Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Transformers (2/15/15)

The Transformers
John Shuck

Southminster Presbyterian Church
Beaverton, Oregon

February 15, 2015

                                 Bhagavad Gita XI
Sri Krishna, Master of all yogis, revealed to Arjuna his transcendent, divine Form, speaking from innumerable mouths, seeing with a myriad eyes, of many marvelous aspects, adorned with countless divine ornaments, brandishing all kinds of heavenly weapons, wearing celestial garlands and the raiment of paradise, anointed with perfumes of heavenly fragrance, full of revelations, resplendent, boundless, of ubiquitous regard.

Suppose a thousand suns should rise together into the sky:  such is the glory of the Shape of Infinite God.

Then the son of Pandu beheld the entire universe, in all its multitudinous diversity, lodged as one being within the body of the God of gods.    

                                                                 Mark 9:2-8 (Scholars’ Version)
Six days later, Jesus takes Peter and James and John along and leads them off by   themselves to a lofty mountain. He was transformed in front of them, and his clothes became an intensely brilliant white, whiter than any laundry on earth could make them. Elijah appeared to them, with Moses, and they were conversing with Jesus.  Peter responds by saying to Jesus, “Rabbi, it’s a good thing we’re here.  In fact, why not set up three tents, one for you, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah!”  (You see, he didn’t know how else to respond, since they were           terrified).”

And a cloud moved in and cast a shadow over them, and voice came out of the cloud: “This my favored son, listen to him!” Suddenly, as they looked around, they saw no one, but were alone with Jesus.

For those who keep track of liturgical matters, today is Transfiguration of the Lord Sunday on the church calendar.   It is a pivot Sunday.  It is in between the Christmas and Epiphany cycle and the Lent and Easter cycle.    Last Sunday was the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany.  Next Sunday is the First Sunday of Lent.

This parable of the transfiguration is found in Mark, Matthew, and Luke.  It is likely a creation of the Gospel of Mark that was copied by both Matthew and Luke.   This story serves as a pivot within the narrative of the three gospels.   Before this story Jesus wanders around doing healing and so forth.  After this story, the focus is Jerusalem and his impending death.    After this Transfiguration he tells his disciples what is really going on:

“The son of Adam is being turned over to his enemies, and they will end up killing him. And three days after he is killed he will rise!”  (Mark 9:31)

It is Mark’s gospel that the martyrdom tradition (the death of Jesus at the hands of his enemies and his vindication by God through the resurrection) is put in a narrative form.    Before Jesus takes off for Jerusalem and his passion, passion as mission and passion as suffering, he reveals to his closest disciples, his inner circle, who he really is.    He is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets symbolized by Moses and Elijah.  He is as the voice from the cloud announces, the “favored son.”  So pay attention.   “Listen to him,” says the cloud.

That is pay attention to his martyrdom.  That is what will happen to him and to those who follow him.   Want to see God?  Want to see God in all of God’s glory?  Want to have a mystical, spiritual experience with the Divine?  There it is.  God is on the cross suffering from the violence of humanity.    It is a stark vision.  It is a dark vision.    It is a vision that comes from those who know violence and the human propensity for evil.   

That would certainly be Mark’s community.  Scholarly consensus places the Gospel of Mark around the year 70 when Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed by the Romans.  Horrific violence.   That experience is the frame that the author of Mark used to create the parable of Jesus.    Life is violent and short.  You keep your integrity or achieve salvation by holding fast to what you value even if you suffer.   But God will vindicate steadfastness.

There were other visions.   Jesus never wrote anything.  We don’t have any first hand objective knowledge about him.  We have portraits created decades later.   These portraits reflect the artist who created them as much as the figure of Jesus.  The Gospel of Thomas portrays Jesus as a teacher of wisdom.  The goal for Thomas’ Jesus is to find yourself.  It was a vision of Jesus written in a different time and in a different place.     Neither vision is right or wrong.  They come from the various experiences of life.

Back to the Transfiguration story.  Mark tells this story to show that the disciples, Peter, James, and John, saw Jesus in his glory.   Jesus was and is the real thing.  Thus he is worth following, even his path leads to suffering.   

