Saturday, June 9, 2012

Sane or Insane? (June 10, 2012)

Homily:  Yr B Proper 10, June 10 2012, St. Albans
Readings:  1 Sam 8:4-20; Ps 130; 2 Cor 4.13-5.1; Mk 3:20-35

Sane or Insane?

Not too long ago, while I was at seminary preparing for ordination, I did an internship at the Royal Ottawa Hospital, the psychiatric hospital we have here in town.  The hospital provided an orientation session for the new interns.  And one of the things they told us about was the Ontario Mental Health Act, and how individuals can be apprehended and admitted involuntarily to a psychiatric facility.  One of the ways for this to happen is for someone, perhaps a family member, to give evidence about an individual’s behaviour and the risk it presents to a Justice of the Peace, and then the judge fills out what’s called a Form 2.  At the Royal Ottawa, the jargon for this was that the patient had been “formed”.

Well if the Ontario Mental Health Act had been around in Israel two thousand years ago, in today’s gospel, Jesus would have been formed.  His family would have gone to a judge, had Jesus formed and then taken away to a psychiatric facility.  In our reading we heard that when Jesus arrives back home, his family tries to seize him because they think that he’s out of his mind.  Crazy.  Insane.  They think Jesus has lost touch with reality and that as a result he’s become a danger to himself and to those around him.  And it wasn’t just his family that thought so. So did the authorities, the ones who had traveled all the way from Jerusalem to find out what was going on.

Why did they think he was crazy?  Well, it was because Jesus had declared that the long promised arrival of God’s rule on earth was happening now, at this very moment, in and through Jesus himself.  “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand” was the cry with which he launched his mission.  He took upon himself the title of “Son of Man” from the book of Daniel, the title of the one who would manifest God’s power and win God’s victory in the cosmic battle that had been foretold.  Now, these things of themselves weren’t unimaginable to a first century Jew.  The Jewish people had been expecting a Messiah.  But Jesus didn’t behave as the Messiah was expected to behave.  He sided with the enemy.  He forgave sins.  He violated the sabbath and dietary laws.  He partied with the wrong people, tax collectors and sinners.  He provoked conflict with those who considered themselves to be “good” Jews.  And because of these things, they conspired to destroy him.

So do you blame his family for thinking he was insane?  For thinking that he was out of touch with reality and a danger to himself and others.  If he was your son or brother, wouldn’t you have had him committed for his own good?

Sometimes, there’s a fine line between sanity and insanity.

Let me tell you a story.

If there had been in the 19th century such things as iPods, MuchMusic, Grammy Awards and Super Bowl half-time shows, you can be assured that the concert pianist Franz Liszt would have been all over them.   Long before the Beatles and Elvis, Liszt toured all over Europe, performing to enthusiastic sold-out crowds, causing ladies to swoon and shock their husbands by taking off their scarves and tossing them on the stage.  He was the superstar of the Romantic piano, modernity’s first rock star.

But then something strange happened to Franz Liszt.  At the height of his popularity, he had, well you’ll have to decide how to describe it.  A psychotic breakdown.  A spiritual awakening.  A deep religious conversion experience.  Whatever it was he began to take the Christian faith very seriously, and began to pattern his own life after the life of Jesus of Nazareth.  As for his vast fortune, he gave it away.  He began to give free piano lessons to the impoverished children of his town.  One day when he was traveling, Liszt went into a hotel and the hotel manager recognized him, and with a grand flourish gave him the key to the Royal Suite, compliments of the Hotel.  Liszt took the key and gave it to his valet, and said, perhaps there’s something else for me, maybe in the servant’s quarters.

People all over Europe started whispering “something terrible has gone wrong with Franz Liszt”.

When he died in 1886, there was found on his piano an unfinished composition of sacred music.  And in one section of the music there was scrawled in Liszt’s own hand, De Profundis, the title of Psalm 130 which we read together this morning, “out of the depths I cry to thee O God, hear the voice of my supplication, if you would mark the iniquities no one could stand, but there is forgiveness with you.”

