Saturday, July 11, 2015

July 12, Proper 10, This Is the Life #10: The Meaning of Life, the Universe, and Everything

Caravaggio's Beheading of John the Baptist

2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19, Psalm 24, Ephesians 1:3-14, Mark 6:14-29

The Bible loves King David, but it also shows him for the shrewd politician he was, and how his most admirable actions were calculated to advance his ambitions. This is noticed by Queen Michal, his trophy wife, whose hand he had won from her father, King Saul. Her father’s political instincts were abysmal, and he was his own worst enemy, but he never tried to work the crowd, and he had not even wanted to be king. Her brother, Prince Jonathan, was never ambitious and calculating, but loyal and fearless and pure of heart, and really the best man in the whole cycle of David stories.

But they were dead and David had won and she can see what he’s up to. He’s bringing the Ark of the Covenant not back to its proper home in the Tabernacle up north in Shiloh, where the priests are assigned, but into his new fortress, and he plays the priest. He is God’s man, and now God belongs to him. How strange of God to allow some guy to so possess him. There is much to forgive in King David, and we forgive him much, because he had a great soul and was "every inch a king."

In the gospel story, Herod "plays the king" but is only a pretender. He is Herod Antipas, one of the sons of Herod the Great. When his father died, the Romans ended the Kingdom of Judea and made it a province under a Roman governor (that would be Pontius Pilate), and they let Herod Antipas be the Roman ethnarch of Galilee. But he wants to be king like his father was, in Jerusalem. He wants to be anointed King of Israel, the messiah, the presumptive nominee of God, and the deputy of Caesar while he’s at it. He imitates the behavior of Caesar’s family: incestuous, lascivious, lavish, boastful, superstitious, and visibly religious. He does feel guilty about what happened to John the Baptist, so it would be nice he came back from the dead.

He doesn’t understand Jesus. He certainly doesn’t see him as a rival messiah. Jesus isn’t acting like a messiah, he’s acting like a prophet. Not like David but like Samuel. Like Elijah, like Elisha, not like King Jehoshaphat. Prophets can be trouble, but not as competition for the throne. And even when Jesus eventually does make messianic claims, neither Herod or Pontius Pilate are ever threatened by him. They kill him because it’s so easy, not because they’re in danger from him. By all the expectations, both in strategy and outcome, Jesus was a failed messiah.

And yet St. Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, claimed that this dead guy, this loser among a tribe of self-defeating losers, living at the back end of the Empire, that this guy was the pivot and center and focus of universal history. We are so used to this claim that we don’t recognize how nuts it must have sounded at the time. It’s not just audacious, it’s so preposterous as to have been nonsensical. Of course we Christians have spent 2000 years making sense of it, or we think we have, but I have good friends for whom it makes no sense at all, and it remains preposterous.

“You think that this universe has a creator (of which there is no clear evidence nor any necessity for it being true) and that this creator picked one galaxy out of the millions of galaxies, and from this galaxy one star, and on this one planet one species, and then ignoring all the many tribes and nations of the species just this one tribe, and just this one guy, to carry some meaning to the universe? That the whole universe is ‘gathered up’ in him? And that this one Friday-to-Sunday weekend was some ‘fulness of time,’ of 13.8 billion years? What are the odds? What about other planets? Do you think our planet is the only one with life on it? Why would you want to think such preposterous things?”

Fair questions. People ask them not from malice or meanness. I find them challenging and hard to answer. Yes, it kind of is preposterous. The whole thing is actually absurd, as Kierkegaard points out in his little book Fear and Trembling. And then he claims that’s why it hangs on faith.

Of course, in St. Paul’s time they imagined a vastly smaller universe, and they didn’t imagine the planets as other worlds, which could bear life. But what the Greeks and Romans would have found preposterous was that the Jewish god was the only god, and that this god was omnipotent and could be everywhere and could know everything, even what you thought. And that the world they had so wonderfully analyzed in their great tradition of philosophy and poetry would have completely to be rethought and revisioned and reimagined and reclassified and recapitulated in terms of this failed Messiah guy, just because his followers claimed he had been raised, and that his rising had converted him from a failed Jewish Messiah to some victorious global Christ of God.

Why do we believe such things? Why then, and why now? Well, if it helps, at least the odds are no better for this universe being the way it is without God than with God. Scientists report that the mere existence of biological life presumes a fine tuning of the universe against which the odds are also unthinkably enormous. Just your bare existence today is preposterous.

And the enormity issue is perspectival: We measure the enormity of the universe in billions one way, and the incredibly tiny spaces within atoms in billionths the other way, and did you know that the median is actually about the size of the human body? As my son-in-law the artist says, “Why shouldn’t God be so big?”

