Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Towering Inferno

Exodus 13:17-22
by Daniel Harrell

We’re seeing the light in the Bible this fall, in part to coincide with our Guelich Lecture Series this coming October 19-21. We’ll welcome Dr. Jennifer Wiseman, the Senior Project Scientist for NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, who will share and show some of her findings with implications for our faith. During her visit, Dr. Wiseman also will be presenting at the University of Minnesota, mostly for physics and astronomy geeks (though all are welcome), hosted by Colonial Church, the MacLaurin Institute and the Science and Theology Network. She’ll be talking on the topic of “Exoplanets and Human Significance”—which is another way of asking whether life exists on other planets what might that might say about us here. Much of Dr. Wiseman’s research has involved the analysis of distant solar systems and the search for exo-planetary civilizations. Fortunately there’s plenty of civilization at the U. After her talk she’ll join the “Women in Physics and Astronomy” group for afternoon tea.

On Saturday the University returns the favor by bringing to Colonial Church their Exploradome, a mobile planetarium we’ll set up in the gym so that kids, their friends and parents can witness firsthand the universe Dr. Wiseman will describe. The Exploradome experience will run consecutively with her lectures so that the whole family can have an out-of-this-world weekend.

The Exploradome fits well with the book of Exodus. Not that Exodus has anything to say about astronomy, per se; but it does have its own version of a mobile planetarium. After Israel came up out of Egypt (this morning’s passage) and famously crossed through the Red Sea on dry land (you’ve seen the movie), Moses hiked up Mt. Sinai not only to bring down the Ten Commandments (twice), but also to retrieve a set of blueprints for a mobile planetarium that accompanied Israel their entire desert journey. Called the Tabernacle, it was modeled after creation itself, the heavens and the earth, and served as the dwelling place of the Lord among his people. Eventually the mobile Tabernacle gave way to a more permanent Temple, but the cosmic design remained the same so that the people would remember, as the prophet Isaiah declared, “Heaven is the throne of the Lord and earth is his footstool.”

God himself would put in an appearance at times at both the Tabernacle and Temple, in spectacularly tangible and unambiguous fashion. These days we may marvel at a glorious sunset, or be moved by inspiring worship, or even have a mystical encounter with God that deeply affects our souls. But skeptics will write off such experiences as subjective and explicable by natural causes. A sunset is the remaining long wavelengths of red light that reach our eyes, especially when reflected by dust particles or water, after the short wavelength blues and greens scatter at dusk. Music in worship stimulates the hippocampus which handles long-term memory, resourcing all kinds of erstwhile associations to fuel current emotion. Mystical encounters are neuropsychological anomalies likely resulting from stress, sleep deprivation or some excited physiological state.

With the Tabernacle, however, God’s visible presence was not so subjective. A pillar of cloud would descend onto the mobile planetarium, which was how people knew that God was in the house. It was the same kind of divine cloud that descended on Mt Sinai and that shows up in our passage this morning to lead the Israelites up out of Egypt. It was a pillar of both cloud and fire—the fire serving as headlights at night so that Israel could see the road.
 Unusual to be sure, but skeptics might say a pillar of fire is not necessarily unnatural. Throw together some wind and a dry heat in a desert, and fiery pillars are as natural as rainbows after a flood. Why here’s a news report of one that appeared recently in Australia.

Skeptics insist that once any religious phenomenon gets a natural explanation, it’s further evidence of God’s nonexistence. But this is only true if you buy the premise that a natural explanation is a godless explanation. For those who believe in the Lord as Maker of Heaven and Earth, then clouds and fire and stimulated hippocampuses are his material to work with. The psalmist declares, “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” That God would employ forces of nature to display his own nature is exactly what you’d expect from the Author of Nature. In Exodus, the ingredients of the pillar are indeed all-natural, but not their function. The supernatural part is not that the pillar of fire happened, but that it operated like an ancient iPhone, mapping out the right road for the Israelites to travel.

Now I know this may be a bad analogy given the reports of the new iPhone mapping app out this past week. The word on the street (from people lost on the street) is that Apple’s breakup with Google maps hasn’t worked out so well. Apple’s homegrown mapping app is supposed to offer beautiful cartography, turn-by-turn navigation, the ability to fly over an area and more. Instead it’s being called frustrating, inconsistent and downright inaccurate, with missing public transit stops, absent buildings and roads that wave like curly pasta. I downloaded Apple’s new operating system for my phone and when I punched in a downtown address, the directions sent me to South Dakota.

So maybe the analogy between an iPhone and the pillar of fire isn’t that bad after all. Here Exodus 13 we heard how Pharaoh finally let God’s people go, but the Lord didn’t lead them on the road running through Philistine territory, even though that was the best route. God’s Positioning System took them the long way around. The Lord had his reasons. He worried that “If the people face war, they may change their minds and drive back to Egypt.” The Philistines, though not yet the military power they would become by the time we get to David and Goliath, were still a belligerent bunch always itching for a fight. Apparently their bullying would be enough to send Israel scurrying back to their Egyptian taskmasters. Having been enslaved some 430 years, they’d grown accustomed to Egyptian oppression. Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t. It’s why longtime prisoners recidivate and abuse victims go back to their abusers.

