Proper 9 Year B 7-8-12
©Holly Lyman Antolini
Lections: 2 Sam. 5:1-5, 9-10; Ps. 48; 2 Cor. 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13
You, God, are our God for ever and ever; you shall be our guide for evermore. AMEN.
This week, physicists at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland finally caught a glimpse of what is probably the Higgs boson particle, the so-called, “God Particle,” the particle long hypothesized but never till now observed, the particle which may account for the existence of mass. If it is what they think it is, it is the particle that makes your body, your pew, this church qualitatively different from moonlight, that gives things bulk, the thing that holds things together. And its identification may, in turn, be the portal to discovery of much, much more: new particles; new forces; things physicists name with unusual poetic intensity: “dark matter,” “supersymmetry,” technicolor, extra dimensions to our universe. “With this new tool at our disposal, we’re ready to take the next steps to understand the fundamental architecture of reality,” cosmologist Sean Carroll wrote in The Daily Beast. [http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/07/06/after-the-higgs-boson-what-scientists-will-do-with-the-discovery.html]
Despite being inveterately unable to parse a mathematical equation to save my life (or maybe because of that!), I find these kinds of discoveries in quantum mechanics profoundly spiritually exhilarating and disorienting, moving me outside the parameters of my rational understanding and inviting my deepest mystical awe. Just the size and complexity of the CERN Collider would be enough evoke this, to begin with, and its testimony to the range of the imagination, let alone the window it provides into the immensely strange and confounding nature of reality. I know there are those in this congregation for whom this stuff is your daily meat-and-potatoes. For me, it’s a God Particle indeed, because it dwells in the realm of mystery even as it reveals, as Carroll put it, “the fundamental architecture of reality.”
As if that weren’t stimulus enough, this week I also happened to catch a couple of PBS shows – the luxury of summer’s slower pace! The first was NOVA’s Hunting the Edge of Space: the Ever-Expanding Universe and immediately after it, like some kind of Baroque counterpoint, the POV – Point Of View – independently produced documentary called The City Dark: A Search for Night on a Planet that Never Sleeps. [http://www.thecitydark.com/] The first show explores the discoveries made in astronomy with the help of huge new telescopes, instruments “poised to penetrate the enigmas of dark matter and dark energy.” [http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/space/hunting-edge-space.html#hunting-edge-space-2] The show invited me to boggle once again at the mind-blowing beauty of the Hubble Space Telescope’s images of galaxies beyond our own, and then stunned me with renewed awareness of the immensity of Hubble’s own revolutionary discoveries of the limitlessness of space, and the expanding nature of the universe.
I was already back on my spiritual haunches from the NOVA show when The City Dark began, drawing my attention to the increasing light saturation of our cities and towns all across the globe, our increasing “addiction to light” since the discovery and domesticating of electricity; its strange effect on our rhythm of life; the possible ill-effects upon our animal selves of light’s 24/7 persistence; and ultimately, our loss of relationship with the night sky, the loss of our basic human sense of proportion. It brought to mind Jeff Zinsmeyer, crouched over his star chart and compass in front of the Barbara C. Harris Camp lodge at our Parish Retreat last month, training his binoculars skyward while he had the chance of real darkness. I thought of how passionately I love to return to Cushing, Maine of a weekend, turn my face away from the light pollution of the Maximum Security prison to the west in the town of Warren, and gaze up into the Milky Way, stretched and sparkling overhead. I even get out of bed in the middle of the night just to go dazzle myself again at the scope of that immense sky unfolding before me, and my small contingency in comparison.
