Posted by: dacalu | 20 January 2020

Light from Light

This morning, I had the pleasure of worshiping with the people of Emmanuel Episcopal Church on Mercer Island. We celebrated the second Sunday after Epiphany and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Here is the sermon I shared.

Prayer for II Epiphany

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings

Isaiah 49:1-7 (“I will give you as a light to the nations”)

Psalm 40:1-12 (“I waited patiently upon the Lord”)

I Corinthians 1:1-9 (“in every way you have been enriched in him”)

John 1:29-42 (“He said to them, ‘Come and see.'”)

Sermon

Today, I want to talk about three words,

            words we say each week in the Nicene Creed:

            “Light from light.”

In full, I might say

            “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,

            the only son of God, God from God, light from light, true God from true God,

            begotten, not made.”

What does it mean that Jesus is “light from light”?

Like light, God makes things clearer,

            God shines light on us so that we grow,

            so that we understand ourselves better,

            and so that we understand our neighbors better.

This is one of my tests for right belief and right behavior.

            Does it help me understand the world better?

                        Do I think more clearly and know more?

            Does it help others understand me better?

                        Do I speak more clearly and communicate more?

Light improves transparency and openness.

It is a good standard in science.

Good scientists make theories simple and clear,

                        easy to grasp and easy to test.

            They craft experiments

                        that definitively reveal the truth of their hypotheses,

                        or their falsehood.

It is a good standard in engineering.

            Good engineers make tools simple and clear,

                        easy to use and understand.

            They make code and cars and computers

                        as intuitive for the user as the designer.

It is a good standard in general,

            for thinking and speaking and community.

Shining light on your own thoughts, emotions, and motivations

            leads to self-awareness, clarity, and integrity.

Shining light on your surroundings

            leads to knowledge and wisdom.

It is a standard for faith as well.

CS Lewis put it succinctly:

            “I believe in Christianity

as I believe that the sun has risen:

not only because I see it, but

because by it I see everything else.”

But what do I mean, concretely?

             My belief in God has brought me to a better understanding of myself.

                        Talking with God has taught me about myself,

                        given me tools and courage and compassionate companions

                                    for real self-reflection.

                        I find that I am not perfect,

                                    but can improve.

                        I am both stronger and more flexible than I knew.

            My belief in God has brought me a better understanding of others.

                        It revealed a world of persons and souls,

                                    imperfect as I am imperfect,

                                    improvable as I am improvable,

                                    and each with their own fears and delights,

                                    each with their own identity.

            My belief in God has also brought me a better understanding of the world.

                        By believing in a God who made all things,

                                    and who made all things good,

                                    I learned that all things deserve my attention,

                                                my curiosity, and my love.

I choose to believe in God,

            on those days when God isn’t speaking too loud to ignore…

I choose to believe in God,

            because God brings light.

More than that,

            God is light.

Consider vision

            Photons from the Sun bounce off of objects

                        and travel to my eyes,

                        where they stimulate rods and cones

                        and send signals to my brain.

            This is not a miracle in the classic sense.

                        Real, physical particles pass through space,

                        connecting observers to the world.

            It is still miraculous,

                        wondrous and amazing and worthy of awe

                        that we see clearly and know the world around us.

Like light, God connects me to the world.

            The interactions are just as physical, just as real;

                        a word, a glance, a gesture

            somehow communicate my thoughts, my feelings, my identity.

When I remember that God connects us

            and can connect us

            I pay attention.

            And, the more I pay attention, the more I see:

                        more curiosity, more clarity, more light,

                        and more God.

So far, I could say these words as a Buddhist or Hindu or committed empiricist.

            I have spoken for truth and wisdom.

I am happy to preach that gospel,

            and to share it.

            Christians have no monopoly on the truth.

            But we, with all other truth-seekers, must spread the good news

                        because there are plenty of people out there

                        spreading lies, hiding truth, and worshipping the darkness.

We must not take truth for granted.

We must not take light for granted.

But there is more.

As a Christian, I can say,

            and I do believe,

            that Jesus makes God more visible.

Jesus is light from light and truth from truth.

He is the fundamental order and knowability of the universe,

            the logos of the cosmos.

But, he is also a real, physical person in time and space.

Like the photon,

            his very physicality allows others to communicate,

            with God and with one another.

In a way, he is as un-miraculous as the photon.

            Our God is not a transcendent abstraction,

            but a concrete, historical figure,

            who asks us to do specific things –

                        to love and learn,

                        to eat and drink with one another,

                        to forgive.

We test our faith in these acts.

We ask whether they lead to more light and truth.

We ask whether they improve our life and our relationships.

That is what “light from light” means to me.

And it is my aspiration.

            Just as Jesus is a light from the light of God,

            so I hope to be a light from the light of Christ.

When we participate in the life of Christ,

            concretely, physically, specifically,

            we participate in the light of Christ.

It allows us to judge our creeds and our institutions.

It allows us to judge our actions.

Do we bring clarity?

Do we create connection?

Have we witnessed to the light of Christ?

I do not claim to do this perfectly.

            The thought makes me want to laugh and cry.

            I claim it as a hope, and I strive to do it better.

I do not claim that the Christian Tradition,

            or the Anglican Communion,

            or the Episcopal Church,

            or the Diocese of Olympia

            do this perfectly.

We are, however, committed to improving.

And we must hold ourselves accountable to that standard.

Do we bring light to the world?

Do we hold ourselves to standards of clarity and transparency?

Do we have ways to improve?

Martin Luther King reminds us of what it means to bring things to light:

            the danger and the power and the opportunity.

He said this:

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.

Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

The real virtues are not the mirror image of vices.

            Light is not the equal opposite of darkness,

                        but a real, physical, tangible power filling the darkness.

            Knowledge is not the equal opposite of ignorance,

                        but a concrete ability to see and touch the world.

            Love is not the equal opposite of hate, or even of selfishness,

                        but the creation of connection, order, and meaning,

                        where once there were only isolated objects.

This is the Epiphany of Christ,

            sacred and secular,

            wrapped together.

This is the mission of the church:

            To preach Jesus Christ,

God from God

Light from Light

True God from True God.

This is your opportunity and your power.

Posted by: dacalu | 18 January 2020

God's Metabolism

Last week I had the pleasure and privilege of going on retreat with the Society of Ordained Scientists at the Redemptorist Renewal Center in Tucson, AZ. At our first Eucharist, we reflected on the season (Epiphany), the theme of the retreat (authority), and the readings of the day. Here are the thoughts that I shared.

Collect for the Society of Ordained Scientists

Almighty God, Creator and Redeemer of all that is, source and foundation of time and space, matter and energy, life and consciousness: Grant us in this Society and all who study the mysteries of your creation, grace to be true witnesses to your glory and faithful stewards of your gifts; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Readings

Colossians 1:24-2:7 (“I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.”)

John 8:12-19 (“I know where I have come from and where I am going”)

Sermon

How many of you have a beloved mystery,

            a question that troubles and delights you

            because it provokes insights without ever being fully answered?

To be clear, this is not a perverse resistance to an answer.

            I long with all my heart to know.

            I just never seem to get there.

Nor is it just a poorly framed question like

      “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”

Admittedly, that one may have had real value in the High Middle Ages,

      when modal logic and Platonic Realism had more currency

      than materialist physics.

No. A beloved mystery must be a question

            sincerely meant and diligently pursued.

It is a quest.

My quest is this:

            what is life, that I am mindful of it?

I am a biologist, so I’m concretely focused on the life we share

            with animals, plants, and fungi, even bacteria –

            the life of our bodies,

            or, if you like, our metabolism.

I can’t be sure that there is a rigorous,

analytic or empirical answer to the question,

but I can’t avoid using the word, ‘life,’

so it must mean something to me.

Life has value.

And, I have come to suspect that life, metabolic life,

            has serious theological implications as well.

Not some abstract mental or spiritual life,

      but the concrete life of flesh and blood,

      the bodily life Christ took on in Jesus,

      and shared in bread and wine.

It is an ancient mystery,

      asked around the world,

      not just by Christians.

Why must we eat other living things?

Why can’t we, like plants, live off of light?

Why must we kill to eat and live?

