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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Attributes of God, speech by Rev. Helen Richmond

"The Attributes of God: How we experience God" 26 April 2007
How do we experience God? Each person’s story in its own way is unique and wonderful. Thank you for inviting me tonight to share a little of my own experience and also to reflect on this in the context of the attributes of God.

My spirit was nurtured in a number of ways from childhood. Growing up in beautiful bush land – I had an affinity with all creepy crawlies, lizards specially and frogs, caterpillars, and cicadas! In this way I was responding to the beauty and wonder of God’s creation. Today still I find that going walking in the bush renews my spirit and my favourite sound is the sound of the wind in gum trees.

I grew up as the 4th girl in my family. Perhaps you don’t expect too much by the time you get to the 4th. But I never doubted I was very much loved. My mother has been a model of faith for me. She was a great woman of prayer. My mother died just over a year ago after living with dementia for a number of years. Much of her memory was stripped from her but she never lost her love for others and her deep love for God. She was not able to put many sentences together by the end but in the last weeks of her life she was still able to say the Lord’s Prayer word for word and sing with great gusto her favorite Methodist hymns that had meant so much to her. Her faith has inspired me.

I grew up in the church and always felt welcomed as part of a loving family. I think that catching faith is a bit like catching the cold- we are affected and infected by the environment we are in!

I have a memorable experience as an almost teenager. I heard, really heard and responded with joy to the good news of God’s love that included me. I was drawn into God’s heart of love and compassion which I saw most clearly in Jesus. This experience set my feet on a spiritual path, following Jesus. A sense of closeness to God has been with me ever since and a sense of finding in Christ, my Companion who has sustained me all my life. I began to read the Scriptures with eagerness and found myself inhabiting the stories. The Bible remains for me Bread that feeds me and it is able to plum the depths of our human experience revealing in a myriad of ways how God is with us.

I have had a number of significant spiritual experiences in my life – one occurred when I was a young adult in Indonesia. I was on my own travelling on the bus in South Sulawesi. As I looked out the bus at men and women and children I had an overwhelming sense of experiencing God’s love for each person. I was connected to everyone else and somehow God was present within each one. On that bus I had a taste of knowing this with every fibre of my being and I felt a sense of call to love God’s creation and share God’s love for this world and all people, findomg ways to build bridges with others.

Believe it or not I was a very shy person, growing up, so shy I found it hard even to stand on stage in the school choir. Somehow though, through my experience of encountering God, I found courage to do things which otherwise would not have been possible.

Of the many attributes of God that we could talk about – one that means a great deal to me is God’s hospitality, God’s welcome.
One story from the Gospels that reflects God’s hospitality familiar to most of us is the parable Jesus told about the Prodigal Son another title could be “A Father and His Boys” because essentially the parable is about two sons who were both lost – one in a far country and the other one right at home. But most of all it about a father’s compassion and forgiveness.
A man has two sons, the younger demands his share of his father’s property. His father gave it to him and he went and lived a wild life and spent all his money. The land suffered a famine and with no money left, the younger son faces hardship. He finds a job looking after pigs for a local farmer- we can not imagine a worst plight for a good Jewish boy. Finally he comes to his senses and realised that his father’s servants were better off than he was. He plans to return home, admit all that he has done wrong and ask his father to take him on as a servant. After a long journey, he approaches the house, only to find that his father has been waiting for him. When he sees him he ran down the road to meet him. A feast was prepared so that everyone could share in the father’s joy. He gave his son a robe, a ring and sandals. But his other son who had been working on the farm hears the news and hears all the singing and celebration. He does not want to go inside.
Jesus told this story at a time when he was being criticised for associating with the wrong kind of people- ‘This man welcomes ‘sinners’ and eats with them’. Some people were genuinely troubled by Jesus actions and were murmuring against him. Jesus then tells this parable- a story about what God is like and in the process he invited people to rethink their attitudes towards others and be caught up in the grace, forgiveness and generosity of God whose love reaches out to include all of us.
So one of the key attributes of God in the Christian tradition is the welcoming God, the God who runs to meet us. I love this rather undignified image of God. This God searches for us until we are found, like the woman who has lost a coin and sweeps the house until she finds it. The God we meet in Jesus is a God who takes on our humanity to redeem it; who makes crossing journeys, entering our human life to show the divinity that is in all of us. This God invites us to eat at his table though we do not deserve to be there.
In the story the elder brother, when his brother returns? He is unable to enter into the joyous occasion. He hangs back and is full of bitterness and anger. He judges his brother’s actions as reprehensible and he finds his fathers’ actions, incomprehensible. “I’ve been working for you for years and I have obeyed everything you have said and you never ever threw a party for me.” He would have preferred his father to have been judging and punishing ..not this.
We are left not knowing the outcome of the story. We don’t know if the two brothers be reconciled but the parable leaves us in no doubt that God’s compassionate love is boundless. Who are we to deny God’s grace and forgiveness to others.
Jesus made God’s hospitality the hallmark of His inclusive community. He converses with outcastes, a Samaritan woman, a Roman centurian. He risks making himself unclean when he touches the sick and associates with sinners.