Now you may think attitudes quickly emboldened since the next verse has Israel suddenly “prepared for battle.” But that’s a dubious translation. The Hebrew simply reads that they “walked in groups of fifties,” which could just as probably mean that Moses had them well-organized. They also had Joseph’s bones in tow, Joseph being the reason that Israel was in Egypt to begin with. If you don’t remember that story, ask your kids or grandkids since our children’s ministry covered that one recently. Suffice to say here, Joseph’s deathbed wish was to return to the land of his ancestors. Israel’s desert sojourn turned out to be a funeral procession too. But it was not a death march. Their destination was glory and a Promised Land. The Lord takes the long road to the Red Sea, because he’s got a big show for them there, after which they’ll never want to go back to Egypt. And he’ll lead them by the hand the whole way, by day and by night, a pillar of fiery cloud as their guide, so they will never get lost. All Israel has to do is follow.

Among the qualities of Minneapolis that I’ve come to appreciate is the orderly way the streets are laid out. As long as I can count and say my ABCs, I should be able to find my way just about anywhere. But after 25 years in Boston, a city without a single straight road, where urban design follows colonial cow paths and street signs are either fictional or totally absent mostly to tick off tourists, you get accustomed to roadmap mayhem and not paying attention. You learn to navigate by trial and error, which adds hours to every trip. So I get lost a lot in Minneapolis, despite the logical numerical grid and an iPhone running Google Maps, because I won’t follow. I don’t trust the directions. They’re just too simple and straightforward.

It’s an apropos analogy for my own spiritual life. The directions of the Lord are likewise straightforward: love God with your whole heart and love your neighbor. Don’t kill or steal or covet or commit adultery. Don’t hate or take revenge. Forgive your enemies and help the poor. Don’t worry and don’t judge. Ask, seek and knock and build your house on a rock. Do this and you will live, Jesus says. It really can’t get much simpler than that.

If only I had a fiery cloud now and then. A sure sign to wow me into being a better Christian. Or better yet, a God who shows up in person, calms a storm and walks on water. Israel got both the pillar and the person, but ended up impressed by neither, at least not enough to trust their directions. My problem’s not that God isn’t present. I just don’t pay attention. I don’t trust the directions.

Part of the trouble does have to do with our expecting miracles. If nothing supernatural happens then we figure God’s not around. But we’ve got to get over the idea that Mother Nature is divorced from our Heavenly Father. The Creator shows himself in his creation. “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” God reveals himself in natural ways.

And he reveals himself in special ways too. For Christians, the Bible is among the most special of these ways. We believe Scripture to be the Word of God, the testimony of His work in ancient history, ultimately in Jesus, who breaks into present history through the Holy Spirit. Scripture testifies to a future history too, a new creation already started through the cross and resurrection; a new reality of which the church itself is evidence. Though the Tabernacle and Temple are gone, God has built a new house in the hearts of his people, a house made of “living stones”, St Peter calls us, a planetarium where St Paul says we “shine like stars” for the world to see. We Congregationalists are especially mindful of this. The gathered community of faith tangibly displays the presence of God. Jesus said that we are light for the world.

And as with all light, the evidence of its existence is the way that it shines. “Let your light shine before others,” Jesus said. that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” Last Sunday I tied good works to the good work we do at our jobs, whether for pay or for free. Our work may not seem very bright or redeeming in and of itself, but when done for the Lord as the Scriptures encourage, we participate in the creativity of God and preview his kingdom to come. We shine like stars.

And yet still we wonder. Even with our Bibles, our churches, our faithful work and good deeds, how do we know God is in it? The Bible can be a pretty weird read. Churches are chock full of hypocrites and sinners. Our good deeds can have bad motivations. And as for our work done unto the Lord, well, let’s just say that I used to like to pop in on church members at their jobs unannounced until I was politely asked to stop doing that. Secular workplaces are no place for pastors. Clearly these people had never popped in on me. 

But here’s the thing: Just as the Lord is deeply present in his creation, so is he deeply present in the obscurities of Scripture, in gloomy congregations, in shady good deeds and in dimly lit workplaces. The Lord appears as fire and cloud, as light and darkness. He brightly shows himself and he remains hidden and concealed. In Eastern Orthodox theology, the dark cloud of God’s presence is as significant as the brilliant light. You can’t see the wonder of the cosmos in mobile planetariums without darkness. In the mobile Tabernacle and Temple, modeled after the cosmos, its inner sanctum or Holy of Holies was a place not of light and radiance, but of dimness and mystery. In 1 Kings, Israel’s priests come out of the newly built Temple, and “a cloud filled the house of the Lord so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord. Then Solomon said, ‘The Lord has said he would dwell in thick darkness.’” It was the same with Moses. The people stood at a distance in Exodus 20 as Moses “drew near to the thick darkness where God was.” In the New Testament, the pinnacle expression of divine love occurs on a cross in the middle of the day, “and darkness came over the whole land.”

Greek Orthodox theologian Kallistos Ware puts it like this: “Light is an apt description of the divine because, among all the constituents of the physical world, it is the least material. It illumines the objects upon which it falls without suffering loss or change in itself. It spreads throughout space yet remains undivided, conveying the impression of being everywhere at once. It holds the universe together, It is pure and clear, simple and uncorrupt, immediately accessible to us and yet at the same time eluding our grasp. More important, it is dynamic and life-giving, bestowing on us a sense of warmth, hope and beauty.

