July 14, 2019 Sermon
“The Problem with Spock”
Old Testament Scripture Reading: Amos 7:7-17
This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. And the LORD said to me, "Amos, what do you see?"
And I said, "A plumb line."
Then the Lord said, "See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by; the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword."
Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, "Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. For thus Amos has said, 'Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel must go into exile away from his land.'"
And Amaziah said to Amos, "O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king's sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom."
Then Amos answered Amaziah, "I am no prophet, nor a prophet's son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, 'Go, prophesy to my people Israel.' "Now therefore hear the word of the LORD. You say, 'Do not prophesy against Israel, and do not preach against the house of Isaac." Therefore thus says the LORD: 'Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city, and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword, and your land shall be parceled out by line; you yourself shall die in an unclean land, and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.'"
New Testament Scripture Reading: Colossians 1:1-14
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,
To the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our Father.
In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. You have heard of this hope before in the word of the truth, the gospel that has come to you. Just as it is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God. This you learned from Epaphras, our beloved fellow servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf, and he has made known to us your love in the Spirit.
For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God's will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God. May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
Sermon: “The Problem With Spock” Rev. David Hawkins
I have a confession to make.
I am a nerd. I’ve tried to deny this part of myself all my life, but it’s no use trying to fake it anymore. I am a nerd. Nerd, nerd, nerd.
I tried to conceal it when I was a kid. I played football and basketball and baseball and tennis. But then I would slip up, and betray my true nature by joining the speech team, or try out for the school play. It was as though I wanted the world to know that I was a nerd.
I couldn’t help myself. One minute, I was playing left tackle on the offensive line for the football team, the next, I was wearing my drum major uniform, complete with red silk cape, directing the marching band for the halftime show. It was like I wanted to get caught.
Now it’s taken me a long time to accept my nerdness. It’s taken me my whole life to reconcile the fact that - let’s face it - I wasn’t part of the cool crowd, the popular kids. I loved the inner world of books, especially of science fiction and fantasy. I immersed myself in music. I played Dungeons and Dragons. I even liked math. I was painfully shy and socially awkward. Still am, come to think of it.
And I suppose it was natural that I would look for role models that reflected my nerd-ness. And was there ever a better hero for nerds than the half-Vulcan, half-human First Officer of the Starship Enterprise?
Spock is the ultimate nerd. Cerebral, distant, logical; full of inner conflict that he never reveals. He never breaks a sweat, he’s always under control. He charts galaxies in his head, he thinks faster than the ship’s computer, he has an encyclopedic memory, and those really cool ears.
Spock was awesome.
And I wanted to be Spock. I don’t know if anyone here had this same desire. Probably not. I wanted to be able to shut down that part of me that felt emotions. Emotions were so complicated. I wanted to be able to completely control myself, to master myself in the way that Spock did. I wanted to fix myself in such a way that my intellect would control everything about me, and hopefully, everything about my environment. I thought, maybe, that if I could just discipline myself, the anxiety and tension that was always present inside me would settle down.
I wanted to live without the messiness that got in the way of efficient living.
And, of course, as most all of you know, that’s impossible. It’s no more likely that we will stop being human than it is for water to start running uphill. That’s not the way it works. We are who we are, God made us that way. We can either accept who we are, or we can fight an anxious, exhausting and fruitless battle our whole lives to be someone else. We can embrace our humanity, or spend anxious years striving for an anti-sceptic version of life, devoid of human emotion, of attachment, of physical interaction with our world. I lived for many years in that place. I’m glad I don’t live there anymore.
But it took me a long time to get past the ideal of intellectual mastery of the soul. In fact, I’m still working on it. It sounds strange to say it, but I’m still working on what it means to be human. To allow myself to feel on a gut level, rather than trying to process things in my head all the time. To allow myself to think emotionally, rather than intellectually. To not always control myself, to allow myself (and others!) some grace, some room for compromise. To be OK with the fact that I have faults feelings, inadequacies. To think of myself as a physical and emotional being, rather than an intellectual one. To think with my heart, to fully experience everything that the world has to offer.
But this is the problem with Spock: He offers an attractive alternative to being human. And, the idea that he represents, the idea that we can control ourselves, our emotions, that we can deny our humanity, well, it’s been around for awhile.
But honestly, who wouldn’t want to make some of our human emotions go away? Who hasn’t felt grief so deep that we wish we couldn’t feel anymore? Who hasn’t been so betrayed by a loved one, that we search for numbness, rather than hate? There are times when what we feel is so painful, that we would rather not. When our passions consume us; when they tear us apart; when all we can do is shake our fists impotently at God, and rage against the unfairness of our lives.
