the need for companionship on our paths of self-determination and independence. On most days, this is the image of God that I feel most in relationship with.

Which is not to say that this image of God is the best one. I know, it sounds like I can’t make up my mind, but my intent this morning hasn’t been to establish a hierarchy of images, to say that one particular image of God is better than any other. The relational image of God has its own problems: it doesn’t work for people who need more authority and clarity. It doesn’t work in situations when we don’t have the confidence to walk on our own, or when we feel like every decision we make is the wrong one. When we really need to know that God is taking care of us, this image can cause immense stress, leaving us feeling alone and abandoned in our time of need. This image, like all the rest, doesn’t work for everybody all the time.

But that’s really the point of what I’m trying to say. The point is that there is no one single image of God that is perfect, no one single image of God that will work forever and for all situations. But that’s because God is more than just one image. God is more than just the king, more than just the shepherd, more than just the sufferer, more even than our friend. God is all of these things, and more. We don’t have to restrict ourselves to proclaiming only one image of God - Christ the King, for instance - because God gives us more than one image. As we see so clearly now from the Scriptures, God gives us a multitude of images to relate to. And God does it because God wants to be with you wherever you are. God wants you to feel that God is in relationship with you no matter what your situation. From up on high to down with us, God wants you to know that God is with you, always. Thanks be to God, Amen.