Texts: Luke 24: 13-25; Philippians 4: 4-9
(or, Your God is Too Big, Part IV)
Somewhere during my childhood, I learned a song in Sunday School that was meant to sum up the entirety of my inner world. It went like this:
I’m….inright, outright, upright, downright
Happy all the time.
I’m inright, outright, upright, downright
Happy all the time.
Since Jesus Christ came in,
And cleansed my life from sin,
I’m inright, outright, upright, downright
Happy all the time.
I may have been 5, or 7, or 9. I no longer remember. But I do remember that at that young age and then continuing into early adolescence, there was an assumption that the major issues and questions of life had been decisively settled. There was an assumption that at 5 or 10 or 12, our inner worlds had been arranged and organized around this figure named Jesus, and the God he represented. The assumption was that to encounter Jesus would make us happy and good and well behaved and likeable. The assumption was that Jesus would clean us up.
The only problem was that I didn’t feel especially happy all the time. I wasn’t morose, and I wasn’t unhappy all the time either. But usually I was a bundle of contradictory emotions, especially as I grew older: anxiety about where I fit in in my school’s social hierarchy, worry that I wouldn’t be able to complete a task that had been assigned to me, confusion and fascination about the sexual desire that was awakening in me, frustration with the rules and expectations of my parents, sadness about this or that major event taking place in the world. In short, I didn’t feel happy all the time at all. I felt messy, chaotic, insecure, and more than a little fraudulent. Jesus didn’t leave me feeling happy so much as he left me wondering why my own inner life didn’t look and feel the way I was told they ought to. In time, I came to realize that I didn’t much like Jesus, or the God that he supposedly revealed. In time, I wished to be free of that Jesus and his cloying happiness. In time, I wished to be free of that God and his moral and emotional captivity.
I’m guessing most of you didn’t sing that song as kids, and we sure don’t teach it around here. But I’ll confess that Easter morning sometimes fills me with a similar apprehension. A rhetoric of victory, triumph, joy, and excitement surrounds the day, as we proclaim this thing called resurrection, as we celebrate the triumph of life over death. “Lives again, our glorious king, alleluia. Where O death is now thy sting, alleluia,” the words of our opening hymn go. Don’t get me wrong – I like a celebration, probably more than you know. I enjoy singing those hymns. I wish everyone was able to feels a sense of settled contentment within their souls, to feel the sense of empowerment and ecstasy that we sometimes call joy, or happiness. But there are times at Easter when I feel a disconnect between the emotions we sing about, and the way we actually feel in our hearts and in our guts, down there where the spirit meets the bone, as one of my heroes, Lucinda Williams puts it. Sometimes I worry that all the Easter rhetoric, however well intentioned, winds up leaving some of us feeling like I did as a kid – unsure about why our inner worlds, let alone the world outside of us, fails to match up to the ideal of triumphant joy being espoused on Easter morning.
My hunch is that, for all the ways we project a sunny confidence on a morning like this, somewhere deep inside we actually feel a whole lot more messy than our suits and dresses, than our flowers and family meals, let alone all this triumphant Easter rhetoric, might actually suggest. My deep suspicion is that we wonder whether the Easter story actually speaks to the human condition at all, our condition, where we mourn those who are no longer with us, where we feel time slip from our grasp, where we worry and wonder about our children, where our bodies and our emotions fail to conform to the ideals we espouse. My sense, here in Old Lyme, is that beyond our houses, and our clubs, and our social circles, and our families, and our frenetic activity, there’s a throbbing pain that only emerges here and there – in a long silence, in a vacant look, in an ache of disconnection and loneliness that overtakes us early in the morning or late at night. Down there where the spirit meets the bone, we’re way messier than Easter tends to allow, and I’ve sometimes caught myself wondering if some among us wind up leaving Easter Sunday feeling a little worse for all the ways they fail to conform to the ideal of resurrection. If that names you, know that there are times that I feel much the same. If I’m honest, I actually feel like more of a mess than what Easter, or my public persona, might suggest.
Over the past several weeks, I’ve been pulling apart popular conceptions of God and Jesus that I believe get in the way of encountering the frail, Human One who appears to us in the pages of the Bible. I’ve been asking all of us to reconsider the usual characteristics we attribute to God – God as awesome, God as powerful, God as in control, God as a moral judge, God as great, God as a Big Powerful Sky Father, in other words. And I’ve been asking us to reconsider Jesus, not with all the divine superlatives we’re used to placing upon him, but as a frail human being who invites us to embrace our own frail flesh, in all of its wounded and messy and beautiful humanity. As I read each of the Gospels, I hear Jesus arguing and demonstrating and agitating against the Sky Father, telling anyone who will listen: “You’ve got God all wrong. God isn’t big at all. God isn’t the Almighty. God is humble. God is a child. God is a beggar. God is a servant. God is a body, hanging from a tree. Notice how different those images of God make you feel.” Notice how different it feels when it’s that man, that God, who is resurrected.
But here, on Easter morning, something within me and maybe within you as well starts waving and shouting: doesn’t Easter counter those notions of weakness? Isn’t that the moment when all the triumphalist theologies of power and might regain their footing and reassert their dominance? Isn’t Easter the moment when the Sky Father, the power source in the clouds, steps in and reanimates a dead man, bringing him back to life? Isn’t Easter where we learn who Jesus really was, a figure with divine attributes, the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity? Isn’t Easter kind of like the moment when Clark Kent sheds his ordinary identity, revealing himself as one with superhuman powers? In traditional theologies, Easter is precisely the moment where divine power reasserts itself, so that the shabby figure hanging from the tree gets transformed into something gleaming and majestic. Easter becomes the mechanism that finally lets us skirt the humanity of Jesus. Understood in that way, Easter becomes one more way for the Sky Father to assert his control, one more way to get you and to get me to clean up our acts, to quit once and for all being the mess that we most deeply are.
I’d like to resist that Easter impulse. And I’d like to do so by having us revisit the disciples on that first Easter. Their situation speaks not to some ideal of moral perfection, but to the chaotic and upended world of real human lives. They’re something of a mess as well. They’re in mourning. They’re in shock. They’re confused. They’re fearful. They’re lost. They’re lonely. They had just witnessed the death of their friend, and with that death, they had felt all of their hopes sliding into the abyss. Jesus was a person they came to trust deeply, and they had come to believe that he really was God’s chosen one. To see him take the hand of a woman in pain, and to see how that pain seemed to recede in his presence, to see him calm the spirit of a troubled man, to see how people throughout the countryside responded to his words, to witness him arguing back against the authority of religion, to feel the bonds of friendship that developed among them all – everything about this man made them feel special, connected, purposeful, somehow at home within the world. But the events of that terrible day had unhoused them. It left them flat on their backs, staring at an empty sky.
