Rev. Mark Schaefer
Foundry United Methodist Church
June 19, 2016
Malachi 2:10-12; John 5:19-23
Malachi 2:10–12 • Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us? Why then are we faithless to one another, profaning the covenant of our ancestors? Judah has been faithless, and abomination has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem; for Judah has profaned the sanctuary of the LORD, which he loves, and has married the daughter of a foreign god. May the LORD cut off from the tents of Jacob anyone who does this—any to witness or answer, or to bring an offering to the LORD of hosts.
John 5:19–23 • Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise. The Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing; and he will show him greater works than these, so that you will be astonished. Indeed, just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whomever he wishes. The Father judges no one but has given all judgment to the Son, so that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. Anyone who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him.”
The most famous prayer in the world begins with a fairly striking statement: God is a father. The words beginning of the Lord’s Prayer are among the most famous words prayed anywhere. In the Catholic tradition, the prayer itself is called the “Our Father.”
We Christians are fond of pointing out that Jesus liked to refer to God this way—the passage read from John’s gospel earlier is full of Jesus’ reference to God and himself as father and son. Some of us even claim that Jesus was the first to do so. He was not. Referring to God as a father can be found throughout the Hebrew scriptures, as in the scripture lesson we heard read from Malachi earlier:
Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us? Why then are we faithless to one another, profaning the covenant of our ancestors?
Paternal imagery continues to be found in Judaism in the Avinu Malkeinu (“Our Father, Our King”) prayer said on the high holy days. In Jewish thought, referring to God as a father, in the words of one scholar, “captures a mix of affection, expectation, security, and anger that quickly becomes compassion—qualities that Jews saw in God.”
The prophet Hosea used the term to describe the pained relationship between God and the people of Israel:
For Israel was a youth, and I loved him.
And out of Egypt I called my son.
The more I called them, the more they went away from me,
They sacrificed to the Masters, and to idols burned incense. (Hosea 11:1-2)
There’s a lot of father language in Christianity when it comes to God. Probably more than a lot of people are comfortable with. The dominant use of father language for God makes a lot of contemporary Christians uneasy. Does this mean that God is a male? Does referring to God not simply reinforce patriarchy and the second class status of women?
Some congregations have even gone so far as adapt the Lord’s Prayer into more gender-balanced language. I believe you all have prayer cards in your pews that do exactly that. (As an aside, there is simply no way that the Aramaic translates to “O cosmic birther of all radiance and vibration.” Y’all were sold a bill of goods on that one.)
But all this father language can make folks uneasy. Some of you no doubt bristled at the selection of hymns for today. They’re not there just because it’s Father’s Day. Picking hymns that would make some folks bristle was intentional. You’re welcome.
I myself often bristle at prayers by some Christians that go like: “Father God, we just want to give thanks to you, Father God, for this beautiful day, Father God. We just lift up your name, Father God, and pray your blessing, Father God, on all of us here….” The sheer repetition of the phrase can be grating not only because it’s exclusively masculine language, but because who talks like that to anyone? You wouldn’t say that to your real dad: “Hi, father. It’s great to see you, father, and I just wanted to ask, father, if I could borrow the car, father.” Chances are your real dad would say, “Have you taken some kind of blow to the head?”
But we become uncomfortable with all of this father language for God. It’s so masculine. It’s so patriarchal. It’s so status quo.
But is it right? Is God a father?
Yes, of course. And no, of course not.
II. GOD IS AND IS NOT A FATHER
The prophet Hosea in his use of father language earlier is trying to make a point: the relationship between God and the people is the relationship of a heartbroken father who has done everything for his child only to receive scorn and rejection in return.
In short, the word father used here by Hosea, and by Malachi, and by Jesus, and so many others, is a metaphor. And metaphors have particular characteristics that are important to note.
First, they function by evoking a similarity and, simultaneously, a discontinuity. This is what religious philosopher Sallie McFague calls the “is and the is not.” So when we hear a metaphor like life is a highway we are reminded that life is indeed a path along which we move, and simultaneously that no, life is not a slab of asphalt.
Second, metaphors work because they are not arbitrary—there is a similarity between the object used to make the metaphor and the object it’s pointing toward. There is a familiarity, a resemblance of some kind between the term invoked and the object being pointed at. And this is especially true of the term father when applied to God.
Jesus invoked the metaphor in teaching his disciples to pray, instructing them to pray to God their father. In doing so, Jesus uses the term אבא abba—the Aramaic for “papa” or “dad”—to refer to God. This usage built on the existing Biblical metaphor for God’s relationship to the people by emphasizing the intimacy of that relationship. Jesus instructed his disciples to pray to God as if God were a close member of the family.
