At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”- Luke 13:31-35
There’s been a lot of talk in the news and in scientific circles the last week or so about the news that recently, a full hundred years after Albert Einstein mathematically predicted their existence, scientists have been able to detect the existence of gravitational waves in the universe. According to astronomers, this is huge, it may be the most important astronomical discovery of the century, and could possibly rewrite the way we understand the universe. After reading a number of news stories about the event, each one incrementally dumbing down the details until it was simple enough for me to get even a basic understanding of it all, it seems that gravitational waves are wrinkles, or ripples, in the fabric of space and time, that are produced when objects of immense mass move through space at very fast speed; comparable to a boat on the lake produces waves that move outward as it’s pushing through the water. In this particular discovery, the scientists discovered an infinitesimally small ripple, which they say was produced when two massive black holes – each one having 30 times the mass of our sun – got caught in each other’s gravitational pull and began orbiting one another, gradually drawing closer and closer together and moving faster and faster as they did, sort of like a galactic version of an Olympic figure skater picking up rotational speed in a spin as they draw their body mass inward.
I’ve gotten to the point where I understand the basic concept, but I still haven’t been able to learn what the actual applicable significance to the discovery is. I mean, if this phenomenon created a distortion, a ripple in space and time that does something meaningful for me, like, if I could catch one of the waves just right, like a surfer, and suddenly, someplace that’s a four-hour drive is now just five miles away, and I could actually arrive there two hours before I’d even set out, now *that* would be a big discovery.
Well, any kidding aside, I think this discovery is fascinating, and it can lead to some really interesting theological conversations – but it has caused people in some Christian circles to be troubled. Their anxiety stems from the idea that science has just increased its ability to understand and explain the universe in ways that don’t require a supernatural presence to make it all work. This can be a threat to those whose belief in the existence of God relies on what’s become known as a “God of the Gaps” – that is, that proof of God’s existence is that there are some things that we can’t understand; great, unsolvable mysteries that can never be explained other than to say that that’s where we see the indisputable hand of God. The problem with relying on this kind of thinking for a belief in God, though, should be pretty obvious. Every year, we learn more and more about the nature of the universe, from the smallest to the largest scales and everywhere in between. Belief in a God of the Gaps, then, means that every day the God you believe in becomes smaller and smaller, and weaker and weaker, until you reach the point where it wouldn’t seem make any sense to believe in God, or at least to consider who or what you do believe in to be any kind of “God” at all. The idea of limiting the nature and definition of God has been a real problem in our faith, and especially for people outside the faith.
Another way we’ve engaged in this kind of limitation of God comes into play in today’s gospel text. As I pointed out in this week’s Westminstergram, Jesus exhibits a bit of cynicism, sarcasm, even snark in his comments regarding Herod, and the fate he’s about to meet at the hands of the people in Jerusalem. And yet, in the middle of his dark mood about what’s about to happen to him, Jesus still reaches out and talks about the people of Jerusalem, these same people who in just a short while are going to reject him, and he does so in the most tender and loving way. He talks about his desire to gather them to himself, and his desire to guard and protect them, using the imagery of a hen sheltering her chicks under her wings. This is one of a number of scriptural passages that describe God in terms of female imagery. We all know that during most of the history of the Christian faith, and the Jewish tradition before that, God has traditionally been imagined and discussed in male terms. We also know that for the last several decades, many in the church, including our denomination, have tried to adopt a more inclusive way of imagining and talking about God – referring to God in ways that aren’t tied to gender, or at least not exclusively to one gender. In fact, the very first hymn we sang this morning, “Come and Seek the Ways of Wisdom,” draws on some of the female imagery of God found in scripture, particularly in the Book of Proverbs, where God is portrayed as the female Sophia, or eternal Wisdom. And we’ve made a lot of progress in the church; we’ve adjusted liturgies and readings to get rid of a lot of exclusively male references to God. And this is important, because when we see God as only male, no matter how hard we might try not to, we impose a lot of assumptions about what God is like, based on our social, cultural presuppositions about what it means to be male, or a father, and whether those assumptions are right or wrong, they end up giving us a distorted image of God. It’s just another way of limiting God, just like the God of the Gaps.
It’s true, sometimes, our attempts at inclusive language can get a little difficult. We can end up twisting our tongues like pretzels trying to avoid referring to God as “he,” “him,” or “his,” but most of the time we can find good wording to achieve it. We’ve made progress. But there’s still a lot of work in order to break the habit of thinking of God as male. As evidence of that, think how you’d feel, how it would jar your ears if I started always referring to God as “she.” And yet, that would be no more inaccurate than if I did constantly called God “he.”
So I guess I’d invite you to think about two takeaways from this passage from Luke. First, as we can see from the whole text, Jesus’ compassionate words in the midst of his own obvious hurt and anger regarding his situation show us that even when we’re at our worst, even when our thoughts and actions grieve and even anger God, God still reaches out to us and offers us love and protection, in a way and to a degree that defies any sense of human logic. Second, for Jesus to point out that God can’t possibly be imagined as exclusively male or female speaks powerfully to God’s equal accessibility, and equal love, and equal call, to all people. Getting rid of our older, limited way of imagining God, and moving toward the more inclusive, comprehensive God that Jesus illustrates here, means that no matter who you are – whether you’re male, or female, or frankly, someone who doesn’t feel they fit completely in either of those two black and white categories – you can have assurance and trust, knowing that you are in no way “less than” in God’s eyes. His image is big enough to encompass you. Her love is broad enough to embrace you. Their wings are wide enough to protect you and strengthen you and keep you, now and forever, across all space and time. And the implications of that are just astronomical.
Thanks be to God.