June 25, 2017 – Third Sunday after Pentecost
Proclaimer: Rev. Martha Kearse, DMin
Sermon Series: Ten Commandments for the 21st Century: The Calling of Wisdom
Sermon: A2 + B2 = C2
Scripture: Exodus 20:4-6, Proverbs 8:22-31, John 3:1-15
Once upon a time, there was a man named Isaac Newton who knew a great may things. He knew, for example, that the Earth is not a perfect circle, but an ellipse, larger in the center than at the ends. No one else in his 17th century world knew this—something which had made it impossible to calculate the correct distance between the Earth and the sun through triangulation, which many people were trying to do. All the measurements assumed a perfect circle, and this was just not so.
When Edmond Halley (who had famously said, “Look there’s a comet!” and then 75 years later, “Look, there it is again!”) asked Newton to essentially solve a bet between feuding scientists by publishing a paper on his elliptical Earth conclusion, Newton came back in 1685 with his Principia, in which he did not merely calculate the distance between the Earth and the Sun—a central measurement now called the astronomical unit or AU, which is the basis for measuring distances in space—he also applied math to the orbits of planets, mapping the solar system for the first time. He identified gravity, not from an apple bonking him on the head, but again from applying math to his own observations. The force of gravity, he said, is equivalent to the inverse of the distance between two objects squared, and the combined mass of the objects. He outline 3 laws for motion:
1)an object moves in a direction until acted on by other forces;
2)an object at rest stays at rest until acted on by other forces;
3)every action has an equal and opposite reaction.
This is in 1685—still 90 years before the American colonies get sassy with England, 58 years before Thomas Jefferson is even born and 8 years before the royal charter of a small college in the Williamsburg colony in VA.
When Newton, who found people annoying and problematic, published his Principia, those who could understand it (as he made it purposefully arcane) walked around for weeks in a daze. It was mind-blowing in its accuracy and scope. It opened doors others did not even know were there. Newton had created his own calculus, described the Earth and solar system, explained the new concept of a force of gravity and the ways that force worked. Everything we know now is based on his work.
And Newton was also spectacularly wrong. Beyond being something of a jerk, Newton was an alchemist—he believed that if he just kept looking, he would find a way to turn ordinary metals, such as lead, into gold. A sample of hair from his head was tested in recent years and revealed that he had enough mercury in his system from experiments in alchemy to become a very fine battery. What did he know? As brilliant as he was, Newton spent a fair portion of his life chasing a flawed and pointless theory.
Our guy Nicodemus, in today’s story, is kind of the same way. This is an educated man. A leader in the community. He’s got the stripes on his robe and the fuzzy hat to prove it. He’s had a life, probably since he was quite young, of being listened to and respected. And he’s come to see Jesus under cover of darkness in order to get something straight. You see, he knows the law—he’s a good boy. He put all his chips in the basket that says, “Be a good boy, follow all the laws, and you’ll get what you want and God will be happy.” And this nobody from nowhere, this Nazarene who is loved by people but has absolutely NO stripes on his robes, seems to be saying something else. Not only that, this guy is doing it ALL WRONG—hanging out with tax collectors and fishermen and women (shudder). And children! Ewwww! So, not wanting the others in the stripey set to know what he’s up to, he goes to find Jesus after dark.
He says, “I’m seeing something in you—something that could only come from God.” Implied question: “If you are from God, how come you’re so weird?” And Jesus, in his usual infuriating and vaguely insulting way, says, “You cannot see the kingdom of God unless you are born again.” What the what? There is nothing in the law about that. What does that even mean? Nicodemus gives Jesus a snarky reply: “What—I’m supposed to crawl back up in my mother’s womb?” Snort. Condescension. Disdain. And Jesus gives him the 3 Stooges slap on the back of the head—“You’re a leader and keeper of law—how do you not know this?” Jesus tells him the law is about spirit—he invokes the image of wind, which in Greek is the same word as spirit: pneuma. Jesus is not talking about order or community or even being good; Jesus is talking about spirit and love. A God who, having created the world, loved it so much that God sent a piece of God’s very self to be with us and connect us to God’s love.