Later Paul writing to the church in Roman would say “Welcome one another therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” Romans 15: 7
And one of the NT words for hospitality is the Greek term philoxenia. It combines the word for ‘phileo’(kinship love) and ‘xenos’(stranger). Sadly we are probably more familiar with the term “xenophobia” –fear of strangers than philoxenia. The biblical meaning of hospitality means much more than inviting our relatives and friends over for a meal! It is about extending ourselves to make space in our hearts for the stranger. And it this is only possible when we have first experienced the generous hospitality of God.

At God’s table, we are all invited guests, so we are to make room for others in our lives, becoming communities that actively extend the hospitality of God to one another. One New Testament image for the Kingdom of God is people from all nations sitting together at a banquet feast. (Luke 13: 9) ‘People will come from north, south, east and west and feast together in the kingdom.’ The vision of heaven is of the gathering of people from every tribe, people and language. (Rev 7: 9)

In my understanding God’s Holy Spirit is present wherever we see signs of hospitality- philoxenia, love of the stranger. In some cultures hospitality, in the biblical sense, is highly valued, something that Western culture has been in danger of losing. I know I learnt a great deal from one another. I know it was during my time in Indonesia that was I experienced hospitality, and it was often in the homes of Muslim friends.

Later next month Christians around the world celebrate Pentecost. The third great feast day in the Christian calendar alongside Christmas and Easter. In different ways each of these three festivals invite us to welcome the ‘Divine Stranger’ who comes into our lives in ways we least expect, disturbing us, turning our life upside down, challenging us and bringing a blessing.

God comes as a divine stranger waiting for us to invite him into our lives, asking us to discover in the face of each other, a family resemblance not based on colour, language, ethnicity or race.

Pentecost is the celebration of the gift of the Holy Spirit. On the first Pentecost a miracle happened -everyone present was able to hear the Apostle’s message each in their own language.

The God who sends the Holy Spirit is a God who affirms and celebrates our different languages and cultural identities.

It was because of the gift of the Holy Spirit that the early church was able to transform itself into a community that could embrace cultural and ethnic diversity and say- with God there is no in so doing was witnessing to the reconciling power of the Gospel. It was a great challenge for the early Christians to live together Jewish and Gentile Christians. This meant rethinking many things including some aspects of their Jewish traditions such as their purity code. Some things they laid aside.

Jesus also challenged aspects of his Jewish tradition. This shows me that whilst it is important to cherish our sacred traditions- there may be times when God leads us in some new directions, so that God’s love and compassion can more truly be experienced by others and for that reason we need to be constantly open to the Spirit who is the wind of God blowing us in the new direction we need to take. I believe our commitment to interfaith dialogue is one such direction that the Spirit is blowing us.

It is not clear why God made the world which such diversity. Maybe there is a purpose of God still not fully clear to us, for making different human communities to stretch our compassion, so we learn ways of relating to one another based on mutuality, trust and respect, so we can always be open to receive the Divine Stranger who comes in ways we don’t always expect.

When we welcome into our hearts the stranger, in a mysterious way, we truly welcome God. So the attribute of God most important to me when we come to interfaith dialogue is a sense of recognizing that God is bigger than we can fully understand or imagine, God’s love can not be limited, and whilst there is much we might see differently, God’s Spirit is the one who is the ‘Go Between’- who links hearts towards a common vision, a common purpose, a common song, to love God with our whole being and to love one another.

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