April 9th – Steve Jungkeit
Texts: Psalm 22: 1-11; Mark 10: 32-45
April 9, 2017
Your God is Too Big, Part III: The God of Small Things
Here’s the scene to get us started: the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, a massive stone monument constructed in 1936 when Nazi Germany hosted the Olympic Games. It was there that Adolf Hitler wished to demonstrate the superiority of white Aryan athletes. And it was there that Jesse Owens, the black American athlete, humiliated the Nazis by taking gold in a number of important races, an upset that the Germans, to their credit, honor to this day by naming a prominent street outside the stadium after Jesse Owens. It’s an imposing structure, and Rachael and I happened to be there on a chilly summer afternoon in the middle of the 00’s. We were there to watch a soccer match between Berlin’s city team and another team that I no longer remember. I’m not an avid sports fan, but I can sure enjoy a game whenever I attend one, or pause long enough to watch one. And it was no different that day. I appreciate seeing any form of prowess or skill on display, whether in the arts, or craftsmanship, or in this case, sports. But what I’ll remember most vividly was being a part of the hometown crowd that day. There was a DJ at the bottom of the stands, and he led a series of chants and songs that everyone knew. And they were fiercely, wildly enthusiastic about it, to a person. With a sort of chest thumping, testosterone fueled fervor, they chanted, in so many words: “We’re #1. We’re #1.” There was a thrilling electricity about it all, and we loved being there. It was all a part of the public ritual and spectacle of European soccer matches, and no one was especially fazed by it. Even so, we did notice dozens of police on the way out, decked out in full riot gear, just in case the fervor spilled over into something more serious.
That scene has stayed with me because it demonstrates an impulse at work across space and time, one at work within many individuals, including, at times, me. It’s seductive to identify with the winning team, the winning organization, the winning group. Some, though probably not all of us, love it when the Patriots win the Super Bowl. I know well that each and every one of us loves it when the Red Sox defeat the Yankees. So OK, we’ve learned to be gracious in defeat, the way the UConn Women’s Basketball team was gracious after their winning streak was broken last week, but gracious or not, it’s rather painful to lose. Especially if you don’t have a 111 game winning streak behind you. I’m not an avid sports fan. But in the right frame of mind, even I have a beer swilling, ballcap wearing college bro somewhere within me that wants to be #1, to be a part of the winner’s club. It’s not the dominant part of me, I don’t think, but it’s present enough that I can at least identify it as a part of my internal world. Maybe it’s a part of your world as well.
Of course, that impulse is displayed in so much more than sports. It’s the same impulse behind college rankings, restaurant rankings, car rankings and brand competition. It’s the same impulse behind nationalist rhetoric about America being #1, or making America First. Even our church is the “First” Congregational Church of Old Lyme, just in case someone ever mixed it up with the “Second,” “Third,” and “Fourth” Congregational Churches here in town. It’s fair to say that there’s something within us, or at least within many of us, that wants to be first, and that wants to identify with that which is greatest.
But it also extends to our imagination of God. God is great, we learn as children, and we soon heap on other superlatives to the list. Not only is God great, God is the greatest, all wise, all knowing, all powerful, all perfect, all everything. When I was a teenager, I learned a song about God that sums up that imagination. The words were:
“Our God is an awesome God,
he reigns from heaven above,
with wisdom, power, and love,
our God is an awesome God.”
The song was effective, I suspect, because many of us who sang it felt quite small. And so it felt good to sing about a big omnipotent being. Doing so allowed us to participate in that bigness for just a little bit, because if this was “our God” it meant that we somehow got to participate in all that awesome power too. Like an amulet or talisman, the dream was that some of that life, some of that vitality, some of that power, would rub off on us.
Over the past several weeks I’ve been chasing the strange and counterintuitive notion that perhaps God isn’t great at all. I’ve been suggesting that perhaps the awesome God, the Almighty God, a figure a friend of mine named Doug Frank calls the Big Powerful Sky Father, is a kind of imposter, one that fastens us within a moral straight jacket. The Sky Father is a figure who sees you even if you don’t see him, a figure who claims to love you even as he has very specific instructions for you to follow if you are to be worthy of that love. Within that imagination, Jesus becomes a mechanism or tool for righting the relationship between God and humanity. I shared that at some point in my twenties, I realized I didn’t love God at all, or at least that God. And I realized that Jesus had been rendered less than human in almost every theology I encountered. He was a go between, a moral engineer, but not a person of flesh and blood. Still, something about Jesus keeps drawing me, and I hope you too. I want to help us all to fall in love with Jesus once again.
