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“The Making of Spidermen" - by Paul N. Walker

"The Making of Spidermen”
Text: John 14:25-27

by Paul N. Walker

A sermon preached at the Installation of Dr. Paul Zahl the new Dean of Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry.

Trinity Cathedral, Pittsburgh, Pa
October 9, 2004

It’s a daunting, enormous thrill to be here this morning. This is obviously a big day on many fronts. It’s a big day for me to be invited to preach at the installation of my mentor and teacher, a man who changed my life in profound ways during our 3 years together at the Church of the Advent in Birmingham.

It’s a big day for Paul and Mary, who have been called by God to have their worlds turned upside down for the sake of the gospel in this call, in this place and this time.

And it’s a big day for Trinity – for the faculty, the staff, the board, the students and the graduates, all of whom I believe will experience the life-changing grace of God through Paul in the same way that I and scores and scores of others have.

But, beyond ourselves and our world here, it’s a big day, too, for the Anglican Communion. It’s a big day for those brothers and sisters around the world who look to Trinity to uphold and support the kind of bold and historic Anglicanism that has caused such explosive growth in the developing world - the absence of which has triggered such precipitous decline in the West.

And, of course, it’s a big day for the Episcopal Church in America – for those of us in ECUSA who depend on Trinity to produce the kind of lay and ordained leadership that will bring the gospel to the world in gutsy, imaginative, life-changing ways. So many of us look to Trinity to produce people whose lives are transfixed by the old, old story – people who will, as we read in Isaiah, be “messengers who announce peace, who bring good news, who announce salvation” (Isaiah 52:7) to new generations. So many of us count on Trinity to turn out people who will co-labor in the gospel with the rest of the Christian world so that one day “all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.” (Isaiah 52:10) For if we are not here for that purpose, then we should not be here at all.

And it’s a big day because at this particular point in the Episcopal Church’s history, the stakes feel high because the conflict in the Anglican Communion is very real. In the midst of that conflict, it is an enormous source of hope and joy that God has called Paul Zahl to be the Dean and President of Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry at this historic juncture. The range of his intellect is matched by the depth of his love for others - as Peter Moore says, “Paul is an unusual mix of both scholar and pastor.” So while we praise God for appointing a man like Paul to this work, it must be said that the task before him – the task before all of us – the task of taking the real gospel to the real world - is fraught with conflict, uncertainty, trouble and suffering.

How appropriate, then, that the gospel selected for today is what it is. On the night before he was betrayed, on the night before Jesus heads off to his own conflict, uncertainty, trouble and suffering he says these words to his friends: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” The peace Jesus gives, not as the world gives, but the peace that Jesus Christ alone gives – that’s what we need right now. So our hearts will not be troubled or afraid, we need his peace.

There are versions of the peace that the world gives all around us, counterfeit though they may be. So that we don’t fall for these empty versions of peace – and so we hang on for dear life to Jesus’ peace, it’s crucial we know which is which. For only Jesus’ peace has the staying power to keep our hearts untroubled in times of trouble like these, and unafraid when we may be tempted to fear.

One version of peace that the world gives is what you might call the hippie version of peace. I live in Charlottesville, Virginia where there is a sizeable hippie population. Not just ex-hippies or old hippies, but new hippies who say things like “peace out” when you say hello to them. I love the hippies. I try to say “peace out” back to them.

All over Charlottesville you see environmentally friendly cars with bumpers stickers that say “stand up for peace” (which is very difficult to do while driving) and “peace through music” and “peace through yoga”. My current favorite (I’m not making this up) is “peace begins with breastfeeding.” I suppose the reasoning behind that one is that babies who were shafted by mothers who bottle fed them would in response grow up to be angry militant republicans. I’m not sure about this one, but that’s my guess.

I even had a dentist in Charlottesville who didn’t wear a white coat, played the Grateful Dead during visits, and was a “universal peace dancer.” “What is a universal peace dancer?” I asked, one day in the chair with my hippie dentist’s hands in my mouth.
“A universal peace dancer is a person who travels around the world, across cultural and religious boundaries, dancing for peace, bringing down the barriers that divide us”.
I thought, peace out, brother. Dance till your feet are sore. Are you really a dentist?

