We’ve come to the final week in our three week Lenten series on the question, “what do we mean when we say the word God?” We started out with Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar out under the stars. We talked about the radical character of monotheism, the belief in the one true God we share with our Muslim and Jewish siblings. Last week came the God of Moses and the Midwives, the God of Liberation. The story of the Exodus invites us to see that God relies on us to make God’s liberating dream real in our own time. Now, at last, we’ve made our way to Jesus.
Specifically we come to the story that history and tradition have called “the Prodigal Son.” Jesus was a master storyteller. His stories, which we call parables, hardly need explanation, except where centuries history and bias have encrusted round. Jesus wove stories that taught about God, about what Jesus called God’s Kingdom, what Desmond Tutu names “God’s vision of hope,” and Dr. King called the “Beloved Community.” Jesus stories tell us about God, and the world God is dreaming and conspiring to build. Many of the stories are so strong, as a preacher I almost want to simply let them stand on their own. What can I add?
Still, I have a sermon series to finish. I want to venture this morning, this may be one of the central stories you need to know to understanding what Jesus means by the word “God.” There are two teachings about Jesus’ God in this text that I will spend some time with this morning. The first point is this: God, according to Jesus, is a God of loving-kindness, of forgiveness. God’s mercy is extravagant, unmerited, irrational. The second point is interconnected with the first: God is a God of love, of mercy, and God also invites us to grow up.
Dr. Peter Gomes, longtime preacher at Harvard’s Memorial Church quibbled with the traditional title for Jesus’ story, “the Prodigal son.” He pointed out that words “prodigal son” are nowhere in the text. Gomes said, “the story is not about the son or about the sons, but rather it is about the father. How do we know this? Because the text begins with the utmost simplicity and clarity, ‘A certain man’—the subject of the sentence—had two sons’” Really, this is the “Parable of the father.”
Right off the bat, I’ve got to tell you there is a problem with the name Jesus uses in this parable, and most often, for God. Jesus called God “Father.” Specifically he often used the word “abba” which is the equivalent to our word “dad.” Jesus uses a familiar word for God, something Moses and Abraham would not have done, something that was a break with tradition. On the positive side, Jesus’ God is an intimate God, a familiar God. God isn’t far off, but close, known, loving.
That’s the positive side. I’ve got to open up a can of worms now, I know it’s a can that I share with a number of you in this congregation. We need to address God’s gender. And we’ve got a historic problem. As theologian Mary Daly said decades ago ‘When God is male then male is God.’ Our Christian tradition arises in a culture of patriarchy. Jesus’ choice of “Father” does not help us undo oppression based on gender.
Know that Jesus did not ONLY call God father. A couple of weeks ago, as Jesus wept over Jerusalem, he said, “How I have longed to gather your children together as a mother hen gathers her brood under her wings.” Jesus sees God’s work as feminine. In many ways Jesus challenged the patriarchy of his day. He probably would have faced even tougher criticism if he had referred to God consistently as “Mother.” Maybe Jesus did and the disciples just chickened out, maybe they thought some of Jesus’ words were too radical to write down. Maybe, but that’s not the reason I find hope for a better conversation about gender in the Christian tradition.
Here at Holy Communion, we are working on our language. We’re moving, with the wider Episcopal church toward a more “expansive” language for God. That is to say, we’re not trying to neuter God, we’re not moving toward the neutral. We are working to recover and uncover images, like the image Jesus used of the mother hen, like the image of the Spirit of God brooding over the waters at creation, like Scripture’s Spirit of Wisdom, consistently named “she.” We are trying to incorporate more images of the divine feminine alongside the well known, and in some cases well-loved male names we use for God.
If we ONLY hear the masculine pronouns, we rob ourselves. We rob our daughters AND our sons, we rob our cis, trans, and gender expansive siblings of all of the crazy and beautiful ways God’s gender has been burst traditional categories in scripture and tradition. Here in this church, we are committed to hearing more feminine and more fluid names for God, precisely because God’s vision of gender seems much more beautiful, complex, and challenging than the historic church has often communicated. All sorts of gender expression can be named “divine.”
