Sunday 7 April 2019

What does your God look like?

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church 7 April 2019

Genesis 1.26-27, 31
John 14.6-11

Listen to this sermon here:

I thought I might start my sermon this week by showing you just a few holiday photos,
            from our recent trip to Southeast Asia.

To save you from having to sit through the full gamut
            of the 4,000 photos that we actually took,
I thought I’d focus in on some photos of gods.

It seemed as if everywhere we went, we met another object of devotion or worship.

And as I show these photos, I’d like you to consider my thesis for this morning,
            which is that people construct their gods
                        either in their own image,
                        or in the image of whatever it is that they think of as powerful

So let’s start with possibly the most imposing object of worship we saw
            - the giant reclining Buddha of Bangkok

He is, truly, astonishingly large, and very very gold.
            I’ve included myself in this photo to give you a sense of scale,
                        but just to give you a firm idea, he’s 15 metres tall and 46 metres long.
            In other words, he wouldn’t fit in this building,
                        by some considerable margin.

If people construct their gods either in their own image,
            or in the image of whatever it is that they think of as powerful,
            the reclining Buddha ticks both boxes.
He’s a male human,
            and just about as ostentatiously powerful as it is possible to get.

At the other end of the size scale,
            but ramping up the wealth and value stakes even higher,
we also saw in Bangkok the small statue
            that is known as the Emerald Buddha.

He’s actually made of jade, and his origins are lost in the mists of history,
            but he is ancient, maybe as much as two thousand years old,
and so valuable that whole wars have been fought over who gets to own him.

And the temple where the emerald Buddha resides
            is protected by these Demon Guards

and their role is to protect the sanctity of the temple
            and ensure that no-one misbehaves.
They are huge, powerful, and quite terrifying,
            even if I did keep assuring myself that they were only statues.

Further Angels and Demons
            support the base of the various stupas in the Grand Palace

and whilst they are humanoid in form, they are actually monkeys
            and members of the divine monkey armies,
            who role is to fight out the eternal battle between good and evil.
The ones without shoes are the good ones,
            and the ones with shoes are the evil ones. Of course.

We also met divine beings
            in the form of humans fused with animals

Here is Liz going face to face with a Kinnara,
            a kind of half-human half-bird creature from Hindu mythology.
And whilst Kinnaras are generally benign,
            and apparently write poetry and songs,
we also met various gods of judgment:

Including this rather terrifying scene showing a hideous demon
            with human corpses coming out of his mouth and ears,
as another many-armed demon looks on hungrily
            with knives and forks in his hands.

But then, in addition to the many, many mythological creatures,
            there is the widespread practice of venerating saints and ancestors,

This interesting three-woman temple in Vietnam
            provides people with an opportunity to make offerings
                        of beer, water, and apples,
            which apparently the revered saintly ancestors
                        then get to drink and eat in the afterlife.

They also make offerings of $100 bills,
            which are burned in the little furnaces just outside the temple,
            so that the deceased saints will have money to spend in the afterlife.
Apparently they are fake notes,
            but once they have passed over into the hereafter
            they are good for spending.

The power here his clearly the power of money,
            and a desire to ensure that those in the afterlife are well provided for.

And then in Cambodia, we encountered monumental statues of the gods

These guys are angels, who are involved in a divine tug of war with the demons
            using the body of Naga the snake, to churn the ocean of milk
            and bring the universe into being..

And the haunting, giant spectral faces of Angkor Thom tower over the jungle,
            reminding anyone who sees them
that the gods of that place are huge, powerful, and ethereal.

So, to return to my thesis:
            we make our gods either in our own image,
            or in the image of what we perceive to be powerful.

And my question for us this morning is this:
            What does your God look like?
            What does God look like to you?

So hold this thought…
            or rather, sit with it for a few minutes and we’ll come back to it.

This sermon is the introduction to our series on what it means
            to be a truly inclusive church,
which we will be coming back to on the first Sunday of each month
            looking at how we as a congregation can be more inclusive of those
                        who are often excluded and marginalised
                        both in society, and in Christian communities.