But that’s just room for belief, not reason for belief. What you believe about this dead Messiah was his vision for what God should be like, if there is one, and what God should want, against all other explanations in power at the time, which vision of his was vindicated by his rising from the dead (on which it all hangs!).

You believe in this dead Messiah’s vision of the interplay of law and liberty and love, a vision his own religious leaders found too dangerous not to get rid of him, which vision God vindicated by raising him from the dead.

You believe in his vision of righteousness and justice and the interplay of truth and politics that the Romans found so preposterous they had to mock him with a humiliating death, but which vision God vindicated by raising him from the dead.

You believe his vision of what a kingdom could look like, which the combined authorities found too challenging not to take him out, but which vision God vindicated by raising him from the dead.

And you love his personal vision of what a leader and a servant should be like. He was the Son of David but with Jonathan’s character and purity of heart, and there’s nothing we have to forgive him of.

You believe this story because what it tells you about life itself, life on the planet. All that he spoke of confirms the purposefulness that you sense in ordinary organic life, that life wants to live, and he confirms that the mystery of life is meaningful, that the meaning that you sense in existence is not just your wishful thinking imposed upon some hard reality of ultimate randomness.

That a flower opens and a bee goes in,

and that crows run through their repertoire of different calls to each other across the lake as the morning lengthens,

and that this planet has developed a species that can learn to read its rocks and by means of its geological strata tell the planet’s story to itself,

and that all this abundant purpose-driving and meaning-making is going on all the time around us without us but also through us to include us, tells us that it is not necessarily delusional or wishful thinking to see meaning in the universe, and that indeed it is reasonable at least to hope it’s true that “meaning is the essence of existence.” (“De zin is het zijnde van het zijn,” H. Dooyeweerd.) 

And that’s all what you get encouraged of when you believe that God raised this failed Messiah from the dead.

And that’s what inspires you to “live for the praise of his glory.” It’s not that God needs your praise nor even desires it. It’s that your appropriate humility leads you to wonder, and awe, and thus to deeper humility, and in that deeper humility to joy.

Yes, you are mixed. You want to live for yourself as much as for his glory. You are more like David than like Jonathan, and what you see can tempt you to the cynicism of Queen Michal. But you have also caught the vision of his salvation and his forgiveness,

and more, you notice his lavish grace that is widespread in the world, and you’ve got to sing of it,

and you reckon your world as blessing, and you want to thank someone for it,

and you testify that when you look at your own small share of the universe, it looks to you like your purpose and meaning has always been to live within the love of God.

Copyright © 2015, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

July 5, Proper 9, This is the Life #9, Weak Life

Staphylococcus bacilli

2 Sam 5:1-5, 9-10, Psalm 48, 2 Cor 12:2-10, Mark 6:1-13

The latest New York Review of Books has an article of relevance to this sermon series of mine. It’s a review of two new books on the origins of life on Earth. One book tells how this planet would have remained as inhospitable as other planets to most forms of life if the earliest microbes had not developed photosynthesis, which liberated oxygen, which profoundly altered the atmosphere, making the planet suitable for all other life-forms since. It’s not that this planet happens to have life. It’s rather that life has made this planet into a home for itself.

The other book tells about the earliest evolution of those microbes, how random molecules became the first living cells. Just to exist, a cell has to perform a process of building complex protein molecules, and cells do this using what are called nanomachines, minuscule devices that gather certain chemicals, break them down, and rebuild them into the chemicals needed by the cell.

When that first happened on this planet’s surface, 3.5 billion years ago, something came alive. I quote: “The nanomachines possess attributes of life, and when brought together in a cell they clearly cross the threshold into the self-regulating, replicating entity that we recognize as a living thing.”

But this raises a conundrum. A machine implies a purpose and a product. Cells make nanomachines for the purpose of their products, and no cell could exist without those products. But how could there be nanomachines existing before there were cells to want their products?

Is it possible that the first nanomachines came into existence willy-nilly, randomly, as if a pair of scissors were formed by some random molten iron suddenly cooling into that shape, both hinged and sharp? Before there was paper or cloth? This conundrum has led to proposals that the first organic proteins might have come from off-planet, from an asteroid, or even Mars. But no one has a real solution.

In reading the essay I noticed how often the author resorted to such words as “mysterious” and  “magical”. Science can tell us so much about life—this strange power that has occupied the third planet in our solar system—but science knows that there is more to life than science can account for. It’s as if life is a power with its own purposes.

Life wants to live. Life makes order out of disorder and generates magnificent biodiversity. Life has taken over this planet’s minerals and liquids and vapors and even its weather. As it says in Genesis 1, “Let the earth be fruitful, and multiply.” And then a million years ago, life generated a species that was capable of imagination, and self-awareness, and transcendence, and freedom, as if life had reached the ultimate purpose of its purposes.