Jesus description of God as Father is one story that justifies not abandoning “Father” as one of the names for God. Part of what makes this father so compelling is his behavior. He acts so unlike the expectation of fathers in Jesus day. Men were taught to be just, to be stern. They still are. This father is nurturing, loving. This father in Jesus story sheds tears, weeps with joy, runs to embrace his son. This Father is less concerned about righteousness, and fair dealing than he is with demonstrating love and forgiveness. This Father pushes against the expectations of his gender. Maybe a better name for this parable is the parable of the “mothering father.”
This nurturing and loving father also has theological implications. This brings us to the first teaching about God in Jesus Story: God defies all of the expectations we have for the sake of love.
Jesus’ God is a God who defies all of the expectations we have for the sake of love. We find ourselves here, in the midst of Lent. This season we spend time on our knees. We consider all of the ways we have fallen short. We remember the ways that we, like the prodigal, have made terrible mistakes. Lent is about remembering our sins, but we do so not to wallow, not to impress ourselves or one another with how sinful we’ve been. We walk through Lent to remember God.
Jesus’ story tells us that when we speak of God, we speak of a God whose love defies all of our expectations, God’s forgiveness goes beyond our human understanding. God meets us, all of us, with open arms, with words of reassurance. If you’ve been lost, you will be found by God. You will be embraced by God. Lent is all about God’s capacity to forgive.
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy. The forgiveness of God knows no bounds. This is a vision of justice which makes no sense, just ask the other brother. While the party for the prodigal goes on inside, the older brother pouts outside. When the Father goes out to plead with him to come enjoy the banquet, he whines. The Father could rebuke his son, but he doesn’t, which brings us to the second teaching in Jesus’ story about God: God invites us to grow up.
As often as Jesus called God “Father” he talked about his followers, and all of God’s people as “children.” There’s no mistake that this story of the father features not just one, but two children who sin. Both of the brothers miss the boat. The older brother’s sin is self-righteousness, a dangerous one for all us overachievers.
I like to imagine the father’s face as he listened to the boy. I can imagine he started with great concern: “Are you okay my son? Why are you sad? What’s going on?” As he hears his angry words, a smile breaks across the father’s face. He thinks, “ah yes, of course.” The father patiently explains, “my son was lost, now he is found.” He teaches the older boy compassion. He smiles, and invites him to grow up. Jesus’ God is a God who invites us to grow up, to learn to laugh at ourselves, to get out of silly competitive games. We are invited to see our fellow human beings not through the lens of sibling rivalry, but through the loving gaze of God.
This morning Jesus tells us a story about a loving, a nurturing Father, a parent who defies all the gender norms of his time. In this central story of Jesus we discover that all God’s children are wept over, forgiven, and embraced. This story of Jesus tells us that God is a source of love and mercy deeper than we could have ever expected. We will never merit the wild gift of God’s love. And in that same parable, Jesus also challenges us to grow up. Believing in God means letting go of our petty games of comparison. Speaking of God means learning to see our siblings as God sees them, as God sees us, worthy of forgiveness and unconditionally beloved.
What do we mean when we say the word “God?” It turns out not even three sermons can fully address the theme. Still I would venture our world desperately needs to hear more words about the God we know here at Holy Communion. I would argue that our neighbors, our siblings, heck even some of us in this church are hungry for a word about this God who we know as loving, as liberating, as life-giving.
When you speak of God, Speak of the One who met Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar in the midst of all life’s complexity and blessed the wild diversity of their non-traditional family. Speak of the God who called to Moses out of the burning bush, the God who inspired the midwives to resist pharaoh’s power. Speak of the God who constantly conspires for liberation, who pushes us to love beyond borders, to fight for freedom.
Finally, when you speak of God, remember Jesus’ stories. Remember the promise of forgiveness and love that is far greater than any sin we might dream up. Remember likewise, God invites you to grow up, to turn toward your siblings, your neighbors, with forgiveness , with laughter, and love.
To finish the series, a word of exhortation: Say the word God. Episcopalians, I know it is scary, but say the word. Claim God’s identity. Don’t let the small-minded own God’s name. Don’t let God be defined by racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia. Don’t let God’s name be defined by hate and fear. The world needs more generous words about God. The God we speak of, the One we pray to in this place, our God blesses life in all its diversity. God works for liberation for ALL people. The world needs more words about the God of forgiveness and love, the God who invites us to grow up. Say the word “God.” You never know who will need to hear a word about God. It might just be you.