Sunday, August 23, 2009

Feeling Darwin’s God’s Politics

Ephesians 6: 10-20
Psalm 84
John 6: 56-69

Well, here we are, in an un-air conditioned nave in the peak of the Boston summer. And, after nine weeks of sermons on Darwin and faith, we are almost to the end of our summer series, turning to our second string as we round the last bend. We feel the heat and humidity. We feel the intellectual weight of our topic. We feel, yes, let us confess it, a bit distracted by the national debates on health care reform, by our preference to be at the beach right now, and by the prospect of the Red Sox trouncing the Yankees at least as badly as they did last night. Today, dear friends, amidst the heat and humidity, the gravitas of evolutionary theory, and our myriad distractions, we attend to our feelings. Let us pray:
O God, when I speak, may a message be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Amen.

That religion has primarily to do with feeling, not knowing or doing, was a central claim for Friedrich Schleiermacher in his Glaubenslehre, perhaps the founding text of liberal theology. We would do well to remember this as we consider the struggles of the last century-and-a-half between religion and evolutionary theory. To be sure, Darwin’s theory of evolution raises a number of conceptual problems for theology, many of which have been discussed throughout our Darwin and Faith sermon series. But as faithful people, our solving the conceptual problems does not resolve the tension between religion and science. The tension is not merely thought but felt, and we must be attentive to the feeling of the tension, and the feelings the tension produces, if we are to have any chance of such resolution.

What is this feeling?

I remember, about a dozen years ago, traveling from my home in Silver Spring, Maryland up to Princeton, New Jersey for a visit with Uncle Doug and Aunt Helen. This was a regular occurrence for my brother and I. While my immediate family were and are avid churchgoers, Doug and Helen were not. I distinctly remember, at one point, my brother asking Doug if he was a Christian. Doug replied that he was not. After pondering this for a moment, my brother looked up with raised eyebrows and pronounced, “Oh! You’re a Helenist!” Given that her own lineage was Greek, Helen was simultaneously delighted and amused by this naïve conclusion.

On this particular trip, I found myself browsing the copious bookshelves that lined the walls of their Princeton home. I came across a book making the case for evolutionary theory over against religion. This discovery led to a lengthy discussion with Doug about the merits of the theory of evolution and its discrepancies with biblical descriptions of creation. In spite of the fact that Doug is a professor of politics, or more likely because of it, he did not argue his case with anything like the stridency we see in typical political discourse. Instead he made his points clearly and calmly and invited me to consider and question them in a similar spirit. Indeed, it was not Doug’s argumentation that led me to experience for myself the tension between religion and evolution but the real tension that is there. Coming, as I was, with what I will charitably call a Sunday School conception of faith, my experience of the life of faith, of God, and of religious experience had very little way of coping with the implications of Darwin’s theory.

In fact, the tension between religion and science does in part arise from the contradiction between biblical images of creation and the theory of evolution. But this is still a conceptual problem and does not yet get at the feeling. In the face of contradiction, the normal human response is doubt: one of the two views, if contradictory, must be wrong. Religious doubt is especially deep. It reaches to something like what Descartes meant when he said that he doubted everything except that which cannot be doubted, namely his own existence. If he doubted then there must be a self that doubts and so he must exist. This is the meaning of his famous statement cogito ergo sum, I think, therefore I am. Arriving at this fundamental conclusion, however, required doubting absolutely everything else, all ways of knowing and thinking and understanding the world. At this point, the entire world of meaning, and all ways of meaning-making, must be completely reconstructed from scratch. Moreover, there must be a process of letting go of the old ways of understanding and finding meaning in the world. There is a loss here, and loss is accompanied by grief.

It is no different with the confrontations between religion and science in our own time. The truth that the world comes to be the way we find it, and that we come to be the way we are, as a result of evolutionary processes, requires doubting the Sunday School conception of faith. This is what Professor Wesley Wildman was pointing to in the first sermon of the Darwin and Faith series. There is no simple adjustment to the Sunday School faith, such as saying that the Sunday School God creates through evolution, that does anything like justice to Darwin’s theory. Conceptually, Dr. Wildman hit the nail right on the head. But now we must continue on to understand what letting go of a Sunday School faith implies, to see what the process of grief looks like, to examine our own feelings in the tension between religion and science. We are, after all, human beings, who have evolved to construct for ourselves worlds of meaning made up of truths that we can depend on. We have not evolved to simply let one world of meaning go and pick up another. If we had, those worlds of meaning would have no value. No, we are tenacious in our beliefs and cling to them precisely because they are valuable. They give us meaning and purpose, direction and confidence. And so, when they break down, we feel the loss and we grieve.

To be sure, this process of loss and grief takes place at the personal level. Darwin himself may be the best example of this. Being in training for the Anglican priesthood at Cambridge University when he made his journey on the Beagle, eventually leading to his landmark theory, Darwin had read the leading natural theologies of his day. Most of these, and especially the natural theology of William Paley, are versions of the teleological argument for the existence of God. The argument is to the effect that a world exhibiting such complexity, order, purpose and beauty as ours must have been created by an intelligent entity. Darwin’s theory of evolution, however, is precisely a demonstration of how complexity, order and beauty come about through the natural process of evolution, which only purpose is survival. Darwin saw and knew the contradiction explicitly. And for the remainder of his life Darwin remained ambivalent about faith. A letter from 1879 to John Fordyce is revealing. Darwin says,
[My] judgment often fluctuates.... Whether a man deserves to be called a theist depends on the definition of the term ... In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God. -- I think that generally (and more and more so as I grow older), but not always, -- that an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.

Clearly, Darwin could no longer tolerate his earlier beliefs, but neither would his grief at its loss allow him to abandon faith entirely. Not all grieve in this way; many do abandon faith.

