Superhero Sunday – Rev. Kristin G. Schmidt

Not long ago, a woman was robbed while walking on the sidewalk in Cleveland, Ohio. She was the victim of the crime, and yet when the police arrived, they arrested her. Despite her lack of a criminal past, the judge set her bail at $25,000, an impossible sum for a mother of seven. This meant she had to stay in jail until her trial, which didn’t come for two whole months. While in jail she lost her job, she and her kids suffered distress and anxiety, and her extended family all had to pitch in to keep the family together. That’s the story of how the cash bail system in Cleveland nearly destroyed one woman’s life and family.

Thanks to both luck and privilege, I’ve never personally experienced injustice this profound. And yet, this story makes every memory of injustice in my own life feel even heavier with empathy and righteous indignation. And any story like this, of power misused and abused, of systems not working like they’re supposed to in ways that harm people, makes me yearn for a miracle, or a superhero – someone who can swoop in and right all sorts of wrongs.

As we heard about earlier in today’s service, our children have been learning about superheroes and holy troublemakers this year in Religious Education. They learned lessons about anti-oppression, anti-racism, and justice from the X-Men, Wonder Woman, and Guardians of the Galaxy, and then learned the stories of some of humanity’s real life heroes from different times and places like Rumi, Dr. Wil Gafney, and Rabbi Dayna Ruttenberg.

Superheroes are the fun main characters in stories that entertain us and let us escape the confines of our lives for a while. But they do more than that. As Catholic theologian, Terrence Tilley, wrote, “The author of a story cannot control a story’s power to reveal.” In other words, whether the creators of superheroes did it intentionally or not, their characters reveal not only what their fans most wish they could do, but also what they want to be saved from. 

As I explained earlier, the author of this morning’s reading wrote an article for UU World Magazine in 2010 called “Reclaiming Krypton.” The full title of Muder’s article was “Reclaiming Krypton: Why a generation that grew up with Buffy and the Power Rangers will demand a different Unitarian Universalism.” I remember reading Muder’s original article 14 years ago and feeling some kind of way about a Baby Boomer telling me what my generation wanted from our liberal faith. But once I settled on taking his words with the largest grain of salt, I found they largely resonated. 

Muder makes the point that the superheroes of his adolescence were orphans, reflecting his generation’s relationship with a past that felt limiting and oppressive. For example, the couple who finds Superman as a baby and raises him as their own are simple folks, farmers. But while they love him as their own, he is very different from them, and he has to figure out how to navigate the world and his place in it all by himself. 

The desire to be freed from history’s limits extended even into Muder’s approach to faith. He writes “Unitarian Universalism appealed to me then not as a heritage I could carry forward into the future, but as a place to start over. Sheltered from the lethal radiation of the past, I could build my own theology from scratch and figure out for myself how to save Metropolis.” 

After the 60s, superheroes began to change. Muder argues they reflected people  coming of age who were yearning not to blaze their own path, but to find guidance along the path. In the 1970s X-Men came out, and one thing that distinguished that series was Professor X – a mentor. The same was true of superheroes in the 80s, 90s, and even early 2000s. Splinter was there to offer wisdom and guidance to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Zordon was there for the Power Rangers, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer had Giles to turn to when the going got tough. 

Those decades saw the embarrassing end of the Vietnam War, Regan’s trickle-down economics failure, and the attacks on 9/11. Unlike the hopeful post-World-War era Muder grew up in, the world of my childhood was one with problems that seemed much bigger than a single superhero with no links to the past could handle. As Muder wrote, “Needing to figure out how to save Metropolis from scratch, with no received wisdom to build on, [wasn’t] a fantasy anymore. It’s a nightmare… Somewhere, someone ought to have a wisdom worth passing on, a legacy worth living up to.” 

This was also an era when UUs began to want more from our faith than freedom from past theology and space for individualism. This was when UU Pagan and Buddhist, UU Hindu and Christian and Jewish groups came into being for people interested in what our faith frees us for.

It’s been 14 years since Doug Muder wrote that UU World article, and in that time the world has changed a lot. And as our children mark the completion of this year’s Superhero Academy curriculum, it made me wonder what our kids feel they most need to be saved from in today’s world. Maybe the new generation of superheroes can help us out. 

In my house, the favorite new superhero movie has been Miles Morales: Into the Spider-Verse. In this retelling, Spiderman is no longer a white orphan, but an Afro-Latino teenager from Brooklyn. I don’t want to include any spoilers for those who haven’t seen the film yet, but one of the villains is a racist school teacher, Mr Chamberlain, and once Miles is bitten by the spider that gives him his super powers he’s thrust into challenges not of his own making and saves the day only by working together with others who often doubt, undermine, and dislike him.

