This morning’s sunshine has left me longing for spring. I know that when all is said and done this winter will probably go into the record books as a particularly mild one. But even so, I’ve grown weary of the trappings of winter and I cannot wait for spring to arrive. On Friday I found myself suffering from a case of cabin fever. I’d spent the day working in my office and even though my desk faces a large window, the dull grey hue of the cold, overcast, afternoon made me long for spring, when the sunshine would entice me to open my widow and I’d hear the sounds of the world out there waking up from its long winter nap. From my office window I caught a glimpse of some kids who judging from the time of day, were heading home from school. As they trudged along the sidewalk, the sight of their mother tagging along behind them made me incredibly sad. Those poor kids were being escorted by their mother. How in the world were they ever going to have any adventures with their mother tagging along behind them? I know that the world has changed some since I was a kid, but the adventures that we could have on the way home from school, well let’s just say, what our mothers don’t know can’t hurt them. The kids walking down the street on Friday, were going straight home; something we rarely did. We wandered home from school, and it could take hours to get home. Now I know that some of you may be fond of saying that when we were kids, we had to walk for miles and miles and miles, and it was all uphill and the sidewalks weren’t ploughed back in the day and the snow, well you should have seen it back then it was piled as high as the rooftops and we had to trudge through snow drifts that were taller than we were. Yeah, yeah, kids today, they just don’t know how well off they really are. Or are they?
Kids are escorted home from school and there’s no time for dilly-dallying. I’ve got to say that dilly-dallying on my way home from school was some of the best fun I can remember. After a day spent at school there was nothing quite like the fun we could get up to on our way home. I remember one spring my friends and I spent days and weeks collecting tree branches. We wandered here and there trying to find branches with just the right amount of sap in them to make them supple and pliable. You had to be able to bend them just so and unless they had lots of sap in them, they would snap in two. We needed branches that we could bend into bows and when we found those branches, we collected other branches that we could fashion into arrows. It wasn’t difficult because all of us had jack knives and we would take those branches and with our jack knives we’d sharpen them just so. When we had all our bows and arrows ready, we’d practice shooting arrows.
But we never seemed to get it just right. There was something wrong with the string we strung our bows with, because no matter how hard we tried our arrows wouldn’t fly very far. They would usually drop to the ground just a few feet in front of us. But no matter because the six-shooters our opponents toted, made lots of noise, but fired only invisible bullets. We played cowboys and Indians all the way home from school each and every day that long-ago spring. Some days the cowboys would win. But more often than not those of us who were lucky enough to play Indians, we would win. Bows and arrows beat cap guns any day. Eventually as spring turned into summer, we traded our cap guns and bows and arrows for machine guns and bazookas and we began to fight world war two, all over again. One day we were Germans, the next day we were Brits and sometimes, when the fighting became really intense, we’d miraculously turn into Americans and fly our planes over one another’s territory and try to bomb one another into submission. Great big clods of dirt would be hurled through the air until Spitfires would show up to chase us bombers over the hills. Cowboys and Indians, Germans, Brits, and Americans, no matter which tribe we pledged our allegiance to the game always ended when someone got hurt. Our childhood tribalism would end when we realized that we’d all be in trouble if we got caught by our parents because one of us got hurt. So, unless the injured party had broken a bone, they’d have to suck it up and bare the pain so as not to get us all in trouble. It was one for all and all for one, when it came to avoiding trouble from our parents.
If only our adult tribal games could end before anyone gets seriously hurt. Perhaps we were able to unite so quickly back when we were children simply because we played both parts. One day we were cowboys, the next Indians, one day we were Germans, and the next day we were British, or even Americans; although you needed to have chocolate to play an American. When I read this morning’s reading from the book of Genesis, my heart sank because last week I encouraged you to give up God for Lent. I asked you to give up the idol we have made of God that depicts God as some super-person, up there in the sky, just waiting to judge, help or not help us. I asked you to give up the images of God that limit God to some sort of father-sky-god who sees to it that your life unfolds as it was always meant to unfold. And then we read this story from Genesis in which Abram the one who would become Abraham the father of nations, has a vision of God in Abraham’s vision God is cast as none other than the big chief who enters into a covenant with Abraham’s tribe. To seal the bargain this tribal god demands that Abraham preform a tribal ritual that heads of tribes used in those days to seal deals. In his vision, Abraham’s God demands that Abraham take a heifer, a goat, and a ram, each three years old, and a turtle dove, and a young pigeon and cut each of these animals in half and lay each half opposite the other, except for the birds, which were just strew whole into the whole bloody mess. Abraham is overcome by some sort of trance as a deep, terrifying, darkness envelopes him. When the sun sets, a smoking brazier and a flaming torch appear and pass between the halves of the animal sacrifices. The flaming torch is meant to symbolize Abraham’s notion of who God is. This God of Abraham then goes on to predict that Abraham’s tribe will be enslaved by their enemies, but not to worry because this God of Abraham’s will punish the nation that enslaves them and in time Abraham’s descendants will become a great nation capable of smiting other nations because God will be on their side.
