Untied Methodist (John 11:44)

A working preacher in Washington, D.C., wrestles with Scripture, the (sigh) United Methodist Church and his soul.

Location: Washington, D.C., United States

Currently the pastor of Foundry UMC in Washington, DC, a wonderful and blessed reconciling congregation. Formerly a United Methodist communicator and editor. Formerly a campus minister. Formerly pastor in Philadelphia for 24 years. Graduate of Albright College and Boston University of Theology. Husband of Jane Malone and father of David, Nancy and Naomi. Resident of Capitol Hill, a wonderful place to live! Articles published in Zion's Herald, a must-read magazine for Methodists, a variety of United Methodist publications, the Christian Century, newspapers.


Why Did Jesus Call God Father? --a sermon about inclusive language

Sermon preached June 12 at Foundry United Methodist Church, Washington, DC

I’d like us to pretend we are Baptists or Plymouth Brethren this morning and actually get out our Bibles and look at the Scripture with our own eyes.

First, let’s turn to Mark 10: 28-30:

Mark 10:28 Peter began to say to him, "Look, we have left everything and followed you."
29 Jesus said, "Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news,
30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age--houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions--and in the age to come eternal life ...

Look at verse 29 closely. Notice the list of things that Jesus’ followers have left behind to follow him: House, brothers, sisters, mother, father, children, fields.

Now, notice in verse 30 the list of things that Jesus’ followers will receive a hundredfold: Houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, fields.

What’s included in the first list that is absent from the second?

[Congregation says: Fathers!]

How odd. Was this a typo? Is there some significance to this?

Now, let’s turn to Matthew 23: 8-12.

Matt. 23:8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students.
9 And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father--the one in heaven.
10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah.
11 The greatest among you will be your servant.
12 All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

“Call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father--the one in heaven.”

What a provocative statement! Read it again in the book with your own eyes. Could Jesus have really meant this?

I want us to think together this morning about the question: Why did Jesus call God “Father?” I want to suggest that if we pay close attention to the Gospels we may discover there is more going on when Jesus calls God “Father” than meets the eye at first glance.

It is my assumption that God transcends gender, although this discussion is so new that I suspect we still have a lot of thinking to do about the relationship between the divine and gender. Certainly it is my assumption that God is not one gender as opposed to another. The Book of Genesis is very clear that both female and male are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27), so the divine either transcends or is inclusive of the genders, but is clearly not one as opposed to the other.

If God transcends gender, why did the Jesus of the Gospels so frequently –especially in the Gospels of Matthew and John—call God “Father?” Less so in Mark and Luke, but again and again in Matthew and John and fairly consistently in all four Gospels, Jesus normally and frequently addressed God as “Father” and encouraged his followers to do so as well. He taught his disciples to pray a prayer that begins “Our Father who art in heaven.” The word “Father” as a way of addressing God has dominated the liturgy, hymnology, and piety of the church.

For many Christians, their most essential image for God is “Father.” It is a very emotional thing for some of us, as you may discover if you try to mess with it.

Because the term “Father” is such a powerful part of the church’s prayer life and liturgy and hymnology, it is important we understand why the Jesus of the Gospels called God “Father.”

Of course, I can’t claim to read Jesus’ mind, but I think the Gospels themselves offer us some clues as to why Jesus called God “Father.”

Jesus lived a society and a culture that was male dominated. More than male dominated, it was male controlled with strong class and authoritarian structures. Women had some rights but very few. Poor people had very few rights. Slaves, workers, the diseased, the outcast, Gentiles, Samaritans were all mandated to be subservient to the authority of lords, rabbis, masters, owners, the “righteous,” the affluent and the powerful.

The name for this kind of culture is patriarchy – a word based on two Greek words, the word patria, meaning “father” and the word arche, meaning “rule.” The rule of the father.

