A sermon preached on March 25, 2007 based on Isaiah 43:16 – 21 and John 12:1-8 entitled “Delusional Beliefs”.
When I was in seminary, during one of my three years I did my field work in a local mental health center. Part of this work meant going once a month to spend an evening at the emergency room, tagging along with the resident psychiatrist as he evaluated people who were in coming in with some kind of psychiatric breakdown.
I remember watching as the psychiatrist would evaluate people who came in presenting an apparent psychotic episode, the mark of a serious psychiatric condition, schizophrenia, perhaps. You were to be on the watch for strange talk by the person being evaluated, particularly messages they were receiving supposedly from beyond themselves.
I remember a woman talking about her certainty that a particular radio station was broadcasting encrypted/encoded messages from God that were specifically directed to her; she’d hear words on the radio that for other people would be mundane and meaningless, but for her, were packed with meaning.
And I remember as I listened to this woman go on and on about this, thinking, “Yep, she’s crazy.” Which was to say, something was going awry with her brain chemistry that was leading her to misinterpret her experience, keeping her from encountering reality, and wreaking havoc with her capacity to relate to the rest of the human race.
Now there was something a bit unsettling in this experience for me, personally, because I was there as the seminarian/chaplain, the person who in some sense represented belief in God. My role was a little vague, to say the least. I mean, here’s a crazy woman, having a breakdown, and part of her craziness has a particularly “religious” quality — she claimed to be receiving messages given to her directly from God — and so what am I supposed to be doing there? Convincing her that, “No, God isn’t really talking to you?”
Over the years I’ve encountered other people whose religious talk struck me as “crazy”, the sign of a psychotic breakdown, ungrounded in reality, with potentially dangerous, destructive implications. And every time I do, it gives me pause regarding my work as pastor/preacher. Routinely, I encourage people to “listen for God speaking in your life”, based upon the fundamental proposition that, yes, there is a God, and yes, this God loves us and wants to communicate with us, and that on a certain level hearing God, establishing this connection is the most important thing we can do in our lives.
But when I would encounter somebody having a psychotic episode, well, it leads to a bit of self doubt. To put it bluntly: am I just encouraging the crazies in their crazy talk?
Atheism has been around for a while, especially in highly educated circles. Recently its seems to be getting more attention, becoming almost fashionable. There are a couple of best seller books presently out there on the market, arguing the atheist’s point of view — Richard Dawkins in particular is making the talk show rounds — that the human race would be better off were it simply to grow up and leave behind all the delusion that is religion. And you can understand the pull of atheism in our time, where so much of the religious talk seems to be destructive, creating deep, violent divisions, leading crazy people to crash planes into buildings, and in general, encouraging a tendency in believers to close down around the experience of people who are different from themselves, to shut their ears and minds and ultimately their hearts through the all too easy mechanism of condemnation.
Now over the years this has been a pretty troubling issue for me personally, since as a pastor I am a public representative of belief in God and all things Christian, people often assume that I must go along with certain expressions of Christianity that get a lot of air time but strike me as pretty delusional, hostile, bull headed. So there are times when, if I were forced to make a choice between identifying myself with the atheists, the ones, at least, who, in their own way try to live moral lives, or with the “Christians” who strike me as wacky and mean spirited, well, I’d choose to hang with the atheists.
But in my heart of hearts I know that making such a choice would be a matter of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. One of the things that I have a good deal of conviction about is that ultimate reality is mysterious, ambiguous — that you can’t nail it down to fit the categories we impose upon it. Either/or choices are generally misleading:
for instance, either there is no God or there is the God of the crazies.
I believe there is a third way, one that isn’t so black and white, more gray. (Which, curiously, is one of those things that scientists encounter at the further limits of knowledge: light, for instance, sometimes presents itself as particles, and sometimes as waves — it doesn’t fit the pre-existing categories. Einstein, living on the frontiers of scientific enquiry, felt led to embraced a religious sense in regard to the universe.)
For me, faith means embracing the fact that in a certain sense mystery and ambiguity is here to stay, but that there is none the less good reason to trust the mysterious power that is behind everything. Underlying atheism is the proposition that reality is exclusively grounded in the physical realm, and that governing principles of empirical reality are random, ultimately meaningless — that there is no other meaning in life than the meaning we decide to give it.