So how does all this astronomical wonderment connect with our scripture for today? It’s all a question of retrieving our sense of proportion. The key is in Paul’s mystical theology in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, a passage which, if you haven’t been dipping into Second Corinthians lately, you might not recognize is in the midst of Paul’s argument with rival “superapostles” who are preaching to the educated Greek elite in the Corinthian community a very different gospel of Jesus Christ from Paul’s, a gospel of aspiration to spiritual perfection. In this passage, Paul begins with his own astronomical chronicle, carefully phrased in the third person so that he won’t be “boasting on his own behalf” about his own spiritual pyrotechnics. Nevertheless, it’s some pretty strong stuff: a chronicle of having been taken right out of his body and raised into “the third heaven.” In the categories of Heaven’s hierarchies emerging in the era of pseudepigraphal writings between the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, the “third heaven” is right up there near God! So “if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth,” claims Paul, and rivaling the best of those superapostles. But then he goes on, “But I refrain from [boasting], so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations.” And then he goes further, deliberately and repeatedly UNDOING any impression of razzle-dazzle and spiritual superiority the escapade into the Third Heaven might suggest, “Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness."
Paul never reveals exactly what the “thorn in his flesh” was, though speculation has been rife for millennia. Though I find it helpful to know Paul had struggles he never overcame, just as I do, that Paul was driven back to grace through his own insufficiency, just as I am, the exact nature of his “thorn” isn’t really the question, anyway. The question is why should Paul not be elated? Why is he at pains to reiterate it twice? His last lines give the spiritual coup de grâce: rather than boasting in spiritual elation, he says, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong,” through the grace of Jesus Christ, who suffered the pangs of powerlessness and mortality as we do.
It was the misconception of the Corinthians and their “superapostle” would-be teachers – and it remains the misconception of us latter-day Christians, all too much of the time – that faith will clean things up and give us spiritual power as a kind of insurance against uncertainty. The wisest disciples of Jesus down the ages have known better. From St. Paul and the Desert Mothers & Fathers down through St. Francis and Teresa of Avila and on to Thomas Merton, people of spiritual wisdom have learned to downplay the miraculous in their lives, and instead, emphasize their own weakness, trusting in and giving credit to God. They have confirmed the words of Psalm 62:13, “God has spoken once, twice have I heard it, that power belongs to God,” to God and not to human beings. Human beings, in fact, by claiming spiritual prowess, can get in the way of God’s power.
Take Jesus’ own experience, as Mark relates it in today’s Gospel. He’s come home to Nazareth, and is teaching in the synagogue, only to find the hometown citizens locked tightly in their preconceptions. “Isn’t that guy Mary’s son? I knew him when he was rolling around town with his buddies, making trouble! Came from no good; headed to no good, if you ask me!” The good citizens of Nazareth “have relegated [Jesus] to secure and definite pigeonholes in their world and they’re not inclined to take him out…” [L. William Countryman, New Proclamation Year B 2003] In the face of such determined blindness, Mark says, even Jesus, the Son of God, was UNABLE, says the literal Greek, to do any deed of power there… and he was left boggled at their insistence that they knew what was possible.
So it’s delightfully ironic that in the very next passage, Jesus imbues his disciples with authority to carry on his ministry with spiritual power. But note that he sends them forth in utter simplicity, “taking nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; … wearing sandals and not two tunics,” relying on the hospitality of strangers, and assured that some of those strangers will be hostile, not hospitable, and will refuse to hear just as the Nazarenes refused to hear Jesus. These disciples will only succeed in as much as they remain powerless, unimpressive and simple, letting power belong to God.
The City Dark documentary is right. We NEED the immensity of the night sky to remember who we are, small creatures, struggling to make sense, struggling to love, on the edge of one galaxy among many myriads of myriads. We need the emergence of the shy Higgs boson, astonishing revelation on a scale that pushes our capacity for rational thought to its margins. We need to remember Edwin Hubble and his discoveries that confirm that God’s universe is an open and not a closed system, and that change is inherent in the nature of things. Without the night sky; without the all-consuming sense of wonder; without the outbreak of new knowledge confounding the old; and without our sense of our own limitations, how could we permit ourselves to hear something truly NEW? “How can [Jesus] slip a new and revolutionary thought past our well-guarded perimeters?” [L. William Countryman, New Proclamation Year B 2003] The Higgs boson invites us out of our preconceptions, opens us to mystery, opens us, in our weakness, to God’s willing deeds of reconciliation and healing, FOR us and even THROUGH us. AMEN.