What God Is…Maybe

Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 10/27/2013

Reading: Exodus 3:1-15
We’ve already heard one story from the book of Exodus in the Hebrew Bible today, and we’re now going to hear another story, the story that’s outlined in the Book of Job, also in the Hebrew Bible.

You may know this story. You may remember that Job was a successful business- and family-man who did everything right in the eyes of his fellow human beings and in the eyes of God, too. He was faithful and prudent and kind and all those things that we are told we are supposed to be, both by religions and by other people.

God and Satan observed Job in all these nice ways that he had, and God says, see, there’s one guy who follows the rules and loves me like I am always telling people they should, and Satan says, well, I bet he wouldn’t if things didn’t go his way all the time, and God basically says, okay, let’s see what happens if things don’t go his way. And, whether this is fair or not, all sorts of terrible things start to happen to Job.

Job had huge stocks of cattle and oxen and sheep and donkeys, because he was a very wealthy man, and he loses them all. His family all dies. His servants are killed. Job loses his health as well, becomes covered with sores. Bit by bit, event by event, Job is left with nothing - except a rather irritating wife - and so Job goes out to a heap of ashes on the outskirts of town and just sits there, utterly alone, wondering what happened.

You see, in the culture in which Job lives, it’s understood that all the good things you receive come right from God, for which you should be grateful and appreciative. Job’s culture says, if you do the right things, live the right way, then you will be rewarded by God. And by converse, if you aren’t doing very well, you can probably guess that there is something you did wrong.

But here is Job in this story, Job the Conundrum, because he never did anything wrong. As a result, he has no idea why he should be suffering so. It goes against everything he and his people understand about the nature of the universe.

The main part of the book of Job, something like 3/4ths of the book, is made up of Job’s annoying friends, who habitually visit him on his ash heap to tell him about all the things that he must have done wrong to deserve all this bad luck. They really dig deep in their search for reasons, because it is not an option to consider the possibly that Job didn’t do anything wrong, didn’t deserve this misery at all. Job himself searches his soul and looks for any wrongdoing or sin and finds nothing.

Eventually, chapters and chapters of “friendly” advice later, Job gets mad. He demands to know from God what’s going on. He mounts a defense of himself, saying he has been blameless. He complains that God is not listening to him. He complains that God has abandoned him. Job demands that God explain himself. Yet God remains silent through all of this.

When God finally answers, it’s a wonderful relief to the reader. Finally, we think, Job, and we, will get some sort of answer.

And yet God’s answer is not really an answer at all, not to the real questions that Job has been posing. Instead, God starts with some sarcastic pushback: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements – surely you know.”

Then God goes on to list all the things that God has done, harnessing the sea, laying the cornerstone to the earth, seeing the gates of death itself, seeing the expanse of the universe, learning who the father of rain is, creating lightning, making all the creatures in all their mysterious and wonderful ways. God goes on and on like this for several chapters, outlining all the wonders of the universe that God is a part of and Job is not.

Job becomes quite overwhelmed by God’s response and says, “See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth.” (Job 40:4)

In the whole book, God never answers the question of why Job suffered. God never even addresses events at the human level at all. God just points out all the other grand things under God’s purview, such as the whole of creation through all of time. God makes it such that Job withdraws the question, because Job sees that what he thought the world was like was a view that was far too small to fit reality.

I read a quote recently from a Rosemary Chinnici, who is a retired professor of pastoral theology at Starr King School for the Ministry, one of our UU seminaries out in California. Chinnici says that, like Job, “most of us come to a time when we realize that the faith we have inherited is inadequate for what we are facing [in our real lives]…At such moments we have three choices: We can hold on to our religious beliefs and deny our experience, we can hold on to our experience and walk away from religion altogether, or… we can become theologians.

[Chinnici]… recommend[s] the third option.” So do I. [Quote adapted from a quote from Rev. Scott Tayler, Soul Matters packet.]

And when we ask ourselves what God is, like we are today, then we are doing this important work of becoming theologians ourselves.

The fact of the matter is, though, that even though I consider myself a practical theologian, I can’t really tell you what God is. In part, that is because God appears somewhat differently to every person, including not appearing at all, and also the face of God most important to any particular person changes over the course of time. You may be comfortable with one version of God today – or no version at all – and next year, if you keep at it, you’ll likely prefer a different one, and it will be different again in five years, and twenty. Of this I am sure.

But mostly I can’t really tell you what God is because my God is the one from Job.

I, too, like Job, like all of you, live in a world primarily made up of people who think they know what God is and what God wants, and then they either follow that notion or they don’t. But when push comes to shove, when we are forced by circumstance to become theologians because what we thought we understood has become inadequate for what we are facing in our real lives, then, sometimes, we see a definition of God that is new. A new definition of God, a theology, that has grown to fit the world we actually live in.

Educator Parker Palmer writes :
The God I was told about in church, and still hear about from time to time, runs about like an anxious schoolmaster measuring people’s behavior with a moral yardstick. But the God I know is the source of reality rather than morality, the source of what is rather than what ought to be. [Palmer, Parker. Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2000. P. 51.]

