Sermon at West North Carolina's Diocesan Convention

November 14, 2008

Your convention is focused on new visions and bold possibilities. I only have hints about your dreams, but I do know that what keeps most people and church bodies from realizing their dreams, or taking their part in dreaming God’s great dream, is fear. When we can’t imagine the possibility, or when we cannot get up and start, we’ve given in to fear or hopelessness. Sometimes they amount to essentially the same thing.

There was a fascinating article in the paper this week, about new theories of mental illness having to do with competitive gene expression[i]. The theory goes something like this: each human being has two copies of most genes, one from the father and one from the mother. When the two genes are expressed in complementary ways, the brain develops normally. When the two genes are competing for expression, sometimes things go awry. If the male parent’s gene for some aspect of brain chemistry is expressed in an unbalanced way, the child – or later, the adult – may develop a mental illness on the autistic end of a spectrum of behavior. If it’s the female parent’s gene that is being excessively expressed, the disease is more likely to be on the psychotic end of the spectrum. That spectrum of behavior has to do with inadequate or excessive development of personality. Autistic diseases are expressed as disconnection from the world, and a lack of individual identity. Psychotic diseases, like schizophrenia or paranoia, are often expressed as excessive concern with what others think – essentially, an overdeveloped sense of self.

This is a pretty revolutionary way of thinking about mental illness, but there are already some indications that it may be helpful in understanding how brains develop and what can go wrong. The connection I want to point to has to do with the courage of a couple of brain scientists to think about the problem in a new way – to dream a wild and crazy dream, if you will. It’s a creative act, and it has something to do with being open to the creative power of the spirit.

Lots of scientific discoveries and new artistic developments happen in the same way. Somebody, or a small group of somebodies, has the courage to look at the world in a new way, to set out a new idea about how the world works. That’s how Galileo and Einstein, Michelangelo and Picasso changed the world. That is also the creative genius of the prophets, who were first able to challenge the status quo in ancient Israel, and say that God has a different plan for human community – a just and peaceful society. That’s what Jeremiah is pointing to when he says, “I have plans for you, for your welfare, and a future filled with hope. And if you can manage to live in a new way, when you search for me, you will find me.” That’s what Jesus’ early followers, particularly those who wrestled with the meaning of the resurrection, were able to do. They discovered a radically new way to think about how God works, by looking at Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. When we think we’ve already figured everything out and we stop searching, we usually miss a great deal of what God is up to.

So how do we find the courage to dream new dreams and imagine new possibilities – and maybe even boldly go where no one has gone before? What gets in the way of a hopeful, and therefore faithful, imagination? Why are we afraid to dream new dreams or to act on those dreams?

I’m going to suggest that what stands in the way are basically three variations on a theme called fear – a lack of imagination, a lack of will to act, and a lack of courage to act. The lack of imagination usually comes from believing that God isn’t doing anything new – it’s an assertion that God has already revealed everything, that there’s nothing new to learn – nothing new under the sun, as Ecclesiastes (1:9) puts it. It ignores the bit in John’s gospel that says, “I have other things yet to say to you, which you aren’t ready to hear” (John 16:12). It is an attitude that is profoundly faithless, for it denies the movement of the spirit in the world around us and within us. It is fearful because it’s not willing to consider that God could possibly be doing something beyond what we already know. Jesus addresses this when he sends the 70 out – they are most certainly going to encounter new situations and possibilities and have to figure out how to deal with them, with God’s help. No sitting at home for them. Life in God, following Jesus, is life on the road (hodos).

The lack of will to act is related to a spiritual disease called acedia. Kathleen Norris has just written a book about it. Sometimes it’s called the noonday demon. It’s related to sloth, a kind of spiritual boredom or laziness or even depression. Jesus’ antidote is to send out the 70, and to send them two by two. The challenge of working in a team is bound to lift them out of their self-focus. Surprisingly enough, maybe it’s related to this new insight about two competing genes leading to illness. When the pair is cooperating, they are going to encounter the world around them far more creatively than if one is trying to get the better of the other. Acedia, boredom, or laziness has something to do with fear because it’s an unwillingness to get up and do something – often because of a fear of being wrong or incapable.

The lack of courage is what we more usually think of when we talk about fear. It’s being frozen and unable to act. It has to do with an absence of hope that my action is possible, meaningful, or can make a difference. Jesus’ antidote is to remind the 70 that they are supposed to be purveyors of peace. Something pretty amazing happens when we go out into a world we think is hostile and say, “peace be with you” to everybody we meet. It changes us, at the very least. It likely changes many of those we meet. Think about what the mad rush to get on an airplane would be like if even a couple of people started saying that to everybody else in line! If you go out there and spread peace, you will find that you’ve got a great deal more courage to put to work in the more challenging encounters in life.

Imagination, will, and courage – healed and healing possibilities, and signs of the approaching kingdom. There is enough here, I can be satisfied with the food and drink offered here, I can be at home wherever I go, if I have faith that God is at work in ways I haven’t yet discovered. I can spread peace even if it doesn’t stick everywhere. If I can do that, I will indeed discover a fruitful field, filled with the bounty of God’s goodness and grace.

So, what wild and crazy dreams do you have for this diocese, for your part in God’s mission? Set aside old limits and taboos and prejudices that keep you thinking too small. Dream big, cosmic dreams like the prophets do! Don’t let anyone tell you it’s not possible to change the world. Decide that you will go together to meet the new possibilities God is offering, and encourage each other when you’re feeling overwhelmed. And remember that God is with you, wherever you are, claiming you as beloved child, and that nothing can separate you from that grace.

Go on out into this awesome world of God’s creation, give thanks for God’s abundance, heal whom you can, offer peace wherever you go, and indeed, discover that the reign of God has indeed come near. And remember the words of the angel – “fear not.”

[i] Benedict Carey, “In a Novel Theory of Mental Disorders, Parents’ Genes are in Competition.” New York Times, 11 Nov 2008, p D4.