It takes on special significance for Christians

            in the Incarnation – God with us,

            in the Eucharist – Christ’s body and blood

            and in Church – membership in the Body of Christ.

These are metaphors, of course, but they are not just metaphors.

            As with anything else in scripture,

                        it bears playing out literally before reaching too far into symbolism.

So, when we speak of the Body rooted in Christ,

            and held together by the Spirit, the very breath of God,

            what did that mean to Paul,

            and what might it mean to us?

I cannot pass over this question as a theologian

      without passing through it as a scientist.

The biological question turns out to be quite difficult to answer.

What is life?

What makes a body a body, and not just a lump of matter?

Every organism persists through time,

            despite a constant turnover of matter,

            cells and tissues, gained and lost,

            formed and reformed.

            It brings whole new meaning to Ecclesia semper reformanda est.

                        The body must ever be reformed.

            The difference between living tissue and dead tissue

is not in its composition,

nor even in its origin,

but in its action and how it relates to other tissues.

            The same is true, I think, of Christian life.

                        I do not live to myself or for myself.

                        I am not a Christian because my parents were Christians,

                                    though my faith could not exist,

                                                at least not in its present form,

                                    had it not been passed to me through them.

                        I am not a Christian because I have been baptized,

                                    though that act planted a seed in me.

                        I am a Christian because of my faith, hope, and love,

                                    because of curiosity and community.

                        I did not make these things;

                                    I was grafted onto them, and into them.

I was, quite literally, incorporated into the Body of Christ.

            As I am fueled by bread and wine,

So I am fuel for the church,

                        I am accepted, transformed, and put to use.

It is an uncomfortable metaphor,

            being so very common, so very material, so very… visceral.

I shy away from the baseness of it.

And yet, the more I look at the question,

            the more I ask about God’s metabolism,

            the more I realize how fundamental this idea is scripture,

                        to faith, and to community.

I am dead to self, but alive in Christ.

I am rooted in Christ, the living water.

I am grafted onto the tree which is Christ.

And the mystery of life in Christ is the same as the mystery of metabolism,

            because I am material and local,

            just as God was material and local

            and local bodily life is essential to who we are,

            but they are not the fullness of who we are.

My physical, temporal self lives,

            being part of something dynamic, persistent, and transformative.

My body lives because it is continually remade.

My church lives because is continually remade,

            continually interacting with the world,

            breathing in and breathing out.

It is not the frozen seed of isolationism, slowly consuming itself.

Nor is it the gluttonous blob of colonialism,

            consuming all it meets while resisting change.

It is alive and real and,

            though we cannot see it,

            constantly changing into something new and wonderful.

And we, all the while, are growing with it.

Posted by: dacalu | 12 January 2020

Everything is Holy

Today, I had the joy of worshiping with the people of St. Michael and All Angel’s Episcopal Church in Tucson, AZ. Here is the sermon I shared.

Prayer for the Baptism of Jesus

Father in heaven, who at the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan proclaimed him your beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit: Grant that all who are baptized into his Name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Readings from Scripture

Isaiah 42:1-9 (“I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.”)

Psalm 29 (“Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his Name; worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.”)

Acts 10:34-43 (Jesus Christ is Lord of all)

Matthew 3:13-17 (John baptizes Jesus in the River Jordan)

Sermon

Shall we get in trouble?

I think I know you well enough

            and Brother Dave well enough.

Let’s give it a try.

You see, one of the challenges of preaching

            is that it involves speaking to many people at the same time.

No matter what you say, everyone will understand it differently.

Everyone has a different context and a different language.

Everyone has different priorities.

And that makes it very tempting for the preacher

            to say as little as possible,

            to make no grand claims,

            and to avoid, if at all possible,

            recommending concrete courses of action.

I confess to doing this myself.

It’s not quite as cowardly as it sounds at first.

A congregation is a complex system,

            and a very small force

            can cause a very large change

            with unpredictable results.

So, it’s usually wise to go one step at a time.

Looking back, you’ll remember the major course corrections,

            but it is the accumulation of individual steps,

            putting one foot in front of the other,

            day in and day out,

            that gets you somewhere.

Remember that.

Still, every once in a while,

            we have to shake things up.

So here it is.

Everything is holy:

            from the altar to the street,

            from the human mind to the lowest bacterium,

            from a drug addict to the president of the United States,

            saints and sinners,

            human and inhuman.

There is no cavern so dark that God is not there.

There is not a single thing in the wide cosmos

            unworthy of our love,

            and in which we may not see,

                        if only very faintly,

            the image of God.

This is what it means for God to see that all things are good.

This is what it means for Christ to be the logos of the cosmos,

            the reason and pattern and order of the universe.

There is no war, for Jesus is the alpha and the omega,

            the all in all of all there is.

If this does not deeply offend you,

            I suspect you have not fully grasped it.

It offends me, and I’m the one saying it.

Anyone can see that the world is profoundly messed up.

We have harmed one another,

            wounded our nation,

            wounded our planet,

            and weaponized theology.

How could we possibly say that everything is holy?

What does that even mean?

It means we have an existential choice to make,

            a fundamental decision about how we approach the world.

I cannot defend it on any other grounds,

            it is the first choice and perhaps the last.

Either God is in all things, or God is not.

And if God is not there, this place,

no matter how small, and dark, and cramped

becomes a God of its own.

It exists for some other reason,

            has some other purpose,

            witnesses to some other truth.

And suddenly, there is a war in Heaven.

            Good A and good B.

At best, we call this Dualism,

            a war of equals.

At worst, it is an excuse for the powerful to oppress the weak.

And that is how it usually appears,

            in stories and theology.

We are told to ignore, to hate, to conquer, to destroy,

            that which is not God.

You can find it in scripture; I don’t deny it.

You can find passages to support Dualism and Conquest

So deep is the choice, so central to our view of the world,

            that once we have chosen it, we can find it anywhere.

No one can make us see what we refuse to see,

            know what we refuse to know,

            love what we refuse to love.

To choose a divided universe,

            to make our god less than God,

            is to adopt moral blinders,

            that blot out everything else.

A person who is not “of God” is a disposable person.

            I cannot accept this.

Even a rock which is not “of God,”

as tool if not as an object of love in its own right,

is a negligible rock.

I cannot accept this.

It does not fit with the God of Genesis and John,

            the God we meet in Jesus,

            the God who not only lived and died for us,

                        but returned for us after we had killed him,

            the God who permeates Creation.

And yet, we know that the world is messed up.

            Creation groans with the weight of malice,

                        sickness and death and separation.

            We deny God in one another and in the world God has made.

How do we reconcile the two insights,

            the goodness and the unsatisfactory-ness of our surroundings?

Let me suggest that the sacraments and the church

            are not our response to God,

                        or not just our response to God,

            but God’s response to us.

We cannot see that the whole world is holy,

            so God uses the church

            to set things apart

            and says, “look at this; this is holy.”

All bread is holy. All bread is miraculous.

            What could be more amazing than our ability

                        to take that which is not us and turn it into our very bodies?

            What could be more miraculous than our relationship

                        with wheat and micro-organisms

                        that turns sunlight into nutrition,

                        manna from heaven?

            But we forget,

                        and so we set aside this bread,

                        and say “look at this; this is holy”

                        in hopes that one day,

                        we will see God in all bread.

All people are holy. All people are divine.

            What could be more amazing than memory, reason, and skill,

                        our ability to see and understand and change the world?

            What could be more miraculous than our ability to repent,

                        to change our minds,

                        to be more than the product of our environment?

            But we forget,

                        and so we accept those who come to us,

                                    and come to God with us,

                        and we baptize them

                                    in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,

                        in hopes that one day,

                        we will see God in all people.

Jesus did not go to John in order to receive some perfection he lacked.

            God’s grace is not a commodity.

            Baptism is not certification of holiness,

a get out of Hell free card, or ticket to Heaven.

Jesus went to John, so that he could be seen to be holy,

            and perhaps so that he could see himself as holy.

Jesus went to John to enter into a relationship of grace,

            where two people recognized God’s will in one another.

Theologians call this sanctification: to set apart, to declare holy, to consecrate.

            The common invisible holy becomes specially, visibly sacred.

If that were the whole story, it would not be enough.

