Grace to you and peace from God our Creator and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen
When I was an intern, new to preaching, I once used these same words “from God our Creator” while saying hello to that congregation. A man came up to me afterwards and told me that I should use St. Paul’s words without changing them. St. Paul wrote “from God our Father” at the beginning of several of his letters. That man felt strongly it wasn’t right to change scripture. I asked my supervisor about it. He answered with a parable: he said “People sometimes invite me to fights. I don’t go to them all.”
By suggesting I say “from God our Father” that person invited me to a fight about how we imagine God. When I said “creator” it challenged something at the core of his being. I didn’t accept his invitation to battle: instead I swallowed hard and took his suggestion. He gave me a gift: the challenge to reflect more deeply about my images of God.
It’s Trinity Sunday today in our church calendar, also known as the First Sunday after Pentecost. It’s a good day to reflect on the diversity and unity of our images of God.
What are your images of God? When you close your eyes and imagine God, what are your experiences? Do you just have one experience, or multiple experiences?
I remember a newspaper cartoon from a few years back. It showed a little boy kneeling by his bed with his hands folded saying, “Our Father, who art in heaven.” He had a thought-balloon showing a man wearing sweat pants sitting on a Lay-Z-Boy reclining chair in outer space watching TV and drinking something from a can—probably not orange soda. Even as a joke, images of God have power.
That’s an image of God that makes God look like humanity, instead of the other way around. I hope that image of God is not the only image that little cartoon boy has, but I can’t say that the image is entirely wrong. In some ways it’s like the image the writer of the book of Daniel (7:9ff) gave us, through the King James translators.
I beheld till the thrones were cast down, and the Ancient of days did sit, whose garment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like the pure wool: his throne was like the fiery flame, and his wheels as burning fire.
In the time Daniel was written, the northern Levant (now northern Syria and southeastern Turkey) was ruled by bloodthirsty warlords. (Things don’t change much, do they?) The “Ancient of days” image, in that context, was a prophetically true image: a vision of divine justice for God’s people. It’s the image of God in the Sistine Chapel. I hope people see the promise of loving divine justice as well as an old white guy when they look at that painting. Daniel goes on to say,
Behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven … And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom…
Here’s a prophetically true image- “the Son of Man coming in clouds” that’s so prevalent in the Gospels that it must have been a popular phrase among our early Jesus-following forbears. It remains a shared image to this day: Of course Jesus teaches his disciples that his “coming in clouds” glory wasn’t of human origin, but rather the glory of the Cross. He said (Mark 9:31)
The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again. (Mark 9:31)
What other images of the Holy One does scripture offer us? Plenty, and diverse. To Moses it was (Ex 3:2): “a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed.”
To Isaiah of Judea the Holy One offered an image of fury-laden justice
He put on righteousness like a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in fury as in a mantle (59:17)
Elijah’s divine image came not to his eyes but his ears. He heard God say (1 Kings 19:12),
Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.
This is the voice of comfort that’s left after unholy violence has passed away.
We love to teach a particular protective and loving image to our children. Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me” (John 10:14) Our St. Anna’s stained-glass artist depicted this image.
We also have the life-giving bird images, images which knit together the stuff of earth and heaven in unity. The prophet Malachi wrote, “the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. (4:2). Jesus gave us the nurturing image of the mother hen (Lk 13:34) “Jerusalem, Jerusalem… How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
The transcendent bird metaphor conveys the divine presence at Jesus’s baptism.
When Jesus … had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:21-22)
We don’t hear from the book of Proverbs much in our lectionary. But today’s reading presents Sofia – Lady Wisdom – as an image of the Holy.
I was beside [the creating LORD], like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the human race. (Pr 1:30-31)
This same eternal and creative wisdom image is reflected at the beginning of John’s gospel – “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
And, there are plenty more images of the Holy One in scripture, and in our own lives. We have a great diversity of images of God: Cocreative Wisdom, nurturing bird from heaven, lamb, shepherd, peaceful voice of comfort, wrathful avenger, eternally burning bush, Son of Man coming in clouds, the Ancient of days, Father in heaven.
“Immortal, invisible God only wise, with Light inaccessible hid from our eyes.” “Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on.” “Spirit, spirit of gentleness, blow through the wilderness.”
Image upon image upon image for the Holy. I’m sure you have your own. Which images are true for you? Which are almost true? I wonder if any of them are false? Speaking for myself, I find it physically painful when somebody challenges one of my images of God. That gentleman caused me pain by insisting I say “father” instead of “creator.” And, my desire to correct him caused me even more pain. Have you had an experience like this? If so, you know how much it matters. It comes from our hearts, but it also comes from each other and from God. But our own images aren’t the only ones.
When our kids were small, we used to play a game where we put our feet toe-to-toe, joined our hands, and leaned back. We balanced each other, and then started turning around. When it was just two of us doing this, we did pretty well. By watching each other’s faces we could keep our balance.
We sometimes tried it with three of us. That was harder. We couldn’t just watch each other’s faces; we had to hear and feel and see each other all at once. Sometimes one person’s grip would slacken a little and another had to tighten up. Sometimes one person would get spinning faster than the others and we’d trip all over each other’s feet. It was a good game to play on the beach, because we fell over laughing a lot.
That’s one of my images of the Trinity … the various images of God spinning around hand in hand, eternally, in balance and in joy.… all these parts of the Holy. Are our images of God true? Yes. Are any of them complete in themselves? Yes, but only in balance with the others.
Finally, you and I are made in the image of that whirling, eternally balanced God who embodies the metaphors of scripture, and the metaphors that sustain each of us. One of the promises of baptism asks each of us to play our own part in that dance, that balance… we’re asked to recognize each other as reflecting the image of God: “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”
It’s my prayer that each of us will continue to seek and find images of God in each other and in the world. It’s my prayer that we’ll draw strength from others when our balance feels shaky, and that we’ll be there for others, just as the holy and mysterious God, balanced in trinity, Father, +Son and Holy Spirit, Creator, +Redeemer, and Sustainer, is there for us all. Amen