Oh my Goddess! Holy Wisdom & Female imagery for God…

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Holy Wisdom – A Talk to the ‘Blackheath Wives Group’

 

In our reading we find one of the neglected themes of Scripture that has become important to me in recent years.  Our first lesson told us about ‘Sophia’, or Holy Wisdom.  I will hopefully be building on what Juliet was talking about when she came to your group a few months ago.

 

1 Does not wisdom call,
and does not understanding raise her voice?
2 On the heights, beside the way,
at the crossroads she takes her stand;
3 beside the gates in front of the town,
at the entrance of the portals she cries out:
4 To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live.

 

Our first reading this morning uses some interesting imagery for God.  God is Wisdom.

 

What of course I find most striking about Wisdom, is that the Wisdom literature of the Hebrew Scriptures uses explicitly female imagery for God.  As soon as words ‘female’ and ‘God’ start appearing in the same sentence, some people start to prickle.  We think of what we may feel are the excess of ‘political correctness.’  This has nothing to do with political correctness.  This is not about being modern, or even post-modern.  This is not about new-fangled feminist thought.  (Though I have nothing against feminism or post-modernism.)  It is about looking at the images of God that we find in the Bible.  It is about taking the Bible seriously.  It is about taking the vastness of God seriously.  Taking seriously God’s ‘un-pin-downability’ – that God is much, much bigger that any one image we can use.

 

The books of Proverbs and Ecclesiasticus reveal divine Wisdom as feminine.  The Hebrew word for Wisdom, ‘hokmah’, is grammatically feminine, and feminine pronouns are used to refer to wisdom.  

 

In Ecclesiastes 24 we read:
Wisdom praises herself,
and tells of her glory in the midst of her people.
In the assembly of the Most High she opens her mouth,
and in the presence of his hosts she tells of her glory.

 

And in Proverbs chapter 1, we read

 

Wisdom cries aloud in the street; in the markets she raises her voice…  Give heed to my reproof; behold, I will pour out my thoughts to you; I will make my words known to you…  Those who listen to me will dwell secure and will be at ease, without dread of evil.

 

Wisdom is a feminine image of God, just as Logos, God’s Word, is an image for God in the Gospel of John (traditionally read at the end of Carol Services “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…”).  Later in chapter 4 of Proverbs we are encouraged to

 

Get Wisdom; get insight.  Do not forsake her, and she will keep you; love her and she will guard you…  Prize her highly, and she will exalt you; she will honour you if you embrace her.  She will place on your head a fair garland; she will bestow on you a beautiful crown.

 

The Wisdom of Soloman, chapter 10, describes the works of God:

Wisdom freed a holy people and a blameless race
from a nation of oppressors.
She entered the soul of a servant of the Lord
and withstood fearsome rulers with wonders and signs.
To the saints she gave the reward of their labours
and led them by a marvellous road;
She was their shelter by day
and a blaze of stars by night
She brought them across the Red Sea
and led them through mighty waters.
She swallowed their enemies in the waves
and spat them out from the depths of the sea.
Then, Lord, the righteous sang the glories of your name
and praised together your protecting hand;
For Wisdom opened the mouths of the silent
and gave speech to the tongues of her children.

 

Other female images for God in the Hebrew Scriptures include Mother (Hosea 11.3; Isaiah 66.13), and Mother Eagle (Deuteronomy 32.11-12; Psalm 57.1).  God is like a woman in travail (Isaiah 42.14), God is frequently ascribed a womb (Job 38.30; Isaiah 46.4 and 49.15) and God gives birth to her people (Deuteronomy 32.18; Numbers 11.12).  God is both the master and mistress of the house (Psalm 123.2).  God is a midwife  (Psalm 22.9-10).

 

In Genesis 1.27 God is described creating humankind with the words ‘in the image of God he created them, male and female, he created them.’  The image of God is as much in women as in men.  Women and men reflect God’s image equally.