If John baptized Jesus and no one else…

            If he did not speak truth to Herod…

If Jesus did send out his disciples…

            If Jesus did not return to Jerusalem…

Then the story would not be told.

When we set apart the sacred,

            so that we may, ever and always,

            ignore the secular,

            we blind ourselves to the holy.

We end up worshiping a god who is less than all in all,

            less than the alpha and the omega,

            less than God.

Sanctification that stops is idolatry.

Turning to God and not walking forward is not true faith.

The process of sanctification starts with bread and wine,

            but it will not be finished until everyone is fed.

It starts with baptism,

            but it will not be finished until we respect the dignity of every human being.

It is not magic, but neither is it only psychological.

            It is an act that participates in the grace it recognizes.

            It is a mustard seed that grows into a tree.

            It is a truth that reveals other truths.

And we become one with Jesus Christ,

            God from God,

            light from light,

            true God from true God,

            begotten not made.

We join the body of Christ.

I am here this week for a retreat,

            joining with the Society of Ordained Scientists,

            to renew our commitment to God, to one another, and to the aims of the Society

  • To offer to God in our ordained role the work of science and technology in the exploration and stewardship of creation.
  • To express both the commitment of the church to the scientific and technological enterprise and our concern for its impact on the world.
  • To develop a fellowship of prayer for ordained scientists by the following of a common rule.
  • To support each other in our vocation.
  • To serve the Church in its relation to science and technology.

Because there are not two worlds,

            one sacred and one secular,

            one scientific and one theological,

            one material and one spiritual.

There is one world.

And God who made all things

            invites us to see and know and love all things

            as confusing as that may be.

God invites us to search out unknown, invisible, abundant grace,

            to make it known, to make it visible, to make it common place.

It will transform us, and it will transform the world.

You need not be ordained, and you need not be a scientist.

You need only be willing to look for the truth, no matter how uncomfortable,

            to seek light amidst the darkness,

            to be open to love amidst strife.

And you will need to make this commitment,

            to know and to love one more thing tomorrow than today.

Can you do that?

Can you find one person you have ignored and talk to them?

            Can you see God in them, when they do not see God in themselves?

Can you find one new and wonderful fact and share it?

            Can you look for the miraculous in the mundane?

These are not abstract recommendations, by the way.

            I mean to tell you to say hello to someone new, someone different.

                        It seems small, but can be very hard to do.

            I mean to tell you to find a source of information that you trust

                        and learn something new every day.

I am not perfect at these disciplines,

            but I try, day by day, to make the sacred circle larger,

            in hopes that I will, one day, grow into the Cosmos God has made.

Posted by: dacalu | 10 November 2019

Sorry / Not Sorry

Words can be used strategically. Living as we do in a time of verbal warfare, I look for words that deescalate, words that bring peace and connection, words that build relationship. Far too often I default to the phrases taught me by society without thinking carefully about the effects they have. With that in mind, here are few thoughts on the word “sorry.”

I try to say “sorry” only when I am.

I say I’m sorry when I feel genuine sadness that something has occurred, regret at my role in it, and have rethought my action. If I am truly sorry then I would not make the same choice again. This constitutes a meaningful apology.

I avoid the word when I can’t say these things..

I could say that I’m sorry for someone. Something bad has happened to them – outside of my control – and I feel sad because of it. That is genuine sorrow, but I’m not sure it is helpful. I would much rather be sorry with someone.

Brené Brown promotes empathy over sympathy, allowing yourself into their situation and their emotion instead of judging it. To say that I’m sorry for someone or about someone turns me into an observer. I want to be a companion.

To express sorrow at someone’s response becomes an attack, an escalation. “I’m sorry you feel that way.” It expresses sorrow over my situation, not theirs. It sends the message that I am sad because of their action and would change that if I could.

I also avoid saying “I’m sorry” when I could say “thank you.” In place of “I’m sorry I’m late,” I try to say, “thank you for waiting.” I may be truly sorry, but I’m also truly grateful. I care as much about their virtues as I do about my faults. It seems kind to communicate that.

I value repentance – genuine reconsideration and personal change. I also value forgiveness – genuine release from obligation and hope for reconciliation. One does not require the other, but it makes it so much easier. A truthful “I’m sorry” can make reconciliation possible when nothing else can. We need this word. We need this idea that mistakes can be corrected.

We need “I’m sorry” to do that work – to convey sorrow, regret, and repentance. If we use it too often, it loses its power. If I say it when I don’t mean it, what will I say when I do?

Posted by: dacalu | 23 September 2019

Christ in Creation

This Sunday, I had the privilege of worshiping with the Church of the Apostles as they celebrated the resurrection (every Sunday) and specifically Christ in the Cosmos.

from “How Wonderful The Three-In-One” text by Brian Wren

Before the flow of dawn and dark

Creation’s Lover dreamed of earth

And with a caring deep and wise,

All things conceived and brought to life.”

Readings

Proverbs 8:22-31 (“The Lord created me at the beginning of his work” about Sophia/Chokmah/Wisdom)

Psalm 104:24-26 (“How manifold are your works, O Lord!”)

John 6:41-51 (“I am the living bread”)

Sermon

There is simply too much to preach on, here.

God’s having a bit of fun with us.

Sophia, Leviathan, and the Bread of Heaven.

A friend of mine joked recently that Jesus is the ideal example of being transgendered.

            Wisdom self-identifies as feminine in Proverbs –

Chokmah in Hebrew, Sophia in Greek

but later self-identifies as masculine in Jesus.

On the surface, this appears to be a clever quip, but it reveals something important.

As the alpha and the omega, Jesus was Christ before male and female existed.

Jesus reminds us the universe has laws,

but also that God stands above and beneath and behind those laws.

“When there were no depths I was brought forth”

Pulled from out of a hole when there was no hole.

Made to stand when there was no place to stand.

Jesus is, strangely enough, the foundation for science,

            the promise that the world is orderly enough for us to understand,

            but surprising enough that we actually have to look to figure it out.

Once again, this is more than just cleverness.

            It was a very real debate in the Middle Ages.

            Thomas Aquinas said we could know, by intellect alone,

the rules by which God ordered creation from the beginning of time.

            William of Ockham argued that God can, and does change God’s mind.

                        We have no choice but to constantly observe creation,

                                    if we want to understand.

            The founders of modern science were working out this very problem.

So, I will say it again.

            Jesus stands at the crossroads.

            He is both knowable and unknown,

                        the guarantor of rules and the promise of freedom from them.

            Christians study the universe

as the beginning, and not the end, of knowledge,

as an opportunity, and not a constraint,

as a pathway to true wisdom.

It helps to come to Proverbs with some knowledge of Hebrew cosmology.

There is no word for real nothingness.

            The mind slips into vacuum and void, space and emptiness,

                        but those are not really nothingness.

            They are words for time and distance without substance.

In the beginning was real no-thing-ness,

            Neither height nor depth nor energy, nor potential…

The Wisdom of God is an idea,

            the first hint of reality as we know reality,

            it is the plan for a cosmos,

            a totality of being.

It is a plan for us.

God drew a circle in the …

And God separated nothing from nothing

so that there was something in between.

This is, I think, what is meant by the waters above and the waters below.

Maybe waters is misleading.

            Tohu wa bohu, without form and void is confusing.

            We can call it the deep or the void or nothingness,

                        but we cannot comprehend it.

                        There is literally nothing to comprehend.

Jesus is the movement that makes comprehension possible,

            the word named some-thing

            and pointed to that which was before.

Jesus is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.

Speaking of waters is surely misleading,

            but no more so than quantum foam or vacuum energy or the initial singularity.

When I say this is a horribly insufficient description,

            please take me seriously.

            It’s truly embarrassing, but it is the best I think we can do at the moment.

So, God separated nothing from nothing

and there was something in between.

And God saw that it was good.

Jesus was the circle,

            and Jesus permeated the something,

            because all of it,

            beginning and end and middle,

            was brought forth from the no-thing-ness,

            so that thing-ness itself is only thing-ness by God’s action,

            in Jesus.

And now my head hurts.

Go home and meditate on that bit for a couple decades,

            and, if it starts to make sense, come tell me.

I would love to understand it.

In the meantime, we have the simple version.

