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Sunday, March 22, 2009

Sermon: I Need a Hero

Here is today's sermon. The texts included the lectionary text from John where Jesus is the good serpent. And I used a Hindu story where Shiva drinks the world's poison to save humankind and it turns his neck blue. And I played the first verse and chorus of Bonnie Tyler's Holding Out for a Hero just because I think the world needs to hear more 80s songs.

I Need a Hero
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

March 22nd, 2009
Fourth Sunday of Lent
John 3:14-21


Where have all good men gone
And where are all the gods?
Where’s the street-wise Hercules
To fight the rising odds?
--Bonnie Tyler, “Holding Out for a Hero”

Over my vacation which was very relaxing and just what I needed, I read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces. This was the book that inspired George Lucas to create the Star Wars films.

Published in 1949, Campbell surveyed mythology using the insights from depth psychology to show that the great myths tell the same story with different characters. The stories of myth are our internal stories projected outward.

The story of the hero is the individual who follows some kind of summons to enter the darkness, battle the dragons, face crucifixion, and discover the other side. After uniting with the divine realm, the hero returns, via resurrection or some other way, to the everyday realm to lead, to teach, or to live with an enlightened awareness.

In the Christian tradition, Jesus functions as the hero. The legends attributed to Jesus and the theologies created about him are part of the heroic mystique. If we read the Jesus stories as heroic legends and myths they make a lot more sense than if we try to historicize or to literalize them.

The lectionary text for this Fourth Sunday of Lent is from John’s Gospel. The author here is speaking about his version of the atonement myth. Jesus will be lifted up on the cross as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness.

Once you start talking about snakes you know you are in the realm of mythology. Snakes are everywhere in myth. They are life-giving and life-taking. They represent rebirth with the shedding of the skin. The king of snakes, Muchalinda, guarded and protected the Buddha when he was meditating.

In the Garden of Eden the snake tricked Eve (or told her the truth actually) about how her eyes would be opened when she tasted the fruit. It was kind of a half-truth in a sense. The snake didn’t tell her that knowing good and evil has consequences. That is why the snake has a forked tongue. Snakes are jam-packed with symbolic meaning.

In the Moses story, the Hebrew children are wandering in the Wilderness. They have gone on the heroic quest, perhaps grudgingly, but nevertheless they are there. The Wilderness is where you are tested. In Wilderness you face the beasts. You are naked in the elements. Your only comfort is to trust in the god or in the spirit guide who led you there.

The Wilderness is harsh. Understandably, the people complain. No food. No water. They long for the good old days in Egypt. They were slaves there, they reason, but at least they had their needs met. They long for their old attachments. But of course, they cannot go back. That is not their destiny. The god, in this case, Yahweh, needs to remind them of their destiny and the importance of trust.

Yahweh is a hard teacher. He sends poisonous snakes among them. It is important not to take this story historically or literally. It is a story designed to awaken us. Here is the text:
Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 7The people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. 8And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’ 9So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
So why doesn’t Yahweh just take away the serpents? That doesn’t work in this world. In the realm of atonement legend and myth the suffering is never eliminated. Instead a path is provided through it. The antidote to the poison is the poison. We look upon the serpent, our own suffering, as the cure to our suffering.

In the Hindu myth, the ocean or the universe is churned by using again, the serpent. From the churning, poison comes out threatening the universe itself, like the serpents that threatened the existence of the Israelites. In this case, Shiva comes and drinks the poison. Shiva does not die but his throat turns blue.

When you look upon the blue-throated Shiva, you look upon the suffering, the poison, and the sacrifice required. The blue—throated Shiva is like Christ with the stigmata. You have always an image of the suffering of the hero. This is a reminder of the cost the hero undertakes in order to save the world or herself or himself.

The author of John’s gospel takes the story of the snake in the wilderness and applies it to Jesus. Look upon the crucified hero. In looking we see both the suffering of the world and the sacrifice before us.

If you want to get to the Promised Land, you have to go through the Wilderness. If you want resurrection you must go through crucifixion.

