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February 21, 2016: “The Tension Between Love and Power”

Story “Sodom and Gomorrah” (Rev Denis)

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all trace their origins back to many common characters in their stories, but chief among them is Abraham.

Abraham had a special bond with God. I mean, there was that time when God told Abraham to go to the land of Moriah and sacrifice his son, Isaac, as a burnt offering. Abraham was willing to do it. He came this close, despite the fact that he loved his son. But at the last second, in a long, drawn out process, God stopped Abraham from slicing Isaac’s throat. That pretty much secured

Abraham’s place in the in narrative of the formation of what we now call the three Abrahamic Traditions.

But even before that happened, Abraham and his wife, who were already quite old and still childless, were in their tent near a great forest when God appeared in human form. With two other men. Somehow, Abraham knew he was in the presence of God, and God proved his identity by telling Sarah the impossible: that she would have a child in the next year. And, you know, he read her mind.

At the end of their visit, God, in the form of one of these men, looked in the direction of the city of Sodom.

God said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.”

Abraham knew that meant there would be destruction. His nephew, Lot lived in Sodom, so he knew what the place was really like, and he was afraid for the younger man. So as the other two men walked toward Sodom, Abraham asked,

“”Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 What if there are fifty righteous people in the city?”

God was like, well, okay if I find fifty righteous people, I won’t destroy the place.

What about 45? You wouldn’t kill everyone if there were 45 righteous people, would you? You wouldn’t do something so drastic because you were 5 people short of your goal?

“Okay,” God said. “45 righteous people will spare the city.”

You know where this is going. Abraham asked about 40 righteous people. God agreed. Then 30. Then 20. Abraham had been to Sodom. He knew how tough that place was, and he didn’t want Lot to die. He kept going, but God stopped at 10. “For the sake of ten righteous people, I will not destroy Sodom.”

You know the story. The two guys other guys got to the gates of the city, without God. Lot was waiting for them, and he insisted that the visitors spend the night at his house. He was hoping to protect them from the reality of the place. As soon as they were safe in the house, a group of men and boys of all ages banged on Lot’s door, demanding that he turn the two strangers over to them. The men wanted to “know” the visitors, which in the parlance of the time, could mean literally to meet them and get to know them, or it could mean know them “intimately.”

They weren’t talking about having sex. No. Sex is mutual and consensual. Respectful and loving. These men were angry and territorial, and they were talking about rape. These men of Sodom wanted to humiliate and violently exert their power over the visitors to make clear who was in charge. Who had power. And who was not welcome. It was how they operated.

Lot was in a terrible situation. He knew these two guys were angels, sent to do God’s work, and he would do anything to protect everyone from the wrath of God. From total destruction.

In what has to be one of the most bizarre stories ever told by humans anywhere, ever, Lot offered up his daughters to these thugs, but couldn’t dissuade them. The angels let him go with his wife and daughters, telling them to never look back. When his wife did look back longingly, she turned into a pillar of salt.

She hadn’t followed directions.

Personal Reflection “God, the Adults’ Tooth Fairy,” Dan Waite

Good Morning…My name is Dan Waite. I purchased today’s sermon at our annual church auction. I had thought of buying this sermon since the time Reverend Nicole Kirk was in the pulpit here at East Shore. Why didn’t I buy it then, because Kirk, her young child hadn’t lost any teeth by the time Nicole left our pulpit. I’m not waiting any longer. So here it is…the title:

God, the adult’s tooth fairy (or any other mythical character you want to conjure up)

There is no god… Let me walk that statement back a little. The god, while I was growing up, that all my friends tried to tell me existed, was all powerful and all loving. The father figure god. The god that could do anything, could do everything. The god who knew what you did and knew what you were going to do before you did it. There are way too many children suffering in this world for a god that is all powerful and can end the suffering and at the same time is all loving and should want to end all the suffering. That god without a doubt does not exist.

Now, if you want to change your definition of god, I might be able to get behind that. Did the big bang created the Universe? Did god created the universe? Are these two statements the same? God was an event? God was the big bang? The effects of the big bang, god, are still being felt today? If that is your definition of god, I’m willing to have that discussion, but it is a big leap for many people.