This power and purpose in life is what humanity has accounted for by the notion of spirituality. The more-than-physical about physicality and the more-than-biological about biology is what we call spirituality. We locate it in the soul, the breath, the animating spirit, the constantly vibrant air that inflates your body and inspires your mind and flows in and out of you to connect you with the living planet’s atmosphere and thus with every other breather of that same air and thus with every other soul and heart and mind.

The Lord Jesus sent out his disciples with power over the unclean spirits. This was for healing the bodies of the people and liberating the landscape and cleaning up of the culture of the villages. As I’ve told you before, these unclean spirits are not demons from hell. They are the natural spirituality of the landscape and culture that is out of whack because of human sin. They are unclean, dirty, polluted, and infectious, and like every corrupted system they oppress the weak and oppose the good. So Our Lord has sent his disciples on a campaign through the villages to restore the ordinary life of the people to the kind of whole and healthy life that life should be.

St. Mark reports it without explaining it. We are left with mysteries. How long did this campaign last, and how far did it go? Where did the unclean spirits go after being cast out? Why do this only for a while? Why not do this in Jerusalem? Did they lose the power they’d been given? If they could have power over the spirits, why not give them power over the Roman soldiers, or over the tax collectors who enforced the system of debt and poverty?

Then there’s the mystery of Our Lord’s lack of power in Nazareth. He had just had power over the wind and the waves, and the power in his body had electrified his clothing, and he’d just raised the dead, but in his hometown he feels powerless. And he’s surprised at their unbelief in him.

This complicates the conventional picture of Jesus taught by the church. The Son of God finds himself powerless? And by surprise? Because of his lack of support by those whom he’s known all his life? The liquids and vapors of the planet submit to him but his second and third cousins can resist him. A conundrum. And who are these creatures who can resist the power and authority of God?

We are the first living creatures on the planet to oppose life. We are the only living things to cultivate the power of death. We are that species in whom life has developed freedom, and we are the only species to poison and pollute the biodiversity of this living planet. We are the unclean spirits of the Earth. We’re not demons from hell, but we’re certainly creatures out of whack. And apparently God will not intervene miraculously to fix us or stop us. God lets us resist the good life of the world. God lets us get away with doing what we want until it is too late. Why does God seem so weak?

And then this weakness that we see in the Lord Jesus at Nazareth is held up as a virtue by St. Paul. That weakness should be a virtue went against all the aspirations of the Hellenistic culture of the day, as well as our own cultural preferences, not to mention the deep instinct of life itself, which uses power for its purposes. A strong organism is a healthy organism. In terms of our first two lessons, a strong king is a great king and a strong citadel is a sure refuge.

This is why the gospel of Jesus has to be believed, instead of being proven, because it feels contradictory and it seems to go against nature. When the disciples preached repentance there were those who would not believe them. The Lord Jesus told them not to resent this, but just shake off their rejection like dust off their feet. Do not fret at unbelief, just move on to your next opportunity. God does not force it, God respects our freedom. God invites us, God waits for us.

And we make God wait. Repentance feels like weakness and surrender and like dying, and life wants to live. To be sorry is to lose and remorse is a defeat. Your lawyer will tell you to not admit your guilt. Your in-house attorneys will advise you to settle with no mention of wrong-doing. And aren’t there worse guys getting away with it, so it’s not fair anyway. Repentance will cost you. Is it maybe true that there will be no real racial justice in this country unless we consider some form of reparations? Isn’t it true that it’s the perceived economic cost more than anything else that keeps us from doing environmental justice?

Repentance only begins in remorse, it’s more about repaying, refunding, restoring, rebuilding, reviving. If you think of the Apostles Creed, toward the end, what follows the forgiveness of sins is the resurrection of the body. That’s the process: repentance is sort of a machine that takes what’s dying and converts it into life. Where it comes in the Creed is under the work of the Holy Spirit, who is the Lord and giver of life.

Repentance is a mystery you have to learn and a magic that you practice. It’s not a bondage but a liberation, a clearing away, a cleaning of the poison, for the new and godly life to grow within the old. And you don’t deny the old life or even hate it, but rather the old and unclean life becomes the soil for the rising up of the new and godly life. Even what’s been bad and sordid and dirty in you has the value and purpose of being the fertile soil for the life of grace and love. This machine works like magic, and the magic of it, that you learn to work, is what St. Paul means by grace.

This grace is what you use within your new and godly life to love that old and dying life that still lives on in you. Do not hate your weaknesses, please do keep on loving that old and dying you that still lives on in you. Even your fallen self is the object of your love. Clean it up in love. That’s what God does. Imitate in yourself how God is with you and with the whole life of the world. And that’s why God filled this planet so richly with life: so richly to receive God’s love.

Copyright © 2015, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.