This sense of intimacy is frequently lost in English, where the thou’s, thee’s and thine’s of the prayer often suggest formality and divine majesty. But the reality is that the pronouns thou, thee, and thy/thine were the second person singular pronouns and were the ones reserved for intimate relationships—the way the tu pronouns are in Spanish, French, and Italian. And it is clear that Jesus intended this metaphor as a metaphor of intimacy and caring:
Is there any person from among you, if their child asks for bread, would give them a stone instead? Or if they ask for a fish would give them a snake? So, if you, being wicked, know to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in the heavens give good things to those who ask him? (Matthew 7:9-11)
In spite of this relatively clear indication, the metaphor GOD IS A FATHER does not necessarily mean “loving parent” to all people. In the Greco-Roman world, the pater familias (“father of the family”) was a Roman citizen who was the eldest living male in a Roman household. He ruled that household as a petty dictatorship with authority over questions of life and death, marriage, and property. The power of the pater familias was unquestioned and absolute. If the pater familias were the source of your understanding of father, then the metaphor GOD IS A FATHER would mean a very different thing to you. It may be that as early Christianity moved out of its Palestinian Jewish context into the Greco-Roman one, the metaphor provided by Jesus also underwent a dramatic change in interpretation.
Much of the difference between more liberal and more conservative branches of Christianity, especially of Protestant Christianity, is not over a disagreement about using the root metaphor GOD IS A FATHER. They disagree about what the metaphor means. To conservatives and evangelicals, God is frequently a stern father, enforcing rules and demanding discipline from his children for their well-being. To liberals, God is a loving, caring father, eager to forgive wrongdoing and to provide for his children.
The metaphor has become an incredibly powerful one and has become more than a metaphor. It has become what is called a model. As such, it has generated a number of associated metaphors: CHRIST IS A SON, BELIEVERS ARE A FAMILY, HUMAN BEINGS ARE CHILDREN and so on.
Such metaphorical models can occasionally cause problems. Models are only one step away from becoming literalized into definitions. McFague notes that models are necessary because they give us “something to think about when we do not know what to think”—that is, when we are trying to describe some ineffable encounter with the divine, they give us a way to think about the experience. But they can often exclude other ways of thinking, especially when they become literalized into the one and only way of understanding something.
McFague notes that the writers of the Hebrew Bible, especially of the Psalms, “piled up” metaphors for God, often mixing them: rock, lover, fortress, midwife, fresh water, judge, helper, thunder, and so on “in a desperate attempt to express the richness of God’s being.” But unlike simple metaphors, models do not embrace such diversity. Models are jealous of their territory and when a competing model of the same type comes along—like GOD IS A MOTHER—the existing models do not allow any encroachment. The reason that models like GOD IS A MOTHER have had such a hard time gaining traction is a reflection of the power of the god is a father model and the tendency of such models to become literalized. As McFague writes, this process of literalization is “probably the single greatest risk in their use.”
The metaphor GOD IS A FATHER is a powerful and hopeful metaphor, a metaphor of intimacy and relationship, designed to bring comfort and hope to those who are alienated or powerless. But it is frequently seen as something other than a metaphor; it is seen as a definition. And sometimes mistaken for the object toward which it points.
A. Pointing Beyond
In the movie Zoolander, vapid male fashion model Derek Zoolander is being presented with an architectural model of a school he hopes to fund, the “Derek Zoolander Center For Children Who Can’t Read Good And Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too.” The presenters are stunned when, rather than being pleased with the model, Zoolander is enraged:
Zoolander: What is this? A center for ants? How can we be expected to teach children to learn how to read… if they can’t even fit inside the building?
Mugatu: Derek, this is just a small…
Zoolander: I don’t wanna hear your excuses! The building has to be at least… three times bigger than this!
It’s absurd when Zoolander mistakes a model of a school for the real thing, but don’t we so often do that with our language for God? We hear the word father and rather than see it as a signpost along the way, we imagine it as the endpoint in the journey. We take a term that was designed to point us toward mystery and take it as a definition. God is a father in the literal sense and we do not even attempt to move beyond.
And to be fair, when those of us on the other side of the theological aisle try to move away from such language, we’re really buying into the idea that the language actually defines God. When we embrace the metaphors, we can sing those Father hymns with newfound gusto, knowing that they do not bind us in the way we conceive of God. Knowing that God is Mother is no less true.
III. SO WHAT
Now, here’s where any reasonable person listening to this sermon might ask, “So what? So some people take their metaphors a little too seriously and interpret them literally—this is a nice little theological and linguistic exercise, but there are bigger issues in the world.” Yes and no.
Because while this seems like merely an interesting reflection on the nature of religious language, it really betrays something much deeper at work.
IV. METAPHOR AND UNCERTAINTY
You might think it obvious that language for God has to be metaphor. How could any human language possibly encompass the ultimate reality of existence, the Ground of All Being, the Ultimate, the Reality, the Ineffable One? No word could truly encompass that, especially not a word as mundane as father. It is obvious, is it not, that that word can’t literally be applied to God: God does not have male sex organs or Y-chromosomes to impart to us. God isn’t our literal father in any way that makes sense.
But in spite of that, there are still so many people who hear father language for God and still conclude that God is male. Why can’t they see the metaphor that is right in front of their faces?
It’s because they don’t want to. Maybe not consciously, but on some level, those who fail to see the metaphors in faith don’t want to see them.
See, metaphors are first and foremost pointers. They do not define what they refer to, they merely point the way. The metaphor GOD IS A FATHER isn’t saying so much that God is a literal father as it is saying that God is like a father in some way or other. What is God like? God is like a father. Somehow.
