Who we are / What binds us together

Sermon for the Feast of All Saints

Delivered at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in St. Joe’s, MI.

Ephesians 1:11-23

Most of us know what it’s like to be in the middle of a conflict.

At first, we might be in a little bit of denial about the whole thing. We say, “Meh, it’s no big deal.” We go for a walk, get a snack, maybe take a nap, and wake up feeling right as rain.

But sometimes, that’s not enough. We wake up and we’re still feeling mad about it. This is a good thing because anger, even though it doesn’t feel pleasant, is our brain’s way of telling us that something is important to us. For example, it’s easy to just let it go when some hothead cuts you off in traffic, but harder when your teenager tells you they want to drop out of high school. Anger is a healthy thing when it reminds us about what’s important, but not so healthy when it festers so long that it turns into resentment and contempt.

In order to stop that from happening, we need to sit down and have those difficult conversations about what really matters. We have to listen to each other’s point of view and try to negotiate a compromise. If that works, great! If not, it can leave feeling pretty hopeless. We throw our hands up and go, “Ugh! I guess that’s it. The yogurt has hit the fan and we’re all headed for Hades in a handbasket. Whaddyagunna do?”

And that, I think, is a very interesting question, if we ask it honestly. What are you going to do? That question, when asked honestly, leads us past the surface level of conflict, opens us up to new possibilities, and reminds us of what is most important: The mystery of who we really are and the reality that binds us together at the deepest level of our existence.

That mystery, that reality, is what the author of the epistle to the Ephesians is talking about in the Scripture reading we just heard.

At the end of the first century, the Church in Ephesus was in a pretty rough place. Only a few decades after its founding, it was already engulfed in a controversy that threatened to tear the community apart from the inside. The controversial issue, in that time and place, was the question of whether a person could really be a Christian without first becoming Jewish. It helps to remember that, at that point in history, Judaism and Christianity were not yet separate religions. Christianity started as a renewal movement within Judaism and only later took on a separate identity of its own.

On one side, conservatives were saying, “Listen! Jesus was Jewish. All of his apostles were Jewish. The Bible clearly states that the Jews are God’s chosen people. Therefore, if a person really wants to be a follower of the way of Jesus, they first have to convert to Judaism and follow the ways of the Torah.”

On the other side, the liberals were saying, “No way! Jesus was an enlightened being. He had no patience for your backward traditions. Therefore, we are going to purge the Church of all that superstitious nonsense and have a truly progressive spirituality.”

(By the way, does any of this sound familiar to anyone who has watched the news lately? It should. Two thousand years later, and we are still having the same fight.)

Enter the author of the Epistle to the Ephesians. This person, writing in the name of their mentor St. Paul, is trying to help the Christians in Ephesus figure out how to be the Church for the long haul. In the first generation after Jesus’ earthly ministry, it seemed to the Church like the end of days was imminent, so they didn’t put much thought into creating an institution that would help people follow Jesus for thousands of years to come. They sincerely believed, at that time, that sustainability was a non-issue. As time wore on, however, it slowly dawned on these Christians that they were going to have to hunker down and figure out a way to live as the people of Jesus in a world that wanted nothing to do with him. So, for the first time, these Christians are asking questions about how to live together as people from different social classes, ethnic groups, languages, ages, and genders. And all of this was happening at the same time as Christians everywhere were being excommunicated from traditional Jewish communities and actively persecuted by the Roman government. Needless to say, it was a very contentious and complicated time to be a Christian. (Much like today.)

In the moment of this letter, the author of Ephesians writes to that Church in the midst of apparent hopelessness, appealing to the deeper truth of who they really are and what really binds them together. The author tells them that they have an “inheritance,” a “destiny,” and “hope” that come from their faith in God. According to the passage we read tonight, the same divine energy that raised Christ from death to new life is now at work in the hearts, minds, and bodies of those who follow the way of Jesus.

In some mysterious way that transcends rational understanding, the very lifeblood of Jesus now flows in our veins and we have become his hands and feet on this Earth. We are, all of us, essentially one person, and that person is not you or me, but Jesus Christ himself. Later in the epistle to the Ephesians, the author writes, concerning the controversy that was tearing their Church apart, “[Christ] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” (Eph 2:14 NRSV)

Jesus Christ is who we are. All other identifying factors are secondary to that one truth.

The modern theologian who expressed this truth more beautifully than anyone was a French Jesuit priest named Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

Fr. Teilhard, writing in the early twentieth century, lived his faith in a time that was every bit as fraught and contentious as the first century. He was a stretcher-bearer on the front lines of World War I. He was, in addition to his vocation as a priest, a paleontologist in a time when the Roman Catholic Church wasn’t yet sure what to think about the writings of Charles Darwin.

