Our Lady of Unlikely Graces

Our Lady of Unlikely Graces (2014).  Wood, carpet, photograph of Icon, spray paint, acrylic paint.

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A Suite of Sermons from Grace

Sermons preached and recorded at Grace Episcopal Church, Georgetown, Washington D.C.  They were preached during my time there as Seminarian (Fall 2016- Spring 2017).

Year C, Easter 4 – April 17, 2016
Readings: Acts 9:36-43;  Psalm 23;  Revelation 7:9-17;  John 10:22-30

Year C, Proper 23 – October 9, 2016
Readings: Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7;  Psalm 66:1-11;  2 Timothy 2:8-15;  Luke 17:11-19

Year C, Proper 28 – November 13, 2016
The Sunday after the 2016 election
Readings: Isaiah 65:17-25;  2 Thessalonians. 3:6-13;  Luke 21:15-19

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Benny’s II

Pictured is the back parking lot of Benny’s II, a restaurant in Los Lunas, New Mexico. For the curious, Benny’s I is located in Peralta, NM.  Home of the world-famous “Benny Burger,” (which is probably the 3rd best Green Chile Cheese burger in the state, depending on the year’s chile), Benny’s has been the FAMILY RESTAURANT for many years.  Behind, and up the hill is an abandoned lot full of sandy hills where those who are equipped and inclined drive around and get stuck.

 

Technology, Wisdom, and Dread

I have been working on essays for scholarships, one of them was about the effects of technological advancement on the way we spend and save money.  That reminded me of a series of posts I wrote in 2011 over at theophiliacs which I have strung together here with minimal editing.

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I. Introduction

“But what about earth and all the people on it?”

“Tut, tut.  We can’t let mere sentiment intrude.  This is Science.”    

K.W. Jeter, Infernal Devices

I do not hate science or technology.  I am not a Luddite (hell, the Luddites weren’t even Luddites according to the contemporary usage of the word).  While I am attracted to the “no-shiny-object” policy of some members of the anabaptist tradition, I utterly fail at that discipline.  Despite what some of my friends and family may say (e.g. “You’re the youngest 87 year old I know”  “Why don’t you join the 21st century” ,etc.), I am a product of my generation.  The point of this little disjointed meditation is not, then, to utterly denounce science and technology, but rather to show in various circuitous ways that science and technological advancement have lost their anchoring in the seafloor of wisdom–that is culture, history, literature, and religion–and are floating about looking for some place to safely moor.  Some of these sections will be more serious than others, but none are meant to be exhaustive.  They are more like little flash-rants; too short to be called essays, too long to be written on a cardboard sign for a doomsday prophet to hold while standing on the street-corner.

It should be noted that during the course of the history of western civilization guardians of certain areas of wisdom have acted rather unseemly both toward science and to their own fields of study.  Burning or even threatening to burn scientists at the stake is not usually the way to win friends or influence people.  And, getting lost in the cobweb-filled labyrinth of 20th century literary theory, has not exactly given the study of literature the credibility and stature it needs in order to properly temper the more lucrative practical sciences.

So we find ourselves in a world where the academic study of humanities is all but dead.  Art, music and literature programs are the first to be cut from public schools.  Scientific and technological progress have either become ends to themselves, or they are the means of much more insidious and destructive forces, which seek to harness these advances for the purposes of greed and power-lust. And yet science and technology already do much to decrease suffering, and make the lives of all humans better.  The potential to advance in this capacity is great, but science and technology cannot and will not do it alone.

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II. The Tragic Irony of Technology

“Sanity often consists of knowing what not to think about.”  K.W. Jeter

The exponential growth of cellphone use and especially of smartphone use in the last several years has made an obscure mineral called coltan one of the most valuable substances on earth.  Coltan’s heat resistance coupled with its ability to hold an electric charge for a long time, make it an ideal component for electronics, and it consequently is used in almost all cellphones and many computers.  Unfortunately, much of the world’s coltan comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where it is hand mined by people who see almost none of the profit.  The profit is split between mining corporations and para-military groups.