I would just say personally that I find this vision of Jesus to be compelling, challenging, and comforting.  Life does require us at times to take the harder path, the rocky path.   When I am tempted to look away from the suffering of my brothers and sisters, this vision of Jesus reminds me, “No, this is the face of God.”   This is the ultimate concern.  When I feel I don’t have the strength, courage, or whatever other virtue is needed to respond to my own dis-ease and my own failures, I find in this vision of Jesus the trust to carry on at least for another day.  

I know this is going to sound funny coming from a minister, but I don’t know anything about God.  I don’t even know what the word means.   But I do have a heart for Jesus.   If the theology is right that it is in the mystery of Jesus that we glimpse God, then I am OK with that.    Ask me about God and I fumble around.  My eyes glaze over.  Ask me about Jesus and there is a lot to say from a many angles.   

Mark’s vision of Jesus is one I hold close.  I am terrified by it at times.   “Can you drink the cup?” says Jesus in Mark.  I don’t know.  I don’t know.   Help my unbelief.  Give me the heart to trust in other words.     

In this parable of the transfiguration of Jesus, Mark shows us that Jesus is the real thing.  His mission, his passion to care for the least of these even if this caring is met with great resistance is the way to the heart of God.   When we see the homeless or the victims of violence or the perpetrators of violence or our own complicity in violence, we have a vision before us to remind us who we are and where we need to stand.  That is the Jesus that calls me out.   “Will you follow me?”   That is the voice from the cloud about Jesus:  “Listen to him.”

This story of the Transfiguration of Jesus has an echo in the Bhagavad Gita.   Bhagavad Gita literally means “song of God.”   The story is about Arjuna, son of Pandu, who is about to go into battle.   He is having doubts.   Krishna comes to him.  Krishna is kind of like Jesus.   These stories arise in different philosophical systems, but there are enticing parallels between Jesus and Krishna.   Krishna is an avatar, a personification, a revelation, an incarnation of God.    Again, God, what is that?   

The Bhagavad Gita is classic spiritual literature.  It isn’t very long.  It is about the length of the New Testament.   It provides a fascinating insight into a particular vision of life.    In this conversation, Krishna is explaining to Arjuna what life is about and the nature of who we are and how to go about living it.  In the course of this conversation, Arjuna wants to know more about Krishna.   He doesn’t want to be impolite, but how can he trust that Krishna is the real thing.  He asks to see him as he really is.  So Krishna reveals himself to Arjuna: 

Sri Krishna, Master of all yogis, revealed to Arjuna his transcendent, divine Form, speaking from innumerable mouths, seeing with a myriad eyes, of many marvelous aspects, adorned with countless divine ornaments, brandishing all kinds of heavenly weapons, wearing celestial garlands and the raiment of paradise, anointed with perfumes of heavenly fragrance, full of revelations, resplendent, boundless, of ubiquitous regard.

Suppose a thousand suns should rise together into the sky:  such is the glory of the Shape of Infinite God.

Then the son of Pandu beheld the entire universe, in all its multitudinous diversity, lodged as one being within the body of the God of gods.

In both stories, Jesus and Krishna, reveal their true natures.  They do so to show the human beings who witness this, Peter, James, and John, and Arjuna, respectively, that these teachers are the real thing and that their teachings can be trusted and should be followed.  That is one takeaway.

But as I read these stories side by side I think of something else.  The stories of the gods in all mythological literature are stories not just about gods but they are also stories about us.  Our ancestors told stories about gods as a way to tell stories about themselves.    For example, Jesus dying on the cross and rising on the third day is not something that just happened to him, but it is a spiritual path.  We die to an old way of being and we rise to a new way of being.  Life is filled with deaths and resurrections.   The spiritual path is to courageously enter them.  We participate in them.    

How might we look at the Transfiguration story in that way?  These transfiguration stories tell us that both Jesus and Krishna are more than how they appear.   What the disciples saw in Jesus and what Arjuna saw in Krishna was not all there was to see.  They got a glimpse into “the more” than what they appeared to be. 

The key prefix is trans.   Border crossing.   Boundary shattering.  Category “fuzzying.”  In this ancient literature the boundary between the human and the divine was made fuzzy.   Some call that a thin place.    That veil between the human and the divine worlds is thin, translucent.   

