Proper 21B Sermon (1997)

Proper 21B (Sept. 21-Oct. 1)
Texts: Mark 9:38-50;
Numbers 11; James 5:13-20


I have a new cartoon posted on my office door. It’s from the “Baby Blues” syndicated cartoon series carried in the Journal-Times [link to cartoon]. It begins with the small child lying enraptured in front of the TV, saying, “I want one of those! And those! And that!” And as mom is coming over to the set, the child continues, “And I want that… and that…and…” But mom cuts her off with a click of the remote, “Oooohkay, no more TV for today.” The child sits for a moment with a shocked looked on her face, trying to comprehend what has just happened. Finally, she turns and yells at her departed mother, “But how am I going to know what I want??”

“But how am I going to know what I want??” One of the reasons I like this cartoon is because it gives a perfect example of the ideas that have inspired and guided me in recent years, the ideas of René Girard. His central insight is something he calls “mimetic desire,” and so I have that caption, “Mimetic Desire,” printed above the cartoon on my door. If you ever hear me talking about mimetic desire and forgot what it means, you can check my door. This cartoon illustrates it perfectly: a child who asks when the TV is turned off, “But how am I going to know what I want??”

Mimetic desire is a fancy term that, put simply, means this: Only desire makes something desirable. In other words, we don’t desire anything unless we’ve seen someone else desire it. We imitate. That’s where the word “mimetic” comes from. Imitate. This child in the cartoon is telling her mother that she will not be able to find anything desirable unless the people on TV show her what is desirable. The advertising people know this all too well. So they show us glamourous people desiring their product, that they might spark that same desire in us, the viewers.

Our children are most susceptible to this, but even us grown ups are by no means exempt. We do not grow out of mimetic desire; it simply gets more sophisticated and subtle. Why? Because we also don’t want to admit to ourselves like this child that we need someone else’s desire. We fancy ourselves as free thinking and independent people, so it would never do to admit to our mimetic desire like the child in this cartoon. No, we need to cover it up. So there are even many times that we make a big show of not wanting what someone else has in order to throw them off. And the things we do find ourselves wanting, well, we invent justifications for why it is that we need those things, so it appears as our own decision. But it’s all part of the same game. Only someone else’s desire can make something or someone desirable to us. That’s just the way we are.

This cartoon shows us the same thing that Genesis 3 shows us. The story of the man and woman and serpent in the garden of Eden is another perfect example of mimetic desire. It is a story designed to show us who we are as human beings. God had told the first man and woman not to eat of the tree in the middle of the garden, and so they hadn’t. But suddenly the woman finds that fruit desirable, and then the man. How’d that happen? It’s because we’re free, independent thinking creatures, just naturally curious, right? No! The serpent shows them what to desire. The serpent plays the same role as the TV in this cartoon, showing the woman what to desire; and then the woman shows the man. Mimetic desire.

But there’s something even more tragic in this story in Genesis 3. The serpent doesn’t simply show them the desire by taking a piece of the fruit himself. That would have been the most direct way–which is what the woman did for the man: she took a bite and handed it to the man. But, no, the writer of Genesis tells us that the serpent is the most subtle and crafty creature in the garden, so he makes that fruit desirable with a classic advertising technique: he sells the woman on believing that the most glamorous, powerful, trustworthy person in the world finds that fruit desirable. That person is God! Yes, the serpent uses God to sell the fruit to this woman! He tricks her into thinking that a simple bite from the fruit will make her like God. (And wouldn’t we all like to be like God!) He tricks her into thinking that God finds the fruit desirable and so God was simply trying to keep it from them. Wow! What a salesman that serpent was! Using God to make that piece of fruit desirable!

But what’s the tragedy here? Instead of trusting that God provides for their every need, the man and the woman now have doubts. They think that God might be holding out on them, that God might be hording some of the best fruit from them. Instead of cooperating with God, they are now rivals with God. They are competing with God, and so they no longer can live with God in the Garden.

And what is the ultimate fruit of that rivalry? A growing resentment and anger until one of their sons murders the other. Brother kills brother. Resentment, anger, conflict, violence, death. This is the story about who we are, which these stories in Genesis reveal to us.

So this is the predicament we are in. Because we desire mimetically, the imitation brings a domino effect. The first man and woman fell into rivalry with their desire, and so their sons did, and their son’s children, and so on and so on. Because they stumbled and fell into rivalry, we continue to stumble and fall into rivalry. Ever since the first man and woman our desiring has been distorted. It continually falls into rivalry and eventually into violence. Do we have any hope of breaking the cycle, of not passing on to our children this stumbling block of mimetic desire? Or do we keep passing on the same distorted desires to our children that were passed on to us? We stumble and fall, so they stumble and fall.

How serious is this, folks? Look around in our world. It’s pretty serious, isn’t it? We trot out all kinds of terrible examples of how parents cause their children to stumble and fall, the most terrible of tragedies, like crack mothers passing on their addiction to their babies and then raising them in that environment. And we could go on and on. But do you know what? I don’t think these most obvious examples will do us much good, because we will fail to see how serious this is for all of us.

So I’m going to use just one example this morning: something that we cherish a great deal in this country, our equality. And I want to say right from the start that equality in itself is good. In fact, it’s exactly what God wants for us. We can see a hint of that at the end of our first lesson this morning, as Moses wishes that all people could have God’s Spirit poured upon them, a possibility that got a big boost at Pentecost. God desires that we would all see each other so much as equals that we could truly count ourselves as brothers and sisters. No, equality is good. It is what God desires for us.

