A Call to Confession for the Sin of Idolatry
Rev. Andrea Roske-Metcalfe, Associate Pastor at Grace Lutheran Church of Apple Valley, MN
Long afterward, Oedipus, old and blinded, walked the roads. He smelled a familiar smell. It was the Sphinx. Oedipus said, “I want to ask one question. Why didn’t I recognize my mother?”
“You gave the wrong answer,” said the Sphinx.
“But that was what made everything possible,” said Oedipus.
“No,” she said. “When I asked, What walks on four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three in the evening, you answered, Man. You didn’t say anything about woman.”
“When you say Man,” said Oedipus, “you include women too. Everyone knows that.”
She said, “That’s what you think.”[i]
We always begin with confession. During worship in the church where I’m a pastor, we first welcome the people, point out that everyone is invited to the table for communion; maybe mention the reason behind the flowers on the altar. It’s light, sometimes we crack a joke…we’re just gathering, you know? But we’re also not messing around. We begin worship, just after that, by confessing our sins. We do this, not because we are defined by our sins or because our tradition lays the guilt on thick, but rather because it centers us. It reminds us, corporately, of the work we have left to do in bringing about the kin-dom of God, and of the work we will never be able to do on our own, which leaves God an awful lot to work with. Confessing our sins, and then hearing words of forgiveness and absolution, centers us for worship, which is where we rehearse the kin-dom of God.
We always begin with confession. Dear friends, today is no different. Today, we confess the sin of idolatry, in particular the ways in which we deify maleness and masculinity.
It is not a good day to be a woman, or a girl, for that matter. I’m not sure it ever has been, but just in case you thought things were looking up, allow me to be the one to burst your bubble. Just in case you figured, you know, now that we have the right to vote and all, everything is fine, allow me to be the one to pull your head out of the sand…or wherever else you may have put it.
Just in case you figured everything was fine, let me point out that men are now free to rape women behind dumpsters, and then when they are convicted of multiple federal crimes by a jury of their peers, their sentences will be reduced to a joke. It helps, in this case, if the rapist is white and attending a prestigious university, because then the press will use his senior portrait in almost all the news coverage, rather than his mug shot. It also helps, apparently, if the rapist is an excellent swimmer, because then the judge responsible for the sentencing can point to all the potential – all the swimming potential – that will be lost if this young rapist is forced to serve the amount of time dictated by the law.
And just in case you figured everything was fine, a recent ruling in Oklahoma now means that men can force women to have oral sex without being charged with rape or forcible sodomy, just so long as long as the woman is unconscious.
Yes, dear friends, you read that right. If a young man happens upon a young woman at a party, in her bedroom, or in the library, for crying out loud, and she’s had too much to drink, or – God forbid – she’s been drugged, she’s in a diabetic coma, or she’s simply SLEEPING, he is within the limits of the law to just whip it out and stick his dick in her mouth.
I don’t know about you, but I’m thinkin’ the right to vote didn’t quite cut it.
Today, we confess the sin of idolatry, in particular the ways in which we deify maleness and masculinity.
In 1973, in her book Beyond God the Father, Mary Daly wrote, “If God is male, then the male is God.” To say she caught a bit of flack for it would be an understatement, but it’s no less a controversial statement today than it was 43 years ago. In most mainline Protestant churches, and in practically all evangelical and Roman Catholic churches, the language we use for God is exclusively male.
People will say it doesn’t. They say it all the time. Both women and men will say things like, “We use that language, but we all know that God isn’t actually male!”
But do we? And if that’s true, then why is there so much pushback whenever anyone refers to God as She? (After all, we use that language, but we all know that God isn’t actually female.)
Language matters. The words we use matter. And in a world where roles and expectations are still so divided along the gender binary, the words we use to indicate gender matter more than ever.
When we understand God as male, consciously or subconsciously, we deify maleness, and we deify masculinity. When men and boys worship on Sunday morning hearing words used for God that are also used to refer to them, they grow up understanding in a visceral way that they are created in the image of God. When women and girls worship on Sunday morning hearing words used for God that are also used to refer to their fathers and brothers and sons, they grow up understanding that men and boys are created in the image of God.
When women and girls worship on Sunday morning never hearing words used for God that are also used to refer to them, they do not grow up understanding, in the same visceral way, that they are created in the image of God. This, in and of itself, is violence on the part of the church. More dangerously, when men and boys worship on Sunday morning never hearing words used for God that are also used to refer to their mothers and sisters and daughters, they do not grow up understanding that women and girls are created in the image of God in the same way that they are.
Language matters. And we have been idolatrous in our use of it when we talk about God.
In many cases, we don’t even need to bring God into this to make the same point: How many people still believe that “mankind” encapsulates all of humanity? And how many of those same people would be horrified if we started referring to all of humanity as “womankind?”
That secular kind of gender erasure has done irreparable harm to our collective psyche, to both men and women alike. But take that to the level of the divine, and now we have a different kind of problem.
Now we have real sin. Now we must begin with confession.
If we truly understand that women and girls are created in the image of God, then we must talk about God like we mean it. In the most recent hymnal of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, published in 2006, there are two options listed for most parts of the worship liturgy. In some cases, both options use gender-neutral language for God. In most cases, one option uses male pronouns, and the other uses gender-neutral language. But nowhere in the entire book are female pronouns ever provided in reference to God. Furthermore, for both the Creeds and the Lord’s Prayer, no alternative option is given; for what many of us understand to be the “holiest” pieces of the liturgy, we are expected to name God as male.
This is not merely an academic argument. The deification of maleness and masculinity has consequences more far-reaching that we can even imagine. We desecrate the very image of God when we limit its expansiveness in this way, and God is weeping as a result.
Nothing less than the absolute deification of maleness and masculinity would allow us to tolerate a candidate for president ridiculing a female political commentator for doing her job by making a joke about menstrual bleeding. If a female presidential candidate had made a joke about a male political commentator’s nocturnal emissions, would her candidacy not be over the very next day?
Nothing less than the absolute deification of maleness and masculinity would result in the Equal Rights Amendment having yet to be signed into law, even though the constitutional amendment to ensure equal rights for women was first introduced to the U.S. Congress in 1923.
Nothing less than the absolute deification of maleness and masculinity would leave our country as one of only seven in the entire world to have yet to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Violence Against Women, leaving the U.S. in the company of the likes of Iran, Somalia, and Sudan when it comes to upholding the rights of women.
Nothing less than the absolute deification of maleness and masculinity would provide us with a male chairperson of the 60th United Nations Commission on the Status of Women who, when asked about that startling paradox, states that “lots of men and boys can relate better to male leaders.”
Nothing less than the absolute deification of maleness and masculinity would give us stories like the 19 Yazidi women burned alive in metal cages, executed horrifically as hundreds of people looked on, simply because they refused to have sex with ISIS fighters. Or the gunman in Santa Barbara who opened fire at a sorority house, killing six people and wounding 13, as a punishment to women for not being attracted to him. Or story after story after story after story followed with the hashtag #YesAllWomen. These stories only exist because so many men are under the impression that they have the right to use women’s bodies for their own pleasure, in any way they see fit.
Because they understand, in a visceral way, that they are created in the image of God. They do not understand, in the same visceral way, that women and girls are, too. And we in the church are complicit in that, when we contribute to the deification of maleness and masculinity, by the language we use to name God.
When I lead worship, we always begin with confession, and it is always followed by a declaration of forgiveness and absolution. But there is no absolution for us now.
Forgiveness requires repentance, you see, and we have not even begun to recognize the depth of our sin or the devastation of its consequences.
And God is weeping.