Throughout the Gospel of Mark in particular, Jesus depicts a God wholly at odds with popular understandings of the Sky Father. In fact, Jesus seems drawn to small things. Faith is like a mustard seed, he says, the tiniest of seeds. He praises a widow for the two small coins she drops in an offering plate, rather than the large sums that others part with. He shuns divine titles, preferring the title “Son of Man,” which can accurately be translated as “The Human One.” He praises humility, and he extols the virtues not of being first, but of being last. He frequently calls attention to children, saying that God is something like a little child.
It’s a stunning assertion, really. I think of my own children, especially in their earliest years. They didn’t have control of anything. The movements of their limbs, the movements of their bowels, the ability to use language, let alone any other source of mastery or control – these were all beyond my kids, and yours too. They were helpless. They cried at night when they needed something. They got scared. When we walked into another room, they sometimes became afraid we weren’t coming back. And yet they’re curious. They’re remarkably trusting and open. They’re free with their emotions, often to my own consternation. In other words, they’re about as far as one can get from notions of power, control, and might.
One time, Jesus overhears his disciples, James and John arguing about who is “the greatest.” I imagine James and John in that moment as individuals not unlike those at the soccer game in Berlin, obsessed with greatness. I imagine that they share the very same instinct we feel from time to time, looking to participate in the power of something big and great that we imagine as God. I imagine that the same part of them has been activated that gets called up in many of us in competitive moments, the part that wants to be on the side of the winners. James and John evidently like big things, great things, powerful things, and they wish to be a part of it. And so they manipulate Jesus by trying to get him to offer them prominent places in his coming administration, one seated at the right of him, the other at the left. The other disciples hear about the power play and they become indignant. But Jesus merely says: you don’t understand what I’m talking about at all. It’s not about being #1. It’s not about being a winner. It’s not about perfection or power or control. It’s about something far smaller.
Again and again, Jesus is at pains throughout the Gospel of Mark to say: “You’ve got God all wrong. Does “Almighty” sound humble? What about a child sounds majestic and powerful? What about a servant sounds awesome?” When the crowds misunderstand his language, attempting to situate him within a paradigm of majesty, attempting to refasten him within the paradigm of the Big Powerful Sky Father, Jesus goes out of his way to mock those pretensions, riding a creature likely smaller than himself into town. “God is not big, or powerful, or shiny, or majestic, or glorious,” Jesus seems to be saying. “So whenever you hear the word ‘God’ and all of those big characteristics flood into your head, put them off to the side. Write them on a list, and circle them as problematic. Instead, start playing with other ideas: God is little. God is a child. God is a servant. God is a human one. And then imagine, as we shall all be asked to imagine later this week, that God is a naked body on a cross. Imagine God as defenseless. Notice how different all of that feels from the Big Powerful Sky Father God, from the Almighty Fixer. But above all else, notice how it makes you feel.”
I hear Jesus saying all of that. I hear him saying it to his disciples, but I hear him saying it to us as well. What do you feel when God is somehow stripped of all the attributes we think of as “Godly?” What do you feel when God is not the greatest, and does not lend power to greatness? What do you feel when God isn’t #1? What do you feel when God suddenly is not the Fixer, is not in control, cannot intervene to alter world events, or even the events of your own life? How do you feel?
Many of us, I suspect, react with a kind of revulsion. I do, at least sometimes. I long for God to be a Fixer, to be my Fixer, to save me from this or that stupid decision, from this or that unfortunate series of events. I long for an Almighty to assure me that World War III didn’t begin this past week, to assure me that all my anxieties about this or that ecological or human rights disaster will be set aright. Something kicks up within me and wants to revolt against Jesus and his God of small things, or at the very least, to turn Jesus into something closer to what I wish God was like. Even as I acknowledge how poorly the Almighty has done in managing world affairs, even as I reckon with the terrible track record the Almighty has in saving people from this or that catastrophe, something within me screams back: “But a God without power is no God at all! A God whose hands are tied isn’t worth a damn. So why even bother?”
I suspect that Jesus instinctively understood those feelings that arise within many of us. And I suspect he had compassion for those parts of us that long for that kind of stabilizing force. I think he understood that those parts within us that wish for the Almighty, that long for a Sky Father, are the parts of us that feel most afraid, most vulnerable, most frail, most wounded, most alone, most helpless, most like a child. Those are parts of us born in childhood, and though we grow and wind up forgetting about those aspects of ourselves, they continue to exist within us. Most frequently, they emerge into the open in moments of crisis, but they’re a part of us in more ordinary moments too. Those are painful parts of our humanity, and as often as not, we keep them safely tucked away, removed from polite company.