The way to sum up the kind of peace proffered by this part of the hippie world is a peace that is far removed from trouble, conflict, uncertainty and suffering. Let’s be honest – who doesn’t want this? If you just have the right music, the right yoga pose, the right universal peace dance then conflict diminishes. Or maybe conflict and trouble are still there, but you have removed yourself spiritually and emotionally from their effects. It is a peace apart from suffering.

The other version of the peace the world gives is the Tony Robbins Make lemons out of lemonade peace. If the hippie version is a peace apart from suffering, this version is a peace achieved in the face of suffering. As you enter Robbins website you read these words: “Courage is an opportunity presented to us all to shape a vision into reality. Will you stand in the shadows or step forward and become a leader. You clearly have the choice.”

The Robbins Peace recognizes that conflict, uncertainty, trouble and suffering are inevitable in this life and the best thing to do is choose to accept the pain and grow from it - “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” as Nietzche said. (When you think about it, you see that Robbins is the infomercial version of Friedrich Nietzche.) It’s basically up to you to make of your life what you will. It’s unfortunate that conflict and suffering come your way, but its what you make of them that proves your mettle. You can choose to have peace, although the storms rage around you.

These versions of peace are understandable and even admirable. I don’t mean to knock them or scoff at them, because I have my own versions of peace apart from suffering and peace in the face of suffering. But of course they are based on a deeply flawed anthropology and they will all eventually lead to hearts that are troubled and fearful. For they grossly underestimate the intractable self-orientation of the human heart. We cannot make for ourselves any kind of real peace, either through technique (Hippie) or attitude (Robbins). Nobody can.

Thoughtful people have always known this – that you “clearly do not have the choice.” Luther called this condition “the bondage of the will.” Dr. Freud called it the “id” – the rampaging need to satisfy one’s own desires. The Apostle Paul recognized it in himself: “I can will what is right but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (Romans 7:19) And you, if you are not in denial, you see this in yourself. All you have to do is check the psycho-dynamic pulse of your last 24 hours to see that the thing you knew you should do, you did not choose to do, or the thing you knew you should not do is, in fact, exactly what you did.

And even if we could give higher marks to our anthropology, the world’s versions of peace misread the world – the cosmology is wrong. The Bible says that this world is devil filled and threatens to undo us. That our “adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8) No yoga pose or positive attitude can defend us.

If the task of taking the gospel to the world is fraught with conflict, uncertainty, trouble, and suffering, we shall need more than the peace the world gives to keep our hearts untroubled and unafraid. We shall need the peace that Jesus gives.

If the hippie peace is a peace apart from suffering, and the Tony Robbins peace is a peace in the face of suffering, the peace the Jesus gives is a peace in and through suffering. It is a kind of peace that the human heart could not dream up. This is why Paul calls it a “peace that passes human understanding.” (Phil 4:7) It is peace found within and because of conflict, uncertainty, trouble and suffering. And this peace is the only peace that will “guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 4:7)

Jesus is not suggesting that we become masochists – that we run out and intentionally look for hurt and pain. Life itself will bring it in spades. Right? What Jesus is saying is that His deepest peace is found not apart from suffering, or in spite of suffering, but in the very heart of suffering. So if the task before us is filled with conflict, trouble and suffering, then the good news is that it is also filled with the peace of Jesus Christ. That is where He is found. He is a God who knows and has known suffering. If suffering awaits us, then so does Jesus. It is there that He will yield that fruit of the Spirit that keeps are hearts untroubled and unafraid: peace.
I thought about this last summer when I saw Spiderman II. Here’s the highest grossing movie that actually gets it right. The parallels between Spiderman and the men and women that Trinity turns out to be “messengers who announce peace” are uncanny.