That’s how we find the two disciples on the road to Emmaus shortly after Easter morning. They’re unmoored, undone, adrift. They’re a mess. They talk about all that occurred in the past several days, their speech punctuated by long silences. A stranger falls into step beside them, somebody they’ve not seen before. He asks, rather impertinently, what it was that they’ve been talking about, and the disciples are incredulous, for everyone’s been talking about the execution of one named Jesus. Even so, they’re raw enough that they open up, and the sadness comes pouring out of them, as if in a torrent. The man listens carefully and well. He doesn’t tell them to get over it. He doesn’t tell them to go back to their lives. He doesn’t tell them to get their act together. He simply meets them within the space of unmooring, within the nonspace of having been unhoused, and he walks with them for a while. We don’t know, exactly, what the man says. We simply know that his words stir something within the two grieving friends so that later, they say that their hearts burned within them, and they are certain it was Jesus. We don’t know what he said, but I imagine it running something like this:
“I know what it’s like to lose something you love. I know what it’s like to feel alone and adrift in the world. I know what it is to feel the world collapse around you, and to feel the sky go blank. I know what it is to feel abandoned and alone. I know what it is to feel forsaken. I know that the world can feel like a cold and empty place. When it does, try to notice the presence of a broken and wounded man walking beside you. When it does, try to notice the invitation in the eyes of your friends when you break bread with one another. When it does, remember to greet the stranger, because you’ll find me there. I know you thought that God was something big, something powerful, something majestic and glorious, and I know it hurts when those expectations are shattered. But try to trust this gentle presence that does walk beside you. Try to trust that it will be enough to hold you and envelop you. Try to trust that it signifies a warm beating heart at the center of the world. Try to trust that this gentle presence wishes you well, and is comfortable allowing you to be the mess that you are. Try to trust that, in this strange non-space called resurrection, you’ve been given the freedom to be yourself, the freedom to be a mess.”
There are no fireworks. There’s no spectacle. There’s no display of power or might. There’s only a simple encounter, an experience, one that leads to a sense of connection, and to hearts of flesh that burn and beat within those two forlorn disciples. They simply trust that the presence is real. I do too.
I think I sensed that presence, and that burning, beating, messy freedom this past week, when a number of us journeyed down to New York to see the musical Come From Away. If you haven’t seen it, sell everything you own to get a ticket, move heaven and earth to get yourself there. It’s an extraordinary piece of art about the community that forms in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when planes are diverted to Gander, Newfoundland, because US airspace has been closed. It depicts the fear and panic and confusion of people trapped in airplanes on the tarmac for more than 24 hours, with little or no information about where they are or why. Those planes become little tombs, as everyone’s worst fears and paranoia begin to run rampant. Eventually, in a show of extravagant hospitality, the people of Gander receive the stranded travelers into their town, though most people still have no idea what’s happening to them. In one of many scenes that moved me to tears, a bus driver carrying people from the airport to the town tries to coax an African couple off the bus. They don’t speak English, and so they’ve understood nothing of what’s happening to them. It stirs up latent traumas within them, and they refuse to leave. But the bus driver notices the woman carrying a Bible, written in her native language. He knows it well enough to find a verse he knows, from Philippians 4: “Do not be anxious in anything.” He shows it to the couple, and it’s what they need to feel enough reassurance to trust those around them, at least a little. It’s enough to move them out of the tomb of their fear.
It was a messy, chaotic, liminal space that all those travelers entered on those days after 9/11. It was a space of mourning and anxiety, confusion and panic. But it was also a space where everyone was given the freedom to be the mess they most deeply were at that moment. Impenetrable walls seemed to come down, and genuine and heartfelt connections occurred, even as less genuine connections dissolved. Moments of tenderness took place that were embracing enough to hold everyone, even in the midst of a crisis. A cookout, a corny joke, a bottle of whiskey – these became signs of grace, moments of tenuous but real connection. The world had come undone in some profound ways, but the genuine hospitality and shared vulnerability brought something alive within those who were trapped in that space. “Somewhere in the middle of nowhere,” they sing as they depart, “we found our hearts.”
I think it’s like that in resurrection life. We’re ushered into a liminal space, a space of mourning and grief, a space of confusion and uncertainty, a space of profound messiness. The Big Powerful Sky Father doesn’t reassert his power. The shiny majestic God doesn’t return to prop up governments, moral programs, and family values. The Almighty doesn’t reappear to clean you up and make you presentable to your relatives and friends and everybody at the club. Instead, something far more profound takes place. An opening occurs in which you’re free to give voice to your deepest self, in which you’re free to express all that’s been welling up within you, in which you’re free to receive the lives of others without judgment or condescension, even as you’ve been offered the same by them. Tragedies still unfold. Mourning still requires work. But somehow a small, vulnerable, and gracious presence walks through it with you, offering you the freedom to suffer, and the freedom to be a whole person, fully alive to the sorrows and also the profound joys of the world. “Somewhere in the middle of nowhere, we find our hearts.” I’m doing my best to trust that sense of resurrection. I’m doing my best to trust that Jesus, again. Maybe you are too.
The freedom to be a mess that occurs in resurrection life should not be confused with the freedom to make a mess. It’s not to be confused with licentiousness or self-absorption. Rather, the freedom to be a mess is what gives us the capacity to truly listen to others without defensiveness. The freedom to be a mess is what gives us the strength to reach out to those unlike ourselves. The freedom to be a mess is what offers us the courage to hear the cries of pain emerging from parts of the world that feel foreign and strange to us. The freedom to be a mess is what offers us the willingness to open ourselves to refugees, to enter the worlds of those threatened with deportation, to expose ourselves to the sorrow emanating from a place like Haiti, or a place like Palestine. The freedom to be a mess is what provides us the shelter to experience a genuine transformation of heart and soul, as we risk exposing the vulnerable and shabby core of who we most deeply are, and discover the presence of a vulnerable and shabby, but genuinely inviting God, walking beside us, whispering a word of love into our souls. It may not make us happy, not all the time, but it might just make us real.