The grieving process takes place at the social level as well. We see this as many Christians resist the teaching of evolution in public schools and advocate the teaching of creationism based on their belief in a personal, purposeful god. We might diagnose this response to the challenge Darwin’s theory poses for such Sunday School faith on the Kübler-Ross grief cycle as somewhere amidst the stages of denial, anger and bargaining. Denial: such Christians continue in their faith lives as if Darwin had never published On the Origin of Species. Anger: Sunday School Christians express anger at the social adoption of evolutionary theory by challenging it in court, by denying that Christians who accept evolutionary theory are true Christians, and by attempting to keep politicians who accept evolutionary theory out of office. Bargaining: Recent advocacy of having creationism taught alongside evolution and the shift from strict creationism to intelligent design theories are attempts at bargaining with evolution. Given that Darwin’s theory was published 150 years ago and we are socially only at the fourth of seven stages, half-way there, we can see that the grieving process at the social level, especially where religious beliefs are concerned, can take a very long time indeed.

This timeframe should not be entirely surprising. After all, the feeling with which Schleiermacher identified religion is not just any feeling; it is the feeling of absolute dependence. But it is hard to understand how we can absolutely depend on God if God turns out not to be who or what we thought. Sunday School faith tells us that God is a person, often imagined as a white man with a beard resting on the clouds, who relates to us as persons, giving us meaning and purpose in our lives. Dean Hill gave us three tools the Boston Personalists provide us for engaging with evolutionary theory, but Darwin’s theory contradicts Personalism’s central tenet, namely that personhood is the fundamental category for understanding reality. Evolution points out that the only purpose inherent in the ongoing development of the world is survival. Evolution as a process is tragic, as Alfred North Whitehead understood the term, pointing toward “the solemnity of the remorseless working of things.” As Dr. Wildman pointed out in relation to Darwin’s own struggle with faith,
Surely such a loving, personal deity would have created in another way, a way that involved less trial and error, fewer false starts, less mindless chance, fewer tragic species extinctions, less dependence on random symbiotic collaborations, fewer pointless cruelties, and less reliance on predation to sort out the fit from the unfit.

If evolution is true, as it surely is, then that upon which we absolutely depend is certainly not personal.

Upon what, then, can we depend absolutely? Who is Darwin’s God? Darwin’s God is a creator god who creates us not personally but as part of a world that exhibits complexity and beauty and change and chance and order and that presents us with myriad choices, the decision among which make us who we are. Darwin’s God is not scaled to human concern; God is the creator of the H1N1 flu virus just as much as you and I. Darwin’s God creates a world not of predetermined outcomes but of competing interests. Darwin’s God creates not the world of utopic idealism, exhibiting a nice, neat, orderly progression, but the messy, mean and infinitely interesting developments in life. Darwin’s God, like Anselm’s God, is that than which nothing greater can be thought. As human thinking develops, as it has with Darwin’s theory of evolution, that which is greater than human thought and presses it to its limits must also expand. We can absolutely depend upon God to be more than we could ever imagine or comprehend. Darwin’s God is not as attractive as the personal God, because Darwin’s God does not care particularly about us, but Darwin’s God is more honest about the God we discern in the world God creates, whereas the personal God tells us more about our own desires and selfishness than about God in Godself. Darwin’s God is absolutely dependable to resist our selfish interpretations and demand humble submission.

We can see the unattractiveness of Darwin’s God when we consider the present debates about health care reform. Darwin’s God looks much more like the death panels that conservative politicians and pundits impugn upon reform proposals than anything any Senator or Congressperson could ever dream up. From the evolutionary perspective, human flourishing would certainly be greatly improved if societies were not encumbered by the old and infirm; humanity would be much more suited for survival. But none of the proposals in Congress suggest any such thing. Last week, Dr. Rodney Petersen warned us of the dangers of social Darwinism. Indeed, it is incumbent upon us to make wise decisions with regard to health care reform such that those who need care are cared for while also stewarding resources responsibly. But these wise decisions must be made in light of the human needs of our present historical moment. They cannot be attributed to a personal divine will and given ultimate cosmic significance. Darwin’s God will not accept such responsibility.

We stand in the same relation to the teaching about God revealed to us in Darwin as the disciples did to the teaching about God that Jesus offered them in our gospel reading today. With them we ask, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Jesus knew that accepting it would be difficult, that there were some who did not believe. And Jesus asks us today along with the twelve so long ago, “Do you also wish to go away?”

The good news of Jesus Christ for us today is that we need not turn away. Like Peter we can both address the conceptual contradictions and take up our grief at the loss of our Sunday School faith. And so with Peter we can say, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Time, Eternity and End Times

Psalm 106: 1-12
Jonah 1
2 Peter 3: 14-18

I was quite excited to hear, in his invitation to me to preach today, that Rev. Hawes is preaching a series of sermons this summer on “questions of faith.” He offered that I did not have to participate in the series and could preach on whatever I liked, but I find that it is always better, as a guest preacher, to fit myself into the ongoing life of the community as much as possible. So, I requested the list of questions that he had compiled from your input. Then I began thinking that attempting to step into the middle of a sermon series might not be such a good idea after all. You all ask tough questions!

At Marsh Chapel, the architectural and spiritual center of Boston University, we are in the midst of our third annual national summer preacher series. This summer we are tackling the theme of Darwin and Faith in recognition of the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication On the Origin of Species. Many of you probably know that Darwin’s theory of evolution and Christian theology have been in significant conflict since that publication. Our hope at Marsh Chapel is to help those who find themselves caught between these ways of understanding life in the world discover ways of being both authentically religious and honest about the truths revealed in the light of modern science. One of the questions on your list of “questions of faith” was about creation and evolution. Given that my contribution to the Marsh Chapel series comes next Sunday, I thought about giving it a trial run this week. But in the end I decided to settle for a slightly lighter topic from your list: time and eternity.