 

Also the Sprit of God in the Hebrew Scriptures, what we, in Christian New Testament terms describe as the Holy Spirit, is the Hebrew word ‘Ruach’, which is feminine in form.

 

One of the Hebrew words for God, ‘Elohim’ is thought to be the combination of the female ‘Eloah’ and the male ‘El’.  Another phrase, ‘El Shaddai’, usually translated ‘God Almighty’, could also be translated ‘the Breasted God’, the God who feeds her people from her breasts.

 

People often feel threatened by female descriptions of God.  We feel that it could take away from our liturgical life.  Disrupt our long-cherished pattern of prayer.  Many of us are still smarting from losing some of our favourite prayers in the new liturgies, must the same now happen to our vision of God?  And, after all, we may object, Jesus did teach us to pray ‘Our Father in Heaven…’

 

To consider, and embrace into our spirituality, Holy Wisdom, and other Hebrew Scripture images for God, will take nothing from our walk with God.  It would, of course, be utter nonsense to try and stop using masculine images for God.  But, if we take Scripture seriously, we must see that God has revealed his and herself, in many many more ways than just Father.  Our vision of God can be enlarged.  The only thing we have to lose is the limits we have set on God.

 

God is our Father, our Lord, our King, our Brother, our Friend, our Lover.  God is a Rock, a Shield, a Fortress, a Strong Tower, a River.  God is Saviour, Redeemer, Deliverer.  God is a Consuming Fire, God is Power, Strength.  God is our Mother, the one who labours, and brings her people to Birth.  God is Wisdom.

 

These are just a few of the Biblical images of God.  The Bible and the tradition of the Church has produced many more.  St. Anselm, Julian of Norwich, and too many contemporary writers to list have used feminine imagery for God.  As we journey deeper into God on our Christian journey, let us not limit God by limiting the metaphors and images we use.  Let us drink deeply at the well of our tradition, and of Scripture.  And let us grow in God, as we explore all of the images we find there.

Inclusive Church Sunday 2013

Today is the first Inclusive Church Sunday.  As a Church we are very involved in Inclusive Church and are very committed to its cause.  However, as as a white married man I have been asked by several people (including more than one Bishop!) why this maters to me.  So I hope you will forgive my self indulgence of explaining why it matters.

My story in brief: 
I was brought up as a Baptist in Northern Ireland.  I was a Protestant, lived in a Protestant area, I went to a Protestant school.  In the Protestant world the most obvious form of exclusion was of Roman Catholics.  (In Northern Ireland both communities feel like the persecuted minority: Catholics are the minority in Northern Ireland, Protestants the minority in Ireland as a whole.  Seeing a first had the result of fear and suspicion was how I grew up…)  
So I started my spiritual journey as a Baptist, then I left the church for a while, before getting involved in a Pentecostal Church.  The forms of exclusion at work here were obvious: people who smoked, drank, used bad language or slept around were excluded…  (I must also add that women were excluded from from leadership, as were the divorced, gay men and lesbians… but remember I was a teenager… so it was the drinking and sleeping around that attracted my attention…)
I never understood Christian teetotalism – after all Jesus turned water into wine, and the one act of worship Jesus gave us involves sharing wine… I also never understood swearing – why one word for sex or genitalia is allowed and one is not… I also read the Bible a lot at this time and I found that the bible was concerned with justice, with usury and gluttony, and none of these seemed to get a mention…
Then while I dithered about what I wanted to do with my life I spent  year working for Scripture Union in Zimbabwe.  Here I encountered issues of race – I was the minority (but also the uber-privileged).  I lived in a huge township called Mkobo, just outside Gweru, where I was the only white person – people were amazingly friendly, but I was always a novelty…  I couldn’t have a single conversation for more than two minutes without the subject of how different I was coming in to it…
Then I studied theology at Kings College London.  I hadn’t thought much about issues of sexuality up to this point, but I ended up sharing a house with several people, including three gay men, two of whom were called to the ordained ministry, and I saw their difficulties as they approached a homophobic institution.
Yet at this time I became an Anglican.  I became an Anglican because of the diversity of the Anglican Church.  It contains both Protestant and Catholic spirituality, it contains both liberal and conservative theology, it contains different races, different social classes, and many other forms of difference…

I felt that the Church of England had been conservative on issues of gender politics and sexuality, but so had society as a whole, and like society as a whole the Church was changing.

