Proof of Humanity; Empathy and Self-sacrificing Love

July 8th, 2019

To listen to the sermon, click here.

Good morning Christians, seekers and friends:

In these beginning weeks of the season of Pentecost, we are learning a lot about what it looks like to be a disciple of Jesus. And, as we talked about last week, it is not easy to be a disciple. And maybe that difficulty is the easiest thing for us to understand about discipleship now – because right now nothing seems easy and everyone and everything seems polarized. It’s us vs. them—with everyone wanting to be right—not necessarily to do right but to make sure that they are wrong. To add some color to our American divisions, we descriptors for like red or blue. We live in red states – we live in blue states – to be clear, we DO NOT live in purple states. (because, if you mix blue and red you get purple right?). But anyway, so it goes.

Into the midst of all this division and strife, Jesus gives us – his disciples—he gives the the tough assignment of living the gospel message of our unity as God’s children—of us for them. As Christians, we are called to love our neighbor as ourselves and we are called to love one another even as Jesus loved us. And, we are to do all of this without worrying about who gets the credit.  As Jesus would tell his disciples after he heard them arguing amongst themselves about who was the greatest – who had done the most – “Whoever welcomes [a]… child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.” The least among you is the greatest.

But these words of Jesus’ are not easy to understand—when we think of the possibilities and the risks of discipleship—it is hard for us not to get sucked into the us vs. them—it is hard to understand what being empowered to proclaim the God’s Kingdom, to heal the sick, cure diseases and have power and authority over all demons is for if we aren’t made better than others. We can see this tendency to get caught up in the special ‘gifts’ given to us in John’s reply to Jesus’ statement “The least among you is the greatest”—“Master we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he doesn’t follow us.” While Jesus answers, “Do not stop him; for whomever is not against you is for you” the disciples still struggle. They might think casting out demons is a big deal– certainly something that only official followers of Jesus should be allowed to do.  And, they are not alone. In today’s gospel, Jesus officially appoints and gives power to seventy other followers whom he sends out in pairs to the towns where he himself intended to go. The seventy, too, don’t escape being enamored with the distinctions of their new position. We read, “The seventy returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!’” 

And then Jesus replies, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

I have been thinking about Jesus’ response to his followers all week. It is a response that perfectly encapsulates Jesus’ vision for our work as disciples—Jesus has empowered us to do spectacular things like treading on snakes and scorpions (which I am not advocating trying out) and has given us power over the enemy. But these freely-given powers are not something for us to wear like a badge of honor or a credential of belonging but rather are given as a gift that we are meant to use in service of others. They serve as a spiritual toolbelt given to us to continue Jesus’ work. And they are meant to be used — the work of each and everyone one of us is necessary, mportant, and holy.  As Jesus says, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” And so, the real work of discipleship is found in loving others and helping them discover their own powers of discipleship – their own gifts—and their own identity as God’s children.  And in so doing, gaining more hands and hearts to the disciple’s work of love.

Jesus believes in us and in our work—he has seen it – and he is counting on us. That is what he is envisioning when he tells his followers, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning” but Jesus warns them –warns us—that our work is difficult and we cannot try to find our value in what we do—what feats we accomplish. Our meaning must be found in knowing God’s love for us –in being the children of God. As Jesus makes his way to Jerusalem, he continues to teach his disciples that not only the powers that be will seek to stop us – but we can be stopped, too, by judging others and ourselves too harshly. Jesus reminds us that that we are loved and that together, through the power of God’s love and grace, we can do anything—we can build the Kingdom of God. But that this important work is dependent on us working together in love—on seeing the inherent value of the least of us—the value of every single name written in the book of heaven.

The other day I saw a cartoon that made me laugh rather ruefully. In the foreground it features an alien family in their spaceship and the planet earth right behind them. And the parent aliens say to their little alien children “Roll up the window we are going through a bad neighborhood.”  Funny right—but sad too. What these aliens had heard about the people of planet earth was not good—it was not a world where people loved their neighbor as their selves. It was not a place that would welcome them – they did not believe earth folks would see past their alien green color or their crab- like- googly eyes.

In Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Bladerunner, the “bad neighborhood” of the cartoon has gotten worse. Set in a dystopian ‘future’ Los Angeles of 2019 (where climate change has plagued it with unceasing rain rather than fire, humans have created synthetic human-like beings known as replicants to serve as soldiers, to work and perform all the necessary tasks for human life in off-world colonies. The plot revolves around a group of these replicants led by Roy Batty (actor Rutger Hauer) who escape from a work camp to return to earth in order to extend their lifespan.  Rick Deckard, played by Harrison Ford, is a part of the LAPD’s replicant detection division, referred to as Bladerunners, who is sent to hunt them down. Utilizing the fictional Voight-Kampff test, Harrison Ford/Deckard and others distinguish replicants from humans with a series of questions, Humans are identified by a physiological response indicating empathy. Only true humans, not replicants, feel that emotion. The story follows Deckard as he identifies and ‘retires’ the escapees.  As might be expected, the story arc culminates with Deckard and the replicant Batty facing off in a futuristic fight to the finish. But the twist is that this synthetic off-world human-like being breaks through the artificial attributes given him by his corporate worldly creator as warrior and slave. Rather in the last moments of his life, he comes to embody the beautiful and real essence of humanity not programmed in him – he shows empathy. In fact, he chooses to go from warrior to savior – literally saving the life of the one who has been sent to kill him. And using his last breaths, he reminds the ethically challenged and morally jaded law enforcer about the preciousness of all existence even that of a mere slave/ a replicant. He shows him how to be human. He says as he struggles to speak, “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.”

While this film is science fiction as evidenced by the fact that LA is still sunny, warm and in recent years suffering through droughts, unlike the 2019 environment in the film, it does really elicit questions about what it means to be a truly human.  As Lorraine Boissoneault notes in her article on Smithsonian.com, philosophers and thinkers have long been asking this same question – what is it that makes us human?  Thinkers like Descartes believed that there are certain intellectual feats and reactions that show our humanity. He wrote: “If there were machines bearing images of our bodies, and capable of imitating our actions as far as it is morally possible, there would still remain two most certain tests whereby to know that they were not therefore really [human]…” In his estimation, we could prove humanity using tests based on linguistic ability and flexibility of behavior.

Locke, on the other hand, believed that we could test humanity through the continuity of memories. He noted that while the human body changes with time, memories remain and form our sense of ourselves. Locke wrote “As far as this consciousness can be extended backwards to any past Action or Thought, so far reaches the Identity of that Person,” 

In Bladerunner, however, it’s not memories or rationality that make a human – replicants have these – in fact replicants are given superior intelligence and skill. They are also given and emotional responses. But as Deborah Knight, professor of philosophy at Queen’s University, notes “Emotions themselves will never be a perfect test of humanity: sociopaths are human, too, after all.  But emotions are more than non-cognitive responses. They help us to make judgments about what we should do and who we should aspire to be.” In Blade Runner, the most important distinguishing trait of human beings is empathy. It is empathy — the ability to understand and share the feelings of another—that separates human beings from their replicant creations. German philosopher Theodor Lipps agrees with this distinction “Since we can’t read minds or see any physical evidence of them, he writes, we can perceive that others feel and act as we do [only] through the power of empathy.”  While Jesus the Christ, too, might agree with this — he go even further. He would not only say that we become fully human when we love our neighbors as ourselves, he would say we become disciples when we love one another even as he has loved us.”

Folks will continue to talk about the divisive, difficult and dangerous times we live in but we are called live into the vision of unity that Jesus had on his last trip to Jerusalem – that of changed world – the Kingdom of God where God reigns and humanity blossoms and blooms in new and beautiful ways – not in prescribed tones of red and blue – but in purple too– and pink and green and gold and vermilion and teal and glittery gold…. In all God’s dazzling light. God believes in us. And believes that we can change our “bad neighborhood” and make it a place where all whom God has made are made welcome and are loved–St. Augustine would remind us God loves each of us as though we are the only person in the world, and God loves everyone the way God loves us. As disciples, then, we are called to see everyone through God’s eyes of love –the least of among us —  even green aliens with crab-like googly eyes.