• Peter Parker is just a nerdy, average guy on a school field trip when a spider lands on his hand, shooting into him the venom and power to become Spiderman. Peter didn’t look for it or choose it. He didn’t summon the courage to step out of the shadows to become a superhero leader. He was chosen. In the very next chapter of John, Jesus says to His disciples, “You did not choose me, I chose you.”
• Peter Parker’s powers don’t come from self-discipline or effort. They are supernatural, not of his own making, enabling to do more than he could ever dream. The Apostle Paul says that “God’s power working in us is able to do infinitely more than we could ask or imagine.” (Ephesians 3:20)
• Spiderman uses his power only for the good of others, giving himself totally away, saving lives. Christians are called to “spend and be expended” for others, saving souls. (2 Cor 12:15)
• And to the point this morning, Peter Parker’s life, although he is a superhero, continues to be filled with conflict, trouble, uncertainty and suffering. He can’t win the girl he loves, he can’t hold down a job, he can barely pay the rent, he can’t get to class on time – all because his life isn’t his own once he is Spiderman. He tries to step away from his calling to live his own life – he tries for a peace apart from suffering, but in that life he finds no peace: his heart is troubled. He comes to realize that his deepest peace is found in the suffering and conflict of saving lives, while coping with the struggle within and being pursued by an evil enemy without.

You may not relate to Spiderman. But you may see yourself in the experience George Matheson, 19th century Church of Scotland minister who wrote the hymn “O love that wilt not let me go”. Matheson described the experience of the composition:

“My hymn was composed in the manse…on the evening of the 6th of June, 1882, when I was 40 years of age. I was alone…it was the night of my sister’s marriage, and the rest of the family were staying overnight in Glasgow. Something happened to me, which was known only to myself, and which caused me the most severe mental suffering. The hymn was the fruit of that suffering. It was the quickest bit of work I ever did in my life. I had the impression of having it dictated to me by some inward voice rather than of working it out myself.”

In our gospel this morning, Jesus says that the “Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything.” He taught Matheson that Jesus’ peace arises in the midst of suffering:

“O Joy that seekest me through pain, I cannot close my heart to thee…
O Cross that liftest up my head, I dare not ask to fly from thee;
I lay in dust life’s glory dead, And from the ground there blossoms red. Life that shall endless be.”

We sing this hymn at our University of Virginia college service. Last Sunday, 180 beautiful, handsome, well-to-do, smart 19 year olds with the promise of life’s glory before them, sing “O cross that liftest up my head, I dare not ask to fly from thee, I lay in dust life’s glory dead.” I don’t know if we really understand what we are singing. But we sing it and sing it, for we don’t want to fall for the world’s peace, which will end in trouble for our hearts. We want to know the peace that Jesus Christ alone gives through suffering, which will guard our hearts and minds throughout our lives.

Tom Hanks presented a PBS special a few years ago called “Return With Honor” about Vietnam POW’s. Commander Jeremiah Denton was shot down and imprisoned for 7 years and was tortured by the Vietnamese. On this deliberately secular PBS show, Denton told his story.

About 2:30 one morning a guard called Smiley came to get him for the “Vietnamese rope torture.” Denton’s wrists were tied behind his back tightly and painfully with a rope that was hoisted above a beam and pulled until his shoulders were dislocated, cracking, popping. This is his account:

“The camp Commander had told Smiley to come in there and break me and was telling the guy ‘Go on…more…more’ and I said ‘Lord, I’ve thought of every prayer that I know by heart. I’ve thought of everything that just sort of, uh, expresses my will, and begged you to help me, and I’ve run out of things. I’m totally without resources even for prayer.

“It was the first time I’d ever said ‘OK, God, You got it…I’m just gone.’ And the instant I breathed that total surrender I was relieved of all pain. And I felt as if a blanket had been placed over me of warmth and comfort and total confidence that nothing could happen to me bad the rest of my life, in this condition I was in. And that’s when Smiley looked at me as he was pulling on the rope, and I looked at him. My face must’ve said, Well, Smiley, what are you doing? You’re not hurting me…At that point his face just broke and tears started coming out of his face. He let go of the line and went out.”

In the deepest suffering, Denton knew the deepest peace that Jesus gives. Hanging by a rope tied to his dislocated shoulders, his heart was untroubled, unafraid.

We don’t have to be Spiderman, or a hymn writer, or a P.O.W., or a seminary dean to know that the path ahead is full of trouble, anxiety, conflict and suffering. Life’s like that for any one of us. What we know is that Jesus is already ahead of us in that trouble and suffering. We know that because he is a God who has already been there. He is a God who has already experienced the deepest suffering, even unto death, once, for all. “My peace I give you, not as the world gives do I give you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”

END

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