The irony I refer to in the title is that I know about this moral scandal, and am therefore enabled to be outraged, only because I possess the very coltan infested technology that makes me an accessory to oppression.  I am made aware of oppression only by my participation in it.  This points to the paradoxical ability of technology to connect us, making the whole world and all its problems available to my every click and tap (of the mouse), while simultaneously causing widespread isolation, oppression and–in a word–dis-connectedness.  All this reminds me of Tony Hunt’s exquisite definition of original sin:

“…that structures of oppression, violence and rebellion against God are ‘already in place’ and work to form us as people before we are able to understand  or critically resist them.”  

Technology has become an integral part of our society.  It obviously has the ability to help us make real and lasting connections with real people.  A perfect example of this are the friends that I have made through this blog, most of whom I have never had any face-to-face interaction with.  It is the very same technology that makes me aware  and connects me to suffering people in the Congo.  My knowledge makes me responsible to them, they have become my neighbors, and yet the  very tool that allows me to connect with them as neighbors is partly responsible for their suffering.  Oh Lord, how do we break free from the bondage that separates us from each other and from You?

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III. Singularity, Progress, and Darwinian Common Sense

A TIME magazine article a few months back explores the idea of technological Singularity. The gist of it is that technology is advancing at a faster and faster rate and will eventual reach a point of near infinite growth, the point of Singularity.  At this point, machines will become conscious, and “the human age will be over.”  Now of course the article cites several science fiction authors, but it mainly quotes and profiles legitimate scientists.  There are a lot of people who take this seriously.  Many believe that it is inevitable.  Some have put a date on it (2045 CE, to be exact).  There is a significant group of scientists and inventors who are working toward it.  They have their own Singularity convention that is described in the article as something between ComiCon and an academic symposia.

The article quotes the Singularity Movement’s detractors as accusing it of being a Silicon valley version of the Evangelical rapture;  a bunch of sad, disillusioned geeks looking to technology for salvation.  This places the Singularity movement firmly within a growing trend of scientists and technologists whose faith in Science (with a capital S) to solve all our problems is absolute.  One such person mentioned in the article is Cambridge trained biologist Aubrey de Grey, who believes that death is simply an illness and he’s looking for the cure, and seems to believe that merging human and (inevitable future) machine consciousness may be the key: the scientific version of everlasting life.

In my opinion the biggest problem with the Singularity movement is they stopped reading science fiction back in the early fifties when it was still optimistic and have neglected to read the science fiction of the past 5 decades.  Maybe they’ve never seen a minor, underground, cult classic, indie film from the 80s–I’m sure you’ve never heard of it–it’s called, Terminator.  Science fiction has been grappling with artificial intelligence and Singularity for a long damn time, which leads me to my favorite quote from the article, one that could have come directly out of a science fiction story (Lev Grossman, the author of the article is also a science fiction/fantasy author).  It expresses my skepticism with clarity and wit:

You don’t have to be a super-intelligent cyborg to understand that introducing a superior life-form into your own biosphere is a basic Darwinian error.”

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IV. Science Fiction as Prophetic Witness or Scientific Gospel

On iTunes University (in the MIT Arts section) there is a lecture/moderated discussion given by Joe Haldeman entitled “The Craft of Science Fiction.”  In it, Mr. Haldeman briefly discusses Hugo Gernsback, one of the great early Science Fiction (hitherto: SF) pioneers, and founder of the first SF magazine, Amazing Stories.  Gernsback saw SF as a tool to popularize and advocate for science and technology.  Riffing off of that idea, Haldeman proposes that today SF–and especially hard SF:

“is a tool against religion…a tool for rationalism, and a rational approach to solving life’s problems.”  

Ironically, Joe Haldeman’s best known work, The Forever War, could easily be construed as a story about how technology isolates us and makes us less human; hardly a tool for the rational approach to solving life’s problems, but then again we each bring our own biases to the table when we pick up a novel (or any other book).

In any event, it got me thinking: what ideological purposes does/should SF have?  Should a SF story be a gospel narrative about the good news of science?  Or should it be a prophetic voice calling out in the wilderness of of unbridled, post-industrial science-run-amok?

