Carla J. Bailey, Senior Pastor
A sermon given at
The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
A congregation of the United Church of Christ
In the late 1970’s, a social historian by the name of Ernest Kurtz wrote a remarkably researched history of Alcoholics Anonymous called Not God (Hazelden Educational Services, Center City, Minnesota, 1979). It caused a significant stir in the twelve-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, uninstitutionalized, and unpublicized. The lucrative “treatment” movement was in its earliest stages. Famous alcoholics were still, as to their participation in AA, adhering to the principle of silence at the level of press, radio, and television. Now, of course, the situation is 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 developed their Big Book of personal experience and shared learnings, 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 was the confession that none of us are God.
Around the same time Ernest Kurtz’ book was published, the feminist movement was beginning to produce thoughtful and well-researched psychological and social theories about women’s experience in our significantly patriarchal culture. One such strand of thinking critiqued the fundamental principles of Alcoholics Anonymous as being a movement that could be largely successful for men but less efficacious for women because of this very “not God” confession. For men, the realization that they are not God, not omniscient, nor omnipotent, is a cornerstone to achieving and maintaining sobriety. It is a huge relief, to relinquish the grip on an anchor that dragged men beneath the surface of an alcoholic ocean. Once the hands release their grip on that anchor rope, air and light become available and a life free of cunning and baffling alcohol is made possible. Women, on the other hand, are already and always keenly aware that we are not God. This was not new news in a culture that narrowly prescribed women’s roles and assumed women’s generally inferior intelligence, abilities, and interests. The realization that we are not God was a little like telling us the price of milk had gone up ten cents a gallon or that some promotion had gone to the younger, less-educated and under-experienced man.
Still, the ability to get and stay sober, or free of drugs, or gambling, or over-eating, or any other obsessive behavior causing self-destruction and danger to others, is reliant on this fundamental truth, embedded in the second and third of the twelve steps. I am not God. 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 and clearly superior intelligence. 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 that has power over me. That power is greater than me.
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 twelve steps to regain or maintain sanity. They are not a blueprint for every human life. But every one of us, without exception, could benefit from the simple but extremely difficult confession that we are ourselves not God, that there is a power more powerful than we, a power that is benevolent, kind, forgiving, and, well, powerful.
Well, duh, you may be thinking. What’s so hard about that? The answer to that question is what Jeremiah was trying to describe when he wrote this little monologue I read a moment ago. Jeremiah wrote as if God were speaking. It’s a little rant, filled with sarcasm and acrimony and, finally, truth. “My people have committed two evils: 1) they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water; and 2) they have dug out cisterns for themselves. Cracked cisterns that can hold no water.” (Jeremiah 2:13)
What are those two evils again? The first is that we have forsaken the God who is the fountain of living water, 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. Can God fix the broken economy? Can God stop terrorism? Can God keep the waters from destroying Pakistan? Can God fill our church coffers so the fall pledge campaign will not require any sacrifice? Can God keep us from getting sick? Can God mend my broken relationship with (fill in the blank). Can God reign in the Pentagon? Stop AIDS? Prevent unwanted pregnancy? Bring peace to the Middle East? No? I thought not – therefore, God is a sweet idea, the opiate for the masses, the feel good panacea, a teddybear that helps you sleep at night. That’s fine – that’s good, you need that comfort – good for you. But to solve the real problems, would it not be better to rely on superior qualities – intellect, financial and military power, self-discipline?
The second evil, after having forsaken God who is, at least according to Jeremiah, the living water, is to strike out for ourselves – 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. Only, again according to Jeremiah, our cisterns are cracked and won’t hold water, our battle plans are failing in Afghanistan, our energy sources are running dry or polluting the oceans and rivers and underground water supplies. Our weapons kill efficiently, oh my yes. They kill our enemies and they kill us as well. Our plans are not complete, or they leave many a child behind. Our leisure drains our resources. Our work drains our spirits. Our egos keep others locked out.
In other words – we have turned away from the One who is, in fact, God. And we have made ourselves gods.
It’s difficult for independent, tough, successful and powerful people to relinquish that power, failing though it is, to admit 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, happy ways.
We are, in this congregation, and in this community of the Upper Valley, mostly smart, well-educated, effective leader-types. We can do all kinds of things. As in Lake Woebegone, our children are definitely above average. Lucky us.
But here’s the thing, 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 superior to 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, only for a second, that there is a power greater than ourselves, a Power that is benevolent, kind, and forgiving, then we will have drunk from the fountain of living water. And that is the water that can actually quench our thirst. Amen.