Sunday, May 3, 2009

Learning to Fly

Preached 5/3/09 at the Wabash (Ind.) Church of the Brethren.

There is a show on TV called Smallville that tells the story of Clark Kent before he dons the cape of Superman, beginning with his life as a high-school-aged farm boy and running through the start of his career at the Daily Planet—with, of course, new villains to face off with every week. Young Clark comes loaded with super powers: faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. He can melt steel with his heat vision and see through concrete with his x-ray vision. One power, however, is conspicuously absent from his repertoire: he can't fly.

We all know Superman is supposed to be able to fly. It's in all the comic books and movies. It's in the little kids' cartoon videos and the 1990's show Lois and Clark, which I used to watch with my dad. But as of Season 8 of Smallville, while he is finally working as a mild-mannered reporter and has even picked up a habit of super-speed changes in a phone booth, Clark still can't fly. He just hasn't learned how yet.

Even though he's from the planet Krypton and all of us, as far as I know, are from Earth, we can actually find ourselves understanding Clark Kent pretty well—at least on this issue. The Bible is full of stories of Jesus making people see, or walk, or even rise from the dead, but he's not the only one doing it: his disciples, in his name, can perform those same miracles. Peter says to the crippled beggar, “Well, I don't have any money, but...” and BAM. The man can walk.

Now, we know where Superman's power comes from. Well, I know. Earth's yellow sun acts as a supercharger for his Kryptonian physiology, turning the ordinary alien into the Man of Steel. But how the heck was Peter able to make a crippled man walk just by telling him to? “It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth!” he proclaims to the rulers. But we're Christians, too. We're followers of that same Jesus Christ of Nazareth. I hear stories like this and I always have to ask, where's my power?

When I was little I used to pray to God to give me super powers. “I'll use them for good.... mostly!” I would plead. “Honest!” It's possible my continuing lack of magical abilities has something to do with the purity of my intentions. What I really wanted was to be able to snap my fingers and create a pet Tyrannosaur—who, yes, might eat that jerk Brandon Thomas, but only if he really refused to reform—or maybe make Lindsay Jones like me just a little bit. God probably saw right through my do-gooder charade and put a nice big DECLINED stamp on my application for omnipotence.

But it's not for lack of good intentions that we don't go around miraculously curing people. Surely we mean well. I'm over Brandon Thomas and Lindsay Jones, but I'd still like to be able to do more to help people in need, and I still can't. Now, to be fair, I've never actually tried this. I mean, I've tried to use the Force to get a disc out of the DVD player so I wouldn't have to get off the couch, and unless you count reaching your arm out with a concentrated look on your face until somebody gives in and does a task for you, it generally hasn't yielded great results. But have I ever looked at someone unable to walk and said, “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk?” No. But I still don't think it would work, and I've left well enough alone for fear of looking like a grandstanding moron or, worse, of discrediting Jesus.

So there's one popular explanation: a lack of faith. We can't do anything truly miraculous because we don't truly believe that we can. After all, Jesus tells us that if we do not doubt, we can tell a mountain to throw itself into the sea, and it will comply. We haven't done a whole lot of moving of mountains, either, unless you count mountaintop removal for coal mining (and that's really, really bad). So is the problem that we doubt? Do we not really believe what we profess to believe? Is our faith so small that we're crippled? Why can't we do what the Bible says we can do?? These are the kinds of questions we don't ask because afraid of the answers, because they are just too uncomfortable, but if we're going to take our faith seriously it's time to ask!

For what it's worth, I don't think it's a lack of faith that keeps us from these miracles. I think even if I really believed and really tried, I would remain unable to do it. After all, others have believed and fallen short. Last year an eleven-year-old in Wisconsin died of perfectly treatable diabetes because her parents, rather than take her to a doctor, tried to heal her with prayer. You don't risk your child's life for something you don't believe, yet for all their faith, they weren't able to unlock a miracle.

Saint Francis of Assisi offered one more suggestion for why we can no longer do what we read the early Christians did: money. Peter tells the beggar, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you.” Francis claimed that it's an either-or scenario. You can have money for the beggar, or you can have miracles for the beggar, but you cannot have both. When we—that is to say, the Church—became an established power with wealth and status those disciples couldn't have dreamed of, we lost the power of the healing word. Perhaps those powers were born out of need, and we no longer have them because we no longer need them.

