Discovering the God Who Is

February 14th, 2018

A sermon for Ash Wednesday by Christopher L. Webber.

Four thousand years ago the Hebrews were a nomadic tribe wandering in the deserts of the middle east. Around them were people who were learning to be farmers: Egyptians, Babylonians, Canaanites, who raised wheat and barley and melons and other good things to eat. And because they depended on the sun and the rain and the rivers, the soil and the seasons, and because these were not always favorable, these agricultural people prayed to the powers that they thought determined success or failure, abundance or hunger, and they made statues and images as a focus for their prayers.

The Hebrews, however, were nomads. They had no crops to raise and so no need for gods of that sort. So when the Hebrews came into the promised land and tried to learn farming themselves, they looked to the Canaanites for advice and were told, “Well, here’s what you do: you set up a pillar and you make offerings; you carve some wood or stone and you cry out to Baal.” Some of the Hebrews tried it out and sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t, but they thought it was better to do it than not do it. Hey, you never know. But others resisted and said, “No, the God of our ancestors commanded us to make no statues, because our God is beyond all possibility of representation. And our God also cannot be influenced by the size of our offerings or anything like that. We can try to line up with God but no way we can get God to line up with us.”

That was a conflict that went on for centuries. The Hebrews were divided, with prophets and their visions on one side and the practical people on the other. The prophets said, “It doesn’t matter where you are or what the agenda is; there is one God, no other. You can serve God, but God can’t be bribed to serve you.” But the practical people said, “Look, the Canaanites have the experience and the smart thing is to hedge your bets, not put all your eggs in one basket, always backup your computer.”

When the Jews finally finished conquering Canaan and built a capital in Jerusalem, David wanted to build a temple for God – something symbolic, something concrete and visible – but God said “No.” Solomon built one anyway, and at last the people had at least some place to locate God and a tangible symbol as a center for their worship. But the prophets didn’t give up; still there were prophets who insisted God is beyond all this and if this becomes an idol, God can and will destroy it and God can even destroy you, the chosen people, if you turn to your own ways, because God is always beyond, always greater than we can imagine and God asks us to respond in a freedom that lacks the apparent security of walls and borders and images and festivals and buildings and laws. God is not limited by our constructions. God is free. And God calls us to respond in freedom giving ourselves without limit to the God who loves us without limit.

That’s what Lent is all about: a reminder that we are by origin a desert people with a desert God: a God who is free and calls us to freedom. Lent summons us to remember who we are and respond to that challenge. For forty days every year we are challenged to follow Jesus back out into the desert of our nomadic ancestors where there is none of the security of plowed land and settlements and walls and well-traveled roads. The Prayer Book speaks of Lent as a time of “special acts of discipline and self-denial.” It asks whether we can get along without the images and the idols – the things, the possessions – that give us a feeling of security. Can we put them aside, and learn to live with God alone?

All the old traditional disciplines of Lent, giving up candy and movies and television – the images of Canaan and Babylon – are basically about that: how addicted are you to the local idols? how dependent on material things? One of the old mystics used to say, “This too is not God.” It’s a good line to remember. “This too is not God.”

Lent is a time to turn away from the things that are not God and discover again, or perhaps for the first time, the God who is.

Everyone is Looking for You

February 3rd, 2018

A sermon preached at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on February 4, 2018, by Christopher L. Webber.

Most of us, I expect, at one time or another, have had the experience of being told “Everyone is looking for you.” It’s one of those things people say when you’ve forgotten that you were supposed to be doing something like conducting a funeral or going to your spouse’s birthday party and they come and find you watching television or at the local MacDonalds and tell you, “Everyone is looking for you.” It’s not literally true – there are people in China and Sumatra who have never heard of you – but you know what they mean.

It’s a similar situation when you see someone on the street and they say, “How’s everything?” They probably don’t really want you to tell them. They know and you know that these phrases are “hyperbole,” an overstatement. No one wants to know how “everything” is and not “everybody” is ever looking for you or me.