The notion of turning to the front page of a daily newspaper to catch a glimpse of what is going on in the world is fast becoming obsolete. For example, I get my news by following national news outlets like the New York Times and local news sources like Boston News Now on Twitter. However you get your news, it is hard to look at the goings on in the world today with overly much optimism. The war in Iraq seems to be quieting down somewhat, just in time for a resurgent conflict with the Taliban in Afghanistan bleeding over into nuclear armed Pakistan. Almost 10% of U.S. citizens are unemployed, and while there are some signs that the recession is slowing, economists suggest that there will be a long road to recovery. The culture wars continue, perhaps in softer tones than in recent years, with debates over gay marriage, abortion rights and gun control continuing to be contentious. Of course, the most pressing issue in the news these days is health care reform and the many problems surrounding its cost and implementation. More on this later.

What are we to make of all of this? How are we to interpret wars and recessions and cultural upheaval and societal change in light of the gospel? One of the ways that religious people the world over have taken these “signs of the times” is to cast them onto a vast cosmic canvas. On this canvas, these mundane events are signs of evil ascendant in the world. We have seen in the past decade how some fundamentalist Muslims have taken this ascendancy as a call to resist modernizing forces through violent resistance and militant offensive actions. Christians have also been all too keen to read divine intent into such events, seeing the interpreted ascent of evil as a precursor to the final destruction of evil by God followed by the reign of Christ. Just read Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’ Left Behind novels. In other words, religious people have a tendency to interpret events in the world as signs of the coming end of that world.

One of the interesting things about people who make such predictions is that they seem to think that the confluence of wars, recessions, cultural upheaval and social change are novel; that they have never happened before. A cursory review of history will tell us that this is simply not the case. Take the New Testament for example. The gospel of Mark, the earliest of the four gospels, was written right around 70 A.D. when the Jerusalem temple was destroyed. In fact, the purpose of the gospel of Mark seems to have been to convince people to repent and follow Jesus ευθυς, immediately. Mark understood the destruction of the Jerusalem temple as a cosmic sign that Jesus’ return was immanent. From our vantage almost 2000 years later, it would seem that Mark was wrong. Paul, whose letters were written before any of the gospels and are the earliest literature in the New Testament, encouraged Christ believers in Corinth to “remain as you are,” i.e. single, because of the “impending crisis,” i.e. Jesus’ return. This is why Peter, in our reading from his second letter today, written after the destruction of the temple, says that some of the things Paul said are “hard to understand.” Peter was writing at a time when Christians were struggling to come to terms with the fact that Jesus had not returned as soon as they had hoped. Suddenly, a lot of things early Christians had claimed made less sense. This is also one of the reasons the gospels of Matthew and Luke were written, based on Mark but addressing the particular needs of later communities.

Living in the early centuries of the Common Era, the understanding of the biblical writers of the way the world works was distinctly disparate from the modern worldview. The earth was flat. The sky was a vast dome, above which were the several realms of heaven. Below the earth were the several levels of hell. The end of the world was when hell was defeated and the earthly and heavenly realms would be merged. Of course, today we know that the earth is round and that the sky is not a dome but a series of levels of atmosphere beyond which is a vast universe of stars and galaxies. If the atmospheric levels were to break down, as some of them are because of human produced pollution, we would not find earth merged with heaven but an entirely unlivable planet with no air to breathe.

In fact, Christian history is riddled with claims that the world is going to end. Still, here we are in 2009. Empirically, none of these claims has ever come to pass. Nevertheless, the fact that the world has never ended does not necessarily mean that the world never will end. One of these days, the prediction just may turn out to be right.

Actually, any claim that the world will end is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of time and eternity. Claims that the world will end, be they claims in the Bible or claims made by modern Christians, are based on the idea that some sort of cataclysmic set of events will bring time to a close and then we will be in eternity with God. Unfortunately, this conception gets both time and eternity wrong. It gets time wrong because it assumes that time is made up of individual moments, like water dripping from a dropper, one after another. But this is not time as we experience it. We experience time as a flow, like a river in which no one drop can be distinguished from the whole movement of the water. Being in the flow of time, in the river as it were, we experience some events as past, some as present, and some as future. Furthermore, as we move along, the flow of time moves some events into the past and other events from the future become actualized in the present. Present events limit some of our future possibilities.

Human history is nothing if not a long list of wars, recessions, cultural upheaval and social change. These are normal parts of human life, not signs that the world is about to end. Casting the events of our daily lives onto the vast cosmic canvas of divine purpose says a lot more about our own sense of our importance than it does about what God is actually doing in the world. It is also a way of escaping from our responsibility for doing anything about it. Human predictions of the end of the world are a lot like Jonah fleeing God’s work for him in Nineveh. Why should Jonah go to Nineveh if God is just going to destroy the city anyway? Why should we worry about all of these things that are happening if the world is going to end shortly anyway?

Claims that the world will end also get eternity wrong. For those predicting the end of the world, eternity is a continuation of the drops from the dropper forever and ever. The only difference is that in eternity God is in charge and so there are no more wars or recessions, no more cultural upheaval or social change. In other words, eternity is time without change. It is as if time is frozen in one drop of water forever. The inadequacy of this conception is apparent when we consider the resurrection. At what age will you be frozen in that drop of water? Will you be an infant, with all of your future possibilities ahead of you, but not knowing your children or having grown up and learned the skills of a profession? Or will you be elderly, when life has been lived fully but the body may not work as well as you may want if it is going to be forever? Eastern Orthodox Christians believe that we will be resurrected at age 33, the age Jesus was when he was crucified. But is this not just as arbitrary? And what about the people who do not live to the age of 33?