I'm going to go ahead and confess that, true to my usual form, I wrote this sermon this morning. But I was thinking about it earlier, and I caught my campus pastor after chapel on Wednesday and told him (with some panic) I was going to ask this really hard question and I needed to offer some kind of answer. “Well,” he said, “you could talk about the miracle of modern medicine...” and so I tuned him out. It sounded like a cop-out, a way of dodging the question with a wholly unsatisfactory answer. But after he told me that bit about Saint Francis, I kind of changed my mind.

We do have this miraculous modern medicine. We are able to prevent or cure many ailments that, two thousand years ago, would have left a person blind, or crippled, or dead. Maybe we don't go around performing flashy miracles, but let's look at this as utilitarians for a second: modern medicine cures more people in a day, by sheer volume and pervasiveness, than Peter and John could have in their whole lifetimes, even if they did nothing else. Medically speaking, unless swine flu wipes us all out, our civilization is in great shape!

And we have the resource that, root of all evil though it may be, can do the greatest good: money. Most of the suffering in the world is not because we—that's we as in all of us together—lack power. It's not the inevitable that's killing us. The four most common childhood illnesses are diarrhea, acute respiratory illness, malaria and measles, all of which are both preventable and treatable. Poor nutrition and calorie deficiencies cause nearly one in three people to die prematurely or to have disabilities. As I talk to you now, 963 million people across the world are hungry. And today alone, that hunger will kill 16 thousand children—some from starvation, but most as opportunistic diseases move in on their weakened bodies.

Working in Indianapolis last summer, I had the opportunity to talk with a crazy ex-drug addict who lives voluntarily in poverty, speaks truth to power, and literally does whatever is in his power to provide help to the people of his inner-city neighborhood. Exactly the sort of person Jesus would have working for him. He told me one of the most profound things I have ever heard about poverty: “People—economists--go around talking about the solution to poverty like it's this insanely complicated, elusive holy grail that's very, very difficult. It's not. The solution to poverty is easy. It's money. And the only complicated thing is figuring out how to get money from the people who have it to the people who need it.”

And I'll add here that that isn't complicated because of some complex economic structure. The economy is not an actor of its own; it's merely a reflection of the priorities of the people. Getting money from the people who have it to the people who need it is complicated because the people who have money are not particularly interested in getting it to the people who need money.

And so I must now admonish myself for insisting this question of miracle cures was so important in the first place. How dare we lament our lack of power when we refuse to use what power we have? As it turns out, we have all the power we need. Poverty, hunger, and most of the diseases that are killing us are treatable, even curable, without super powers. These woes would be relegated to the history books if we weren't so interested in living lives of luxury and fighting wars. You don't even want to know all the things we could do with the trillion dollars the Iraq War has cost us, but I'll just say that paving the entire interstate system with gold is only the most wasteful option.

My mom hates it when I preach like this. She accuses me of being depressing. “Can't you find something nicer to talk about?” she asks. And she's not wrong. It's true that we cannot afford to to spend our time saying nice things that will make us like each other, ignoring the tragedy of the world and pretending that there's nothing we can do. But neither can we afford to be constantly down on ourselves, beating ourselves into despair. We have seen solutions born out of despair—suicide bombings, for example—and they're not the sorts of answers we're looking for.

So here's the good news: we have the power. The power to heal with a word we have not, but silver and gold we have plenty. We have the power to feed and clothe everyone. We have the power to send the world's children to school. We have the power to heal. We can do all this as surely as Clark Kent can fly, even if we haven't quite figured out how.

And just like Clark is already using some of his powers, we really are doing a lot. International aid organizations like Heifer International and the Global Food Crisis Fund, though often underfunded, work hard to lessen the blows of poverty. Organizations like the New Community Project focus on learning so that we may understand the nature of the problems we face and craft healthy, sustainable solutions. And if any of those sound familiar, it's because all three were started by Brethren. I'll plug one more: Kiva, k-i-v-a, allows people like you and me to be micro-lenders, lending as little as $25 so that someone in need can start a business.

So there's a start. There's plenty to celebrate, but we can't get complacent because there is a lot of work to do. It seems daunting. It might even seem impossible, but remember this: we have the power to heal. That power is within us. It's just a matter of learning to fly.

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