In today’s gospel, Jesus is in that sort of situation: he had put in a full day’s work teaching and healing and finally the day was over and people had found places to sleep and the next morning Jesus was up early and went off by himself to pray. So when his followers got up, they couldn’t find him and they went looking and when they found him they said, “Everyone is looking for you.”

The gospel according to St. Mark doesn’t waste words and it often packs in more meaning than you might notice on a first reading. I think Mark means it. When he has people tell Jesus “Everyone is looking for you,” I think he means it quite literally. Yes. It’s true. Mark means to tell us that everyone in the world, every single human being is looking for Jesus and needs to find him.

This is, you might say, the other side of the mission coin. The mission of the church is to proclaim the gospel to all people. Why? Because we assume that all people need the gospel, that all people are looking for Jesus. They may not know it, but they are. If they haven’t found Jesus, there’s something missing in their lives. That’s why the CEO of a major corporation with a salary of a zillion dollars and stock options for more, who has a Rolls Royce and a private plane and a house in Sun Valley and another in Bermuda, and on and on, still goes to work and still tries to increase his wealth. There’s something missing in his life and he tries to fill the void with money and possessions and it never works. It’s why some people live to go shopping and it’s probably the root of most addictive behaviors. If we eat too much or drink too much maybe we need to find Jesus; maybe that’s what we’re looking for. It may explain a lot about most of us because most of us have behavior patterns that if we analyzed them objectively might have more to do with silencing our hunger for God than any socially useful purpose.

St. Augustine said, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you.” Or, as someone else put it, there is a God-shaped blank – or a Jesus-shaped blank – at the center of every life; there’s a void that cries out to be filled. Everyone needs to fill that space and Jesus’ disciples saw that Jesus could do it in a way no one else could do. That’s why they said, “Everyone is looking for you.”

Now, think about the world from that perspective. What does that tell us about the suicide bomber in Afghanistan who has despaired of any future, or the tyrant who runs North Korea with his need to control his country, or the President of the United States with his insatiable need to be liked, or what does it tell you about the neighbor whose behavior drives you around the bend, or about myself on the days when I do things that I know are hurtful or create needless tensions in a local community?

At their root, all these problems are the same. Everyone is looking for Jesus. Our problem is that we don’t know it so we try everything else in the world to fill that need and none of it works – not for very long. Over 20% of the world’s population is Muslim, 1.5 billion people. Are they looking for Jesus? Well, certainly not consciously! Most of them have probably never met a Christian. But they need to.

Come closer to home. If every member of the Episcopal Church is looking for Jesus, why can’t we get along with each other better? Shouldn’t we have more in common than we seem to? Maybe we need to meet Jesus in some deeper way.

I come across the term fairly often these days, “a seeker-oriented church.” It’s a description often used about some of the mega-churches: “seeker-oriented.” But why would that be different from any other? I hope this church is seeker-oriented; I hope you and I are seeker-oriented. I hope we are all seekers ourselves. I hope each of us comes seeking every week and is consciously seeking every day and seeking especially such a knowledge of God and relationship with Jesus Christ that other seekers, maybe not quite as far along as we are, might find some answers through us, might recognize us as people whose lives reflect a certain sense of purpose, whose lives seem to be centered, seem to be moving in a direction that might draw them along to come seeking with us.

As we move along toward the Annual Meeting next week we need to think in those terms: what kind of church are we, what kind of church do we want to be, why are we here, what or whom are we seeking, what help do we need in our search, how can we draw others to join us in our search. These are, first of all, the kind of questions we need to be able to answer. And pre-packaged answers don’t usually help. What we need instead are tools to help this particular community and each particular individual find the answers that are right for them.