For Teilhard, there was no conflict between faith and science. He saw the whole history of the cosmos, from the Big Bang to the formation of stars and planets, from the evolution of life to the emergence of human beings, all 13.8 billion years of cosmic history, as a single story of God’s creation and salvation.

Teilhard’s hope and vision was that, one day, all things would be part of the Body of Christ. By “all things,” he really did mean ALL. THINGS. When Teilhard imagined the Body of Christ, he wasn’t just thinking about all Christians, all humans, or all of planet Earth. He was thinking about the entire universe as the Body of Christ.

The Vatican of that time wasn’t quite ready for a cosmic vision as big as Teilhard’s. They censured his work and forbade him from teaching theology. Teilhard, as a good Jesuit, obeyed the order but continued to write in private. He entrusted his papers to a friend, who published them after his death.

Writing in his private journal, Teilhard struggled with the Vatican’s resistance to his ideas. He looked to God for assurance and prayed, “O God, if in my life I have not been wrong, allow me to die on Easter Sunday.” Shortly after writing that prayer, Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin passed away on April 10, 1955… Easter Sunday.

I think Fr. Teilhard was right, and I think the author of the epistle to the Ephesians would agree with me. God is in the business of reconciliation, but not assimilation. God seeks unification, but without uniformity. We are one, not because of any shared ethnicity, nationality, party, class, or gender, but because God has made us one in Christ. The very lifeblood of the risen Christ flows in our veins, just as it has in all the saints of history, and still does in the atoms of the most distant galaxy. That is the faith that will give us the wisdom and the strength to navigate the many conflicts of our time as faithfully as the Ephesian Christians did in theirs. That is the truth about who we really are and the glue that will bind us together, both now and forevermore.

Amen.

Newness of Life

Easter Vigil sermon.

The text is Romans 6:3-11

Dearly beloved, we gather together this evening to celebrate the mystery of resurrection.

The resurrection of Christ is the central event of the Christian faith. In the season of Easter, we remember how the disciples, in some way that defies rational explanation, experienced Jesus as alive after his crucifixion and death. Many historians over the past two millennia, secular and religious alike, have debated the evidence about what really happened on Easter. What they all agree on, however, is that something significant happened that set Christianity apart from other Messianic Jewish movements of the time (of which there were many) and that the unanimous agreement among the earliest Christians was that Jesus had risen from the dead.

Tonight, I will not presume to settle this longstanding debate about the historical facts. Such questions matter deeply, but I leave the resolution of factual questions to archaeologists, historians, and biblical scholars better equipped and better educated than myself. Christian faith in the resurrection is about more than just picking sides between competing sets of alternative facts.

Resurrection, as I said at the beginning, is a mystery. As such, it is more than an historical event that happened once upon a time in Jerusalem; it is an eternal event that is always happening, in every time and place. That is why I say that we have gathered to celebrate the mystery of resurrection, and not merely commemorate it.

When we celebrate something, we give honor to an event that is also an ongoing reality. When we gather together for a birthday or an anniversary, we don’t just remember a birth or a wedding, we celebrate the ongoing reality of a person or a marriage. The Church does the same thing in our celebration of the mystery of Christ’s resurrection. 

St. Paul elucidates this aspect of celebration in the passage we read tonight from his Letter to the Romans. Paul writes:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

For Paul, the mystery of the resurrection is an eternal event, in which we all participate. The ritual that makes this eternal event real to us is the Sacrament of Baptism. In Baptism, Paul says, we come to participate consciously in the death and resurrection of Christ. The significance of this conscious participation is primarily ethical, according to Paul. He says, “We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.”

Paul’s presentation of death and resurrection in Baptism is akin to philosopher John Hick’s description of the spiritual journey as “the transformation of human existence from self-centeredness to Reality-centeredness.” According to both Hick and Paul, the spiritual journey of death and resurrection is a paradigm shift of Copernican proportions, in which our fragile egos come to realize that they are not, in fact, the center of the universe. In the mystery of death and resurrection, we come to embrace the reality that our true selves are rooted and grounded in the sacred energy that is eternally giving birth to the cosmos. Our individual selves are temporary manifestations of that energy, like waves on the surface of an infinitely vast ocean. Our true life, as it were, “is hidden with Christ in God”(Colossians 3:3), and this eternal life is one over which death has no final victory.

Dearly beloved, the mystery of resurrection is not limited to a single event in first-century Judea, but has been unfolding from the beginning of time until now, and I have every reason to trust that it will continue to do so in perpetuity. Furthermore, the mystery of resurrection is not limited to Christians, humans, or even planet Earth, but is active in all corners of the universe simultaneously. 

I do not ask you to tonight to put blind faith in these statements, simply because they have been spoken from a pulpit. I invite you to examine the facts for yourselves.

