They are not a gang you’d want at your sock hop. Ryder, Longman, Steever and Joey Welcome hijack a subway car full of passengers in the blockbuster 1973 novel “The Taking of Pelham 123.” So powerful was the story that it has already been translated into film three times, the first just a year after publication. The MTA, New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority, decided that no train can ever again leave the Pelham Bay station at 1:23 am or pm, insuring that there would never again be a real train with the call sign Pelham 123.
North of the Pelham Bay station, just across the Westchester county line, is the village of Pelham, and it is there that you will find the corporate publishing home of a very different gang, one you might not mind at your sock hop, though they fictionally live in the beautiful hamlet of Riverdale, where you will often find Archie, Betty, Veronica and Jughead hanging out at Pop’s Chock’Lit Shop.
While other comic series turned dark in the 1980’s, the Archie comics remained stuck in time for awhile, charmingly wholesome. But in the end, a publisher has to eat, so the series slowly crawled into the 21st century. They added a gay character in 2010, and this last year saw a new live-action television series filled with teen-angst and terribly inappropriate for younger viewers.
I’m not through the first season yet, but we have jocks behaving badly, a murdered football captain, and an affair between a teacher and a student. This is not greasers and poodle skirts.
Archie’s father wants him to get a business degree and join the family construction business. Archie would rather write music and hang out with Josie and the Pussycats.
And here we have a story as old as time, not of Beauty and Beast, but of a young person choosing a different path, not the one that their parents have in mind. I have no doubt that John, the father of Simon Peter and Andrew, and Zebedee, the father of James and John, shared a few cups of wine lamenting that their sons couldn’t just go into the family fishing business. No doubt one of them said something along the lines of “It was good enough to put clothes on their backs and food in their bellies.”
People have been dropping out forever to follow their dreams, to follow prophets, and sometimes, simply to escape their lives of quiet desperation. Sometimes they drop back in after a time, realizing that Old Man Zebedee was right all along. Sometimes the adventure kills them, like Chris McCandless, the young man featured in Jon Krakauer’s books and subsequent film “Into the Wild,” though many of us feel there is little to valorize in that story, so much vision and talent wasted. But some drop out and actually experience awakening, become new people. And isn’t that exactly what Christ calls us to do?
Dropping out doesn’t have to involve LSD or free love, and not every guru looks like Timothy Leary, the fired Harvard Professor who believed in the therapeutic power of psychedelic drugs and who set the tone for the Summer of Love at the Human Be-In, an event held months earlier at Golden Gate Park in January of 1967, when he called on people to “Turn on, tune in, drop out.”
Humans beings have been using altered states of consciousness for religious reasons, as a tool on a spiritual path, since the dawn of time, sometimes chemically-induced, sometimes through other means. The boy Samuel is participating in a ritual designed to provoke hallucinations when he hears the voice of God. Jesus is participating in a ritual intended to provoke hallucinations when he encounters the Adversary in the desert. And while there appears to be little enlightening about our current heroin epidemic, and I don’t recall any great wisdom at the other end of a doobie, we cannot tut-tut. Far too many of us have explored that trail to be judgmental. I have no interest in glorifying that part of Hippie culture, but even without the drugs there is a harvest to reap from Leary’s phrase. Maybe we all could do with a little tuning in, a little turning on, a little dropping out.
Now one of the classic mistakes pastors make early in their call is to deliver three point sermons, mimicking the three part essay that got us through four years of undergraduate studies and three years of professional studies, when on a good day you are lucky to land a single point, but I will ask you to indulge me this morning, as Leary gives his acolytes a three point challenge, though I would suggest the Christian path re-orders the process a bit.
First, we must tune-in. Specifically, we must decide what to tune in to. We don’t seem to have a problem tuning into disaster. This was true even before the poison of the 24-hour news cycle, though it is infinitely worse now. A sinkhole in Florida, because the state is basically sitting on eroding limestone. A wildfire, a mudslide. How does it effect us? How many casualties? How will it effect property values? Will it effect my vacation?
Even worse than natural disaster is our attention to human tragedy. Someone crossed the center line, some is Stage IV, and these are just local tragedies. Nothing like human evil to get our attention, because as John Calvin noted, sometimes humans just suck. A murder in Bucks County, a terrorist attack in London, a madman with an ICBM in Pyongyang.
And for all I rail against systemic racism in law enforcement, and there is systemic racism in law enforcement, we should be mindful that cops rarely see us at our best. Sure there are bullies, but far too many of those who protect and serve are broken and burned out. Healing would go a long way.