I learned early on not to be too certain as an Episcopalian about anything – except the love of God. Apart from that, there is no one-size-fits all answer because there’s no one single question. Even my own questions today are different from the ones I had last year or ten years ago or fifty years ago. Some Christians think there is one simple answer like “John 3:16.” That’s the right answer for some people some of the time, but some people may need to hear John 3:17 or 3:18. But our questions change and the answer comes in  different forms. It’s still Jesus – that’s still the answer – but what Jesus means to me now is different in some ways from what he meant to me fifty years ago. What Jesus means to me is different from what he means to someone dying of cancer or a teenager whose friends are doing drugs or a Detroit auto-worker just laid off from the only work he knows or a Palestinian with no work or hope of work or an Afghan whose life has been torn apart and who finds American troops to be a convenient focus for his anger. Are all of them looking for Jesus? Yes – at the deepest level – yes. Because what all of us need to know deep down – is the same thing: that there is a God who loves you and cares for you and sent his own son to die for you and rise to a new life. That’s Jesus. That’s life. God’s promise is life. Life in Jesus. That’s what we need to know. And that’s what we need to translate to the specific needs of others. And it does translate: differently for each life, yes, but it does translate, and that’s what today’s gospel tells us that Jesus’ disciples had realized: “Everyone is looking for you.”

I Know Who You Are

January 27th, 2018

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at All Saints Church, San Francisco, on January 28, 2018

“I know who you are!”

I take my text from a crazy man. He came to Jesus, the Gospel tells us, and said, “I know who you are: the Holy One of God.” Sometimes you have to be crazy to make sense of the world around us. Sometimes you have to be crazy to understand.

I read a book once by Jacob Neusner, a rabbi who imagined how it might have been if he had been there in Galilee listening to Jesus himself. He imagined himself being very impressed but turning and walking sadly away – sadly unable to commit to a teaching so radical. I understand that. I might have turned away myself. It’s a commitment to be a Christian. “Take up your cross,” Jesus said, “and follow me.” Maybe next week, but right now I’m busy. Got to write a sermon. You’d have to be crazy to be a Christian.

It took a crazy man to see who Jesus was – and is. “I know who you are: the Holy One of God.” Think about that. Think about holiness. What is he saying? What is he seeing? “The Holy One of God.” Read the Hebrew Scriptures: it’s the story of a discovery of holiness and especially the discovery of the great divide between holiness and humankind. God set out to create a people who could understand holiness, who could see beyond the mundane daily-ness of life, who could see another dimension, who could glimpse a reality beyond reality, who could recognize a reality too great for human beings to comprehend. And that’s hard to do.

At the simplest level, the problem is called sin. It’s called separation. It’s called failure. It’s called missing the mark. It’s called being human. “To err is human.” That’s a familiar phrase. The Bible is the story of the development of that understanding also: knowing what holiness is and knowing who we are and knowing how far we are from a reality beyond words, another dimension, something beautiful and dangerous, something that draws us, that fascinates us, yet terrifies us with its demand that we change, that we change, that we be changed, that we not settle for what we are, that we set out to become something more, something new, something other, something – holy. That’s frightening.

Holiness is frightening. Most religions find a way to tame it down, to domesticate it, to make it safe. Take a familiar prayer book, add some sentimental hymns, get a friendly pastor to reassure you. But then you come to church and they read you some crazy passage about a weird encounter on a hilltop in the middle east between the friendly Jesus you learned about in Sunday School and a crazy man who was yelling and screaming about Jesus being the Holy One of God. But if God were standing in front of you in human form wouldn’t that be scary? Wouldn’t you be scared? terrified? You would have to be crazy to face it because if it’s true, life is changed for ever.