About the time I gave up Santa Claus is about the time I started to question the existence of god. But the final act that firmed my non-belief was the birth of my niece Olivia – A baby with Downs Syndrome – whose heart was not working right, who stomach was not attached to her intestines, who went under the knife to repair these problems and died several time in the process. The pain and suffering she endured, the anguish her parents went through, her grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. This was not necessary. And, by the way, Olivia turns 21 this year, a miracle of science or a miracle of prayer to god to fix a problem god created (stated while shaking my head no)

I do not pray. If there is a god, there are a lot of other people in the world who need guidance, who need help, who need the suffering to end. God does not need to spend any time on me as my life has been, and is, very good. I do not need to be asking a god for help or guidance. I do not pray that my lottery tickets pay off. I do have friends who pray for me, pray for my soul, and pray that I may be saved. If they feel the need to pray, I wish they would pray for the suffering children of the world, not me.

So, I stand at this pulpit declaring for all who are willing to listen. There is no god.


This morning’s reading is from Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes, by philosopher Charles Hartshorne. The collection of essays was published in 1984, a culmination of essays he had been writing for almost 50 years at that point. He wrote:

The idea of omnipotence in the sense to be criticized came about as follows: to be God, that is worthy of worship, God must excel above al others (and be open to criticism by none.) The highest conceivable form of power must be divine power.

So far so good.

Next question: what is the highest conceivable form of power? This question was scarecely put seriously at all, the answer felt to be so obvious: it must be the power to determine every detail of what happens in the world. Not, notice, to significantly influence all the happenings; no, rather to strictly determine, decide, their every detail.

Hence it is that people still today ask, when catastrophe strikes, Why did God do this to me? What mysterious divine reason could there be? Why me?

I charge theologians with responsibility for this improper and really absurd question.

Without telling themselves so, the founders of the theological tradition were accepting and applying to deity the tyrant ideal of power. “I decide and determine everything, you (and your friends and enemies) merely do what I determine you (and them) to do. Your decision is simply mine for you. You only think you decide: in reality, the decision is mine.” (1)

Sermon “The Tension Between Love and Power,” Rev. Denis Paul

Depending on how you tell the stories of the Bible, God – who of course is portrayed as an elusive man – can be like the sort of guy who is reasonable toward his friends, but quick to send his henchmen in to do the dirty work when he’s not so reasonable.

Or, he can look like look completely crazy, drunk with power, constantly disappointed in his people and willing to destroy entire cities, even the world, to express his disapproval.

Or God can look like a confused micromanager: controlling every tiny little aspect in every hidden corner of his creation, but then, not wanting to look like a bad boss, trying to convince his people that they have free will. Maybe he’s even trying to convince himself that they have free will, but really, he knows that he is in total control of everything that they do, and he’ll punish them for doing anything he doesn’t like. As if it’s their fault they’re doing what he is making them do.

Or, he can seem stern, but still loving.

Depending on how you tell the story.

Which, of course, depends on your motives. How you tell the story of this being will depend on what you want from the people you are telling the story to.

With children, we want them to behave. As their parents and teachers and ministers, we want them to make good decisions, to be reasonably kind and fair, and to not embarrass us. So sometimes people will tell children a story that serves those needs, the story of a father God, an old man with a white beard. A lovingly watchful man who can see everything you do, and read your mind, knowing your intentions. If you have a good heart, and do the right things for the right reasons, you will be rewarded with gifts: happiness, health, success. Maybe even after-lasting, blissful life.

It sounds an awful lot like Santa Claus. Old man. White beard. Seeing everything. Judging behavior and intention. Santa of course, being based on a lesser saint, has less power than God. The consequences aren’t as great: you could get a sing-a-long Elsa or the latest Lego set….or a lump of coal.

The promise of Christmas usually only works for a few months, so we’ve created other all-knowing characters: The Easter Bunny. The Tooth Fairy. All in the service getting children to behave, and have faith in something greater than themselves. Something generous.

Sadly, a lot of us grow up with that image of God, one that isn’t too different from Santa. We have no need, as we grow older, to think critically about that imagery. So we don’t. We instead focus on other literature. And science. Maybe even Eastern practices like yoga.


