Fifth Sunday of Epiphany
Rev. Dr. Mark Lee,
Plymouth UCC, 3.0 Worship
February 4, 2018
One of the most interesting characters in JRR Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” fantasy novels is Gollum. You remember Gollum –- a former Hobbit named Sméagol who had killed his brother to get ahold of the awe-full Ring of Power, and then hid out deep in mountain caves with his “precious.” There, he degenerated into a shell of his former self, using the invisibility power of the ring to stalk unsuspecting goblins and fish as prey, which he’d gulp down raw. But after he loses the ring, first to Bilbo Baggins, and then to Frodo Baggins, his obsession brings him out of the caves in pursuit. We don’t know everything that happened to him once he emerged, but do know that he was tortured in the dungeons of Mordor to give up to the Evil One whatever he knew of the Ring’s whereabouts.
Actor Andy Serkis who played Gollum in the movie, framed his characterization around the idea of an addict going through withdrawals. His pain is physical as much a mental, the way he hops and jumps along, somewhere between a four-legged animal and a two-legged person. His face is contorted, he is but skin and bones. But he has also lost his own psychological center, and is split between the broken evil persona of Gollum, and the potentially good and stable person he once was, Sméagol. He never talks to anyone, only talks at himself, an ultimate narcissist.
Martin Luther famously described sin as “being curved in upon oneself.” Humans tend towards narcissism run amok, from the first sin in the Garden of Eden, when Adam wanted to become like God. When we lose track of who is God, and crown ourselves the Deity, we paradoxically lose our own selves, our own center. On one hand, we are all that matter; on the other, we never matter enough to be satisfied. And so it was with Gollum, turned in on himself, addicted to his Precious, he doesn’t even remember who he really is.
A sly cunning creature, he eventually ends up traveling with Frodo and Sam, guiding them on their way to Mordor where Frodo intends to destroy the Ring, and the power of the Dark Lord who forged it. Gollum doesn’t share that goal, but needs to be near the ring, and has dreams -– or nightmares -- of reclaiming it. By cunning or violence, he will get back his Precious.
Now Gollum is a pretty extreme character. Beyond his addiction to the Ring, he’s utterly narcissistic. He’s paranoid, certain that the world hates him. He’s if not schizophrenic, at least schizoid, torn between the Sméagol he once was and the Gollum he’s degenerated into. But he captures our imagination, our pity, even our love –- for we know Gollum in real life.
Most of us have known people who have descended into that sort of personal hell. Some people we love have succumbed to addiction, not to the Ring of Power, but maybe to a drug or a drink that gave them the illusion of power. Some people we love have suffered abuse, not in Sauron’s dungeons but in homes or schools or churches that should have been safe for children to play, young people to grow, and adults to flourish… and then they struggle to cope with their scarred psyches. Some people we love hear voices in their heads, stray neurons firing in their brains that reorganize into frightening words and images. Some people we love are so depressed that it seems the sun never shines and the flowers never bloom. Yes, we all know people who live with mental illnesses --- sometimes it is even us.
Our culture has not been kind to people suffering mental illnesses. For a long time, it was considered a moral failing, a lack of character or willpower, a yielding to crazy temptations. Insurances have often paid less for mental healthcare than other health care. “It’s all in your head” is used as a casual dismissal, that a person’s suffering isn’t real or serious.
But consider: nobody thinks catching the flu, or falling down the stairs, or having a stray cosmic ray mess up some cell’s DNA that sprouts into cancer, are moral or character faults. And modern brain science increasingly shows how mental illness is rooted not in sin or in soul- sickness, but in errant electrical and chemical activity (or sometimes inactivity) in the brain. So we now know that the voices of schizophrenia are not some demon whispering in a person’s ear, but are more like electrical interference overloading the circuits in a computer chip. Net result: programs crash.
Even addictions, a set of diseases once heavily morally judged, we now understand as illnesses. We’re going to have a Forum on March 4 in which Dr. Ross Lane, an addiction specialist, will talk about the opioid epidemic.
Which leads me into the scripture text that Anne read earlier. This healing is the very first miracle in the Gospel of Mark, and starts to create Jesus’ reputation as a powerful teacher and healer. He healed minds as well as bodies.