Thomas Merton writes about an experience he had on a street corner.   He was watching people and as he was watching all of the people go by, busy, all doing different things and going different places he had a feeling, a revelation, an experience, a something that was beautiful.  He saw all of these people as connected in a seamless whole.   A feeling of bliss came over him.  He felt a great deal of compassion and connection to this human family.   He found a thin place on a street corner.   There is more to it, there is more to this life, more to you and to me than what we see on the surface.   Yes we are biological beings doing what we have evolved to do but also we are also…

the entire universe, in all its multitudinous diversity, lodged as one being within the body of the God of gods.

Yes we are bodies.  But we are stardust, too.   Transfiguration.

There are other ways of being trans.    One of the great trans scriptures is Galatians 3:28: 

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Paul had an awareness of humankind transformed, transcending, transfigured beyond categories of ethnicity, social status and gender.   He had a dream of making a trans community.    He was frustrated when the old categories reasserted themselves. “You foolish Galatians!” he said.  Going back to your old ways.     Paul understood the gospel as transcending all categories, all power structures, all ways of being that dehumanized.   This trans community would embrace a new unity, as he put it, “all one in Christ Jesus.”   He saw Christ Jesus as the unifying figure, not simply a founder of another religion.  

A couple of years ago, I interviewed Alex McNeill.  He is now the executive director of MoreLight Presbyterians.   At the time of the interview he was in the midst of transitions.  He was on two journeys.  One journey was toward ordination in the Presbyterian Church (USA).  The other journey was from female to male.   

He was gracious and patient and allowed me to ask some na├»ve questions about his experience of being transgender.   At the time of the interview he was closer to the beginning of the process of transitioning from female to male.    I asked him,

“Do you feel male?”  

He was very gracious.  He said, “That is an interesting question.”   He said something along the lines of, “I don’t know if you can feel a particular gender, but I feel that I am myself.”   He described being female for him as wearing a set of ill-fitting clothes that were kind of scratchy.   As he transitioned to male, he found himself. 

Transgender individuals such as Alex have much to teach us about what it means to be human.  Categories of gender are socially constructed and often unjust in the way they play out in society.    The supposed roles for men and women are taught and learned early and those with the courage to break those boundaries provide all of us with a great gift.    Rather than being constrained by arbitrary categories of this or that, we are discovering in part through trans people that we are quite diverse.  

As I spoke with Alex I realized that there was more to him, but not only him, to all of us than what we see.   I started to think about Jesus a little differently as well.  He not only transcended the human and divine divide, he transcended other categories, too.   The categories of rich and poor, of Jew and Gentile, perhaps male and female to some degree as well. 

And what of our community?  What might it mean to be a trans community?   The world is remarkably diverse.   But we musn’t be divided.   Nor must we be uniform.   The challenge for humanity is to discover our unity through our diversity.  It is the people on the margins who are our teachers.  Those in between.  They reveal to us, as did Krishna and Jesus, that we are more than what we appear to be.  I think the great challenge is to listen to those in the margins, to listen to those who stretch those boundaries and challenge the categories rather than judge or dismiss them as being weird or irrelevant.  

I will close with two open questions: 

What categories need to be transfigured, transcended, and transformed?   
Who in our larger community are our teachers?  

I will invite you to finish the sermon.    


Amen. 

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Positive Reframing (2/8/15 Evolution Sunday)

Positive Reframing
John Shuck

Southminster Presbyterian Church
Beaverton, Oregon

February 8, 2015
Evolution Sunday

Romans 7:14-25
For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 

For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin.

I didn’t know until a few years ago that Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin share a birthday.  The exact same day, that is same day, same year, February 12, 1809.    We made a holiday combining Lincoln and Washington’s Birthdays.  Next weekend, you can get a great deal on a new car or a bedroom set thanks to our former commanders in chief. 

Charles Darwin’s birthday receives no holiday.  But in recent years a bigger fuss has been made over him and rightly so.  Darwin’s theory qualifies him as a major dude.   Evolution, modification through time via natural selection, is transforming the way we think about virtually everything.   

This transformation in thinking is being met with resistance in many quarters.  The church hasn’t been comfortable with Darwin sitting in the pew.    The basic view I find among my colleagues is acceptance and dismissal.   They obviously accept evolution but regard it as irrelevant to anything they have to do.  

Let’s accept it but not talk about it. 

