Saturday, June 06, 2015
June 7, Proper 5, This Is the Life #5: Life in the Balance
The late Christopher Hitchens
1 Samuel 8:4-20, 11:14-15, Psalm 130, 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1, Mark 3:20-35
Our first lesson is an example of the Biblical principle of “accommodation.” God accommodates to us. This principle is a tool to handle God’s apparent doubleness: God is eternal and omnipotent, yet God also comes down into our history and yields to us and works with us in creative tension with our resistance. The Israelites should have no king but God, but they demand one anyway, so God works in tension with their opposition for the solution that will be the house and lineage of David.
There is tension in our gospel lesson too. Jesus says, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” That’s a nice thing for him to say to the people around him who admire him, but outside the house, when Jesus’ mother hears of it, she will be embarrassed and dishonored. His siblings can retort that to do the will of God is to follow the Torah and honor your mother! They are thinking their big brother is over the edge, and should be stopped for his own good.
Already in chapter 3 of Mark’s Gospel begins the opposition to Jesus, from both his family and the people in charge. You can understand the motives of the leaders. The Middle East has always been a powder keg. Everyday life was always in the balance. Of course the leaders felt they had to keep control. And Jesus was threatening the balance. He made them nervous. They didn’t get what he was up to and they couldn’t foresee what he’d do next.
A committee of legal experts has come up from Jerusalem to investigate and issue an opinion. They decide he is a sorcerer, that he has real power, but it’s the unclean power of the enemy. Of this opinion Jesus is unforgiving. “You can slander me,” he says, “and I can forgive you. But you cannot slander the Holy God and get away with it. It’s one thing to deny that I’m with God, but it’s another to have equated God and Satan, to have disreputed the Spirit of God. I’m over with you guys.”
And yet his parable is playful: You guys say I am doing my healings by the power of Satan; then the house of Satan must be divided against itself, and it therefore cannot stand, so then I am Satan’s self-destruction, and that makes me good news for you even in your opposition! Even when you oppose me I am working in your favor, and from your opposition I will create a greater good.
When I was in the hospital this past week, recuperating from my little stroke, Rabbi Bachman came to visit me, and lent me a book by the late Christopher Hitchens. It’s called Mortality, and it’s a brief and brilliant atheistic meditation on dying from cancer. Listen:
“The absorbing fact about being mortally sick is that you spend a great deal of time preparing yourself to die with some modicum of stoicism (and provision for loved ones), while being simultaneously and highly interested in the business of survival. This is a distinctly bizarre way of ‘living’—lawyers in the morning and doctors in the afternoon—and means that one has to exist even more than usual in a double frame of mind.”
And then he adds, “The same is true, it seems, of those who pray for me.”
Precisely. This doubleness that is bizarre for Hitchens is familiar to believers. If you believe in God then your way of living in the world is always simultaneously preparing to die and being busy at survival. It’s what St. Paul describes in the epistle. “So we do not lose heart even though our outer humanity is wasting away, our inner humanity is being renewed day by day.” We are always balancing death and life within our lives, not just at the end, and if it’s true in theology it’s no less true in biology.
Living things have to eat, and they eat by killing and consuming other living things. Well, not always. Some plants survive on purely inorganic matter, but most plants require large amounts of organic matter in the soil—matter that was living once. Animals eat tissue that is still alive and we kill it to eat it. This is obvious with carnivores. Herbivores often don’t kill the whole plant, but they do kill the parts of the plants they eat. And to eat a seed or a fruit is to kill off a future life. Biological life depends on dealing death; biological life assumes the constant tension and balance between what Christopher Hitchens calls preparing for death and being highly busy with survival.
For this sermon series on Life I have been reading up on biology. Did you know that there are no reptiles in Iceland? Because they’re cold-blooded they can’t survive the climate. Birds and mammals have evolved warm-bloodedness as a strategy for global expansion.
A polar bear brings her own heat with her; but then to burn enough calories to keep her body warm she has to eat much more than any reptile does. She has to balance consumption with exertion, with the balance always tipped just enough past the median to stay alive.
And you too, Brooklynite, just to stay alive you have to eat things that were killed by someone else for you or are cooked or chewed to death by you, even if you’re a vegan. You practice both death and life just to stay alive.
It is no wonder that so much of religion hopes for an immortality that will be purely spiritual and disembodied and unbothered up in heaven. We won’t have to eat. That’s how many Christians interpret St. Paul, that he is telling us that we long for an immortality that is disconnected from this created world.
That’s actually not what St. Paul hoped for. He was trained as Jew, and he looked for the repair and restoration of this created world, and a disconnected heavenly immortality would be for him an unbearable lightness of being. And yet we so easily misunderstood him as offering us escape. Well, bodily life as we know it is always a struggle to survive, and if it’s a creative tension when it’s good, when it’s bad it’s the hypertension that put me in the hospital last week.
This past year I watched my granddaughter learn to walk. Nobody taught her. She was driven to discover it, to rise up on her feet against the force of gravity. To balance herself she had to master the complex interplay of many muscles in tension and expansion. And then to walk she learned to push and pull against her gravity. Propulsion uses gravity. If you have no weight, you cannot walk!
I say this is to help us with St. Paul’s terminology, that you are being prepared for an eternal weight of glory. Weight of glory—what does that mean? The terminology is Jewish. In Hebrew, the word for glory derives from the word for heavy, kabod. Glory has weight. If something’s glorious it’s heavy. You might think of the sun, one of our favorite images of glory, which is light and bright and weighs millions of millions of millions of millions of millions of kilograms. Heavy is good. It’s not a burden.
The Bible is not offering the lightness of the disembodied glory of Olympian immortality. St. Paul encourages you to hope for a real world more solidly enduring than we can imagine, of such gravity to make light of all our current afflictions, and a city of God so massively majestic that by comparison all our current achievements are as flimsy as tents in the wind.
And until then you have these tensions in your life. You have your hopes and then there are your outcomes. You have what you pray for and then there’s what you get. You see the vision of righteousness, and then you feel the sad reality. You want to live by your convictions but you have to manage your disappointments. You sing of glory and you suffer your afflictions. You pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” and then you wonder, “How long, O Lord?” We Jews and Christians design our beliefs around the promises of God, and when there’s no delivery we can hear the people say, “Where is your God?” And you ask that question of yourself. I do. Can it be really true that what cannot be seen is more solid and lasting than what we can see? Or is it just bizarre?
I invite you to believe it, though there will be no proof for it before how it all turns out. It’s not just believers that have these tensions, everybody has them, every creature has them, and the difference is how you interpret them. Stoically or creatively. I want you to read the constant doubleness of your life as a sign of the continuing creativity of the active goodness and investment of God within your life and in the world, of God who even submits to you and accommodates to you in your own situation and your needs and hopes and dreams.
Whatever tensions you feel in your life, whatever you have to balance just to keep on going, I invite you to interpret it all within the massive love of God, and from within that love to act on it. That God should wait and submit to your real experience in the world is the measure of how much God loves you.
Copyright © 2015, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.