If…Then…

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John 14: 15-21
Psalm 66: 8-20
1 Peter 3: 13-22
Acts 17: 22-31

Once again I find myself compelled at the outset, and even in his absence, to thank Dean Hill for his gracious offering to me of a preaching series during the late spring and early summer. Some of you may remember that we began on May 8, Mothers Day, with a reflection on life’s journeys in conversation with the resurrection story of Jesus meeting the disciples on the road to Emmaus. Yes, here you are, whether you intended to be here, or more likely not, on Memorial Day Sunday, right in the middle of Br. Larry’s 2011 secular holiday preaching series. Whether you are here in person or listening over airwaves or internet signals, it is good that you have come on Memorial Day weekend, so that you may pray that what follows you might quickly forget. Speaking of prayer.

The Lord be with you.

And also with you.

Let us pray.

God of memory and of mindfulness, guide our hearts and minds in these moments of reflection that they may be turned to you, to your wisdom and your grace, and that our lives may benefit from the beneficence of your most Holy Spirit. In the name of Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord, we pray.
Amen.

Have you ever sat and watched as a baby, sitting in the middle of the floor, attempts to get up and go after a ball or some other toy that she has flung across the room? This attempt at locomotion is often accompanied by a facial expression of some degree of anguish. It is as if said baby wants to say, “If only I could get up and go, I could get across the room and get my toy. Alas, since I cannot get up and go, I shall have to put on a show of consternation in order to motivate someone around me to get it for me.” Amazingly, as the facial expression of anguish turns to vocal consternation, someone usually does just that.

And so it begins: life in the conditional. If the baby cries, then someone goes to get the toy. If the child pushes the button, then the screen comes on. If the adolescent breaks curfew, then the parents ground him. If the young adult gets a job, then she can pay the rent. If the politician commits adultery and his constituents find out about it, then he will be voted out of office. Well, maybe. Life in the conditional is at the heart of the human endeavor. It is so much so that the great modern philosopher Immanuel Kant put it at the heart of his articulation of the nature of knowledge and experience alongside time and space: the conditional movement of causality is constitutive of pure reason.

Actually, reality is a bit more complicated than this. And so we ask, do you live in the world of Sir Isaac Newton or the world of Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr? This is an important question for us here at Marsh Chapel who seek to live faithful lives, and not merely for the physicists working in labs across the street. So, let’s have it, do you live in the mechanistic universe of Newton, where things move around bumping into each other like billiard balls such that when one thing encounters another it causes the thing it runs into to alter course? Or do you live in the probabilistic universe of Einstein and Bohr, which is to say the quantum universe, where outcomes of interactions are only certain to a degree of probability? While it is probably best for us to leave it to the physicists to demonstrate why the latter is the more robust view in the laboratory, we can confirm it in our own lived experience. After all, does the adolescent not run a rough calculus of the probability that his parents will ground him for staying out past curfew? And does the politician not calculate both the probability that he will get caught in adultery and the probability that his constituents will find out about it? Perhaps we will address the question of why it is that both adolescents and politicians are so likely to miscalculate their respective probabilities when we gather for the third and final installment of the 2011 secular preaching series on Independence Day weekend.

And so it is that we find ourselves living in a probabilistic conditional world. It should not be entirely surprising, then, that we carry the presuppositions of our probabilistic conditional world over into our spiritual lives. Our lesson this morning from 1 Peter is an excellent example of this phenomenon. “Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good?” Transcription: If you do what is good, then you will not be harmed. The fact that the world is not merely conditional but probabilistically conditional comes into play in the next sentence: “But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed.” That is, for those of you who are good but fall outside of the probability of not being harmed, and thus are in fact harmed, do not worry too much, because you are still blessed. This is beginning to sound a lot like the witch test: if she drowns, then she was clearly not a witch! Oh dear.

It is an interesting thing to consider that religious people figured out that the world is probabilistically conditional long before the physicists did. After all, how often have you heard stories of people praying, “God, if only you will X, I promise to Y”? How often have you prayed such yourself? Martin Luther prayed in the forest that if he would survive a thunderstorm then he would become a monk. He survived, so he did in fact become an Augustinian. Of course, it is notable that these promises tend to arise at the extremities of life. That is, these promises tend to come about when life itself is at stake, taking the form of, “God, save my life and I will give my life to you.” This has the side effect of effectively negating the probabilistic quality of the conditional. After all, if God does not save them, then we never get to hear their story of praying that they will do something if God saves them.