God made everything through Jesus

            and, because of that, God can be found anywhere and everywhere.

Jesus is God’s wisdom,

            through which the universe makes sense,

            and through whom we make sense of the universe.

Better yet, because God was found in our likeness,

            we have the very image and likeness of God.

If Jesus is too hard to see in the rocks and hills, sky and sea,

            look for him in the face of your neighbor,

            in your own being.

As a horrible, terrible, miserable metaphor,

            Jesus is both operating system and user interface for the universe.

I could preach for an hour on everything that’s wrong with that,

            but it gets at Jesus’ role as governor and mediator,

            essential to, but not the same as, the world itself.

Leviathan, meanwhile, is a background process.

It only gets mentioned a few times in the Bible,

            usually as an invocation of some-thing swimming in the depths,

            some-thing whose thingness is not our thingness.

Leviathan was not made for us, nor we for Leviathan.

Maybe it’s necessary for the cosmos.

            God seems to care about it,

as God cares for lions and ostriches and cedar trees,

and lilies and sparrows.

Sometimes we need reminding that we participate in creation.

And sometimes we need reminding that creation is not,

            in the end, all about us.

Jesus invites us to be more than we are,

            more than individuals,

            more than tribes,

            more even than species.

Jesus invites us into harmony with all that is.

Ethics, like science, requires this strange humility,

            recognizing that there is an order, but that we don’t know it yet.

So, I will say it again.

            Jesus stands at the crossroads.

            He is both knowable and unknown,

                        the guarantor of rules and the promise of freedom from them.

            Christians study the universe

as the beginning, and not the end, of knowledge,

as an opportunity, and not a constraint,

as a pathway to true wisdom.

We have an opportunity as humans.

We live in the not-yet.

Just as God imagined the world in Jesus,

            so, we imagine God in Jesus,

            and we imagine the world as it could be.

We imagine neighbors we have not met.

            We have hope for those we meet,

                        faith in those we are learning about,

                        and love for those we know.

The truth path,

            the path of Jesus, leads from home to Leviathan,

            from the center of the circle to the very edge,

            and, perhaps, beyond.

Jesus’ contemporaries complained.

            They said he could not be God, he could not be all in all,

                        because he was the son of that nice couple down the street.

Modern thinkers make the same complaint.

            Theologians sometimes call it embarrassing particularity.

Jesus is both immanent and transcendent, immediate and eternal,

            available and unbelievable.

You are as well.

If I have done my job,

            I have not convinced you of any factual claims.

There is no logical argument here, no empirical proof, no incontrovertible evidence.

            What a silly thought.

If I have done my job, I have given you hope.

            That which you do not know, you can know.

                        Be curious.

            That which you do know, you can love.

                        Be kind.

            That which you love endures.

                        Because God is love, the ineffable, eternal, wondrous

                        made tangible.

Posted by: dacalu | 23 September 2019

Confession for the Season of Creation

I wrote this confession and reassurance/absolution for a service on creation and the cosmos at Church of the Apostles.

Confession

God of the sparrow, have mercy upon us.

We have fallen short in our care for the world.

We have squandered every good gift –

            depleting the land, poisoning the water, and fouling the air,

            killing your children and harming your house,

                        beyond our ability to fix or even understand,

            turning from you and from one another.

We are sorry for our sins against the Earth,

            for choosing convenience over compassion,

                        whim over wisdom,

                        and self over service.

We ask for forgiveness and hope,

            that we may once again be stewards in your household,

            true friends to life,

            and heirs of your transforming love,

            through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Absolution/Reassurance

Know that you are forgiven, good, holy and capable.

May God visit you with grace as vast as the mountains and the seas. May Christ fill you with abundant life and wondrous growth. May the Spirit breath such breath into your lungs that every word and act spills forth new life into the world. And may every injustice be blown away.

Amen.

Posted by: dacalu | 22 August 2019

The Origins and Probability of Life

The Origins and Probability of Life

My friends Peter Jarrett Schell and John Henry recently posted on Facebook asking me about the origin and probability of life. It’s not a simple question, but I know many people will be interested. I recommend reading up on astrobiology, my book Life in Space, Astrobiology for Everyone (Harvard, 2009) or the more recent Astrobiology: A Very Short Introduction by David Catling (Oxford, 2014). If you’re looking for something more technical, check out the “Astrobiology Primer” (ver. 1, 2006; ver. 2, 2014; ver. 3 in progress). It is a rich and growing field. For those interested in a shorter taste, here are my present thoughts on the earliest life, its timing and chemistry, and what that can tell us about the probability of life. 

Life from Non-Life (Abiogenesis)

Logically, we have two options:

  1. There has always been life in the universe, or
  2. Life arose from non-life

Because I cannot imagine life, at least life remotely similar to Earth life, existing without matter, I think B must be true. There was no life shortly after the Big Bang; there is life now; therefore, life must have arisen from non-life. The simplest explanation available to natural science is that it arose through chemical interactions on Earth. (If you’re interested in the bounds of natural science, see note 1.)

Fossil stromatolites – layered bacterial communities – provide evidence for life at least 3.2 Bya (billion years ago) and probably as early at 3.5 Bya. Chemical fossils – isotope ratios impossible with known abiological processes – have been found at 3.8 Bya and suggested as early as 4.4 Bya. The earliest eon of Earth history is called the Hadean, for Hell-like conditions – high temperature, high radiation from the Sun, heavy meteor bombardment, and volcanoes. No rocks have been found from before 4.0 Bya that have not been melted and reformed. Given the chaos of early Earth, there is a general consensus that life arose on Earth fairly quickly once conditions were good. Most origin of life research is focused on early Earth environments – 4.0-3.6 Bya.

Life from Space (Panspermia)

A few scientists have proposed that life arose on Mars (or somewhere else) and travelled here. We know that meteor impacts can eject material from Mars in a way that eventually brings it to Earth. We know that Earth organisms could survive the ejection process. We do not know of any organisms that could survive the journey, but it is not inconceivable. Having said that, I favor simpler explanations. Given a choice between explaining abiogenesis alone (on Earth) or abiogenesis (on Mars) plus space travel (to Earth), I’ll stick with the former.

What is Life?

Dating the origin of life requires an understanding of what life is. All known life depends on four critical features: replicators (always DNA or RNA genes), catalysts and signal molecules (predominantly amino acid proteins, occasionally nucleotides and other organic molecules), cells (almost always phospholipid bilayers a.k.a. cell membranes), and metabolic networks (a surprisingly small number of organic pathways). We have not observed – and have difficulty imagining – life without all four.

Viruses draw attention because they appear, at first glance, to be lonely replicators. They cannot, however, complete their lifecycle without catalysts, cells, and metabolic networks. Whether or not we consider them alive, they depend on the whole suite of life-features.

In the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, many subscribed to the RNA-World hypothesis. RNA molecules can act as both genes and catalysts, making them, potentially, a simpler form of life. Biochemists had high confidence that a ribozyme “autocatalysts” could be created in the lab – a molecule capable of copying itself. If such a molecule did exist, then it would provide modern evidence that the first life could have been RNA-only.

RNA-World research has produced some amazing results. It has revealed fascinating details about metabolism and “chemical evolution.” It has not produced a population of molecules undergoing open-ended Darwinian evolution. Some still have hope that autocatalysts will be found. Many have moved to parallel avenues of research.

Current thinking in astrobiology is that we should pursue multiple research programs on the origin of replicators, the origin of catalysts, the origin of cells, and the origin of metabolic networks. We can learn about all four without committing to which came first, or even if they occurred sequentially. Perhaps they arose in parallel and merged. Similarly, we need not commit to which one, if any “defines” life. They are all interesting features of life as we know it all. They were all involved in the history of Earth life.

There Was No First Organism

In the last ten years, we have started to turn away from positing a first cell or a first organism. All four research programs suggest that life can only be meaningfully understood in the context of population. Replicators like genes can only evolve (undergo evolution by natural selection) through competition and cooperation. Catalysts like proteins can only shape their environment when concentrated and sequestered with reactants. Membrane bubbles must grow, fuse, and divide in order to have life-like properties. Metabolic networks require multiple realizations (perhaps at the level of 10^4) to provide stable complexity akin to even toy models of life. For these reasons, I advocate for speaking of the “first population.” I can’t say it is orthodoxy, but it is coming to dominate in astrobiology and origin-of-life discussions.

