Black Sampson and Mother God

Transcribed from the sermon preached January 26, 2914
The Reverend Max Lynn, Pastor

Scripture Readings: Isaiah 46, Galatians 3:23-29

The benefit of the Internet, blogs and tweets is that the whole world gets to voice their opinion. The negative is that everyone gets to voice their opinion. It is perhaps a human tendency, and definitely the tendency of media to focus on the extremes, on the controversial, and to amplify it. This means that knuckleheads tend to get more than their fair share of attention; many reasonable people get sucked in like a whirlpool, trying to offer reasonable criticism or point out and focus on the negativity, whether it be racism, or classicism, or misogyny, religious bigotry, ethnocentrism, or whatever.

Quality cultural commentary is very complex and difficult because the commentary itself tends to get sucked into the polemic that maintains the shape of the cultural dialogue. So for instance, if you were to base your understanding of Christianity in America on the portrayal of it through media and internet, you have either anti gay, anti-Muslim, pro-gun, pro-war, pro Creationism, pro-white male God, and pro Hell Christians, or the New Atheists who proclaim religion is the opiate of the people, consolation for the ignorant and weak minded, the cause of world suffering and war, and should be completely opposed by rational human beings if not completely eliminated. If the Chair of the Environmental Sciences department of CAL happens to be a faithful Christian, somehow it doesn’t compute. I spoke to the media out on our lawn when they showed up to report that Maybeck students were wearing skirts for Sasha, the young man whose skirt was lit on fire while he slept on the bus after school. If I would have said Sasha was a sinner and deserved what he got, I am sure I would have made the news, but a minister wearing a skirt and affirming God love for all doesn’t fit the newsworthy expectation; it doesn’t fit the polemic.

If we believe this polemic is all there is to the matter, we have to choose which of only two positions we will take. We are afraid of mentioning Jesus or the Bible or prayer for fear that we might offend the rational smart people, afraid to be mistaken as the only kind of Christian much of culture recognizes, and thus we may be hesitant to offer the saving grace of Christ, and the kind of deep spiritual authenticity and prayer we humans so need to be healed and whole.

Another example of how we are driven by cultural paradigms is The History Channel series The Bible, where Sampson was played by a black man. Of course many Christians are concerned about sticking true to the Bible. So media couldn’t help but focus on the upset of a few who said, “Sampson wasn’t black.” Nobody seemed too concerned that the historical Jesus wasn’t a gorgeous, Western European actor looking guy. We in this culture are so used to seeing Jesus as the gorgeous white guy that this image has become the Jesus many worship. Blue-eyed Jesus is a cultural construct, an idol. And nobody, as far as I saw, noted that it was still culturally typical of the filmmaker, in his decision and attempt to include black characters among biblical heroes, to have the black guy play the giant violent thug with lady problems. Not that I didn’t want to be Sampson as a kid, and it was better than nothing, but this role still fits well within white American cultural limits.

John Dominic Crossan in his critique of Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of Christ, notes that we tend to group each of the separate Gospel accounts into one, deviating then from each of the particular stories. Plus, in the example of the Passion film, we may leave out important meaningful aspects of the larger story context, which precede or follow the portion of scripture depicted. Film in particular demands that the producer fill in the blanks of the text. Crossan takes the definition of the angry crowd, which demands Jesus Crucifixion as an example. “When you read the Gospels you can leave the “crowd” vague and indeterminate in your mind, but viewers of the The Passion of Christ see a crowd that fills the Jerusalem streets.” The filmmaker must decide the identity, purpose and number of that “crowd” before Pilate. What the filmmaker chooses to do will no doubt be influenced by his or her own cultural context. In essence, in our imaginings of the written text, especially when we put it to visual images, our own cultural bias shapes how we see God, how we see God’s people, and how we see the enemies of God. This of course, says nothing of the bias of the original authors. I don’t use bias as a negative necessarily, just an acknowledgement of who we are as humans in culture. Crossan notes that Mark is clear that Jesus was a popular guy. The big crowds showed up when he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. The chief priests and the scribes, kept looking for a way to kill him it says, but it was difficult because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching (11:18). So where Mel Gibson has the streets filled with a livid angry Jewish mob crying crucify him, it was likely just a few of the Chief priests and scribes. And of course, Mel Gibson’s chooses an actor to play Jesus who is a really sexy Western European white guy. The look of Jesus has more to do with American and Hollywood culture than it does the historical Jesus, but nobody notices because he is a cultural icon, an idol. Butmake Sampson black and we say, “whoa, wait just a minute, Sampson wasn’t black.”