No, time is not drips of water from a dropper and eternity is not the continuation of a single drop forever. The river of time flows, and time is our conception of the river from within it, understood as the three modes of past, present and future. Eternity, on the other hand, is all the modes of time together, the God’s eye view from outside the river. It is not even the case that God sits on the bank of the river at a particular point, a particular present, judging our pasts and knowing our futures. God sees all of time together as fixed pasts and as open possibilities in the future realized in present moments. This is what it means to say that God is not in time; time is in God. Visions of the end of the world assume that eternity is something that intercepts and interrupts the flow of time. But that misses the point of eternity. Eternity is all of the modes of time – past, present and future – together. Time as we know it is our view of time from within the flow. Eternity is God’s view of time from outside the flow from past into present into future. Eternity does not interrupt time; it suffuses time with life and meaning.

There is a very practical implication to all of this: time has no beginning and no end. There is no end of the world. There is no cataclysmic moment when the world as we know it falls apart. And while we are searching the future for signs of the end of the world, we are missing eternity all around us. After all, we are in eternity just as much as we are in time and our present actions have eternal consequences. A choice, once made, is fixed and is past but also limits future possibilities. Choices, actions in the present, have eternal consequences.

The upshot is that we should worry about wars and recessions and cultural upheaval and social change. Our choices about how we handle these events in human life have eternal consequences, not at some point in the future, but from the eternal perspective of God in which our choice, once made, is past and fixed and our future is a kaleidoscope of possibilities.

Now we can get back to the health care debate. More than any issue since the lead-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the present debate about health care reform is being cast onto a cosmic canvas, claiming that change in the health care system signals the end of the world, replete with the four horsemen of the apocalypse schematized as death panels. We do this because in a culture thoroughly inculcated with the idea that time is like individual drops of water, there is enormous pressure to escape the incessant dripping. We seek to escape from embarrassments of our past and from terror in the face of the future. Like Jonah, we seek to escape from the eternal vision of God. Stuck within the narrow vision of our present drop of water, we fear death and so we cast discussions of end-of-life issues with our doctors onto the cosmic canvas and they become death panels, deciding our fate for us. We are embarrassed by the past failures of our healthcare system to treat patients equally and effectively and so we cast the past onto the cosmic canvas such that any change signals the end of the world. From the perspective of eternity, however, the need for health care reform is about facing the fact that we live in Nineveh. Our wickedness is denying care to those who need it most who God calls us to serve. Our wickedness is our own selfishness causing us to fear conversations with loved ones and doctors about end of life issues. From the eternal perspective of God, this sort of behavior is going to land us in the belly of a very large fish.

The good news of Jesus Christ for us today is that we do not live in a world of dripping present moments but in the eternal flow of the river of time. We need not fear death, because faithful people trust that God holds us in the eternal divine embrace, and so we should welcome conversations with our loved ones and doctors about end-of-life issues. We are indeed responsible for our past failings, but that does not mean that we can neglect the present obligation to improve on past decisions into the future. We are responsible for wars undertaken in our name and we are obligated to do everything we can to avoid them in the future. We are responsible for living beyond our means, setting the stage for the present recession, and we are obligated to live within our means into the future. We are responsible for those neglected by and mistreated under the present health care system and we are obligated to improve it. When we see life from the perspective of eternity, the glimpse of which is a sure sign that we are made in the image of God, then we can step out in confidence without embarrassment or fear. We should catch a glimpse of eternity in our midst, accept responsibility for the sins of our past in our society, and walk out in hope that the future we live is the future God eternally creates. The most profound theological statement thus far in the 21st century was spoken from the steps of the U.S. Capitol on January 20, 2009: “This is the source of our confidence — the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.” Amen.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Charles River Yacht Club Blessing of the Fleet Prayer 2009

Most holy God,
creator of earth and heaven, sky and sea,
you breathed your Spirit over the face of the waters and made the world;
you led Moses and the Hebrew people out of Egypt by parting the Red Sea;
you sent a giant fish to consume Jonah that he might become your prophet;
and your Son Jesus Christ was baptized in water, taught from a boat,
and called fishermen to be his disciples.
We who gather here today on the banks of the Charles River pray your blessing
upon these boats and all who would travel upon them,
upon this marina that it might serve as a safe haven,
and upon the Charles River Yacht Club that it might foster fellowship in your Spirit.
In the name of Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Boston University Baccalaureate Prayer 2009

Marsh Chapel, Boston University
May 17, 2009

Creator God,
who makes the world and us in it,
we give you praise for your glory,
shining forth from what you have made.
We give you thanks that you give us
eyes to see your glory throughout your creation
that on this day especially we may see your glory
in the graduates of this great University.
Your glory is manifest in those who would become
  • doctors and lawyers,
  • businesspeople and artists,
  • engineers and journalists,
  • prophets, priests and civic officials.
We come before you to confess
that it is not our own work that has brought us to this day
but the work of your glory in us;
for it is you who have called us
to participate in the partnership of the gospel,
the good news that the work of creation continues
in those who would take up their lives
in love and service to the world.
We ask that your glory permeate our hearts and minds
that we may live into our vocations
in humility and grace.

God of order,
who establishes the very possibility of knowledge,
we praise you for your wisdom,
revealed to us in encounter with true persons.
We thank you for the gift of reason,
embodied in the hearts and minds of persons
that we may participate in the spirit of inquiry
in formal study in the University
and in our daily lives of work and leisure.
Your wisdom is manifest in
  • professors and administrators,
  • police and counselors,
  • facilities crews and support staff,
  • the deans, the provost and the president.
We confess that our own wisdom is folly
and that true wisdom belongs to you;
all truth is your truth.
Grant that we may continue to be inquirers
all the days of our lives
that we may live in the spirit of truth,
in the pursuit of wisdom and insight,
and in the grace of knowledge and understanding.

