The Apostles’ Creed, a Lover’s Quarrel: In God the Father Almighty
A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt
Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA
June 9th, 2013
Last Sunday I started a summer sermon series that I’m calling The Apostles’ Creed, a Lover’s Quarrel by reflecting on what it means to believe in something or someone, which is much more about trust and not about affirming a series of intellectual propositions about God. Faith is not so much what we believe about, but what we believe in. Today we pick up with looking at the phrase: “God the Father Almighty.”
The passage I’m about to read comes from the book of the prophet Isaiah, the 40th chapter, beginning with the 21st verse. What you need to know about Isaiah 40 is that it was written sometime after 586 BCE to people who had been ripped from their homeland, from all that seemed safe, settled and secure, and forcibly repatriated to a foreign country. You could hardly blame them if they had come to doubt God’s power or God’s care. Listen to Isaiah’s assurance to a troubled people that God is still God and that God’s care for them has not ended:
Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows upon them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble. To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing.
Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God”? Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.
Have you ever noticed, looking at a camel, how haughty and proud it seems? The lips so often pulled back in what appears to be a sneer, the head thrown back and away from you as if it were too stuck up to give you the time of day. Have you ever noticed how camels look like they’re laughing at some kind of inside joke that you and I don’t understand?
The legend in the Muslim world is that camels look that way because they alone among the creatures of the earth—including humans—know the 100th name of God. Human beings know the other 99 names of God, but only the camel knows the 100th name.
I don’t know about all of that. I do know that it makes me just a little uncomfortable at the beginning of the Apostles’ Creed to refer to God by just one name. As if that one name somehow sums up all God means. As if it is the best, or even only way to refer to God: Father, almighty.
There is no denying that Father has been used as a name for God in the Christian tradition for as long as there has been a Christian tradition. That makes sense. Jesus referred to God as Abba, Father. He taught us to pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven.” In the Garden, he intoned, “Father, if it be your will, take this cup from me.” On the cross, he cried out, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” We come by the father image honestly.
To pretend that Father is not a good name by which we can (and perhaps even should) refer to God is unfortunate. The father metaphor—especially for those who have good human fathers—can point to a loving, caring, listening, present provider. It gets to the heart of relationship and relationality.
But to act as if Father is the only name we can use for God is just as problematic because it downplays the feminine characteristics of the Divine: the One whom Hebrew scriptures describe as a mother eagle bearing her young up on her pinions, the One about whom Hebrew scriptures say that—even if a mother could forget a nursing child—God could not forget us.
Father language by identifying God as male rather than as beyond gender (and what else does Father language do but identify God as male?) implicitly makes maleness seem superior to femaleness.
To this day some Orthodox Jewish men begin their daily prayers by saying, “Blessed are you, Lord our God, ruler of the universe, who has not created me a woman.”
I am very glad that God created me a man. But I am also glad that God created Judith a woman, and my daughters women, and I don’t think they’re any less because they are women and I am a man. And that’s important to say.
There is also the question of those whose associations with the word father bring up images not of presence but of absence; not of closeness but of distance, not of care, but of neglect and abuse.
The metaphor works very well for those who see it through the lens of a good father. But not everyone can. Thankfully, there are many more names and images for God than just that one.
There are more adjectives for God than just one, too. Which brings us to the word almighty and what that means…
There comes a time when each of us—even those who have or had the best parents— come face to face with the fact that we are not almighty or all powerful.
Growing up is a process of learning that your parents are human, just like you. They make mistakes, sometimes big ones. They have human bodies, which, like yours, will age and deteriorate. They have human feelings, which, like yours, can get hurt. They are not almighty, not all powerful.
There’s nothing quite like being a parent, by the way, to teach you that you are not almighty. You can try to helicopter over your kids all the way to college and beyond. You can do your best to try to protect them from falling and failing. You can try to comfort them and cushion them and help them deal with consequences. But at a certain point, you have to come to grips with the truth that you can’t live their life for them.
