Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Simple, Elegant Equation (Christmas Eve Sermon)

A new movie came out a couple of months ago, a movie entitled The Theory of Everything.  The Theory of Everything tells the story of famous scientist Stephen Hawking – of his extraordinary career as a physicist, of his marriage family, and of his experience of life with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or what we often call Lou Gehrig’s disease, the degenerative neurological condition which over the course of his adult life has destroyed most of his physical capabilities.
As a brilliant young graduate student, Stephen Hawking began to explore the topic that would become his life’s work: Time. Does time have a beginning or does it not?  How does time work? As he himself explains it, Stephen Hawking wants to find the simple, elegant equation that explains – everything.
I’ve been thinking about this movie for weeks, and about this idea of a simple, elegant equation that explains everything.  As a physicist, Stephen Hawking’s  writes equations that look like math problems.  And if you’ve forgotten what an equation is – and I know that anyone here in high school is a lot closer to that definition that some of the rest of us! – an equation is an assertion that proclaims the equality of two quantity quantities.  For example, 2+2 = 4 -- one quantity is described as 2+2, and the other as 4, and they are equal.  That’s what most of us understand to be an equation. 
What on earth do equations have to do with Christmas?  (I'm sure you're wondering now how this happened ~ you came to a Christmas Eve service and landed in algebra class?)
Well, when Stephen Hawking, who is apparently not a person of faith, at least not in the conventional sense, does his work, he writes in the numbers and symbols of math and science.
But what if he is actually overlooking the simple, elegant equation that explains everything? 
What if the simple, elegant equation that explains everything is the Christian proclamation, the Christmas message?  What if the simple, elegant equation that explains everything is this:
Jesus is the savior of the world. Jesus = savior.
What does that even mean?
What does savior mean?
We have a lot of different ways of thinking about Jesus as the savior of the world, but as Professor Joan Nuth reminds us, it helps ~ yes, it really does help! ~ to begin with the Greek and Latin words from which the word savior comes – words which mean:
To make whole.
To heal.
One who saves -- makes the broken whole.
One who saves--  heals the sick and the injured.
One who saves, in other words --  gives life.  Creates anew. 
It seems unlikely, doesn’t it?  That the Christmas story could be the story by which all things cracked and smashed are made whole, the story by which all trauma is healed, the story which relates the beginning of a grand new creation, a new heaven and a new earth, a re-creation of the lush, flourishing garden of vitality and peace in which we got our start?
Yes, it seems unlikely that this story could tell us how God embraces the world.
The setting? An apparently arbitrary time on a speck of land on a very small planet in a vast universe of galaxies.
The cast of characters?
A man and a woman on the road, relying on visions and dreams for their sustenance while they are caughtup in that most bureaucratic of human enterprises – a taxing authority!
A baby – the most vulnerable of creatures, entirely dependent upon other human beings for nurturance and care.
Some shepherds and their sheep – the rough and tough guys and girls of their world, and their band of smelly, dull-witted animals.
And angels – all right, that might be a clue: something completely unexpected and entirely new is happening here.  But as far as the people are concerned?  They all look pretty ordinary.
And what about the context?  A world in profound need of healing, both then and now.
Then: Domination and oppression by a world power, slavery, poverty.  People who were lame and blind and ill, lepers and prostitutes and tax collectors – isolated and excluded and reviled.
Today: War and terrorism, Ebola, relations between black and white in turmoil, injustices and protests, people who are hurting and sick and angry, isolated and ignored.
It seems unlikely, that this story of a stable and a star, of people on the road and a baby delivered in a manger, unlikely that this story could have any impact on the vastness of human need. And yet, and yet --
Jesus is born to save, to make whole, to heal
By bringing together heaven and earth
God and humanity
Angels and shepherds
And by embracing the whole of human life: birth, death, great joy, unfathomable suffering ~
Jesus is the savior.
A simple, elegant equation? 
Let me tell you just one thing more about equations this time, about chemical equations.  Now for this I needed help, from my friend Michelle, who is a chemistry professor and a gifted spiritual writer, as well as from two friends who are chemistry teachers – one of them our own S.A. They explained to me that a chemical equation often requires a catalyst.   A chemical equation tells us how certain kinds and amounts of materials to which a specific catalyst is added result in certain products.
Michelle also pointed out to me last night that in a chemical equation, the materials we start with often bear no resemblance to the products  --  the results -- in the equation. 
For instance, hydrogen and oxygen are both gases and both highly flammable – and oxygen at high concentrations is poisonous to breathe! But let’s say that these gases, hydrogen and        oxygen – are our starting materials. 
Now add a catalyst -- a spark—and the product is not another gas, but water!  As michelle says: Pure, cool, wondrous water is formed.   
From gases, from something we cannot see, we get water – something we can hold and drink and bathe with and swim in, something tangible and refreshing -- and essential to our lives. 
Was that too much?  I’ll tell you the truth: it’s hard for me to think about.  Gases plus spark equals water. A mystery.
But – tonight – let’s try, just for tonight, to extend this idea of an equation in which we start with one kind of thing and end with another.  To a mystery more vast and more incomprehensible and – yes – more filled with joy than the mystery of H20.
For tonight, and for always, the equation is this:
A tiny baby, lying in slumber deep, and a human community in constant turmoil and pain – those are the materials with which we begin.
Love – that’s the catalyst.  God’s great love for all of us.
And the product? The product of baby plus humanity catalyzed by God’s love?
A whole, complete, healed, redeemed world.
The end product doesn’t look anything like the materials with which we start, and yet -- There it is: the simple, elegant equation: Jesus is the savior of the world.
Jesus, that tiny baby, is born tonight, to make whole, to heal, to re-create, to make new. 
Jesus is the savior.
Merry Christmas.

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