The father was father of the family and therefore ruled the family. The priest was father of the congregation and therefore ruled the congregation. The teacher was father of the school and therefore ruled the school. The owner was father of the estate and therefore ruled over everyone on the estate. The governor was father of the colony and therefore ruled over the colony. The emperor was father of the empire and therefore ruled over the empire.

The entire authoritarian system that dominated government, commerce, religion, and the home in Jesus’ day was based on the principle of father-rule.

With Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza (Find a review of her book In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins here), I believe that Jesus’ emphasis on God as “Our Father who art in heaven” was a critique of father-rule. It was a way of offering an alternative vision of how people might live together.

“Call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father--the one in heaven.” This is as bold a challenge as anyone could ever make of a society based on father-rule:

Your Father in heaven
–the one who loves you and values and cherishes you,
--the one who includes you,
--the one who knows the number of hairs on your head,
--the one for whom the first shall be last and the last shall be first,
this Father is the only one you are to call father
the only one to whom you are to give your allegiance,
the only one who has authority over you,
the only one you must obey.

This teaching flies in the face of father-rule.

Schussler Fiorenza suggests that the absence of fathers from Jesus’ second list in Mark 10: 28-30 is more than accidental.

It was not that Jesus had anything against fathers per se, but he did have a problem with what fathers symbolized in a society based on father-rule.

Fathers as authoritarian figures – the guiding principle of an authoritarian system -- are absent from the new community that Jesus invites his disciples into.

In Jesus’ community, there is no father-rule, which means there is no male-rule, no teacher-rule, no priest-rule, no owner-rule, no governor-rule, no emperor-rule.

In Jesus’ community the first are last, the last are first, and everyone is sister and brother. It is a community of mutuality and equality. It is a community of sharing and love.

This is the significance of Jesus teaching us to pray “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name” – thy name be hallowed, not the name of the Emperor, which was the name usually expected to be hallowed in the Roman Empire.

The priests and the political rulers, not usually friendly with each other, conspired together to kill Jesus because of this. This is why Jesus was crucified, because he threatened the patriarchial power of empire and religion. He challenged patriarchal systems of commerce (he turned over the tables of the money-changers), and patriarchal models of estate and household.

Jesus’ vision was, of course, all too soon subverted, even in the church. The very words and concepts Jesus used to challenge father-rule soon were subverted to legitimize it.

Instead of undertanding that calling God “our Father in heaven” challenges father-rule, this name for God came to be used to justify it. The new logic became: Because God is our Father, God must be more like the male and the male must be more like God.

So it was only a matter of time before we evolved, or devolved, from Jesus saying, “Call no one on earth your father,” to “Father” becoming the common honorific for clergy. Originally meeting as a community of equality and sharing in households --sometimes women headed households-- soon enough the church became an institution -- a male-dominated, authoritarian institution.

See: It is possible to repeat Jesus’ exact words and for them to serve a purpose contrary to Jesus’ purpose.

To this very day, the overwhelming majority of the world’s Christian churches do not allow women to be clergy. Well over half of the world’s Christians worship in churches where women are not permitted to be priests. The image of divinity is seen as so male oriented that these churches refuse to allow women to represent Christ at the altar to celebrate Holy Communion. They suppose it is impossible to see the presence of Christ in women or for women to stand in the place of Christ.

Even though we may understand that God is beyond gender, if the language, images and concepts we use for God are primarily male, this will reinforce male dominance and father-rule in church and society. We need to be attentive to this or we will use Jesus’ words to subvert his cause.

Yes. It is possible for us to repeat Jesus’ exact words and for them to serve a purpose contrary to Jesus’ purpose.

Snoopy is sitting atop his doghouse with his typewriter writing an article he has entitled: “Beauty Tips.” He manages to type out the first sentence, which says: “Always remember that beauty is only skin deep.”

As he sits looking at his first sentence he seems proud of himself, then his expression changes to one of puzzlement. He changes the sentence so that it now says: “Always remember that beauty is only fur deep.”