You put them on the bus to go to kindergarten. You hand over the keys for the first solo drive. God, that’s hard. You watch them graduate from high school. You drop them at the dorm room. You put them on the airplane. You walk them down the aisle at the wedding. But you can’t shield them from every harm or hurt feeling; can’t guard them from every threat; can’t protect them from every consequence of choices they make. You can only love them.
You can only love them.
There is something so universal about that prayer that gets said at the close of every twelve-step meeting, whether it’s A.A. or Al-Anon, N.A. or O.A. or G.A. or E.A, or whatever A. Say it with me. “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
So much of life—so much of mental and spiritual health—comes in figuring out what it is that we can control and letting go of what we can’t. And ultimately about all we can control is our own actions and reactions.
So who controls the rest? Is there a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will? Is God, as the hymn writer says, working God’s purpose out as year succeeds to year? Is God almighty and, for that matter, all loving, or not?
The people of Israel, languishing in exile in Babylon, had come to doubt it. They’d been forcibly displaced from their homes, taken from all that they knew. It was horrible, what had happened to them. It was horrible. They were tired and discouraged. And right into the midst of their pain and despair, Isaiah spoke a word of hope.
It was a word about an almighty God; a God who could bring beauty out of ashes, a God who could transform suffering into hope, a God who could make the desert bloom and make princes come to naught and give power to the faint and strength to the powerless, so that even when youths fainted and fell exhausted, those who waited on the Lord would renew their strength. They would mount up with wings like eagles; they would run and not be weary, they would walk and not faint.
It may not seem like it now, Isaiah was saying, it may not seem like it now, but God really is at work here as year succeeds to year. God is going to bring life and hope out of this disaster. God may not have protected you from the consequences of your actions or other’s actions, but something better is coming. Just hold on. And keep doing what you can do about what you can control.
There is a meme floating around on the internet now. It’s graduation season, right?
It’s a photo from a college graduation and it shows all of the graduates throwing their caps into the air. We’ve all seen a scene like that at some point. The picture shows them throwing their caps into the air and the caption reads, “Congratulations! You’ve just finished the easiest part of your life!”
Now, we laugh about that. It may well be that years from now when you graduates look back on college or perhaps high school you will say, “Those were indeed the easiest years of my life.” But they don’t always seem very easy. College can be hard. High school can be hard and troubling. Things that happen to you in childhood can be very difficult. It may not be the easiest part of your life.
That being said, there are going to come times in the future that will not be easy, too.
That’s just the way life is. Then the question will be,
as you face your first big failure,
as you face your first huge disappointment,
as you come against the fact that there are things you can’t control,
maybe even your own children,
the question will be: “Is there something more at work in the universe than just human beings to bring life out of death, hope out of despair, and courage when all you think you’ve got going for you is your fear?”
For me, the answer is yes. I hope the answer is yes for you, too.
And that’s why even though I have a little bit of a hesitation when I say I believe in God the Father Almighty, I do say it with some conviction. Because that almighty part is true. It is true.
I had an email dialogue with a member of Immanuel this week. We were actually talking about God the Father Almighty, believe it or not. Here’s how I restated for her a thought she shared with me:
“We want God to love us unconditionally, without needing to explain ourselves. But we don’t often talk about loving God unconditionally, without God needing to explain him or herself with regard to every divine action or inaction. That’s what it means to talk about a God whose understanding is unsearchable. Loving the parts that we don’t understand, that we may not even like, realizing that there is so much that is beyond our ken—that is all part of what it means to believe in God the Father Almighty.
“That doesn’t mean we don’t fantasize about standing or eventually get the opportunity to stand toe-to-toe as Job did with God and ask why? That doesn’t mean we can’t be disappointed that God doesn’t intervene in some circumstances or address matters the way we’d like. It just means we let God be God and remember that we are not God.”
Later she told me: “Thank you for reminding me that I don’t have to be God.”
There are many images for God in scripture. One which can fit nicely with the idea of God as Father is the image of God as a hiding place, a shelter from the storm. Now I invite you to listen as the Immanuel in the Evening musicians sing a song which speaks to that image.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.