But a sign of the seriousness of the fix we’re in is that even something as good as equality becomes distorted by our desire. The more equal we seemingly become, the more we get embroiled in the mimetic desire; the more we fall into rivalry and conflict with each other. The problem, you see, is that, although God wishes us to treat one another as brothers and sisters, Jesus came to teach us that this will only work if all of us recognize God as our Father, and if all of us imitate what God desires for us, that is, living lovingly as brothers and sisters. But what have we done with this godly desire of equality? Haven’t we taken credit for it ourselves? Isn’t it exactly like that first man and woman in the garden? The Tempter has deceived us into thinking that God wants to horde this fruit of equality from us, so we take it for ourselves. We claim it as our own desire. And then this gift of equality only makes us, not truly equal but, instead, monstrous doubles of one another, each trying to show the other how we can be more equal than the next person. In our current scene, this rivalry has become ridiculous: The Republicans claim that they stand for equality; the Democrats claim that they stand for equality. The school board claims that it stands for fairness and equality; the teacher’s union claims that it stands for fairness and equality. No! For heaven’s sake, no! It is God who stands for fairness and equality, and until we get that straight, our grasping for even the greatest of gifts like equality will only kill us. We say that we’d even kill for greater equality, don’t we? That we’d go to war for the sake of equality? It’s a mess.

This is depressing, isn’t it? I think we need to laugh for a moment, so I have one more cartoon for us this morning. It’s an old Jules Pfeiffer cartoon. Scene: a high school student standing there, saying:

Ever since I was a little kid, I didn’t want to be me. I wanted to be Billy Wittleton. Billy Wittleton didn’t even like me. I walked like he walked; I talked like he talked; I signed up for the high school he signed up for. Which was when Billy Wittleton changed. He began to hang around Herbie Vandeman. He walked like Herbie Vandeman; he talked like Herbie Vandeman. He mixed me up. I began to walk and talk like Billy Wittleton walking and talking like Herbie Vandeman. And then it dawned on me that Herbie Vandeman walked and talked like Joey Haverland. Joey Haverland walked and talked like Corky Savenson. So here I am walking and talking like Billy Wittleton’s imitation of Herbie Vandeman’s version of Joey Haverland’s trying to walk and talk like Corky Savenson. And who do think that Corky Savenson is always walking and talking like? Of all people, dopey Kenny Wellington, that little pest who walks and talks like me.

Isn’t that a delightfully true picture of where our equality leads us? It leads us into resentment. And resentment eventually leads us into the fires of violence.

I also wanted to use another cartoon to suggest that, believe it or not, I think Jesus is trying to be somewhat humorous with these terrible images of hell fires in our gospel lesson this morning. Yes, I think he said these words tongue-in-cheek. First of all, what is the context? Mimetic desire. Rivalry. The disciples have previously failed to exorcize a demon, and now they see someone else being successful at exorcizing in Christ’s name. To be blunt, they’re jealous, green with envy. So they try to stop this other person from doing what they failed to do.

To Jesus, this must have been so terribly sad that he needed to laugh. So he goes on to paint this picture of what they were doing, which I think he meant to be dark humor: All this stuff about making little ones stumble and having a millstone around your neck; about your hand or foot or eye making you stumble, so you cut it off. Don’t get me wrong. I call this dark humor, for it definitely paints the seriousness of things. It paints the picture we have talked about this morning about making each other stumble and fall; about making our children stumble and fall, all of us since that first man and woman in the garden. And what are the consequences of all this stumbling into sin? The fires of violence. That’s what we’ve said, right? It’s also helpful to know that “Gehenna” was the place in ancient Israel where their predecessors had long ago practiced child sacrifice, burning their children on the altar. So the fires of hell is not a place that God has created for us. No, the fires of hell is a place we create for ourselves. It is the fire of our violence, our own attempts to ward off greater violence. Jesus says we might as well cut off our hand or foot, or cut out our eye, if that’s where we’re going to end up. Cutting off one’s hand is a more humane form of sacrifice than putting our children on an altar and burning them.

But the most important reason why I think that these words represent dark humor for Jesus, the reason why I think he didn’t fully mean them, is that he offered us another way out. A completely different sacrifice. Yes, Jesus let himself be cut off from us and from God. On the cross, he let himself be thrown into the sacrificial fires of our violence. Jesus trusted and hoped that God wouldn’t let him stay cut off.

And he was right. God took Jesus and grafted him to God’s self so that we might also have a way to be reconnected to God. It takes us back to that wonderful image from the Gospel of John that we enjoyed this past Easter season, and, again, several weeks ago [in discussing James 1:17-18]:

[Jesus said,] “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” (John 15:5-6)

Notice the same image for the consequences of not being connected to God through Christ Jesus: ending up thrown into the fires of our violence. But the Good News is that when we are connected to the true vine, we bear much fruit. We can finally experience God’s desire of equality for us coming to fruition.

So what is the way out of this stumbling block of our distorted mimetic desire? How is it that we can find ourselves not passing on this stumbling block to our children? From what we have just said, I would like to suggest that it is for you and me to stay connected with Christ. There are so many things we can do for our children. But I would like to lift up for us that the most important thing we can do for them is for us to stay connected with the True Vine. If we begin to stumble less and less, I think that our children will have a better chance of stumbling less and less. If we stay connected to the True Vine, there’s a better chance that our children will stay connected with the True Vine. Our ministry here in this time and place will bear the fruit of true equality, of truly serving together as the brothers and sisters that God desires us to be. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, September 27-28, 1997

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