Approximately sixty-six million years ago, an asteroid more than six miles wide slammed into Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. The impact made a crater 110 miles wide and twelve miles deep, deposited a layer of iridium in soil around the planet, and set off our planet’s fifth mass extinction. Seventy-five percent of all life on the planet, including the dinosaurs, were wiped out by the environmental devastation unleashed by this impact.

There can be no debate about the profound destructiveness of this event, but there is a wonderful and creative aspect to the story that is often overlooked. During the time of the dinosaurs, mammals were small in size and few in number. Tiny shrew-like rodents huddled together in underground burrows in order to avoid the gargantuan lizards that dominated Earth’s surface. 

Unlike the reptiles, natural selection had gifted these little mammals with a powerful new tool in their brains, called “the limbic system.” The limbic system is the part of our brains where emotions are produced. It governs our social relationships and allows us to make more complex judgment calls than the basic survival instincts of our brain stem. Because of the limbic system, mammals were able to care for their young andform bonded family groups. Those little rodents were more to us than just vermin infesting the forest floor; they were our great-great-great grandparents.

When the dust finally settled after the asteroid impact that killed the dinosaurs, our mammalian ancestors cautiously emerged from their underground dens and began to explore the surface the Earth. In time, they evolved into primates with a highly developed neocortex (that’s the computer part of our brains) and, eventually, into humans. 

So, the asteroid impact that caused the death of the dinosaurs also led to the evolution of new forms of life. Because of our cuddly mammalian ancestors and their beautiful little limbic systems, this cataclysmic extinction event opened the door for deeper expressions of love than had ever existed before on planet Earth. And you, the people sitting in these pews tonight, are the direct descendants of those brave and loving creatures. 

Here, in the very fabric of our planet, we discover the mystery of resurrection at work on a timescale that predates the human by millions of years. There is also, in this discovery, a profound harmonization between the scientific story of nature and the biblical story of creation. Dr. Francis Collins writes, “God has now given us the intelligence and the opportunity to discover [God’s] methods… For me scientific discovery is also an occasion of worship” (Time Magazine, August 7, 2005).

Turning from the Christian story of Easter and the scientific story of creation, we can also findthe great mystery of resurrection at work in our lives today. In every life, it is said, a little rain (and not a few asteroids) must fall. Each of us endures moments (or seasons) of crisis, in which we die a little (or a lot) to one way of being and rise to another. Perhaps a job or a relationship has not turned out as expected; perhaps a diagnosis or accident has derailed one’s plans for the future; perhaps a person or community, in whom one had trusted, has utterly betrayed that trust. Even happy events, like weddings and graduations, can be occasions of death for one’s former way of life.

Like most parents, I can remember that there was once a time before I had children, but I no longer have any emotional access to that memory. Since becoming a father, my energy, my time, and (Lord knows) my money are no longer my own. Adapting Paul’s words to my present circumstances, I can definitively testify that the luxury of my formerly child-free life has been “buried with Christ by baptism into death,” but I can also testify that the experience of parenthood has opened my heart to greater depths of love and raised me to “newness of life” in ways that I could never have imagined. In my life as a father, and in my life as a Christian, I must come to admit that I am no longer the center of my own little world. Instead, I am but a speck of dust in company with my fellow specks, orbiting around a much greater center of our being. My self-centeredness has died and been resurrected as wonder and love on a cosmic scale.

This Easter, I invite you to consider the many deaths and resurrections you have endured in your life. I invite you to ask yourself: What are the cataclysms and crises that brought an end to an old way of life for you? What helped you make it through those days? What new insights and perspectives did you gain from those crises that you continue to carry to this day? Finally, looking at the present challenges in your life or the world around you, what new possibilities might be emerging from just below the surface?

As you ask yourself these questions, I pray that the answers you find and the meaning you create will lead you to “newness of life” in the mystery of resurrection. Whoever you are, whatever your personal beliefs or faith tradition may be, and in whatever way is most meaningful to you, may you journey alongside us Christians in the spirit of our Easter proclamation: “Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!”

Vocatio

In situ.

Nobody paying attention.

Those who should be

listening,

are not.

Lying

close at hand.

My name

echoing back

in a voice not mine.

Was it you?

It was not.

More lies.

Repeat the cycle,

again and again.

Getting restless.

I don’t even know

anymore.

Frustration mounting.

Somebody say something.

A rare moment of insight.

That voice again.

Listening harder

for something

I don’t want to hear.

Reality speaks

without words

that will not go

unheard.

This is no time

for prayers.

Restlessness

Still

Lying.

You need

to listen;

You say

you want to.

This is right;

This is real.

Just not

what I wanted to hear.

Trust me on this.

