Making a Difference

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on Maundy Thursday,  March 24, 2016.

Back in September, scientists turned on a new machine that they had constructed at enormous cost: 350 million for starters in 1995 and another 660 million for a complete overhaul in 2015 The English and Australians and Germans were involved; so were Cal Tech and MIT. They call it LIGO because nobody can remember Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory. It’s designed to detect gravity waves and prove or disprove an aspect of Einstein’s theory of relativity.

They turned it on on September 14 last year and almost spaceearthimmediately they heard the distinctive chirp that said something had been detected. They then spent five months analyzing the chirp before telling the world on February 11 what they had heard. What they had heard was the result of the collision of two black holes, one 29 times as massive as our sun and the other 26 times as massive. These two black holes collided and in merging gave off so much energy that gravity itself was warped and the resulting gravity waves which Einstein had predicted almost exactly one hundred years ago produced that tell-tale chirp.

The instruments scientists created for the purpose are capable of measuring a variance in the distance between earth and sun of the diameter of a human hair and gravity waves that are 4 one-thousandths of the charge diameter of a proton which is so small it’s ridiculous. Two black holes colliding 1.4 billion light years away produced a gravity wave that the LIGO measured and produced the chirp that thrilled the scientists.

It’s an amazing universe. Can you imagine, can your mind grasp, can you comprehend a collision so far away that if you could travel at the speed of light for a billion years you would not be much more than halfway to where it used to be when you started. Who knows how much further you could go and still be within milky waythis universe? And who knows whether there are other universes beyond ours?

But what got my attention was the colossal impact that produced a barely measurable result. And I wondered whether the experiment could be reversed and a tiny, almost unmeasurable change here produce cataclismic effects there. Now you might say, “Wait a minute; you can’t do it backwards. Just because a massive collision produced so much energy that even a billion light years away, it makes an impact doesn’t mean that a tiny release of energy here will expand and destroy black holes a billion light years away.”

But why not? Don’t the scientists tell us that the movement of a butterfly’s wings in China affects the weather in the United States? One meteorologist remarked that if the theory were correct, one flap of a sea gull’s wings would be enough to alter the course of the weather forever. If we could just figure out which butterflies make it rain in San Francisco, wouldn’t that be wonderful!

I want you to think about impact. I want you to think about your impact and whether you could produce a chirp in a LIGO or change the weather in Tahoe. I want you to think about the inter-relatedness of this unimaginable universe and this unimaginable planet earth and a God so far beyond our imagining as to be the Creator of it all, a God so far beyond our imagining as to create you and me and love us. But I want you still to think about how vast the discrepancy can be between cause and effect. Do you remember, for another example, how we had to ban cfc (chlorofluorocarbon) in spray cans some years back to prevent a hole opening up in the ozone layer that could have destroyed life on earth? We had these neat new devices that gave us instant whipped cream and bug spray and so on but threatened all life on earth because it doesn’t take much to unbalance the web of life. It doesn’t take much to alter it. It doesn’t take much to make a difference.

I’m coming slowly around to the events of Maundy Thursday, but I want to make one more stop on the way. Just tonight we celebrate another event which, at the time, must have seemed about as un-impact-ful as an event could be, as unlikely to be felt even by a LIGO. Dom Gregory Dix, an English Anglican monk, wrote about it in a very influential book about the liturgy back in the 1950s. He wrote about what he called

a thing of an absolute simplicity — the taking, blessing, breaking and giving of bread and the taking, blessing and giving of a cup of wine and water, as these were first done with their new meaning by a young Jew before and after supper with His friends on the night before He died. He had told his friends to do this henceforward with the new meaning `for the anamnesis of Him, (the re-calling, calling back of him) )and they have done it always since.