I wonder whether you went to a college as I did and took a course that asked you to read a book written a hundred years ago by a man called Rudolf Otto. Otto was German, so he wrote in German and the German title is “Das Heilige.” In English, it’s called, “The Idea of the Holy.” If I had to make a list of the ten most important books I have read, “The Idea of the Holy” would be on it. Otto writes about “the elements of mystery, fascination, awfulness, and energy.” He talks about “the wholly other” and the “mysterium tremendum.” We are told that colleges today need to emphasize a “STEM curiculum” (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) so maybe nobody reads Otto any more. What about poetry? Do you read poetry? Do you go to museums, do you study the great artists, Rembrandt and Picasso, do you listen to music – any music – thoughtfully? Do you ask why the organ back there is so important to our worship, our common life? Otto says, “Religious worship cannot do without music – it stands too high for any understanding to reach.” We respond automatically to so much of this because of who we are – human beings, made in the image of God, the image of the Holy One. So it’s good to think about all this, and to ask why, to ask about the things that separate us from the dog on a leash or the bird on a wire. They need no higher education to be what they are nor do we, but to be what we might become: that’s something else. And it’s not necessarily higher education we need, certainly not a STEM curriculum, but some degree of self-awareness, that we are a flame in a fragile shell with “intimations of immortality” – that’s Shelley – that “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends” – that’s Shakespeare. We need glimpses of something more, but something all too easily ignored, put aside for a later day that never seems to come: glimpses of that frightening, terrifying aspect of life that Otto called “the wholly other.” Otto wanted to explore that sense we have that there’s another dimension, that the life we live day by day is only the surface of something more. But it might be frightening to do that and we can usually postpone it to another day.

Did you ever read C S Lewis’ children’s book, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”? The children in the story have somehow gotten beyond the surface and crossed into a magical land where everything is strange and they are told that they need to meet the ruler of that land, Aslan, the Lion King. Susan asks, “Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”… “Safe?” said Mr Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” Not safe, but good. He’s holy. He’s that frightening power that draws us, and he’s frightening, maybe, because we’ve gotten so far afield. Like MacBeth, we’ve come “so far from shore returning were as tedious as go o’er.” But what would happen if we decided to go the rest of the way? What would happen if we fanned the spark into a flame?

Now if you’re paying attention, you may have noticed that I’ve been looking at the other side of the text. The mad man in the Gospel today was accosting Jesus, recognizing the holiness in Jesus, and I’m suggesting that there is a holiness also in us, in you and me. I think that’s what Jesus is all about: he came to show us holiness in human life. You may need to be slightly crazy to see it, but I think it’s why Jesus came and I think it’s why we’re here. An image that came to mind was “like moths drawn to the flame that can destroy us.” It’s dangerous, what we’re doing here, and yet we try to make it safe, to tell people about a friendly Jesus and invite them to a comfortable church where they can meet friendly people. I think this church is different. It is comfortable and the people are friendly, but I don’t think that’s why we’re here. I think there’s something more.

I came here last Sunday and a few minutes before ten o’clock the organ prelude began, a simple melody, one note at a time, the melody of a familiar hymn, but then a few chords were added and then some discords and more stops were opened and the melody ramified at last into a complexity of sound, a storm of sound, that washed over me, beyond analysis, beyond understanding, but conveying somehow a sense of a mystery beyond words and requiring worship. There are many paths to that sense of the holy. Music is one of them. Incense and vestments and silence are also part of it. There are paths we need to follow, country we need to explore, to know who we are and why we are here and all the outward show is dedicated to that purpose.

The third book of the Bible is called Leviticus and most people never read it – understandably. I recommend Rudolf Otto; I don’t recommend Leviticus. Leviticus begins with specific instructions on how to sacrifice cattle, how to make a burnt offering of sheep or goats. Why would you do that? Well, you might do it because you have a sense of mystery, and blood and death bring you close to that mystery. Then there are dietary laws. Well, we all know about dietary laws: calorie counting and all that. God gave you a body and you need to take care of it. We know that. Leviticus knows that. We have something in common. But keep on going. There’s stuff about sex – well, that’s terrifying also. But it also holds a potential for deep levels of love and a sense of the holy. Keep going and finally in chapter 19 you come to what is known as “The Holiness Code” and one of the most important chapters in the whole Bible. Verses one and two say it all: “The Lord spoke to Moses saying, ‘Speak to the whole community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.’” The Holiness Code goes on to provide a whole series of instructions about respect for the elderly – more important to me every year – and about leaving some of your harvest for the poor and not insulting the deaf or putting something in the way of the blind for them to trip over and not dealing falsely with others and not sowing two kinds of seed in one field and not turning to ghosts or soothsayers and trimming your beard in a certain way and tucked in with all of that is the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself, and we should do all of that in order to be holy because the Lord our God is holy. We are to come near to the awesome and terrifying mystery at the heart of creation and let that holiness transform us and make us new, make us like God.