Becoming Love

Sermon I gave for Memorial Day weekend at People’s Church (Unitarian Universalist) in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

A friend asked me this week, “What do you tell yourself when you are fearful of your own mortality and the fragility of your own life?” This is one of those questions that people ask you when they find out you’re a minister. (I suppose it’s an occupational hazard.) It’s an important question that gets at the heart of what drives people to religion and spirituality in our culture. 

I say, “in our culture,” because this is not the only question that has driven the spiritual quest in every place and time. The ancient Hebrews, for example, had no concept of an afterlife. Their primary religious question was not, “What will happen to me when I die?” but “What will happen to our people now?” The reward they conceived for obedience to the Torah of their ancestors was not a blissful afterlife for individuals in heaven, but a prosperous life for their community on Earth. Individual mortality was a given for them, but the survival of their people was of paramount importance. 

The Jewish concept of an afterlife developed over time and took several different forms before the beginning of the Common Era. Later Christian formulations evolved from those forms. Both traditions, to this day, maintain multiple views and opinions on the subject of the afterlife. 

Other spiritual traditions have their own opinions about what happens to people when they die. Hinduism and Buddhism, for instance, both espouse a belief that people in the West call “reincarnation” (though a Tibetan Buddhist friend tells me that his tradition prefers to call it “rebirth”).

Some (though certainly not all) who claim no religious affiliation take a “that’s it” approach to the end of a person’s physical existence. “The body dies,” they say, “and then that’s it.Nothing else comes next.”

I will not be so bold as to attempt to resolve this important question for all of you today. One of the beautiful things about Unitarian Universalist communities is the theological diversity that exists among your membership. It would be a sacrilege to insult that diversity by imposing one particular interpretation above all others. What I purpose to do instead, in this sermon today, is to take an “at least” approach to questions about the afterlife. Whatever else life after death may (or may not) be, it is “at least” as much as what we know through science.

Let’s start with the following assertion: Reality is relational. At every conceivable level. Community is everything and everything is community.

This is a fact. We know this from our study of the universe. 

At the macroscopic level, planets and stars are drawn together by gravitational attraction to form solar systems and galaxies. 

At the microscopic level, we can observe those same gravitational forces drawing electrons, protons, and neutrons together to form atoms. Atoms bond to form molecules. Molecules form cells. Cells form organisms. Organisms form ecosystems.

At the level of human observation, gravity is the arm that Earth uses to hold us all close to her heart. 

Human beings and other animals experience a similar force of attraction that draws us together into families and communities for the purposes of survival and reproduction. When we experience this attraction to one another, and the conscious choice we bring to that attraction, we don’t call it gravity; we call it love.

In politics and economics, our choices to honor “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” and respect “the interdependent web of all existence” are themselves acts of love. To quote the present-day prophet Cornel West, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” 

Even the individual “I” that I think of as “me” is, in truth, a community. My consciousness is an emergent property of the electrochemical relations between the cells of my body.Biologists refer to this as “the neural network.” The atoms that presently comprise my body were forged billions of years ago in the furnace of a long-dead star. The stars are my ancestors and are part of me today. As Carl Sagan was so fond of telling his audience, “We are star stuff.” After my biological life is over, the atoms of my body will disperse and go on to become part of someone else. From the cellular, to the social, to the solar levels, and everywhere in between, reality is relational.

The relational nature of reality is the story I’m telling myself” about life after death. Whatever else the afterlife might (or might not) mean, it means at least as much as this. How then do these thoughts about the relational nature of reality help us in our spiritual reflections about life after death?

First of all, I think the relational nature of reality gives us a way to get past the seemingly insurmountable differences we find between various theories of the afterlife. If reality is relational, then relationship is the ultimate source from which all beings derive their existence. If reality is relational, then equitable relationships (with ourselves, each other, and the planet) are the highest and most sacred goal that human beings could pursue. Terms like “most sacred” and “source of all being” are titles that people in some religions would apply to their concept of “God.” My favorite passage in the sacred texts of my own Christian tradition is 1 John 4:16, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” This passage takes on new depths of meaning for me when I hold the phrase “God is love” next to “reality is relational.” A person need not be religious or believe in a personal deity to see the value in this interpretation.

When I die, my body will be recycled back into Earth. I will still be giving new life to other organisms long after I am gone. Those organisms too will eventually die and pass the gift of life to others, just as it was passed to us. The physical and chemical elements that currently empower my neural network will eventually disperse and enter into new relationships with other beings. The “I” that think of as “me” will one day become part of someone else. On that day, relationship will be all that is left of me. On that day, I will become love.