The Last Universal Common Ancestor (LUCA)

All is not lost. We know almost nothing about the first organism or first species. We can speak of the most recent ancestor of all known life. By reasoning backward from present organisms, we can imagine a common ancestor of life or, more realistically, a single population that gave rise to modern species. That population would have had all (or at least most) features common to extant life: including a DNA, RNA, proteins, cells, and common metabolic pathways (such as the TCA cycle).

I think common descent is usually a better explanation than convergence. I suspect that global trends toward cooler temperatures, lower radiation, and more available oxygen did produce some convergence (e.g., symbiosis). There are also some interesting possibilities for convergent adaptations to denser population (e.g., increase in maximal body size at the order level, increase in genome complexity). It is, of course, a historical question, so it’s hard to say how much proof or what kind of proof should convince us of what actually happened (Note 2).

Messy Details

Two factors complicate matters: horizontal transfer and coalescence. Discussion of LUCA gets complicated by the messy, multi-level, recombining networks of descent. There is likely a species tree that connects all current species trees through lines of decent. At the level of species, branches rarely recombine. Species can fuse; individuals can cross fertilize; and genes can jump from one to another; but not that often. I think of the species tree as made up of hollow pipes. Within those pipes, individuals reproduce to form their own organism level trees. The organism trees branch and flourish like vines within the population tree pipes. One family might flourish for thousands of year only to fail while a slender lineage that lived on the margins suddenly takes over the population. To make things even worse, the individual trees are also pipes, with gene trees growing inside them. Genes can replicate, diversify, and compete within individual organisms. Horizontal transfer describes times when trees don’t look like trees, when individuals break out of their species level pipes, or genes break out of their organism level pipes and break back in somewhere else. “Coalescent theory” provides math for tracking the last common ancestor at any given level.

Unfortunately, the LCA may differ between different genes, different organisms, and different species.  For example, “mitochondrial Eve” describes the LCA of all human mitochondria, transmitted from mothers to offspring. A single mitochondrion, roughly 150,000 years ago, gave rise to all modern mitochondria (in humans). The descendants of other mitochondria around at that time have all died off (though they could have hung around until very recently). So, one woman can be said to be the mother of all modern humans, at least as far as mitochondria are concerned. Meanwhile “Y-chromosomal Adam” describes the LCA of all human Y-chromosomes, transmitted from fathers to sons. A single chromosome, more than 200,000 years ago, gave rise to all modern Y-chromosomes. So, one man can be said to be the father of all modern humans, as far as Y-chromosomes are concerned. But this Eve and this Adam were 50,000 years apart.

In the end, the LUCA population is really just a narrow ring drawn around a mess of pipes and vines in the distant past. We know many things about the genes, organisms, and populations within the ring, but we don’t know how they related to one another. We believe that there were genes, organisms, and populations outside the ring as well. They may have been very successful at the time. None of their descendants remain today.

Shadow Life

In this way, LUCA is much like the observable universe. There may be stuff outside, but the expansion of stuff inside prevents us from knowing. Life as we know it has outcompeted other forms of life. My personal belief – and I think it is common among astrobiologists and origins researchers – is that proto-life arises regularly on Earth, but known life has grown so good at survival that it eats alternative forms of life as soon as they arise. They never get a chance to get started.

Some biologists have proposed a “shadow biosphere” made up of organisms using alternate chemistries, unavailable or unappetizing to life as we know it. It doesn’t show up in our familiar environment, but may persist underwater or underground. Personally, I’m skeptical. It’s hard to get the energetics right without carbon-carbon bonds (“organic chemistry”) and known life finds carbon-carbon bonds tasty.  A shadow biosphere would need a highly evolved defense mechanism and would be in a constant arms race with known life for survival.

The Probability of Life Arising

This is one of my favorite questions and therefore one I like to see handled with rigor. Philosophy of probability can be contentious. We want probability to estimate the frequency of future events, but we don’t have access to future events. So, we can restrict it to the frequency of past events (frequentism), or call it subjective, or attempt a compromise.

The frequentist probability of life arising in the universe is 100%. It did. The frequentist probability of life arising on a planet that humans have visited is 100%. The presence of humans is the presence of life. The frequentist probability of life arising on a planet humans have visited independent of human presence is either 100% or 50% if you think we have studied Mars sufficiently. None of these “probabilities” really satisfies our curiosity. Astrobiologists call this the N=1 problem.

Some subjectivity will be involved. We should ask how much. We have information about the history of life on Earth and good evidence that Earth-like life is not abundant on any other body in the Solar System. Earth life adapts and spreads quickly, suggesting that, if it arises and has a congenial environment, it will take over. Earth is awash with life: a mile below the surface and a mile above, in the driest deserts (Antarctic and Atacama), in cold and heat and radiation. People disagree about how to quantify this subjectivity. For this reason, I prefer to talk about the plausibility or likelihood (probability given specific hypotheses) of life arising.

Evidence of life 3.9-4.0Bya suggests a high likelihood of life arising, if conditions are right. As I mentioned above, I do think shadow life, or precursors of shadow life, have arisen repeatedly in Earth’s history only to be consumed by life as we know it. On the other hand, we’ve had no luck making life in the lab, so it can’t be too likely. The barrenness of Mars and, requiring far more assumptions, the silence of interstellar space suggest a low likelihood. Given the ridiculous number of stars and planets, it seems plausible we are not alone. I can’t really say more than that.

Characteristics of Alien Life (Should it Exist)

I love this question and speculate some at the end of my book (Life in Space: Astrobiology for Everyone). We have learned a great deal in the last 10 years, but some things are basic chemistry; they remain the same. Molecules with carbon-carbon bonds (organic chemistry, not necessarily biochemistry) have really nice properties for life. This is basically the only way to have robust chain molecules with 4 strong bonds. Anything else will not have the same flexibility. Add to that the abundance of carbon in the universe, and it seems highly likely that any life-form will be carbon based (Note 3).

Similar arguments can be made for the environment of any form of life. Water has amazing and unique properties. It is liquid over an unusually broad range of temperatures. It is slightly polar, making it a good medium for many types of chemistry. Ice floats, creating a layer of insulation over lakes in cold temperatures. And, once, again, the atoms (hydrogen and oxygen) are very abundant.

A weaker case can be made for energy capture and storage. Visible light (380-740nm) turns out to be close to peak Solar output (Note 4). It carries almost enough energy (162-315 kJ/mol) for basic organic reactions (300-450 kJ/mol). If it were stronger it would dissolve organic molecules; if it were weaker, it could not power organic systems (Note 5). Sun-like stars, and Earth-life-like energy capture work well together.

I would also note that Earth life, at the most basic level operates by pumping protons (H+) across membranes. [This process creates osmotic potential, which drives ATP synthesis as protons pass back through the membrane. ATP acts as storable redox potential, a battery for life.] Given the abundance of hydrogen, I would be surprised if this were not a universal strategy for energy use.

Conclusion

Astrobiology can tell us a great deal about the characteristics of Earth life and make decent predictions about alien life, should it exist. Small sample size (n=1) means that our inferences are likely to be heavily biased when trying to make statements about life at a larger scale. We cannot know the extent of that bias until we find (or make) a second instance of life. For the moment, alien life seems highly likely, as long as we remember that this plausibility is largely driven by a philosophical belief that we are, in some meaningful way, “normal.” I look forward to finding out more and am excited about the growth of knowledge in coming decades.

Notes:

Note 1: Caveat on natural science. My understanding of natural science is that it deals with natural explanations. Appeals to the supernatural, unnatural, or anything outside the universe – including God, Spirit, etc. – do not meet this requirement. Natural science often fails to provide answers we want. Currently it does not answer the question of how life arose. This has led some to look for answers beyond natural science. As a natural scientist, I cannot assess whether those answers are satisfactory. For a great defense of “methodological naturalism” see Robert Pennock’s article on “Naturalism, Evidence and Creationism” (1996, Biology and Philosophy 11(4):543-549).

