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The Gospel According to Ben Parker – September 19, 2010

In 1858, Henry Whitney Bellows gave a lecture in New York City. Well, he most likely gave more than one lecture in 1858 – he was a prominent citizen and a renowned speaker, but I have one particular lecture in mind. Bellows was, for four decades the minister of the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York. In the audience of this particular lecture was one George Templeton Strong, who is best known today for the detail, whit and sharp opinions contained in his diaries. In his entry for that day, he commented on Bellows’ lecture as follows:

He blew well. It was pleasant and instructive…all sermons, essays and lectures by men of Bellows’ school are sensible, plausible, candid, subtle, and original in discussing any social evil or abuse. But somehow they don’t get at it. You feel that you have heard or read a very clever and entertaining paper, embodying a good deal of clear and deep thought, and you ask, “What shall I do?”[i]

This sort of criticism is often made, of Unitarian Universalist preachers, and of our faith, in general. That we are too abstract in our prayers and too vague in our maxims. That in choosing which causes to champion we alternate between the hopelessly broad and the pointlessly narrow. That we are slow to act and quick to return to contemplation. And that, in particular, we are steeped in a theology which cannot fully face the reality of evil in the world, nor cross the heartbreaking distance between things as they are, and things as they ought to be.

Now listen, please, as I say these words to you: absolutely all of that is wrong. It is not unusual for members of a religious minority to suffer harsh criticism and derision from members of other groups. What is unusual about Unitarian Universalism is the speed and fervor with which we take those criticisms to heart. Oh, we have our faults, to be sure; we have them in great abundance. But they are not the whole of our history, they are not the essence of our present, and they are not the arbiters of our destiny. So in answer to George Templeton Strong’s criticisms of a century and a half ago, I’d like to get right at it.

Look around this room. Look to your right and to your left, before you and behind you. Look at the people who are with you today. Hear them as they sit: breathing, listening, thinking. You. Not one of you, not each of you, but all of you, all of us, have the power to change the world, and our having that power demands of us that we use it in the service of life. So if you find yourself asking in the next ten minutes, “what shall I do?” my answer is “take up the power that you already have, and use it to bless the world.” Here is why, and a little bit of how:

Every culture, every nation, every faith and faction has its heroes. The characters both real and imagined that the group lifts up as models for how to live one’s life and how to be true to the ideals of the community. But I want to focus our attention for the moment on one particular heroic figure, of great national and international renown. A young man of humble origins and prominent destiny. A figure of great controversy in his own lifetime, who’s seemingly supernatural powers drew admiration from many, and fear and anger from a powerful few. A man who put the needs of the world before his own, and who had a tumultuous and complicated relationship with a woman named Mary. I am speaking, of course, of Peter Parker.

Peter Parker, the mortal name of Spider-Man, hero of both the comics page and the silver screen, is an object lesson in how hard it is to be a hero. His life as a costumed crime-fighter and defender of New York City constantly interferes with every other aspect of his existence, damaging his relationships with family and friends, disrupting his love life, distracting him from his studies, threatening to lose him his job and, of course, endangering his very life on a near-hourly basis. His decision to become Spider-Man, and to spend his days thwarting bank-robbers, protecting the Earth from alien invasion and countering the plots of costumed villains such as the Scorpion, the Lizard, the Vulture and Dr. Octopus, came at a high cost. But it was his initial decision not to be Spider-Man that cost him far more.

You see, when Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider, which, rather than raising serious health concerns, endowed him with superhuman strength, speed, and stickiness, his first impulse was not to devote his life to fighting crime. Instead, he set about using his newfound super-powers to make a quick buck as a novelty wrestler. Peter Parker wasn’t interested in other people’s problems; he was looking out only for himself. But Peter’s disinterest in the lives of other people had consequences. Not consequences for Peter directly – you see, one of the features of power is that it can be a powerful insulator; as our power as individuals increases, we become less vulnerable to the consequences of our own actions. In Peter Parker’s selfishness, he did not stop a crime he could easily have prevented. It wouldn’t have meant climbing tall buildings or bending steel bars; just blocking a narrow hallway for a moment, to stop a burglar from getting away. But he did not stop that burglar and soon after the same thief killed a man, in a stick-up gone wrong. That man was Ben Parker, Peter’s uncle, and his adoptive father since childhood. Uncle Ben was a sort of moral compass, for Peter and his death – both the grief, and the guilt of knowing he might have prevented it – awoke the young man from his moral slumber. Peter Parker became Spider-Man following that loss, when he finally took to heart the motto that his uncle Ben had been trying to teach him for most of his life: “With great power comes great responsibility.”[ii]

This wisdom from Ben Parker might well be his own interpretation of an earlier quote attributed to Jesus of Nazareth – “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”[iii] However great or little the power we have, there will inevitably come an opportunity to exercise it. When the opportunity first came to Peter Parker, he resisted it, and there’s actually a similar story about Jesus, from the Christian tradition.

Jesus and his mom, went  to a wedding[iv] – this sounds a little bit like the start of a joke, but it isn’t – Jesus and his mom, went to a wedding, and after the ceremony and they were having the party, and it must be a pretty lively one because they ran out of wine. And when Jesus’ mom saw this she went to her son, gave him a meaningful look and said, “You know dear, they’re out of wine.” Now, Jesus didn’t want to get involved in this, he was having a good time with his friends, the disciples, and so he looked back at his mother and asked her “Woman, why do you involve me?” That has got to be one of the all-time great petulant exchanges between a parent and a child. “Woman, why do you involve me?”

