The trapdoor in my gut

(Sermon for February 8, 2009 || Epiphany 5, Year B, RCL || Isaiah 40:21-31)

When I am engaged in a mundane activity—say, brushing my teeth or counting the bleary-eyed seconds until I hit snooze again or watching the digital numbers flick by on the counters at the gas station—the activity itself occupies only a tiny portion of my brain’s processing power. So the rest of my mind often wanders into other sections of my body. Sometimes, my mind meanders past my throat and lungs and finds its way down through that trapdoor in my gut. And I begin to ask those questions that make my gut twinge and pulse, like the feeling you get after narrowly avoiding a car accident.

I’ll be wrapping the floss around my fingers or anticipating the snap of the nozzle that signals a full tank of fuel, and I’ll look up at the sky and say, “Why do you care about me, Lord?” Then the cars will collide in my gut because, in that moment, everything I’ve ever believed is branded with a big red stamp of the word “FOOLISHNESS.”

Why do you care about me, Lord? This gut-twinging question doesn’t necessarily speculate on God’s existence. The question isn’t: “Do you exist, Lord?” There’s no reason to ask God if God exists. That would be like asking all the absent people in a classroom to raise their hands. Instead, the question acknowledges that God does, indeed, exist, but wonders why the heck God would ever care about an insignificant, messy, little thing like me. Of course, there’s no reason why God should care. This is truly first-rate foolishness.

The prophet Isaiah doesn’t help matters. He says, “It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing… To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? says the Holy One.”

There’s a tension in our scriptures — a twofold presentation — about how God relates to us that feeds the pulsing in my gut. The dual stories of creation in the opening chapters of the book of Genesis illustrate this tension. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…” says the first verse of Genesis. The narrative goes on to tell how God spoke creation into being. Creation was ordered: light separated from darkness, day from night, land from sea from sky. God orchestrated the emergence of life and proclaimed the creation “good” and, indeed, “very good.” This ordering, this filling the void with matter and energy and life and light, speaks of the Cosmic Creator, whose voice and arm stretch into the vast expanse of eternity. This is the understanding of God that Bette Midler promotes when she sings: “God is watching us from a distance.” This is the understanding of God that the Enlightenment era Deists caricatured as a great Watchmaker, who set the gears running and then left well enough alone.

The second chapter of Genesis presents another view of this same creative God. God is not standing at the podium, waving a baton as the performing forces of creation harmonize the music of life. In the second story, God, rather the being the conductor, is the instrumentalist: God plays each violin and French horn and clarinet. “In the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens,” says Genesis, God bent down in the dust and formed a human being. Then, into his nostrils, God breathed the “breath of life.” When the human became lonely, God put him to sleep, and out of the man’s own flesh God created another human being. As the story continues, the man and woman heard God “walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze.” This movement and participation in the creation, this intimacy, speak of the God who eventually becomes incarnate as the word made flesh, Jesus Christ. This is the understanding of God that Joan Osbourne wonders about when she sings: “What if God was one of us…just a stranger on the bus trying to make his way home?” This is the understanding of God that the old hymn describes: “And he walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am his own.”

The tension between our understanding of God as “Cosmic Creator” and as “Intimate Companion” brings us back to the gut-twinging question: “Why do you care about me, Lord?” In those moments of existential angst, the Cosmic Creator easily trumps the Intimate Companion because the former seems so much bigger, holier, more powerful. When my gut compares the two, the latter seems somehow lessened by my own shabbiness.

And this misguided transfer of shabbiness is difficult to suspend. Human nature dictates that we narcissistically use ourselves as the measuring sticks by which other things are evaluated. Our ability to reason, manufacture tools, and put our thoughts into speech elevates us above other animals. We then use these factors to order other species by “intelligence.” Chimpanzees eat using rudimentary utensils. Dolphins communicate with their cackling code. Therefore, based on the anthropomorphic scale, these creatures are closer to our presumed preeminence.

But the scale works the other way, as well. Our penchants for betrayal, mistrust, indifference and our well-rehearsed disregard for the welfare of others knock a bleaker set of notches into the measuring stick. When the gut-twinging question surfaces – “Why do you care about me, Lord? – these regrettable attributes emigrate from our world and narcissistically modify our understanding of God.

Having thus remade God in my own lamentable image, the collision in my gut worsens. The Cosmic Creator looks down and sees a bunch of tiny grasshoppers, so why should that God be bothered? The Intimate Companion is probably just as apathetic and self-centered as I am, so why should that God care?

Do you see the twisted, oxymoronic reasoning that leads to these conclusions? The gut-twinging question appears when I notice my own laughable insignificance. At the same time, I use myself as the measuring stick for which to assess God’s motivation to care about me. This logic definitely deserves the red FOOLISHNESS stamp.

You see, when the prophet Isaiah expounds on God’s greatness and ineffability, he is not extolling God’s distance and isolation. Instead, he is warning people not to engage in the foolish business of looking for God in the mirror. The Holy One says, “To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal?” The answer is quite obviously a resounding “NO ONE!” When you escape the twisted logic that seeks to anthropomorphize God, you are one step closer to resolving the gut-twinging question – “Why do you care about me, Lord?”

God as Cosmic Creator, who “stretches out the heavens like a curtain,” did not need a reason to speak creation into being. I might need a reason to build a bookcase or compose a letter, but God doesn’t need to share my motivations. If God did not need a reason to create, why would that same creator need a reason to care about us insignificant grasshoppers? God’s very greatness subsumes the “Why” question into God’s eternal being and renders it irrelevant. With the “Why” expunged, the gut-twinging question becomes a glorious statement of faith: “You care about me, Lord.”

You care about me, Lord. When I finally realize this, I notice that God as Intimate Companion has been whispering these words in my ear the whole time. Then I realize that God’s care for me (another word for which is grace) enables and enthuses me to care for others. The penchant for betrayal and disregard for others’ welfare, once unfairly plastered onto God’s being, now fall away as God continues to make me in God’s own image.

Our world is vast and full of questions. We are insignificant. We are messy. We are little things. But God’s vastness stretches into eternity. In staggering showers of grace-filled generosity, God both answers and removes the need to question. In those same showers falls the gift of sanctifying love, which removes our insignificance and scrubs us cleans. As we discern the Cosmic Creator and Intimate Companion in the same loving face of God, more words from the prophet Isaiah resound: “Those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”