Somewhere in the middle of nowhere….we find our beating, burning hearts. Somewhere in the middle of nowhere…we find Jesus, again.
 This sermon, and the entire series of sermons that precede it, have been inspired by the writings of Doug Frank. In particular, his book A Gentler God has proven indispensable for my sense of religion, Christianity, and yes, Easter. One of the moments that first drew me to his work was a citation of this very song in an article published years ago in a magazine called Books and Culture. His description of the song and the world it conveyed mirrored my own experience nearly identically, especially within the Brethren world I was immersed in as a child. And so I offer this story as my own, while paying homage to a friend who helped me unpack that experience.
 See Doug Frank, A Gentler God, pg. 207.
 The freedom to be a mess is an image I’m borrowing from A Gentler God. See chpt. 11, entitled… “The Freedom to be a Mess.”
 A Gentler God, pg. 363.
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.
Texts: Mark 1: 9-11;
John 3: 1-10
Your God Is Too Big, Part II: The Human Jesus
So where were we? Two weeks ago I initiated a Lenten journey intended to shake the dust off our understandings of God. It was a way of helping us to discover Jesus once again, in all of his complicated humanity. It was a way of prying the narratives of Jesus and God away from projects associated with nationalism, or systems of moral control. It was a way of helping us to rethink from the ground up what that word “God” might be about, if it’s about anything at all. God is one of the heaviest words in any human language, one that comes burdened with baggage and misunderstanding, even for those of us who find our way to church. The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber spoke to that concern when he wrote that “God is the most heavy laden of all human words. None has become so soiled, so mutilated.” Another author, the novelist David James Duncan, wonders: “How to unsay the ponderousness we humans attribute to this word, ‘God’?”
Many of us carry a version of God within our hearts that, with a little examination and reflection, comes to seem like a fraudulent and emotionally manipulative construction. Borrowing the language of a friend named Doug Frank, I’ve come to characterize that God as the Big Powerful Sky Father, who sees you even if you don’t see him, who claims to love you even as he has very specific instructions for you to follow. If you fail to live out those instructions, the Sky Father will withhold that love, or perhaps abandon you altogether. And so you’d better get right with God, as the saying goes, or else. It’s hard to feel anything resembling love when that sort of emotional blackmail is in play. One might feel a sense of duty. One might feel a sense of obligation. One might even feel gratitude at certain moments, the way you might toward a stern teacher who helped you understand algebra, say, but love, love isn’t something that most of us tend to feel. Not deep down. I was well into my twenties before I found the courage to admit that I did not love that God.
But there is a buried and hidden counter-tradition that people of faith have glimpsed here and there. It amounts to taking the central claim of Christian faith very seriously, that in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, we encounter God. Today I’d like to clear some of the brush associated with Jesus, because that word too comes heavy laden with a lot of baggage. I’d like to do so as a way of moving us toward an alternative understanding of God. It’s the story of Jesus’s baptism that provides the best glimpse into an alternative understanding of Jesus, a moment of awakening from the grip of the Big Powerful Sky Father, where Jesus is initiated into a process of becoming fully human, a journey he invites us to take as well.
Theology and the churches haven’t been kind to Jesus. There are so many categories and codes that have been placed upon him that it’s nearly impossible to encounter him with a sense of openness. Theological conservatives and liberals both turn Jesus into a mechanism, something far less than human. Conservatives and liberals both use Jesus as a way of maintaining the control of the Big Powerful Sky Father. It’s a pattern that goes back centuries. The conservative impulse can be seen in the writings of Anselm of Canterbury, from the 11th century, especially a text called Cur Deus Homo, “Why God Became Man.” The liberal impulse can be traced to the writings of Peter Abelard, writing a generation later. Both are careful and nuanced thinkers, and I don’t intend to walk you through a precise outline of their work. But they each tell a story that churches and preachers have been telling ever since. I wish to tell a different story.
For Anselm, Jesus becomes a cosmic mechanism by which God deals with the problem of sin. You probably know a version of the story Anselm tells. Theologians like Barth and Bonhoeffer depend upon versions of this story, as does a huge portion of popular theologies in America. It goes like this: human beings are created good, but they yield to temptation in the Garden, which results in the Fall. Humans become so tarnished by sin that God’s moral purity and righteousness is offended. And God is so big and majestic that the offense is infinite, meaning that no human can actually set it right. And so God invents a form of recompense whereby Jesus, his Son, will pay the ultimate price for all of us, suffering on the cross for the sins of the world. In other words, human beings owe God an infinite debt that they cannot pay. Jesus pays the debt, which sets human beings right with God the Father. The problem, of course, is that Anselm’s version of God doesn’t look and feel very loving. It’s a medieval version of the Big Powerful Sky Father. But the bigger problem with Anselm’s story, and with all of the more conservative theologies that have depended upon that story ever since, is that it doesn’t take the flesh and blood person of Jesus seriously at all. Jesus is simply a mechanism, a form of exchange in the conflict between God and humans. While churches and theologies that depend upon this story claim to elevate the work of Jesus and the cross, I would claim that the opposite is far more the case. In truth, they virtually ignore Jesus, failing to take him seriously at all. In that story, Jesus is simply a pawn who goes to the woodshed to take the beating that all of us deserve. In short, it’s a terrifying God and a lifeless Jesus that we inherit in that theological stream.
Peter Abelard tells a slightly different story, one which is, in my estimation, a better story, for it doesn’t suffer from the same emotional dead ends as that found in Anselm. Kant, Schleiermacher, Troeltsch and Tillich all depend upon versions of this story. But this story too renders Jesus somehow lifeless and bland. It too converts the flesh and blood person of Jesus into a theological mechanism. The story goes like this. Yes, human beings have yielded to temptation, and yes, there was a Fall, resulting in sin, now understood as human imperfections and struggles. But we’re still created by God, and so not entirely corrupted by sin. Something of our original divinity still peeks through, if only we could realize it and act upon it. We need a boost, an extra helping hand in order to be all that we were created to be, and so God sends Jesus to help show us the way. In this story, Jesus is important not because he pays an ultimate price for sin. He’s important because of his persuasive power. He’s important as a moral exemplar, showing us all how best to live, how best to behave, how best to reorient our lives toward God. For Abelard, Jesus could just as easily have died an old man than a bloody death, but the cross and resurrection do wind up showing how costly it can be to live a life oriented toward the good, and toward God. It’s a better story, but even here, Jesus winds up becoming a mechanism, a tool to set humanity right. Jesus becomes a moral exemplar to aspire to. Behind those aspirations, however, is yet another version of the Big Powerful Sky Father, urging us all to get right, and chiding us when we don’t. It’s a less threatening version of the Sky Father, but no less alienating, and no less burdensome. Here too, Jesus becomes a useful tool in reinforcing the power of the Sky Father.
