Small Gods

Small Gods

December 06, 2020 | Sarah Stewart

I love watching those images, it reminds me of all of you, which I love. And I love the diversity of the ways in which we imagined the divine. There were images of nature. holy symbol, the connection between humans, especially the love between parents and children, music, the cosmos. Art, images of caring for one another, mathematics, symbols of peace. These images show all the different ways that we have in our church of thinking about the divine. Some of us believe in a God who directs our lives. Some of us believe God is a loving presence. Some believe that God is a powerful presence who suffers with us in our hardest moments. Some of us believe in no God at all. Some of us believe in an inherent worth and dignity arising out of our humanity. Some believe in a cosmic judge. One of the beautiful things about Unitarian Universalism is that we all come together in this church with all those different understandings of the Divine, and we covenant together to walk together in faith. Take a moment to call to mind, your image, your belief, what speaks to your heart, about God. You know, it says right in our covenant, that one of the things we do in this church is worship God. We've been saying that covenant almost exactly the same way for over 100 years. Those ancestors who adopted our covenant could never have imagined a year like this. Our values have been put to the test this year when we have not been able to gather. Our bylaws say we exist to promote an exalting and rational religion in Worcester; and how do we do that when we can't worship together? How do we support one another in always reaching our minds and souls beyond our current understanding? How do we worship God?  How do we lift our praise and joy to the universe? What do we do about the fact that we simply miss one another and miss the divine orientation, our church brings to our lives? One thing that's been really clear to me is that we don't believe that God lives here. As beautiful as this building is, this is but one home of the holy, and something we've learned over these past hard months is that the holy lives in so many places, in each of our own homes, in our own hearts. In the connection and love we feel for one another, in the caring we show for each other. In the natural world, which has been such a blessing. during these hard times. The Holy visits this space, it is welcomed here, but it does not live only here in these four walls of the church. And as we have navigated the coronavirus and how to stay safe during this time of the pandemic, guiding principles for me have been safety, connection, and support.

We know that God is everywhere, so, we don't need to risk our safety in order to only worship together here in these four walls. One of my goals is that no one should catch COVID here at First Unitarian Church.

Connection has been a guiding value; the spirit is greater when we are together than when we are alone. So, how can we come together across the distance? How can we use digital tools, and the internet, and telephone calls, and outdoor walks, to connect to each other and to build human community?

And then support, support of one another, and of people in the wider community. We have continued our work with refugee families, early in the pandemic, we helped our Methodist neighbors reopen their soup kitchen, members of this church have reached out to other members to just check in and make sure that they're doing all right. We've helped with pet care and grocery delivery and getting to medical appointments. Caring, is one of the guiding principles of this church. One of the ways that we know we're worshipping the sacred.

These values tell me something about how we understand the holy amidst all the diversity of our beliefs. Our deepest values include caring for individual human beings. And what makes our lives more sacred is found in our connections to each other. Each one of us has access to the divine, even when we can't come to church, and we have the resources to help one another. I think this says something about the kind of God we mean when we say we worship God in our covenant, an empowering spirit, a spirit of wisdom, a spirit of caring, a spirit of presence and connection. These hard times have stretched our understanding of the Divine past anything we had thought possible. They have shown us in our caring and in our connection to the holy that our church points us toward our highest values, even when we cannot be together. Eleventh century Saint Anselm of Canterbury said that “God is that then which nothing greater can be thought”. Now, that's a little bit of a dry formula, maybe even more so because it's translated from Latin, but try it out, think about that for a minute, “God is that then which nothing greater can be thought”. So, think of the greatest possible love. Remember all your experiences of caring, of kindness, of compassion, and grace. Imagine for yourself what perfect love and caring would be. Stretch your mind and your heart to their limit. And when they are stretched to that limit, that, or just beyond it, is an understanding of God. That's what Anselm said, “if a man is only known meanness and parsimonious love in his life, and a newborn child opens the floodgates of his heart, his understanding of God, just grew”.