“As for darkness, it expresses the awe and numinous wonder instilled by the divine, the sense of living mystery—not mystery in the sense of an unsolved problem or a baffling enigma, but something revealed to our understanding, yet something, at the same time, that is never totally revealed, for it reaches out into the depths of God. God’s presence is experienced in darkness, yet he remains concealed.” As in a cloud.

“We see through a glass, darkly,” St Paul famously realized, “but one day, face to face. Now I know only in part; but then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” In the meantime we walk more by faith than by sight; which is not to say that we stumble around in the dark. For St Paul, walking by faith gave him all the confidence in the world, because his faith was in Christ. “I am the light of the world,” Jesus said. “Whoever follows me will never get lost.” “The LORD led them in a pillar of cloud by day, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, and neither left their place before the people.” So let’s pay attention. Trust the directions. And when you feel like you’re getting nowhere, remember: as with an iPhone, with the Lord you don't always know if you’re where you’re supposed to be—until you finally get there.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Somewhere Over the Rainbow

Genesis 9:1-17
by Daniel Harrell

“Light” is the first sentence God speaks in Scripture, and as with everything the Lord says, it happens. “Let there be light” was just another way of God saying “let there be me.” “God is light” declares the apostle John, “and in him there is no darkness at all.” With light God tamed the darkness present at creation; present in the churning chaos of deep water, deep water feared by the ancients as the mythic abode of evil. God separated the darkness from light, the water from dry land and called it all good in Genesis 1. But not five chapters later, things aren’t so good anymore as deep water returns, this time in condemnation of a creation gone bad. Only Noah, his family and an ark-full of animals survive a deluge of divine judgment. 

Recalling the familiar account of Noah and the Flood, as we did last year in a survey of water in the Bible, I wondered out loud why Noah’s Ark themes are so popular for nurseries and childhood bedrooms. These parents clearly do not love their children. Or they’ve never read the story. Genesis 6 ominously announces how “The LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the LORD said, ‘I will blot out from the earth… every living thing that I have made from the face of the ground.’” 

Even if we treat this disturbing story as an allegorical moral epic rather that as an actual historical event, as for instance St. Augustine did, Noah’s ark still haunts us as a story depicting God as the kind of God who would do this sort of thing. Not that the wickedness of humankind isn’t great on the earth, mind you. I read the news this morning. I’ve seen the cruelty we humans can inflict on each other. I’ve done some of it myself. God sees it all. If Noah’s age was anything like our own, it’s not unreasonable to imagine God doing what he did. Who at the depth of such sorrow and grief wouldn’t want to rid themselves of that sorrow and start over? What kind of God would God be if he stood by and did nothing?

We’re told that Noah gets saved because he was righteous, a blameless man in his generation—though given his generation this may not be saying much. We also read that “he walked with God,” meaning he kept faith in the Lord. And yet to look at Noah’s life is to find scant evidence of any exceptional goodness. Jewish tradition actually regards Noah as the sort of leader from whom one should learn how not to act. Noah heard God’s decree of the coming flood, yet neither argued with the Lord nor warned his fellow citizens. That he found favor with God anyway signals to us that any righteousness we possess always comes by grace. That God saves even Noah proves that mercy and justice are not mutually exclusive. Despite the torrential rain of holy reckoning, a ray of hope shines.

Here in Genesis 9, light shines in a rainbow of color. Technically speaking, we should say light diffracts as a rainbow. Upon its interaction with water, white light separates into its various wavelengths, the visible part appearing to our eyes in the familiar spectrum running from red to violet. Biblically speaking, the light of God’s mercy intersects with the waters of his justice to display a rainbow of redemptive beauty.

Specifically, the Lord labels the rainbow a sign of a new covenant he makes with the earth. We Congregationalists know all about covenants. We make them whenever we baptize or welcome new members. A covenant is a spoken contract of duty, a pledge of loyalty, a vow between faithful parties—most often in Scripture between the Lord and his people. Over and over God promises to bless them in exchange for their trust and obedience. And as with contracts we make among ourselves, Biblical covenants require signatures. We sign baptismal certificates and a new members’ book. In the Bible, God’s covenant with Abraham was signed with circumcision. The covenant with Moses was signed with Sabbath-keeping. And the covenant with Jesus is signed with water. Here the signature is a rainbow, the interesting thing being that unlike getting circumcised, keeping Sabbath or getting baptized, people don’t do rainbows. Only God can do the signing. It’s a gift instead of an agreement, another signal that any righteousness we possess always comes by grace.

Unlike other Biblical covenants, God makes this one with every living thing. It’s not limited to his chosen people. And it includes animals too. As for the rainbow, it’s not a sign to remind us that the Lord is a God of mercy. It’s a reminder to God to be merciful. “When I bring clouds over the earth and see the rainbow, I will remember my covenant and not let the floodwaters destroy all flesh.” But even with a fresh start, humanity can’t make it to the end of the chapter. Sin and wickedness do not abate. The storm clouds of the Lord gather again. Only the rainbow restrains him. By it the God remembers his core character as the Lord of Light. He is “slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression.”