Recall now the words from Martin Luther that we heard two weeks ago. Luther too struggled with visions of a punitive God, feeling tormented by his own inadequacies before such a deity. Luther eventually found a way to reread the Bible with different eyes, even if he didn’t always follow through on his best insights. He wrote: “You must not climb up to God, but rather begin where God began – in his mother’s womb. If you wish to be certain in your conscience…then you must know no God at all apart from this human Jesus, and depend upon this, his humanity.”
And so consider Jesus with me for a moment. Consider him, stripped of all the theological niceties, stripped of all the dogmatic baggage that have been imposed on him for two millennia. Consider him as he actually appears in the Gospels. He has a magnetic personality. People are mysteriously drawn to him, hanging on his words, following him around the countryside. He has a distaste for authority, and he seems to take pleasure in flouting local customs. The ne’er do wells of the world like him, and he’s most at home in their company. Prostitutes, thugs (tax collectors are the term the Bible assigns them), day laborers, street people, the diseased, those without money…these are the ones he treats as intimates. He reserves his strongest moral judgment for the good, the respectable, and the decent. He’s comfortable expressing strong emotions like anger. He weeps in public. He gets into arguments frequently, most often with religious people. He causes divisions, and then travels by cover of night into Samaritan territory. He says things about his mother and his siblings that make some of us wince. He sometimes expresses incredible tenderness. He’s drawn to children, and he frequently talks about becoming a child. He seems utterly at home with himself, often slipping away in order to be alone. He speaks of a special intimacy with a reality he describes in personal terms, most often describing it as a parent. Instead of offering direct answers to questions, he speaks in riddles and stories. He doesn’t maintain a home, and lives a nomadic existence. He seems remarkably free, remarkably open, remarkably hospitable, both to himself and to others. In other words, he seems as though he is who he really wants to be, freed of the burdens imposed on him by others. And it makes him remarkably attractive to others. At least, it makes him remarkably attractive to me.
What if instead of treating Jesus as a cosmic mechanism, we actually took the deepest affirmation of Christian faith seriously, that in this strange and shabby man, we discover not some version of the Big Powerful Sky Father, but a God who looks remarkably akin to the Jesus who appears in the Gospel texts? And what if the entire ministry of Jesus was a way of freeing us from the power of the Sky Father, in order to live into the fullness of our own humanity? That intuition lies behind the best insights of the Christian tradition. For many, however, it became too unsettling to follow through on that intuition. And so while many writers gesture in the direction of the humanity of Jesus, they fail to follow those intuitions all the way through, leaving the Sky Father more or less intact.
Jesus comes to free human beings from the punitive gaze of the Sky Father. But perhaps he himself had to be freed of that punitive gaze at the beginning of his ministry, an event that he sometimes refers to as a second birth, or, as some have it, becoming born again. The Gospel of Mark is the earliest story of Jesus, and it offers a privileged vantage of that event. At the beginning, it depicts Jesus finding his way to the river Jordan, where he encounters John the Baptist. John is a fiery figure. He’s powerful. He’s authoritative. And so is his God. John advocates a strict ethical code. He warns of a wrath to come. We can wonder if something within Jesus is attracted to that kind of power, the part of him that longs for an authoritative presence to say what’s what and to set things straight. We can wonder if something within Jesus is drawn to the ethical codes of the godly, as a way of managing his own interior chaos. And we can wonder if that might have something to do with the absence of Jesus’s own father from his life, for after the childhood episodes that some of the Gospels report, Joseph isn’t mentioned again, leading us to imagine that he died. Maybe, like many humans, Jesus comes to believe that ethical perfection is the way to achieve love and acceptance, especially from God. Perhaps this is what draws Jesus down to the river to confess his sins and to make a fresh start. Perhaps that’s a burden that Jesus is carrying.
But something happens to him at the river. Something shifts in Jesus’s inner world in an overwhelming instant, an Event that reorganizes everything within his life. Mark tells us, in richly symbolic language, that “just as he was coming out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.” And he hears a voice, saying, “You are my Son, my Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Jesus is thirty, schooled in the law and the prophets, and carrying around God only knows what burdens, what “oughts,” what “shoulds.” What he somehow learns in that moment is the opposite of what religion so often teaches, then as now, things like: “Now that you’ve undergone this transformation, you’re qualified to receive my attention and love; or, now that you’ve cleaned yourself up, continue along this path and I’ll continue to love you.” But that’s not what he hears. What he hears is an unqualified affirmation of acceptance that seems to shatter the hold of the Sky Father on his imagination. As I imagine it, what he hears is something like: “I love you exactly as you are. Nothing you can do, or fail to do, can change that love. So you can drop the act that goes with constantly trying to please me, and please others. You’re now free to live from within that sense of affirmation, that sense of embrace, that sense of freedom.”
Mark tells us that after this overwhelming event, Jesus enters the wilderness, where he continues to struggle with the hold of the Sky Father on his imagination. But when he returns, something decisive has shifted. He seems convinced that the experience he had at the river was not only for him, but for everyone. After John is arrested, Jesus begins preaching in his own way, saying “Now is the time. The reign of God is right here. Repent! Believe the good news!”
Doug Frank, a friend whose insights I have been following here, suggests that to repentance as Jesus now means it isn’t about shaping up or getting your act together. Instead, he suggests, Jesus intends something like the following: “‘You need to turn your picture of God around. You’ve got God wrong. God isn’t the demanding taskmaster who will love you and fix your life if you obey his commands. God is the still small voice, speaking deep inside you, naming you God’s beloved. God isn’t out there on a throne controlling world events. God is in here, right now…whispering love to you. God isn’t your enemy, and God doesn’t want you to be your own enemy. God likes you just the way you are…Isn’t this good news? Can you feel it, somewhere deep inside you? Can you believe it? Can you see how it puts you in a brand new world? Don’t you want to go in this altogether new direction?’”
