March 18, 2018: Living at the Edge by Rev. Beth Hayward (John 12: 20-33)

Journalist Dennis Overbye first met Stephen Hawking, who died this week, when he spoke at a conference about black holes. Overbye says that black holes are “the scariest things that otherwise sober physicists [have] ever dreamed up. Black holes, objects so dense that not even light can escape them, are the most extreme manifestations of gravity. In the early 1970s astronomers were finding black-hole candidates all over the sky. The universe was rife with death.”[1]

“Dr. Hawking,” however, “discovered that black holes were not black at all when quantum rules were taken into consideration, but were in fact fountains of energy, fizzing faintly with particles and radiation. Over vast eons they would eventually explode, giving back to the universe all the mass and energy that had once disappeared, in a sort of cosmic reincarnation.”[2]

This same writer reflects on the changes he witnessed in Hawking over the years of his progressive disease. “As he continued to outlive the odds and progressed from a cane to a wheelchair and from grunting to a computerized voice synthesizer operated first by a thumb and then by an eyeball, it was hard not to think of him as his own best metaphor, a man with one foot in his own black hole.”[3] Hawking, with his sheer physical determination, taught us as much about how to “live your one wild and precious life”[4] as he did about the origins of the universe. Maybe the two aren’t so far apart after all.

I wonder what it would look like if we understood the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection as a reflection of the mighty and wondrous bursting of a black hole?  We might call it a cosmic resurrection, a birth from what appears to be sure and certain death.

Jesus had one foot in his own black hole. Every sign points to one who knew that his way of living was about to land him in trouble. Today’s convoluted passage is the moment we see Jesus acutely aware that he is straddling the line between life and death, about to be sucked into a black hole that we know will explode with gifts for the universe after three days. The curious crowds become bigger and bigger while suspicion runs deeper and deeper. A cataclysmic shift is about to happen and those nearest the edge are either filling up with fear or overflowing with hope.

As yet another group of curious travellers seek to have an encounter with this Jesus we hear him pausing the story and making an ominous declaration. “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” This is the hour. This is the barrier-breaking, death-defying, truth-telling, glorifying moment. The hour has come. After a wedding at Cana, after miracles here and there, after all the conversations on the road, after the disruption in the Temple, after the raising of Lazarus from the dead – this is now the moment. Jesus’ mission is about to come to its completion. This is the hour that a seed falls to the ground, dying to live. Or if you prefer it’s the moment when Jesus will be put to death only to be lifted from the grave three days later. This story of Jesus in John’s gospel is grand, it’s bold, its cosmic, it weaves the grit of the earth with the dust of the stars. However you choose to describe it one thing is clear, the hour has come, the black hole is about to explode.

Over the years as people have approached this all important edge of Jesus’ mission they have sometimes seen it leading to the ‘sacrifice of a blood offering to an offended and angry God’ – the price that had to be paid to appease this angry God in order to avert a looming disaster for humanity. What if this hour, this death and resurrection of Jesus Is more a reflection of the patterns of the universe? As a seed dies to live, or a black hole explodes to return it’s offering to the skies, or a quirky scientist gets a debilitating diagnosis that he might live each day like it mattered? What if this hour holds an invitation to live on the edge, the edge of life, to live like it matters?

Besides, the idea that Jesus’s death appeased an angry God only ingrains a violence that begets violence. It asserts a theological triumphalism that is founded on domination and oppression. The bi-product of that view has been called a ‘theology of glory’ – an authoritarian and doctrinal approach to belief that silences argument, doubt and real humanity.” This is the great, historic distortion of Christian faith according to John Hall. Because, as he says, “God’s objective in …[Jesus] is precisely not to overwhelm but to befriend.”[5] A vengeful God is simply inconsistent with a loving God.

There is no sense in which Jesus is parading to the cross triumphantly; he’s not some willing martyr or proud hero. This is not divine predestination. Jesus is anguished and troubled as he contemplates how this will all end and the tremendous cost to him personally. And so glory in John is always paired with trouble, is never what we think it ought to be. Who would choose that kind of glory anyway – the kind that leaves you a crucified hero?