But then came the scandal of a good and holy man called Jeffrey John being forced to resign as Bishop of Reading because of his sexuality.

As a result Inclusive Church was born on 11th August 2003 at St Mary’s Putney, at a Eucharist attended by over 400 people. 

An on-line Petition was set up requesting assent to the following Declaration of Belief:

 “We affirm that the Church’s mission, in obedience to Holy Scripture, is to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ in every generation.
We acknowledge that this is Good News for people regardless of their sex, race or sexual orientation.
We believe that, in order to strengthen the Gospel’s proclamation of justice to the world, and for the greater glory of God, the Church’s own common life must be justly ordered.
To that end, we call on our Church to live out the promise of the Gospel; to celebrate the diverse gifts of all members of the body of Christ; and in the ordering of our common life to open the ministries of deacon, priest and bishop to those so called to serve by God, regardless of their sex, race or sexual orientation”

I believe that “being inclusive” has nothing whatsoever to do with being ‘politically correct’ or ‘feminist’ or ‘left wing’ – it has everything to do with living out the Gospel.  There shouldn’t have to be an organisation called “inclusive church” because to be the church should necessarily mean we are inclusive.

As this morning’s Gospel Reading made clear, Jesus whole ministry is about including the outcast, and it’s a theme throughout Jesus’ ministry: 

  • Jesus speaks to woman as equals
  • He accepts Zachaeus and Matthew the collaberating tax collectors
  • He accepts Simon the revolutionary zealot
  • He invites the rough, uneducated fisherman to follow 
  • He accepts and befriends prostitutes
  • He ministers to a Roman Centurian
  • He ministers to slaves and servants
  • He embraces lepers
  • He helps the ‘demon possessed’

So why do we need inclusive church?  Why do we have to argue for what many of us see as the bleedin‘ obvious? Because the Church, the institution that hands these stories down, has so often got it wrong.

The church’s mission is to bring people closer to God. But all too often we see ourselves as ‘gatekeepers’ and ‘guardians’ who keep certain individuals out, rather than the prophets and priests that bring Christ out to everyone.

When I was training at Ripon College Cuddesdon we were told that he motto of the college used to be “guard he deposit” – but the motto had fallen from use, and the only place the archivist could find it inscribed was on an old college bed pan.  (Don’t think about that too much!). 

But our job is not to guard, but to proclaim.  This lager mentality, of circling the wagons, and refusing to engage with the best of secular thinking, is what allows outdated prejudices to flourish, and could kill the church…

Inclusion is the Gospel.  The Good news is that every one of us is invited to live in God’s kingdom.

Jesus said: “Come onto me all who are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”  Jesus did not say “Come onto me you heterosexual people (and men only if you are interested in the episcopate…)”

“Come onto me all who are heavy laden…”  “all

Jesus “all” goes beyond the superficial boundaries of gender, sexuality, ethnicity & social class…

Yet so often the Church of England has become a straight, white gentleman’s club.

This does involve a change in our thinking, because the Church, for most of its history, has condemned homosexuality, and denied women leadership roles.  We can argue that the church tradition has not been quite as uniformly sexist and homophobic as most people imagine, but we could not say the church has ‘led the way’ in these issues.

The Church has a long tradition of homophobia, just like it has a long tradition of anti-semitism.  I think if we want to see how the church can turn around, a good example is how we have changed is the Christian approach to slavery.

For most of the Church’s history it accepted slavery.  The Bible allows slavery – we must be fair to our slaves, says Scripture, but slavery is explicitly allowed.