There are sixteen Episcopal churches in San Francisco and how many Lutheran and Presbyterian and Methodist and Roman Catholic and Orthodox and other? And yet I read in the paper last week of a United Nations emissary visiting the homeless encampments in Oakland and Berkeley and San Francisco. “She met with dozens of homeless people — many disabled, elderly, veterans, chronically ill, and suffering from addictions — and she witnessed families with children camping in the 41 degree weather. At a camp in the San Antonio neighborhood, she watched large rats scurry in the mud looking for food scraps. While homelessness is an international crisis, in several respects, she said, the situation in California’s cities is worse than other parts of the world. “I find there to be a real cruelty in how people are being dealt with here,” she said.

You shall be holy: you shall be a transforming fire. What would a mad man say? Would he see what we fail to see? Do we know who they are? Do we see the holy there on the street? Do we see the holiness: that flame, that essential core of our being that we somehow are able to stifle and starve and beat down until all we see is the battered shell of a human life – maybe a homeless woman or man and maybe our own.

Jesus came specifically for this purpose: to be recognized as God’s holy one and to let us see who we are called to be, to call out the holiness in you and me so we can come home at last to the Holy God who made us for that end.

I know who you are. Do you?

All Flesh is Grass

December 9th, 2017

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at All Saints Church, Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco, on the Second Sunday of Advent, December 10, 2017.

Lewis Thomas died over 20 years ago, but I think of him again in connection with today’s Old Testament reading.

Some while ago, I read a magazine article in the New York Times about Lewis Thomas, and his thoughts about life and death and the words of Isaiah in the first lesson today seemed to connect: “All flesh is grass” the prophet tells us. “The people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely

the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.” (Isaiah 40:6-8)

How does that connect with Lewis Thomas? Do you know the name? He was Dean of the medical schools at NYU and Yale, chancellor of the Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Scholar in residence at Cornell Medical School and author of essays collected in books called “The Lives of a Cell,” “The Medusa and the Snail,” “The Youngest Profession,” and others. They make good

reading. They’re wise and warm, and they make endlessly interesting observations about human nature and about the human race.

When Lewis Thomas learned that he was terminally ill someone interviewed him and wrote about it so I read the article with special interest and I was really disappointed because he was a man who had seen so much and understood so much and now he was dying and it turned out that he didn’t have a clue about some pretty basic things like God and heaven and life hereafter. Whatever ideas he had could have been picked up secondhand from a church school dropout.

Now, I think when someone in this culture, this society, has no idea of what Christianity is all about we have to take some of the blame. It’s at least in part because we who are Christians are not communicating, not getting our message across, not living up to our faith in a way that gets any attention or understanding. So ignorance about the faith is partly our fault surely, but on the other hand, wouldn’t you think that a highly intelligent, curious man would wonder what it was that shaped our world, our culture, our civilization? He must have heard of Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, and maybe Karl Barth, Rheinhold Neibuhr, William Temple – some of the greatest minds of western civilization have been Christians. Wouldn’t you think that a well-read, well educated, reflective man would wonder why? Wouldn’t you think he would want to test their ideas for himself?

