Sunday, October 16, 2011
by Ellen Sims
Exodus 33: 12-23
Moses said to the Lord, “See, you have said to me, ‘Bring up this people’; but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’ 13Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.” He said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” And he said to him, “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. 16For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.” 17The Lord said to Moses, “I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” 18Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.” 19And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. 20But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” 21And the Lord continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; 22and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; 23then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”
This feminine image of the Spirit is taken from artist Doris Klein’s website: http://www.dorisklein.com/feminine.html. Ruah, the title of the painting, is a feminine Hebrew word meaning breath, wind, inspiration or spirit. This image portrays God as an older, wise woman who breathes spirit and life into a figure gently supported in her hands.
What kind of God do you need?
The reading from Exodus tells us what kind of God Moses thought HE needed.
Although in some respects the Moses story is a narrative about Moses and the people he is leading, at its essence, the Moses story is about Moses and the God who leads him, even as that God remains somewhat hidden from him. You’ll recall that, according to the biblical story, the Moses-and-God relationship began when God spoke to Moses in a burning bush and Moses responded by asking for God’s name. God replied evasively: “I Am Who I AM.” As the Moses story nears its conclusion and Moses nears the end of his life, Moses asks, according to today’s reading, to SEE the one whom he has never been able to name. Again, God slips from Moses’s grasp. “I’ll be present to you,” God assures him (verse 13). “And my goodness will pass before you” (verse 19). “But,” he says, “you will never see my face.” Moses wants to name God and to see God. Instead, God promises to be present with Moses and to give him evidence of God’s goodness. But Moses’ God will never be definitively namable or fully visible. Moses’ God is bigger than a single name or image. In fact, in the Ten Commandments God had given Moses, near the top of the list, are restrictions on the use of God’s name and the creation of God’s image.
Like Moses, we often want to summon and relate to God on our terms. We often think the part of God we have been shown is the totality of God. But over and over again, God says, “You cannot reduce me to your words and images. What you DO experience of me is only a small part of the Divine Mystery.” Yet we keep forgetting that God—the “I Am Who I Am”—is always more than what we imagine God to be. We freeze God into familiar poses and lock God into little boxes of our creation. And whenever we convince ourselves that ONE name for God captures God’s totality, we construct a false idol rather than experience the presence and goodness of God that can never be contained. We worship the Father-God, believing that one image IS God. When we rely on one or a few names for God, we commit idolatry and prevent ourselves from a fuller experience of the Sacred. In God’s basic ground rules, conferred from Mt. Sinai, God is saying, “To fully experience my presence and goodness, you can’t reduce me to your culture’s idea of who I am.”
And yet we verbal, visual creatures need words and images to process our experiences. Perhaps what we can try to do is simply remember that our God Talk and God Pictures are incomplete. So we keep reaching for more expansive and inclusive ways of expressing who God is—and who God’s people are.
God’s people, I believe, come from all ages, races, cultures, physical abilities, socio-economic levels, sexual orientations . . . and genders. The United Church of Christ (www.ucc.org) considers it a matter of justice to speak about people in inclusive ways, and since gender inclusion has presented a particular challenge for reforming Christian discourse, let me specifically lobby for gender-inclusive language. Until 30-40 years ago, masculine pronouns were the default pronouns in the English language. That practice is no longer considered grammatical–or just. The word “men” at one time was used to represent men and women; the word “mankind” was used to mean “all people.” But those terms sometimes did just refer to men, leaving it up to women to try to figure out through the context if they were really included in a statement. Using gender-inclusive language is a way to make God’s welcome explicit. Besides, gender-inclusive language is often more true to the original Hebrew and Greek words of the Bible. For instance, in the original Greek the angel greeted the shepherds with the Christmas message of “peace on earth, good will to all people”—rather than “good will to men”—as the KJV later translated those originally inclusive words. We’re sometimes more biblical in using words that explicitly include both genders.
The fact that grammar handbooks for the last 30 years have prescribed gender-inclusive language shows how mainstream is this expectation—in the academy, in commerce, in law. To say “people” rather than “mankind“ is not a matter of political correctness; it is a matter of simple justice. Because words matter. Language not only reflects our world—it shapes our world. If the children of Open Table grow up believing that male is the norm—they will understand their place in the world differently than if they hear in the words and images around them an equality between men and women—not a sameness, but an equality. We can use language that does not privilege one gender over another. We can create a culture that supports women and men equally in their spiritual growth and access to church leadership. We don’t have to anxiously police one another’s speech any more than we need to police other ways we try to act with justice in an imperfect world. But we can become more aware of ways our word choices affect our relationships and roles.