God of love,
who draws all things into relationship,
we give you praise for your power,
bringing each together into community.
We thank you for the gift of faith,
the capacity for trusting relationships one with another,
that we may not be alone
but part of a great congregation
seeking justice and peace
in a world of suffering and pain.
Your power is witnessed in
  • resident assistants and student affairs staff,
  • chaplains and campus ministers,
  • athletic teams and musical ensembles,
  • the City of Boston,
  • the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,
  • the United States of America,
  • and throughout the world.
We confess that our relationships are broken
and that only you have the power to heal.
Sustain us with the power of your spirit,
that we may remain connected
one with another,
with our schools and colleges,
and with the communion of saints at Boston University.

Friday, April 10, 2009

I Thirst: Good Friday Meditation

The arena was packed. Thousands of fans gathered last night in the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., myself included, to watch the BU Terrier men’s hockey team take on the University of Vermont Catamounts. And we were thirsty. The team was thirsty, the coaches were thirsty, the fans were thirsty. And indeed, our thirst was quenched. Although, I can say from the standpoint of the next morning, after all that screaming, I am thirsty again in a much more literal sense.

Our thirst was quenched, finally, by a 5-4 victory over the Catamounts. What is a Catamount, you may be asking? Well, as it turns out, it doesn’t really exist, or else it may be another name for a cougar. But existent or not, the Catamounts made us fight to quench our thirst. Terriers up 2-0 at the end of the first period. Catamounts up 3-2 in the second, only to tie it at 3 a piece by the end of period. Catamounts ahead 4-3, tied again, Terriers go ahead with five, and then defend the lead to the bitter end. Thirst, it turns out, is not so easily quenched. We must strive for it, work for it, persevere until the final buzzer.

Do not misunderstand me. I am in no way equating the thirst for victory in sport with the thirst Jesus endured as he hung on the cross in the scorching near-east Sun, moments away from death. Thirst employed as a means of torture, 2000 years ago or in our very own day, is one of the most horrific and damning acts of human-on-human violence that could ever be perpetrated, second only to the horror of thirst imposed upon millions around the world by sheer neglect.

But, if we are to understand anything of the agony of thirst and its quenching fulfillment, it can only be through the mediation of our own personal, frail and human experience. What is it that we know of thirst? Thirst is a passion. It is a passion in the sense that it is a suffering. Two weeks ago the choir sang the passion of Christ as recorded in the gospel according to St. John and set to music by Johann Sebastian Bach, the story of the suffering of Christ in the days leading up to his crucifixion.

Thirst is a passion too in the sense that it drives toward fulfillment. Passion is a motivation. Thirst motivates us to drink that our thirst might be quenched. Passions may be positive motivations. Frederick Buechner said that vocation is where our deep passion meets the world’s great need. Passions are often negative motivations. Passion in the form of suffering drives the one who suffers to seek its alleviation. The passion of thirst orients us toward quenching grace.

The impassioned thirst of Christ upon the cross will be quenched come Easter morning. We, with two thousand year thick lenses through which to glimpse the crucified and risen Christ, know already what is to come. Our thirst, perhaps, is lessened by the hope of the promise of resurrection. Jesus, even if he believed that he would be resurrected, could not know such to be the case with anything like certainty. His thirst upon the cross is a thirst with only the barest glimmer of resurrection hope. There are many, too many, in our world today whose thirst all too literally knows little if any hope of quenching drink, let alone quenching grace.

Easter is coming, but today is Good Friday. Today we sit: dry, parched, thirsty for living water. We see, hear, feel Christ crucified, forsaken by God, and thirsty. We acknowledge our own thirst, and hopefully await quenching grace.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Get Stoned

We should begin our considerations of the woman caught in adultery, of course, by noting that the stoning referred to in our Gospel reading this evening is quite different from what we mean on a University campus by “getting stoned.” Both are deplorable, the stoning referred to in our passage even more so as its practice continues in some societies in our world today, especially against women. On the other hand, Jesus being stoned would certainly go some way toward explaining his odd behavior. In response to the question posed by the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus “bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground.” If everyone else there were stoned, it would go a long way toward explaining why no one seems to have remembered what he wrote! But, no, neither Jesus nor anyone else present there, that we know of, was stoned. To suggest that they were would be an ahistorical and anachronistic interpretation out of sync with the liberal theological tradition we stand in here at Boston University.

Still, we are left with the perplexing question, what was Jesus writing? There have been many attempts to answer this question, some based on historical evidence, others arising from pastoral need. All of them are speculative. Of course, the status of the whole passage is speculative as well. The most ancient sources lack it entirely. Some that have it have it earlier in chapter 7, others append it to the end of the whole Gospel, and yet others hand it off to Luke. Unfortunately, we cannot possibly sort out the question of the historicity of the passage here, but thankfully Dr. Knust over at the School of Theology is writing a book about it and I am sure she would be happy to explain the whole thing to you if you are so inclined.

So where does this leave us? We still do not know what Jesus was writing and we have virtually no historical ground to stand on in answering the question. Well, since all of the possible answers seem to be speculative, we should feel free to be speculative as well. Come; let us speculate. After all, it is the only thing we know of that Jesus ever wrote!

What might we speculate? Well, some speculate that Jesus was just drawing lines in the dirt while he was thinking. Yes, even Jesus doodles. This makes some sense to me. I know I doodle in the margins of bulletins during longwinded and boring sermons. (Hey! Put that pen away!). Others speculate that he was writing the names of the accusers in accordance with Jeremiah 17: 13, “those who turn away from you shall be written on the earth, for they have forsaken the Lord, the fountain of living water.” This seems a bit like proof-texting. Others speculate that he was following Roman legal practice, writing out the sentence before delivering it orally. Of course, the idea that Jesus would emulate the legal system that would eventually put him to death is at least ironic. One of the oldest interpretations is that he was writing the sins of the accusers. Admittedly, this would have made it very difficult for anyone to claim they were without sin and then cast the first stone, but then the conclusion of the passage would have been virtually foregone.