Last summer I submitted a commissioner’s resolution to the General Assembly.   This resolution was well done.   I can say that because it wasn’t written by me.  It was written by three members of my previous congregation, each a scientist.  You can read the resolution and the whole story about it on my blog.   The resolution asked the General Assembly to endorse the Clergy Letter Project, which I will talk about in a minute, and establish the second Sunday in February on the church calendar as Evolution Sunday in honor of Charles Darwin.   It was rejected in committee 46-2.    I am not discouraged.  You can only go up from here.

As I reflected on this experience what I took away was that for most church folks, evolution is more trouble than its worth.    We don’t want to make a big deal of it because we don’t want to upset our friends.     As one member of the committee said:  “I have family members who believe in evolution and some who don’t.  Why add fuel to the fire?”   I think that sentiment won the day.   

I personally find that sentiment irresponsible in and of itself.  Think of all the fires that have needed fuel throughout history.  I am grateful for those who have added fuel even though doing so might have upset family members.   The fire of abolition, the fire of suffrage, the fire of civil rights.  The struggles over what we teach in public schools are hot topics today in regards to evolution.   Positive change has always required the willingness to engage potential conflict.   

But if evolution is seen as esoteric and removed from daily experience, I can understand why the ambivalence.    By introducing this resolution we were trying to make the case that this is not esoteric or irrelevant, but important and serious for the church.

Evolution is not something you can believe in or not believe in as if it were like choosing a sports team.  It is foundational for understanding the natural world including human life.   Because there is so much misinformation even disinformation about it and because much of this misinformation comes from religious sources, it falls upon those of us who are religious to do our part in regards to education within our church and outside of it as well.

Enter Michael Zimmerman and the Clergy Letter Project.  I am deeply grateful for Michael.  He is tireless.   This whole thing consists of his website, his email address, and his Huffington Post page.  He is now at Evergreen College in Olympia.  He started The Clergy Letter Project and Evolution Weekend when he was at Butler University about ten years ago. 

His concern was that religion was being used as a reason to hinder public schools in regards to science education, in particular the teaching of evolution.  He thought if he could get clergy to communicate clearly that evolution and faith were not incompatible it would help.    A letter was drafted and has been signed by over 13,000 of us clergy types.   

In addition to the letter, Evolution Sunday, now Evolution Weekend was established on the weekend closest to Darwin’s Birthday to speak about Evolution in particular and science in general in church.    That is why Evolution Sunday. 

I just found out yesterday that Evolution Sunday is next week.   I messed this up.  I was so used to the second Sunday being Evolution Sunday that I didn’t realize that next Sunday the 15th is the Sunday closest to Darwin’s birthday.  We might have to do it all again.   But you know when your heart is right, every Sunday is Evolution Sunday.

I have been having fun with Evolution Sunday over the past ten years with my congregation and I hope we can have fun with it as well.   When I say, fun, I don’t mean frivolous.   But unless it is fun, it won’t find much of a hearing.  

I thought it might be fun to think about a theological concept from an evolutionary perspective.  What is sin?  Not that we are going to rewrite books of doctrine but just poke at it from a different angle.    Here again the Apostle Paul from Romans 7:14-25:

For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.

For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin.

Two things here.  The first is that I resonate with what Paul is saying.   I get that.   I resemble that.  I feel that with him.  The second is that I want to give him a hug.  I want to say,

“Paul, I hear you, but let’s reframe this positively.”

Paul provides no specifics, but if I had a dollar I would bet it has something to do with food or sex.   If I had another fifty cents I might put it on issues related to competition and status and spin the roulette wheel.  

The meaning of life for the past 3.5 billion years since the first bacterium said, “Here I am.  Hear me roar,” has been, this.  This is the meaning of life:

Eat.  Survive.  Reproduce. 

Those drives to eat, survive, reproduce are like Paul said, a law “in my members…at war with the law of my mind.”   Paul articulates the struggle with our drives.  Except he calls it sin.  We might do well to reframe that. 

We, that is Homo sapiens share with nematodes, little worm-like creatures, the same gene for controlling appetite.  Our common ancestor with the nematode was around 1.5 billion years ago.    In other words these drives such as a gene that controls appetite, “the law…in our members,” has been around a long, long time.   

I learned that fact about the nematode from David Sloan Wilson’s book, Evolution ForEveryone:  How Darwin’s Theory Can changethe Way We Think About Our Lives.    