I do. But it’s also true that I don’t. Because there’s something reassuring about the good old God, the Sky Father and his expectations. There’s something comforting about having a set of tasks to carry forth, and then doing them. There’s something stabilizing about a God who will tell us to go this way or that, who will intervene in this moment or that, who will guide world events in this way or that. There’s something seductive about harnessing, and participating, in that kind of power. But Jesus beckons in a different direction, one that I find far more uncomfortable, but also far more exhilarating. Jesus beckons us into the messiness of the human story, of your human story and mine, where we lose our mastery of the world, where we lose our control, where we become as awkward as little children once again, but also receptive in a way that age and experience can often cancel out.
There’s more to say, so much more, and I want to share it with you. But it’s time to close for this week. What I’d like to leave you with isn’t a tidy sermonic ending. That would betray my message. Instead, what I have is an image, one I’ve shared before, but one that bears repeating, and often. It’s from the novelist Flannery O’Connor, who captured the messy and slightly chaotic Jesus well in her novel Wise Blood. The protagonist is a haunted man named Hazel Motes, a ragtag preacher burdened by his grandfather’s fire and brimstone religion. Like a lot of people I’ve met, Jesus is a promise he’s never managed to break, but has never managed to keep either. At the beginning of the novel, Hazel falls asleep on a train, and he dreams of a wild and ragged figure, moving from tree to tree in some dark corner of his mind, beckoning him deeper and deeper into the darkness, where he does not know the way. When he wakes, he’s shaken by the image, and he spends the rest of the novel in a pitched battle between the harsh Sky Father raging within him, and the wild and ragged figure beckoning him toward freedom. It’s the same quest that I believe Jesus himself faced in those early pages of Mark, the same journey that each of us is invited to embark upon.
And so I ask: what would it mean to leave the Sky Father behind? What would it mean to read the stories of Jesus as a struggle to free himself, and all of us, from the oversight of the Almighty, in favor of something far smaller? What would it mean to follow that wild and ragged Jesus into the darkness, where you no longer know the way?
 As with the previous sermon in this series, I am depending heavily on insights I learned from Doug Frank, in conversations, emails, lectures, essays, but especially his book A Gentler God (Albatross Press, 2010).
 A Gentler God, pgs. 190-191.
 Quoted in Gerhard Ebeling, Luther: An Introduction to His Thought (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972), pgs. 234-235. As quoted in A Gentler God, pgs. 196-197.
 In the coming paragraphs, I am following Doug Frank’s interpretation of Jesus’s baptism. See A Gentler God, pgs. 232-236.
 Ibid, pg. 236.
Texts: Psalm 29; Isaiah 51: 1-5
Audiotopias: A Musical Exchange with Tom McDermott
[Editor’s Note: The audio recordings of Tom McDermott’s performances were not good enough quality to upload here. Sorry]]
There aren’t many references to music in the Bible. There are a few scattered psalms here and there, one of which we used as our call to worship. All 150 Psalms were certainly set to music, though what it may have sounded like is a mystery. We find several other passages in the New Testament, when Paul and Silas sit in a jail cell and sing, and when Paul enjoins his readers to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. But we don’t find a great deal about music, which has made the Christian tradition vulnerable, at certain points of its history, to the suppression of music as somehow licentious or provocative, a view more widespread in Plato than the Old or the New Testaments. That’s what led our Puritan ancestors to shun music. Thankfully, Martin Luther was a notable exception to that tradition, embracing songs as fervently as he embraced beer.
Instead, what we find are passages about the importance of hearing, and of listening, which is what we found in our passages this morning. “Listen to me,” the passage in Isaiah begins. “The voice of the Lord goes out,” the Psalmist declares, implying the importance not of the eye, but of the ear. I’ve come to think that there’s an ethics of listening and hearing embedded within the Bible. I’ve come to believe that listening is itself a form of ethical activity. That certainly has to do with listening to the words of someone to whom we’re speaking. To listen, and to listen well within a conversation, is one of the greatest gifts that we give to one another. It’s also exceedingly rare, which is why many of us have to pay therapists, who will listen closely and carefully to our words. Listening well to the voice of another takes great skill and concentration, as we discern the interplay of words and silences, hesitations and elisions, tone and cadence all of which combine to produce an elusive truth. Listening to the voice of another is one of the most challenging tasks given to us as human beings.
But I’ve come to believe that the ethics of listening has to do not only with voices, but with music. I’ve come to believe that this is a form of ethics that’s crucial for the age of mp3s and earbuds and Spotify. We live in a world of incessant, sometimes overwhelming sound, which winds up making active listening difficult. But I’ve come to believe that listening well to the sounds around us, to the music around us, is just as important as listening to the voices of other human beings. There are entire social worlds contained in songs, which is why a piano concerto is never just a piano concerto, a church choir is never just a church choir, and a jazz ensemble is never just a jazz ensemble. They all function as audio archives of human struggles and cultures. They contain conversations, arguments, ceremonies and rituals, laments and aspirations. Notes, melodies, and dissonance within pieces of music are all microcosmic pieces of DNA containing elements of the human story. One stray note may signal a memory of Spain. One familiar melody may contain the history of Africa, and the Atlantic Slave Trade. Did you know, for example, that the song we now know as Amazing Grace was a moan sung by African captives while trapped in the hull of a slave ship? John Newton, the person to whom that song is attributed, first heard the melody when he was the captain of one of those ships, later taking the melody and adding his own words. Whether we know it or not, we bear witness to all those erased African civilizations every time we sing that song. In a way, I’ve come to believe that all those spirits come to live within us whenever we sing that song, whether we know it or not.
