Ancient Answers


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United by our Deficiencies

 

I love reading the Acknowledgments page in every new book that I buy. In his most recent book, Principalities in Particular-A Practical Theology of the Powers That Be, Bill Wylie-Kellermann included an acknowledgment of his church community in Detroit with the following words: “St Peter’s Episcopal Church, place, base, sanctuary, beloved community, hospitaliters, water distributers, and ministry makers, who have allowed me to bend their hearts and ears, preaching on my mentors and the powers.” Beautiful words, clearly coming from deep experience of shared ministry.

The paralytic in today’s Gospel reading had no one to help him, no one to share his pain. He and his fellow sufferers by the pool were in competition, survival of the fittest, win-lose. Nothing shared, nothing sacrificed. As I was reflecting on this Gospel reading, I received an email from Deane in Damariscotta. He can’t come down more than a few times a year, but he stays in touch through emails. He sent me a homily by the British Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Rabbi Sacks is very well known and he sits in the House of Lords in London – that’s the upper house in the British Parliament. In this homily Rabbi Sacks talks about Noah and the flood in the book of Genesis. He makes some interesting observations that are worth repeating.

Genesis 1 tells me that I am in the image of God. Genesis 9, after the flood, tells me that the other person is in the image of God.

This really is a life-changing idea. It means that the greatest religious challenge is: Can I see God’s image in one who is not in my image – whose colour, class, culture or creed is different from mine?

People fear people not like them. That has been a source of violence for as long as there has been human life on earth. The stranger, the foreigner, the outsider, is almost always seen as a threat. But what if the opposite is the case? What if the people not like us enlarge rather than endanger our world? 

Rabbi Sacks quotes a common Jewish blessing in which God “creates many souls and their deficiencies.” A strange blessing: Why should we praise God for creating deficiencies? Rabbi Sacks answers:

If we had no deficiencies, we would lack nothing, and we would never need anyone else. We would be solitary rather than social. The fact that we are all different, and all have deficiencies, means that we need one another. What you lack, I may have, and what I lack, you may have. It is by coming together that we can each give the other something he or she lacks. It is our deficiencies and differences that brings us together in mutual gain, in a win-win scenario. It is our diversity that makes us social animals.

Rabbi Sacks concludes:

Next time we meet someone radically unlike us, we should try seeing difference not as a threat but as an enlarging, possibility-creating gift. God asks us to see His image in one who is not in my image. 

That is a brilliant and truly moving statement. Should I repeat it? God asks us to see His image in one who is not in my image. 

When I preach on the miracles of Jesus I usually don’t focus on the miracles themselves, but rather on the messages around the miracles or hidden in the miracle stories. Clearly the message today is about helping each other in our deficiencies – what did not happen in that pool in Jerusalem. I’m no Bill Wylie-Kellermann, and we’re not St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Detroit. From what he writes in his books, it is clearly a church with a heart for social ministry. Our heart might be a little different than theirs. And our deficiencies might be different, to return again to the beautiful thought of Rabbi Sacks. And that is why we need each other. Let no one be left behind. God asks us to see His image in one who is not in my image. 


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Lessons in Stewardship

 

The women came to anoint the body of Jesus. An anonymous woman had already anointed Jesus, but Jesus pronounced that as a symbolic preparation for his burial. Now his burial has taken place and the women go to the tomb to properly anoint the body of Jesus. Joseph of Arimathea had been too much in a hurry to take down the body from the cross before the sabbath started and had no time to do the proper anointing. They don’t know how they will move the stone to enter the tomb, but they go, faithfully.

By the way, let’s deal right here with something you often hear. Atheists and conspiracy proponents tell us that the resurrection is a myth, that the Gospel writers – those four men up in our ceiling – invented all the stories of the resurrected Jesus. If Mark had invented the story we just read, he would not have had women go to the tomb. In the patriarchal society of Jesus’ time, women’s testimony was worthless and rejected at all levels of society “because of the levity and temerity of their gender,” according to Josephus. Yet Mark has women as the only witnesses to the empty tomb! He would never make that up if he wanted his account to be taken seriously.

They encounter a young man in white robe. The usual interpretation is that this was an angel, and that’s the most likely explanation. But there is another possibility. Mark 14:51-52 tells us that when Jesus was arrested: “A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind.” Same Greek words – νεανίσκος περιβεβλημένος – here at the tomb. Could the young man at the tomb be the same young man? Dressed again in white, but now clothed with the radiance of Christ’s resurrection!