As Doug Muder writes in our reading this morning, his 2021 update to the 2010 article, “If the heroes of the 90s wanted to reclaim a legacy, the heroes of today want to redeem a legacy they didn’t choose but can’t escape.”  

Only the kids coming of age today will be able to tell us if this interpretation rings true, but it sure seems close. Indeed, none of us chose the world we were born into, the network of systems that shape so much of our lives. And no matter what our age, once we realize the immensity of all we’re up against, it’s only human to yearn for something, someone, who doesn’t have the same limits we do who will save us from all we cannot escape by ourselves. 

But the climate crisis, rising authoritarianism, and the increasing threat of international war are all way too big for a single superhero to save us from. One person can still make a difference, but the challenges of today’s world are so complex, so entrenched, today’s heroes have to work together, organize their power, to set things aright.

It’s often said that “An organized lie will always beat out disorganized truth.” I feel like we are watching the truth of this statement play out in real time. The far right has organized its power for decades, and now the news is filled every day with stories about more freedoms lost, more protections struck down, more theocratic laws passed. 

Many people are deeply afraid of what could happen to our democracy as a result of the upcoming presidential election. But no matter who is elected, the threats to freedom and the rule of law will continue. They are much more powerful than one candidate. I am afraid of the world my children may inherit, and I intend to do more with that fear than just doom scroll social media and take Prilosec for my heartburn. 

This is why I accepted the invitation to go to an all-expenses-paid training with the Just Power Alliance a week and a half ago. This was the first training of its kind for this national network of local organizations like Action in Montgomery, which this congregation has been learning about for the last few months and will vote on whether to join at our Annual Meeting. It was incredible to meet people from all over the country who are working to organize the power of the people to give their communities the shape of justice.

As part of the training we went to an action organized by GCC (Greater Cleveland Congregations) to raise awareness about the injustice of the cash bail system in their city. That’s where I heard the story of the woman I told you about at the beginning of this sermon. It’s because of stories like hers that UUs, Jews, Christians, and Muslims of the GCC have been researching and planning for two years already on their strategy for ending the cash bail system in Cleveland. The well-organized lie is that the status quo of cash bail is inevitable, is all there is, is the best solution. So the GCC are organizing to tell the truth, and fight for a more just system to be put in place. While ending cash bail won’t solve all of the problems with the judicial system, it will help prevent people like the woman I told you about from having their lives destroyed. 

In the 1960s it was houses of worship who organized the power of their communities to get laws that enforced segregation struck down and civil rights legislation passed. In the 90s and earlier 2000s, it was liberal religious communities who organized to get homophobic laws struck down and Marriage Equality passed. Today, UUCSS is called, just like every other UU congregation, to join with other people of faith to be part of organizing our communities to fight for freedom and democracy, for justice and prosperity for the many, not just the wealthy few. It is no longer over-dramatic to say that the future of our right to practice this liberal faith may be at stake. 

Toward the end of his 2021 blogpost update, Doug Muder writes about what he thinks UU churches are called to be in the days and years ahead. He writes:

So what should a UU church be in this era? Not a place of perfect freedom for the last sons of dying planets, and not a heroic order whose oath you can take and whose mantle can be passed down to you. In the 20s, a UU church needs to be an alchemical athenor, a crucible where we melt our legacies down to their elements and rework them into something better. We need to account both for what has been done to us and what has been done for us. We need to be both critical and grateful. Our ancestors did what they knew how to do and left us here, with this collection of strengths and wounds, this ledger of assets and debts. We can’t start from scratch and we can’t go on like this. But we can (and we have to) start from here.

On this RE graduation day, let us face the truth that our children need more from us than an affirmation of their power as individuals and hopeful stories about individuals throughout history who changed the world. The holy troublemakers our children learned about this year didn’t work alone. They need more from our faith than just a space to reject the old. They need this faith to help them redeem legacies that include both good and bad, just and unjust history. They need us, we all need us, to be a place where we learn to organize our power so we can redeem a world that contains the DNA of both Superman and Lex Luthor, as Doug Muder put it. Because we can only save ourselves from climate change if we save us all. We can only save ourselves from authoritarianism if we save us all. Our children need us, we all need us, to be a church dedicated to redeeming our world not just for us, not just with our ideas and priorities, but with and for everyone. 

May UUCSS continue in our unending work to become the congregation our children and their children need us to be. Amen.