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.