Many of you will know that we are in the process of registering with the organisation known as Inclusive Church - the Deacons considered this at an away day towards the end of last year, and I know at least one of the home groups has been working through the material that the organisation provides for churches to reflect on their own journeys of inclusion.

Our website clearly states that we are:

“Aspiring to be an inclusive and accessible church in the centre of London,
            that holds and represents a wide variety of people, opinions, and backgrounds.”

And our order of service proclaims:
-         “We are an inclusive church in the heart of London”

Clearly the desire to include people who face exclusion elsewhere
            is a core part of our understanding of ourselves,
            and it is something that we say clearly and often.
We have a long history of acting in solidarity with the vulnerable,
            and taking sometimes controversial stands alongside the marginalised.
Our registration for same sex marriage
            is one recent practical out-working of this core value of inclusion.
But it certainly isn’t the only example,
            and the story of this church’s refusal to welcome slave-owning Baptists
                        to the Lord’s Table in Great Exhibition year of 1851
            is another important moment in our history.

However, inclusion is about more than sexuality or ethnicity,
            although it clearly includes these.

Inclusive Church challenges us to consider other areas of inclusion alongside these,
            to look at issues such as poverty, gender,
                        transgender, disability, and mental health
            as mechanisms of exclusion with society and church life.
And over the next few months we’re going to be considering
            ways in which we, as a congregation, can take practical steps
            to be more inclusive in a wide variety of areas.

To help us in this, we’re going to be hearing, wherever possible,
            from people who represent the marginalised communities we’re wanting to include.
So it’s not all going to be me speaking.
One of the golden rules of inclusion discourse
            is the mantra ‘nothing about us without us’,
meaning no decisions, however well meaning,
            should be taken without involvement of those affected by them.

And so it is important for us to ensure that our exploration of inclusion
            is not simply a top down discussion, by those of us already included,
            about the terms on which we will welcome people who are not quite like us.

Here I’d like to offer a word of warning,
            which is that this process of taking inclusion seriously,
            can be a difficult journey for those of us who are already included.

Earlier this year, I spent some time with a workbook
            called ‘Me and White Supremacy’, as recommended by Dawn.
If you’re interested, I recommend downloading it - it’s free and very good.

Now, we’re not looking in detail at issues of ethnic inclusion this week,
            we’ll come to that in a couple of months’ time,
but I thought I’d just share the opening phrase from the website
            as an example of how engaging inclusion as someone with power
            can be an uncomfortable exercise:

“White supremacy is a violent system of oppression
            that harms Black, Indigenous and People of Colour.
“And if you are a person who holds white privilege,
            then you are complicit in upholding that harm, whether you realise it or not.”

The realisation that as a white person, whether I like it or not,
            I am complicit in a violent system of oppression,
            is a very uncomfortable thing to hear.

But, and here’s the transferrable lesson
            that we need to take across all of our considerations of inclusion.
Where those of us with power are complicit in oppression, we are diminished.

As long as I am included at the expense of someone else’s exclusion,
            whether that is on the basis of my ethnicity, my gender,
                        my sexuality, my mental health, my wealth, or my ability,
and as long as I accept that privilege without taking action to address the situation,
            I am not only participating in violence against others,
            I am also diminishing my own self
                        before the God who makes all people in God’s own image.

And here we come back to God,
            and the question that I asked a few minutes ago:
What does your God look like?

Have you started to think through what your answer might be?
            I suspect that for many of us, God looks either a bit like us,
                        or a bit like what we think power looks like.

For me, my theologically correct answer is of course that God looks like Jesus,
            After all, Jesus says that if we have seen him, we have seen the Father.
So by this understanding God is male, able bodied,
                        he is articulate, a teacher and a preacher,
            he is someone who leads others, and challenges preconceptions…

But can you see what’s happening…?
            I’m constructing my God in my own image.
            I’m emphasising those attributes of Jesus
                        that match the things about me that represent power.

And of course, this is entirely the wrong way round,
            after all, we are made in God’s image, not he in ours….