When I imagine death and reality in this relational way, I can see how people in some spiritual traditions could say that the dead have been “reborn” or “resurrected.” If the dead have indeed “become love,” I can understand how some might say that they now have “eternal life” with God and the saints. I can also see how it makes sense to believe that an individual’s personal identity ceases to exist when their brain and body stop functioning. When we imagine reality as relational, we gain the power to resolve the conflict between differing interpretations and religious traditions. We gain the power to hold all of them (and more) together in a unified and interrelated whole.

The second gift that relational nature of reality offers us is the power to have faith without superstition. A person need not believe in a personal God or an immortal soul to accept that reality is relational. If reality is relational, a naturalistic worldview need not necessitate the cynical belief that life is meaningless or hopeless. Indeed, a naturalist who understands the relational nature of reality may find it easier to grow a meaningful and hopeful life than a traditional theist who maintains belief in “God” and “soul” as isolated monads. Even the most ardent atheist can say a heartfelt “Amen!” to the Unitarian Universalist principles of “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” and “respect for the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part.”

This understanding of the relational nature of reality offers much to us, but it also asks much from us. It asks that we let go of our egocentric and anthropocentric ways of thinking and living. It asks that we stop centering ourselves in conversations and focus our attention on serving the common good. It asks us rememberthat the way we treat ourselves, our fellow humans, and ourplanet has more spiritual value than any religious dogma or spiritual platitude ever could. In the words of Jesus of Nazareth, the only way to truly love God is by loving your neighbor as yourself. The relational nature of reality asks us to “become love” while we are still alive and have the power of intentional choice. This, in the end, is the kind of life that matters most.

On this Memorial Day weekend, the people of this congregation have gathered to remember those who have come before us, those who have died, those who have “become love” in our midst. May our good memories of these people inspire us to become the hands and feet of love while we still have breath in our lungs. May our bad memories of these complex and imperfect people guide us to honor their legacy by doing better than they did. May we learn from their successes and failures. May we, by our own moral choices, claim our place in the cosmic network of relationships until that day when our biological functions cease and we ourselves “become love.”

Improvising a Life

It was my great privilege to be a guest speaker at the Unitarian Universalist Community Church of Southwest Michigan this morning. I am so thankful to be able to celebrate with this lovely faith community and make lots of new friends!

The meditation on which the sermon is based is the following video by Abigail and Sean Bengson.
I highly recommend watching it before listening to or reading the sermon.
It will lift your spirits and provide context for my message.

Here is a video recording of the message.
I apologize for the scruffy sound of the microphone on my shirt.
I didn’t realize that was happening during the talk.
If you would rather read than listen, the typed manuscript is posted below.

As I begin, I would like to express my sincere thanks to several people for the opportunity to join you in celebration on this beautiful Sunday morning. I would like to thank your minister, the Rev. Gy Ludvig-McCartney, for inviting me to join you and share my thoughts with you today. Our thoughts are with Gy and their spouse Patti this morning. I would also like to thank your Director of Religious Education, Miriam Epskamp, for her kind and helpful guidance in helping me navigate the technical challenges of online church during a global pandemic. Finally, I would like to thank all of you, the lovely people of the Unitarian Universalist Community Church of Southwest Michigan, for your warm welcome into this sacred space and time on this first Sunday of the year 2021. It is a great honor to participate in your worship service and I hope to make an inspiring and informative contribution this morning.

I love the video of the ‘Keep Going On Song’ for several reasons. First of all, it sends a message of hope and compassion in a year when we sorely need it. It comes from fellow travelers who were struggling through 2020 just like the rest of us. They used their powers of creativity to bring a little more light and goodness to a world that was (and still is) feeling like a very dark and lonely place.

But more than that: I love this video as a musician. The way that the singer improvises around the chord progression and returns to the chorus is magnificent. There is an orderliness in the structure of the song, and there is also chaos in the improvisation. This song could never be sung the same way twice.

I would like to talk with you today about this unfolding interaction. When order and chaos come together, they form something that is neither one nor the other. Nor do they reach a compromise between the two extremes. What they form is something new that includes and transcends both order and chaos in their fullness. The word I would like to use for this new thing is creativity. And creativity is what I would like to talk about with you today.

Creativity, understood as an emergent property of the interaction between order and chaos, is fully present in the natural world. I can see it happening particularly in the process of biological evolution, which has been happening on this planet for the last 4.5 billion years, and is still continuing today.

As many of you grownups will remember from your high school biology classes, there are two main components to the engine of evolution. The first component is genetic mutation. This the chaotic part. A mutation is a copy error that occurs in our DNA during the process of cellular division (mitosis). Something in the code unexpectedly changes, which alters the way the new cell functions when the code is read. Often, these errors are harmful to the new cell, but every now and then, a mutation happens that is actually helpful.

Now, the question arises: How do our cells decide which mutations are helpful and which ones are harmful? Well, that’s where the second component of the evolutionary engine comes in.