I realized most of my favorites in the genre do not advocate for faith in science or “rationality” as Haldeman would prefer, nor do they (often) completely discount science or technology.  So briefly, I want to mention two books, easily some of the best in the genre, that explore science’s limits and possibilities, and at the same time have things to say about religion and spirituality.  Each of these books deserve multi-thousand word reviews, but this is supposed to be a short post so please don’t let brevity undermine your understanding of these book’s quality or import.

Solaris by Stanislaw Lem

Lem, one of the world’s best and probably Europe’s best practitioner of SF, wrote Solaris in Polish in 1961.  It was translated into English from a French translation in 1970, and a direct Polish to English translation was only just published as an audio book a few months ago with an ebook soon to follow.  There are also two film adaptations which deviate somewhat from the novel.

Solaris is a planet with one giant, conscious organism.  The human characters in the book, all scientists, discover through a certain kind of interaction with this alien organism that science cannot answer all questions, and that the most problematic and disturbing of these unanswered questions are about themselves.  This is one of the great philosophical novels of the 20th century.

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller

By my estimation, this is the greatest post-apocalyptic story of all time (and the cover, above, is totally sweet).  After a nuclear holocaust, a remote Catholic monastery keeps human learning and the cultural memory of the past alive.  It is deeply moving novel which–with no lack of irony–simultaneously warns us of the dangers and evils of science without conscience, and commends to us the indomitable curiosity that is one of the noblest and best aspects of humanity and is the basis of all science.

Second Sunday of Lent (Year A)

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The readings can be found here.

I want you to call to mind every classic Hollywood or old time radio spy thriller cliché that you can think of.  Think Orson Welles’ The Thin Man, The Phantom, Sam Spade, Casablanca.  Got it.  Ok.  It’s a dark night in a city that knows how to keep its secrets.  A mysterious figure leaves his trendy uptown Jerusalem condo and crosses the tracks to the wrong part of town.  As the streetlight flickers and mist rises from the gutter vents, he stumbles down an alley to his clandestine rendezvous.  Is it a drug deal? A nefarious plot to assassinate some important person? Will classified documents be exchanged for briefcases full of cash?  No, it’s just two guys in the dark talking theology.

It’s not exactly going to be the next blockbuster thriller, but it is our Gospel reading today.

The story of Nicodemus and Jesus is a unique one.  Nicodemus is an upstanding citizen and Pharisee, and probably a member of the highest Jewish ruling body, the Sanhedrin.  The Evangelist does not tell us why he comes to Jesus by night.  We might assume, however, that it was because he was trying to keep his meeting relatively secret.

Every time night is mentioned in the Gospel of John it has a symbolic meaning, besides any literal meaning it might hold.  The Evangelist loved to play with the themes of light and darkness, day and night as symbolic of good versus evil, or even better of illumination versus ignorance.  Remember that line in John 1:5, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.”

So Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the dark, both literally and symbolically, as one who is not illuminated, who is ignorant of the truth of the Gospel, but who for whatever is reason is curious.  He comes as a religious authority, wondering perhaps if Jesus, the new Rabbi in town, is going to play nice with the religious elite.  He starts to butter Jesus up, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God.”  And before he gets to the ask, before he states why he has come, Jesus cuts in, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

This really throws Nicodemus for a loop, first because it’s out of nowhere.  Second because the Greek work translated as “from above”, anOthen has a double meaning.  Besides “from above” it can also mean “again” and Jesus probably meant both “you must be born from above, and you must be born again.”  Of course, this strikes Nicodemus as complete nonsense.

Jesus goes on to say that you must be born of water and the Spirit to enter the kingdom of God.  “Don’t be astonished,” he tells the astonished Pharisee.  And then a few verses later we get the most famous, and one of the most comforting verses in all of scripture: John 3:16.