Because the Hebrew word for rainbow is the same as the word for bow and arrow, numerous interpreters have suggested that the rainbow represents God hanging up his weaponry. He hangs up his bow so as not to take out his wrath on the world anymore. But I think that’s reading a bit too much into the text. God doesn’t hang up his weaponry because he doesn’t hang up his justice. The Scriptures that declare the Lord to be “slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression,” go on in the same sentence to declare that He “will by no means excuse the guilty.” “Whatever has been done in the dark will be seen in the light,” Jesus warned. Evil will get its paycheck, it just won’t be wet. When last a rainbow shines in the Bible, it’s wrapped around an avenging angel of the Lord in Revelation 10. His face blazes like the sun, his legs burn as pillars of fire, his voice booms like thunder as he grimly surveys the world’s unrepentant evil—the demonic, the idolatrous, the murderers, adulterers and thieves. The angel then raises his right hand and swears by the One who made heaven and earth. Like a lion, he portentously roars, “There will be no more delay!” 

This is another reason you should not decorate your children’s bedroom walls with rainbows.

Speaking of vengeance, I should probably say something about all the blood in this morning’s passage. The Bible mentions blood frequently throughout because blood represents life. In the Garden of Eden, Adam was a vegetarian. Noah, in his role as Second Chance Adam gets to eat meat. Things have changed since Genesis 1. Animals no longer approach humans to be named, but run from humans in dread of becoming dinner. The Lord allows poultry and beef, but not without draining the blood out first. It’s a requirement found nowhere else in the ancient world. Blood is life, and to drain it returns it to the Giver of Life in thankful recognition that one partakes of creation only by divine permission. These days, we just say grace. But saying grace traces back to Noah. (You can read about it in my Leviticus book still on sale!)

As for draining human blood, that was expressly forbidden--except for our blood drive this week. Unlike the animals, people reflect the light of God. We are made in his image and thus are commanded to be life-makers instead of life-takers. “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” the Lord commands twice here to Noah, just as he commanded Adam and Eve. We tend to limit this command to sex and reproduction, which in the case of Adam and Noah makes some sense. The earth in their days was a sparsely populated place. Humans may be a disobedient lot by and large, but “be fruitful and multiply” is actually one command we’ve obeyed pretty well, as you can see by this world-o-meter population clock. The earth’s population currently numbers seven billion plus souls; and we’re being fruitful and multiplying by the minute. These days the concern is less about eating meat than about whether there will be enough food to go around.

On the other hand, once you go a little further into the Old Testament, and further still into the New, you find “being fruitful” is not about sex and reproduction anymore. With Israel, and especially with Jesus, being fruitful becomes all about being faithful and filling the earth with the light of Christ. I know it sounds like I’m mixing metaphors here, but I do so on dependable authority. “I made you to go and bear fruit in the world,” Jesus tells his disciples, “fruit that will last.” Fruit that Jesus defines as love. “You are the light of the world,” he says, also alluding to love. “So let your light shine before others, that they may see your good works [your good fruit] and give glory to your Father in heaven. 

Here we tend to limit being fruitful to good works of kindness and generosity we do unto others, especially to people in need in ways that inconvenience us. We gladly give time and money to charitable organizations and churches (hint, hint), and we give the gospel too, sharing our faith and forgiving our debtors as God has forgiven us. To bear good fruit is to be a good Christian.

Yet bearing good fruit is not limited to good deeds, any more than being fruitful is limited to bearing children. Jews and Christians have long understood “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” as “the Cultural Mandate.” It has served as a basis for all manner of cultural activity: economic engagement, scientific inquiry, literary exploration, artistic creativity, environmental stewardship and more. Biblically speaking, to do good works is to do good work. To “fill the earth” is to make the most of the world God has made. It is our participation in the creative and redemptive work of God. To fill the earth is to make goods and services rather than just making money. (Goodness and service are very Biblical.) To be fruitful is to enable the earth and its inhabitants to flourish and shine, which gives glory to our Father in heaven.

Goodness and service will influence our social entrepreneurship project, Innove, which you will more about before it launches October 1. And goodness and service informs already the work many of you do already. Recently a few of us took a field trip to Red Wing to visit Red Wing Shoes where one of our members, Dave Murphy, serves as president. Red Wing Shoes specializes in exceptional work boots made for hard work, but has notably forayed into recreational and fashion footwear too. Dave toured us around the historic company offices and store, each corner designed to reflect enduring aspects of their handcrafted shoes, from the boot leather used as wallpaper to the signature triple stitching on the bathroom tiles. Over lunch Dave explained how his faith effects his leadership, from the local people he employees, to the excellence in the shoes they make, to the way the company gives back to the community, to the manner in which he negotiates with the unions. I was especially impressed by the way these values made their way to the factory floor. Each pair of shoes takes 250 touches, a vast assembly line of presumably menial labor, except that Red Wing shoemakers take deep satisfaction in their work.

Like goodness and service, “heart and soul” are very Biblical, they’re the means whereby we’re commanded to love the Lord. Thus they should be the means whereby we do good work. The apostle Paul said as much, when he wrote to indentured servants, no less, whose dismal labor had to be denigrating. Paul wrote, “Whatever your task, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for your master” (Colossians 3:22-24). When we do even our tedious work "as for the Lord," it has an integrity apart from anything else it might accomplish because all work done well honors God. When we do our work as for the Lord, we will want to do it with all the skill and excellence we can muster. When we do our work as for the Lord, our work can’t become an idol for which we would ever sacrifice family or health or friendship or ethics. 