God is not limited by our experience or our imagination. God hovers just on the edge of what we can know. Our ancient traditions offer many different understandings of God. The Bible is full of metaphors to describe the Almighty, as though language can barely contain the Law Giver, the Righteous One, the Judge, the Lover of Mercy. Our reading this morning was from ancient Jewish writings that imagine the Spirit of God going forth as the woman Wisdom, ceding goodness and righteousness in human beings wherever she goes. God is a tiny baby in the manger. God is a storm of cloud and fire atop a mountain. God is so brilliant, that no one can look God in the face. God is the smell of sweet incense and the clothing of justice. God is breath. God is a wise woman. God is so great that no image contains God. This notion that ‘the divine is that then which nothing greater can be thought’ this might speak to you even if you don't believe in God, because your deepest truth and highest values might be like this. To orient your life toward truth, like this church, which gathers in the love of truth, that means to keep pushing your understanding toward what is true and real in the world. It means not accepting substitutes. It means not letting a set of too small, partial facts stand in the way of the whole truth, which is supreme. What we pledge our hearts to deserves to be this big. It deserves to be at the edge of what we know, so that we are always striving toward it, and never satisfied with lesser way stations on the path.

Theologians have been aware of the problems that can arise when people have gods that are too small, when they stop that expansiveness of understanding before reaching the very limit. J.B. Philips actually wrote a book called Your God Is Too Small. Here are some possible too small gods in his words, a Grand Old Man, who was a great power in his day, but who could not possibly be expected to keep pace with modern progress. The God of Absolute Perfection, who insists on complete and total loyalty and flawless performance. The Heavenly Bosom, who provides limitless solace and comfort without ever asking for anything in return, the Resident Policeman, who serves as the nagging internal voice that, at worst, spoils our pleasure, and at best, keeps us, rather negatively, on the path of virtue. For the Distance Star God, who observes life from very far away, but fails to warm the world with the qualities of sacredness. What theologians and psychologists have recognized is that when people adopt a too small God, it limits their human flourishing and development, it limits imagination and what's possible in the name of goodness. There was an experiment done about this concept of too small Gods; stories were written about two people in slightly different circumstances, who had the same religious reaction to what was going on with them. The stories were left open ended, and then they were given both to clergy and to psychologists to read, and those clergy and psychologists were asked to evaluate whether these theological beliefs were well integrated and helping the people, or poorly integrated and keeping the people from understanding something true about their lives and their circumstances. One such story was about two different sick men.

In the first story, Mark starts to complain about headaches, nausea, and dizziness. He goes to the doctor, and unfortunately, he's diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. He has a rapidly growing tumor; the cancer has metastasized. The doctor didn't even have to tell Mark how long he had to live, he knows that his time is very, very short. And from his faith, Mark responds to this in a feeling that there is nothing now more that he can do to improve his health, and he believes that his life is in God's hands. He believes that if he puts things in God's hands, it will all be okay. He asks God to take control of his life and to comfort him, and he surrenders to God's will. Now in the other story, the other story is about Ben, and Ben also has a serious health problem, he starts to have pains in his chest and has trouble breathing. But when Ben goes to see the doctor, the doctor tells him that his blood pressure is high, and that he is at risk for a heart attack. But the doctor prescribes medicine for Ben and helps him understand a better diet and exercise that will help his heart. The doctor tries to reassure Ben that as long as he starts taking care of his heart, he has no reason to be concerned. The doctor stressed to Ben how important this early intervention will be and that he was lucky for catching it before anything serious occurred. But Ben has the same theological response that Mark had, Ben felt that there's nothing he can do now to improve his health. He believes that nothing he could do would make any difference in how things are going to turn out and he hands his life over to God. He puts things in God's hands and believes that it will all be okay. He is waiting for God to take control of his life and to comfort him, and he has surrendered everything to God's will. Now, both the psychologists and the clergy people of different faiths believed that Mark's faith was well integrated and helped him flourish as a human being and responded truly to God's will. Whereas Ben’s story did not, even though the words of their faith were the same, how it applied to their circumstance was different. It's like the story of a drowning woman who turns away, a piece of flotsam, a throne floatation device, and even a rescue helicopter saying, “God will save me”, and it doesn't occur to her that God may have sent her the tools to use. It doesn't occur to Ben, that God may have put the doctor in his life, in order to help him live longer. It doesn't occur to him that his faith encompasses medical interventions and lifestyle changes. His God is too small, and he might die because of it. Ultimately the measure of our highest values and our deepest beliefs, the measure of the Divine ideal we believe in, is our actions. As Unitarian Universalists, we don't have a creed. We have a covenant that asks us to unite in being and doing good in the world. It's true that our church gatherings have been very different since late March. But the values of our church call us forward in our caring for one another, and for our neighbors, and our communities. Our covenant reminds us to love truth, follow Jesus spirit, unite with one another, worship our highest ideals, and serve everyone. We are called always to seek the highest truth, the wisest spirit, the truest God, and the widest definition of all. It is our life's work, the journey of our days, and one we can be proud to walk in together.

I love you all.