Garden of Grace United Church of Christ, Columbia, S.C.
Readings: Psalm 139:7-12, Matthew 6:25-34
Back in the early 1990s I hosted a radio talk show in Gainesville, Georgia. Each year we had to do our shows on location at one of the local festivals called the “Corn Tassel Festival.” None of the on-air personalities liked going out to this festival and doing their shows there so we called it the “Corn Hassle Festival.”
Gainesville, at the time, was not a very large town and my talk show was quite well known. In fact, I knew it was time to get out of town when I was recognized by my voice by the supermarket checkout attendant. But, during this particular Corn Hassle Festival, a woman came up to the tent where I was doing my show and asked, “Are you Candace Petersen?” (I was using an air name since “Chellew” is such a hard name to pronounce.)
“Yes, ma’am,” I smiled.
She paused, looked me up and down, wrinkled her brow and finally said, “I thought you’d be …”
She paused dramatically before finishing.
I didn’t ask for clarification. I’m not sure if she thought I had a fat voice or that I’d be taller, but she was definitely disappointed in my appearance.
In her mind, I looked totally different and when her image of me didn’t exactly match the reality of my image, she couldn’t hide her disappointment, no matter how nice she was after her comment.
We put a lot of faith in the images we hold in our minds. We invest our emotions in those images of other people. If we didn’t then there wouldn’t be a market for magazines like People and other publications that endlessly speculate about the lives of famous people. These are the images that are presented to us about these people – whether they’re really like that or not. Sometimes, we prefer the images to the reality.
A friend of mine used to tell me that when he heard me on the radio he imagined me to be tall, blond and buxom – given the Scandinavian nature of the last name I had chosen to use. He used to laugh that about the fallacy of the image – since I am short, brunette and definitely not gifted with a large bust. But, for him, the image remained – despite the reality. He seemed to enjoy his image more than the reality, so he stuck with it.
We all do it – we expect people to be this way or that – to feel this way or that – to act this way or that and when those images prove to be wrong, naturally we’re disappointed. In our disappointment we blame the person for not being what we thought they should have been or how they should have acted. But, in reality, it’s not the people who have disappointed us. No! It is our image of those people that has caused our disappointment. And if it’s true with people – how much more true is it with God?
The title of this sermon is a bold statement that probably made more than one of you roll your eyes in disgust. “Oh, yes, God has disappointed me,” you may have huffed to yourself. “I can name many times.”
I submit to you today that God has never disappointed you. God has always been there – through the bad times, in the good times, in the dull times, in the stable times, in the storm, in the calm, in the grief, in the pain, in the joy, in the doubt, in the love, in the hate, in the distress, in the relief. At no time have you been left to your own devices. At no time have you been forsaken. God has always been present, whether you felt God or not. In short, God has never disappointed you.
What has disappointed you is your image of God. Your idea of what God is and should be and how God should act and how God should show up in your life and how God should talk to you and how God should connect to you and how God should make Herself known in your experience of this thing called life.
Hear me clearly – God has never disappointed you. Your image of God has disappointed you.
We all have different images of God throughout our lives – some of them are competing and contradictory images that we somehow manage to hold onto throughout our lives. This is what makes it so difficult to feel God sometimes – the images we hold often don’t mesh and one image may cloud another so we’re in a constant state of confusion about how God is supposed to work in our lives.
Let’s talk about images of God and see if you recognize some of them as images you might hold. The most popular image is what I call the “vending machine.” We see God as this great cosmic vending machine full of goodies for our lives. Our currency with this machine is prayer. Prayer goes in, goodies come out. But, when we pray and pray and pray and what we want doesn’t seem to appear – we feel gypped. We’re disappointed – so often we treat God like we would a vending machine – we pound on it, we vent our frustration on it.
“I put my prayer in, now where’s my reward?” we rage. “Where’s my goody? I put in the right amount of prayer, now pay up!”
We beat God up – feeling that we’ve done our part – we’ve put in our prayers. We’ve sent our “knee-mail” and now God is not living up to his side of the bargain. We feel disappointed. But God has not disappointed us – only our image of God has disappointed us.
Another image that is familiar is God as “insurance policy.” In this image we see God as our ace in the hole. We give our assent to all those Christian beliefs, we go to church, we may even tithe some money to the church – just to be safe – but we’re not really all that concerned with what it means to connect with God and be one of God’s children. All we know is that when disaster strikes, God will send out a holy claims adjustor and make it all right. When that image fails – when disaster strikes and we see no evidence of God swooping in to make it right and pay up our claim – we feel disappointed. But God has not disappointed us – only our image of God has disappointed us.