But careful listening has to do with more than accessing cultural archives or memories. Passionate listening, learning how to hear, allows us to participate in what one author calls audiotopias. By that, he has in mind a utopia of sound that enters our being through the ear, creating a kind of space that we can enter into, move around in, inhabit, be safe in, conduct arguments within, and learn from. Audiotopias are what I discovered as a kid riding my bike to the mall to buy tapes and then CDs with the lunch money I saved every week, eating next to nothing at lunch so that I could buy music. Audiotopias are what young people today discover in their earbuds, as Spotify selects a perfectly curated playlist. Audiotopias are what subscribers to Musical Masterworks are searching for. I take it our choir creates an audiotopia Sunday by Sunday. It’s what Tom McDermott accomplishes at the house concerts he puts on in the front room of his home. It’s what goes on all over New Orleans, America’s most audiotopic city. It’s a large part of what gave people in that city the courage to keep on going after Hurricane Katrina. The engineers and the builders helped put the physical infrastructure back together. The musicians helped to rebuild the human spirit, putting the emotional infrastructure back together. New Orleans is one demonstration of the power of audiotopias in our world.
Our service today shall be a gesture in the direction of several audiotopias, born from the interplay of African, European, American, and Cuban sounds. It’s all in the service of an ethics of listening, of an ethics born from careful listening, where we become more attuned to the conversations and pleas, the arguments and dreams contained in the world of sound, which is everywhere a part of us. “Listen to me,” the prophet Isaiah says. Our service today is a gesture in the direction of Isaiah: Listen!
“Down by the Riverside” – Traditional
We’ll start in a familiar place, with a version of the old spiritual “Down by the Riverside.” It dates back before the Civil War, and probably a long time before that. It is the very definition of an audiotopia, an ethical world imagined through sound. It takes the bleakest portions of the human condition, having to do with warfare and violence and enslavement, and it imagines, through sound, the possibility of laying those burdens down – by a riverside that could be the Jordan River, or perhaps the Ohio or the Mississippi. Here’s “Down by the Riverside.”
“Heavy Henry” – Tom McDermott
Henry Butler is one of New Orleans’ greatest piano players. He’s been sick lately, but I’m pleased to say I was able to hear him play a little bit last year at Jazz Fest. He’s been a hero to Tom, I gather, and to any number of folks influenced by the piano tradition in New Orleans. Tom can say a little more about his relationship with Henry Butler, but as I hear this music, I sense within it something of the wider human story, which has to do with finding teachers, mentors, heroes, people who inspire us to become who we are. You don’t have to be a musician or an artist to experience that. You simply have to be alive. Who are the people who have made you who you are? Who are those who inspire you to try new things, to take on new projects, to experiment with a new identity? Our lives are a composition of the influence of others, which can lay heavy upon us at times. But those influences might also give us the resources we need to create our compositions, our own jazz standards, our own beautiful lives. Here’s Heavy Henry.
“Danza” – Louis Moreau Gottschalk
Which of our senses is the first to experience freedom? Which of our senses is the first to embrace difference, inclusion, hospitality, embrace? Which of our senses is the first to embrace something like democracy? I would make the case that it’s hearing that leads us to identify with the other. It’s the ear that first opens us to other worlds.
Louis Moreau Gottschalk demonstrated that reality. He’s one of the most interesting musicians that America has ever produced. Long before Louis Armstrong, Gottschalk was a native son of New Orleans who heard the drums of Congo Square every Sunday as a child. His path took him through Paris, and the world of the European classical music, but he then traveled throughout the Caribbean and South America, and in a move that we now take for granted, but was nearly unheard of in the 19th century, Gottschalk began incorporating the sounds and rhythms of the indigenous peoples and cultures he encountered into his compositions. And he spent a great amount of time in Cuba. Gottschalk is one of the most underappreciated of America’s great musicians, likely because he was so far ahead of his time. But in Gottschalk, I believe we hear yet another audiotopia, where closed national and cultural borders are shattered in an ephiphany of sound, an epiphany whose ethical possibilities we’re still, sadly, trying to follow. Which of the senses is the first to be decolonized? Gottschalk helps us to understand that it just might be the ear.
“Piano Concerto” – Beethoven
Tom shared with me the other night that he thinks of Germany as producing the greatest musical culture that ever existed, and I happen to agree. And so we close with a nod to Beethoven, who managed to compose the most sublime pieces of music ever written through enormous adversity. But his greatest and most well known adversity was the loss of his hearing, which began in his late twenties and continued to decline for the next twenty five years. It was exacerbated by what is reported to have been a case of tinnitus, an incessant ringing in his ears, all of which had a devastating effect on Beethoven’s life. And yet he still composed. He created his best known works while he was deaf. Which of course raises the question: is it possible to listen well, to hear a melody, even when your faculty for doing so has been radically diminished? Is it possible to concentrate so fully, to maintain focus to fully, that you’re enabled to create and move forward even without your faculty of hearing?
Beethoven presents us with a metaphor for a condition each of us faces at points in our lives. How do we proceed when we can no longer audibly hear the voices we most need to hear? How to proceed after we’ve lost something precious, how to remain focused when that which we need to hear has fallen silent? I think that question is especially pertinent in an age when it’s hard to hear the voice of ethical conscience, when we need reminders of the common humanity that we share with others. Beethoven helps us remember how to listen carefully, when all else falls away.
 Kun, Josh, Audiotopias: Music, Race, and America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005). I’ve borrowed language here from pg. 2.
Texts: Matthew 8: 18-22; I Corinthians 1: 18-31
Your God is Too Big
In 1953 a British evangelist named J.B. Phillips published a book entitled Your God is Too Small. It’s a slender little volume, and it’s not a bad book, really. I read it in college, and I remember appreciating its simple and plainspoken style. Phillips argues against the tribal and doctrinaire understandings of God that he noticed in the post-War world in which he wrote, a tribalism that, unfortunately, we still encounter in public life. But somewhere along the way, I found myself wanting to argue just the opposite. Somewhere along the way, I started dreaming about writing a theological counter-proposal entitled not “Your God is Too Small,” but rather, “Your God is Too Big.” Lately, as the Christian Far-Right has ascended to power, I’ve sensed a greater urgency about that argument, as “God” (in quotes) is pressed into the service of various national and moral programs that have left many among us feeling deeply uneasy. Even for those of us who are fairly settled in our relationship to religion and faith, if we’re honest, there have been times of late when we’ve recoiled a bit, and thought, “If this is the understanding of Christianity and God that passes as normative in the United States, then perhaps I’m better off in the company of those without religion, without faith, without God.” If you’ve had those moments, you may as well know that your minister has too. But for me, that feeling is accompanied by another impulse, this one born from a desire to rethink that word “God” from the ground up, for it is, probably, the single most abused and misunderstood word in human vocabularies. In truth, I wonder sometimes if churches, even progressive ones like ours, tend to reinforce those misunderstandings rather than opening up toward something different. And so in the coming weeks of the Lenten Season, I want to unpack that word “God.” I want to take it apart to see how it works. I want to see its mechanisms, its movements, its construction, and I want to see if it’s possible to put the pieces back together in a different way. As we go, I’ll be referring to a book a friend of mine named Doug Frank wrote several years ago called A Gentler God. In terms of books that have affected my life, Doug’s is top five. And so I’d like to share something of what I’ve learned from him with you.
