Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
The Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
30 September, 2018
At this past Wednesday evening’s “Embracing an Adult Faith” study group, we began by considering our images of God. Marcus Borg, the author of the five-week study, was fond of saying to those who told him they were atheist or agnostic, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in: how would you describe him? What does the word ‘God’ mean, what do you associate with it?”
It’s a question we should all ponder periodically. Because chances are, if we are growing personally and spiritually, then our descriptions and definitions will have changed over time.
In our study group, we talked about at least a couple different conceptions of God. One is the God of supernatural theism; this is a person-like being, who is separate from the universe. This is the omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing), law-giving authority who loves us but may also punish us. This is the God who occasionally intervenes in human affairs—but not necessarily in ways that are predictable or rational, which sends our human minds on endless, impossible journeys trying to figure out why there was an intervention in one case and not in another. Why did this person experience a miraculous recovery from a dread disease and not another? Why do some people and populations seem to be significantly more burdened by hardship, misfortune, suffering than others?
A second description of God, less concrete or anthropomorphic, is the God that mystics have described: an encompassing reality or Spirit. In the words of Acts 17:28, “In him we live and move and have our being”: God is the realityin whom we live, and who flows in and through us, as a fish lives in water. Not so much a person or being as a reality, God is nonetheless personal, by which I mean relational.
The God of supernatural theism is probably the best-known, most common way of conceptualizing God. It makes sense that it’s profoundly shaped by our experience of our parents or caregivers in our infancy. Our parents seem to be all-powerful, and all-knowing when we are small. They are the figures on whom we rely to provide us with what we need to survive and thrive: security, food, drink, comfort, emotional strength and stability. And if we lack these things from the god-like figures we can see and touch as newborns in this world, it will probably have an impact one way or another on the way that we conceptualize the God we cannot see.
Someone in the class on Wednesday suggested, “I wonder whether our concepts of God aren’t usually just big projections of what we find most powerful about our human selves.” What do you think? I had a seminary professor who once said, “God created humankind in God’s own image. And now we keep trying to return the favor.”
Other questions we pondered in the Wednesday class considered God’s character: What is the nature and will of God? Is God authoritarian, punitive, angry about our deliberate or unintentional behaviors that go against God’s will—does God deliberately punish us in this lifetime, or perhaps in the next, for the things we’ve done or left undone? Or is God infinitely gracious, compassionate, and forgiving of everything and everyone? If so, then do you believe that God is concerned with justice, and how do you think God defines justice? Is God distant to you, dispassionate, not terribly connected with your day-to-day activities? Or is God knowable, interested in you personally, close enough for you to feel like you can have a chat with God, as with your most trusted friend, one whose ways and thoughts feel familiar or at least recognizable to you?
That’s a lot of questions, I know. Bigquestions. But they’re important for each of us to reflect on and ponder, because they impact how we relate to God, andhow we relate to others, and to the whole of creation.
Our Bible lesson today narrates our tradition’s creation myth. Now, by “myth” I am in no way implying that this is a mere fairy tale. To the contrary, it contains some of our most profound truths, our deepest understandings of the nature of things and ourselves and our relationships—even if it isn’t a literal, eyewitness account of how each moment unfolded. When I refer to this story as our creation myth, I mean that it’s our faith history’s primordial story to answer the question of how we got here, and why we’re here. Whether or not the earth was fashioned in six days is not so much the point as that God is the author of it all (that’s how we got here), and that God has entrusted humankind with the lofty responsibility of dominion—which is to say, power, oversight, but with a duty of care for what is under our control (that’s why we’re here). It also contains the critical but easily-forgotten concept and practice of Sabbath, which warrants a sermon all its own.
Genesis means beginning. And the first chapter of Genesis offers a chronicle of the world’s beginning. Genesis Chapter Two gives a similar but different account—if you read it, you’ll see that things happen in a slightly different order. That’s because the Bible didn’t just drop out of the sky as a completed document. It was gradually compiled over generations. Biblical authors and editors worked to record the stories and details of their human experience and understanding of God, and those of their ancestors, under the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit. They prayed and trusted that God’s own breath was animating theirthoughts and movements as they worked. This is why we say the Bible is the divinely-inspired word of God.
The first twenty-three verses of Genesis 1 colorfully describe the first five “days” of creation. After each act of creation, we’re told, “God saw that it was good.” Then on the sixth day—as if the previous five had been a warm-up—God created all of the creatures of the earth, and concluded with the pièce de résistance: humankind, after which “God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was verygood.” Those are the verses we’re zeroing in on this morning. Specifically, I’d like for you to look at verse 26 for a moment. Notice that God refers to the divine self as a plural: the text says, “Then God said, “Let usmake humankind in ourimage, according to ourlikeness; and let them have dominion over the fish…the birds…the cattle…all the wild animals . . . every creeping thing.” And God commenced to do just that.
