September 29, 2019
St. Francis Sunday
Genesis 2: 7-9,15
MUSING ON METAPHORS
My now 20-year-old son was a very literal child. I remember a lengthy discussion of Pokémon when he was about 5. After what seemed like an eternity, I said “anymore talk about Pokémon and I am going to drive up the wall.” As I cringed at my own impatience, he looked up at me with solemn eyes and said, “Mama, you can do that? You can drive up the wall?” He was totally serious – and my first thought was to pray for his someday 5th grade teacher who would have his or her work cut out teaching the use of metaphor to this extremely literal child.
The words of St. Francis’ beautiful Canticle of the Creation in our call to worship and the Children’s message
following the week of climate action at the UN, has me musing on metaphors this morning. The urgency of the climate crisis shapes the times in which we live, yet there doesn’t seem to be a useful metaphor that might urge us as Christians to imagine a powerful and creative response to this existential threat. I wonder if the metaphors we have traditionally used to help us understand God are not only insufficient, but harmful, to the development of a Christian earth ethic.
Theologian, Sallie McFague, defines metaphors this way: “What a metaphor expresses cannot be said directly or apart from it, for if it could be, one would have said it directly. [A metaphor] is an attempt to say something about the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar and attempt to speak of what we do not know in terms of what we do know. Not all metaphors fit this definition, for many are so enmeshed in conventional language (the arm of the chair) that we do not notice them, and some are so familiar that we do not recognize them as attempting to express the unfamiliar.”
I would argue that many metaphors Christians use to know something about God fall into the latter category. We sang about God in our opening hymn this morning use some very familiar metaphors – ones so familiar to us that we no longer understand them as metaphors: “Praise to the Lord the Almighty, who rules all creation.” “Praise to the Lord, who o’er all things so gloriously reigneth.” Here is an orderly, powerful God, separate from creation and ruling over it. Even the metaphor – well, actually it’s a simile – “God as a mother” is not only protective, but powerful,” spreading the wing of grace o’er thee.” The hymn paints a picture of God in control, who “prospers” our way and “defends” us. Our response is to praise God in this hymn, and not much else seems to be required.
There is nothing wrong with these metaphors for God – they have brought comfort to us and generations of Jesus’ followers. But is the comfort of a Ruler-in-charge the metaphor we need in our time of climate crisis. The Ruler metaphor is deceptive in that for too long it has assured us that God will take care of us -and the creation- in spite of what human beings have done to that creation. As Rev. Rick said a few weeks ago, “God forgives our sins, but does not free us from the consequences.” We are living – or rather dying -with the generations long consequences of collective human exploitation of the Creation.
This begs the question: are there metaphors for God in our tradition that might help us experience God so that we are empowered to respond to the crisis of our time from a more urgent theological place?
The Gospel passage we read from John is a fruitful place to start.” In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. All things came into being through the Word and without the Word, not one thing came into being.” The Word – Jesus- is the means through which the created world comes into being and that Word “becomes flesh and dwells among us.”
God embodied in Jesus is neither powerful, nor in control. Jesus arrives among us as a very vulnerable baby, the son of poor folks, refugees from Herod’s terror. Jesus heals and teaches about the realm of God, but he does not impose it on anyone by force. He dies a criminal’s death – beaten, whipped, exposed and vulnerable on the cross. As he hangs on that cross, the Gospel Matthew records the taunts of those gathered at its foot: “If you are the son of God, save yourself.” “He is the King of Israel, let him come down from the cross.” “He saved others, but he cannot save himself.” “He trusts in God; let God deliver him.” Jesus lives his ministry with the poor, the sick, the outcasts. His body broken in death is the consequence of caring for and valuing the lost, the wounded and the least. No matter how we understand the resurrection, Christians are witnesses to a vulnerable savior.
Metaphors emphasizing God’s vulnerability might be the conceptual framework necessary for Christians in our time. The prologue to John’s Gospel suggests that God reveals God’s self both in the person of Jesus and in the Creation. In the same way that Jesus is the human embodiment of God’s vulnerable self, so too is the Creation a revelation of God’s vulnerability.
In her book Models of God, Sallie McFague develops the metaphor of the created universe as “the body of God; “If the world is imagined as self-expressive of God, it is a sacrament - the outward and visible presence or body – of God . . . if it is expressive of God’s very being, then how would God respond to it and how should we?”
McFague’s metaphor poses the right questions -and it challenges the long-held Christian understanding that God is outside and above the Creation. It gives urgency to our role in caring for the vulnerable body of God. Mc Fague continues, “the [created] world is a body that must be carefully tended, that must be nurtured, protected and guided, loved and befriended . . . as valuable in itself.” This metaphor requires us to see the created world as holy because it is a revelation of God’s vulnerability – and our care of it is then a sacred response to God’s holiness. Caring for God’s vulnerable body in Creation is the appropriate Christian response. Just as Mary and Joseph protected the infant Jesus- just as the woman washed Jesus’ feet with her hair and anointed him with costly perfume,-just as the women at the tomb that resurrection morning planned to care for Jesus’ broken body- we too, must care for God’s broken body of Creation. This is the work to which faithful Christians are called in our time of climate crisis.
Understanding the created world as the revelation of God’s vulnerability, our care for and protection of it is a sacred commitment. Episcopal Bishop and Choctaw Elder Steven Charleston writes, “What we hold sacred, we cherish, we protect, we nurture . . . where nothing is sacred, we are much more likely to abuse what we would otherwise honor. As the borders of the sacred diminish, the empire of sorrow expands. The work of faith is the restoration of the sacred. We must help others discover the value of life in everything around them; in people who are different, in every day encounters, in the Earth itself. We must grow the sacred.”
“Growing the sacred” is the urgent Christian calling in this time of climate crisis. May we be faithful to it -and to our vulnerable God.