And in my gut I can’t go along with that. I mean, how is it, that people throughout time and history, every culture have generated ideas about spiritual reality, the perception that there is more than the physical, material realm? For what I can see, evolutionary biology isn’t very good at providing an explanation for how religious belief might fit into evolutionary theory.
Recently we’ve been tuned into the destructive tendencies of religious beliefs, but if you look at the history of the 20th century, you will see that the greatest evil was committed not from a religious mindset but rather from a secular one: by the Nazis in Germany, by communists intent on wiping out belief in the Soviet Union, China, and Cambodia, and that it was the religious folk who were speaking out on behalf of compassion.
So the notion that doing away with religion would lead to greater justice in the world, strikes me, as itself delusional.
We’ve all had this experience, or something like it: Somebody you know, but haven’t talked to recently, suddenly comes into your thoughts, seemingly out of nowhere. A moment later, the phone rings, and it is the very person of whom you were thinking. What are we to make of this? Mere Coincidence? Or is there some meaning to it?
A “God — instance”, perhaps, a sign that life is not the meaningless chaos it sometimes appear to be, that there is, in fact an invisible guiding hand attempting to lead us through life? Who knows for sure? But most of us have the sense that there is something more at work here than mere chance.
I have a file on my computer entitled God moments. They are moments I’ve written down where that sense of coincidence, or of the leading of God, was clearest, strongest in my life. I try to write them down, because I know they are easy to forget. It helps to re-read them at times when the chaos of life seems most evident.
I’m approaching the end of the sermon, and I’m finally getting around to dealing with this morning’s scriptures lessons. Biblical religion encourages us to trust in a God who is actively involved in this world. In our Old Testament lesson from Isaiah, the listeners are encouraged to look around themselves and see the signs of the new thing God is doing. Some of us went this past Thursday night to the synagogue to celebrate a Seder meal with our Jewish neighbors, in which we remembered the old story of God taking the side of the poor and oppressed — the slaves living in Egypt — delivering them from their captivity. In this morning’s lesson, God says remember not the things of old, I am doing a new thing, can you see it? Once more people oppressed, in captivity, will be delivered. Watch for the signs. Keep your mind open. Give God room.
In the Gospel lesson, we hear how in the middle of a quiet dinner party Mary takes some very expensive anointment and begins to bathe Jesus’ feet, drying them with her hair. The whole room fills with the fragrance of the ointment.
It is not hard to imagine that if Mary were to do such a thing today, she would end up in a psych ward for an evaluation. Judas would certainly have recommended she be taken there.
Clearly, Jesus didn’t think she was crazy. He appreciated what she had done, and saw that she was more tuned into what was about to happen than any of the others. On some level of her being, Mary recognized that Jesus was about to die, and so she had begun to anoint his body for burial.
So how do we walk the walk of faith, avoiding the pitfalls of religious delusion on the one side, and the delusion of atheism on the other?
First off, when religion gets crazy, it has a tendency to encourage a person to be grandiose. It’s all about me! The woman in the emergency room I witnessed was believed God was speaking to her in such a way that made her “special”, superior to other people. Millions of people were listening to WABC but only she was picking up the secret messages hidden within the broadcast. Perhaps the woman needed to believe this to maintain a sense of self in the face of various psychic forces that would assault her, but it doesn’t make it true.
When Mary anointed Jesus’ feet, it was all about Jesus, it wasn’t about her. She was humbled in the posture of a servant, acting in love, offering herself as a channel.
Secondly, the Scriptures offer broad themes that help us to know the directions of God’s will. In general, be wary of finding a solitary verse of scripture upon which one hangs an interpretation of God’s will. Look for the broad themes, repeated over and over in Scripture.
Here are some of those broad themes:
God as we know God in Jesus wants us to become whole; God doesn’t torture people, punishing them with suffering.
God cares about everybody, and God especially cares for those who are poor and oppressed.
Do not get caught up in the love of money and stuff; love people instead.
Sometimes loving can be very painful. Love anyway.
Practice mercy to experience mercy.
Tell the truth; don’t be a fake.
Take time to simply be, instead of doing. Perpetual hurry is dangerous to the soul.
God is bigger than we imagine; let yourselves be surprised by what God is up to in your life and in the world.
Don’t give up.
With these basic themes in place, look around and, like Mary, see what God is up to.
Notice the weird coincidences that are in line with this themes. Keep an open mind.
Don’t jump to conclusions one way or the other; just be open. Go with the flow, not against the flow.