When we do our work as for the Lord, there is implied a certain humility and modesty that prioritizes substance over style, depth over breadth, the long-haul over the short-run, solid quality over fancy packaging. Even if our tasks have no ‘ultimate significance,’ if done as for the Lord they do have eternal significance. To be sure, sin still pervades work as it has since Adam and Noah. As University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter (whose thoughts inspired my own) observes, the current pressures of market capitalism transform the nature of work in ways that can be profoundly dehumanizing. But this does not negate the dignity that comes from tasks well done or good deeds performed for neighbor and stranger alike. Our work may not be redeeming in and of itself at times, but done for the Lord, it nevertheless provides a foretaste of new creation and of God’s beautiful kingdom to come. When we do our work is for the Lord, we bear fruit that lasts. We bring light to the world and glory is given to our Father in heaven.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Let There Be Light

Genesis 1:1-5
by Daniel Harrell

If you’re one to keep track of these annual Celebration Sundays at Colonial Church, you’ve already realized that I’m starting this fall with the same Scripture passage I led off with last year. On the one hand you might say there’s no better way to start than “in the beginning.” On the other hand, it’s not like this is Christmas. Shouldn’t the preacher be able to come up with some new material? Rest assured this morning is not a total recycle. Last year I surveyed the entire Bible with a water theme. From start to finish, water flows across the pages of Scripture. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” to be sure, but already present, it seems, was deep, dark water over which swept a wind from God. This same wind, or spirit as the Hebrew word allows, later swept water into a devastating judicial flood, into a divided sea for exodus, into a miraculous fountain of relief in the desert, into a mythical river flowing out of the Temple, some serious baptismal power, wedding wine, a watery path on which Jesus walked, and finally in Revelation, into a stream of mercy gushing from heaven itself.
I want to embark on a similar survey this morning, only instead of riding a wave of water, I want to travel a beam of light. Like water, light shows up in the beginning too and shines on just about every page of the Bible, increasing in intensity to the point that the apostle John declares, “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.” Light, like God, is different from anything else you experience in life. You can’t touch it, walk on it, ride it to work, or feel it hit you, for the most part. But you rely on it for everything. And yet because light is so unique, isolating its properties in order to understand it has been practically impossible. Little wonder that Scripture draws the comparison of light to the Almighty himself. 
Another reason I want to walk us in the light is to highlight a very special event next month. Over the weekend of October 21, we will welcome Dr. Jennifer Wiseman, astronomer, author, and Christian who currently serves as the Senior Project Scientist for NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. She’ll present her findings and their implications for our faith in a series of talks (with pictures), sponsored by our Guelich Lecture fund.
The universe is truly spectacular. While kayaking with a good friend on Lake Superior this summer, camped out on Manitou Island during a crystal clear night, the heavens enveloped our campsite with its vast array of starry light. As only you can experience when you are far from human populations, we witnessed the vivid setting of a beet red moon, and then as if on cue the marvelous splendor of the northern lights, compelling me to instinctively echo the Psalmist of old, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mere mortals that you care for them?”
Last week I read how the spacecraft, Voyager 1, is almost at the edge of our solar system. Remember Voyager? Launched back in 1977 and loaded with 68 kilobytes of computer memory—100,000 times less powerful than an iPod Nano—Voyager’s original assignment was a tour of Jupiter and Saturn. It sent back some stellar postcards. These days, however, Voyager only beams back minimal data about magnetic fields and solar wind; data that takes about 17 hours to get back to earth. But that’s not so bad considering that Voyager 1 is almost 11 billion miles away. One of these days, or years, it will cross our solar system boundary into interstellar space. It will still be in our galaxy, of course. Our galaxy has billions of solar systems in it. Every galaxy has billions of solar systems. And there are billions of galaxies in the universe. Billions.
The Psalmist asks a good question. Who are we that God is mindful of us? Why would he care for us?” And yet we read that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” It’s an absurd notion until you realize that this is precisely the way God has always worked. Not only did the One who created the heavens pick an obscure blip of a planet to populate with people, he went on to pick the most obscure bunch of ancient people with whom to have a relationship, a people to whom he eventually showed up in person, as an indiscriminate carpenter in a backwater village in a backward time in history, only to end up rejected, unjustly convicted and strung up on barbaric instrument of execution. The Bible audaciously calls this “good news,” the demonstration of God’s love for the world, a love that the apostle Paul describes as “pleased to reconcile all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross.”
Paul goes on to employ the language of “new creation” to talk about all of this, hearkening back to the beginning. “Let there be light.” These are the very first words God utters in Scripture. And as with everything God says, it comes to pass. In this case what comes to pass is the emergence of sun, moon and stars, though these don’t appear until after the light of day one. Christianity’s critics scoff at this, bemused that God Almighty can’t get his days straight. He blooms vegetation on day three of Creation before the sun ever shines on day four. As I mentioned last year, I am one of those who considers the imagery and language of Genesis 1 to be nonscientific; they offer a different kind of description of the universe in accordance with the vocabulary and concerns pertinent to ancient Near Eastern cultures. Genesis 1 stress creation’s authorship and purpose and not its physics. For light to shine without the sun affirms light as the Lord’s calling card, the essence of his presence. As Revelation will announce regarding new creation at the end, there will be “no need of sun or moon to shine, for the glory of God is its light.”

