Carla J. Bailey, March 19, 2017
Scripture Acts 17:16–17, 19–20
In the late 1970s, a social historian by the name of Ernest Kurtz wrote a remarkably researched history of Alcoholics Anonymous, called Not God (Hazelden Educational Services, 1979). It caused a quite a stir in the 12-step community, inasmuch as it was the first fully documented, academic history of a movement that had theretofore remained largely anonymous, successful on a strictly individual basis, un-institutionalized and unpublicized. Famous alcoholics were still, as to their participation in AA, adhering to the principle of anonymity at the level of press, radio and television. Now, 40 years later, the culture is quite a bit different. Bill W. and Dr. Bob, founders of AA, could not have imagined the impact of the Internet or the culture of fame or the explosion of treatable illness theories. When they first wrote and collected the stories in the Big Book, the bible for AA, they wanted simply to tell others how they were able to get and stay sober, one day at a time, and to describe the perils of their own personalities that could so easily seduce them into just one drink. Primary among those insights and nuggets of wisdom is the confession that we are not, any of us, God.
Around the same time Ernest Kurtz’s book was published in the 70s, the feminist movement was beginning to produce thoughtful and equally well-researched psychological and social theories about women’s experience in our stubbornly patriarchal culture. One such strand of research critiqued the fundamental principles of Alcoholics Anonymous as being a movement that could be largely successful for men but somewhat less helpful for women because of this very “not God” confession. For men, the realization that you are not God (sorry, guys) is a cornerstone to achieving and maintaining sobriety. It is actually a relief, I would imagine, to relinquish the grip on an anchor that drags men beneath the surface of an alcoholic ocean. Once that grip is released, a life free of cunning and baffling alcohol is made possible. Women, on the other hand, are already pretty much aware that we are not God, having had that notion regularly disabused. This was not new news then or now. The realization that we are not God is a little like saying the sky is blue or that some promotion went to a younger, less-educated and under-experienced man. Have you read about or seen the interaction between Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Trump? For women struggling to remain clean and sober, a different relinquishment is often required, but that’s for another sermon on another day.
“Not God” is, in spite of its gender particularities, a crucial self-realization if one wants to get and stay sober, or free of drugs, or gambling, or overeating, or any other obsessive behavior causing self-destruction and danger to others. There is something else more powerful than me, something that is not another human being, not money, not status or success or my smart mouth or excessive education. That something is benevolent, kind, forgiving and powerful—more powerful than the drug from which I am trying to free myself, more powerful than the shameful self-image I am carrying around, more powerful than my boss, my husband or my history of bad behavior. That power is more powerful than anything else that has power over me. For some reason it’s been much on my mind that we all would do well to spend a little time with that humble concept.
A good many of you here this morning have never had a problem with alcoholism or drug addiction, never had to confess that you have let some area of your life gain complete and destructive power over you. All psychobabble to the contrary, not everyone needs the 12 steps to regain or maintain sanity. They are not a blueprint for every human life. But every one of us, without exception, and some of us more than others, should ponder the fact that we are not ourselves divine—the Deity, the all-intelligent, all-powerful, all-magnanimous head honcho in charge of the universe and all that is therein we think we are.
Something, someone, some power, some creative and forgiving and loving life force is.
Religion is always attempting to describe that something, and, since what we know most about is our own human bodies and experiences, we most often use human characteristics—both physical and psychosocial—to describe the Deity. Why else would we think of God as a father or a son? Or as a liberator or creator? Lots of people think God isn’t found in churches, preferring to feel that uplifting breath of inspiration in the woods or on the shore of Lake Superior or gazing across the Grand Canyon. Me? I actually experience God among friends who are also working together to do good and be good, so I find the experience of God’s Spirit in and among church folks who get together to sing, pray, explore and strategize cultural transformation based on our faith. Some people, mostly women, believe they have learned something elemental about God in the process of giving birth. Experiencing justice after a long night of oppression brings insight to the experience of the holy. Waking up out of a nightmare to the comfort of a lover’s soothing voice gives a view into how God is Comforter. Releasing an old anger, letting go of a nagging resentment, discovering you are not afraid after all—all these are experiences of God, are they not? But they are all limited, because we are limited—even the most conceited among us would concede that there are parameters to what we can know through our own experience, our own senses, capabilities, insights.
