My brother got me hooked on a podcast recently called Behind the Bastards. (It uses, uh, not always suitable for work language. Clearly.). The premise of the podcast is one journalist who thoroughly researches various figures and ideas that contribute to our current morass of suffering, then tells that story to a Los Angeles comedian. Of course, the heavy hitters are covered–Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, but also more esoteric figures like the Guy who First Made a Multi-Level Marketing Scheme, and the origins of the John Birch Society.
What gets emphasized over and over is that human suffering is caused not by outlandishly evil people, but by a few average people making unethical choices, and a whole lot of other people not knowing quite how to stop them while remaining polite.
A reoccurring theme in the show is the idea of the power of positive thinking. This is a uniquely American heresy that reappears in a lot of places, from pyramid schemes to questionable wellness gurus, to the current Orange Individual in the White House. We’re a country founded by people who believed in the possibility of something better, so we really like the notion that believing is the key to success.
So, I wrote a sermon about that. And Key and Peele. As one does.
Here’s what I said.
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
October 6, 2019
Proper 22, Year C
There is a great comedy sketch from the tv show Key and Peele that comes to mind in light of today’s gospel.*** An NBA player has just made the tournament-winning shot across the court to win the title. He’s beside himself with jubilation, and he is interviewed by the sportscaster in the locker room, post-game. “How are you feeling? Must be feeling pretty great after that shot. HOw’d you do it?” the sportscaster asks. “OH! I just believed in myself! Just goes to show! If you have faith and believe, you can do anything!” Sports caster smiles, and encourages him. Player continues “You can do ANYTHING. You just have to BELIEVE. You can run faster than a train! You can jump off buildings! You can fly! Gravity will not affect you!” Sportscaster now looks a bit concerned—“well, but that’s a metaphor, and …” Player chimes back in, still very pumped up: “NO! It’s not a metaphor! Literally! You can do anything you believe in! Kids, ages 8 to 12! You can run across busy highways! You can turn yourself into a car with the power of YOUR MIND because you have not lost your childlike innocence! (Sportscaster now looks positively panicked) Follow the sound of my voice, head for the nearest freeway and BELIEVE!!!”
The screen then smash cuts to a very sober NBA player at a press conference “I would like to first apologize to all the families that lost children, because of my badly considered remarks. I have done some research, and “literally” and metaphorically” did not mean what I thought they meant. I apologize and will do better in future.”
Anyway. The idea that you can do whatever you set your mind to, provided you believe in it hard enough. Even if you don’t take it so far as deciding to flout gravity and leap off your roof—that’s a pretty prevalent idea in our world. The power of positive thinking! Think positive and good things will happen! The law of attraction and that whole line of thought. Marianne Williamson made a whole career for herself out of this idea—that faith and the power of thought can manifest our reality.
The basic concept is that when we think positive thoughts, and control our minds enough, then we can more or less control what happens in our lives. Happy people create happy things that happen to them. And vice versa.
The big draw of this is that it gives us an easy way to control the world. I’m in control of what happens to me! I just have to think the Right Things! I can avoid loss and sorrow and pain if I just do all of this right—it’s all in my hands! It’s a very reassuring thought. The connection between the mind, spirit and body is real, and we can often see the effects, so believing that we can control the whole thing makes some sense.
But, as with almost everything—it’s really way more complicated. There are some ethical problems with this—namely that it obliquely implies that if something bad has happened to you, then you weren’t being positive enough. And if you are sad, or struggling, then you should work harder to turn that around. For people with mental illness, or who face tragedies outside of their control, encouragement to stay positive can feel like one more thing that they’re failing at.
There are times when the way we talk about faith in God can sort of merge into this, too. Think of the healing stories, where Jesus asks the person if they want to be healed, then says, “Your faith has made you well.” Because of the proliferation of this mantra of positive thinking in our own culture, because of how prevalent it is to assume that if we just believe hard enough, we can do anything—it can be easy to hear Jesus saying “well, you believed hard enough, so I HAD to fix you!”
But faith, as we talked about last week, is again, more complicated that that. Think again of Jeremiah buying that field as he’s about to be carried into exile. Our faith in God isn’t a mechanism of control, and it isn’t a way we can always get what we want. In fact, it is mostly a way we learn to lean into not having control.
We said last week that faith was holding onto God’s vision of the world as it is meant to be, even as we grapple with the world in all its current brokenness. But the emphasis in that is on God’s vision. In our faith, we are meant to grow daily to see the world as God sees it, not so much as we see it. So, our growing faith is basically a constant exercise in handing over control of our wants and needs to God, because God has wrapped up all we could ever want in God’s dream of the world.
Our call to faith, then, is not a mechanism of control—it’s not a way to get God to perform miracles for us or manifest tricks on demand. Rather, it’s a gradual learning to recognize that we are actually not in control of anything at all—instead, God is in control of everything, and with God, all things are possible—even our abundant life. When we have faith, we can see mountains—but only because we finally recognize that it’s not our command doing it—it’s God, and God can routinely bring about those things that seem entirely improbable to us.
When we grow in faith, when we learn to see our lives and all of creation as God sees it, with the same boundless love and care, then we will see mountains move and impossible things come to pass. When we learn to trust the almighty care of God working through our lives to make the world whole again, then we will see things happen we never could have imagined—but not because we believed hard enough or thought hard enough or prayed well enough—just because that is the nature of God in Christ—to love all of creation back together, and when we have the eyes of faith, then we can see that happening in our own lives too.
***Just go to the link and watch it. They do it way better than I explain it.