What does this mean? It is the crucifixion of our attachments so that we can discover rebirth. Campbell writes what the hero story represents psychologically:
The individual, through prolonged psychological disciplines, gives up completely all attachment to his personal limitations, idiosyncrasies, hopes and fears, no longer resists the self-annihilation that is prerequisite to rebirth in the realization of truth, and so becomes ripe, at last, for the great at-one-ment. His personal ambitions being totally dissolved, he no longer tries to live but willingly relaxes to whatever may come to pass in him; he becomes, that is to say, an anonymity. The Law lives in him with his unreserved consent. P. 236-7.
The myths then, properly understood, including the Christian myth, are guides not ends in themselves. They provide for us characters and narratives to bring to consciousness what is unconscious. The myths serve to wake us up. If we open ourselves to them and take them seriously and playfully, but not literally, they can be helpful. The myths awaken us to the unconscious forces that drive our lives.

Yet we live in a time in which we think the myths come from an unenlightened past. Surely, we have surpassed childish myths and fairy tales. The mythic past is past.

We wish it weren’t so. As Bonnie Tyler sings:

Where have all good men gone
And where are all the gods?
Where’s the street-wise Hercules
To fight the rising odds?

Science and her daughter, technology, have swept the gods and the goddesses from the skies, earth and the sea, therefore eliminating them.

So we think. That is not quite true. The gods and goddesses have not been swept away or replaced by science, technology, and reason. They have been submerged. Our modern consciousness has put a lid on them, but they bubble below. They are alive and well and doing mischief. They live in our unconscious and haunt us in our dreams.

We have lost the vocabulary, ritual, and narrative to recognize them and to come to terms with them. Yet we live in a time in which we may need these guiding myths to awaken us from our slumber.

In saying #70 of the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus is reported to have said:
"If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you."
We need to bring forth, that is become aware, of what is within us.

I read this past week a report of a Gallup poll that said 40% of Americans are anxious about their own personal futures. This anxiety level has increased from just a few months ago. These are real fears based on real circumstances.

The advertisements on television have reflected these new anxieties. Corporations and financial service institutions are attempting to capitalize on these fears. They acknowledge them and offer the cure--to purchase what they are selling. I am not convinced of their cures.

The question remains. What do we do about all of this anxiety?

We need a hero.

I need to mention a couple of disclaimers.

1) The hero we need is not a political figure or a movement. Nor is the hero society itself. These heroes always disappoint. History is replete with stories of the heroes who have become tyrants.

2) The hero also is not a mythical figure literalized, such as the return of Christ or some other supernatural fantasy.

In both of those cases, the hero is projected outward with tragic consequences.

The hero is within.

The theme song for Lent this year is “Jesus Walked This Lonesome Valley.” He walked it and so do you and so do I. No one can walk it for us. The hero’s quest is our own. Joseph Campbell concludes his classic book with this paragraph:
The modern hero, the modern individual who dares to heed the call and seek the mansion of that presence with whom it is our whole destiny to be atoned, cannot, indeed must not, wait for his community to cast off its slough of pride, fear, rationalized avarice, and sanctified misunderstanding. “Live,” Nietzsche says, “as though the day were here.” It is not society that is to guide and save the creative hero, but precisely the reverse. And so every one of us shares the supreme ordeal—carries the cross of the redeemer—not in the bright moments of his tribe’s great victories, but in the silences of his personal despair. P. 391.
We are entering the Wilderness, grudgingly perhaps. But the Wilderness is not a bad place. It is a necessary place. We have been summoned there to undertake the hero’s quest. The summons is to come to terms with our own fears and hopes. Fear is not a bad servant. It is, however, a destructive master. We are summoned to name our fears, attachments, limitations, and idiosyncrasies so that we may control them rather than having them control us.

Joanna Macy described our situation in this manner:
The most remarkable feature of this historical moment on Earth is not that we are on the way to destroying the world-we've actually been on the way for quite a while. It is that we are beginning to wake up, as from a millennia-long sleep, to a whole new relationship to our world, to ourselves and each other.
For that awakening we need a hero. Let us consider ourselves summoned.

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