One of the reasons the location of this passage is questioned is that it does not quite seem to fit. Prior to the passage Jesus is out in the countryside of Galilee preaching the good news and stirring up trouble. Following the passage, Jesus launches right back into the message: “I am the light of the world.” But here, in the first eleven verses of chapter eight, Jesus quietly and calmly manages the situation by subverting the question the authorities pose, and then is left alone with the woman they had caught in adultery. This is a very different Jesus. More importantly, it is a very different judgment.

Indeed, if anything is clear about this passage, it is that it is about judgment. The scribes and Pharisees accuse a woman of adultery and ask Jesus to pass judgment. Most of the speculations that have been offered have to do with what kind of judgment Jesus passed. The doodling Jesus speculation points toward cool, calm, rational judgment. The naming Jesus speculation points toward a scribal judgment based on the prophetic literature. The Roman Jesus speculation points toward political judgment. The sin-writing Jesus speculation points toward revelatory-religious judgment.

But is it really about judgment, or for Jesus is it about the judge? Jesus’ question to the scribes and Pharisees is subversive precisely because it calls into question not their judgment but their capacity and right to make judgments at all. Jesus sets the standard for the qualifications of any who would have judgment at sinlessness, a standard the scribes and Pharisees and everyone else who was in the temple could not meet. Of course, setting such a standard is a judgment in its own right. Recognizing this leaves the door open to Jesus’ own standard being turned back upon him. Who is to judge whether Jesus meets the standard for passing judgment? The scribes and Pharisees certainly would have called this into question. After all, Jesus was running around the countryside deceiving the people, from their perspective.

Ultimately, what should have happened is what we might call the judgment paradox. Anyone who might pass judgment must be sinless, but who has the right to make the judgment of sinlessness?

The funny thing is that the scribes and Pharisees never point this out. Given that they were not stupid, there is nothing explicit in the story that explains why they would not take this route of escape. How does Jesus avoid such an accusation? Well, now we are back to speculation. The only piece left in the story is what he has written on the ground.

So, here is my theory. What was Jesus writing on the ground? Jesus was writing his own sins.

Clearly, this throws a monkey wrench in the Christological gears. Isn’t Jesus supposed to be perfect because only a perfect sacrifice can atone for the sins of the whole world? To be perfect, doesn’t Jesus need to be sinless? If Jesus was writing his sins on the ground, this implies Jesus had sins, so Jesus was not sinless, so Jesus was not perfect, so the sins of the world are not atoned for. Oh dear, we are not saved.

No. Wait. Stop. Atonement theories like these were imposed on Jesus long after he walked this earth. It is we who think we need Jesus to be sinless to save us, not Jesus who needs to be sinless to save us. Remember, Jesus is fully human and fully divine. To be human is to sin. This is what we recognize today, Ash Wednesday. Jesus is human; Jesus is sinful; Jesus saves.

Dear friends, we find in this Ash Wednesday Jesus who writes his own sins on the ground a way forward in making judgments in a sinful world. Who determines the sinlessness of the judge? Those being judged. This is the way out of the paradox. The scribes and Pharisees turned and walked away because they saw Jesus write his sins on the ground and when he then turned the judgment to them they knew that his judgment was true. By confessing his sins, in writing them on the ground, Jesus repents of his sins and is cleansed, healed, forgiven. The sinlessness of the judge is not in never having sinned but in accepting the judgment on sin, of confessing, repenting and being forgiven.

Here we are. It is Ash Wednesday. We come and receive the sign of the cross in black, dirty ash on our foreheads or on our hands. Just as the Ash Wednesday Jesus writes his sins on the ground, let us accept the ashen cross as a confession of our sins, a sign of our repentance, and let us journey together through Lent toward forgiveness and new life in Christ.

The good news of Jesus Christ for us today is that the Jesus who writes and so confesses his sins and repents meets the standard to make judgment. And Jesus does judge. Jesus judges the scribes and the Pharisees. They accept his judgment in light of his sinlessness through the cleansing of confession. He judges the woman. His judgment is just. “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” The judgment of the sinless is mercy. If we accept the sign of the cross in ash, thereby confessing our sins, repenting, and walking in the sinlessness of forgiveness, our judgment must be mercy. This Lenten season, let mercy lead and forgiveness reign. Amen.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Called to Transfigured Life

2 Corinthians 4: 1-12
Mark 9: 2-9

It was one of those deceptively beautiful winter days. I stepped off the “T” into blue skies and sunshine paired with bitter cold and biting wind. After making my way, shivering, across Commonwealth Avenue, I looked up at the sculpture prominently located just left of center on the Marsh Chapel Plaza. Fifty abstract bird forms flying in an upward arc, cast in iron. There is something liberating and hopeful about the flight of birds that draws to mind the spiritual and the transcendent. It is little wonder, then, that they become focal symbols of our religious spaces, like here at Muller Chapel, and of our religious communities, like the Protestant Community dove and heart. Our birds in Boston represent the fifty states, and the freedom they express is the liberation from segregation brought about in the civil rights movement, significantly through the leadership of Boston University’s most famous alumnus, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. On that chill winter morning I considered, as I climbed the stairs into Marsh Chapel, that something of Dr. King’s dream, of Dr. King’s vision, would be realized later that day.

Just before noon I walked into the student union and climbed the stairs and entered the large ballroom. It was standing room only. The whole hall was packed with students and faculty and staff. And it was silent. Aretha Franklin sang; (that bow was something else). The oath of office was administered, sort of. Four musicians from four racial and cultural backgrounds played together (or as it turned out mimed in time with a recording) a great American folk song set by a great American composer. And then there was the speech. On a cold and blustery January day, a mere month ago, President Barack Obama stood before a crowd of millions in Washington and billions around the world and delivered his inaugural address.