There are a lot of people who need a more nuanced understanding of the Abrahamic God, a God who will accompany them through their lives. There are people who have been dealt a terrible hand: born with severe disabilities or to abusive parents; living in extreme poverty, perhaps during a violent regime in a war-torn land; struggling with overwhelming addiction or mental illness or both. They need a God who can lift their burdens from them, a God who punishes the wicked and rewards the meek, so that they are not alone. They need to know that their suffering will end with the rewards of heaven and that throughout their lives they are accompanied by a loving being with the strength to pick them up and carry them through the most challenging times.

I’m reminded of that omnipresent inspirational from the 70’s, in which the narrator has a dream of a conversation with God, looking at a life represented by footsteps along a beach.

“Lord, you said that once I decided to follow you, you would walk with me all the way. But I have noticed that during the most troublesome times in my life, there is only one set of footprints. I don’t understand why in times when I needed you the most, you should leave me.”

The Lord replied, “My precious, precious child. I love you, and I would never, never leave you during the times of your suffering. When you saw only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”

They need a higher power they can turn things over to. In order to let go of their burdens, they need God to release it to.

For those of us who have had easier lives, born strong and healthy to loving parents, living in financial security, far removed from the ravages of war; with garden variety addictions like food or caffeine or work; and experiencing only occasional sadness, it’s tougher to see the need for a God. Especially a god that has power over us, the power to do anything. The power to judge us.

“What have I ever done to be judged for? What are my sins? Certainly I haven’t done anything terrible enough to deserve eternal damnation. My people … my church, the folks I walk with on the beach of my life … are good, righteous people.”

So the story we tell ourselves about God, if we tell any story at all, is the story of a loving God. Maybe even an all-loving God.

And there is the struggle.

“How,” we ask ourselves, as Dan did when his dear niece was born, “can an all-loving, all-powerful God allow the suffering of an innocent child and the anguish of her family, forced to witness the pain?” If God can do anything, and god is really all-loving, then obviously, God would prevent such torture.

Who needs such a fickle God? Especially when we look at the Bible and see all the crazy stories in there. I mean, plenty of people, people in this sanctuary right now, grew up in Christian churches, often loving shelters where they found comfort and community, ancestral lineage and even acceptance. But they walked away because the stories of the bible were so contradictory. So nonsensical.

Not only did Lot try to toss his daughters out marauding intruders, those same daughters later got him drunk so he would impregnate them! (Gen 19)

Noah had to save two of every species because God was so fed up with the wickedness of the world, he destroyed it all, and started over again. (Gen 5)

And poor Job.

The entire book of Job reads like a comedy skit, it’s so absurd. God knew that Job so loved him, that God allowed Satan to torture Job by stealing his oxen and donkeys; killing some servants; burning up more servants and 7000 sheep in a lightning strike; stealing thousands of camels; tearing down the house with a tornado, killing all of his sons and daughters; and finally covering him with boils that turn his skin black and dead, necrotic.

Even Jesus, who was meek and accepting in comparison to the God of the Hebrew Bible, had times when, frankly….he was kind of a jerk. The obvious example is when he arrived in Jerusalem. Just outside of town, he was hungry, and walked over to a fig tree, and when he saw that it bore no fruit, being out of season, he cursed it, killed it with the hostility of his words. Then, in Jerusalem, he was so angered by the presence of merchants and money changers that he turned over their tables, yelling at them and driving them out. (Mark 11) Then there was the time when he compared a woman to a dog. When a Canaanite woman begged for help for her suffering daughter he told her “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

That’s just plain rude. But she got him back. “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” (Matthew 15)

He softened. Called her faithful. And healed her daughter. Redemption.

These are tough stories. They don’t make much sense. They show the blunderings and inconsistencies of a supposedly infallible God, and an unresolved tension between Love and Power. For many who grew up with this book, it’s easy to just walk away from it.

But for people of faith, committed to the Book, and to being in constant conversation with it, putting it down and walking away from it isn’t an option. They have to engage critically with it, to get to an understanding greater than the one they were taught as little children, so they pray on the text. That’s pray with an A, not prey with an E.

They begin by putting aside assumptions and reading (and translating) the text again and again, asking earnest questions they are seeking answers for, paying close attention to words that are challenging. Like “know” in the story of Lot in the City of Sodom. Where else in the Bible has it been used, and how? What was the original word in Hebrew? And how else has THAT word been translated? They figure out what kind of text it is – a poem, a letter, a narrative story – and figure out what it is saying within the limits of the type of text, before considering its biblical, cultural and historical context. Finally, they go to secondary literature. What have commentators said about the piece over the centuries?