The same cultural bias is attached to our image of God. The Israelites were not immune to cultural bias, yet they recognized that God was somehow and always beyond our capacity to imagine Her. They realized that even giving God a name limited God. God speaks to Moses out of a burning bush that is not consumed. Moses asks God his name and he says, “I am that I am.” God knows we will take his name and image and mess it up.

Now given that Israelite culture was patriarchal, God is nevertheless addressed most often as he. And since we too have a patriarchal culture we have latched onto those biblical images and metaphors for God that are male: Father, King, Lord. So even while there are feminine images and metaphors to describe who God is for us in scripture, since we have a cultural idol for God, which is male we have a hard time with them. In the Bible, God is described as being like a woman in labor (Is 42:14), a mother suckling her children (Num. 11:12), a mother who comforts her children (Is 66:12-13), a midwife (Ps 22:9-10), a God who brings forth from the womb (Is 46:3-4), a mother hen who longs to gather her chicks under her wings, a mother Eagle, and a mother bear. God is Spirit and the Spirit of God in scripture is the feminine ruah, the wisdom of God Sophia. Also, baptismal imagery depicts Jesus and the rest of us coming up and out from the fluid of the mother’s womb. We know that one of our creation stories in Genesis says that God created humans in God’s image, male and female he created them. If male and female are made in the image of God then feminine metaphors and images of God are entirely appropriate to help communicate the divine mystery. Jesus uses the image of God as a shepherd searching for his lost sheep and a woman searching for a lost coin. Clearly Jesus thinks both tell something of the truth of the nature of God. I am of course just brushing the surface of this subject, but you get the point; if we are using exclusively white male images of God, we narrow, limit and construct the mysterious Spirit of all life into an idol, and we are practicing idolatry. In turn this idolatry of our image of God then limits our ability to see the Spirit of God and Christ in others we categorize as different. It then becomes easier to justify subjugation, exploitation and violence against them.

We might be tempted to solve the issue by eliminating the anthropomorphic God altogether. There are some decent arguments for this. But in our experience of the mystical presence that gives and unifies life we experience relationship. The Divine Spirit is more than just an amorphous Spirit wafting around like spiritual fog. The spiritually wise, when in our deep clear moment we tap into Sophia wisdom, we sense what the mystics throughout the ages have, that we are not Adam Smith’s isolated billiard balls bouncing around randomly but that there is a unifying life Spirit that is benevolent and gracious. Benevolence and graciousness are relational terms. We get the sense as Martin Luther King Jr. did that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” We sense there is a Creative Spirit that gives us creative force, uniqueness, and at the same time unifies life. It is purposeful, it is loving and gracious toward us, and it bends toward justice. As it feels relational, so we use language of relationship, we use personal language. We pray. And story is the language of relationship. So God is like the father who welcomes the prodigal home, like the mother who will not forsake her nursing child.

Now God is gracious and merciful. So in our limited cultural context God comes to us. So every culture tries to understand and shape God in ways that people in that culture can grasp. That is ok as long as we don’t grasp too tightly and desperately making our construct of God an idol. So while the cultural and historical context is important for understanding who the authors of scripture understood Jesus to be, the Spirit of the risen Christ expands beyond race, class and gender to be embodied in you and me, no matter who we are or where we are from.

[26] for in Christ Jesus you are all sons (and daughters) of God, through faith.
[27] For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.
[28] There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither
male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. [29] And if you are Christ’s,
then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.

So on the one hand Jesus was a Middle Eastern looking man born to similar parents, was an Israelite living under occupation of the Roman Army, who preached Love and justice and was crucified for it. On the other he was risen from the dead to live in you and me, male and female, black, white, brown and yellow, of cultures the world over, and it is up to us, by grace and the power of the Spirit, to embody and proclaim God’s grace and presence, love and justice for all. Put on Christ, Paul says. Put on Christ and let us be one, all of us heirs according to the promise. Put on Christ.