Article | February 26, 2023
Sermon: The Mind and the Moon
Blog|The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm Clemens Young
“One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Mt. 4).
1. Often I start with a question but today I want to finish with one. Sixty years ago President John F. Kennedy, full of confidence in modern science, made two predictions. First, that within a decade a human being would walk on the moon. And second, that science would, “make the remote reaches of the human mind accessible.” At that time few people might have guessed that traveling 239,000 miles through oxygen-less -455 degree Fahrenheit outer space would be far, far easier than discovering psychiatric cures for mental illness.i
In David Bergner’s book The Mind and the Moon, he shares the story of his younger brother Bob who was diagnosed with bi-polar at age twenty-one, institutionalized and medicated with drugs that had debilitating side-effects. Bergner also follows Caroline a woman from Indiana who started hearing voices as a child and whose drug treatments, starting in elementary school, led to obesity and losing control of her forearms and hands. He introduces us to a civil rights lawyer named David whose severe depression during the Trump administration could not be mitigated by either the drugs his doctor prescribed or the psychedelics he turned to afterwards.
Bergner points out how little we understand the mind. He writes about the damage that can be caused by a psychological diagnosis (which puts us in a kind of box and separates us from other people) and of many drug treatments which have questionable efficacy. Forty million American adults and millions more children are on psychiatric drugs. In one ten year period the number of children diagnosed with bi-polar increased fortyfold. Thirty to forty percent of our students are treated with psychiatric medication at some point in their college years.ii
I’m not trying to make a point about how we treat mental illness. I just want to remind us how much we are a mystery to ourselves. Perhaps the saddest part of Bergner’s book for me came when he quoted the prominent neuroscientist Eric Nestler. Nestler said that unquestionably fewer Americans should be on psychotropics for depression and anxiety. He went on, “Exercise. Better sleep. Mindfulness. The belief in something bigger than yourself. Religion if you are religious.” Nestler said, “People with religious beliefs benefit greatly from them.” He wondered if they fostered a, “capacity to bring order and meaning into one’s life.”iii
And then the sad part. He said that religion was not part of his own life. He tragically explained, “The thing about religion is, I can’t know whether Jesus is the Son of God or whether Allah rose to heaven on a winged horse. Those are not scientifically knowable.”iv This is an insurmountable barrier for him, and many others. Theology has failed our generation when ordinary people think that they have to believe something contrary to science in order to be religious. Christians like us have a lot of work to do in explaining this to the people around us.
The stakes are high. On Tuesday one of our daughters’ friends took his own life only months before graduating from college.v From his social media posts you would never have realized that there was anything wrong. Did he understand that he is a child of God? There is no way for us to know.
This morning, the first Sunday in Lent, we have before us central biblical texts: the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness and the Garden of Eden. How do these ancient stories help modern people to understand God? How do we interpret them? What meaning should they have in our life?
2. For Matthew wilderness is equivocal. On the one hand it has no structure and is void. On the other hand it represents limitless possibility, a context for encountering God.vi In ancient scripture the number forty represents a long time.vii This connects Jesus with other figures who persevered over time.
My friend Matt Boulton proposes an alternative to the way we usually interpret this story.viii For him it is not about a hero bravely resisting temptations to comfort, security and glory with admirable self-control. It is not about the devil offering something that Jesus deeply desires and Jesus gritting his teeth and responding like someone on a diet knowing that he should not have another plate of cookies. This is not about sacrifice but about trust.
Similarly the story of Eden’s forbidden fruit is not primarily about sin and disobedience or temptation, but rather about fear, and the failure to trust. Let’s begin by seeing the connection between Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness and Moses.
After his baptism and the forty days in the wilderness the devil tempts Jesus to turn stones into bread, to throw himself down from the temple in order to show that God would save him and to control all the nations of the world. After each of the devil’s offers Jesus responds with a quote from the story of Moses and the years before he received the Ten Commandments in the Book of Deuteronomy.
At Grace Cathedral our Sunday school calls the Ten Commandments, “the ten best ways.” Moses teaches the people that the law is not for the purpose of keeping something good away from us. The law provides the order that sustains human life, as he says, “so that you may live and increase.”ix We honor our parents not because we fear God’s punishment, but because we want to live in a society that cares for our elders.
For forty years, before receiving the law, every morning the people of Israel in the wilderness gathered food from God called Manna. Moses calls this a time of preparation. God cared for them, and provided food in order to humble them so that they would be ready for the law. According to Moses if the Israelites had skipped the forty years in the wilderness and immediately entered the Promised Land, they would mistake the abundance there as the result of their own labor and not as a simple gift from God. Moses teaches that every good gift comes from God.
It is not that we somehow are good and keep the commandments and then deserve a reward. We live by the grace of God. Commandments are part of that gift. The culminating statement about this comes when Moses says, you are fed with manna, “in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deut. 8:30). The forty days that the Israelites spent in the wilderness were to teach them that we live entirely by the grace of God. Matt calls this “the hidden fountain in our lives… the font of every blessing we encounter.”x
Jesus’ first temptation is not so much about his personal hunger, but about whether he will decide to no longer depend on how God has already been feeding him. At first it seems to be about hunger, but what the devil is really saying is, “You do not need God to feed you. Sustain yourself.” And Jesus replies that he lives by God’s word.xi
Similarly the second temptation is not about security. It is about having the kind of faith that means we do not need to test God. The third temptation is not chiefly about having total economic and political power to save the world from injustice and suffering. It is about not succumbing to the fantasy that a world under our total control would be better than the world God is already giving us.
I want to say just a word about the Garden of Eden. The serpent’s strategy for betraying Eve and Adam revolves around the contention that God cannot be trusted. First, the serpent says that God would keep food from them, then insisting that God lied in saying that they would die. Finally the serpent talks as if God regarded the couple as rivals and wants to keep them from having their eyes opened and becoming like God.
The problem is not so much that they disobey an arbitrary commandment about fruit. The serpent has tricked them into seeing God as a jealous rival rather than as the loving source of all the goodness they receive. We too have been fooled into forgetting all that God gives us for the sake of love.
Let me conclude with one more observation. The devil says, “If you are the Son of God,” “command the stones,” or “throw yourself down.” In English the function of each word is determined by its placement in a sentence. In Greek it is easier to change word order. In this case the devil unconventionally separates son from God (“if son you are the God” “Ei huois ei tou theou”). The only other time this occurs is when the crowds are jeering Jesus during his execution and say, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” (Mt. 27:40). The devil literally, linguistically, grammatically, separates Jesus from God.
3. And that is what is at stake for us. Trust. Connection to God. The devil attacks the very idea that we are children of God and that God is giving us what we need. We live with so many people in such despair. Many think that faith requires believing the unbelievable, and this makes holiness seem as inaccessible to them as, “the remote reaches of the mind.”
Every day offers us the chance to live as if there is no God, or as if God were our rival. Every day also presents us with the chance to experience our existence as God’s priceless gift. We are a mystery to ourselves. During this limitless season of Lent we will encounter the sustaining grace of God. Let it prepare us for the promised land where we will live more fully out of God’s hidden fountain of love. During this journey how will we show the people around us that they are children of God?