Of course, most of us here this morning are not astonished by the phrase “born again.”  We hear it all the time.  People come to our doors, or stop us on the street to ask us.  Billboards and tele-evangelists constantly pose the question, have you been born again?  At least from the time of the American revival movements of the 18th and 19th centuries, some Christians have used this phrase to describe an individual’s moment of realization that he or she has received the grace of God that comes through Jesus Christ.  This moment of realization is often supposed to come after one has said a certain prayer or made a certain kind of public declaration of belief in Jesus.

The problem comes when we try to exclude people based on our own, human definitions of belief in Christ, our own formulas for prayer, or the kind of public declarations that please us.  And the problem is not limited to tele-evangelist types, and door to door salesmen.  Us liturgical types are just as guilty.  When we decide who is in, and who is out based on the things they say or don’t say, by the way they pray, or sing (or don’t sing), or perhaps by the way they look, or the way they smell, we are forgetting that just before the most famous and most comforting verse in the Bible is one of the most unsettling, ambiguous and therefore not famous verses, when Jesus says:

“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Like wind, the Spirit blows where she chooses.  God moves, God acts, God speaks to people in ways completely outside of our control or understanding, and let me tell you it can be really irritating when God interacts with people we don’t like.  But the minute we forget that we cannot control God anymore than we can control the wind; the minute we begin to think that we have everything figured out, and that everyone else is wrong, we are in the same trouble that the Pharisees were in.  The religious elite who know everything, and condemn everyone else.

But Jesus did not come to condemn, but to save, that is, to rescue the world, the whole world, all of creation, including all of everyone.  Keeping that in mind I want to tell you exactly what believing in Jesus means, and don’t anyone contradict me.  No, I want to suggest to you that belief in Christ may take forms you might not expect.

Let’s take Nicodemus.  By all implications, Nicodemus didn’t buy all this born again stuff that Jesus was talking about, (and let me be honest I’m pretty confused by some stuff in this passage that Jesus says, myself. [All that stuff about Moses and the serpent lifted up, kind of freaks me out]).  And last we hear from Nicodemus in John chapter 3 is that he is confused and doubtful.

Nicodemus is mentioned twice more in the Bible.  He surfaces four chapters later in John during a meeting of religious leaders and tries to diplomatically steer their hatred away from Jesus and his followers, but there is no indication that he himself has become one of Jesus’ disciples, or that he ever overcomes the doubt they he exhibits in John 3.

But the last time we hear about Nicodemus is the most interesting.  It’s in John chapter 19, after the crucifixion, when this Pharisee—a member of the group that Jesus called a brood of vipers, remember—a wealthy, powerful and respected man lays it all on the line for Jesus and along with Joseph of Aremethia asks Pilot for Jesus’ dead body.  At a time when nearly all of Jesus’ disciples had either abandoned or betrayed him.  At a time when it was very dangerous to be the friend of the crucified fugitive of Nazareth, Nicodemus showed up to carry the broken body of Jesus to the tomb, and to buy the costly spices that were essential to a traditional burial.  The text doesn’t say what happens next to Nicodemus, but given the situation, given what a frenzy his fellow religious leaders had whipped themselves into demanding the torture and death of Jesus Christ, what Nicodemus did must have hurt.  I imagine it was the end of his career, the end of many lifelong friendships.  But nonetheless, Nicodemus was there.  He was faithful.

The word belief as John uses it, and the word faith as Paul uses it, do not necessarily mean having all the right words to say at the right times, it doesn’t mean that a person can not have questions or doubts about God.  What it means to believe; what it means to have faith is to be faithful.  To respond to God’s free grace by showing up, by making ourselves available to Him in the darkness of our own ignorance, and doubt, and suffering, just as Christ made himself available to us through the darkness of his Crucifixion.  Having all the right words and saying all the right prayers is what Deitrich Bonhoeffer calls “cheap grace” but being faithful is hard, and by very definition, it cannot be a measure by which to judge and exclude anyone else.  Faithfulness is a question with which we must confront ourselves, but luckily we get to do this as a community, a community that shows up, and cares for its neighbors, a community that lifts up rather than condemns, a community that puts its wealth, its power and its reputation on the line for the crucified fugitive of Nazareth, our Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Preached 16 March 2014 at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John, Albuquerque, NM