The gospel according to John, in which this story appears, does not record whether she reminded him, through clenched teeth, of the nine months she spent carrying him to term, having to finish that schlep in a barn of all places, then fleeing to Egypt to protect him from King Herod, along with the daily grief of raising such a precocious child and this, this is the thanks she gets? John does not record whether Jesus’ mother said any of that, or just gave her son a look. But it does say that she didn’t just give up. You see, being a good Jewish mother, she would have known that it is a mitzvah to rejoice with the married couple. That means that when you get the invitation to the wedding of your third cousin twice removed, not only should you go, but you should go, and have a great time, and do anything you can to help everybody else have a great time too.

So she sent the caterers to Jesus, and he gave in. He told the staff to fill the empty containers with water, and pour a glass from that. And when they tasted what they had poured, it was wine. The bar was open again, the party could continue; in many ways it’s a minor episode. But, according to the Christian tradition, this moment is the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry: the moment when he stops being just and anonymous private citizen from the Galilee. Just a little while after the wedding he’s going to go out there and, in the middle of the Roman occupation of the Western Mediterranean, he’s going to preach things like, “Blessed are the Peacemakers,” and its going to get him in a lot of trouble. The length of the path ahead of us can rarely be deduced by the distance of the first step.

Now the thing about Jesus and Spider-Man in their respective stories is that both of them have pretty awesome super-powers. And that makes it easy to dismiss them as ethical models – its easy to say “Well, I can’t do that,” when you literally can’t do that. So instead, folks are often more interested in the spectacular abilities themselves. In a recent feature on National Public Radio, author John Hodgeman reported on an informal, highly-unscientific study that he has been conducting at dinner parties and wedding receptions.[v] One simple question: flight, or invisibility? If you could choose between having the ability to become invisible, or the ability to fly, which would you choose? That’s the question he’s been posing to friends, strangers, people he meets. I’ll give you a second now to think about what your answer would be. Flight, or invisibility – the choice, I believe, really comes down to a matter of two different types of freedom. The freedom to go where you want to go and do what you want to do without having to worry about people seeing you or knowing what you’re doing. Versus the freedom to leave the Earth behind, perhaps to travel to far-away places or just to experience life in defiance of gravity. John Hodgeman reports that in his many informal surveys, folks tended to focus on the ways in which they might use one of these two freedoms for personal gain: flying to Paris or stealing sweaters from an expensive clothing store. Very few of those interviewed said that they would use their powers for the betterment of humankind.

The fourth principle which we Unitarian Universalists covenant to affirm and promote is “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” The “free” part sometimes gets held up higher than the “responsible” part. Freedom, after all, is power, and in our society, which is so bent towards self-gratification, the ability to do what you want, how you want, for whatever reasons you like is a lot sexier than responsibility. I am reminded of a satirical newspaper headline from some years ago, about two onion-flavored snack products. “Funyuns Still Outselling Responsibilityuns”[vi] But, in defiance of the popular mood, our faith puts those two seemingly disparate principles together: freedom, and responsibility. Why? Because we know, as did Ben Parker, that with great power, comes great responsibility. Make no mistake about it, friends: there is great power in the searching. There are religions which define themselves by doctrine and dogma, which rely on strict hierarchy and immutable creed to forge their power in the world. Mine is not one of these. In our commitment to search for truth, rather than simply to recite it, we share a faith which is capable of learning, and changing. Because of our covenant to search freely and responsibly, we have the opportunity to become the religion which this age demands we be. This congregation has the capacity to be the spiritual community that our time and our place are calling out to us to become.

The responsibility we share for one another, for our world and for our common future, flows from our interconnectedness. Our present society does nearly everything possible to break down that sense of connection, consigning us to private homes, private fortunes, private lives. But this congregation exists as a manifestation of that deeper truth, that we are all connected to each other. That my fate is intertwined with yours, and yours with hers, and hers with his, and his with mine again, as we are caught in what Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King called “an inescapable network of mutuality”.[vii] This mutuality is the basis of our responsibility to one another, and also the source of our greatest strength – for each of us, is more powerful together than we could ever be separately.

It is recorded in the ethical teachings of the great early Rabbis that Rabbi Tarfon said, “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it.”[viii] When I charge each of us here today, as I did earlier, to take up the power that we already have, and use it to bless the world, I am not saying that you ought to be Spider-Man, or Jesus. I am asking you to be who you are, to be your whole, massively interconnected self, and to live in a way that honors those connections. That is the moral cost of freedom. May we all be ready to pay it.

[i] This passage is quoted in John Buehrens and F. Forrester Church’s essential reflection on Unitarian Universalism, “Our Chosen Faith”


[ii] This quotation occurs in Amazing Stories #15, the first appearance of Spiderman. Originally, it was just part of the narration, but in subsequent re-tellings of the origin story, the words have come to be attributed to Uncle Ben.

[iii] The Gospel According to Luke, 12:48

[iv] This story, commonly called the Wedding at Cana, appears in the Gospel According to John 2:1-11

[v] Listen to the whole thing here:


[vii] This quote appears in King’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail”

[viii] Pirkei Avot, 2:21


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