Will we stay tuned in to the negative and miss all the good that the divine is doing in our world? Because bad news is aggressive, but good news takes attention. And there is good news, the miracle of ordinary days, the leaf unfolding, the hand holding yours as you go through treatment. There are extraordinary acts of kindness, and don’t get me started of the ways in which we humans can tune into the serendipitous creativity of the divine to produce music and art and poetry that is transcendent. We cannot ignore what is broken, for you cannot heal what you cannot see, but we could sure do with tuning in a lot more to to what God is doing, directly and through us. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins.
There is this notion that people only turn to God in times of crisis, and I’ve been at enough bedsides, walked with families in their grief, to know that there is some truth to that, but I believe real faith comes from tuning in to a God that is good. The entire message of Jesus stands on one point and one point alone: the kingdom of God is inbreaking, it is here, for those who choose to tune in.
Once we have tuned in to what God is doing in the world, we must then respond. For theology wonks, I am about to out myself as a bad Calvinist, as a darned near-Pelagianist, for I believe we must respond to the divine, must turn on our hearts. We must transcend the fleshy self that the apostle Paul so despises, must let go of our fear, and let our souls soar in acts of compassion and courage. I am thankful for those who can give generously to resource ministries done by others, but if that is your only form of ministry, you yourself are impoverished. Love is not a check. It is a relationship. It is getting in the car in the middle of a rainy night, it is lifting your voice on a Sunday morning, it is getting on a bus and heading for D.C. because there is a little girl out there depending on you to make the world a better place.
Once we have tuned in to the divine, we turn ourselves on as transmitters of the divine, bringing it to those who need, if only for a moment, to be lifted from their grief, or who need you to be with them in their grief. We point to the divine with paint brush and voice, with poster board and with presence. We turn on the divine in us daily, reminded that God became like us that we might become more like God, might know the divine in us.
Turning on, as I choose to understand it, may sound a little New-Age-y, a little “The Force Be With You,” but I choose to believe in original blessing, and while I’m cool with evolution, consciousness brings will and will brings the power to choose, to create, to sacrifice, to love, giving meaning to that old trope about being in God’s own image.
If the first followers of Jesus tuned in to the in-breaking of the kingdom, into the powerful presence of a divine alternate reality, if they were asked to turn on a whole new way of being in the world, in relationship with God and with one another, so they were asked to drop out of systems of death, systems like Rome’s grinding wealth machine that exploited, like the Pharisees’ system of anger and control, like the corruption of the Temple, interested only in the workings of human power.
Because Christendom has become a thing, an institution rather than a movement, has become the system of the powerful rather than a rebellion against systems of power, we have lost the raw edge, the choice we are called to make if we are to truly follow Jesus. But like those first disciples, we are asked to drop out. Maybe we won’t be like the sons of Zebedee, or Peter, who had a home and family, but in our own way, we are asked to drop out of systems of death, and in this world, unless you live in some cabin in Montana, and we know where that leads, we are all entangled in systems of death.
It is obviously easiest to drop out of systems of death if you have no connections, like Hopkins, who converted to the Roman faith and died early, leaving us a handful of mature poems that would influence generations of English language poets, or Thomas Merton, inspired by Hopkins, a Trappist monk who championed contemplative prayer and who found common cause with contemplatives in other traditions, especially Buddhism.
But we are not all called to quit the world… cannot all abandon our families, our jobs. But we can drop out by slowly unwinding the ways we contribute to the modern machinery of death, of exploitation. Of course, first we have to see the ways we are entangled in that machinery, requiring a mindfulness, a tuning in, that we might find uncomfortable. So uncomfortable that many of us turn to upper middle class hallucinogenics, like retail therapy and charitable donations.
Dropping out today isn’t heading to Haigh-Ashbury or following a charismatic rabbi. It is moving your money to a socially responsible mutual fund. It is naming our privilege and then risking it by standing with the vulnerable. It is deciding for yourself if you can buy a product from an exploitive company, and then choosing to drop out of that machinery. It is naming the racism that has blackballed a top NFL quarterback, and asking yourself if you can be a party, however passive, of that system. Would you eat in a “Whites Only” diner?
The Summer of Love was reckless and naive and beautiful and transformative, like Occupy, like a band of followers boldly entering Jerusalem. It was a revolution of love, a new way of being in the world. Our revolution of love is only over if we give up. The Gospel of Love is here. Tune in to the powerful work of divine mystery in our world and in our hearts. Turn on the Spirit, the creative power of God in your life that will push you to transcend the ordinary. Drop out of the systems of death and embrace a God that death itself cannot defeat.
I close with Hopkins and the last lines of “God’s Grandeur.”
though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, as the brown brink eastward, springs –
Because the Holy ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.