And this is when Spock’s coolness in the face of fiery affect is particularly seductive. It’s seductive to think that we are in control. In control of our feelings. In control of our emotions. It’s seductive to think that with our minds we can silence the demons inside us, that we can take charge of our humanity.
And it’s a short trip from there to start thinking that we are the ones who control our ultimate destiny, that through our mental efforts, we can achieve our salvation. We become the ones who take away our sins, through our thoughts and our decisions. We are the ones who pay the price for our inequities. We don’t need Jesus. We’ve got ourselves. Our own iron will. Our own means of attaining perfection. It’s available to us, if we just buckle down and discipline our minds.
Now, the character of Spock was not the first manifestation of this attitude. The idea that we can, through our own means control our human nature, to squash it, to minimize it, to marginalize our humanity in order to attain something higher, something better, well, this idea has been around for a long, long time.
We see it in the writings of the Greek philosophers who argue that nothing is really real, except rational thought. Our bodies are shadows on the wall, wisps of darkness, thrown in relief by the light of eternity.
We see it in some Eastern religions, that teach that nothing is really real except states of consciousness. Our world is vapor, insubstantial, riding on the wind.
We see it in the abstract philosophies of rationalism, that propose that we can only truly know through reason, rather than through our senses. We think, therefore we are.
It’s a denial of our material world, the world around us that was created by a loving God. It’s a philosophy which begins with the idea that what we can see and touch and feel and hear is of lesser value than what we think. When taken to its furthest extreme, it’s a philosophy which elevates the world of our minds and our thoughts to sacred heights, and lowers the created world of our bodies and emotions to the pits of hell.
It’s a philosophy that the Christian faith has wrestled with for most of its existence. It has taken many forms throughout the centuries, but there’s no doubt that it was in full bloom while the books of the New Testament were being written.
This philosophy, called Gnosticism, was especially prevalent in the Greco-Roman world of the early Church. And it became a religious movement in the church that Paul is very concerned about, and we’re going to be talking about it as he voices his concerns in his letter to the Colossians.
Christian Gnosticism, like Gnosticism in general is a broad philosophy, with many different schools of thought. But the basic premise is this: Salvation is attained through knowledge. There are codes that can be learned and spoken to ensure salvation, passwords to open the doors of eternity, secret words that bind rational people to the mind of God. Knowledge is the key that unlocks heaven.
For Gnostics, the created world around us, the material world, that which we see, hear and taste is of no value. The body is bad, the earth is evil. That which can be felt is inferior to that which can be imagined.
And this attitude toward creation had an effect on the way people lived their lives. Some Gnostics became hedonists, arguing that since their bodies had no ultimate meaning, no inherent goodness, there was no reason to live in a way that honored the body. You can imagine what type of lifestyle this might lead to. It reminds me of my college days.
Other Gnostics argued that because the body was inferior to the mind, it should be ignored, and they lived lives of total abstinence, eating just enough to survive, denying the body any kind of basic satisfaction of normal human desires, any pleasure whatsoever. Hmmm, that sounds like the Puritans.
And, regardless of the way a particular Gnostic lived their life, whether hedonist or spartan, the main thing to remember was that the life of the body had no consequence to one’s spiritual life. Therefore, ideas about relationships with other people carried no meaning. Why worry about our relationships with one another, when the reality is that we are just spirits waiting to become reunited with the rational mind of God? What’s the point?
Now, as you can imagine, to these folks, these Christian Gnostics, the idea of a flesh and blood Jesus, come to earth to reveal the very nature of God is ludicrous. It makes no sense at all. God would never come to earth. God hated the earth. God would never take on the skin and bones of humanity. God hated our human nature. God would never weep in the garden, suffer on the cross. God is beyond fear, beyond suffering, beyond pain, beyond the indignity of death.
And this is why Paul is writing to the church in Colossae. He is reminding them that the God on the cross is indeed the God we worship. Paul has heard that Gnosticism is creeping into the church, leading some to live lives which are disconnected from their spiritual faith. He is reminding them that the Gospel came to them, that they are recipients of the good news, not creators of it.
He is reminding them that their relationships with one another reflect the relationship they have with God. He is reminding them that we are not just sparks of divine knowledge trapped inside our worthless disposable bodies, rather we are children of God, created in his image, and bound to the welfare of his whole human family. Paul lifts up the body, while the Gnostics tear it down.