As a whole person, I suspect I will still want the natural science explanation, in any case. I want to know how events proceeded within the bounds of nature and think it will be worth our time to pursue those types of explanations. To wit, whether or not God was involved, an interesting natural science question remains. When, where, and in what manner did life appear within our universe?

The metaphysical question of whether it could have occurred without unnatural intervention strikes me as poorly framed. It hangs on an equivocation between two uses of the word “natural” described by J.S. Mill in an 1885 essay on “Nature.”

Note 2: Caveat on epistemology. I want to be clear that sometimes we can say. Excellent work has been done on the evolution of the ribosome which provides good evidence for historical structures and common descent. Nonetheless, it is difficult to say a priori what will be convincing in the future.

Note 3: Note on “artificial life.” Many of my colleagues believe we will contact alien robots before we encounter organic alien intelligence. I have mixed feelings about this. Intelligence is tricky for a number of reasons. In any case, I do not think that silicon-based life could arise without the aid of organic life. Whether it may, one day, supplant or dominate organic life, inorganic abiogenesis strikes me as implausible. Silicon-silicon bonds are too weak.

Note 4: Note on Solar output. I have not looked at data in detail recently. A quick scan suggests that Solar radiation entering the lower atmosphere has a peak around 500 nm with roughly half the total radiation falling in the visible range. The spectrum falls steeply in the UV, but has a broad infrared tail.

Note 5: Note on Stellar frequency. Recently, astronomers have become excited about the prevalence of Red Dwarfs in the galaxy. They are far more common than Sun-like stars and many have rocky planets orbiting in the habitable zone, a region where water on the surface of planets would be liquid. They output sufficient heat to warm their planets, but I have not seen commentary on whether their weaker photons (peaking ~1000nm, 120 kJ/mol) would be effective for supporting organic chemistry.

Posted by: dacalu | 20 July 2019

Spiritual Space

Intentionally Blank

Yesterday, I spoke as part of a panel on “Astrophysics, Spirituality, and Space Exploration” for the 2019 IONS Conference.

Science and Spirituality

My name is Lucas Mix. I work with NASA on astrobiology, exploring the origin, extent, and future of life in the universe. I am also a preacher and pastor, talking with Christians about faith and theology. I specialize in theoretical and theological biology, what we mean when we say “life.” People often ask me about my beliefs. How do I bring science and spirituality together? The real challenge, I think, is keeping them apart. Both are so important to daily life.

When I choose my meals, I think about biochemistry: fats and sugars and calories. There’s a gap between reading labels in the supermarket and research biochemistry, but it may not be as big as you think. The shopper and the scientist both make important decisions with limited information. They listen to others, weigh what they know, and reach conclusions. The difference comes from time and training and, above all, the care they take. Researchers want to know, precisely and concretely, how much evidence they have, how they reason from it, and how confident they can be in their answers.

Choosing meals involves ethics as well. Where did the food come from? Is it healthy and just to eat? And metaphysics. How does stuff that’s not me become me? Like biochemistry, most of us don’t have time to investigate the details of organic farming, sustainable agriculture, sustainable packaging, transportation, and fair-trade, much less human persistence, animal sentience, and ontology. Still, we have to eat. We choose and, consciously or unconsciously, we pick the issues that matter to us and weigh them to the best of our ability.

I feel very lucky that I have had the time and training to tackle biochemistry and bioethics for a small sliver of issues. I’ve been able to uncover options, read  experts, and think critically about how my choices change the world. Still, I am an amateur in a thousand other matters, all related to choosing meals. Economic justice, climate change, and law enforcement may be the top three. The significance of choices can keep me up at night. It makes me deeply grateful for genuine, thoughtful, helpful experts. Life is difficult, and I use all the brains I can beg, steal, or borrow.

Cosmology

Last year, a friend asked me to speak at South-by-Southwest on astrobiology and theology. I laughed at her. Astrobiologists bring together astronomy, biology, chemistry, and planetary science (not to mention engineering and many other fields) with the hope of forming a comprehensive, natural science picture of life. Theologians also synthesize knowledge, often focusing on experience, belief, and choices in light of our relationship with God.

“You want me to talk about life, the universe, and everything?”

“Yes”

I have a hard-enough time figuring out whether I should eat eggs, How could I tackle astrobiology and theology? But in some ways, it is the same problem as lunch: thinking carefully with limited information. We all want to know where we came from, how we fit in, and where we’re going. We all tell stories about the cosmos.

If I can share only one thing, let it be this. We are all cosmologists. We all tell stories about the universe and our place in it. Those stories change us, affect our choices, and affect our neighbors. So, let us be careful cosmologists. Let us think critically about what we know, what we value, and what we choose. Let us ask who the experts might be and listen to what they have to offer. We can reason for ourselves, without reasoning by ourselves. Understanding life, the universe, and everything will take more than one person and more than one lifetime.

Space Left Blank

The word “space” should give you pause. It suggests a region that is both empty and available for use. Many see this as an invitation, perhaps even a duty, to expand, to “take up space.” Others think human expansion is inevitable. Given enough time we will spread to other planets and other stars. That is, unless we destroy ourselves first. Surprisingly often, discussions of alien life and alien intelligence take progress for granted. Life, once begun, will produce intelligence. Intelligence, once begun, will advance to the creation of radio telescopes, space ships, and eventually interstellar colonies.

I love Star Trek, but I do not share this confidence about human development or the development of intelligence in general. I do not know that space is available, or that progress is inevitable. Neither biology nor theology reassure me on these points. They tell me that we are part of Earth, and Earth is part of us. We are local and should be humble as we reach beyond the atmosphere and beyond tomorrow. They make me wonder.

What if space was left intentionally blank?

HT-Pine Trees-c1595

Space can be beautiful. Hasegawa Tohaku’s Pine Trees is one of the great works of art. We praise the morning fog and the darkening sky. We praise the freshly fallen snow. Space can also be useful. A cup must have space to hold tea. A house must have space to live in. Physicists know that vacuum makes for great insulation and energy efficient windows. Biologists know that cells do work in biology because of the space inside. Perhaps it’s good to have space between the stars.

Space Exploration

NASA’s Mars 2020 mission is traveling to Jezero Crater. Sediments from an ancient river fan out from a break in the Western rim. A wonderful gap, by the way, a useful emptiness. I can’t wait to know more about that ancient river and that ancient sea. And yet, I value the space between here and there. I value the distance and the difference.

Jezero Crtr - Mars Xprs

Saturn’s moon Titan has seasonal lakes filled with antifreeze. I’m excited about the Dragonfly mission, planned for 2026. I want to know more. We have found more than four thousand planets orbiting other stars, wondrous and strange and surprising us daily.

I like space exploration and I support the journey, but colonization and pilgrimage are different ways to travel. Pilgrims revere their destination, remember their home, and respect the space in between.

Sacred Space

Space can be a good thing. Ely Cathedral was just big enough for a luminous replica of the Moon to hang in the nave. I visited it last month for the science festival.

Image may contain: indoor

Sometimes, an object must come near for us to appreciate it.

Sometimes, it must be far away.

For me, the vault of heaven stretches over a cosmic sanctuary. I measure it as a scientist, but love it as a worshiper. We are one species among many, one planet floating in space. I dearly hope to find another. A heavenly chorus would be a wondrous thing, but silence and stillness can also be profound. Maybe this space was left intentionally blank.

Buddhists tell of sunyata, emptiness. Muslims say salaam, peace. Christians speak of sabbath and sanctuary. And there are many others. When you look up, remember that you, too, are a cosmologist. Your words have scientific and spiritual meaning. And words have a gravity of their own.

The cosmos is more than a void and more than an opportunity; it is a sacred space.

Image Notes

Moons: In 2011, the Cassini spacecraft took a single photo that included 5 of Saturn’s moons (Janus, Pandora, Enceladus, Mimas, and Rhea) as well as the tip of Saturn’s rings. Saturn is out of frame, to the right. I added the words, but the view is real.

Painting: Pine Trees, Hasegawa Tohaku, c.1595

Jezero Crater: mosaic of images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Express.

The Moon is an artwork entitled Museum of the Moon by Luke Jerram. It hung in Ely Cathedral for the Science Festival, 18 May – 9 June 2019.