It’s a long undertaking, this system of reflection and study that is called exegesis. It’s exhaustive, and requires patience, to make sense of the Bible, to find its meaning as it applies to life here and now.

But here’s the amazing part. It all begins and ends with prayer. Seriously. The whole system of exegesis is prayer. Just sitting with the piece, in humility, and acknowledging that it’s not easy, that there are parts to it that are confusing or even angering, and noticing the effects of those emotions on the body. Maybe the prayer is even a request for help. Or setting an intention to be patient and committed.

That system Christians refer to as praying on the text is not all that different from what we promise to do as Unitarian Universalists. If our congregations take seriously our promises to one another, I the form of our Seven Principles, then it’s our responsibility to affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, and acceptance of all kinds of beliefs as we grow in our own understanding of what it means to be human, and interconnected with the whole universe.

Christians do this work with the Bible. But we have even more work to do, because we draw from so many sources, beginning with human experience – our own an others’ – as well as all of the teachings of all of the world’s religions and traditions, including literature and science.

That kind of critical thinking is exactly what Charles Hartshorne engaged in for most of his life. He didn’t throw away the idea of God, despite the fact that he was a man of science. He accepted the Bible for what it was, literature, found his own peace with it, and studied. He went back to the original sources and really engaged with other thinkers of his age and earlier ages.

What he came up with were theological concepts that he believed were never explored in the Bible, but which had been basically invented by scholars of Judaism and Christianity. And, in total humility, he declared six concepts to be flat out wrong. Contrary to the vast majority of theologians building on one another’s work across centuries he declared that:

God is not perfect, and is changeable. He argued God is constantly changing.

God’s love is not a perfect, sympathetic feeling of our emotions.

Immortality is not a new state of being after death. It’s not like having a new job whose description is to be either in agony or ecstasy.

What the Bible and its most successful commentators are not and never have been infallible.

Most importantly, though, he argued that God is not all powerful

AND God is not all-knowing.

In other words, the God of the Bible makes mistakes. And has influence over – but not complete control of – whatever happens in the world. No matter what anybody says it says in the Bible.

Hartshorne never claims that God is all loving. In fact, I can’t say that I recall a single time when any serious theologian I have ever read has said with a straight face that God is all-loving. Even Ultra-Universalist Hosea Ballou, who was mocked in his lifetime for his outlandish assertions, never claimed that God is all-loving. All he ever said was that everybody goes to heaven. There’s a big difference there. God can actively dislike you, and still let you get to heaven.

But many of us like to think that God is love. And maybe that is the real problem.

Love, as Ziggy Marley sang, may be our religion, the thing that binds us together in good times and when catastrophe strikes. But God and love are not the same thing, and God is not All-Loving.

Maybe the problem we have with God is actually our own. If we want to believe that God is Love, it’s an impossible standard. Because even with love there is always catastrophe: blizzards and floods and tornadoes; children born with unimaginable disabilities; perfectly healthy, beautiful 20-year olds getting tears in their aortas.

Natural disasters strike everywhere, even in communities of generosity. Cells mutate in unexpected ways even in bodies that have been loved and cared for.

And some people, like Job, get way more turmoil than they deserve. For no good reason. And they need somebody to walk with them. God.

So, Dan. I’d like to thank you for your reflection this morning. You spoke your truth, your history, owning your own struggles, and speaking only for yourself in your declaration. You acknowledged the joy you have of good health and a good life…your lack of need or want. And you acknowledged that many others suffer much more than you do.

My hope for us is that whatever our needs are, whatever image we may have of God – or no God at all – that we have respect for the people who seek the accompaniment of God. That we engage with compassion. Because truth be told, someday, we may well need that accompaniment, too. From loving friends. From this church. Maybe even from God.

We may need to look back at the metaphorical footsteps in the sand on the beach of our lives. We may need to see the multitude of prints left by the other people walking with us. Or. We may just be surprised by the wish to see only one set of prints as we are carried through the hard night when a senseless tragedy strikes.

May we be open to the possibilities, and willing to engage in the reflection.

(1) Charles Hartshorne. Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes. 1984. Albany NY, SUNY Press. P. 10-11.