God is the source of, not morality like I might have been taught, but reality. But should we be so surprised? God told Moses his name: I Am . God told Moses that his name is synonymous with Reality. And that’s what I think God is, too. God, to the extent that I understand God, is synonymous with the ultimate reality of the world.

Deepak Chopra wrote a book called The Third Jesus, where he takes a new look at Jesus’ teachings. Chopra writes:

The most important activity of the mind isn’t the war between good and evil. It's the sifting of real from unreal… Jesus says as much in his own words on the occasions when he warns against the illusion of the material world… [Jesus’] teaching is all about choosing to align yourself with God because [God] alone is real.
[Chopra, Deepak. The Third Jesus: The Christ We Cannot Ignore. New York: Harmony Books, 2008. P. 192.]

God alone is real. Not to say that the God that lives on some otherworldly fuzzy spiritual plane that you learned about is real, and what you see every day is not. I choose to interpret the idea that God alone is real by flipping the phrase around, to say: There are things in the world that are most real, and those things are synonymous with, they equal, God. Reality - ultimate, foundational reality – is what we’re trying to talk about when we’re talking about God.

And many of the things we human beings live with day to day - self-doubt, lovelessness, loneliness, fear for our safety, worry about change, fear of death, suffering – many of the things we human beings live with day-to-day aren’t ultimate reality. There’s a far bigger reality, God’s reality, that is really real. That’s what the God of Job and Deepak Chopra are both saying.

This is complicated. Let me restate the idea using some of Parker Palmer’s words. He says: “The God whom I know dwells quietly in the root system of the very nature of things.”

The God whom I know dwells quietly in the root system of the very nature of things.

If God is in the root system of the very nature of things, what does that tell you about how to interact with God?

Last time I was preaching I read some quotes from JB Phillips, who wrote a great book in the 1950s called Your God is Too Small. Remember how I said he had different names for all the too-small Gods, like Resident Policeman God or Parental Hangover God? He has another point that goes well here, about folks who might tend to believe in a Perennially Disappointing God. He says:

What has usually happened to such people [who are always disappointed by God] is that they have set up in their minds what they think God ought or ought not to do, and when He apparently fails to toe their particular line they feel a sense of grievance. Yet it is surely more sensible, as well as more fitting, for us human beings to find out, as far as we can, the ways in which God works. We have to discover as far as we can the limits He has set Himself for the purposes of this Great Experiment that we call Life – and then do our best to align ourselves with the principles and co-operate with the purposes that we have certainly had no say in deciding, but which nevertheless in our highest moments we know are good. God will inevitably appear to disappoint the man who is attempting to use him as a convenience, a prop, or a comfort for his own plans. God has never been known to disappoint the man who sincerely wanted to co-operate with [God’s] own purposes.

Recap: We have to discover the limits that God has set for this Great Experiment that we call Life. In our highest moments, we know that these limits are good ones, are worthwhile ones. God has never been known to disappoint the person who sincerely wanted to co-operate with God’s own purposes.

How do we interpret these ideas in light of the notion that God is synonymous with ultimate reality? If God is ultimately real, if God’s very name is I AM, what sort of goals or purposes might this ultimate reality have? And what sorts of goals and purposes might this ultimate reality have that are quite different from my goals and purposes? And how much of the pain of my life is made up of friction between my goals and God’s goals, or the goals of the ultimate reality?

The God whom I know dwells quietly in the root system of the very nature of things.

If the very nature of things is somehow inherently good, is synonymous with God, then does that not color everything you see around you and everything you experience? If you approach reality as divine, can you see all the very real things that you haven’t been treating with the reverence that it deserves?

And how about you, my friend, you with your sins and your weaknesses and your strengths and your stunning distinctiveness? Are you not created to be the way you are? Are you not reality?

Parker Palmer again: “The God I know,” Palmer writes, “does not ask us to conform to some abstract norm for the ideal self. God asks us only to honor our created nature, which means our limits as well as potential. When we fail to do so,” Palmer writes, when we fail to honor our created, real natures, “reality happens – God happens – and way closes behind us.”

In other words, when we fail to honor our real selves, things become more difficult. We haven’t co-operated with God’s own purpose, with reality’s own purpose, which in this case is to have someone just like you being the most you you can be. And when we fail to co-operate with God’s purpose, when we fail to be ourselves and instead try really hard to be some unreal ideal, then life can get rough.

Maybe this is also what Job found out. He had been asking the wrong questions all along, the Bible tells us, questions about deserving and fair and earning the right to exist. God swooped in at the last and showed him a much vaster and broader world. God never said what Job was supposed to do with this knowledge, this broad perspective of reality. But writer Annie Dillard does, in her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. She says
“We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here. Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise.” [p. 9]

Cry out in our search for that which is real, which is good, for God.

Or sing out the proper praise for this marvelous creation in which we play our own important, irreplaceable part.

But either way, when we search for God, we search for that which is most foundational and most real. There is no other way to access the vast peace and good fortune that God is reputed to provide. There is no other way to create a theology big enough to handle all the world has to offer, leaving no person, no idea, no created thing, behind.

So may it be. Amen.