As society became increasingly aware of the way harmful attitudes about race or physical difference or sexuality or other differences are forged and perpetuated through language, theologians have been showing us that our language about God has also been in need of expansion.
Did you recognize the chorus from an old hymn we sang after the Hebrew Bible reading? How did you feel about altering the words “He hideth my soul in the cleft of the rock” to “SHE hideth my soul in the cleft of the rock”? Did you find it irreverent to change the pronouns from male to female? If so, why? Is God a particular gender for you? Does God have male anatomy—or any anatomy? (time for silence)
Radical feminist Mary Daly came to believe that Christianity was irredeemably patriarchal. She did not see how women could remain Christian and so she exited the Christian camp with this shocking explanation: “If God is male, then male is God. The divine patriarch castrates women as long as he is allowed to live on in the human imagination.”
But other feminist theologians acknowledge that while women have often been excluded and limited by the Church, Christian theology is inherently inclusive and loving—even if it hasn’t always been practiced so inclusively and lovingly. Like these feminist Christians, I find myself hopeful that the Church is reforming. And one way to do so is through an awareness of our worship words and images for God and humanity.
In 1995 the United Church of Christ published the most thoroughly inclusive hymnal to date. It has been lauded for the addition of many new and beautiful lyrics to expand our images for God—such as the hymn “Bring Many Names” we sang at the start of our service. The New Century Hymnal also altered many traditional hymns to eliminate “any suggestion that God is king, father, or lord”—images of God that are not only exclusively male but also, for some, troubling with their connotations of domination over others.[i] The responses to this hymnal have varied. As important as inclusive language is to me, I agree with some critics that some of the revisions are “clunky”. But the songs we sing and the words we say are important—maybe more important than the cozy feeling we have when we sing a familiar hymn. Maybe we are learning new songs now so that the ones who follow us will have familiar and inspiring words that include all people and that let God out of the box we’ve kept “him” in.
I may be the poorest of preachers, but one thing the children of Open Table will know is that God’s earthly representatives can come in female form. Our little girls and boys will understand God and themselves differently because they have seen women and men serving God equally. Christians have hidden the fullness of god behind masculine nouns and pronouns for God, but scholars are now rediscovering “rich feminine imagery for God and God’s people in scripture”[ii]. There are rich resources we have yet to mine.
Wittgenstein said that “the limits of our language are the limits of our world”[iii] . Perhaps it is also true that the limits of our language are the limits of our God.
If you have never imaged God as mother, I would encourage you to try that for just a moment. And if that feels uncomfortable, then all the more reason to sit with that image for awhile. Picture in your mind’s eye not your mother, but Mother God– who blesses, who cares, who feeds, who nurtures and guides, who holds you and heals you. (time for silence)
Moses thought he needed a God he could name and hold and see and control.
I don’t want a God I can put in my pocket. I don’t need a God I can call like a dog on command.
I need a God who holds me. I need a God who summons me.
God told Moses that he would never see God’s face. I suppose you and I will never know if that divine face is feminine or masculine. But I doubt that God is a physical being. What we can see is OF God, not God. What we see is what God leaves in God’s wake: goodness and glory. We see God’s back, according to this story, as God slips on ahead of us, trailing behind goodness. That’s how we experience God, says the Moses story. If you try to pour concrete around God, you’ll realize you’ve built a garden variety idol. For God is on the move: a force for good, an energy of life and love. We feel God’s presence. And wherever goodness is found, we catch the faintest glimpse of God. For me that glimpse is sometimes aglow in shades of palest pink.
Benediction: May the blessing of God go before you. May her grace and peace abound. May her spirit live within you. May her love wrap you round. May her blessing remain with you always. May you walk on holy ground. (Miriam Therese Winter)
[i] Sokolove, Deborah. “More Than Words” in New Feminist Christianity: Many Voices, Many Views. Eds. Mary Hunt and Diann L. New. Woodstock: Skylights Path, 2010, pp. 186-187.
[iii] Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Qtd. by Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza. “Critical Feminist Biblical Studies” in New Feminist Christianity: Many Voices, Many Views. Eds. Mary Hunt and Diann L. New. Woodstock: Skylights Path, 2010, p. 89.