This commandment—the second part of the first commandment—is also one of the most overlooked. Stealing? Got it. Adultery? No way! But we tend to think that because the days of melting down gold rings to make a golden statue of a calf are past, that we don’t have to look out for this one. In reality, event assuming we give a pass for the ACTUAL BULL which presides over Wall St., making idols is a central and basic human activity. The theologian Joan Chittester says that we tend to make God in our own image, having God want what we want, and trust what we trust. This week in New York, I asked our young people what things they thought we put ahead of God as our idols—things in which we put our faith instead of God. They gave me a fairly long list:
Status popularity technology power
Parents celebrities athletics money
It is easy to trust these things. We can see them. We trust laws. We trust finances—numbers on a page that tell us exactly where we are. We trust governments, we trust technology and people we see on a big screen—and all this before we even consult the God of all the universe. And we do this despite the fact that, regularly, these things fail us utterly. A small group of people play with the housing market, and our finances fail. Celebrities and politicians fail us on a pretty much daily basis. And don’t get me started on technology, which, fairly often, in New York City, told us to go in the wrong direction. And despite all this regular, observable failure, we continue to put our time, our effort and our faith into these things. Playing first person shooter games or watching endless hours of Netflix is fun, so we devote our time and energy to them. Finances are quantifiable, so we rely on them for our security. Parents are ever-present and loud, and we feel vaguely guilty about all they have done for us, so we do what they want instead of trusting our own instincts or calling.
In this second part of the commandment, God describes God’s self as “jealous.” This word, in Hebrew, is a word which is only used in this exact context: a reference to God. It implies a worthiness, and an obligation on our part to recognize that worthiness. God is not jealous like we are when our friends get a new pair of Japanese blue jeans or an iPhone 8 which requires a small surgery to get the implants. God is a very short word for a concept beyond gravity, beyond molecular structure. What Jesus is describing to Nicodemus is a part of life that is beyond the visual, beyond the quantifiable, but not beyond observation. The spirit of God blows through the world, and across the universe—loving everything created and sending that love, like a spray of star dust into the world. That God is worthy of our worship, and worthy to be at the center of all we do, and say, and believe.
I recently saw a movie which depicted human beings, possibly a century from now, traveling towards a “new world” through space. It was going to take them 90 years to get to the new planet, which, necessarily, was out of our solar system. And, if in the next century, human beings learn how to travel safely at speeds close to the speed of light, that might be possible. But the truth is, that distances in our universe are so immense, that travel—even just outside of our solar system—is incredibly unlikely. Traveling at the speed humans can currently travel—which is about 35,000 mph—it would take us 12 years just to get to Pluto, which isn’t actually the edge of our solar system. From there, we would have to get to the other side of the Oort cloud, which is made up of rocks and gasses and is a further 10,000 years away. To get to the other side of that Oort cloud, we would have to travel 50,000 AU’s, which, as you may recall is the astronomical unit equivalent to the distance between the Earth and the sun. The nearest star to the Earth, Proximi Centauri (which really isn’t proximi at all) is 4.3 light years away, or 25,000 years of travel in a space ship. Carl Sagan, when describing the place of planets in space said, “If we were randomly inserted into the universe, the chances that you would be on or near a planet would be less than one in a billion trillion trillion (1/1033); worlds are precious.”
Our God is the God of that universe. And if we cannot imagine the distances of space, or even get ourselves safely to the next planet over—which we cannot do yet without all the astronauts who go being killed by radiation we cannot protect them from—we might want to embrace some humility. We’re not fond of humility in this culture—we don’t love saying, “I can’t do that,” or “I can’t understand that” or “I’m going to need help.” We practically had to staple these very smart young people to our sides this week to keep them from taking off on their own in the heart of New York City. But the first commandment is God’s way of reminding us that we are not God, and cannot picture God, and might want to remember that. God will not be boxed in—God may have characteristics of a lion, or a bull, or a lamb, but God is more. Much more. And it behooves us to be child-like, and to remember that we cannot reach everything that is on the table. This week in NYC, we went to the top of the Freedom Tower, 1200 feet in the air. We flew there and back at 27,000 feet. We traveled below the city at untold levels, down where the subway cats come out at night and pull unsuspecting travelers off the platforms if they are not careful. We were in a city with 19 million people, and in visiting Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Manhattan, Central Park, Washington Square and many other places in the city, we saw only a tiny fraction of them. And far from making us feel small, we didn’t think about our size, because we had something better—we felt connected. Connected to each other, connected to those we served, connected by food, by mops, by songs, by communion, by the grace of our leader, Lee Gray, and by the force of love that is our God.