Sermon: Something Higher than Ourselves

03.22.2015      Preaching Text: “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.” (John 12:26)

One of the givens of modern society, as I’ve pointed out umpteen times, is that it’s functionally Materialistic (that’s with a capital “M”). I’m not here referring to the way we normally use the word, as in the acquisition of things, for instance.

Rather, I’m referring to that roughly 200 year-old idea which defines life as strictly bounded by earthly concerns, minus the things of the spirit. In this way of thinking, there is an earthly, scientific explanation for everything. God and spirit are but holdovers from a pre-scientific, pre-literate age.

As such, everything is to be explained by means of materialistic logic. To cite just a few notable examples, Karl Marx reduces all of life to economics, Sigmund Freud to sexuality, while the Darwinians reduce all human behavior to the arbitrary result of natural selection.

Thus, as we discussed last Sunday, Israel’s “discovery” of God’s involvement in history is turned completely upside down. God is not involved in history, our contemporary world says. God plays no role whatsoever in how the world came into being, how it is governed, what its purpose is, much less how it will end!

Over the last few weeks I’ve heard from several of you questioning why we haven’t prayed or talked about what’s currently going in the Middle East, specifically the persecution of Christians (though they are hardly alone).

This prompted me to think of the argument recently put forth by a State Department official and picked up by the media as to the root causes of radical Islamic jihadism. In a press briefing, the official suggested that the reason ISIS is able to recruit young Muslim men is the lack of gainful employment opportunities.

This struck me as absurd. And it’s absurd because it treats human motivation in purely economic, materialistic terms.

New York Times columnist, David Brooks, recently took aim at this root-causing controversy. Yes, he argues, ISIS has emerged out of economically and politically dysfunctional societies. But it’s not a street gang. It’s a religiously motivated enterprise that puts forth ambitious spiritual ideals: to defeat the godless and institute divine governance.

Young Muslim men don’t leave France or Germany because they can’t get a job, Brooks explains, but because “they think it will ennoble their souls and purify creation.”

“Extremism,” he writes, “is a spiritual phenomenon, a desire for loftiness of spirit gone perverse”

Over the long run this “loftiness of spirit gone wrong” cannot be defeated by promises of jobs, higher income, comfort, or success. “You can’t counter a heroic impulse with a mundane and bourgeois response. You can counter it only with a more compelling vision.”

“There will always be alienated young men fueled by spiritual ardor,” he concludes. “Terrorism will be defeated only when they find a different fulfillment, even more bold and self-transcending.”

Many centuries ago, Augustine, the 4th century bishop and one of the church’s greatest theologians, made this exact point. A false and perverse love can only be overcome, he said, by a true and pure love.

Thus the growing global crisis of radical jihad is rooted not in a materialistic desire for economic goods and services, but in the innate human desire to serve something higher than itself.

Despite our wealth, technological and scientific achievement, and military muscle, many in the world today see the West as a decadent culture that offers nothing heroic.

Or as one wag recently put it, “We are not as worried about getting into Paradise as getting into Princeton – assuming that we make the distinction at all.”

In studied contrast, Jesus says this in today’s gospel reading from John: “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.”

Here is a call to arms, so to speak, toward a heroic purpose, a purpose higher than oneself.

The fact is – our secular, Materialistic culture notwithstanding – human beings are born with a natural desire for God. And this desire manifests itself in our efforts to serve something higher than ourselves, often to the point of heroic sacrifice and ascetic self-denial – the two twin themes of Lent.

Consider for a moment the “moral equivalence” argument often advanced today. All use of force, it asserts, is wrong. The fight against totalitarianism in the 1930’s and 1940’s is no different than, say, the violence of radical jihadism.

But this argument, if it can even be called an argument, denies a basic truth, one Augustine makes clear. Sin, he famously observed, is a defect of the will.

It’s not, in other words, that some of our powers and gifts are good and others bad. Rather, everything hinges on how we use these same powers and gifts, whether for sacred or profane purposes.

For example, the ability to use our minds, to reason, is, like all other gifts and powers, a neutral entity. Our native intellect can produce much good or, used wrongly, exact great harm. The question, then, isn’t whether we should use our minds or not, but whether we use them to honor God or not.

The human desire to serve something higher than itself is not a defect or aberration of the human spirit. It’s not a bug, as they say, but a feature.

Bob Dylan, the sixties singer/songwriter, penned a song after converting to Christianity, entitled, Gotta Serve Somebody. “You gotta serve somebody,” his lyrics repeatedly insist. Which gets it exactly right.

Whether we deny it or not, we were created to serve God. Absent this, we will serve some lesser being or thing.

For, as I say, we are spiritual beings. We must serve someone or some thing. But when we serve the God of Jesus Christ, we serve a God who is both loving and humane, animating the deepest aspirations of the human heart.

In the final analysis, the solution to bad thinking, then, is not no thinking, but good thinking. The solution to bad religion is not no religion, but good religion. The question is not whether we must serve somebody, but whom we choose to serve. Amen.