Genetic mutations cause changes that give either an advantage or a disadvantage to an organism’s chances for survival in its environment. A mutation, for example, that allows a cell to digest a certain kind of food in an environment where that food source is abundant will have a survival advantage. In other words, the new cell that can digest the food is more likely to survive than the cells that cannot digest that food. When this new cell later divides into daughter cells, it passes on its mutation to the next generation. The other cells, meanwhile, are more likely to die before they can reproduce. The name that biologists have given to this process is natural selection.

Natural selection is the orderly component of the evolutionary engine. It takes the errors provided by genetic mutation and determines which ones will provide a survival advantage for the organism. The process itself may be blind, but it is certainly not random.

Critics of evolutionary theory have sometimes used an imaginary example to explain why they think a blind process could not produce the immense diversity and complexity of life that we have on this planet today.

“Imagine,” they say, “a monkey in front of a computer, randomly pushing keys on the keyboard. What are the odds that this monkey could accidentally produce a Shakespearean sonnet? The odds are infinitesimally small.”

The purpose of this thought experiment is usually to demonstrate the idea that something as beautiful and complex as a Shakespearean sonnet can only be produced by a conscious entity with the intelligence of William Shakespeare. “So,” they say, “there must be some kind of intelligent designer at work, consciously directing the process of evolution in ways that are not random or chaotic.” Most proponents of this intelligent design hypothesis use this thought experiment as an argument in favor of the existence of God.

But there is a key piece that intelligent design proponents leave out, and that key piece is natural selection. If we were to adapt the monkey/computer thought experiment to account for natural selection, we would have to add something like the following:

Imagine that there was some kind of system in place that rewarded the monkey with a banana each time it pressed the correct key in the correct order. Over time, the monkey would be able to realize and remember that pressing certain keys in a certain way gave that monkey an advantage. And now, imagine that there was some way to keep each correct letter on the computer screen while erasing the incorrect letters. Finally, imagine further that there were millions of monkeys working on this project at the same time, and each time a monkey anywhere pressed the correct key, the letter on the screen would be kept. Suddenly, it is not at all inconceivable that the monkeys might be able to produce a Shakespearean sonnet in a very short amount of time! And all this would happen without any of the monkeys being aware of the literary masterpiece they were creating. (See Endnote 1)

This is how the creative process of evolution works. It uses the interaction between chaos and order to improvise increasingly diverse and complex forms of life, up to and including you wonderful homo sapiens who have gathered together online to reflect on the meaning of life this Sunday morning.

Music and evolution are not the only places in the universe where chaos and order come together to improvise bonds of creativity. We humans, individually and collectively, have an opportunity to make our own unique contribution to the ongoing creativity of the universe.

You and I experience the interaction of chaos and order in our lives on a daily basis. The chaos has been particularly evident over the course of the year 2020. We are currently living through a global pandemic that has claimed nearly 2 million lives, so far. We have endured quarantine, lockdowns, and violent reactions against those lockdowns. Frontline medical workers, such as myself, have put our lives on the line to care for those who have contracted and sometimes died from COVID-19. We have all witnessed (and some of us have participated in) protests against acts of police brutality that disproportionately impact people of color in the United States. Many of our fellow citizens (including my wife) have been tear-gassed, beaten, and shot by the very officers we commission to keep us safe from unlawful acts of violence. We Americans have endured the spectacle of a particularly contentious presidential election and watched in horror as the legitimacy of that electoral process was called into question by those who have sworn to uphold it. The collective chaos in 2020 has indeed been particularly evident.

In the midst of chaos such as this, it is not uncommon for humans to grasp at straws for meaning. We say things like, “Everything happens for a reason.” The more religiously inclined among us might say, “God has a plan.” In the midst of chaos, many of us might ask, “Why is this happening,” or, “What is the meaning of life, anyway?”

I think we humans tend to ask these questions because we are afraid that the alternative to an orderly plan is a universe that is entirely chaotic and meaningless. We have already observed, however, that life is not entirely chaotic or orderly, but the product of a process that includes and transcends both chaos and order: the universe is a creative process. (See Endnote 2)

I would like to propose a new question this morning: What if the meaning of life is not something we find, but something we make?

The making of meaning is how we humans participate in the process of creativity. Things happen to us that seem chaotic: The lost job, the failed relationship, the missed opportunity, the unforeseen disaster, or the chance encounter. What is ultimately important about these events is not the events themselves, but the story we tell ourselves about them.

When a relationship ends, we can say to ourselves, “That’s just proof that I will never be loved in the way that I want to be,” or we can say, “I have made many mistakes in this relationship, but I will work on myself, learn from my mistakes, and act differently the next time I am in another relationship.” When a baby unexpectedly dies, we can say, “This is evidence that I am just not ready to be a parent,” or we can say, “I will join a support group to help other parents, who are enduring this inestimable loss, and make a way through the darkness of grief.” We cannot control what happens to us in life, but we can decide how we will respond to our chaotic circumstances.