I like that possibility. A young man is the one chosen to announce the good news, but a young man who has known Jesus. He is not here, he is risen. But he will meet his disciples in Galilee. Where else, but in the place that was most familiar to them. He is Jesus of Nazareth, after all. This is another tell-tale sign that this was not an angel. An angel would most likely have used a loftier title to refer to Jesus. But Jesus of Nazareth almost takes us right back to the beginning of the Gospel. “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth,” Mark tells us in chapter 1. We’ve come full circle. The kingdom of God’s presence is not in some fantasy land, but right there where Jesus had his greatest joys and greatest troubles, where he was even rejected by his own people in Nazareth!

In Galilee, life will begin again for the disciples. Without Jesus, but armed with his spirit and his resurrection power, they will spread out in all directions to bring the news of what God has done and will do for as long as humans exist on earth.

As you’ve heard me say before, Mark’s Gospel ends in verse 8, with a hanging preposition: εἶχεν γὰρ αὐτὰς τρόμος καὶ ἔκστασις· καὶ οὐδενὶ οὐδὲν εἶπαν, ἐφοβοῦντο γάρ. Such an ending was unacceptable, so some later editor or scribe added another 12 verses to where Mark had stopped writing. But most early manuscripts end at verse 8. Why such an abrupt ending? We are told not to end sentences with hanging prepositions – a silly, pedantic rule, by the way. But to end an entire book with a hanging preposition? That takes some guts. But Mark did it. Why? Because at the end, the young man is also speaking to us. Go home, go to the place most familiar to you – there you will meet Jesus, in the ordinariness of life. 

Every one of us is a continuation of the Gospel story. And every one of us has his or her own story, our own circumstances in which we live out the reality of resurrection. The Gospel is open-ended; it brings each one of us into an encounter with the risen Christ. Remember what he told to Thomas last week? You believe because you see me? Blessed rather are those who have not seen and yet believe. We have not seen, but we know, because we have been touched, and our lives have found meaning and purpose and spiritual strength. We are part of a family that transcends all human borders and boundaries. And we are here to take care of each other and of our home planet until the Lord comes to fill everything with light. Until then, let us be light.

Today is Earth Day. It is a day that reminds us to be stewards of God’s creation, just as the women were faithful to their stewardship in going to the tomb to care for the body of our Lord. There are people who are trying to create doubt about the damage we are doing to our environment and our precious planet and life on it. But logic, science (real science!) AND our Christian faith tell us to put our hearts to the task of caring for God’s creation. Let’s be good stewards of what God has placed in our care, just as the women were good stewards in their commitment to caring for Christ at his burial. And just as they were surprised by the resurrection, so also we might be surprised to find what our small actions can do for the planet!

We do not worship the earth. Have you noticed the psalm verses that we sing during this Paschal season at the First Antiphon of the Liturgy? They are from Psalm 66:

Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth! Sing of His name, give glory to His praise!

Say to God: How awesome are Your deeds!

Let all the earth worship You and praise You! Let it praise Your name, O Most High! 

Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth! Let all the earth worship You and praise You! The earth worships God, and we worship God together with all the earth and all life on it. We don’t worship the earth; we worship with the earth!


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The Schrödinger Equation of Faith

 

Thomas makes a very strange request: He won’t believe unless he puts his hands in the print of the nails that crucified Christ. The strangeness of this request came to me when I returned a spoiled package of strawberries to Whole Foods yesterday. And right in front of me at the customer service was a lady who was returning two packages of the same Driscoll’s Organic Strawberries. We compared the clear visual signs on our strawberries of mold and spoilage. The lady at the customer service needed no visual proof. She promptly issued refunds to me and the lady. But Thomas needed visual and tangible proof. 

 

It is a strange request because if you hear someone has risen from the dead, you’d be looking for a glorious apparition, some indication of divinity – you won’t be looking for a physical reminder, remnant, of the way the person died!

And yet there is something very profound in what Thomas wanted. He wasn’t looking for the transfigured Christ, who’d be shining with divine glory, who could walk through walls. No, he wanted to see the Christ who was familiar to him, the Christ who was his friend and teacher for a few years. For Thomas, the clearest proof of resurrection would be to see the familiar Christ with the marks of crucifixion still on his body – not erased by some divine transformation. And what if the marks of the nails were no longer on Christ’s body? What if they had been erased, healed, by divine power? Would Thomas still not believe when Christ appeared to him? Good question – and one that we can’t answer of course.

And of course this brings us smack into the heart of so much of the mystery of Christian faith. How can Jesus Christ be both God and man? How can God die? How can Christ be resurrected and still carry on his body the marks of the nails? Not only for Thomas’ sake, but perhaps for all eternity, even in the glory of the heavenly kingdom! 

Mysteries, paradoxes – scientists and atheists like to accuse Christians of resorting to mystery talk when we can’t explain or can’t prove something. I don’t have an argument with atheists; I respect their choice. But I do have an argument with scientists. Scientists should remember their own penchant for paradox and mystery.  The early decades of the 20th century saw the greatest revolutions in the history of science – the theories of quantum mechanics and relativity. The relativity theories of Einstein transformed our ideas of space and time and also, as a byproduct, gave us the equation that produced so much terror and beauty, E = mc2.