The place to start this Lenten journey is with a story I’ve been waiting for the right moment to share. Lent feels like the proper time to do so. It’s something that happened to our family this past summer on our cross country road trip. It was shortly after we had departed from Green Grass, and we found ourselves camping in Bryce Canyon National Park. We got one of the last available campsites, and the evening was cool and beautiful. Instead of getting food in a restaurant, we went for a hike along the rim of the canyon, and then bought picnic food that we would eat at our site, after I got a good fire going. It was a good night – the food was tasty, the fire danced high and hot, and the smores we made were nearly perfect. Around bedtime, we were gathering things and putting them back in the car, and I filled a few water bottles at a nearby pump in case we got thirsty at night. Meanwhile, Sabina was reading, and Augie and Elsa were chasing each other around the site, like puppies teasing and tumbling about. It’s something that happens most nights, truth be told, when they get tired and punchy, and I confess to feeling a rising irritation at it that night in Bryce. We had talked on many of the nights that we camped about being aware of their surroundings, and not tripping over a tent stake, or a log. But then as I was walking back from the water pump, something happened that every parent just dreads. Augie and Elsa began arguing about something or other, and in a moment of frustration, Augie pushed Elsa backward. Elsa, as it happened, was standing right in front of the fire pit, with a bed of smoldering embers at her back. And I watched from 15 feet away as she fell backward, landing in the fire pit the way you would if you were floating on a river in an innertube. What happened next was a blur – a split second of silence and then a howl and then me sprinting over and yanking her out and dousing her with water and then seeing her hands and her legs and her back and then giving vent to a torrent of expletives born of panic and anger and then Rachael and I hurriedly wondering out loud, what do we do, what do we do? We piled everyone into the car and found a ranger, who gave us directions to the nearest hospital about 30 miles away. And while it was one of the worst moments that I can recall as a parent, it was also, weirdly, one of the best, because Elsa became brave and generous and forgiving, and Sabina became compassionate and supportive and caring. Most of the attention was focused on Elsa, but Augie was mostly silent in his chair, and I tried to reassure him that Elsa was going to be OK and to help him remember that he hadn’t been trying to hurt Elsa and that he was going to be OK. And in truth, while the night was long, and while the burns were significant, we actually were OK. The doctors were kind, and they bandaged Elsa up, and while the wounds lingered for a while, we were on our way the next day. I worked with burn patients when I was a chaplain at Bridgeport Hospital, and what I can tell you is that we were incredibly fortunate, all in all.
But the reason I’m sharing this story with you, what I want to meditate upon this morning, and in truth, for the entire season of Lent, is a question that Augie asked Rachael right after the accident. While I was with Elsa in the ER, Rachael took Augie outside, and he asked, kind of quietly, “Mom, do you think Santa Claus saw what I did to Elsa?” And then, “Do you think God saw what I did to Elsa?”
Let me pause there. I want to let that question hang in air for a time. Because what would you have said? How would you have responded to a scared and sad four year old asking a question like that? Who or what was this “God” that Augie referred to? Where had he learned it?
I don’t know where he picked it up, but it turns out that I did too as a kid. When I was young, I learned a song in Sunday School, a song that I internalized. It went like this:
Be careful little hands what you do.
Be careful little hands what you do.
For your Father up above,
Is looking down in love,
So be careful little hands what you do.
I suppose if I’m generous, I can imagine why adults might teach something like that to a child. I suppose it has to do with learning important things about self control, or keeping your hands to yourself. I suppose I can imagine that. But what it communicated to my young mind was that there was an invisible presence watching my every move, overseeing my every thought, even when I was confident no one was watching. It communicated a superhuman power before whom no one could hide, and who saw clearly all the things about me that felt embarrassing or shameful. This was an invisible presence who, I was told, loved me. And yet, the song made clear that one needed to be careful about how one behaved before this big, all observant deity, a being that we can call “The Big Powerful Sky Father.” Because there’s something vaguely threatening about the Sky Father. He can see you, but you can’t see him. And he evidently has the power to judge, to pay back, and to punish things that he doesn’t like. The very language of the Bible lends itself to that understanding, at least at a superficial level. To read the Old Testament is to encounter a God who smites his enemies and destroys cities he dislikes, who favors some and threatens others, who demands obedience while punishing those who go their own way. I was well into my twenties before I realized that I did not love that God. With regard to that God, the Big Powerful Sky Father God, I realized that I wished to twist free of such a God. With regard to that God, I realized that I was, and still am, an atheist. Maybe you are too. That God began to feel way too big.
Think about the word, “God.” Is there a heavier word in the English language, or in any language for that matter? Martin Buber, the great Jewish theologian, put it thus: “God is the most heavy laden of all human words. None has become so soiled, so mutilated.” Another author, David James Duncan, writes “How to unsay the ponderousness we humans attribute to this word, ‘God’?” The very word feels big, mighty, as if it needed to be written in all capital letters. Not only that, the language that we use to define that word tends toward images of power: almighty, all powerful, Lord, Sovereign, Judge, Ruler, Creator, Provider – these are active and power laden words that reinforce that image of the Big Powerful Sky Father who sees you, even if you don’t see him.