Soon, however, he is visited by his friend, the bird Woodstock, to whom he proudly shows his article. Woodstock reacts by squawking at Snoopy in bird language with much agitation. With an abashed look on his face, Snoopy changes the sentence again so it now says: “Always remember beauty is only feather deep.”

Virginia Ramey Mollenkott uses this Peanuts comic strip in her book The Divine Feminine: The Biblical Imagery of God as Female (reviewed here) as a reminder that language and concepts can include or exclude others, sometimes without us really thinking much about it. The way we think and the language we use to express ourselves can include or exclude whole masses of the world’s people. Language can empower and it can oppress.

I know trying to use inclusive language is sometimes uncomfortable –it is for me too—but I believe we can grow spiritually as a result of experimenting, by experimenting with language and concepts about God that do not elevate one gender over the other. Jesus called God “Our Father who art in heaven” to offer us an alternative to father-rule, an alternative to the rule of anyone over another, an alternative in which the first are last and the last are first, an alternative where the leader is servant of all and all are servants to one another, a community of sharing and love.

I don’t have a road map as to how to proceed to reform our language about God. I suspect sometimes we will do it awkwardly. Sometimes it will feel uncomfortable ... maybe even irritating. I hope we pay attention to those feelings, and ask ourselves why it feels uncomfortable or irritating?

If God transcends gender, and the names we call God are metaphoric rather than literal, why does it feel natural to call God “Father” and unsettling to call God “Mother” or “Mother/Father”?

I think this is another great journey God has for us. And I think the journey will be a blessing. I think we will learn aspects of God’s grace and beauty that we have missed before because of our own limited imaginations.

I think if we learn to think of God in broader imagery than the traditional male-biased language we tend to use, it will be good for our daughters and our sons, our nieces and our nephews. And it will be good for our own souls that need the opportunity to expand and grow in our relationship with the holy and divine. And it might even be good for God who maybe gets tired of being put into a gender box all the time.

Let’s experiment. Let’s stretch each other and ourselves a bit. Let’s be adventuresome.
God can handle it, and so can we. Let’s see if we can learn anything new about ourselves and about God.

Let’s do it or the sake of the children following in our footsteps ... for the sake of our own souls ... and for God’s sake.


Blogger Hugo said...

What does "for God's sake." mean?

6:41 AM  
Blogger Dean Snyder said...

It is a reference to my suggestion that God might get tired of the limitations we try to keep putting on God because of our lack of imagination.

Years ago I heard James Forbes preach a sermon on the ordination of women in a Baptist denominational meeting where they were iffy about ordaining women. He ended the sermon by reminding us that the "I AM WHO I AM" of the burning bush can also be translated "I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE." He suggested that we might be guilty of trying to maintain our old limited understandings and images of God, but God will be who God will be. So I am (partially with tongue in check) suggesting we let God out of the boxes we try to keep God in for God's own sake as well as ours.

10:58 AM  
Blogger John said...

What was it Rev. Mommy said about a month ago? 'I'm increasingly convinced that God is a middle-aged overweight Black woman, and boy is she mad."

11:02 AM  
Blogger Dean Snyder said...

God the Midwife: See Isaiah 66:9. Also the Psalmist says to God: "You drew me out of the womb; you entrusted me to my mother's breasts; placed me on your lap from my birth, from my mother's womb you have been my God." (Psalm 22:9-10) God the Midwife!

11:26 AM  
Blogger Gary C said...

You don't believe that the bible is the inspired word of God, do you? It is a shame then, because if it isn't than the gospel story has no authority. Either every word word of scripture has some theological priciple for us, or none of it does. Which do you believe?

6:22 PM  
Blogger honeybee said...

Thank you for having this online, I really enjoyed reading what you have talked about. And I want to say Amen!! :)

10:50 PM  
Blogger J said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

11:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

God of heaven and earth make us one familiarchy in your image through Christ your son, who teaches us how to make a perfect offering to you, Mother Mary who reveals to us how to live as ready vessels and the Holy Spirit who gathers all children obedient in the truth, love and peace that you provide. Amen

10:05 PM  

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