Scripture: Galatians 4:4-7
Since the Orlando shootings, there has been a steady stream of commentary from politicians, the mainstream media, and social media about the most important thing that needs to be addressed in the wake of such violence. Some people say it's gun control. Some people say it's LGBTQ liberation. Some people say it’s race. Some say it's mental health. Some people say it's standing in solidarity with our Muslim sisters and brothers. And I think those are all critically important conversations for us to have.
But I want to talk today about yet another important conversation. I believe it is something that perhaps undergirds the way we approach all of these issues: and that is how we see God. Because I think that our understanding of God and our relationship to God determines whether we walk through the world as an oppressor or a seeker of justice, as a peacemaker or a terrorist. Or probably for all of us - somewhere in between those two extremes.
And on this Father's Day, I want to suggest something that might be a bit radical and contrary-seeming for a self-avowed practicing feminist like myself. I want to suggest that our world might be safer, more peaceful, more graceful, and above all more loving if we revisit and take seriously this idea of God as Father. But I also want to invite us to disentangle it from God as monarch or king.
Theologian John Cobb (who you have heard me quote before) argues in his new book that Jesus’ most revolutionary theology was this privileging of the image of God as Father. Much more specifically, this Father God is the one Jesus called Abba. In both the gospels and in the letters of Paul, this Aramaic word Abba is left untranslated into Greek. Cobb and others argue that it is less like our modern day “Father” and more akin to Daddy or Papa.
And you hear this Abba language in our scripture from Paul today. Cobb argues that in this excerpt, Paul is describing the very moment that Christian believers receive the liberation of knowing that God is not a judgmental lawgiver but a loving Father, and at that very moment, Christ speaks the word Abba into their hearts. In other words, to know God and to be liberated by God was to have God’s identity as Abba revealed in them.
Cobb writes: “This was the revolutionary insight of Jesus: seeing God as Abba and understanding Abba’s love as intimate and tender. Jesus’ Abba is the God of the prophets, qualified as love.” And Cobb claims that this move by Jesus was perhaps as groundbreaking in his Jewish tradition as Mother God language is for us today. In both contemporary Mother God language and Jesus’ ancient cry of Abba, the kingly patriarch God makes way for the nurturing and compassionate Papa God.
I do want to say something about this kingly, patriarchal, Father God though. I am not sure about you, but this all-controlling, judging God is the one who dominated my imagination most of my childhood. This image dominates for many people today.
And I think it makes sense that we might be attracted to this God. This “Almighty” God reflects a deep longing in us. We want this God because we want God to be all-powerful. We want God to spare us from the inevitable suffering of life. We want God to agree with us and force others to agree with us as well. And so, many times, we imagine this kingly Father God as a coercing God, an intimidating God. And maybe this is an image that we as a culture unfairly project onto human fathers – this judging, controlling God to whom we submit because we hope he can save us from the pain of being human.
But anyone who has been a parent or had parents knows. We know that children can be taught but not forced to agree with a parent's own viewpoint. We know that children can be kept safe through control for a while but eventually grow up and go out into an unpredictable world. A loving father's, a loving parent's power is the persuasive power of love, not the coercive power of dominion. Jesus' Abba God is the same God who is named as Love himself in First John. And this Almighty Love is not based in fear of violence or rejection or punishment. Our Abba God's power is not coercive. It is compassionate and transformative.
Feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson writes about “love as the shape in which divine power appears.” Love is the shape in which divine power appears.
Now, I know we all have different and possibly complicated relationships with our fathers, our daddies, our dads, our papas, our fathering figures. My dad and I had what I would guess is not unusual. We had a bit of a volatile relationship at points in our lives. He and I are very much alike in temperament and very different in political orientation (though things have certainly evolved over the years). And while we clashed regularly throughout my young adulthood, I always looked to him to be a source of strength and protection when I felt afraid, and I often felt like I didn’t live up to his expectations. I would venture to say that my image of God the Almighty and All-Powerful Father and my image of my dad were actually pretty similar.
In 2008, my dad had an open-heart surgery that went badly. It was supposed to last 4 hours and ended up being 13 because of complications. This resulted in him being on a heart/lung bypass machine way longer than is optimal and being under anesthesia longer than the medical team would have liked. Even after he was off sedatives, he was essentially unconscious for a day-and-a-half. We really weren’t sure about his brain function at that point, though his body seemed okay.
So we were so relieved when he started to regain consciousness, but then there was another obstacle to overcome. He had been intubated (so there was a tube down his throat), and he was on a respirator. He was still sort of out-of-it from the long time he had been sedated, but he was awake enough to be super agitated about this respirator situation. And he needed to get his breathing and heart rate regulated before they would remove him from the respirator. This was a problem. Because he was so agitated by the breathing tube, every time they would test to see if his breathing and heart rate was regular enough to remove it, he would fail the test. And he would have to stay on the respirator and get even more agitated.
It was terrible to see and I’m sure even more terrible to experience. Soon, the respiratory therapist enlisted the help of my mom and me to calm my dad down during each breathing test. And I was overwhelmed by this request. I felt like a helpless little girl. Here in this hospital bed was my dad who I had always counted on to protect me, even when we didn’t get along. And he was suffering. And I didn’t know what to do.
And then, as we prepared for the next breathing test, this realization came over me. I could help.
I could help because I had so much practice, having spent so many nights with my own inconsolable baby daughter who would cry because of fear or frustration or illness. And for that one moment, I was transformed from a helpless daughter to compassionate Mother because my dad’s, my Abba’s own vulnerability called forth this power in the shape of love that I inherited from Him. God’s own power gave me the courage and calm to hold my dad’s hand and stroke his forehead and whisper over and over that it was okay, and everything was going to be okay. He passed that breathing test. And my dad was so grateful to the respiratory therapist who took out the breathing tube that he promised to take him fishing one day. And he did.
But that day, in that hospital room, I experienced our Abba God’s love. The love that never forces or coerces or wields a weapon. That vulnerable and powerful love, calling out to us and emerging from us, like the synchronized breathing of a newborn baby on her daddy's bare chest.
May we know such love and amplify it into the world.
May it be so.
 John Cobb. Jesus’ Abba: The God Who Has Not Failed (Kindle Ed.). Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015. Location 412.
 Elizabeth A. Johnson. She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse. New York: Crossroad, 1992. p. 269.