Now, it would be easy to dismiss the Gnostic heresies that Paul is wrestling with in his letter to the Colossians. It would be easy to toss his concerns into the trash can of a previous era, and write off this letter as an epistle to history.
But, Gnosticism is still a very attractive alternative to faith today. We hear echoes of Gnosticism when we are told that its our decisions, our actions that determine our salvation, that it’s up to us. We just have to say a particular prayer, think a particular doctrine.
We hear the echoes of Gnosticism in the name-it-and-claim-it, the blab-it-and-grab-it logic of a prosperity gospel preached from far too many pulpits these days. We hear echoes when we read books that claim that we can receive the promises of God by reciting obscure sayings of unknown characters buried in the depths of the Old Testament.
We especially hear echoes of Gnosticism when we see Christian communities who are so focused on the spiritual life to come, the sweet bye and bye, that they forget their spiritual life of right here and now, neglecting their relationships with those among us who are most needful of seeing God’s grace in action.
Paul is not just writing to some little church somewhere in Turkey when he reminds the Colossians of their covenantal obligations to each other, he’s writing to us as well.
Gnosticism is alive and thriving.
We need Paul’s reminder that our lives are really real, and full of meaning, that the relationships that we have with one another are really real, and are needful of our greatest care. Paul reminds us to not sit in some holy huddle and wait for the rapture to take us all in spirit to our cabin in the sky. He’s reminding us that we have work to do, people to feed, injustice to address, hope to give, love to share.
And he does this by reminding us of Jesus Christ.
In the person of Jesus Christ, God so loved the world that he came to the world himself, and embraced our humanity. God did not separate himself from us. He became us. He didn’t wave his magic wand to change us, he claimed us. But, in that claiming, we are changed.
And the remarkable thing is, God’s embrace of our humanity does not diminish God’s divinity. Rather, His divinity raises us to his level. God’s mingling with us is what makes it possible for us to look upon his glory, to reach out and touch him, to rejoice in the fact that he truly knows us, and truly loves us, not in spite of our humanity, but because of it.
And, we know this, because he sent his son in human form for our sake. He didn’t send Spock. He didn’t send a cold, controlled, calculating Vulcan. God came to us in the person of Jesus Christ, a human being who yelled in anger, gritted his teeth in frustration, wept in grief, cracked sarcastic jokes about his disciples, celebrated our joys, mourned our sorrows, drank wine, feasted, fasted, hoped and feared, and who occasionally needed time alone to re-gather his thoughts and his strength.
He was a carpenter’s son, and you can’t tell me he didn’t pick up a hammer from time to time and accidentally smack his thumb with it. I wonder what it would sound like to hear Jesus swear in Aramaic.
Jesus Christ was tangible, not theoretical, and his spirituality was lived out in the ways that he touched people and healed them. In the way that he threw the money changers out of the temple. In the way he fed his people when they were hungry. His relationship with God was not a cerebral, intellectual faith. It was a sweaty, full-steam-ahead faith, a physical and wholehearted participation in our humanity.
There was nothing insubstantial about Jesus. He was no shadow on the wall. He was a man, a strong man, a man with hands and feet who gave himself completely to his ministry on earth. His body was not a limitation for him. His emotions were not faults to be concealed. In fact, it is his very humanity that reveals God for who God is.
Because of Jesus, we don’t consider our bodies to be unnecessary anchors on our spirituality. Rather, in Christ, our bodies become the very expression of our life with God. Our bodies are the canvas upon which our spiritual lives are painted, the rock out of which our faith is carved. Until our physical lives show our faith, our spirituality is a vapor, a shadow of sentimentality, no more substantial than the fog lifting from a lake in the early morning.
But when we invest our spirituality in our actions, in our physical life, when we give ourselves to the world’s needs completely, our emotions, our quirks, our hands and feet, our money, our time, our talents, then we have become the body of Christ.
Because our spiritual life is not separated from our physical life. Our acts, our words, our habits take on a whole new dimension when we commit to using them in service to God. Our bodies become our faith, lived out in the world. We can’t separate our souls and our bodies, any more than we can separate wind from West Texas. There are some things that just go together.
And the amazing thing is, God’s OK with that. In the person of Jesus Christ, God has taken our human nature and his divine nature, and made them one. Nothing that we can do, or think, or say can make this relationship more complete. Nothing. There are no keys, no codes, no special prayers, no secret handshakes. We can never be smart enough, we can never be cool enough, or popular enough to improve our relationship with God.
And that is reassuring. Especially for this nerd. Thanks be to God.