It was not the most inspiring speech any of us had ever heard, but its honesty was deeply refreshing and the tone was poised for a moment of great social turmoil. As I listened I looked around the room. No, Dean Elmore, our dean of students, was not there. He had received a ticket and gone to Washington. No, Katherine Kennedy, the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and director of the Howard Thurman Center, was not there. She too had received a ticket and gone to Washington. No, Mark Gray was not there. Oops! There he was! On the screen! Sitting ten rows behind the new President.

And then, there, toward the end of the speech, right after stating as clearly as possible the challenges to be faced in the days, weeks, months, years ahead, a line caught my ear. “This is the source of our confidence.” Confidence. What a wonderful word, confidence. It denotes nobility and grace and freedom. It is a standing up in the face of tragedy, solemnly facing the solemnity of the relentless working of things.

But where, where is the source of this confidence? Oh! There it is! Just then came from the mouth of the newly inaugurated President the most profound theological sentence thus far in the 21st century. “This is the source of our confidence — the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.” God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.

There are many theological winds blowing about in the world today. Some of them are hot air. They would have us believe that our future is determined, that our destiny is inevitable, and that those who might stand in the way are doomed to God’s wrath on the slaughter bench of history. And so I give thanks to God for blowing me toward a fresh wind, a great wind out of the Northeast, a cold snap that shocks the lungs and reminds us to breathe. In these past four years I have found myself at Boston University, a lighthouse shining the beacon of responsible Christian liberalism, a bedrock of American liberal theology, a voice in the wilderness proclaiming the Gospel of grace and freedom.

And so I ask you, is it not the case, do we not know from our experience, that the future is not determined but open and full of possibilities? Is it not the case, do we not know from our experience, that destiny is not inevitable but what we make from the realization of some possibilities and not others? Is it not the case, do we not know from our experience, that our futures are intimately tied up with the futures of everyone else such that when those who have much have too much and those who have little have too little the whole house of cards comes tumbling down?

The past is past. It is fixed. It is determined. It is the future possibilities as they have been actualized. We cannot change them, much as we might like to. We may have chosen wrong and it may be that we should have actualized a different possibility. It may not have been such a good
idea to eat that seventh bowl of chili at the cook-off yesterday. It may not have been so wise to invest in real estate. It may have been foolhardy to go crashing around in a foreign nation with an alien culture. And so we come, Sunday by Sunday, to confess our regret and remorse in contrition and compunction. The most ancient prayer of the church is still the most profound. Kyrie eleison. Lord, have mercy.

But if we are going to have any hope for the future at all, that we might choose differently next time, that we might choose rightly next time, that we might actualize the possibilities of justice and mercy and peace, then we must accept the forgiveness Christ offers. We must accept it and move forward in light of our remembrance of our own best past. Not all of our choices were wrongheaded, and there are those in our history who have come alongside us and shown us the way. Teachers. Mentors. Friends. Pastors. Coaches. Parents. Siblings. Civic leaders. We have chosen well at times; after all, we are here. We have seen others make right choices, and we can choose to follow them.

Yes, the past is fixed, but the future is open. We read this morning of Christ upon the mountain peak bathed in the light of transfiguration. What is this transfiguration light? It is the light shining forth of all of our future possibilities. For Jesus, as he stood on the mountain, the future was entirely open. Now, two thousand years later, we know what happened. Jesus went to Jerusalem and confronted both the temple authorities and Roman imperial power. He was crucified, died, and was raised. But then, standing on the mountain peak, crucifixion was not the only option. The future of the son of God was totally open, his destiny entirely undetermined, and the freedom of God burst forth in transcendent light.

We too are called to live transfigured lives. Our lives are full of future possibilities. An Ithaca College education prepares you for lives lived in love of God, in pursuit of excellence, and in service to the world. Even so, it does not determine us. I should know. I majored in music here at IC. Now, I am in ministry to 40,000 at the fourth largest private research institution in the United States. Moving freely into the future is not a rejection of the past. The past cannot be rejected. But it is a free appropriation of the past into whatever future possibilities are available, and they may not be the ones we expect.

The disciples, on the other hand, were confused. They wanted to build three booths, one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah. They did not understand that the future cannot be contained. Moses actualized for the Hebrew people a future they could barely hope for as they suffered under slavery in Egypt. Elijah actualized a future for the Israelites in right relationship with God instead of the abasement they were practicing before idols. And Jesus, Jesus actualized a future of redemption from sin that binds us to the past and liberates us to actualize our own futures in grace and freedom. The transfiguration continues in you and in me.

And what of now? What of the present moment? We know that the past is fixed and the future is open, but what are we to make of the present? The present is the moment of choice, the moment when one possibility is chosen among the kaleidoscopic opportunities. Does God tell us which possibility to choose? No. I had to choose to go to Boston. I had to choose to go into ministry. I had to choose ministry at Marsh Chapel over starting a doctoral program immediately. The choice is ours. If it is not, then God is to blame for human sinfulness when we choose wrongly. But God is present in the choice. President Obama is right. God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny. It is we who do the shaping, but it is God who calls us to this work.