“Slavery was established by decree of Almighty God…it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation…it has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilisation, and in nations of the highest proficiency in the arts.”
So said Jefferson Davis, President, Confederate States of America

But the Church was able to see beyond the letter of Scripture to the spirit

The spirit that showed that all people are created in God’s image, that human life is of infinite value, and taking that to its logical conclusion, slavery, buying and selling God’s children, is an affront too their creator.  And now no sane Christian would see slavery as anything other than an evil, a grave sin…

Equality on the basis of gender and sexuality is legally enshrined – the Church’s position on this looks like we are still accepting slavery.  At best we look laughably out of date, at worst we  are seen as a force for evil…

Homophobia is still out there in society- but so is racism, and just like racism, it is seen as a moral evil.  Except in the Church!

This argument is long won.  What Inclusive Church is campaigning for is not simply inclusion, it is the future of the church.  Holding homophobic views is is not just toxic to our common life, it is toxic to the survival of the institution (it is toxic publicity).  To the general public not have women or gay bishops is no different to refusing to have black bishops.  And if I am honest I think the comparison is a good one…

A Bible story to help us see how to deal with this:  The Parable of the Weeds (Matthew 13):

 24 Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25 But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26 When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.
   27 “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’
   28 “‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.
   “The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’
   29 “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”

At first I used this passage to argue that we should not try and remove gay and lesbian clergy from ministry or hinder their progression to high office in the Church.  But no, this parable is the one I tell myself to check my rage against the homophobia and prejudice I see in the Church, from the House of Bishops and many others…  I can’t understand how some prejudiced attitudes could be described as ‘Christian’ or how exclusive practices could have anything to do with following Christ.  But we let God be the judge.

Our message to the institution is:

Isaiah 54.2
  “Enlarge the place of your tent,

    stretch your tent curtains wide, 
   do not hold back; 
   lengthen your cords, 
   strengthen your stakes.

God’s Kingdom already stretches out beyond the boundaries of the Church, we must now run to catch up.

The Lord’s Prayer – A sermon by Margaret Offerman

A Sermon at the Church of the Ascension by Margaret Offerman

There are several pivotal moments in our sacred story when his people reached a new perception of the nature of their God. An obvious one occurred when Moses ascended Mount Sinai and received the ten commandments. From this point, the Israelites worshipped one God (though they sometimes lapsed and took on the belief system of their neighbours). And they obeyed the law their God had delivered to Moses. The law of Moses, the law of God, was extremely detailed and prescriptive. There could be no doubt about what Yahweh demanded of his people in return for his protection from their enemies and their rights to the Promised Land. Exodus 20 vv 5b – 6,
Yahweh………..commandments.

We read a few weeks ago of the encounter between Yahweh and Elijah, when Elijah was so preoccupied with his struggle to divert the Israelites from the worship of Baal that he didn’t realise the significance of God’s still small voice. Yahweh appeared to Elijah, not as a manifestation of his power over the natural world, the God outside, but as an impulse, an awareness from within himself. From then on, the Hebrew scriptures present us with a God we can begin to relate to, not the lawgiver God or the warrior God or the nature God, but a multi-dimensional, companion God. This God is presented in poetic passages of elevated language such as we find in the psalms:
Where could I go to escape your spirit? Where could I flee to avoid your presence? If I climb the heavens you are there.
If I were to take wings and reach the sunrise, or travel westward across the ocean, your hand would still be guiding me, your right hand holding me.

The book of Job is the story of Job’s anguished confrontation with the God who has ceased to be the benevolent champion, the deliverer of Israel, but has turned his back on his own people and connived at their suffering. God is a detached presence again, as he was in the Garden of Eden, a force which must be obeyed, conciliated, feared.