Now, ancient people did not understand brain chemistry any more than they knew about bacteria and viruses. And just as they ascribed health, strength and fertility to good spirits, they ascribed disease to bad spirits -– spirits being a cipher for forces they neither understood nor controlled. So mental illness was seen as demon possession, that a person’s real self had been taken over by some evil spirit. And just as people even today quickly walk past the shouting street person, they counted such people as unclean, antisocial, outcast.
The gospel told us earlier what Jesus was teaching in the synagogue that day: "Listen up! This is the time! Change your hearts and lives, for God’s realm is coming soon!” He’s not talking about some end-of-the-world thing, still less about the afterlife, but about God’s realm were the poor, meek, merciful and peacemakers are blessed, where people love even their enemies, where captives are freed, Prodigals are welcomed, and all get what they need.
So this guy stands up in the synagogue and starts yelling back. Lacking the social filters most people have, he starts in on Jesus. “You’re the Son of God!” Well, everyone around knows
that’s just crazy talk. Or even if they suspect Jesus is quite unique, they certainly don’t say it
But Jesus doesn’t push him away. He doesn’t ignore him. He doesn’t call security. He doesn’t condemn him. He meets him right where he’s at, in the midst of his illness. He takes him seriously. And loves him right into health. I suspect that the account is abbreviated –- Mark’s gospel in particular collapses longer events into a dramatic moment. Healing usually takes more time than this story has. But it is clear that grace has changed the man. No longer is he mastered by illness, but by Jesus. And no longer outcast, but now supported by the other Christ followers. That’s important: Have you ever noticed how Jesus’ healing stories always bring someone back into community?
What would it be if Gollum met Jesus? What would grace look like for him? Grace –- that completely undeserved love from God. Grace -- the love that just Is –- that is there for us whatever we do, whatever we don’t do, whether we like it or not. Grace -- Love that meets us in our illness, our broken places…. In the shadows where we hide our sin from even ourselves, God’s love is still there. Rather than being turned in on ourselves, we are given a new center in God.
I think that Gollum – or Sméagol – experienced that sort of grace in the person of Frodo. He
has taken to calling Frodo “Master” – a new focus, a new center, outside his broken self.
Frodo is both cautious and kind to Gollum, unlike everyone else who is repulsed by him, is scared of him and mean to him. As the movie progresses, Frodo is able to draw out more and more of Sméagol, remind him of the Hobbit he once was, and call him towards a better self. The more Sméagol trusts Frodo, the stronger Sméagol becomes. There is a pivotal scene, in which Sméagol and Gollum are arguing aloud, first whether to murder Frodo and seize the Ring, and then turning to the deeper issue of who is in charge of their life. The voice of Gollum starts:
Gollum: We wants it. We needs it. Must have the precioussss. They stole it from us. Sneaky little hobbitsesss. Wicked, trickssssy, falssse!
Then Sméagol argues back: No! Not Master.
Gollum: Yes, precious. False. They will cheat you, hurt you, lie.
Sméagol: Master’s my friend.
Gollum: (taunting) You don’t have any friends. Nobody likes YOU...
Sméagol: Not listening. Not listening.
Gollum: You're a liar and a thief.
Sméagol: (shaking his head) Nope.
Sméagol: (starts to cry and whimper) Go away.
Gollum: Go away! (cackles) Hahahahaha!
Sméagol: (cries, whispering) I hate you, I hate you.
Gollum: (fiercely) Where would you be without me? Gollum, Gollum. I saved us. It was me. We survived because of me!
Sméagol: (resolute) Not anymore.
Gollum: (surprised) What did you say?
Sméagol: Master looks after us now. We don’t need you.
Sméagol: Leave now and never come back.
Sméagol: (louder) Leave now and never come back!
Gollum: (bares teeth, growling) Arghhhh!
Sméagol: LEAVE NOW AND NEVER COME BACK. (Sméagol pants and looks around for Gollum) We... we told him to go away! And away he goes, preciousss. (dances around, happily) Gone, gone, gone! Sméagol is free!
Mark brings a passion for Christian education that bears fruit in social justice. He has had a lifelong fascination with theology, with a particular emphasis on how Biblical hermeneutics shape personal and political action. Prior to coming to Plymouth, Mark served as pastor for Metropolitan Community Churches in Fort Collins, Cheyenne, and Rapid City. Read more.