Lewis Thomas wrote an essay once about a space probe that was being sent out toward the far ends of the universe with a carefully coded message on board to tell any intelligent beings out there that we are here. He pondered what message we might send as typifying the very best of what we have done, and he suggested some music of Bach, all of Bach. “It would be boasting, of course,” he said, “but it’s surely excusable to put the best face on at the beginning. We can tell the hard truths later.” I like that suggestion, but can you imagine listening to Bach and Mozart and Haydn and Handel and not wondering about the faith that shaped that music? The B-Minor Mass, the Messiah: wouldn’t you wonder what it was all about? Is it possible truly to appreciate music like that and not understand what it’s saying? It seems to me that it would be like attending a performance of Shakespeare in Russian and not asking for a translation. Can you live in the western world and hear the Messiah and never wonder what it means?

“Comfort ye, my people.” We heard that passage read this morning. I remember the first time I heard it sung live my first year away from home at college. I’d heard it on the radio and maybe we had a recording, but I grew up in a small town and there was no one there who could have sung that aria. But Trinity Church Princeton had a good choir and in Advent the tenor sang “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people.” I was seventeen, so it was a long time ago, but I’ve never forgotten it. They are the words of the prophet Isaiah, words of faith and hope, and the music enhances that expression.

So who was Isaiah? Why did he write those words? Are they just beautiful words with no meaning at all? No, Isaiah was writing at a critical turning point in Jewish history. The Jews had been in exile in Babylon for seventy years, but then they were set free to return to Israel. The exile was ending. God’s people were experiencing God’s goodness in the chance for a new beginning. God had promised and God was keeping that promise.

God does that; God keeps promises. The prophets have visions and dreams and the dreams come true – like it or not. If you like the world we live in, don’t rest easy. It’ll change. God will bring it about. In Isaiah’s vision even death comes into a new perspective: “Surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flowers fades, but the word of our God shall stand for ever.” Death is real, but God is stronger than death.

In some of his essays, Lewis Thomas wrote about death as a scientist, as an observer, and never apparently asked whether there might be a meaning beyond what a scientist might observe. I guess I never really understood before how blind a scientist can be to so much of the same world he or she is studying. That needs to be said. We need to recognize it: how blind a scientist can be and how narrow-minded. Politicians, too, of course; but we know that: blind and narrow-minded and doomed.

I remember that years ago there was a science teacher in the local high school when I was rector of Christ Church in Bronxville, New York, a science teacher who delighted in telling high school children that the crossing of the Red Sea was probably made possible by a volcanic explosion in the Mediterranean that drained the water away from the Red Sea for a while so that the Hebrews could cross, and then sent it rushing back so that the Egyptians were

drowned. Well, I think that’s quite possible myself, but unlike the scientist I don’t consider that a full explanation. I can’t stop asking questions at that point. I’d want to ask what caused the volcanic explosion and why did it go off at just that time. Was it coincidence that led Moses to exactly the right place at exactly the right time? Doesn’t that seem – remarkable? For myself I can’t imagine not asking the rest of the questions. It amazed me how uncurious a scientist could be.

Parenthetically isn’t it odd that a teacher in a public school was free to try undermine a student’s faith but would never be free to try to build it up? I don’t want faith taught in a public school; they’d make a mess of it. But I don’t want atheism taught there either. We need to teach science and I wouldn’t leave it to the churches; they’d make a mess of that! So we equip our school buildings with all the latest scientific equipment. Students need it to survive in this world of ours. But is that all we need to know? It’s great to know What, but shouldn’t we also ask Why?

Are the scientific answers really the full, complete, and final answers to all of life’s questions? Is life only a matter of computers and equations? When we have a free evening to go out with friends, do we go out to watch computer screens or to enjoy a dinner, hear a concert, watch a play, even go to a basketball game? I have a couple of grandsons, actually, who do spend a free evening at a computer screen, but I think – I hope – they’ll outgrow it. Most of us, given freedom to choose, do things that are unscientific and can’t be measured or calibrated. Is it cold facts, is it measurable data, that give meaning to human life and relationships? Is it the power that flows through wires and the invisible internet that creates human relationships or is it the inscrutable power of love? And wouldn’t you want to know where that love comes from and what it means even if you can’t check it in test tubes?

