Chapel at Grand View University this semester focuses on common questions students ask about the faith. This sermon was delivered September 25, 2018.
Our question we’re tackling today is this: “Is God male or female?” The easy answer is “No.” Thank you very much. Have a nice walk to your next class. And enjoy the extra ten minutes. Amen.
Of course, the answer is no because God is God and not a creature. Back in ancient Greece, Xenophanes, who lived a few hundred years before Christ, could have told you that. A couple weeks ago, my Ancient and Medieval Philosophy students learned that Xenophanes argued that it’s just wrong to think of the Greek gods as having human bodies. And thinking the sun is Apollo’s fiery chariot streaking across the sky isn’t much better. If our own God is going to be God, then we’d also be wise about assigning gender to a being who’s way more than a binary creature with either internal or external plumbing or X and Y chromosomes.
In Genesis we hear that God made human beings male and female and that they were made in God’s image. But that doesn’t mean that we’re male and female because God is multi-gendered. No, we have to look a few words later and see what God says about all that was created. When God’s divine identity was expressed out into the cosmos, God declared that it was all “tov me’od,” or “waaayy good.” God’s creation, including platypuses and pachyderms, spiny echidnas, and your high school cafeteria lady, is totes good. And so are you, no matter what body parts you have.
The hard thing about our question is that it assumes we can actually figure out something about God that God apparently isn’t interested in letting us in on. If only we knew whether God was male or female, then, depending on God’s gender, we could decide that women are manipulating she-devils or that men are full of toxically masculine demonic rage. And whichever one doesn’t match God can go back to hell where Satan’s spawn belong.
But our Bible passage this morning gives us some hope. In 1 Corinthians, St. Paul assumes we’re going to ask all kinds of questions that want to get at something about God’s essential nature. Stuff like, “Why did God let my cousin die so young?” and “If I prayed so hard for a homecoming date, why am I sitting at home with Ben and Jerry as my companions?” For Paul, no matter what our questions, when we try to get beyond the veil, all we’re going to find is ourselves. “For now, we see in a mirror dimly.” When we ask a question like ours, the only answer will be a reflection of ourselves. It’s all part of the limits of our thinking that God established in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve were told not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We ask questions, and God will answer with silence.
But there’s hope in our verse. We look into that mirror and get a faint echo of God’s being. That means that we can learn something about God from human characteristics, even the most grievously stereotypical attributes we slap on the genders. We can learn about God from muscle-bound dudes and sentimental, weepy guys. We can learn about God from care-taking women and take-charge women. And those aren’t the only places we can learn about what God’s like. The opening litany we prayed today gives us a mighty list of things God has done that open up a vision of who God is. It’s admittedly a dim vision, but they’re clues nonetheless. It’s as if God were wearing many and various masks in this creation that show just as many and varied facets of who God is.
When we get no response to our question, maybe God is silent because God wants us to look elsewhere. It’s a dangerous thing to get behind the veil and see God’s full power and might (and maybe even God’s gender). When Moses asked to see God up on Mount Sinai, he only got to see God’s rear end and, because of it, was so changed that the Israelites forced Moses to wear a veil over his face. He was just too scary. So God sends you to encounter God where you can come to know God’s fullness in a way that God wants to be known: in the person of Jesus. There you have God made flesh and bone, with all the requisite and specific body parts real human beings have. Which isn’t to say that the almighty God is male, but only that God showed up in this one, Jesus. And because he was male in that patriarchal society, he suffered humiliation and degradation on the cross in a way that it wasn’t possible to experience for a woman.
But maybe I’ve misunderstood the question today. Maybe the question is really about whether we can use language other than male terms to address God. If so, we have Jesus’ example. Certainly, he taught us to pray, “Our Father who art in heaven.” But Jesus also gave us the image of a hen bringing her chicks under her wings as a way to understand God’s great care for us. And we have the Old Testament witness of Proverbs that speaks about God as wisdom. In Hebrew, that word is “sophia.” Have you ever heard of a guy named Sophia? The point is that God doesn’t much care about our little pronouns and divisions of the creation according gender. God cares about whether you send your prayers God-ward at all.
Find a way to talk to God, all the while knowing that your words and images are a dim reflection of who God really is. If you don’t like calling God “Father” because your dad is a jerk, then know that God’s definition of father is so much greater than a fallible sperm donor. Know that a hen and her chicks is just one aspect of who God is. God is also a rooster crowing his delight at the sunrise and the rising of Jesus on Easter. The possibilities are endless. But the beginning comes only when you speak to God. And there you have an entire Bible to use as your source.
You can address God by pointing to what God has done. “Almighty God, who answered King David’s confession of adultery and murder with mercy, grant me forgiveness as well.” “Gracious Lord God who stayed faithful to the Israelites in exile, even when they thought you’d forgotten them, help me to trust that you remember me.” “Holy Spirit who drove Jesus to be tempted in the wilderness, I’m out of control and ask you to take the wheel and drive me, too.” “Divine One, who came to Moses in the burning bush, my life is pretty dark, and I need you to burn a little brighter for me, so I can hang on.” “Good Shepherd, I’m a stupid sheep who’s gotten lost. Please find me.”
See how it works? You have resources for prayer and an utterly human brain with all its limitations. But God delights in hearing you. If neither heights nor depths, nor principalities, nor angels can separate you from God’s love in Christ Jesus, then your human language is a mighty small hurdle for God. However you speak, it’s enough. Give it a go. Just connect. Amen. And A-women.