When we think about it that way, in an evolutionary way, it isn’t so much a matter of sin and Jesus as it is about genes and environment.    For example, there was a time, in fact most of the time, the vast majority of human existence, let alone mammalian existence, that salts, fats and sugars were hard to come by.   

The human beings who survived were able to get them into their bodies.  Those who didn’t did not reproduce.   We might be grateful that our ancestors had what we might call today an addiction to potato chips, ice cream and quarter pounders.     Had our ancestors not been driven, and had they not developed a taste for salt, fat, and sugar, they wouldn’t have survived their environments.  

For Americans, at least, our environments have changed.   We are deluged with salt, fat, and sugar.    So much so that it is killing us.   While our environment has changed, our attitudes are less than effective.  We think that these things can be solved by willpower.    That it is up to the individual to overcome these drives by praying to Jesus.    Then we judge.   We judge ourselves or others.  Obesity can be traced at least in part to birth weight.  If we were born with a lower than average birth weight, the gene for storing food was engaged.   

Rather than judge and punish individuals, we might spend time evaluating our environments, environments created to make a profit by exploiting biological  drives.   The point I want to make is that reframing our issues through an evolutionary perspective can help us evaluate and solve problems.    

When environments change, species undergo a period of dancing with ghosts.  This is a metaphor David Wilson uses in his book.   Think of a ballroom and a couple dancing.   One of the partner ssuddenly disappears but the other dancer continues as if nothing has changed.    A big pit appears on the dance floor.  The dancer doesn’t notice and falls in.  

Sea turtles for hundreds of millions of years have done the same thing.  They give birth on the land and when the baby turtles hatch a gene is triggered that tells them, “Go to the light.”   The light is the reflection of the moon on the ocean.  The turtles make their way to the ocean to a lifetime of happiness and meaning where they will eat, survive, and reproduce.  

Enter beach houses.  The light from the houses is brighter than the light reflected on the ocean by the moon.  The sea turtles get the same message that has enabled them to survive for hundreds of millions of years.   Go to the light.  So they do.  But they go away from the ocean and to their deaths.   The environment has changed.  They are dancing with ghosts.  

Antelopes in Montana are fast.  Who are they running from?   They are running from the ghosts of predators long extinct. 

Sea turtles, antelopes, and human beings have the same thing in common.  We are all dancing with ghosts.   Our environments change yet our biological drives, our genes, are in the words of Paul, “the sin that dwells within me.”

But it really isn’t a sin, Paul.  Whatever it is you think dwells within you, maybe anger, or sexual desire or whatever it is, can be thought of differently.     The behaviors that we exhibit and struggle with today likely enabled our ancestors to survive in the past.    They served a purpose.   They still do, when used in helpful ways.

To conclude, on this Evolution Sunday…

I make a case for accepting that human beings are not above evolution.   Our behaviors, thoughts, and attitudes, are a product of evolution.   Our behaviors and attributes have a long, long history that in most cases predate humanity.  

I make a second case for thinking in an evolutionary way about everything including human behavior.    We along with bananas and bonobos adapt to our environments.  It is the way it works.   So we might think about our behaviors, not just individuals, but societies and communities in an evolutionary way.

I make a third case for being a bit more compassionate with ourselves and with others about these supposed “sins of the flesh.” What might be a sin in one context was a virtue in another.   We might think of our genetic heritage as a tool box.   Rather than judge or control how might we understand and work with human behaviors, drawing from our tool kit those behaviors that can enable us to adapt and flourish.    

The bottom line for me is that I never until fairly recently thought about human life (behavior, attributes, even religion) in terms of evolution.   I have usually thought about it in terms of sin vs. virtue as Paul had done, the war between mind and flesh.   Evolution has provided us with a whole new way of understanding ourselves and our place on this beautiful blue ball.  

I would like to hear your thoughts about this as well.  Join us after worship for conversation.

Amen.




Sunday, February 1, 2015

A Sublime Madness in the Soul (2/1/15)


A Sublime Madness in the Soul
John Shuck

Southminster Presbyterian Church
February 1, 2015

In the task of that redemption the most effective agents will be men [and women] who have substituted some new illusions for the abandoned ones.  The most important of these illusions is that the collective life of [hu]mankind can achieve perfect justice.  It is a very valuable illusion for the moment; for justice cannot be approximated if the hope of its perfect realization does not generate a sublime madness in the soul.  Nothing but such madness will do battle with malignant power and “spiritual wickedness in high places.”  The illusion is dangerous because it encourages terrible fanaticisms.  It must therefore be brought under the control of reason.  One can only hope that reason will not destroy it before its work is done.
--Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man Immoral Society

Mark 3:20-21 (Scholars’ Version)              
Then he goes home, and once again a crowd gathers, so they couldn’t even have a meal.  When his relatives heard about it, they came to take him away.  (You see, they thought he was out of his mind.)