No, it is much better to look to the more mundane spiritual conditionals to understand their probabilistic nature. These are more wont to take the form of, “God, if you will only find me a parking spot, I promise to stop doing whatever it was that I was doing that made me late in the first place.” Here in Boston, I am quite confident that there are more such prayers offered daily in the confines of motor vehicles than all of the prayers offered in all of the houses of worship in this city combined. And multiply that number by 100 when the Red Sox are in town! This mundane conditional is much more interesting because of the fact that it frequently does not come true. How often have you seen a host of angels swoop down and carry off a car so that you can take its space? No, often as not you are left driving around frustrated that your meeting is starting in a building mere feet away and you are stuck outside trying to dispose of a massive hunk of metal.

Of course, not all non-mortal conditionals are so trivial. How many of you have offered prayers, perhaps in this very nave, for family and friends who are terminally ill? And how many of them have died? How many of you have prayed for work? And how many of you are still unemployed? How many of you have prayed for peace? And how long will we remain at war? The fact of the matter is that these non-trivial conditionals do cause some people to abandon faith and abandon God. That this happens should not be surprising. But what is truly fascinating is how many people do not flee from faith and God upon finding themselves outside the desired probability. In religious and spiritual life we are accustomed to the probabilistic conditional.

The movement from if to then that constitutes the conditional is a place of deep anxiety in human life. The probability that the if will not come about, and the probability that the then will not in fact follow, leaves a great deal of uncertainty as to how and when to move. And the fact that the probabilistic conditional figures in the literature of our spiritual heritage does not make living in the midst of such instability any easier. However, acknowledging the reality of the probabilistic conditional as one of the primary modes of human engagement of experience is not the only testimony of the religious and spiritual traditions. The good news offered in the spiritual quest is precisely a transcendence of the if-then dichotomy of human affairs. There is more to life than predicting a probability and then hoping for the best. Our Gospel lesson from John highlights this point. “If you love me, keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.” The if-then conditional of the first sentence is not the last word. The uncertainty of Good Friday’s crucifixion is transcended, but not eclipsed, in the confidence of the Easter resurrection. The uncertainty Jesus’ departure in the Ascension is transcended, but not eclipsed, as we shall see in the next weeks, in the confidence of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The promise of the Holy Spirit is not simply another conditioned clause. It is its own indicative statement. The Advocate will come in spite of our fulfillment of the condition, not because of it. We are saved by faith, not by works.

This movement of transcendence-sans-eclipse is an important one in our spiritual lives. The transcendence of the if-then dichotomy is the source of the hope that is in us, of which we are called to account in 1 Peter. And yet, we are called to give this account “with gentleness and reverence.” This is because in this life we never fully depart from the dichotomy of the probabilistic conditional. We can never escape the vicissitudes of life. At the same time, the transcendence is not merely cast off into some future afterlife. The transcendence-sans-eclipse of our Easter and Pentecost experience is a source of real hope and transformation in our lives now.

Paul testified to the importance of this transcendence in his speech in front of the Areopagus in Athens, accounted in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles. Paul testified about the unknown god to which the Athenians had built a temple. He testified that this unknown god of the Athenians was “the God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth.” Furthermore, he testified that the creator of the world cannot be bound in shrines or works of human hands, or even served by human hands. Paul testified to a God who transcends the conditional tense of daily life. God “allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope and find him – though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being.’” Our searching for the transcendent God should not lead us to place our hope in something finite, but it should also not lead us to place our hope in something to come in the future, which is, after all, also finite. No, the transcendence-sans-eclipse of the hope promised in Easter and Pentecost provides a living hope in the midst of the probabilistic conditional experience of life.

The hope that is in us is not that God will fulfill all of our desires, no matter how mundane or extreme. It is not even that we will always come out on the preferable side of the probabilities. No, the hope that is in us does not transcend the conditional character of life by resolving its dichotomies but transcends the conditional character of life without eclipsing that life as it is. After all, it is the life God gives us and calls good. Instead, the hope that is in us is the hope of life and love. “Because I live, you also will live,” Jesus proclaims in the voice of the fourth Evangelist. “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10: 10). “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them an reveal myself to them.”

The good news of Jesus Christ for us today is that life and love are not faint hopes. They are hopes in the power to overcome the brokenness of life in the conditional tense. They are movements toward wholeness that draws together not only the preferably possibilities but also those we might wish to avoid. Life would not be life without death. Love would not be love without struggle, pain and loss. “On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” And is not the achievement of holding such disparate and diverse realities of life together in a more awesome whole far greater than finding a parking space?

Amen.

~Br. Lawrence A. Whitney, LC+
University Chaplain for Community Life

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