This story of primitive tribalism lies at the very heart of our religious narrative. Our god is bigger and stronger than other gods so, not only will our god defeat your god, our tribe will prosper while your tribe will suffer defeat. I wonder what games the children of Abraham played with their sticks and stones. What forms of tribalism did they re-enact as they played? Probably games very similar, although a lot less lethal than the games the children of Sarah, Hagar and Abraham are still playing. My tribe is better than your tribe. How long will we let ourselves be caught up in these childish games; games designed to smite our advisories. I wonder if the children of today weren’t being escorted by their mothers, what tribes would they play? Or have humans dressed up as suicide bombers, taken all the fun out of our childish interpretations of war? I hope so.
There’s a very big part of me that gives thanks for all those parents, grandparents and daycare workers who are escorting children safely to their homes. I’m glad that children have lost the freedom to play tribal games. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus is said to have bemoaned the tribalism of his own day. While Herod looms large as a threat to Jesus and all that Jesus stands for, Jesus cries: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem! You kill the prophets and stone those who are sent to you! How often have I wanted to gather your children together as a mother hen collects her babies under her wings—yet you refuse me.!” Jesus reveals a new image of God; an image that rejects the tribal image of Abraham, and points to God as one who is like a mother hen caring for her young. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem! You kill the prophets and stone those who are sent to you.
In a few weeks we will reenact the tribal execution of Jesus who came preaching a new way of understanding who and what God is. Jesus tried to move us beyond our childish notions of the Divine. But he was nailed to a cross for threatening the status quo of tribalism which relies on the image of a tribal deity to uphold the system of oppression that leaves the powerful upon their thrones and keeps the poor and powerless oppressed and imprisoned. For as long as we are peering into the heavens searching for clues to the whereabouts of our Creator, we will fail to see the evidence that is all around us of the ONE who is was and ever more shall be MYSTERY. Jesus offered us another image of our Creator. And as we journey further into Lent, we will explore the image of God that Jesus proclaimed. But for this morning I’d just like to remind you that our image of God pales in comparison to the reality of God. It has been said by the likes of Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and Albert Einstein that there are two books that reveal the nature of God one of those books is the bible and the other is the universe. The MYSTERY we call “God” is beyond our human notions of “person”. This MYSTERY is so much more than a person. This MYSTERY is beyond person. But this does not mean that this MYSTERY cannot be known personally. As we learn more and more about the nature of the universe, more and more is being revealed to us about the nature of the One who creates, permeates and sustains all that is and ever shall be.
God is MYSTERY beyond knowing, MYSTERY always present and active—like the breath moving through all that exists, MYSTERY that underpins all that exists and can never be absent or disconnected from our world. MYSTERY is embodied in our universe and in our world through observable patterns. Humanity evolved from the DIVINE presence at work in these patterns that we are beginning to learn about. Humanity in all its forms and tribes emerged within the DIVINE. The DIVINE lives and breathes in, with, through, and beyond humanity and is given expression in everyone we encounter. There is so much more to MYSTERY than we can begin to imagine or conceive. But this does not mean that MYSTERY is unknowable. We experience glimpses of DIVINITY in the workings of the universe, in the people we meet, in the lives we live. The more we learn about the universe seems to confirm that we are intimately connected to all that has gone before us and all that is to come, that we were born of stardust, and that the essence of who and what we are is part of a greater whole. We are nurtured and sustained by that which is greater than we are and the MYSTERY that is our God comes to beautiful expression in our LOVE for one another. Perhaps that is why our ancestors defined God as LOVE. If God is LOVE then surely God can be known through in, with, and through LOVE.
Jesus called us beyond our tribal notions of the MYSTERY we call God. But like children we cling to God insisting that DIVINITY preform like some sort of cosmic super-hero who can save us from ourselves. Perhaps as more and more is revealed to us of the nature of our universe, we will come to accept the nature of our God as one who is beyond our childish games? Perhaps we can begin to see the one that Jesus saw, the one who comes to us in the guise of a mother hen, tenderly enfolding us to her breast. Maybe then, when we have truly know the LOVE that IS God, will we have the courage to peer out from beneath the wings of LOVE to see what lays beyond our limited horizon, so that we can experience the ONE who IS so much more that we can capture or contain in our imaginations.
Thomas Aquinas insisted that the universe itself is the primary revelation of God, and the universe is made in the image and likeness of God. We would do well to look beyond our carefully crafted tribal images of God so that we can experience the myriad of ways in which MYSTERY is present all around us. Aquinas insisted that we humans are capable of relationship with the DIVINE. Apax universi, capable of the universe are your arms when they move with LOVE. The earth inhales MYSTERY, why should we not do the same? “This sacred flame we tend inside needs the chants of every tongue, the communion with all. As capable as God are we.”
It’s time to put away our childish games and open ourselves to the ONE, who IS, WAS and ever more shall BE our LOVE.
Readings: Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Capaxi Universi- Capable of the Universe by Thomas Aquinas; Luke 9:28-36