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.

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