Quantum theory tells us that at the core of subatomic reality there is uncertainty. And quantum theory introduced the strange idea that the particles that make up everything can behave as particles and waves! Niels Bohr, the great Danish physicist, was asked how an electron could be both particle and wave. His answer: “We must be clear that, when it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry.” Poetry is also the language the Bible uses to explain the inexplicable. And this is why scientists should be a little more careful about what they criticise and mock.

The physicist James Trefil tells us: Instead of thinking of electrons as microscopic spheres circling round the nucleus of an atom, we see them as probability waves sloshing around in their orbits like water in some kind of doughnut-shaped tidal pool governed by Schrödinger’s Equation.

Time-dependent Schrödinger equation (most general form of the equation)

{\displaystyle i\hbar {\frac {\partial }{\partial t}}\vert \Psi (\mathbf {r} ,t)\rangle ={\hat {H}}\vert \Psi (\mathbf {r} ,t)\rangle }

This famous equation is at the heart of quantum theory and describes physical reality in terms of wave functions and probability. Together with the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, the Schrödinger Equation reveals to us a world of paradox and uncertainty at the heart of all existence. Uncertainty, yet also a precision that is beyond anything humans an achieve: Stephen Hawking estimated that if the rate of the universe’s expansion one second after the Big Bang had been smaller by one part in a hundred thousand million million – catch that? – the universe would have re-collapsed and we wouldn’t be here today.

Poetry, paradox, at the heart of physics. If electrons can be both particles and waves, why can’t Jesus be both God and man? Why shouldn’t the marks of the nails be forever part of the resurrected, glorified Christ? The appearance of the risen Christ to Thomas is in a certain sense the Schrödinger Equation of the Christian faith. 

The resurrection appearance to Thomas also tells us that God’s power is manifested not in spectacular demonstrations of divine power, but in weakness, in pain and in suffering – another paradox of faith, emphasised by Paul in his letters. In the resurrection appearance to Thomas, the reality of the resurrection is in the wounds that Christ bears. The divinity of Christ is demonstrated in the human wounds that he bears. He bears not only the wounds of the nails that crucified him, but he bears your wounds and my wounds, the wounds of all humanity. 


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“L’chaim!” from the Grave

 

Ανοίξω το στόμα μου και πληρωθήσεται πνεύματος, και λόγον ερεύξομαι…”I shall open my mouth and it will be filled with the spirit, and the word will flow forth”…says a well-known hymn of the Orthodox Church.

God asks every one of us to open our mouths to speak and let the Holy Spirit do the rest of the work. So I received an urgent call to speak this Holy Friday evening at the Epitaphios service (the Matins of Holy Saturday).

“Where there is no vision, the people perish” is how Proverbs 29:18 reads in the King James Version of the Bible. But modern translations are far less dramatic: “Where there is no prophecy, the people cast off restraint” (in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible) – more accurate perhaps but not as urgent, not as immediately meaningful.

This past week we commemorated the 50th anniversary of the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the great Americans of the 20th century, a man who spoke of vision, who dreamed of liberation for his people. But on the 50th anniversary of his assassination, he has been domesticated. His radical message has been co-opted and softened by men who opposed him and the civil rights movement he led. He has been domesticated by statues and a national holiday. That is why Dorothy Day, another great American radical of the 20th century used to say, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”

Χριστός ανέστη και ζωή πολιτεύεται is one of the acclamations in the homily of St. John Chrysostom that we will read tomorrow night at midnight at the Matins of Pascha. Christ is Risen, and Life reigns, Life governs!

Η ζωή εν τάφω, κατετέθης Χριστέ, καί Αγγέλων στρατιαί εξεπλήττοντο, συγκατάβασιν δοξάζουσαι τήν σήν. This was the first of the many verses that make up the so-called “Lamentations” which we sang tonight. The translation we sang is very poor: “In a grave they laid You, O my Life and my Christ, and the armies of the angels were sore amazed, as they sang the praise of Your submissive love.” It sings well, it fits very well the Greek melody, but the translation is poor.

Η ζωή εν τάφω. Our Epitaphios on April 6th.

Η ζωή εν τάφω – “The life in the grave.” There is no “my” in the Greek. It is an absolute, apocalyptic truth that is proclaimed. There is Life in the grave! There is life in the midst of a death culture. And we are surrounded by a culture of death: Death by guns, by drugs, by abortions, by terrorism and wars, by poverty. Politicians and economic systems celebrate the death of the environment and our home planet. Death dominates our movies, music, TV shows, social media. Even our everyday talk.