In 1974, a French philosopher named Michel Foucault published a book called Discipline and Punish, about the development of the penal system in modernity. It’s a book that has had an enormous influence upon me, but on a lot of others as well. His books are assigned in divinity schools as often as they are literature departments, in social science curriculums as often as they are in medical schools. I happen to believe literate church goers ought to read Foucault diligently as well. Toward the end of Discipline and Punish, Foucault describes a form of architecture first developed by an Enlightenment philosopher named Jeremy Bentham, an architecture that was later used in prison construction around the world. It was called the panopticon. Let me describe the spatial arrangement of the panopticon. It was an open circular room of many different levels. A grid of individual prison cells would make up the circumference of this room, all of them backlit by a window in the outer wall of each cell. At the center of that circular room was a guard tower, at the top of which was a glass room from which each individual cell could be observed, not unlike Jimmy Stewart and his camera in Hitchcock’s famous film Rear Window. Each cell, recall, was backlit, so that no shadows existed, so that there was no place to hide. The windows of the guard tower, by contrast, were blinded, so that it was never clear if there was a guard watching or not. One never knew. Indeed, after a time, guards weren’t even necessary all that often. The intention of the architecture was for prisoners to so internalize the feeling of being observed that they would come to discipline themselves, without external force. If you’re ever in Philadelphia, you can tour the Fairmount Prison in downtown Philly, where you can see a version of this architecture on display. The Quakers, it turns out, favored it. If you ever go to Dublin, you can see it at the Kilmainhaim Jail, a notorious prison that also deployed that form of observation. The panopticon, it turns out, is all around us.
For Foucault, that architectural principle came to be about so much more than prisons. It was an example of how power came to function in modernity, as human beings learn to internalize a kind of disciplinary power, for fear of who might be watching or observing our aberrant behaviors. It’s the principle behind every security camera in every store you’ve ever walked through. It’s the principle behind all the CCTV cameras you see if you walk the streets of London. It’s the principle behind whatever it is that makes you pause for a second before downloading something you’re not sure about, because, well, who might be watching? But more than any of that, it’s the principle behind that song I learned as a Sunday School child, and it’s the unexamined assumption at work for many of us when we think about God. It’s the reason that I realized at some point during college that I did not love God. It’s the reason I wished, and still wish, to twist free of God, to forget God, to dwell in the shadowlands where such a God can’t find me or see me, and where something like freedom might even exist.
My friend Doug tells a story to illustrate what it feels like to live under the scrutiny of the Big Powerful Sky Father, to live within the divine panopticon. Imagine a growing up in a house, he says, where your great uncle Harvey lives upstairs in the attic. Uncle Harvey doesn’t like to be seen, and he hasn’t come down from the attic in years. Nor does he accept visitors upstairs. And so you’ve never seen Uncle Harvey, but you’ve been told that he’s up there. And furthermore, you’ve been told that Uncle Harvey actually loves you very much. Even though you’ve never seen Uncle Harvey, he does write letters, and sometimes at night, your family reads them together. Uncle Harvey writes a lot about how much he loves everyone in your family, but he has things he wants you to do to show him that you love him back. If you fail to do those things, because you don’t want to, or because you forget, he might remind you of his presence, and of his love for you, with a little electric jolt, nothing big, just a little zap to remind you of what you need to be doing. But sometimes in his letters, he talks about the big zap, the one that comes if you haven’t proven your love to Uncle Harvey before you die. For a while, you profess your love for Uncle Harvey, and you do as he says. Before long, however, you begin to resent the letters, the admonitions, the veiled threats, the manipulative and egocentric declarations of love. Not long after that, you make arrangements to move out of the house entirely, because negotiating the family dysfunction is too burdensome.
It’s a limited metaphor, I know, but it captures something of what it feels like to live in the presence, if it is that, of the Big Powerful Sky Father. And I could be wrong, but I suspect there’s a part within many of us that feels that way about God. I suspect it’s something of why people drift away from church in adolescence and their early adult years. I suspect it’s why some of us feel a certain reluctance about religion, even if we do show up at church. As with Augie, I suspect it’s rooted in certain childhood conceptions and experiences, and then reinforced by layers of cultural sedimentation from popular culture and political discourses and half heard sermons and psychological projections. I suspect it comes from a good many sources, maybe deeper than that. But I also suspect some portion of us longs to be free of that gaze, of those expectations, of that emotional blackmail. Even if it’s barely conscious, even if we’re not fully aware, I suspect more than a few of us have found ourselves longing to escape that God.
What I want to accomplish this morning is to set the stage for what comes next. Because it so happens that people of faith have come up against the problem I’m describing for a long time now. Martin Luther was tormented by his own struggle with the Big Powerful Sky Father, until he found a way to reread the Bible with different eyes. He wound up writing: “You must not climb up to God, but rather begin where God began – in his mother’s womb. If you wish to be certain in your conscience…then you must know no God at all apart from this human Jesus, and depend upon this, his humanity.”
And so it’s a kind of Lutheran project that I’ll be following in the coming weeks. With Luther, I’ve come to believe that the story of Jesus isn’t a way of reinforcing images of the Big Powerful Sky Father, but rather a way of shattering them. I’ve come to believe that the story of Jesus is a therapy for those of us who have grown weary of religion, for those of us who chafe against the gaze of the penal God. I’ve come to believe that the story of Jesus is a kind of therapy we can undergo in order to free ourselves from the power of the almighty. Jesus, it turns out, leads us toward a certain atheism far more than Marx, or Freud, or Nietzsche, or any of the so called new atheists like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens. Because to read the Gospels carefully is to come to the realization that the God Jesus gives expression to, the Father that he proclaims, is something far smaller, far more humble, far less powerful, far more shabby, than the Big Powerful Sky Father of religion. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus calls himself the Son of Man, which is far better translated as “the Human One.” In Jesus, I’ve come to believe we discover a frail and vulnerable God who serves as a corrective to the Big Powerful Sky Father, one that invites us all deeper into our own humanity.
That’s the Lenten journey I want to take us on. As the Big Powerful Sky Father is being called into service yet again for a variety of national and international projects, I wish to declare my disbelief. I wish to cry foul, and to say, “Your God is Too Big.” I wish to do so in the name of Jesus, in the name of the love of Jesus, in the name of my love for Jesus. During this season of Lent, I want to help us all to fall in love with Jesus, maybe for the first time, and maybe all over again. What I want is for all of us to discover Jesus as if for the first time.
 This sermon has Doug’s insights scattered throughout. You can find in his book references to Foucault’s panopticon, and the Sunday School song I reference later. The power of his writing, however, is that it captured experiences that I, and many others, have had in almost identical terms. See Doug Frank, A Gentler God (Albatross Books, 2010).
 I term I’ve appropriated from Doug Frank.
 From a chapel talk I heard more than twenty years ago at Messiah College.
 Quoted in Gerhard Ebeling, Luther: An Introduction to His Thought (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972), pgs. 234-235. As quoted in A Gentler God, pgs. 196-197.