The section begins with clashing chords, jarring melody and disjointed harmonies that gradually work themselves out into a gentle melody of great beauty and serenity, almost as if Liszt has found a way on his piano to play himself from great chaos to shalom.

Shortly before his death, Liszt’s son-in-law heard him working on this strange composition through the thin walls of the family residence.  Liszt’s son-in-law was Richard Wagner, himself a great composer, whose heroic music and anti-semitic writings would later be appropriated by Nazi Germany in the 20th century.  And when Wagner heard the jagged melodies of De Profundis, he turned to his wife and said “Cosima, I think your father is insane.”

Sane or insane?  It’s a good question.  Which one is sane, Richard Wagner spewing out anti-semitisms, or the broken down Franz Liszt giving away his money to the poor and trying to play his way from Chaos to Shalom?

Who is sane and who is insane?

The one thing they all agreed on in the Gospel of Mark is that Jesus was insane.

Jesus came to establish the kingdom of God on earth by fighting and defeating the forces and power of evil, by opposing and overcoming all that robs humanity of the abundant life that God intends for us.

Now before I go on, I want to say a brief word about evil, because sometimes when we read these ancient texts with their exorcisms and demon possessions, we start to get a bit hung up.

Evil exists.  This we know.  This world is not the way God intended it to be.  Much is wrong, things have departed from God’s intentions.  We call this evil.  We can identify it in the world around us.  We can see it in human history, in the big events of wars and genocides and in individual instances of abuse and violence.  Some of us may not like to use the word evil and we can use other words if we like, but whatever we call it, it exists.

However the way we talk about evil is culturally conditioned.  The worldview of Jesus time pre-supposed that there were spirits, and that the power of evil manifested itself as the will of demons, the principle one of which was known as satan.  In our own time, in our post-enlightenment, post-modern culture, we tend to talk about evil in other ways.  We use the insights of psychiatry.  We talk about “mob mentality”.  We talk about corruption.  We talk about systemic injustice.

It doesn’t matter how we understand evil and talk about it.  But what we have to see in order to understand the gospel of Mark is that Jesus saw himself as the one who had to defeat evil in order that God’s kingdom might be established and that humanity might be saved from oppression.  That’s why Jesus casts out demons, and liberates those who are oppressed.  That’s why Jesus talks about tying up the strong man and plundering his property.  These are signs of the in-breaking of God’s kingdom.

But what happens in a world where evil is disguised as sanity?   Where it’s embedded in habits and customs and conventional wisdom?   Where hatred between ethnic groups has been normalized and accepted as praiseworthy, as it was in Jesus world and sometimes our own?  Where the Temple system which oppresses the poor by forcing them to pay for taxes and sacrificial animals is thought to be the will of God?  Where purity laws which segregate and condemn people are part of the religious infrastructure?

In a world where evil is disguised as sanity, the one who fights evil will be called insane.

We’ve seen this throughout history.

When Mahatma Ghandi began his long march to the ocean to make salt, people thought he was crazy.

When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus in 1955, everyone  thought she was out of her mind.  But in truth, she was the one who spoke sanity to a world which had gone insane.  And that world of racial segregation started to crumble when she exposed it for what it was.

We live in a world where far too often, evil is disguised as sanity, and is embedded into our laws, and markets and social systems.

We live in a world where if we were to reduce military spending by just a few per cent a year, we would have the resources to eliminate diseases such as malaria which claim millions of lives annually.

We live in a world where we have drugs that cost little to manufacture and could save millions lives, but we can’t get them where they’re needed because that would infringe on patents.

We live in a world of credit cards, which reward people who are wealthy with free travel, but for those who are poor and use them out of desperation, we charge them 20% interest, money which pays for our travel rewards.

Is that sanity or insanity?

Jesus came into this world to announce God’s kingdom, to defeat evil, to fight against oppression, to confront and overcome injustice and to bring peace and healing.  He did it in a way that shattered expectations, broke the rules, turned social systems upside down and revealed a God that we had never imagined.

No wonder they thought he was out of his mind.


(with thanks to Dr. Thomas Long, who told us the story of Franz Liszt at Homiletics 2011 in Minneapolis)

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