John Irving’s novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany, written many years ago but a classic on my shelf, opens with these memorable lines from the narrator John Wheelwright:

I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice – not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.

Everything in the novel revolves around the misadventure that happened when John Wheelwright and Owen Meany were best friends at eleven years of age. It was the summer of 1953 and they were playing in a Little League baseball game in their small town in New Hampshire. Owen hit a foul ball that soared into the sky and then came down, striking his best friend’s mother on the head. She died. Irving presents a search for God in the troubled, horrific realities of the world, where doubt is always a part of human existence on the knife-edge between life and death. As James Wall editor of The Christian Century once wrote, John Irving’s “God will never leave us alone and that God is present in the worst experiences we can imagine.”[6] Irving is convinced that the boundary between life and death is the place where God encounters, engages, embraces our doubt and we choose either to go on in faith, or we don’t. Owen Meany is fully conscious of God, considers himself a companion of God, and in that way stands in counterpoint to the world in which he lives. Owen’s world is alien to God, is full of tragic occurrences and evil expressions. Owen Meany dies in the end of the novel, a hero’s death, a death for others, it is a death that saves others’ lives. Sometimes friends do that, so that friends can live. We can only sigh softly at the end of a book like that.

Did God require Jesus’ sacrificial death or did Jesus’ just do what any of us would do for a friend? Is it just that being left on the receiving end of Jesus’ great act of friendly love leaves us a bit uncomfortable and so we’ve tried to put the blame on a vengeful God? Frederick Buechner suggests that we have our pride after all. “we make our own way in the world, we fight our own battles, we are not looking for any handouts, we do not want something for nothing… and to accept a gift from another would be to bind us closer to him than we like to be bound to anybody. If someone dies so that I can live, it imposes a terrible burden on my life.”[7]

This is the hour Jesus declares, the hour that changes everything, the moment when the seeds of Jesus’ way of love and justice are thrown to the dirt, the moment when the black hole’s gravity can no longer be resisted. Do we see the roots sprouting? Do we remember that the black hole will return all of its taking to the universe?

We have several evolutionary principles in this community; they aren’t doctrine but rather offerings to help us live our faith in tangible ways. The fourth Evolutionary principle is called Living at the edge of Risk – it’s about how we resist the urge to have old wounds become our primary identity. How to come to awareness when we settle into patterns that serve no purpose beyond telling us the same lies. Living at the edge of risk demands that rather than playing it safe we look for opportunities that involve risk and challenge us to grow. We walk with Jesus the path to vulnerability. With him, we are willing to go to the cross and die to all identities that keep us form growing in love, compassion and service.

Maybe black holes can teach us a thing or two about living on the edge of risk. The dying that Jesus exemplifies, not just on the cross but through his life is not one of sacrificial glory, it is a continual dying to the ways of the world and by that we don’t mean the loose morals of the world, but a dying to security, to power, to I’m an island onto myself. What if we died to the story we tell of a self-sufficiency that leaves little room for strong seeds to take root?

But I suppose the question today really isn’t about death but about life. Maybe Jesus’ death has something to teach us about life. Maybe the question, as we straddle the black holes of our lives, is not when will we be sucked in but if we are alive? Are you alive to the laughter of children? Are you alive to the flowers blooming? Alive to the conversation you’re having? Alive to the wonder of this moment? Alive to life? Are you alive to sound of birds in spring? Alive also to the stirrings of your heart? To the invitation of this moment to show up in a new ways?

Shorty we will sing of triumphing through our sorrows and rising to bless God still. In light of what we’re being opened to, we might hear these words not in the sense of stoic determination but in the light of the promise of a black hole or a roman cross. Our perseverance is one of vulnerability, of scattering seeds to the earth with the uncertain promise that from them life will sprout. Maybe this week that’s enough. Amen

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/14/science/stephen-hawking-life.html

[2] ibid

[3] ibid

[4] Mary Oliver The Summer Day

[5] John Douglas Hall

[6] James M. Wall, “Owen Meany and the Presence of God, The Christian Century, 22-29 March, 1989, pp. 299-300.

[7] Frederick Buechner, The Hungering Dark.