When you begin your prayers, with a group or late at night, how do you begin? I have been listening the last few weeks in different settings, and I have heard people say most of the things we would expect: Holy God. God of love. Father. Lord Jesus. In the midst of tragedy the tornadoes in Moore, Oklahoma, we have heard: God of all creation. Healer. Comforter of those who mourn. I often begin prayers with words that describe attributes of God, Holy God, I also like to say God of grace or, to quote the wonderful hymn we’ll sing in a bit, God of grace and God of Glory. God is Holy. God is, above all, a God of grace. What about you?
That’s where the Creed begins. Sunday after Sunday we are invited to stand and say what it is that we believe. We begin with a form of address, noting about whom we are speaking. When you start a conversation, you say something to them: mom, dad, or you use their name: Joe, Sally, Bob. We have pet names for special people: dear, honey, I have a habit of calling Ella Brooks beautiful girl, not because appearance is the most important thing, but because I want her to know I think she is. But we also know that as much as hearing our name called can be good news, it can be painful. Whenever I heard my mother yell "Christopher Stephen," I knew it wasn’t good news. Sometimes that comes with tone of voice as much as language. But other times those names hurt, when people we love have pointed a finger at us – Liar. Afraid. Unfaithful.
The way the Creed begins is the place scripture often begins, naming God as Father. By my count Jesus uses this term 15 times in Luke’s gospel. It is the primary name Jesus uses, but he also says Lord – another male-heavy term – and God many more times. Early on, in chapter 2, when Mary and Joseph leave Jerusalem only to realize they have left their son behind, in their frantic searching, they find him back in the temple. The boy Jesus looks up at Mary and says, "Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my father’s house?"1 He doesn’t use it again until chapter 11, but it comes in crucial moments – the Lord ‘s Prayer in chapter 11, just before he is arrested here in chapter 22. And this makes sense, I think. Jesus, in His humanity, longs for connection. We want to feel that God is personally, physically, with us. When things get tough for me I don’t want God out there, somewhere, I want a personal connection, a very real comfort. In the Greek the word Jesus uses here is Pater, which Luke uses 11 times, father, ancestor, a slightly more formal term. Luke uses a form of the same word in chapter 2. The term Abba, more a relational term of endearment, dad, Mark uses when Jesus prays in the Garden in Mark 14: "Abba, Father, …remove this cup from me; yet not what I want, but what you want."2
Words are powerful things, and can hit us in all sorts of different ways. We don’t interpret scripture, we don’t tend to this language, in isolation…we filter everything through our own experiences. I have the privilege of a wonderful relationship with a father I trust, who I respect and care for. I think I sense something of God in that relationship. But I also don’t think for a moment that that kind of relationship is anything but a small part of the mystery and majesty of God. We also know that kind of language feels quite different for those who have painful relationships with their father, or who don’t know their father at all. Imagining God as a father, anything like their father, is a barrier to faith for some. If the man that beat me or assaulted me is anything like God, I don’t want anything of it. Some victims of trauma like this can use father language, hoping for a glimpse of love they did not receive. But some can’t.
All of this gets at much deeper questions about the purpose of language in worship, or language anywhere else. Words are never value-neutral. They always mean something, always create world of assumptions. These assumptions can make space, inviting people into the glory of God, or they can build up barriers, exclude, push people out. I am confident that all of us who call God ‘Father’ at some point or another don’t actually believe God is an old white man in the sky. But, this kind of language, when exclusively used, continues to play into all sorts of assumptions our society has about gender, gender attributes, and relationships. American society has made decent steps in the last century, but we still have a long way to go. The fact that the first bill the president signed into law was a bill that allowed women to sue their employer for lack of equal pay, that we needed that in 2008! Women are only 4% of Fortune 500 CEOs3, and 101 of the 535 members of congress are women.4
The church, not surprisingly, lags even further. The PC(USA) began ordaining women as elders in 1930, as ministers in 1956. By 2001 the number of male and female clergy was about equal.5 But, by my count this week of the 100 largest churches in the PC (USA), how many of them have female heads-of-staff? Want to guess? 3. When my wife was serving the church before we moved here, on Sundays she was met with her fair share of comments about her earrings or hair, the sound of her voice, her pregnant belly when that time came, things that people would never say to men. Do I think that praying to God the Father sometimes made this happen? The language we use doesn’t create everything, but it goes a long way to ground our assumptions about who God is, and therefore who is like God and who is not. And, one kind of language about anything, but especially God, holds us back from being experiencing the rich diversity of God’s glorious creation.
In a really wonderful denominational document called, "Well-Chosen Words," the authors write: Our language about God should be as intentionally diverse and varied as that of the Bible and our theological tradition….Rather than using only a very small number of terms referring to God, we should seek to employ the rich reservoir of imagery found in the New and Old Testaments."6 I’ll have a copy of this document in the parlor afterwards. Does this mean we should stop using Father language? Certainly not. It is using any kind of language exclusively and unintentionally that is the problem. God is a mother in the Isaiah text from earlier, Jesus refers to himself as a mother hen in Luke 13. Our new Wednesday program Wednesday’s ROCK, plays in really wonderful ways off of biblical language, of God as rock in Isaiah 17, the same metaphor Jesus uses for God’s foundational love. The bible is nothing if it isn’t a storehouse of remarkable languages, images, and stories. Let’s work as hard as we can to use them all and, in some small way, begin to glimpse the wideness of the mercy of God.
And so we work hard, seeking to be as intentional as we can, knowing that if you really want to critique language, you can poke holes in anything. All language has its limits, especially when trying, even in good faith, to talk about the infinite. But there is something extraordinary about this language, the church’s language, that is old, and deep, and true. Just before Easter, 9 days after our son Wilson was born, my paternal grandmother died. She was 96, and her quality of life had been tough for awhile. It was sad, but came as grace. She had been a member at Salem Presbyterian Church in Salem, Virginia all her life, sang in the choir for 60 years. She had 2 pastors who knew her and loved her who did the service. So, for the first time in awhile, I experienced a funeral not as clergy, but as family. Texts were read, hymns sung, pastors spoke words of comfort. And towards the end one said, "In life and in death, let us stand and affirm our faith with the Apostle’s Creed." And even though I had all this mush in my head studying for the beginning of this series, when the community stood and began to speak, all that stuff melted away. I said I believed in God the Father Almighty not as an extension of patriarchy, but because I needed a parent’s strong arms. I needed language to lean into, to hold me and the entire community, to mouth the words through tears.
That is the gift of this creed. We know it, it knows us. And while must never stop asking questions about this language, like we will all summer long, there are also times that we let it, the community, and the community’s God lead us home. As our own Brief Statement of Faith says, "Like a mother who will not forsake her nursing child, like a father who runs to welcome the prodigal home, God is faithful still."
All praise be to this one, who loves us as a mother and a father, One God, parent of us all. Amen.
1. Luke 2:49.
2. Mark 14:36. With cross-referencing help from www.biblesuite.com
3. Women CEOs of the Fortune 1000, Catalyst
4. Let’s Stop Celebrating the ‘Record’ Number of Women in Congress, The Huffington Post
5. Ordination of women in Protestant churches, Wikipedia
6. Well Chosen Words, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A)