It was a deep honor to share the stage with Yvonne Cagle, Bruce Damer, Brian Keating, and Ginny Whitelaw and I encourage you to follow them if you’re interested in the topic. We had wonderful discussions both before and after the public talks.

Posted by: dacalu | 9 June 2019

Heaven and Earth

Today, I had the great pleasure of worshiping with St. Ninian’s Scottish Episcopal Church in Edinburgh, Scotland. We celebrated the feast of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended on the Church. (NB: Pentecost comes from the Greek word for 50. It occurs 50 days after Easter.)

 

Prayer for Pentecost
Almighty God, on this day you opened the way of eternal life to every race and nation by the promised gift of your Holy Spirit: Shed abroad this gift throughout the world by the preaching of the Gospel, that it may reach to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

 

Readings

Acts 2:1-21 (Pentecost)

Romans 8:14-17 (“that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God”)

John 14:8-17, 25-27 (“I am in the Father and the Father is in me” and “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.”)

 

Sermon

Four hundred years ago there was a revolution.
	No, not that revolution.
There was a revolution in astronomy.
	Copernicus and Galileo suggested
	that objects in the heavens obey the same rules
	as objects on the earth.
Modern notions of mass, inertia, and gravity
	arose from a rather surprising insight
	that humans and planets have common properties.
This commonality of heaven and earth is now called
	the Copernican Principle.
All else being equal, we assume that things over there
	work the same way as life here,
	and vice versa.
It came with a realization that the Earth was not the center of the cosmos.
Instead, it was a planet, travelling through the void,
	along with the other planets, Mars and Venus and all.
Later authors speak of this as demoting Earth and decentering humanity.
	We left our place in the center of the cosmos.
	We became common.
At the time, many saw it as demoting the heavens,
	previously perfect and eternal spheres made of crystal and aether.
	Copernicus and Galileo made them gross matter.
I prefer to focus on the way that Copernicus and Galileo 
revealed our relationships.
The new science allows us to think about rocketry and distance in a new way.
	We travel to the moon
		and send robots to the outer limits of the solar system.
	We can study the effect of orbits and sunspots on the weather.
	We can track the path of comets and asteroids in a new and better way.
The Copernican revolution brought heaven and earth together.
	It broke the boundary between ground and sky.
	Or, more accurately, it allowed us to see that
the division never existed in the first place.
 
By now you should have some idea where I’m going with all of this
	because Pentecost also brought heaven and earth together.
Jesus’ incarnation might be a fluke.
Like a meteor, a piece of heaven brought down.
	We might be tempted to think that
that was the extent of the miracle:
		God made manifest.
	It was not so.
Jesus continues as the body of Christ.
	Jesus continues in tangible sacraments, the body and blood.
	Jesus continues in the Spirit of God that enlivens us.
	Jesus continues in the Church.
God continues to reconcile the whole world.

At Pentecost, the Spirit of God was pleased to dwell in us.
	It empowers us in a very special way.
	It allows us to communicate.
God connects what was separated:
	God reconciled with humanity in Jesus – at-one-ment, atonement;
	Jesus broke bread with his disciples,
		his very body broken to reunite us –
		Holy Communion;
	the Spirit connected the disciples with people from every nation.

The English have an expression
that always sounds a bit humorous to Americans.
You may have it here as well.
“Mind the gap.”
As you get on and off the train, “mind the gap.”
I’m asking you to do the same thing
	every day.
Mind the gap between you and God.
Mind the gap between you and your neighbor.
Mind the gap between heaven and earth.
Mind the gap, and remember that it can be bridged.
	The Holy Spirit allows us to step over the gap.
 
Some will say that this is not miraculous.
	It is as simple as reaching out to someone new.
	It is as simple as sharing a meal.
	It is as simple as letting the past be past and moving forward.
	Those are easy, aren’t they?
	
No.  They really aren’t.
I’m a terrible introvert. 
Oh, I’m good on a Sunday, 
but I can be terribly shy and inward most of the time.
	It’s very hard for me to reach out to others,
		to build relationships.
	How many of you have made a new friend in the past week?
		Not just an acquaintance, but a genuine friend.
	How often do you really listen to someone you’ve never listened to before?
	How often do you go beyond your comfort zone?
We live in an age of growing tribalism.
	We have difficulty reaching across political divides,
		much less across national and cultural divides.
The solution to that isn’t easy.
Without Christ, it may not even be possible.
	No, I’m not saying that it only works between Christians.
	That’s the very nonsense I’m preaching against.
It works because God became human and so sanctified humanity.
God showed us that the boundaries are neither permanent
	nor impenetrable.
God crossed the gap.

How about forgiveness.
	Is it easy to forgive?
	Raise your hand if you think it is.
	I know, terrible question.
	We do not interact with the preacher.
		What are we, Methodists?
	I imagine Scots Episcopals are even worse.
	Dour and inscrutable, no.
	But forgiveness is miserable for everyone.
	It takes work to forgive.
Christianity gives us tools.
	It primes our imagination.
		God forgave humanity, 
even when humanity was particularly nasty to God.
	It teaches us to listen with love and patience.
	It teaches us to value love and connection. 
We break bread together.
We attend to brokenness – both within us and between us.
We mind the gap.
We practice confession and reconciliation,
	verbally in worship and tangibly at the table.
We go out into the world
	and share the gift that God has given us,
	the gift of being one.
We have not mastered it.
	We may not even be good at it most of the time,
	but we practice
	and, miraculously, God binds us together.

Christianity must always be about there and here.
	It must embrace the perfect heavens,
		eternal and perfect.
	It must also encompass the messy, painful, 
unsatisfactory earth.
We witness to God when we bring harmony and connection.
We share the Spirit when we share our true selves
	in faith, hope, and love.
I ask – and I work – so that God’s will may be done
	on earth as in heaven.
And God answers.
	Not as dramatically as I might like,
		but God answers, nonetheless.
	God allows me to see as I would be seen,
		to understand as I would be understood,
		to love as I would be loved.
	God invites me in.
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.”

We are called to mind the gap.
And we are called to close it.
The Holy Spirit gives us power to forgive
	in a way that remembers and responds to past mistakes,
	but is not overcome by them.
	Practice forgiveness.
The Holy Spirit give us power to love
	in a way the respects our differences
	but doesn’t let them to separate us.
	practice love.
The distance can seem impossibly far.
	It is not.
	God crosses it every day.
 
Heaven and earth are not the same place.
Neither are they completely separate.
We have discovered that God’s rules apply in both.
Some will say that I disrespect heaven by saying so
	Would God descend to our level?
	God did.
Some will say that I devalue humans,
	by making earth our true home –
	at least for the time being.
	Are we animals? Are we bodies?
	We are.
	Of course, we are God’s animals, and God’s body.
But I prefer to think of the way God reveals our relationships.

The breath I breathe is not my breath alone;
	it is the breath I share with you.
“Holy Spirit” is a modern translation for spiritus, pneuma, breath.
Let the same breath be in us as was in Jesus.
Let our life be his life,
	concretely and tangibly.
I’m a biologist and I take the biology of the bible quite literally.
The abstract heavenly meaning does not exclude
	a tangible earthly meaning.
We share breath and food with one another.
We are one body in Christ.

No matter how foreign someone seems…
No matter how fragmented the church and the world become
	or seem to become…
No matter how divided you feel, even within yourself.
No matter.
God dissolved the boundary between heaven and earth.
God opened a path for us,
	a path of peace and community.
God’s Spirit moves in us,
	bringing heaven and earth together.

 

Posted by: dacalu | 13 May 2019

Shepherds and Sheep

Today I worshiped with the people of Trinity Episcopal Church, Seattle.

 

Prayer for Good Shepherd Sunday

O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

 

Readings

Acts 9:36-43 (Peter raises Tabitha from the dead)

Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd”)

Revelation 7:9-17 (“for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd”)

John 10:22-30 (“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”)

 

Sermon


Today is Good Shepherd Sunday, the fourth Sunday in Easter.
We get sheep and shepherds in three of today’s readings, all familiar.
	Psalm 23: The Lord is my shepherd
	Revelation 7: The Lamb will be their shepherd
	John 10: My sheep know my voice
Christians are often compared to sheep.
	Raise your hands if you like being compared to sheep.
	It’s a powerful image, but one I worry about on occasion.
	How many of you see sheep on a daily basis?
	I see them approximately once a year, out the window of a car.
This suggests a certain amount of caution.
I spent this week thinking about what it means to be a sheep,
	and whether this is something I want to be.

