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Article | September 3, 2023

Sermon: Finding You in All Things: Katherine Sonderegger’s Humble God

Blog|The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm Clemens Young

Watch the sermon on YouTube.

“Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer” (Rom. 12).

1. Where is God to be found? About a hundred years ago, the Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) wrote these words, “I find you, Lord, in all Things and in all / my fellow creatures, pulsing with your life; as a tiny seed you sleep in what is small / and in the vast you vastly yield yourself. // The wondrous game that power plays with Things / is to move in such submission through the world: / groping in roots and growing thick in trunks / and in treeptops like a rising from the dead.”[1]

Yesterday I came across an old journal from October 2000, when our son was one year old. I wrote, “Micah is drinking bathwater now. He downs it like a pot-belly’d Monday night football fan at the local tavern, stands up and then coughs.” I go on to describe finding him under the microwave eating through a plastic bag of russet potatoes (and one eighth of a potato). A page later, he had learned to climb by pushing his chair against the couch and walking along the back of it tightrope style.[2]

It was a pleasure to have these moments brought back to me. God seemed so present in those days of discovery, for me as a new parent, and for Micah as a new human being. James Finley offers a vision for what he calls a “contemplative way of life,” a form of existence that recognizes God as our true center. Contemplation means really looking and paying close attention. Perhaps I had more of a chance to do this when I took care of small children.[3]

Most of what we experience we notice only in passing as we are on our way to something else. But every so often, we find a reason to pause. Something catches our eye. Then suddenly, we find ourselves immersed in a deeper reality. We really encounter what is in front of us: a field of spring Presidio wildflowers, the billions of worlds in the summer night sky, the seemingly infinite calm dark September waters off Point Bonita, the unexpected sound of a cricket in our city, or the joy of children playing.

Although these are absolutely ordinary phenomena, in each case, something has broken us out of the web of worries and judgments that usually dominate our inner lives. These moments of openness almost seem to come before thought. Suddenly we become conscious, in Finley’s words that, “we are the cosmic dance of God.” The fullness of being completely in God surprises us.

We might find ourselves wondering, what do I do now? Often nothing. Our cell phone summons us or a new version of an old worry occurs to us. But when we look back on times like these, we know that they felt like a kind of homecoming, like we belong there. Finley says that, “[W]hen you start understanding your life in light of these moments, you realize this feeling that you’re skimming over the surface of the depths of your own life. It’s all the more unfortunate because God’s unexplainable oneness with us is hidden in the depths over which we are skimming.”[4]

In our disappointment, “[W]e say to ourselves, “I don’t like living this way.””[5] I don’t want to be separated from the place where I most experience God’s love. I want to abide with God always.

2. Moses lived in an untenable political situation. The Pharaoh had ordered his people to murder all male children of the Hebrews. Moses’ parents abandoned him in a basket of reeds. The royal princess found him and raised him as her child. When Moses saw his people being brutalized he murdered a man and had to escape as a refugee. While tending his father-in-law’s sheep, a sight caught Moses’ attention.

An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a bush that was blazing and yet not consumed (Ex. 3). Moses said to himself, ”I must turn aside and look at this great sight” (Ex. 3). God describes a plan of liberation for the Israelites. Moses comically comes up with five excuses for why he thinks God has chosen the wrong person.

God reassures him, “I will be with you.” You will have what you need when you go to Pharoah. This is not enough for Moses. Finally Moses says, what if the Israelites ask your name. And God replies, tell them “I AM has sent me to you” (Ex. 3). Some interpreters suggest this is some kind of humor or a clever way that God avoids the question.

But for me this refers to that experience I described earlier, when our ego drops away and we are united to our creator. It is the gratitude we feel for just being alive and to the one who brought us forth out of nothing. Where is God to be found? In the “I,” the “I AM,” beyond thought, deep within both our self and the world.

3. I spent the first part of the summer, basically in heaven, carefully reading Volume One of Katherine Sonderegger’s Systematic Theology.[6] The experience of Moses on Mount Horeb lies at the heart of her understanding of God. She begins with the idea that God is one, God is absolutely unique. Nothing is like God. We cannot think something that is absolutely unique. She writes, “God is concrete, superabundantly particular.”[7]

Sonderegger points out that for this reason, the reality of God, especially for us in modern times, is hidden. She uses the word “omnipresence” to describe God. It does not just mean that God is everywhere but that, most often, we fail to perceive God. She says that nature in a sense hides God. And that in our time atheists help us to more deeply appreciate God’s hiddenness, that “even in indifference and defiance” they in a sense glorify God.[8]

It is not just that modern universities fail to teach about God, their methods have become fully secularized. She calls this “Methodological atheism” and defines it as, “the conviction that God cannot be a reality or dimension in the principled means of knowledge in the modern intellectual world.”[9] Indeed, I would not want my rheumatologist or a Federal Reserve Bank economist appealing to God in their academic papers.