Now to say that “God is light” is not to say that “light is God.” Light, unlike God, exists as the product atomic transitions, accelerated charged particles and matter-antimatter annihilation. And yet to comprehend light, like God, means you have to leave room for mystery. Is light a wave or a particle? Well, both. Comprehending light’s behavior humbles us just as the cosmos does. Minuscule particle light and massive starlight even resemble each other.

James Clerk Maxwell, a nineteenth-century British physicist and Christian, was among the most prominent scientists of his day. He brilliantly formulated a simple set of four mathematical equations that encompassed the physical laws governing electric and magnetic fields. He also realized that these equations indicated the existence of waves made up of these fields. Out of the equations came a value for the speed of these waves, based on numbers that could be measured from electric circuits. Amazingly, this value matched the speed of light that had been measured just five years prior. He found light to be no more and no less than a pattern of electric and magnetic fields traveling through space.

Swarthmore College physicist, Catherine Crouch writes of her first encounter with Maxwell’s discovery: “The exquisite simplicity of the universe was never so evident as at that moment. Simple, and yet incredibly fertile — the travel of light through space and matter, governed by its few principles, nonetheless manifests itself in a stunning variety of ways. Light from the sun brings us the warmth and energy needed to sustain life on our planet; we perceive the world around us primarily through images formed by our eyes from the light that reaches us; and we use what we’ve learned about light, both through recent science and through the experimentation of untold generations, to improve our vision, to heal, to communicate, to probe the structure of the molecules and organisms that make up the world around us — and to make beautiful things. And the world around us is filled with beauty that comes from light refracting through drops of water and scattering from grains of dust.”

God “saw the light” and called it “good,” though you think he might have been a little more enthusiastic. Wouldn’t a word like “fantastic” or “astonishing” have been more fitting? Not really. In Hebrew, to call something “good” is to say it looks like God. When a man ran up to Jesus in Mark’s gospel and asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus’ first response was to ask back, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” Granted, Mark uses this to tell us something about Jesus himself. Like visible light, Jesus is the visible manifestation of God. And as with God the Father, the apostle Paul celebrates Jesus as having immortality and dwelling in “unapproachable light,” light being the prominent Biblical metaphor for pure goodness. To him along belongs “honor and eternal dominion.”

Among the first things you probably learned in physics was how light travels 186,000 miles per second. Nothing can go faster. As an object approaches light speed, it gets more and more massive and thus requires more and more energy to speed it up. Consequently, nothing but light ever reaches light speed because its mass and its energy would have to be infinite—which I know must come as a disappointment to all Star Trek fans. The only thing that moves at light speed is light itself. To go faster than light is to be unapproachable light. It is to inhabit infinity. Yours would be an eternal dominion. Which when you pause and think about it, can leave you a little speechless.

This is why at in the beginning, God does all the talking. And right after making light the eternal Lord decides to make time: “there was evening and there was morning, the first day.” Next comes space, which God names “the sky.” In classical physics, tracing back to Euclid, space was understood as three-dimensions. Time occupied a fourth and separate dimension. But then came Einstein came and the discovery that space and time comprised a single continuum, a unified uni-verse, simple and elegant, just what you’d expect from the Maker of heaven and earth.

And yet notably in Genesis, God creates not by unifying, but by separating. He separates day from night, sea from sky, water from land and woman from man. We tend to see separation as destructive, but God separates light from darkness and calls it good. Why not just eliminate darkness instead? Wouldn’t that be better? Do that and you’d also eliminate pesky conundrums like “How a good God can let evil exist.” In Genesis, God’s light first shines amidst a darkness already present. For ancient readers, deep water was feared as that primordial abode of terror and evil. Genesis taps into this mythic fear, portraying a deep shrouded in darkness, formless and void—a murky Hebrew idea best understood as “total chaos.” Chaotic darkness is the stage on which God acts, and not just here but over and over throughout Scripture and life, and never more dramatically than with the resurrection light that dispels the darkness of the cross. Somehow darkness proves necessary in order for the light of goodness to make any sense. To comprehend light means leaving room for mystery.

Smart people tell us that the universe is about 14 billion years old and around 46 billion light years across and getting bigger at an ever increasing rate. How many miles is 46 billion light years across? Light travels about 5.87 TRILLION miles a year. Punch that into your calculator and multiply by 46 billion and you’ll get this: 2.70231100992E23. The E means that the numbers prior are to be multiplied by 10 to the 23rd power. Theologian Peter Enns (whose blog inspired this sermon), says that this number is what God laughing at us looks like. Of course maybe you’re thinking, how can a 14 billion year old universe be 46 billion light years wide? Do the math and either the universe is 14 billion light years wide or it’s 46 billion years old. Light can’t move faster than light. But this is not simple math. The width of the universe is due to the expansion of its objects away from each other. Relatively speaking, some of this expansion occurs faster than light. How is this possible? Let’s say you drive a car that tops out at 100mph. Drive away from another car also doing 100mph in the opposite direction then, relatively speaking, your car is now topping out at 200mph.