Spoilers are a bad thing when talking about movies, 
but rather useful when talking about scripture.
So, let me tell you where I’m going.
I’ve decided that sheep have some wonderful qualities,
	and some awful qualities,
	and some sort of scary qualities.
I’m signing up part time.
God has called me to be sort of sheep-like,
	but also to be sort of shepherd-like,
	not in some fancy collared way.
No, I think all Christians are called 
to feed the sheep, to gather the lost, and to lead the way.

When I looked at all the passages about sheep in the Bible,
	I saw something strange and slightly subversive.
Sheep are common, social, docile, and poor.
	Shepherds signal the lowly 
in stories of King David and of Jesus’ birth.
Most of the sheep in the bible get sacrificed or eaten.
	Usually both.
Five New Testament books refer to Jesus as a shepherd:
	Matthew, John, Hebrews, I Peter, and Revelation.
	Four of five introduce him first as the Lamb of God.
	Only in Matthew is he not a sheep before he is a shepherd.
Let’s take a closer look at sheep.
 
Sheep, Ovis aries, are popular farm animals.
	Current estimates suggest there are around a billion sheep in the world.
Sheep are calm, social, and recognize both other sheep and humans as leaders.
	Unlike closely related species they do not defend their territory,
		making them easier to herd.
	They default to group behavior, but can recognizing threats
		and move on their own.
	Overall, these seem like good qualities.
Sheep tend to focus on eating and avoiding danger,
	much like humans.
Sheep can recognize voices and faces for both sheep and humans.
	They really do know shepherds,
	at least after spending time together.
I’d like to emphasize that last point.
Sheep develop relationships with humans.
Those relationships take time.

Turning to today’s Gospel, John 10 troubles me.
First of all, we have this word “Jews.”
	“The Jews gathered around him” “in the portico of Solomon”
		a covered walk in the outer court of the Temple.
	Scholars suggest that this means people generically,
		the natives of Judea, including Jesus’ followers.
	Or it could refer to leaders in the Judean establishment, 
the Sadducees who ran the Temple.
	It could even be an attempt by later authors to discredit
		a rival faction.
	In any case, it does not line up the modern word.
Local leaders argued with him in public.
They asked what seems to me a reasonable question:
“Are you the Messiah?”

Here we come to my second trouble,
	the one having to do with sheep.
“Jesus answered, ‘I have told you, and you do not believe. 
The works that I do in my Father's name testify to me; 
but you do not believe, 
because you do not belong to my sheep. 
My sheep hear my voice. 
I know them, and they follow me.”
 
In the past, I heard this unconsciously through a Calvinist lens,
	in terms of predestination.
Some sheep are simply good from birth.
	God’s voice was imprinted on their souls.
Some sheep are bad from birth,
	and incapable of hearing the good news.
	Too bad for them.
This, especially when paired with a poor understanding of the word “Jews”
	has led many Christians to think of Jews as
	inherently and irredeemably evil.
This is really, really bad.
I’m happy to argue about predestination.
	Sometimes I’m for and sometimes against.
	A careful reading of John Calvin will reveal that
		disregard for other humans is just wrong.
I don’t think John is talking about predestination, though.
I think he’s talking about sheep.

Sheep do not instinctively recognize shepherds,
	they grow to love them.
Sheep discover that the shepherd
	leads them to food, water, and safety.
Sheep learn, often with other sheep around them,
	that life as a flock is a good thing.


I do not doubt that we hear God’s voice.
	I have heard it for as long as I can remember.
But, hearing is one thing, recognition another.
	Trust requires even more.
	It takes time and commitment.
Staying in a flock takes work.
	I’ll nod to John Calvin and say this:
		I do not know who does this work.
		Maybe the sheep, maybe the shepherd.
		Maybe some of both.
	However it happens, the sheep learn to trust the shepherd.
		They learn what the shepherd says and what she means.
		They learn her voice and her vocabulary.s
So, when the people ask, “Are you the Messiah?”
Jesus has to say this.
	I said I was the good shepherd.
	I said I would give you real food and water
and find you when you’re lost.
	I said I would open a gate.
	I said I’d lay down my life.
If Messiah means something else,
	then we’re not communicating.
Healing the sick and lifting up the lowly
while refusing political power…
that’s what a Savior does.
Becoming a sacrificial lamb, making atonement,
	opening a gate between heaven and earth…
	that’s God at work.
Without that link between the word and the reality,
	conversation fails.
Demonstration was necessary.
Life together was necessary.
God did that.

We should probably use different words today.
	Few of you have extensive experience with sheep.
	Fewer, if any, have experience with Temple sacrifice.
	This is a good thing,
		but it means we can miss out on the significance
		of the image.

So I might say that Jesus committed to living with us,
		even when we were unbearable.
	He made himself subject to our wants and whims
		in order to communicate.
	He was humble and honest.
	He gave without taking,
		listened without interrupting.
took on our burdens without adding to them.
How many leaders can say the same?
How many shepherds actually live with their sheep
	and lay down their lives for them.
Jesus is the good shepherd, 
because he is also an ideal sheep.
He saved humanity, by being human.

It’s not an abstraction.
	It’s life and death, food and water, predator and prey.
	It’s real sacrifice.
And we understand it by living it,
	together.
 
The big, theological words can be helpful.
	Most days, you’ll find me rattling off 
pentasyllabic nomenclature.
	It’s a weakness.
And there is a time and place.
Words like predestination, atonement, soteriology, and ecclesiology –
they get us in trouble on occasion,
but we can usually work our way out.
Few of us pretend that pecuniary substitution or homoousias
	are easy concepts.
The big words save us from the over-confidence.
It’s the little words that get us into trouble.

Little words like ‘mother.’
	Mother’s Day is a secular holiday.
	‘Mother’ means something to me
		because of remarkable mothers in my life.
	My mother and grandmother have been examples to me
		of faith, hope, and love.
	Unofficial grandmothers – Ethel and Jane –
showed me how to listen, comfort, nurture, and lead.
	My friends Sharon and Patricia and Bill and David
and Empress Elephant (her kids know who she is)
		taught me more about mothering than I could possibly say.
	Some of them bore children; others did not.
		All of them raised children, officially or unofficially.
		All of them created and nurtured.
If Mother’s Day were simply about female parents,
		it wouldn’t really interest me.
Some do that well; others poorly.
Some have the chance; others do not.
But this amazing process of nurturing, comforting, teaching, sacrificing,
	strengthening, supporting, and letting go…
I could never explain it, but I recognize it.
	I trust it.
It warrants a holiday.
As you celebrate Mother’s Day, if you celebrate Mother’s Day,
	I hope you’ll think about this important, dangerous, wonderful
		little word
		and what it might mean
	and I hope you’ll remember all the mothers in your life.
 
Another little word trips us up: ‘love.’
Few words have caused so much trouble.
	It can mean lust or affection or desire or pity.
	For many it means reciprocity.
And so, when we say that God is love,
	people misunderstand.
They hear the word ‘love’
	but do they recognize it?
	Do they trust it?

Christianity, for me, is deeply wrapped up in community.
	It requires flocks of real people,
		calm, social, 
consistent, but capable of change
not territorial, but aware of dangers.
	It requires individuals who help one another
		find food, water, and safety.
	It requires real leadership,
		but that leadership has a very special character.
It starts with a shepherd who laid down his life for his sheep,
	a God who lived with his worshipers.
It continues with those who
	give without taking,
	listen without interrupting,
take on burdens without adding to them.
Not always, but once in a while.
It continues with communication, forgiveness, and trust,
	each of which, when we understand them
	requires genuine sacrifice.

We have all been called to be shepherds, and mothers, and priests.
Not always, but once in a while.
If you’re like me, it happens a more frequently
	than you would like.
I am a sheep, after all.
But my shepherd calls.
That is the best possible meaning of love
		and the best possible meaning of Christian.

I believe that all who recognize his voice 
will hear him say:
	“Feed my sheep.”

 

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