When we make God in our image,
            we commit the sin of idolatry
because we end up worshipping either ourselves
            or the things that we most value and admire.

So, what does your God look like?
            Does God look a bit like you?

If you’re a woman, you may still see God as male,
            and a feminist critique would suggest that is a function of the patriarchy,
            normalising maleness as power, and inviting us to deify and worship it…

If you’re a person of colour, you may still see God as white,
            and a racial justice critique would suggest that this is a function of white supremacy,
            normalising whiteness as power, and inviting us to deify and worship it…

If you’re a person with a disability or impairment,
            you may still see God as able bodied and mentally healthy
and a disability rights critique would suggest that this is a function of ableism,
            normalising ability as power, and inviting us to deify and worship it…

If you’re a person living with economic disadvantage,
            you may still see God as wealthy, with his glittering golden churches
                        built by people with gilt complexes…
and a Marxist analysis would suggest
            that this is a function of religion as a mechanism of oppression,
normalising wealth as power, and inviting us to prostrate ourselves before it…

But here’s a thing: there is a way out of our idolatry!
            The crucified God invites us
                        to nail all our false images of God to the cross,
            to see them, and the privilege and power that sustains them, die,
                        and in their place is born a new humanity, of equality and justice.

Appropriately, as we approach Good Friday
            this can be for us a Lenten challenge,
            something to consider as we turn our faces to the cross.

Can we give up our deified images of power?
            can we learn to worship God as God is,
                        rather than as we have constructed God?

And yes, this will be painful,
            because it invites us to encounter God
            in places we would not expect to find God
It requires us to set aside our preconceptions, and our investment in what is,
            and to encounter God not in power but in weakness,
                        in prejudice, and in the ‘other’…

It means we have to ask the difficult questions,
            of what it might mean if God doesn’t look like me at all,
            what if God doesn’t look like power?
What if God looks like a refugee,
            or a person with no home and no money,
            or a person with a disability?
What if God is a person of colour?
            What if God is not male, or straight, or in good mental health?

And of course in Jesus, God is all these things.

Jesus was not a white European, he was a dark skinned Jew;
            he bears in his body the marks of the crucifixion,
                        his hands and feet maimed for all eternity,
            he was the homeless, penniless Refugee,
                        whose childhood was spent on the run
            and whose adult life was spent
                        as the one who had nowhere to lay his head.

He was unmarried and childless,
            defying the gender and sexual norms of his day
and known for associating with those
            whose own sexual history was at best ambiguous.

He experienced periods of great psychological trauma
            from the overwhelming pressure of people,
            to tears of grief at the death of a friend,
            to the devastating loneliness of Gethsemane.
His sweat in his mental anguish was like drops of blood,
            as his torment took its toll on his physical wellbeing.

He was tempted in every way just as we are

And Jesus tells his disciples
            that if they have seen him they have seen God.
So what would it be like for us,
            this Lent and, at the start of our journey this year into inclusion,
to give up on our idolatrous images of God,
            made either in our own images,
            or cast to deify strength and power
                        as we experience it in our lives, society, and world?

What would it mean for us collectively as the body of Christ
            to embody a more broken, excluded, and reviled image of God?

To put it another way, what would it mean for us to take seriously
            what our building tells us each time we meet for worship,
which is that we gather around the cross of Christ,
            as the people of Christ broken and humbled.

You see, the starting point for a journey into greater inclusion
            isn’t a greater understanding of the marginalised and the oppressed,
it is a greater understanding of ourselves
            and our own capacity for sinful idolatry.

It is not for us to tell others that our God is their God too.
            God is already the God of the person of colour,
                        and the person with the physical or mental impairment.
            God is already the God of the woman as well as the man,
                        as well as the person of non-binary gender.
            God is already the God of the LGBTQi community,
                        just as God is already the God of the homeless
                        and the God of the economically disadvantaged

The problem here is not God as revealed in Christ
            The problem is with me, and maybe with you too,
as we uncritically and unthinkingly deify our version normality,
            creating God in our images of power

The journey to inclusion starts when we realise
            that the image of the black Christ, the female Christ,
                        the gay or trans Christ,
                        the homeless or disabled Christ
are not idolatrous perversions
            but actually are authentic representations
            of the diversity of the body of Christ.

