Sermon Text: Portraits
No one has ever done an oil-painted portrait of me. Or even a watercolor.
I’m no bishop. Lots of bishops get their portrait done in oils. In our diocese, it has been the custom to have an oil painted portrait of every bishop. The custom goes back to the 19th-century. I’ve seen some of them. Don’t know if our current bishop will have it done or not.
But it’s not just bishops. Have you ever heard of a “portrait parish?” I had not, either, until an older priest used that phrase.
A “portrait parish” is a big old church. Lots of history, lots of prestige, and usually lots of money. Or at least a lot of money a long time ago. And a “portrait parish” is the kind of place that has big framed photos of all the priests who served as rectors, going back to ancient times.....or at least the late 1800’s. Those priests in those portraits are really important guys. And, by the way, they were always guys.
Me, I’m not an oil-painting portrait guy. I’m not the rector of a “portrait parish,” either (although I think we do have some snapshots of most of the priests who have served here). However, I’m fond of the various drawings of me done by the children of St. Mark’s. And I now even come in the form of a finger puppet! Thank you, Liam Van Kleeck!
Style points count. My style is not formal portraits. I’m a finger puppet kind of guy.
Style points count. And that goes for how people imagine God. Let’s compare how John the Baptist imagined God and compare that portrait with the image Jesus teaches.
John the Baptist did not mess around. He lived on a starvation diet and wore clothes no one else would. And when he preached, it was fire and brimstone every time. Today we heard him refer to his listeners as a brood of vipers. Now, when I was in seminary preaching classes, they never suggested this as a sermonic technique. I can’t remember ever calling you a snake pit.
The Baptist preached that if you failed to shape up, God would give you the axe in a big way. His image of God was a God who has lost his temper. His God was a God of wrath.
Now, this kind of fit with the God I was taught about as a kid. My childhood understanding of the Gospel was this: God has a whole lotta laws and rules, and we break them all the time. I mean, if you skip church on purpose on a Sunday, you could go to hell just for that. If you break God’s rules, then after you die, God will torture you in flames for ever and ever and ever. Why? Because he loves everyone so much!
This is what I was taught. Does this seem harsh to anyone else besides me?
So I tried not to think about it too much. Why? Because it scared the poop out of me!
As I got a little older, I started reading the Gospels for myself. And I saw that Jesus has a different style. Jesus tells stories about a God who is the host of a marvelous party. Jesus tells stories about God being like a father who cannot bear to kick his children out even when they spit in his eye. Jesus talks about how it is never too late for a fresh start. Jesus pictures a God who is in love with people.
Style points count. John the Baptist pictured a God with one style. Jesus pictured a God with a very different style. And I decided as a teenager that I would go with Jesus on this one.
I think that even ol’ St. Paul sometimes got it, too. In the section of his big letter to the Romans we just heard, he wrote, “Welcome one another, just as Christ has welcomed you.” In other words, God shows compassion to you, so you should follow the family tradition and show compassion to others.
Your image of God makes a pretty big difference. If your God is angry and wrathful and ready to destroy the wicked (as you define them), you are likely to be angry, too. Your religion might make you kind of mean.
If your God is compassionate and loving, you are more likely to be compassionate and loving — or at least you will want to be that.
Long before John the Baptist and Jesus, the prophet Isaiah dreamed of a future hero. He was not clear on who this would be, but once Jesus lived and taught and loved, Christians ever since have read the words of Isaiah as a description of Jesus. The spirit of the Lord will rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding. In his time, the wolf will lie down with the lamb, the lion will be together with the calf, and a little child will lead them.
Snakes — like the ones John used to insult his listeners — will no longer hurt anyone. Isaiah’s God says, “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.”
So what’s your God like?
The angry, terrible, wrathful God of John the Baptist?
Or the God described by Isaiah and Jesus?
Style points count.
I’ll go with Jesus on this one.
I may be only a finger puppet kind of guy,
but the portrait of God painted by Jesus is beautiful to me!