The “insurance policy” image is very close to the “superhero” image we have of God. In Superman Returns, Superman tells Lois Lane that he hears the world crying out for a savior. The movie is full of Christ images and reinforces an image of God as simply a human being endowed with super powers who doesn’t show up until we’re in distress. Then, we expect God to swoop down and save us from harm, just in the nick of time. This God is supposed to always be there to right wrongs and punish those who offend us. This God stands for truth, justice and most importantly, the American way. But, when God doesn’t save us from certain doom or punish those who have done us wrong, we’re disappointed. But God has not disappointed us – only our image of God has disappointed us.
We often see God as a deal maker. In our time of distress, we promise all sorts of things to God. We promise to be better people if God will just heal us, save our relationship, give us our dream job or our dream home or our dream car or even a better parking spot at Wal-Mart. When we get sick, our partner leaves us, our job, home and car fail to make us happy and we find ourselves stuck at the far end of the parking lot, we’re disappointed. God broke the deal. But God has not disappointed us – only our image of God has disappointed us.
The deal maker is the image of God that had the most power over me, personally. It’s the one that I had to dump before I could come to a place where I understood that it wasn’t God who was failing me, but my image of God. You see, I believed that if you trusted in what you believe to be God’s will for your life that all the messy details of life would fall into place. I believed that if you were careful, if you were listening intently for that still small voice and followed its commands that you would have no trouble whatsoever.
This image is biblical. In Matthew 6, Jesus talks eloquently about how God will provide for everything a person needs. Jesus tells us not to be anxious about our lives, because if God clothes lilies like royalty, then God will certainly clothe us even more majestically. The clincher in this text however, is verse 33: “But seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you as well.” There is a beautiful song written about these verses that bring me much comfort and joy. But, an entire theology that grew out of this simple verse failed me when I needed it the most.
When we moved to South Carolina three-and-a-half years ago, we had three house payments – two in Georgia and one here. Paying three mortgages isn’t fun.
We were desperate to sell the houses in Georgia, but they would not budge – no matter how we wrangled the asking prices, no matter which agent we used, no matter how much we prayed and begged God to rid us of these financial burdens – nothing happened! They sat there, draining away the bank accounts.
I felt that coming to South Carolina was God’s will – I still feel that way. God has blessed my move here, given me a community and wonderful ministry. That’s why I couldn’t understand why our houses were not selling. We sought first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, but all these things were not being added unto us. We were still heavily laden with burdens that were about to bankrupt us.
So, like we do when faced with the vending machine God, I raged. I kicked God, screamed at God and accused God of breaking the deal. I had done what I thought God wanted. I had left a place I loved and come to a new, strange place that I didn’t like very much all because I thought it was what God wanted. God would take care of the details and hold up his end of the bargain.
What I learned through that terrible dark night of the soul was that God was not responsible for selling my house. The reason it took a very long time for those houses to sell is that they went on the market in the immediate aftermath of September 11. We all know what the economy was like then. People were going bankrupt, losing their jobs, their homes, their livelihoods. It was a desperate time for everyone. And God had nothing to do with it.
God didn’t tell anyone to fly planes into buildings. The terrorists acted of their own free will. God was not responsible for the political and social climate that fostered the hatred between the terrorists and our country. People were responsible for all of it – and the interconnectedness that we all share on this planet was laid bare. People choose to kill other people in an act of madness and months later my houses won’t sell because the economy is in the dumps. If I didn’t believe it before, I believe it now, that we do in this world affects how others live in it.
God, however, was there in the midst of all the anxiety, even in the midst of all of my rage. God gave me comfort. God continued to provide, even when the situation seemed dire. It wasn’t God’s job to sell my houses, but it was God’s job to be with me while I struggled financially and spiritually. Even in the depths of my own personal financial Sheol, God was there. God never abandoned me, even though I may have felt like it because that image of God that I held so dear had failed me so completely.
But, while my image of God disappointed me, God did not disappoint me, because God did not create the climate that kept the houses on the market for so long. People did. Which reveals the heart of all of this – all these images of God leave out one very important ingredient in our world – free will – our responsibility for living in this world. We get disappointed because we try to control things that are out of our control.
We get sick and blame God – but we’re the ones who have polluted our air, our water and our food with chemicals that often cause many of the illnesses we suffer from. Should we be shocked that we get sick and die? God hasn’t done this to us – we have.