But that’s only part of it. Not only are galactic bodies speeding away from each other faster than light, but the “empty” space in between them is expanding too. As a younger Mister Scott remarked in the “Star Trek” reboot we watched on TV last night: “It never occurred to me to think of space as the thing that was moving.” Oh, and should also know that 46 billion light years wide is only the size of the observable universe. This is all we can see due to its age and the time it takes light to reach our instruments. The entire universe is estimated to be 10 to the 23 power bigger.

Though let’s not pretend I have any idea what I’m talking about. Astronomy and optical physics are way above my pay grade. Still, even for physicists, to comprehend light means leaving room for mystery. Light is as unfathomable as the good Lord himself. What kind of a God is this, who is capable of the sorts of things the universe displays? How can we ever imagine to know him, to speak for him, or to imagine his thoughts or his ways as our own? Who do we think we are? And yet I stand before you this morning and boldly assert that this same God who dwells in an unapproachable light that renders my calculator incomprehensible, nevertheless willingly and lovingly (and quite literally) makes time to approach me and you, to know me and you, and to love me and you so much as to suffer and die for me and for you. Which when you pause and think about it, can leave you a little speechless.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Start Here

Mark 12:28-34
by Daniel Harrell

Chances are that at some point in your life you’ve been asked to name the one thing you’d want to have with you if ever you were stranded on a deserted island. This is called a “values clarification” question. Taking for granted that everybody begins by answering they’d want a motor boat with a full tank of gas, what else would you include? What’s most important? Jesus gets asked a values clarification question in this morning’s familiar passage from Mark’s gospel. It’s more specifically, a “commandments clarification” question. “Of all the commandments we’re supposed to obey as followers of God, which one comes first?” It’s a question that also shows up in Matthew and Luke, where, like here, Jesus was coming off one of his ongoing disputes with the Pharisees. An Old Testament law professor of sorts, known as a scribe, overheard the ruckus. Matthew and Luke portray the professor as a bit of a trickster who tries to trap Jesus. But Mark casts as a straight shooter, which we presume because Jesus shoots him a straight answer, something Jesus almost never does to Pharisaical types.

The professor’s question made some sense. There were understood to be 613 commandments in Old Testament Law (the law being the first five books of the Old Testament known as the Torah). Keeping track of all 613 was problematic enough for lawyers, which means everybody else hardly had a chance. So if you could only obey one, which one would it be?

 If this had been a trick question, Jesus would have dodged it by asking a trick question of his own, or by telling a parable that made the professor look bad. But here Jesus simply replies, “The first is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’” This was no surprise. Everybody knew the first command. From Deuteronomy 6 and called the shema, from the Hebrew word meaning listen, the shema was acknowledged by all Jews as most important. Observant Jews hang it on their front doors, recite it twice a day and strive to make it the last words they say before they die. I remember burying a sweet saint who as a Christian sang the shema three times a day and had it sung at his memorial service too. He said he sang it so as not forget to do it, since as we all know, loving God is one of those things that if not done deliberately, never happens by itself.
The surprise was Jesus adding a second commandment which in Matthew’s gospel he labeled as of equal importance to the first. “‘Love your neighbor as yourself’”Jesus said. “There is no commandment greater than these.” While it may look as if Jesus’ answer was a tricky one in that he named two commandments when the professor only asked for one, note that Jesus only states one command. One verb. Love. It’s one verb with three objects. Love God. Love your neighbor. Love yourself.

OK, so Jesus doesn’t really command that you love yourself. Loving yourself doesn’t really need a commandment. Most of us do it without being told, if not out of selfishness then at least out of self-preservation. Loving yourself unduly may be unseemly, but here Jesus speaks of self-concern rather self-conceit. Just as you take time for yourself, take interest in yourself, want what’s good for yourself and make excuses for yourself―so you should take time for your neighbor, take interest in your neighbor, want what’s good for your neighbor and cut your neighbor slack. What’s surprising about Jesus inclusion of this commandment is that while “love God” shows up in Deuteronomy on the heels of the Ten Commandments and a majestic speech by Moses, “love your neighbor” is oddly and obscurely buried in the middle of Leviticus. No one would have thought it as similarly important. Especially since, “love your neighbor” was buried alongside a number of somewhat wacky Levitical commands about not mating different kinds of animals, not planting your field with two kinds of seeds, not wearing clothes woven from two kinds of material and not sleeping with a woman who is a slave girl promised to another man.

Most of you know by now that I wrote a book about Leviticus entitled How To Be Perfect. Jesus said we’re supposed to be perfect as our heavenly father is perfect, and obeying Leviticus was long understood as the way to do that. In some ways the book is autobiographical, it’s about a month I spent abiding by the book of Leviticus with 19 other people. Not that it made us perfect. Which may be why my book proved to be less popular than Leviticus itself.

While falling short of perfection, nobody’s perfect, I will say that for an entire month my tribe of virtual Levites and I did manage to refrain from mating different kinds of animals, from planting mixed seeds, from wearing mixed fabrics and from sleeping from slave girls promised to other men. Granted, these were fairly easy commands to keep (even the clothing one). Nobody in the group was a breeder or a farmer or, thankfully, knew any slaves. But everybody had neighbors and loving our neighbors was not so easy for reasons that are familiar to us all. Loving others like you love you yourself comes about as naturally as loving God, without even mentioning Jesus’ caveat that you love your enemies too. Due to the steep degree of difficulty loving your neighbor presents, Luke’s gospel has the professor following up by asking Jesus for further clarification. Exactly “who is my neighbor?” he wanted to know, whereby Jesus, in more typical Jesus-fashion, told with the parable of the Good Samaritan―which predictably made the Jewish professor look bad along with the rest of us too.