The good news of Jesus Christ for us today is that we can, by the grace of God, move forward into an uncertain destiny in confidence. Certainty is not possible. Certainty is only available to those who cling to a determined future and an inevitable destiny. The truth is, though, that the future is open and so their certainty is false. Abandon certainty and step out in confidence. There are choices to be made among the future possibilities in our lives, and God calls on us to make them. To live in confidence is to see the transfiguring light of the future possibilities and to step out into the call of God and choose among them. The confidence of Christ, expressed in humility, enabled Jesus to endure the pain of crucifixion, calls to memory our own best pasts, and frees for us the possibilities of our futures. “This is the source of our confidence — the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.” Amen.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Feast of the Epiphany

Isaiah 60: 1–6
Psalm 72: 10–15
Ephesians 3: 1–12
Matthew 2: 1–12

Dear saints who are in Ashmont and are faithful in Christ Jesus: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. It is a rich blessing to be with you this evening for the celebration of the feast of the Epiphany. Of course, as you know, the word epiphany comes from Greek, meaning “to manifest” or “to show.” Our Gospel text this evening recounts how the star over Bethlehem manifested the Christ child to the wise men. Often we focus on how the star marked the location of Jesus’ birth, but we should note also that the star was a sign to these wise men of the East that the child was anointed by God and thus royal. The writer of the letter to the Ephesians, on the other hand, is not so much concerned with Jesus’ location or royalty as with the revelation of the mystery of Christ. Revelation and epiphany are not the same thing. Epiphany indicates the bringing of something to attention that had been neglected. Revelation indicates the uncovering of something that had been hidden.

I remember one Sunday morning when I was about ten years old. As usual, our family trundled off to church in the chill morning air. My brother and I went to Sunday school first and then to the service with our parents (we grew up Methodist). We sat on the right and toward the front, right about where you are. When it came time for sharing celebrations and concerns, my Mom raised her hand. Someone brought her the wireless microphone and she said, “today is my birthday, and I am announcing it myself because my husband and both of our sons forgot about it entirely!” Oops.

My mother was born on January 6th, which happened to fall on a Sunday that particular year. Learning this was an epiphany that I am certain never to forget. And that is just the point. My mother’s birthday was not something hidden. We had celebrated it every year. Dad was in particular trouble for forgetting since their wedding anniversary is the next day, so forgetting one virtually implies forgetting the other! No, Mom’s birthday was not hidden, merely neglected and forgotten. The experience of Mom standing up in church and announcing it was an epiphany, almost as surprising as the angels who announced the birth of Christ to the shepherds, but not a revelation.

This distinction between epiphany and revelation is a fundamental difference between the testimony of the Gospel writers, especially the synoptic tradition of Matthew, Mark and Luke, and the Pauline and pseudo-Pauline writers of many of the epistles, including Ephesians. For the wise men, the location and significance of Jesus’ birth was made manifest through the star. All they had to do was follow it. For Paul and his school, on the other hand, the mystery of Christ was hidden; that is what it means to be a mystery. Mysteries must be made known: revealed; not simply discovered or made manifest.

These differing ways of knowing point also to a difference in what is known. For the wise men, what is known is the historical person of Jesus. They used the best science of the time, astrology, to discover his location. It was about finding a person who would be king of the Jews. The value they sought was personal. For the Pauline writers, the significance of Christ is in what Christ does for us, namely providing access to God by forgiving our sins. The value of Christ was utilitarian. Another way of putting this difference is to say that for the Gospel writers, Jesus is a good in himself, while for the Pauline writers Christ is a good for us.

Unlike in the first century, when science was the tool employed by the wise men to discover the divine design, science today is often interpreted as defeating or at least opposing religious belief. One of the main reasons for this is the foundation of modern biology in Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection as elaborated in On the Origin of Species, and this year that we’ve just landed in is the 150th anniversary of its publication. The theological challenge presented by Darwin’s thesis is that it seems to defeat the argument from design, namely that we can know that God exists because the world points to a designer. Evolutionary theory suggests that our world could have come about exactly as it is without a designer.

Like all good theological problems, the answer to the supposed defeat of God by evolution can be found in a joke. A group of scientists were considering the successes of modern science and came to the conclusion that God was no longer necessary. They swiftly dispatched one of their number to inform God of this. The scientist walked into heaven and up to the divine throne and said, “Well, Lord, we don’t really need you any more. We can take care of it all on our own now. We can even create life out of dirt!” “Really,” God replied. “Let’s see you do it.” As the scientist reached down and scooped up a handful of dirt, God rejoined, “Hey now! Get your own dirt.”

Yes, Darwin’s theory of evolution makes the cosmological argument, the argument from design, problematic. But evolution does not answer the ontological question, why is there something rather than nothing? Science can tell us a lot about dirt, and can even turn dirt into other things (albeit not yet life), but it cannot create dirt out of nothing, and it cannot explain why there is anything at all. This is not a new argument. It has been made for hundreds and thousands of years. Nevertheless, that God is the answer to the question of why there is something rather than nothing is an epiphany in progress in our churches today.

But what about Jesus? Is it not the case that Epiphany is supposed to celebrate the manifestation of Jesus the Christ? Well, yes, of course. And to be sure, our world could sorely use what Paul refers to when he says “the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ.” In the first chapter of Ephesians, he explains the mystery of Christ as the redemption of all people, Jews and gentiles, in God’s plan “for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” At a time when the Holy Land is besieged by violence and war, and when the greedy actions of a few devastate the living conditions of many, the message that God redeems us and holds Jew and gentile, rich and poor together is surely good news. The Pauline writers were right; the revelation in Christ is that God is for us.

Very well, but now we’ve left out the wise men, not to mention the Gospel authors! Or maybe not. The wise men read the signs in the stars and went in search of a baby. What they saw was not hidden and so it need not be revealed. It need only be discovered. The good news of this Epiphany is that God creates a world we can understand and engage. When we search, we can find the baby, evolved out of dirt over the course of billions of years. And we can love the baby, and everyone and everything else we encounter in the world God has created. The Gospel authors are right too: value is personal. As God creates our hearts out of dirt, God also speaks into our hearts that we are gathered up in the one who made us.

It may be that we have forgotten our faith in a God who creates and redeems us. As we celebrate the sacrifice, death and resurrection of Christ in the Eucharistic meal, may this Epiphany make manifest our forgotten faith. And may we find in our fellowship with Christ in the body and blood, evolved out of dirt and evolved into the person of Jesus the Christ, the revelation of the mystery that we are all one in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.