Our relationships fail and we blame God – but we’re the ones who change our minds about what and who we want. We’re the ones who fall out of love. We’re the ones who decide we want something different. God hasn’t done this to us – we have.
We quarrel over land, theology, and politics and we start bombing and killing one another. We often invoke God when we go to war with each other, but God hasn’t done this to us – we have.
We blame God when floods or tornadoes or hurricanes devastate our land, homes and lives. But we’re the ones who built homes in flood plains, or chose to live in areas that naturally have more tornadoes or hurricanes. God hasn’t done this to us – we have.
We expect God to micromanage every detail of our lives and work things out just the way we want them – but often things beyond our control dictate how things work out. The economy may be bad, the market may be down, employers aren’t hiring – the list is endless. We’re the ones in charge of creating market forces and electing governments. God hasn’t done this to us – we have.
With all that said, do we even then dare to have images of God? Sure! Sometimes those images can bring us great comfort and joy and help us grow spiritually. The Bible is full of images of God as a rock, a protector, a parent – even as a mother hen. The danger is when we become attached to one image or another and say that’s exactly how God works in the world. That’s when we make our image of God an idol and, like that woman at the Corn Hassle Festival who was disappointed that my true image did not live up the image in her mind, we’re sure to be disappointed in that idol sooner or later – because it’s not God, but an image of God.
On one episode of the Simpson’s, Homer admires a new church building and says, “I don’t know much about God, but they’ve built a nice cage for him.” We strive to tame God with our images, to put God in a church shaped box and say, “This is how God works in the world.” But, God cannot be tamed. The Bible tells us that God’s ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9). God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. God is wild and unpredictable. God is not out there somewhere manipulating the universe to make us happy. God is in here – within us – moving us, inspiring us, growing us and helping us to create God’s realm here on earth if only we’ll stop worshipping images of God and start listening to the still, small voice that calls us to use our free will with wisdom, grace and love.
I’ve read the Bible cover to cover and have yet to find a passage that promises any of us an easy and disappointment free life. God never promises us that life will be fair or that we’ll live long lives, never get sick or never leave this earthly body. God has never promised us a bed of roses – or perhaps God has, because roses, for all their beauty, come with some painful thorns. Life, for all its beauty, comes with pain – it comes with disappointment, with despair, with sadness, shock, anger and depression. Life is messy – and when it gets bad, we blame God for not being our superhero and swooping in and saving us. We blame God for breaking the deal we thought we had made. We blame God for not spitting out what we want because we prayed and prayed and prayed for it. We blame God for not doing what we thought God should be doing for us.
When we free ourselves of these disappointing images of God, we can see Matthew 6 with new eyes. If we seek God’s will first, all these things will be added unto us – but that doesn’t mean we won’t face trouble and strife. It doesn’t mean we won’t face pain and anguish. It doesn’t mean we won’t lose people and things that are precious to us. Even though we may be seeking God’s will diligently, the world that we humans have created with our free will, may not match up to that will of God that we’re seeking – so there will always be heartache and pain, but it doesn’t mean that God has forsaken us. What it means is that we, as a society, have yet to understand how to conform our will to God’s will – and God will never force us to conform.
We cause our own problems. God is not testing us by sending hardships. God is right there with us through all of the problems humans create for themselves. This is God’s promise to us – to always be present with us – whether it’s during our highest high or in the depths of our darkest Sheol. God is never absent, because God is within – prodding us with that still, small voice – teaching us to become co-creators with God in every aspect of our lives.
We do that by praying a simple prayer from 14 century mystic and Catholic theologian Meister Eckhart:
“I pray God rid me of God.”
It’s frightening to let go of our images of God. We feel insecure when all we can really say about God is, “God is …” because anything we end that sentence with has the potential to become an idol and let us down in the long run. But, as long as we insist on holding onto images of God that disappoint us or make us feel sad or condemned, we will never learn to truly be in relationship with God. We will continually be angry with God because we’re certain that God is not working the way we think God ought to work.
We must pray earnestly that God rid us of God – that we be rid of any thought that God has disappointed us and see the reality that though the world may be full of disappointments, pain and sorrow, God is never absent – God is never far from us. God is always there, alive in us, comforting us, growing our hearts and minds and pulling us ever closer in a loving and divine embrace. God always come through for us, though we may not realize in the midst of our troubles and doubts.
I challenge you – rid yourself of God, especially that tamed, caged God, and open yourself up to the wild, Technicolor, Spirit that is the living, moving and still speaking God that created us, loves us and sustains us. Do this and you will find that God has never disappointed you.
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.