We do not learn about God through the scientific method because God is not a thing. “God is not an object of our thought the way that an apple is… “God does not “stand open” and static in that way to our faculties…” waiting noiselessly to be discovered. “Yet… God will stand open to our knowledge of him as Truth.”[10]

How does this happen you might ask? At this point Sonderegger compares our experience of God with our relationships to each other. Unlike inanimate objects human beings disclose themselves to us. We know that the people we meet have an inner life. They show it to us in their words and actions. Sonderegger writes, ”We must speak or give ourselves away, in gesture or act of kindness or savage cruelty or deep intimacy.”[11] I’m sharing myself with you right now as I talk about what it felt like for me to become a parent.

Sonderegger writes God is lord of our knowledge of him, that in humility and like human beings, God chooses to share himself with us. One of her favorite ideas is that God is compatible with the world and us. This is part of the importance of Moses’ Burning Bush for Sonderegger. God is with us.

We do not experience all of God. But God gives us a hint of transcendence in the way that the bush is burned but not consumed. God draws near and his creatures are not destroyed. God is invisible and mysterious, utterly “other” than us and yet in our midst. We know God in our inner experience.

In Romans, Paul writes, “Beloved never avenge yourself” because revenge separates us from God. When Paul writes extend hospitality to strangers he uses the word philoxeniav which is the love of strangers. The word is related to our word xenophobia or fear of strangers. He asks us to avoid vengeance and love strangers because that is how we often come to see God.

When Jesus says, “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it,” the word he uses is not life but psuchēn or soul. What is at stake in these burning bush moments is our soul.

3. In all our time together I have never shared a poem that I wrote myself. This is about a walk Micah and I took when he was a one year old. It’s called “Swamp Maples.”

“In the sorrowing rain / Together we walk / Through wet autumn grass / From New England meadows / Into silent woods / And the brooding dark. // With each spongy step / I feel your weight / Shift further over / In the backpack / Until I know / You sleep.//  I worry that / The damp mist / Will make you cold. / In the corner of my eye / I see your soft angel / Face under the  navy hood. / Your tiny hand touches / My back just beneath the shoulder. / I listen for your breath / And want to wake you / From all death.”

“The fog brings / Everything closer in. / The yellowed ferns and / Ancient bark. / A million / Diamond drops / On the hemlock needles. / Until we leave the grasping roots / Of Pine Hill / For the burning colors of the lowlands. // We step through the swamp / On a thin crimson carpet / Of maple leaves / The gold leaf / ceiling above our heads / Burns with perfect brightness / Through the gray day. / The light illuminating / These trees / Seems to come from inside. // I stop to pray / My boots sinking / In black mud. / Thank you God / For all you have given / Us that we / Never could see before.”[12]

There is only one reason I am speaking to you today. There is only one thing I need to remind you. Seek God. Do not just skim over the surface of the depths of your own life. “Turn aside and look at this great sight.” “I Am” has sent you. So step away from the web of worries and judgments into a deeper reality, into the cosmic dance of God.

Help us find you Lord, “in all things and in all [our] fellow creatures pulsing with your life.”

[1] Rainer Maria Rilke, Ahead of All Parting: The Selected Poetry and Prose of Rainer Maria Rilke, Tr. Stephen Mitchell (NY: Modern Library, 1995) 9.

[2] Malcolm Clemens Young, Harvard Journal, 10 October 2000 and 17-18 September 2000.

[3] James Finley, “Waking Up to Life,” The Center for Action and Contemplation, 28 August 2023.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] On June 30, 2021 Katherine Sonderegger was my guest on the Grace Cathedral Forum. Our conversation can be found at the following link:

[7] Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology, Volume One, The Doctrine of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015) 27.

[8] Ibid., 53.

[9] Ibid., 54-5.

[10] Ibid., 75.

[11] Ibid., 76.

[12] Malcolm Clemens Young, Harvard Journal, 16 October 2000.

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