Near the time when Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, he was asked by a reporter who his favorite philosopher was.   The reporter in recounting this conversation was taken aback by the president’s answer.  Obama took the question seriously.  He said that his favorite philosopher was Reinhold Niebuhr and then he went on to summarize Niebuhr’s thought.    I was impressed.   How cool to have a president who has a favorite philosopher and can wax eloquently about him. 

Niebuhr was a major figure in the mid part of last century.  He pastored in Detroit in the early part of the century during Henry Ford’s heyday.   Later he taught theology and ethics at Union Theological Seminary.   He started a magazine called Christianity and Crisis that urged the United States to get involved in World War II long before Pearl Harbor.  He moved from Christian Pacifism to Christian Realism.

The quote in the bulletin is from a book he wrote in the 1930s called Moral Man and Immoral Society.  He argued that the individual is capable of moral choices and hard ethical decisions that can go against one’s personal interests, but institutions and societies cannot.   They are like “the Bank” in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.   In the brilliant section where the tenants lose their land to the banks the bank men come bearing the bad news.    

The owners of the land came onto the land, or more often a spokesman for the owners came….if a bank or finance company owned the land, the owner man said, The Bank—or the Company—needs—wants—insists—must have—as though the Bank or the Company were a monster, with thought and feeling, which had ensnared them. These last would take no responsibility for the banks or the companies because they were men and slaves, while the banks were machines and masters all at the same time….

You see, a bank or a company…those creatures don’t breathe air, don’t eat side-meat. They breathe profits; they eat the interest on money. If they don’t get it, they die….the bank—the monster has to have profits all the time. It can’t wait. It’ll die. No, taxes go on. When the monster stops growing, it dies. It can’t stay one size…we have to do it. We don’t like to do it. But the monster’s sick. Something’s happened to the monster….

Sure, cried the tenant men, but it’s our land. We measured it and broke it up. We were born on it, and we got killed on it, died on it. Even if it’s no good, it’s still ours….

We’re sorry. It’s not us. It’s the monster. The bank isn’t like a man.

Yes, but the bank is only made of men.

No, you’re wrong there—quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.

That is John Steinbeck putting in the form of a novel what Niebuhr was saying in Moral Man, Immoral Society.   Once we hand over ethics to societies, governments, institutions, corporations, or this thing we simply call “the economy”, we lose our souls, our dignity, and our morality.   We end up with mantras and beliefs.  

The economy must grow.  

Even it seems, if the planet burns.   That is what Niebuhr and Steinbech were writing about.

Niebuhr concludes Moral Man Immoral Society with a fascinating paragraph.   In this final paragraph of his scholarly book he calls individuals, you and me, to the task of redemption, that is to save humanity, and reading it today, to save our planet.   He says the only way to do this is to give ourselves over to a “sublime madness of the soul.”  This is the final paragraph of his book, Moral Man, Immoral Society:

In the task of that redemption the most effective agents will be men [and women] who have substituted some new illusions for the abandoned ones.  The most important of these illusions is that the collective life of [hu]mankind can achieve perfect justice.  It is a very valuable illusion for the moment; for justice cannot be approximated if the hope of its perfect realization does not generate a sublime madness in the soul.  Nothing but such madness will do battle with malignant power and “spiritual wickedness in high places.”  The illusion is dangerous because it encourages terrible fanaticisms.  It must therefore be brought under the control of reason.  One can only hope that reason will not destroy it before its work is done.

That paragraph goes back and forth.   Society is immoral but to save it we must operate with the illusion that perfect justice can be achieved.  Only that illusion will give us the energy and hope to move society even a little bit.  Of course this illusion is dangerous because it brings forth the crazies and the fanatics so it needs to be tempered by reason.  But as he concludes:

One can only hope that reason will not destroy it before its work is done.

