Text of sermon on sanity and madness visa a vis ourselves (homo sapiens) and the rest of nature preached at Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, MN.
We need stories to keep us sane in a culture whose sanity is madness.
In Souls on Fire Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Prize concentration camp survivor, tells the story of “prophetic madness” that challenges the collective madness of a people who ignore the coming calamity of impending crop failure. “Good people…What is at stake,” says the prophetic messenger, “is your life, your survival! The summons falls on deaf ears and the calamity of starvation is not averted.”
Wiesel concludes, “God loves madmen. They’re the only ones he allows near him.”
Late in the year of 1964 a young geography student working toward his doctorate came upon a grove of Bristlecone Pines while doing research searching on Ice Age glaciers.
Wheeler Peak, on Nevada’s eastern border with Utah, reaches an altitude of 13,063 feet with a spectacular glacial cirque on its northeast side. Wheeler Peak cycles through five life zones, from the hot stony desert to alpine tundra, all within a five mile line. Along the edge of this cirque is the home of colossal bristlecone pines. Standing as they have for millennia, in their fields of stone, they overlook the desert far below.
When this student and his associate came upon the bristlecones at the timberline, they began to take core samples from several trees, discovering one to be over 4,000 years old! Needless to say they were excited, and at some point, their only coring tool broke. The end of the field season was nearing. They asked for, and were granted permission, by the U.S. Forest Service to cut the tree down.
They had just cut down one of the oldest living organism on the planet. An earlier group of researchers at Wheeler Peak and given names to the these ancient creatures whose lives reach back to the third century before Christ. They had named some of these trees. Ancient names like Socrates and Buddha. And then there was Prometheus, named after the god in Greek mythology who was punished for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to humankind. Zeus has Prometheus chained to a rock for an eternity of perpetual torment.
It was the tree named after Prometheus that the geology students had killed. They had cut down a tree that was 4,844 year old.
What happened that day on Wheeler Peak is now viewed as a kind of martyrdom by some of the Bristlecone Pine researchers – in inexplicable horror of Prometheus’ death served to save the other Bristlecone Pines from extinction at human hands. You might even say it is to the Bristlecone Pines what the cross of Jesus is to the human species, a death that brings life to the rest of us.
The death of a 4,844 year-old tree and the death of Christ are two sides of a single coin. The death of Prometheus at the tree line on Wheeler Peak is the death of nature at human hands. The death of Jesus on The Hill of Skulls is the death of humankind itself, and out of both deaths, by God’s grace alone, a new human awareness – a new humanity within nature – is awakened.
In the death of that old Bristlecone Pine the other researches came to a new appreciation of nature itself. Not only its magnificence. Not only our dependence upon nature. But our oneness with nature. Homo sapiens do not stand above nature; we stand within it. We are nature; nature is us.
Elie Wiesel reminds us that there are two kinds of madness. There is the societal madness that continues business as usual but is actually insane; the other is what he calls “prophetic” madness that challenges the madness which sees the Earth as a landfill or playground with no value in itself apart from its use to us. Prophetic madmen cry out, “Good people, do not forget! What is at stake is your life, your survival! Do not forget!”
As we remember that story out of which our faith awareness is born around the Lord’s Table, I close with another story from Elie Wiesel.
When the great Rabbi Israel Baal Shem-Tov saw misfortune threatening the Jews it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished and the misfortune averted.
Later, when his disciple, the celebrated Magid of Mezritch, had occasion, for the same reason, to intercede with heaven, he would go to the same place in the forest and say, “Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer.” And again the miracle would be accomplished.
Still later, Rabbi Moshe-Leib of Sasov, in order to save his people once more, would go into the forest and say, “I do not know how to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, but I know the place ad this must be sufficient.” It was sufficient and the miracle was accomplished.
Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn to overcome misfortune.
Sitting his his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: “I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer; I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is to tell the story, and this must be sufficient. And it was sufficient.
God made man because he loves stories.
Remember, Good people. Do not forget. God loves “prophetic madmen” who challenge the madness. Remember Prometheus. Remember the Hill of Skulls. Do not forget. We are not above nature. We are part of nature; nature is us. Thanks be to God.