Now, maybe the reviewer misrepresented Dr. Thomas. I hope so. But here’s a typical quotation: “I’m not sure that we’ll come to a flat end but I don’t believe in heaven either. Once we get better at living together I think the question of an afterlife will not seem so important. And once we acquire the habit of peacemaking I don’t think we’ll feel the need for ideas like immortality. I don’t think that the permanence of the individual human soul is an indispensable part of religious thought.”

The simple naivete is breath-taking! “Once we get better at living together” he said, as if it were a problem to be solved and it’s solution is just around the corner. “Once we acquire the habit of peacemaking . . .” he said. Right. Maybe after the next election. And then that line about “I don’t think the permanence of the individual human soul is an indispensable part of human thought.” Well, I don’t think that either. But the interviewer and the doctor both seem to assume that that’s what Christians believe. I guess actually a lot of them do, because they also may never have gone beyond first grade in church school. But the Creed we recite every Sunday talks about resurrection not immortality of the soul and resurrection is a very different idea. It’s based, for one thing, not on a philosopher’s speculation but on a real, witnessed, historical event: the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

So where did Lewis Thomas get the idea that “the permanence of the individual human soul is an indispensable part of religious thought.” Isaiah didn’t believe in it nor did Jesus nor did Paul. The Greeks did, but that’s where we get our philosophy not our faith. Yes, maybe Buddhists and Hindus believe in a permanent soul, but we’re not Hindus or Buddhists.

Listen again to what Isaiah says: ‘The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.” Isaiah, of course, didn’t know about resurrection. But he knew that human beings are not immortal. He knew that God alone is immortal. And he knew that whatever meaning life has, what ever hope we have, depends entirely on God. But who needs God, if you have an immortal soul? If you’re immortal, you don’t need God. Or else you are God. But that’s eastern religion. Jews and Christians know better. Life is fragile. Death is real. Without God, we’re doomed. But the joy and wonder of the Christian faith is that we know God loves us and God offers us life, new life, resurrection life.

I went back at a point and looked at some more of Thomas’s essays and I found one about death. He investigated it like a scientist, observing what can be observed and ignoring what can’t be measured. He saw it as inevitable, part of the biological process, not a matter of disease as he saw it, but simply of a biological clock that runs out. He wrote: “ if we ever do achieve freedom from most of today’s diseases, or even complete freedom from disease, we will perhaps terminate by drying out and blowing away on a light breeze, but we will still die.”

Well, he’s right about that, of course. But then he goes on, “even so, if the transformation is a coordinated integrated physiological process in its initial local stages, there is still that permanent vanishing of consciousness to account for. Are we to be stuck forever with this problem? Where on earth does it go? Is it simply stopped dead in its tracks, lost in humus, wasted? This seems to me unnatural . . . but I have no data on the matter.”

It’s almost funny. “Where does the consciousness go?” he asks. “I have no data on the matter,” he writes. Really? No data? Lewis Thomas was married for over fifty years; did he never notice that love and faithfulness are something more than scientific data? I value the scientific data. It tells us a lot about God. In recent years as we’ve heard more and more about black

holes and light years and spiral galaxies and an ever expanding universe, I’ve become more aware than ever before of the inadequacy of all our language about God and how much we need to be learning new and better and greater ways to speak about a God beyond all language. We need the scientists to expand our vision – and I think they need us to remind them of the limits of their data.

Isaiah demands that we pay attention to the basic realities of the human condition: our humanity and God’s divinity, our mortality and God’s eternity. Isaiah demands that we pay attention to areas of more concern than spread sheets and Dow Jones averages, and bank balances, and shopping lists. Isaiah insists that we pay attention to the fact that three weeks from now the stock exchange will close down and the stores will be shut and life as we know it will come to an end, however briefly, and the whole world will celebrate again the birth of a child demanding love, God speaking to us, God offering life to dying human beings. “Surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God will stand for ever.” In that Word is our life.