Generating that sublime madness in the soul is the work of the church, I think.  That is true for all religious people or people of conscience.  Religion is at its best when it articulates valuable illusions. 

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

Sublime madness.  You can’t sit at lunch counters and allow yourself and your friends to be beaten over the head and not fight back without generating a sublime madness of the soul.   You can’t do the work, day in, day out trying to get the vote or in our present day trying to work for peace in communities between people and police, without the hope and the dream that one day our nation will be transformed into an “oasis of freedom and justice.”  

Reason and realism aren’t enough to change the world even a little bit.  We need reason to temper our fanaticisms but it cannot provide the drive needed to battle with the “spiritual wickedness in high places” to use Niebuhr’s words.   

You have to be a little crazy. A little "cra cra" as my daughter says.

One of the great blessings of being a minister is that I get to meet people who are sublimely mad. 

Sister Paula Gonzales is a woman religious, a sister of Charity in Ohio.  She is in her 80s and she has degrees in biology and she speaks whenever invited and at times when not invited.  And wherever she goes she generates a sublime madness in the soul.   It is catching.  She talks to youth, to older people, to anyone about the hope she has for a world whose energy needs are met solely by renewable resources.  She is called the Solar Nun and says the solution to our problems comes up once every morning.   

Niebuhr might call that a valuable illusion.    It won’t take long for reasonable people  to come up with many reasons why that won’t work.  If you are anything like me, it can be pretty depressing and hopeless when are confronted with the reality of climate change, peak oil and all of that.   But then again, the illusion, the dream, the hope that we can be 100% sustainable does generate in me a bit of madness, perhaps just enough madness to keep hope alive and to try to do my part. 

We have a tradition of maddening individuals.  St. Francis of Assisi for one.  He gave away all of his possessions and preached naked to the birds.  Sometimes you just gotta do what you gotta do.   

In the 13th century, when the institution of the church was responsible for ethics, reasonable people thought the thing to do was to start Crusades to go war against the Muslims.    St. Francis was sublimely mad enough to be an individual.

In 1219, in the midst of the Fifth Crusade, St. Francis crossed enemy lines to have a consultation with the Sultan of Egypt, Al-Kamil.   Francis opposed warfare and he thought he could bring peace by converting the sultan to Christianity.  That didn’t happen, but what did happen is more profound.  Francis was changed by the encounter and he came away with revolutionary ideas of how Christians could live in peace with Muslims.   A book that recounts this story is The Saint and the Sultan:  The Crusades, Ilsam, and Francis of Assisi’sMission of Peace by Paul Moses. 

The founder of our tradition, Jesus of Nazareth, generated a sublime madness of the soul.  His radical teachings and his healing outside the bounds of acceptable channels caused the authorities to say he was demon-possessed.   And according to this interesting verse that only occurs in the gospel of Mark, even his relatives wanted to take him away because they thought he was out of his mind. 

Perhaps they were right.  He was generating a sublime madness of the soul.   He believed that we and our enemies could be transformed by compassion and love as he illustrated in his parable of the Good Enemy, that we know as the Good Samaritan. 

He was an inspiration to Ghandi and Martin Luther King and St. Francis of Assisi and many others for non-violent resistance to evil. 

Turn the other cheek. 
Go the second mile. 
Give the coat off your back. 

He believed that wonderful things could happen from small beginnings, a little leaven in the loaf, a seed that planted in good soil yields a hundred fold and more. 

He believed that in our world of suffering and pain, one could and should always make room for joy, like the woman who finds her lost coin, the shepherd who finds his lost sheep, and the father who embraces his lost sons.   They all throw parties. 

He believed in human dignity for the least of these.  

Congratulations, you poor! 
You are the light of the world.
You are the salt of the earth.  

What madness in those phrases told to oppressed peasants.    

He knew the sober realities of the kingdoms, the empires of this world.  Empires whose rulers believed that peace comes through violence.   He was executed on the cross bars of that empire because he believed (and he lived his belief) that peace comes through justice.   

But, and this is the creativity of our tradition:  His madness lives on.   Whatever resurrection means and it can mean different things to different people, it at least means to me that what Jesus lived and died for is worth living and dying for. 

As we celebrate the sacrament of communion, I gain strength for the journey by participating with friends around a common table in the spirit of Jesus, who was and is sublimely mad.

Let us feast.


Amen.