An insignificant event; not noticed even by the passers by in the street and certainly not by Pilate in his palace. But Dix proceeds to recite a litany on this theme: the unimaginable consequences of a seemingly insignificant event. He asked:

Was ever another command so obeyed? For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and eucharist2among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance, for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it to extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacle of earthly greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth. Men have found no better thing than this to do for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold; for armies in triumph or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church; for the proclamation of a dogma or for a good crop of wheat; for the wisdom of the Parliament of a mighty nation or for a sick old woman afraid to die; for a schoolboy sitting an examination or for Columbus setting out to discover America; for the famine of whole provinces or for the soul of a dead lover; in thankfulness because my father did not die of pneumonia; for a village headman much tempted to return to fetich because the yams had failed; because the Turk was at the gates of Vienna; for the repentance of Margaret; for the settlement of a strike; for a son for a barren woman; for Captain so-and-so wounded and prisoner of war; while the lions roared in the nearby amphitheatre; on the beach at Dunkirk; while the hiss of scythes in the thick June grass came faintly through the windows of the church; tremulously, by an old monk on the fiftieth anniversary of his vows; furtively, by an exiled bishop who had hewn timber all day in a prison camp near Murmansk; gorgeously, for the canonisation of S. Joan of Arc—one could fill many pages with the reasons why men have done this, and not tell a hundredth part of them. And best of all, week by week and month by month, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly, across all the parishes of Christendom, the pastors have done this just to make the plebs sancta Dei—the holy common people of God.

And even if you can perhaps imagine a carefully planned bread-breaking ceremony having some lasting influence, can you imagine anything, anyone, less powerful, less influential than a dying criminal with his arms nailed to a wooden cross? The French author, Anatole France, put it in context in a short story written in 1902 called The Procurator of Judea in which a retired Roman official falls into conversation with a man named Pilate also long retired. It turns out that both of them had served in the middle east as we would call it and the retired official tells Pilate of the love he had once for a Jewish woman who suddenly disappeared. He searched for her until he says,

I learned by chance that she had attached herself to a small company of men and women who were followers of a young Galilean thaumaturgist. His name was Jesus; he came from Nazareth, and he was crucified for some crime, I don’t quite know what. Pontius, do you remember anything about the man? Pontius Pilate contracted his brows, and his hand rose to his forehead in the attitude of one who probes the deeps of memory. Then after a silence of some seconds: ‘Jesus?’ he murmured, ‘Jesus of Nazareth? I cannot call him to mind.”

The crucifixion, Anatole France is probably quite right, probably made no impact at all on the man who ordered it and whose Daliname we recite every time we recite the Creed. And who would remember one out of all the thousands crucified by the Roman Legions; what difference would it make: one more or one less?

But we are talking about a world in which the fluttering of a butterfly in Brazil can set off a tornado in Texas. A world where the decisions that matter are somehow not made in colossal buildings in the Kremlin, or Beijing, or Washington nor by jihadists in tiny Parisian apartments or militants in Cairo or Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. Ultimately it is not power – not even the power of two black holes colliding and making a chirp – that governs this world, at least not power as this world’s powers understand it and exercise it. But in this vast universe – this is my point – the smallest things can make an infinite difference. And Christians have claimed that the lonely death of one man has changed the world forever. The cross changes everything for us and through us must – and will – change the world.

Put it again in the larger context of the immeasurable created universe: that God, the God of black holes and billions of light years, that God, that God, that Creator should have done something so inconsequential, so over-lookable as to plant the seed of life on one small blue planet in a vast universe of black holes and spiral nebulae and spinning rocks without atmosphere or water or oxygen – a universe devoid of life so far as we know except for one tiny rock on which over millions of years a species of life evolved capable of looking around with awe and wonder and acknowledging a Creator – a loving, personal Creator who seems to have brought it all into being for us – for you – and in the expectation that you and I – always only a few – and never the ones who seemed to have the power, that you and I, obeying Christ’s command and sharing as we do tonight in this bread and wine the life of Jesus – that you and I would make a difference also.

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