Electrons and God: knowing and not
They say that electrons are mysterious to scientists. No one doubts their existence – their effects are obvious in every atom, but they are mysterious. According to something they call the Heisenberg uncertainty principle both the position and momentum of electrons cannot be known. “That is, the more precisely one property is known, the less precisely the other can be known. It is impossible to measure simultaneously both position and velocity of” electrons (Wikipedia).
Certain and Mysterious
Why does that make me think of God? That combination of certain and yet mysterious existence, of knowability and unknowability is the uncanny reality we live with. This is Trinity Sunday on which we celebrate the fact that God is Three in One and One in Three. But before you eyes glaze over, let me assure you that this will not be an abstract theological reflection. Today we will be about as practical as it gets. We need to have scientists to figure out the Heisenberg uncertainty principle as well as theologians to puzzle out the Trinity. But we also need the practical benefits of both science and theology; we need the electron microscope to help our doctors treat us effectively, and we need this mysterious Trinitarian God in our lives.
Meaning through an honest story
The beautiful thing about our faith is that though it is mysterious and complex, we engage it at the level of story first, not doctrine first. The doctrines, like the Trinity, are there to help us understand the meaning of our story. The story is where the meaning starts.
Our story is an honest one. Our story is not about a magical world of peace, prosperity and security – like an eternal Garden of Eden. Our story started there but left it after one brief chapter. From Adam and Eve, walking with God in the cool of the evening, to Cain and Able’s R-rated scene, our story quickly included blood and violence, family dysfunction, envy, jealousy, deceit, fratricide, and expulsion; from blessing to curse in one chapter. Our story is also about God who has stuck with this world through every nasty scene it has played, and is still involved in that electron-like, certain/mysterious way.
God’s work in this world reminds me of a comment my first boss made about me when I started working. He said, “You will be a good employee because…” and I felt immediately proud of myself, imagining the next words out of his mouth would be something like “…because you are so diligent or careful, or skillful” but no. He said, “…because you are not afraid to get your hands dirty.” Real work gets you messed up most of the time. God’s work in this world has meant that he has had to come down to where we are and get dirty. Our story is the story of God becoming a human – but not like the Greek gods who just appear in human form and then go back up to Mt. Olympus with clean clothes; our story is of God really becoming fully huma certain but mysterious. God became a person, Jesus, who walked, fished, slept, and washed his hands and ate supper, and who bled when he was cut, and cried out in pain when he was beaten.
Knowing that story help us when the scenes played out down here get really dirty. We believe that God does not turn his back on this world in disgust and revulsion, even when we are at our human worst – even in times like the 1940’s.
Yesterday was the 65th anniversary of the D-Day landings on June 6, 1944. Some of you lived a part of that story that I only know from school and from films. I was born into a world that was set free of demonic Nazi ideology and from other fascisms, thanks to the sacrifice of many. I have visited and Auschweitz and Birkenau – if I were God, that would have been too much for me – but God’s involvement did not stop – and he was not absent from Omaha beach, nor the cliffs of Normandy. He is not absent from Pakistan’s Swat valley, nor from Anbar province, nor the West Bank. He is not absent from Golden Living nor from the ICU, nor even from my room in the middle of the night. He is not afraid to get his hands dirty in ways that are completely mysterious to me.
The redemption story
Let us look at the texts before us today. Our story is not a moral tale like Aesop’s fables; our story is a redemption story, which makes all the difference. It is helpful to hear stories with “lessons for life” to help us get through the world we were born into with all of its choices and chances for messing up. It is quite another thing, however, to have a story that does something about the condition we have been born into and offer some hope. Our story does offer hope.
In our story, God’s hands are dirty with the world for one reason: he loves it – he loves us , in spite of everything. It was love for us that motivated him to become one of us in the first place:
“for God so loved the world that he gave is only son…”
He did not come down like Athena to put on our sword and become our champion, he came to redeem us from the evil in our natures that produces Nazi death camps and suicide bomb vests, from the evil that makes people willing to gamble away pension funds and jobs for thousands, and from the evil of selfishness and apathy in the face of suffering. Only love would keep someone at a process this messy that has had so many failures and disappointments along the way. “God so loved the world…”
Nicodemus, in this text, is trying to get this story figured out. Jesus has been doing amazing things that everyone there recognize are signs that it is God at work in his hands – miracles we call them. And yet how is it possible? God is, like Isaiah experienced, “high and lifted up” in a world where even angels have to cover their faces, right? So Nicodemus starts off like we do when we want to “know” something that we don’t really know, like “I know I left my keys in this room.” He says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” We know it! We just know it must be true, right?
But he does not know how true it is at all – in fact he comes to Jesus at night – he just knows – but he could be mistaken. Heisenburg’s uncertainty rules the human heart.
Nicodemus was born into a world that required secrecy and caution, because the very same people who conferred your status and social position on you could also turn on you with violence and hate if you threatened their game.
Jesus did not teach Nicodemus a little moral “lesson for life;” he told him that the solution he needed was to be re-born into another world entirely. The old world of Judeans vs. Romans is not the only one; the one you must live in – the world of Arians vs. Jews or of Muslims vs. Christians. You could be born into the world in which God’s love knows no borders; in which it is impossible to have D-days because nobody listens to the politics of hate-mongering and scapegoating; those guys that preach that stuff don’t get elected, they get pitied.
But this world does indeed have its D-days, and hate and fear-mongers and scapegoaters are awarded the prime time slots on cable news networks both on the right and the left – they all play the same game because it keeps working, and everyones hands are really dirty.
And this world does have neglected and abused elderly people, and children without health care, and people who harbor bitterness and resentment who do not even attempt to forgive. Such is the dirty state of the world – of every single human heart.
The key is trust
But God, for his own mysterious reasons is still here with us in this mess we made. He is still offering us redemption – hope for a new birth into a new world. The key is trust. The mysteriously simple mechanism of new birth is simply trusting oneself to God. Believing in (not believing that, but believing in) the second person of the Trinity: the son that God sent into the world, not to condemn the world, but to rescue it from its own devices, from its own evil.
Moral reform is not what we needed or that is what he would have offered. New birth is what we have always needed. New birth into a new family-of-origin, a new identity, a new set of values and allegiances, a new language with a different vocabulary; new birth into a world in which God is presently active and mysteriously present – and unbelievably loving.
Our Response to redemption
God is here, now; mysteriously, certainly. Our story is that Jesus has redeemed us; he has given us new birth; we are in his family. And so our part of this story is us, like Isaiah, saying to the God who redeemed us: Here I am; send me. Send me into this world on your mission of love. Send me to get my hands dirty caring for messed up and broken people. Send me to reconcile and understand, even when everyone else around me is scapegoating and fear-mongering.
Send me to hungry people who show up across the street. Send me to children who need tutors. Send me to protect this precious planet for the next generation. Send me to tell people that God does not hate them and plan to send them all to hell, but loves them all and wants them only to trust him. This is our scene in this story; this is our part, individually, and as a congregation – to offer ourselves back in responsive love and trust, so that the answer to his question, “who will go for us?” is “here are we, send us!” “Here am I; send me!” Mysterious, invisible, Trinitarian God: I trust you.