The ambiguity in the bible between the God within and the God outside is encapsulated in the lord’s prayer, our reading this morning. Jesus tells his disciples to pray to God as their father. This God will be a provider of their physical needs. He ‘ll be full of mercy, on condition that they in turn show mercy to those who have done them wrong. There’s no reference to the angry, domineering tendencies that he showed when he appeared to Moses or tested Job. We recognise these qualities of the benevolent father figure as they come to life in the parables that Jesus told. Think of the prodigal son and the unconditional love shown by the father to this disobedient but repentant child. When he saw the prodigal son coming home, the father abandoned dignity and forgot the constraints of old age as he ran across the fields to welcome him home. It’s not by chance that when we talk about the fatherhood of God, it’s this story of the prodigal son that we turn to but we mustn’t ignore the problem of the limitations of our language when we quote this story – attributes we claim for God are often human qualities which we’ve extended beyond the normal human limits.

As well as having all the ideal human qualities of a perfect father, the God Jesus worships is holy. And his name must be hallowed. This ‘other worldly’ aspect of God is supremely important. It’s the transcendent attribute of God which Jesus imbibed from the Hebrew scriptures and it lifts God beyond the image of an old man high above his creation which we see in great works of art such as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

The book group spent an evening recently explaining their various reactions to ‘the Case for God’ by Karen Armstrong. This is a difficult book because it deals with a difficult subject – the nature of God.

The members of the book group don’t represent anyone but themselves, but there was an implicit unanimity in most of the comments made about God. Theism is belief in an external being to whom sacrifices and prayers can be made in the expectation that this divine being will change the course of events, interfere with natural law. The theme of ‘the Case for God’ is that theism, this traditional view of a superhuman, supernatural God, has lost its meaning and power for the vast mass of people. It began to lose its meaning with the discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo. The process continued with the publications of the work of Charles Darwin. It was caricatured by Yuri Gragarin, the first man in space, whose statue now stands outside the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. He talked after his return to earth about the stupendous experience he had had and in an aside, he observed that he hadn’t seen God up there. His audience laughed.

Many of our hymns and prayers still use language that suggests that theism is alive and well. We pray to almighty God and we sing of [one] whose almighty word chaos and darkness heard and took their flight. But outside the church these images and this language are empty. And even within the church, as those of us who choose the hymns will testify, it’s hard to find appropriate words to express our perception of God and our relationship with him in a way that makes sense.
‘In his hands he gently bears us,
Rescues us from all our foes’
Without intending to be flippant, I want to know what he was doing a week past Wednesday when 24 Indian children were poisoned by their school dinner. Where is he when thousands of people lose their lives or their livelihoods in tsunamis or earthquakes? The suffering of the innocent is one of the great questions that confront us, as it confronted Job in the 6thc BC or God’s chosen people during the holocaust.

However, in our scepticism about belief in a God as a supernatural being who invades the universe sporadically and arbitrarily, we mustn’t throw the baby out with the bath water. There’s a depth dimension to human experience, a core to our life, both individually and in the life of the world, which is never apart from what we are and yet it’s beyond us, it transcends us. So we ask: WHAT is God? Rather than WHO is God?

Paul Tillich, a refugee from the holocaust, said that God is the presence in which all personhood can flourish. God is the ground of our being.

This is a long way from clear definitions about God – God the creator, God the lawgiver, God the champion of his people. Tillich talks of an internal reality that opens us up to the meaning of life itself. But this sounds nebulous, ungraspable. (David Jenkins, former bishop of Durham, wrote of Tillich that his writing was obscure and that the obscurity concealed not profundity but muddle.) Thinking about the nature of God is not an easy ride. We have to recognise once again the limitations of language and use words like energy, vitality, creativity, the sublime. We have to think of examples of sacrificial self-giving, compassion, a thirst for justice, and see that they transcend self-interest. They are not the product of the selfish gene. They represent the highest ideals in life. They are the sum of all values. They exist and we can call them God, without having to believe in an independent, supernatural being. And the greatest of these qualities and attributes is love. David Jenkins said that God is as he is in Jesus. Jesus was and is divine love incarnate. As we heard in our epistle this morning: in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.

We are one body made up of different parts. We must use the language of a search, an exploration, a journey, a pilgrimage to describe our need to know God, know his nature and worship his holiness.

This is Paul’s prayer for the church in Ephesus: 3 vv 14 – 21.

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