When the unexpected happens, will I choose respond with faith or fear? Will that which does not kill me make me more cynical or more sensitive? Will I use my experience of pain to hurt or to help? The choice is up to us.

May the powers of creativity, compassion, and courage, which are already within you, be your guide, your strength, and your hope as you go out into the world. May each of you become meaning-makers in the midst of chaos, today and every day.

So say we all.

Endnotes

1. I adapted the extended metaphor of the monkeys at the computer from Breaking the Spell: Religion as Natural Phenomenon by Daniel C. Dennett.

2. I am indebted to Karl E. Peters for the conception of creative process as an interplay between chaos and order, especially in regards to genetic mutation and natural selection. See especially his book, Dancing with the Sacred: Evolution, Ecology, and God.

Apocalypsis

(For Kamala, Susanna)

Who is this,
arrayed in white,
washed in blood
unseen
of the unheard?

“I’m speaking.”

And we,
daughter,
are listening:
eyes upturned
in this moment.

Crystal veil
rent overhead:
jagged shards
falling past,
a third of all stars,

held tight
by gravity’s arms
to the bosom
of the center
of the Earth.

How could you know?

You were never told
any different.
You never knew
impossible.

Never mind
the glass.

You can’t tell
it’s there,
or maybe
I can’t tell
it isn’t.

What Can Love Do?

Holy Eucharist for Sunday, Proper 25, Year A
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Kalamazoo, MI

Matthew 22:34-46

The culture of Jesus’ time and place, much like our own, was no stranger to the perils of partisan conflict. Today’s gospel opens in the middle of an argument between two established schools of Jewish thought: the Pharisees and the Sadducees.

These two communities offer alternative interpretations of Judaism, in much the same way that different denominations offer alternative interpretations of Christianity today. Additionally, because there was no “separation of church and state” in the ancient world, the Pharisees and Sadducees also functioned as something like political parties in Judea. Imagine, if you will, a messy situation where The Episcopal Church functions as the primary meeting of the Democrats, while the Southern Baptists set the platform for the Republicans.

The Sadducees were a smaller group of wealthy elites who centered their worship on the sacrificial rituals of the Jerusalem Temple. Theologically, they accepted only the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures, as divinely inspired and authoritative. They did not believe in destiny, angels, or an afterlife. Politically, they sought friendly and peaceful relations with the occupying Roman government.

The Pharisees, on the other hand, were a somewhat larger group of the lower classes. Their worship emphasized the study of the Torah in synagogues under the tutelage of learned rabbis. In addition to the five books of the Pentateuch, Pharisees also accepted the oracles of the prophets, collections of wisdom literature, and the oral interpretations of rabbinical scholars. They believed that moral purity would reform their national life and convince God to send the Messiah, an anointed king who would liberate their people from foreign occupation and influence. The Pharisees went on to form the foundation of Judaism, as it is practiced today.

Together, the Pharisees and Sadducees were both thoroughly Jewish movements. As joint religious denominations and political parties, they advocated competing agendas for “God and country” in Judea during the time of Jesus.

Our gospel reading for today begins as Jesus is ending a debate with one member of the Sadducee party. A nearby Pharisee, a legal scholar, listens with great interest to this argument. “If Jesus is obviously opposed to the Sadducees,” he thinks, “then maybe he is a member of our party?” With this question in mind, he decides to put Jesus to a little theological test about the Jewish Scriptures.

“Rabbi,” he says, “which mitzvah (commandment) in the Torah is the greatest?”

Jesus responds by ushering his interlocutor into the heart of their shared tradition by referencing the Shema.

The Shema, in Judaism, is the foundational faith statement of monotheism:

“Shema Yisrael:” (Listen, O Israel:)

“Adonai Eloheinu,” (The Lord is our God,)

“Adonai Echad.” (The Lord is ONE.)

This declaration of oneness represents not only the heart of Jewish tradition, but the heart of reality itself, as Jesus and his fellow Jews understand it: That, beneath the unfathomable diversity of beings and events in the universe, is Sacred Oneness.

Mystics, from many different religious traditions, affirm this Oneness in ways that are remarkably similar to one another. Lao-Tzu, the Buddha, Rumi, and Meister Eckhart all describe a state of Non-Duality that includes and transcends all separations: self and other, left and right, light and dark, spiritual and secular. Spirituality, it seems, is the art of unifying opposites in transcendent wonder.

Neurologists have identified those parts of the human brain that allow us to lump together separate objects as parts of a unified whole. Their studies of dedicated monks and nuns have demonstrated that those parts of the brain are particularly active during periods of intense meditation, thus explaining those experiences of peace and unity that mystics have tried to express for millennia.