We are to be the life in this death culture! That is the message tonight. That is the message now! A vision of life that transcends the petty concerns and hatreds that this culture of death instills in us every day, every minute! The vision here tonight is life in the grave. Do not be deceived. The powers of this worldly system have already been defeated by Christ on the Cross – not at the Second Coming, but at the Cross! Saint Paul makes this clear in his letter to the Colossians: And you, who were dead in trespasses… God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it

On the Cross, Christ defeated the powers and principalities. But we are still under their spell, because we refuse to surrender to the message of life that comes from the grave of Christ. From the grave! It is from the grave that Christ communicates life to us. By sharing in our own deaths he communicates life. By descending into the death ruled by the powers and principalities, he shows us how to transcend and how to overcome the spiral of death that seeks to envelop us; not just physical death, but mental and spiritual and relational death! Life is the message tonight. Life and life only – as only a Jew could proclaim. So Jesus the Jew greets you tonight with life. L’chaim! Why not turn to someone near you, different from anyone you came with, and greet him or her with l’chaim.


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Thanksgiving on Palm Sunday

 

Yesterday a funeral took place in Cambridge, England – the funeral of a great man, a man who was bound to almost complete immobility in a wheelchair and completely reliant on a voice synthesiser to communicate with the world. Yet, this man’s mind and spirit soared to the infinite reaches of the universe and filled our lives with wonder. You know I’m speaking of Stephen Hawking. His ashes will be buried in Westminster Abbey, near the graves of Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin, two other men who transformed our vision of reality and the universe. Hawking’s ashes will be interred at Westminster Abbey later this year in a thanksgiving service.

A “thanksgiving service” – not a memorial, but a thanksgiving service. There is no greater memorial to a man or woman than to give thanks to God for his or her life. Perhaps we need to add thanksgiving to our own funeral and memorial services! Thanksgiving was also what was in the hearts and minds of the thousands of people who lined the streets outside the church in Cambridge and who broke into spontaneous applause when his coffin arrived and was carried into the church.

Applause, gratitude, thanksgiving. Essential qualities of life. It was the way Jesus was greeted when he entered Jerusalem seated on a donkey. “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Stephen Hawking did not come in the name of the Lord – not in so many words, anyway. Yet, I believe he perhaps did more to make the Lord real in many people’s lives than most evangelists ever will. He certainly had that impact on me. Anyone who expands the horizons of our minds, who stretches our imagination and creativity is certainly someone who comes in the name of the Lord – regardless of whether he or she believes in Christ. That may sound controversial to some ears, but I can vouch from my own years in scientific research before studying theology. Anyone who takes us out of our petty, limited view of life is someone who comes in the name of the Lord.

Listen to Paul in today’s Epistle reading:

Brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice… [make your every] prayer and supplication known to God with thanksgiving. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, sisters and brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things…. and the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:4-9)

Thanksgiving should be part of our every prayer. Thanksgiving is the key to peace with God and with each other. It is at the heart of the Christian life. It eliminates conflict, pettiness, and all the little things that keep us apart. I know some people in our community whose every thought and every action is filled with thanksgiving. It should be true of all of us. Sincere, genuine thanksgiving, gratitude to God for everything and in everything, even in suffering. Are you confused sometimes? Are you depressed, prone to discouragement or unbelief? Pause to give thanks. Pause to give thanks for anything that comes into your mind. Give thanks for your parents. Give thanks for growing up during the depression or the second world war. Give thanks for your first TV set. Give thanks for your cat. Give thanks that you can still drive. If you are young, give thanks for your cell phone or your Facebook account, or for the new CD by the Japanese heavy-metal group Matenrou Opera!

Don’t try to give thanks for what you think God wants to hear. Don’t think too much. Just give thanks for anything that comes to your mind. Be spontaneous. This kind of thanksgiving is the most genuine. God already knows what you enjoy most about your life. But God wants to know, are you grateful for those things?

Finally, sisters and brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Ingratitude is one of the greatest sins and it blinds us to the goodness that is around us and in us. Even the “failing” New York Times had a wonderful editorial about gratitude on Friday – which was Good Friday for most Christians. Here is what the author wrote at one point: My guess is that if you think about people you know whose lives are characterised by gratitude, you’ll find them to be outward- rather than inward-looking, quick to be kind. They approach the world with delight, a certain enchantment and a light touch. They are not blind or indifferent to the hardships and pain surrounding them, but they are still able to find joy in the journey.

Can you find joy in the journey? Can you be grateful for whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, for anything that is excellent? Then you are on your way to living the life that God intends for you. You have found the key to happiness and the surest protection against bitterness and small-mindedness.

Blessed is he/she who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed are YOU who come in the name of the Lord today!