But we do way more than that. Child psychologists like Alice Miller and Erik Erikson, and Maggie Scarf help us to understand the drama that goes on deep within human hearts and lives, a human drama that I’ve come to believe Jesus somehow understands. Here’s the story they tell: From our earliest years on, we construct defenses to help protect us from having to deal with those feelings of vulnerability, helplessness, and pain. Most of the time, that vulnerability comes from feeling hurt by those we love. As children, we tend not to make sense of our hurts by blaming those we love. Instead, we learn to blame ourselves: I deserve to be hurt because…I’m bad, I’m not loveable, I’m dirty, I’m stupid, I’m a failure, I’m not important, I don’t deserve attention, I’ll never amount to anything. What’s important to recognize in this story is that those are the voices that we cultivate inside ourselves to help protect us from further pain, from doing things that will result in being hurt again. It sounds strange, I know, but I think it’s true: we wind up listening to internal voices that tell us, for our own good, that we are no good. So, for example, my parent’s anger at a dropped dish isn’t the problem. The problem is my clumsy hands and feet, my stupid body that can’t perform simple tasks. In time, we try our best to quiet those voices, and to give ourselves relief from their accusations, by creating public personas that keep the small and weak parts of us hidden. We become effective managers or moralists, we become social organizers or a bon vivant, the life of the party. We become career driven and goal oriented.
But those small and needy parts are still there. They still require attention, and ask to be healed. I believe Jesus understood that. I believe he knew that in order to be healed, in order to become fully alive and aware as human beings, those small and tender parts of us would have to come out of hiding. Sometimes, they try so desperately to emerge that it results in terribly damaging behavior – like addictions, or destructive relationships, or violence. But Jesus seemed to embrace those tender parts of human beings with compassion, knowing well that the Big Powerful Sky Father wouldn’t be able to help. That’s because the Sky Father is one more manager, trying to make us forget or exile that small, weak person living inside of us. Could it be that Jesus knew that only a small God, only a vulnerable God, only a wounded and weak God, would allow our protective mechanisms to turn toward those weak and abandoned pieces within us in a spirit of compassion and understanding?
A few days from now, we’ll pass through Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, days that expose like little else the frail and vulnerable God that Jesus embodies. But I also believe that moment isn’t simply about Jesus. It’s about us. It’s not only about Jesus’s pain. It’s about our pain as well. Mark’s Gospel finds Jesus quoting Psalm 22 in that most extreme of all moments, as he hangs upon the cross. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The Psalmist continues: “Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest.” This week, might we allow ourselves to hear our own voices in those words?
I know, I know, it seems unseemly to do so. A voice inside me says, “This isn’t me. This is too sentimental, too maudlin, too melodramatic. That same voice, which I suspect is yet another protective device, wants to say, “These are words meant for others, a man on a cross, children in Syria, refugees in Europe, starving people in Haiti, and so what possible right do I have to them?” I’ll listen to that voice, but maybe this week of all weeks, I’ll have the courage to read those words as somehow belonging to me. Maybe we all will. Maybe they’re addressed to those wounded and vulnerable pieces that we all of us carry somewhere within us. And perhaps this of all weeks, we’ll have the courage to see our own naked vulnerability in the man hanging on the tree. Perhaps during this of all weeks, the cross will be a place where we discover our own shabby, frail, damaged, but also tender and beautiful humanity. Perhaps during this of all weeks, a wave of compassion will wash over us as that hurt and vulnerable person just beneath the skin surfaces. Perhaps that encounter will be what we need in order to relax our protective defenses, and to feel ourselves as utterly and wholly beloved.
In a minute we’ll dramatize the role of the crowd on the morning called Palm Sunday, casting ourselves among the throng who are in love with greatness, and who want Jesus to be #1. A part of me resides in that crowd, the same way a part of me resides in the crowd watching the soccer match in Berlin. But another part of me, a smaller, quieter part, wants to keep going after the crowd departs, to keep learning what this man Jesus, the Human One, may still reveal. Will you keep walking with me? Can we go undergo this process together?
 I’m leaning heavily throughout this sermon on insights I learned from Doug Frank, particularly his book A Gentler God (Albatross Press, 2010).
 Here and in the paragraphs that follow, I’m depending heavily on language and insights to be found in A Gentler God. See especially pgs. 204-207.
 This discussion can be found in A Gentler God, pgs. 212-216.
 A Gentler God, pg. 270-71.