In a most provocative book, With or Without God (Harper Perennial, 2008), United Church of Canada preacher and pastor Gretta Vosper challenges every notion even the most progressive Christian among us holds about the Deity, Scripture, religious authority and the future of the Church. Listen to these words in her introduction: “I know no proof of God beyond personal experience, and I cannot acknowledge that proof as substantial. Personal experience is the most often claimed reason for belief in God, Allah or Krishna, but it is also the most often claimed reason for the lack of belief in those same deities. I prefer to acknowledge my ignorance in regard to matters of which I can have no reproducible evidence.” Gretta Vosper points to one of the most perplexing and dangerous paradoxes of religion: that our experience of the holy is deeply personal and individual, while at the same time, personal, individual experience must always be suspect, influenced as it so often is by the limitations of human life itself—fatigue; personality; psychological, mental and emotional health. And yet, is she saying that there is nothing greater than our own experiences? Is there nothing on which we can rely when we ourselves have come up against the immovable object, the repercussions of sick power or twisted systems of corruption that debase humans?
In the chapter titled “Reconstructing Christianity,” Rev. Vosper attempts to articulate a new way of experiencing the holy. “Once we recognize that it is absolutely acceptable, if not necessary, to explore the idea of god as a being, we can come up with all sorts of ways of thinking about god that are unorthodox, that is, not protected by the church. We might consider that god is what exists between two people. Whenever we choose to honor what exists between us, we strengthen the god in our world; if we desecrate our relationship, we do the opposite. Or we might think about god as everything that is good in the world.”
I am not as ready as Rev. Vosper to reduce our experience of God or our discernment of the holy in human life to these relatively small encounters. I agree with her that the Church has had far too tight a grip on assessing right and wrong in our thinking about what is and what is not acceptable interpretation of Scripture, sacred experience and categories of behavior. But that is our human limitation inasmuch as the Church is a human expression of God’s will and God’s hope and an attempt to follow the ways and teachings of Jesus, however imperfectly. I am reminded of Unitarian Universalist Christian minister Wallace W. Robbins’s wonderful words in his For Everything There Is a Season: Meditations for the Christian Year (Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship, 1978): “All words about religion are shallow vessels; they overflow before the first dipper of truth has been poured into them. All words about religion are faulty pitchers; they leak throughout the path from the spring to the kitchen. All words about religion are adulterated; they infect the pure truth they were intended to keep unsullied with the vain hopes and the cynical dirt which every hand puts to them. Thus it can be said that religious words do not contain the whole truth, or are almost empty of truth, or that they are, as to truth, impure. And this has all been said many times by those who, in temporary doubt or malicious spirit, think to discredit the belief that a fountainhead exists. It is a very illogical conclusion. One cannot say with reason that the well is dry because the pail is small, leaky and dirty. We can more properly say that between our thirst for righteousness and the living water of God there is a less than perfect means of conveyance.”
The prophet Jeremiah wrote to the Israelites of the dangers of turning away from God. The first is that when we forsake the God who is the fountain of living water, we forsake the God who is life itself. We have, in other words, determined that God is a pleasant but unnecessary entity, inspiration for some great poetry, music and art, but otherwise, not terribly important to the real world. When we do that, we risk dying of thirst.
The second evil, after having forsaken God who is, at least according to Jeremiah, the living water, is that when we strike out for ourselves—attempt to come up with our own solutions, to make up our own plans, our own tools, even our own cisterns to hold our own water, we are doomed to fail, because our cisterns are cracked and won’t hold water for very long. Our plans, however well-intentioned, are not complete if they are not replenished by the waters of the living God. Our work will drain our spirits. Our egos, strong enough to keep out the acknowledgement that we need God’s wisdom in our efforts, will too often keep truth locked out as well.
It’s difficult for independent, tough, successful and powerful people to relinquish all the power that has come to us by cultural conquest and to admit ultimate powerlessness. It’s difficult to recognize that as smart as we are, as experienced, capable and vigorous, we cannot ever be powerful enough to be God. And it’s difficult to accept that when we relinquish power, let it go, let it drop, give it away, thereafter we become powerful in life-nourishing, refreshing, hopeful, loving ways. In a strange way, that is what Paul was trying to convey to those savvy Athenians who thought they had covered all their bases in their icons, temples, statues, idols and governance policies by adding the altar “to the unknown god.” In a brilliant bit of preaching, Paul used the very words the Athenians used to cover what they thought couldn’t be known as knowable, trustworthy and true. “The God who made the world and everything in it, Ruler of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is served by human hands, as though needing anything, since that very God gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.”
Here is what I know: if we have become so independent we have forsaken God; if we have convinced ourselves we have the best solutions, if only others would listen to us; if we have decided our cisterns are wholly adequate to carry the living water God has offered us; then we have become little gods, marching inexorably and cheerfully to our own demise. But if we can glimpse, even if only fleetingly, that there is a power greater than ourselves, a Power that is benevolent, kind, forgiving and loving, then we will have drunk from the fountain of living water. And that is the water that actually can quench our thirst. Amen.