And so some images to close which may help us
            as we start this journey that lies before us.

This is ‘Christa’, a bronze statue by the world-renowned sculptor and artist Edwina Sandys,
            who is the grand-daughter of Winston Churchill

She first displayed the sculpture in London in 1975,
            and it was very controversial at the time.
Since then, it has been displayed around the world
            and now has a permanent home in the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York.

She says, of her sculpture:
I didn’t make Christa as a campaign for women’s rights or Women’s Lib as such
            but I have always believed in equality
            and I am glad that Christa is just as relevant today as it was in 1975.
I didn’t make Christa just for women. 
            Men also suffer and that is one of the meanings of Jesus on the Cross.
(Over the years I have received many letters from men,
            many of them priests of all denominations.)

In the past there were matriarchs in many societies and religions,
            and gender was not always a factor.
Today women are finding their way to take their place in the Christian church
            and in society in general.
Most women of my generation have been stamped
            with the idea of Man’s superiority over Woman
            which is hard to throw off without seeming aggressive. 
I hope that Christa continues to reveal the journey of suffering
            that we all have in common.[1]

The next image I have for us is one which I find deeply moving,
            having just been to Cambodia and seen first hand
            the evidence of the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime.

Liz and I walked through one of the Killing Fields sites,
            and saw the clothes and bones of those tens of thousands who are buried there,
            coming up from the ground we were treading on.
We saw the tree where children were dashed to death.
            We saw the torture centre in the former high school
                        where anyone who was suspected was forced to confess.
We saw adults with limbs missing from having trodden on landmines,
            trying to earn a living by playing musical instruments and begging for money.

And I wonder what it means for us to see Christ to be a Cambodian amputee,
            with a Southeast Asian face, nailed to a bamboo pole?

And here is another beautiful image,
            a reworking of Leonardo Da Vinci’s last supper,
            portrayed by models with Downs Syndrome.

What does it mean for us to see Jesus as someone with a genetic disability,
            rather than as a perfected specimen of humanity?
What does it mean for Jesus to embody weakness and vulnerability.

What does this say to us, as the body of Christ in this place,
            that in our embodiment of Christ
we are called to be the living expression of the God
            who made each person in God’s own image.

Another image for us now,
            this time, the image of the ‘Homeless Jesus’

If you look closely, you can see that the person asleep on the bench,
            bears the marks of the crucifixion on his body.

This is Jesus as someone who sleeps rough…
            and is a very long way from the Jesus
            who lives in the beautiful churches of our cities.

It was originally going to be displayed in Trafalgar Square,
            and then outside of Westminster Central Hall,
but both these were turned down…

Westminster City Council commented in 2016 that:

"the proposed sculpture would fail to maintain or improve
            the character or appearance of the...
            Parliament Square Conservation Area"[2]

So now, you can visit Homeless Jesus in Farm Street Jesuit Centre in Mayfair.

And here we have an installation from Pride, Sau Paulo, n 2015,
            by a transgender artist,
of Jesus as someone who embodies the agony experienced
            by those whose experience of their own gender doesn’t match their physical being.

The text above the crown of thorns reads, ‘End Homophobia’ in Portugese.

And finally, we have a white European Jesus,
            as depicted by the pre-Raphaelite artist Holman Hunt.

It is one of the most famous images of Jesus,
            and inspired great devotion through the Victorian era.

It is beautiful, and I love it,
            but we need to recognise that Jesus here is an embodiment of power and privilege.
And if this is our only Jesus,
            we run the risk of excluding those who are made differently in the image of God.

So, to return to my question,
            What does your God look like?

Does God look like you, or like what you think power looks like?
            Or can we learn to see God in all those
                        that have been made in the image of God,
            and can we learn to see each of us,
                        whoever we are, in our images of God?

In Christ, God includes all, absolutely,
            and as the people of Christ,
            we are called to be the body of Christ in all its diversity.


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