We tend to interpret the Good Samaritan as a parable about social justice: It’s not right for anyone devoted to God--in this case a priest and a Levite--to bypass a person in need--in this case a fellow Jew assaulted by robbers and left by the road. That a despised Samaritan helps out and goes above and beyond what anybody would have been expected to do is what gives the story its sting. The famed Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard defined justice as each person giving and getting their due, it’s all about what’s rightly yours and mine. But love, he wrote, blissfully confuses all of that, erasing the distinction between yours and mine. While a distinctive you and an I must remain for there to be love, the yours and the mine must vanish. Thus the Good Samaritan is not a story about social justice as much as it’s a story about love.

The lawyer had asked, “Who is my neighbor?” a justice question about yours and mine. But Jesus gave a love answer. A man in the wrong place at the wrong time, gets saved by the wrong person just in time. By centering his reply on the kind acts of a Samaritan, whom faithful Jews would have considered a heretic and an enemy, Jesus underscored the fact that righteous belief never substitutes for compassionate action. “To love your neighbor” is not about correctly defining the object, “neighbor,” but about rightly doing the verb, “love.”

“The Bible is very easy to understand,” Kierkegaard wrote, “but we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand the Bible because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly.” We swindle ourselves this whenever we treat Jesus’ words as idealistic guidelines to aim for, or worse, an intentional high bar we can never get reach so as to recognize our need for grace. Nobody’s perfect, so why bother trying? Just confess your sin, get your grace and get on with what you were going to do anyway, and then come back next Sunday and do it again, like hamsters on an ever-spinning wheel. Leave actual obedience on the high shelf out of reach, or better, simply toss it aside labeled derisively as “works.”

Not that salvation ever comes to us by works, it doesn’t. It’s a grace only proposition. But you still have to do something to show that you’re saved. As Brian told us last Sunday, what you believe is what you do. Jesus wondered out loud, “Why do you call me Lord and yet not do what I say?” And then, “If you truly do love me, you will keep my commandments.” This is the link between loving the Lord and loving your neighbor (noting that for Christians Jesus is Lord). As the apostle John would later put it, “anyone who does not love his neighbor whom he sees, cannot love God whom he has not seen.” “Christian love is not high, ethereal, heavenly love,” Kierkegaard wrote, “but love descended from heaven to earth. It humbles itself, as did Christ, in order to love the person it sees just as it sees them. This as our duty. The task is not to find a lovable person, but to find lovable whomever you see.” To see is to love. The priest and the Levite both saw the assaulted man by the road, but neither loved him. The despised Samaritan, when he saw the man, loved him by bandaging his wounds and taking care of all his expenses.

“The matter is quite simple,” Kierkegaard wrote. It does begin with loving God; or at least it begins with responding to God’s love. “We love because God first loved us,” the apostle John, “He loved us so much that he gave his only begotten Son.” God gave everything to us who deserve nothing, and therefore God justly demands that we give everything we have to him. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind.” Do this and you give all you have to God, which you're glad to do because the Lord saved your life. But here’s the thing, Kierkegaard concluded: God who justly demands everything from us needs nothing from us. Therefore, the everything that you’ve devoted to God is now freed up to devote to your neighbor. Same verb. Different subject. Loving God (who is easy to love) is what makes loving your neighbor (who can be hard) and loving your enemy (which is impossible) possible because now you have so much love to give.

Granted, you may not necessarily buy the premise that God is easy to love. God is demanding. God is invisible. and he’s hard to hug. Which is why he eventually showed up in person. But even if you could still see Jesus yourself, that wouldn’t necessarily make loving him easier since to love him would still mean doing what he said: No worrying, no hate, no lust, no lying, turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, forgiving without limit, loving your neighbor, loving your enemy--no way you’re getting off that hamster wheel without a serious change of heart. Therefore Jesus added the following: “If you love me you’ll keep my commandments, and my Father will love you, and we will come to you and make our home in you.” This is a remarkable assertion, and it’s a promise fulfilled. Way back in Ezekiel the Lord said of his people, “I will give you a new heart, and put a new spirit within you; I will remove your hard heart of stone and give you a new heart of flesh, so that you may follow my statutes and keep my commands and obey them. Then they shall be my people, and I will be their God.” And so we are by the Sprit of God who dwells in us. Therefore if you don’t love the Lord and your neighbor as yourself, it’s certainly no longer not because you can’t.

The Old Testament professor graded Jesus an A for his answer. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” This was a significant concession from one whose whole life was entirely built around burnt offerings and sacrifices. So significant that Jesus told the professor that he was not far from the Kingdom of God. How far is not far was left unsaid. We never know whether the professor makes it in. And that’s probably intentional. While there is a confidence that comes with the assurance of salvation, there is a complacency too. “If you love me you will obey my commands,” Jesus said, and to the extent that we don’t is the measure of our own distance from his Kingdom.