This is the first of six sermons before I leave St Matthew’s. In these sermons I want to re-visit some of the central ideas that underpin how I understand God, Jesus, the Church, and our common baptismal vocation.
In Anthony De Mello’s Song of the Bird, the reading we’ve just heard, he asks how we can know God, and answers we can’t. ‘Why then,’ he goes on, ‘do we try to speak about God at all?’ He replies, ‘Why does the bird sing?’
Knowing God is a big question, for God is the biggest matrix imaginable, or rather unimaginable. This vastness called God is bigger than our perceptions, ideas, and projections. God is beyond us.
God is bigger too than our language. Indeed words, as many of us who try to engage with God through prayer discover, are often inadequate, and silence becomes our primary tongue.
In Reformed theology this vastness is often referred to as the sovereignty of God. In the Anglican contemplative tradition this vastness is often referred to as the ‘mystery of God’.
The sovereignty tradition suffers from the hierarchical notions of power that have long dominated the political and religious landscape. It seemingly posits that God has unlimited power and control. This, of course, makes God into a monster when innocents are tortured, or earthquakes happen. If God has the power to prevent tragedy and doesn’t, then God is immoral.
However, the life and teachings of Jesus point to quite a different type of power entirely, namely costly love. Such love, I would posit is the defining essence or sovereignty of God, not power or control.
There are incidents in the gospels – particularly the Fourth – where Jesus is portrayed as in control of everything, including his own death. I would suggest however that these are the result of the writers and editors reflecting back on Jesus’ life putting their own gloss on the events and teachings.
I think it is a more accurate portrait of Jesus that he loved compassionately and courageously beyond the accepted boundaries and laws, and then suffered the consequences. He was faithful to his vocation to love, and to his God. He was not a powerful king who could snap his fingers and have a thousand armed angels beat up Pilate and Herod and their sycophants. That is fantasy.
The reading from Mark 9, of Jesus presenting a child as the greatest, is an example I think of not only how we should treat and view the less powerful, not only a critique of political structures [including the Church], but a pericope on the very nature of God.
In our culture we generally attribute value to those who have power – physical, financial, or political. And we typically attribute greatness to such people. Throughout history, and still today, there is a correlation of power, greatness, and gender. It is the powerful and authoritative males – fathers, lords, and kings - who are seen to be the greatest.
Jesus challenges this notion of greatness. Children occupied a lowly place in the first century household, for Jews and Romans alike. Although they represented the future they were for the present a liability, maybe due to the high incidence of infant mortality. Many historians compare their status to that of a servile slave. By calling a child the greatest Jesus is once again turning his world topsy-turvy, reversing expectations, promoting a radical egalitarianism, and solidarity with those of lowly status and vulnerability.
However, I would also suggest that Jesus is making a theological comment: the word for ‘great’ or ‘greatness’ is a name for God in the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus is saying that the greatness of God is not the power of all-knowing and all-controlling lords and kings, but the greatness of God is revealed in the way a child is treated with dignity, respect, nurture, protection, and love.
God is a way of compassion, not a being overlooking and determining the state of the world. God is revealed in the way Jesus treated children, the marginalized, and excluded. God is, to use Carter Heyward’s definition ‘the power of mutual relationships’. Or St John: ‘God is love’. God is not a being who loves. God is the very essence of transformative, mutual, self-giving love.
The notion of the sovereignty or vastness of God also is about freedom. Initially in the 16th century this might have been expressed in terms of God being not bound by our needs or expectations. But it goes further than that. God is usually shaped by cultures and the elites of those cultures. We project onto God personality, authority, likes and dislikes, etc. Hence Christianity has inherited a male king god who is going to barbecue the bad guys and reward the good, and who bears little resemblance to the words and actions of Jesus.
However there is a problem when we think about God and projection for haven’t we all, as Lloyd Geering might say, made God? Isn’t my notion of God being an energy of transforming love a projection? Sure, I can argue that the way of Jesus revealed such a God. But one can also argue, probably more convincingly, that Jesus – following his first century Jewish heritage – understood God very anthropomorphically as a fatherly being, albeit with a kind heart.
Our projections onto God of course are shaped by our experiences of the Sacred, and of life in general. We experience God in various ways – through reading and studying the Scriptures, through prayer, through trauma, through beauty, through being loved… Some believe that such experiences of the Sacred are formed by our own minds. Others, like me, hold to the mystery of Sacredness beyond me and our minds.
The notion of God’s freedom suggests that we need to be both humble and self-critical in our language about the Divine. Ultimately, we don’t know what God is. God is a mystery. We hope certain things. We have experienced certain things. We trust in certain things. But ultimately we don’t know.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t call an idol for what it is. And the male god is an idol. Every notion of God that becomes so dominant – like ‘Father’ has - that it locks God in to a gender, or a set of behaviours, is idolatrous. God is not fixed, God is fluid. God is not a person, God is transpersonal. God is not big, God is bigger than big, and way bigger than us.
Reformed Theology of the Barthian variety [that’s Karl Barth not Bart Simpson] might agree with my ideas about the vastness of God but would say that God, in God’s freedom, chose to disclosure God’s self to humanity in creation, in the Scriptures, and preeminently through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. God chose to self-disclose by being incarnated.
I don’t think Barth solves the problem of knowing God. Creation is a nice metaphor but actually the world evolved. The Scriptures weren’t written by God, or even dictated by God. They reflect the prejudices, ignorance, and of course the wisdom of their time. Jesus, no matter how exemplary his life, was a human being – time-bound and culture-bound. Some of what he said was not ‘forever true’. He got some things wrong that weren’t edited out by the Gospel writers.
I can though, like most Christians, say that in Jesus we see God. Not all of God of course. But the glimpse of an essence, a way of being, a way of loving, and a way that we believe is vindicated by the resurrected community of his early followers. Jesus offers us a way to live, and the grace in which to live it. The Scriptures, at their best, point to this way of love and mutuality.
So, this bird has sung. I’ve tried to talk about that which is beyond language. No doubt I’ve failed. But I’ll keep singing. I think God is a way, an experience, a smile, and a song, not a fixed entity, a being, a demand, or a Father King. God is known in the way a child is respected and valued. God is known when the little and lost are prioritized ahead of the pious and powerful. This is the way in which I try to walk, and which shapes my prayer.
 El Ha Gadol. Deut 10:17
 Isabel Carter Heyward, The Redemption of God: the theology of mutual relation, Wipf & Stock, 2010.
 I John 4:8.
 As Bill Loader says, “When we hail Jesus as king and mean by it the king of love, the servant king, we have to work very hard not to allow that to be subsumed under the more popular images of greatness which Jesus was trying to subvert.” http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/MkPentecost16.htm