And what that means is that metaphors do not reduce our uncertainty, they reveal it. We do not know what God is like but we call God a father because we have experienced God in ways that are like that of a father’s love for us, but we still don’t know God completely. The fact that we use metaphors is a declaration that God is ultimately mystery. And for mystery, all we can use is a metaphor. Because at the end of the day, we still are uncertain, we still are unsure.
And that scares the living hell out of some people.
There are a great many people who feeling frightened by all of the uncertainty in the world—economic uncertainty, demographic changes, political instability, sociological upheaval, institutional decay or transformation—that they will latch onto any certainty they can find to feel safe and in control.
To admit that words like father, king, and lord are metaphors designed to help the faithful understand the incomprehensible—or worse, that most if not all theological language is metaphor— is admiting to a kind of uncertainty and doubt that is unacceptable. If all we have is metaphor then how can we ever know for sure? No. These words must be more than that. They must be descriptions. They must be definitions. They must be certain.
And that’s where we get into trouble.
Because the people in our world who are very certain about the answers to unknowable questions are the ones causing all the trouble. It is rare that people who are unsure or who brook a fair amount of doubt are the first ones off on the crusade. Skeptics rarely lead the Inquisition or attempt to set up the Caliphate. Mystics rarely are the ones calling for the purging of the heretics and the excommunication of those who express unorthodox views. Those who embrace unknowing are rarely the ones mocking others’ beliefs (or lack thereof) in online forums with words like fairy tale or blasphemy. They are rarely the ones decrying their political opponents as un-American or traitors. No, those are the acts of the certain.
It is the Certain, after all, who fly planes into buildings. Who gun down black parishioners engaged in a Bible study. Who bomb abortion clinics. Who murder members of Parliament in defense of nationalism. Who purchase guns to go into night clubs to murder our LGBT brothers and sisters who are causing no one harm and simply dancing.
It is the Certain who read the Book of Leviticus not as a time and culture shaped reflection on a people’s identity, but as an eternal condemnation of their LGBT brothers and sisters. It is they who equate the Book of Discipline with the Word of God itself and deny ordination to a Christian leader more Christ-like than most of us will ever hope to be.
It is the Certain who see their political and ideological enemies as lacking any context or nuance, branding opposition as enmity. It is the Certain who are so convinced of their own moral rightness that it outweighs all the wrongs they must commit in furtherance of their own goals.
See, hearing the phrase God is a father and interpreting it to mean that God is literally male isn’t the problem; it’s the symptom of the problem. A problem of runaway certainty that refuses to admit that behind the language we use for God is only more mystery, more uncertainty, more doubt.
The Certain respond to the uncertainties of the world by erecting an Idol of Certainty and worshiping that rather than the God we call Father.
V. UNCERTAINTY AND FAITH
Now, I am not suggesting that people remain in a state of perpetual indecision, like Hamlet ruminating obsessively over the right course of action. There is a response better than either indecisiveness or absolute certainty: faith.
Faith is the admission of not knowing and yet setting out in hope. It is taking that leap. It is chosing a path of action, while retaining the humility of admitting that we might not know for sure the thing we have come to believe.
That admission then causes us to act in ways that are not extreme, that do not do violence or harm, because we’re always mindful that we just might be wrong about something. We move forward, neither paralyzed by fear nor ignorant of the depth of our unknowing.
When we move forward in faith, not in fear or certainty, we are capable of doing some extraordinary things.
We are capable of encountering people of a different religion and not seeing them as a threat to our own belief systems or way of life, but as fellow travelers on a road of mystery and wonder.
We are capable of welcoming to our shores the hungry, the tired, and those who are fleeing persecution, and not seeing them as terrorists in waiting but as human beings, made in the image of God, whom we are called to love as Christ loved us.
We are capable of seeing people with different sexual orientations and gender identities not as an abberation from some norm, but as representing a wide spectrum of God-created and God-given variation in a wondrous mosaic of our human family.
We are capable of looking past the rigid strictures of the law to the wondrous, almost reckless grace that lies beyond it.
We are capable of moving past treating people as defined by legal categories and toward seeing in them the very face of God.
We are capable of living our lives not in fear—fear of change, fear of the other, fear of loss, fear of the future—but in hope, and in love.
We are capable of embodying the love of Christ, as he embodied the love of the Father who sent him, the Father who made us, the Father who loves us, and the Father whose love can transform the very world itself.
 Gillman, Neil. Sacred Fragments : Recovering Theology for the Modern Jew. 1st pbk. ed. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society 1992, 1990
 They were also used for master-servant relationships in which servants were called thou and masters ye/you. It was because of the servile connotations that the terms thou/thee fell out of use.
 McFague, Sallie. Metaphorical Theology : Models of God in Religious Language. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982.
 To be fair, the mystic al-Ghazali did call for the execution of some heretics, but not on the basis of what they had believed, but because they, as mystics, should have known better than to reveal mystical knowledge to ordinary people, who would not understand the complexities of the mystery therein and could do great damage to religion as a result.