Mother Ann’s sermon preached on June 20, 2021

Posted by on Sun, Jun 20, 2021 in Season after Pentecost, Sermons

The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

A Sense of Smallness

June 20, 2021

Recently I saw a write-up of research by psychologist Paul Piff.  Piff studies what he calls the experience of “small self”—that is the sense of awe we get by being part of something much bigger and more important than we are.  He points out that one of the simplest routes to this sense of smallness is surrounding ourselves with vastness, like staring out at the ocean, or up at the clouds by day or stars by night.  Or maybe finding a hill with a view and climbing it, or visiting an ancient fossil bed, and running a finger over its sandy surface.  Another way to shrink is to immerse yourself in great music, art or poetry, or lock eyes with a newborn baby, or ponder the sunbeams streaming through your window.  The whole point is to give yourself over to the moment and lose yourself in it.  Piff’s research shows that allowing ourselves to be awed like this leads to deeper generosity of heart, an openness to helping others, and richer relationships with reality.

This savvy psychologist has also discovered that certain personal habits and circumstances can make self-shrinking harder. For instance wealthy people who routinely treat themselves to whatever they want, find it harder to experience awe over anything.  Ditto for narcissists, who presume that most everything important in life revolves around them.  Piff has documented this emotional disability by administering a questionnaire that tests for self-absorption, followed by a video clip of breathtaking natural scenery.  People who test high for self-indulgence feel relatively unmoved by the display of grandeur, while more balanced viewers find themselves enthralled.  It turns out that egocentric people are cheating themselves out of a lot of spontaneous joy.

It comes as no surprise that today’s consumerism and social media can be joy killers too.  Take a moment to recall some commercial you’ve seen recently.  Chances are it suggests that something you already own is not quite good enough—no longer on trend, lacking the latest features, less exciting and fun than it could be.  Who can miss the cue of beaming models who are using or wearing whatever it is that you don’t own?  Or ponder the social media posts you follow, featuring the cool experiences your friends and acquaintances are having.  Even though analysts point out that almost no one posts content that others won’t envy, after hours online it’s hard not to worry that you are missing out.  In fact triggering the fear of missing out—which is nicknamed FOMO—is a documented marketing strategy taught in business schools throughout America.  Recalling Piff’s research, it seems that letting ourselves be FOMO-ized is self-defeating.  The more life becomes all about what we experience and what we acquire, the more each new product we buy, and each new adventure we pursue, loses its luster. There really can be too much of a good thing.

In today’s lesson we meet an ancient sage named Job, who has beat Piff to the punch by about three thousand years.  Living long before social media and marketing, Job’s dilemma is far more primal and momentous than ours. Job starts out life as a prosperous farmer and head of a large family.  No one has more good stuff than he does, and everyone looks to him for cues. Then one day Job loses it all.  Devastated by his downfall, he cries out to God…Why? On some level Job has been taking his good fortune for granted, as if it were a personal entitlement.  He’s forgotten that he is only one small part of something much bigger and more important than he is.

It is at this point in the story that today’s lesson begins, as God bellows his response from a whirlwind.  Job has obviously stirred up a storm by presuming he is qualified to comprehend and judge the ways of heaven.  God now gives Job a crash course in healthy smallness: ‘Where were you when the universe took form? when the earth spun into an orb? Where were you when the Milky Way unfurled its sparkling veil, or when the coastlines rose above the seas?’ God’s questions surge on like this for many more verses, but by now you get the point.  Job gets the point too: we creatures must never forget how infinitely small we are, and how infinitely great God is!  

God’s interrogation now winds down, and Job meekly responds, “Behold, I am of little account….I put my hand over my mouth…I am of little account.” Embedded within Job and each one of us is a God-given capacity for smallness and awe, and we ignore it to our soul’s peril.  

Job’s crisis is painted for us in cosmic proportions so that we can’t miss the point, and will be ready to question ourselves if we start pumping our own self-importance. Our Bible begins with a cautionary tale about overreaching for that apple in Eden, and it ends at the end of time with all creation bowed down before Christ as King.  You and I have been created to thrive in between God’s great beginning and great ending, seeking a healthy sense of smallness day by day. Amen.

© 2021 The Rev. Dr. Ann P. Lukens. All rights reserved.