In our Christian tradition, we profess a triune God—sometimes we sing, “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.” Our most traditional names have included Father/Son/Holy Spirit, but it’s not uncommon to refer to Creator/Redeemer/Sustainer. Each of the names conveys something of the different ways in which God has been known and experienced.
God the Father(or, Parent)/Creatoracknowledges God as the Source of our very existence. And as our primary Provider—of life, and ultimately of everything we need. It also references God’s character as a care-giver, nurturer, one who is interested in us and in our survival and thriving.
God the Son/Redeemer references the One who reclaims and restores the broken relationships between God, humanity, and the earth; it acknowledges that God chose to share in our human experience—so that God could understand us more fully, and so we could understand and see what a human life that fully manifests God’s ways and character looks like. In Jesus, the Redeemer, God willingly experienced physical, emotional, and spiritual pain, humiliation, betrayal, abandonment. Jesus, the Redeemer, shows us the way to salvation—which is hisWay, his truth, his life.
And, God the Holy Spirit/the Sustainerpoints to the breath of God, without which none of us breathes. In Hebrew, the words “breath” and “spirit” are one and the same: ruach. The RuachElohim, the Breath of God, is the sea in which we live and move and have our being, our sustaining energy force. It also refers to the common human experience of God’s actual presence, like a barely-perceptible wind current, or energy, providing strength.
The Trinity, as a means to depict God, is beautiful in its simultaneous breadth, depth, and brevity. So many attributes, in such a united community. And it helps us to make sense of God’s plural self-reference in Genesis 1:26. There is unity—oneness, indivisibility, despite the various manifestations. And somehow, we’re told, you and I and all humankind, were originally created God’s image.
It almost seems too glib to say it: We are living in a painfully divided time. Globally and nationally, our leaders do not trust or respect one another. And as the exemplars, their attitudes and behaviors are reflected right on down into our own local communities. We wonder whether we can trust our neighbors, and many choose to err on the side of caution rather than extending the benefit of the doubt. Too many Christians apparently forget that Jesus exhorted us to actively continue the Redeemer’s work of reclaiming and restoring the broken relationships, by following his teachings and example. When relationships between human beings are broken, then the relationship between God and humanity is broken as well, because each one bears God’s image, and because God is in each one—we are all living, moving, and having our being in God.
But political leaders and communities have struggled with a right understanding of power and dominion almost from the very beginning. That’s why, throughout the Old Testament, there are constant warnings against placing our confidence and sense of security in human rulers. Too often those endowed with great worldly authority forget that the dominion they’ve been entrusted with by their Creator includes a duty of loving care for everyone and everything under their control—not exclusively for those they like or choose.
But it’s not only our leaders who forget. We all need reminders that each of us has God-given dominion and a sphere of influence. We need frequent prompting to attentively care for the creation, the creatures and soil and air and human lives—all of the divinely-created relationships entrusted to our care and stewardship.
It also helps to be reminded of the truth expressed in our creation myth that comes in subsequent chapters: Adam and Eve, succumbing to the tempter’s lies and coveting greater power for themselves—even daring to hope for equality with God—sacrificed their own greatest happiness and security when they chose that path. Their unity with God and with each other fractured and became more difficult the moment they began pursuing their own greatness more ardently than radiating the image of their nurturing, communal Creator.
The whole of Scripture bears witness to the unhappiness we are bound to experience and to inhabit as long as we seek to make little gods of ourselves, or of others. The further we drift from the image of the One by whom and for whom we were created, the more we neglect or forget about our duty of care as we exercise our dominion, the more miserable we become personally and culturally. Time after time in the Bible, the people of God pursue their own selfish agendas and fail to practice care, compassion, and faithfulness in their dominion, and they find themselves in a terrible state. Time and again, God reminds the people to return to their Source, to once again bear the image they were designed to exhibit, and all would be well.
What is your image, your concept, your understanding of God? How does God behave and engage with the world? And how closely does your own behavior, and/or our society’s ways correspond to that image? It’s worth reflecting upon, because each of us was created to be an image-bearer of our Creator. Each of us is called and equipped to follow Jesus’ embodied example of God’s love and character, demonstrating concerned, caring dominion over the creation entrusted to us. Our health and happiness, our fulfillment as human beings, depends on it. Amen.
E.g., In one very explicit example, in 1 Chronicles 7:14, God speaks to King Solomon, and explains: “…if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”