Physicists, in their study of the beginning of time, have likewise affirmed that the universe seems to have had its beginning in a Singularity of time, space, matter, and energy that exploded some 13.8 billion years ago in a cataclysmic event to which we now refer as the Big Bang.

Jesus’ response to the Pharisee in today’s gospel makes reference to this same Sacred Oneness at the heart of reality itself. The only appropriate response to Sacred Oneness, Jesus declares in the words of the Torah, is Love.

The greatest commandment in the Torah, according to Jesus, is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” These words, adapted from Deuteronomy 6:5, appear in the Torah immediately after the verse which lays out the Shema for the first time. “The Lord is one,” Jesus says in effect, “and the only appropriate response to Sacred Oneness is love.”

But Jesus doesn’t stop there. For Jesus, love is not just the sappy feeling sensationalized in pop songs and rom-coms. For Jesus, love is not something you feel, but something you do. Love is action. Love is a verb.

This creates a problem: How does one show love to Love Itself? What could mere mortals possibly offer to a God who, by definition, already has and holds everything in the tender embrace of the Divine Self? The answer, according to Jesus, is simple: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

This commandment comes from the Torah as well, from Leviticus 19:18. It comes on the heels of Moses’ teaching about vengeance: “You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin… You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

This commandment to love one’s neighbor speaks directly to the problem of partisan conflict, which was as active in Jesus’ day as it is in our own. Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “An eye for an eye and eventually the whole world goes blind.” Desmond Tutu, the Anglican Archbishop of South Africa (who has worshiped in this very church), said similarly, “There is no future without forgiveness.”

The commandment to love receives its most explicit and biting explication later in the New Testament, in the first epistle of St. John, chapter 4:

“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them… Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”

Brothers and sisters, I put it to you today that the commandment to love God and to love one’s neighbor are not separate, but a single commandment from our Lord Jesus Christ himself. The Way of Love moves at heart of everything Jesus said and did in his life on Earth. In the venerable words of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, “If it ain’t about love, it ain’t about God.”

Notice that neither Jesus nor John, neither Mahatma Gandhi nor Archbishop Tutu, neither the Torah nor the Presiding Bishop puts any provisos or exceptions on their joint commandment to love.

I am as aware as each and every one of you that we have the misfortune of living in a moment when love seems more powerless and the people of this country seem more divided than ever.

What can love do when our elderly and most vulnerable neighbors are being stalked by an invisible predator that steals the air from their lungs while their families watch in horror from the other side of a reinforced glass window?

What can love do when the beautiful bodies of our black brothers and sisters are left bleeding in their beds and on the streets, full of bullet holes?

What can love do when temperatures rise and songs of praise to the Author of Life are silenced at the rate of a species every single day? What can love do?

Brothers and sisters, this is the very question that I put before this morning: What can love do?

The answer we give to this burning question is the only response that God is interested in hearing from us. It is the only offering we can make that is worthy of the name Worship.

Love, in all its living and active forms, is the embodied reality that has the power to overcome all the partisan divisions of Jesus’ day and our own. Love is the only appropriate response to the Sacred Oneness that gave birth to the universe.

Let us return to the biblical exhortations of St. John the Beloved, in chapter 3, verse 18 of his first epistle: “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

As we go out into the world this week, let us honor that Sacred Oneness. In the words of St. John, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

As we catch ourselves in the mirror while shaving or brushing our teeth, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

As we relate to family and friends, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

As we interact with coworkers and classmates, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

As we converse with neighbors and enemies alike, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

As we read the news headlines and prepare to head to the polls next week, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

I close, once again, with these memorable words from Presiding Bishop Curry, which he borrowed from Jesus, who borrowed them from the Torah of his ancestors: “Brothers and sisters: love God, love your neighbor, and while you’re at it… love yourself!”

A Trunk of Old Letters

Reading the Bible is complicated.

Imagine finding a trunk in an attic that’s full of letters between multiple generations of great grandparents:

It will take years to get through them all and fully understand them. You will have to study history to appreciate why the letters written during the Civil War are different from the letters written during the Great Depression.

Over time, you will get to know the people writing the letters, what they cared about, and what their issues were. You might be disturbed with them on some issues (e.g. “OMG, our great great grandparents owned SLAVES?!”).

But you will still treasure them because they tell the story of your family and how you got to where you are today, hence they give you insight into who you are. The Bible is no different.

Christians love and treasure the Bible. It can inform, inspire, and guide us, even though we don’t necessarily agree with our ancestors in all things.

The Bible is not simple black and white. It has multiple views on abortion, marriage, slavery, the afterlife, God, Satan, etc, because the Bible is not a book, but a trunk of letters.