The following is a sermon preached at Burien Community Church on May 20th, 2018, Pentecost Sunday. The readings from scripture referenced here are Ezekiel 37:1-14, Acts 2:1-21 and John 15:26-27, and 16:4b-15. My theological nerdiness may be showing a bit too much here, but hopefully, I made my point.
Erwin Schrödinger was a physicist from Austria who won a Nobel Prize in 1933 for the creation of an equation, a mathematical equation which describes how quantum states affect physical realities. He was a frequent collaborator with Albert Einstein, with whom he worked on Unified Field Theory. Today he is known less for his contributions to quantum mechanics, than for a particularly macabre thought experiment now called “Schrödinger’s Cat.”
In quantum mechanics, the act of observation fundamentally changes that which is observed. The Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment is this: You have a steel box, in which there is a radioactive isotope, a geiger counter, a hammer, a vial of poison, and a cat. The box is rigged so that if a molecule of that isotope begins to degrade, and emits radiation, the geiger counter which detects it triggers the hammer which smashes the vial of poison, which would instantly kill the cat. Because these isotope molecules degrade somewhat randomly, the sequence could occur at any moment. Since the cat in the box has no effect on reality until it is observed, until you open the box to see the state of the cat, both possibilities exist simultaneously. This means that the cat exists as both alive and dead in the box, until you open the box, at which point the quantum realities collapse into a single reality, and you either have a live cat, or a dead one. Schrödinger’s cat is therefore simultaneously both dead and alive for the entire time it exists apart from observation.
Schrödinger was actually trying to point out an absurdity in a paper on quantum mechanics when he created the thought experiment, and later would specifically point out that he was not interested in the killing of cats at ALL. There are some, however, who point out that quantum mechanics and theology have several intersections, and I think this thought experiment is one of them. There is a concept of spaces and times of transition in religious life. These are often called “liminal” spaces or times. These thresholds are places where the world of the divine is poised to intersect, or even begins to erupt into our real lived experience. Some people describe a sense of a “thinness” of reality, of being on the edge of practically breaking into that other world. Some people experience it more oppressively, as an engagement with both life and death in the same moment.
The prophet Ezekiel is prophesying to the Judeans in exile in Babylon. No longer a free people, they are captives of the Chaldean Empire. The city of Jerusalem has fallen, the temple destroyed. The valley of bones may very well have been the valley of Gehenna, which surrounded the old city of Jerusalem on two sides – a place cursed by its association with child sacrifice by fire. The dusty bones litter the floor of the valley in the vision of Ezekiel, the fallen of Israel, and the ones who turned from the worship of God to other darker ways which lead them into violence and death. Ezekiel’s vision not only encompasses these literal dead, but the people in exile, caught between life and death in a foreign land – not wholly destroyed, but not fully whole either.
The word ruach is a Hebrew word which carries many meanings. It can be the wind, like the one which blows in off the Sound each morning. It can be the breath of a person, the constant exchange of good air for bad in our longs. It can be the animating spirit or soul of each of us, which sighs out of us when we finally stop breathing for good. And the Ruach is that spirit of God which was over the waters at the beginning of Genesis, that female divine spark of creation – female because the ruach of God is always treated as a feminine word in Hebrew.
God asks the prophet, “Son of Adam, shall these bones live?” Ezekiel’s reply is direct, but the urgency of the Hebrew is left out of most translations. “You, O Lord, know – but I surely do not.” For all that the prophet wants to preach hope to the people, he is unsure if hope is even warranted. God’s reply is that if Ezekiel will prophesy to the ruach, the breath or the spirit of God, the same spirit that stirred and transformed the waters of chaos into the waters of creation at the beginning of all things, then these bones shall be recreated. Ezekiel calls to the ruach, and the Holy Spirit moves – the bones rattle together, flesh and skin come on them, and they are no longer just bones but people. But they are not yet whole people – they do not live. God commands Ezekiel again to prophesy to the breath, and call to the four winds. Both breath in the form of air, and breath in the form of spirit rush into those who were formerly bones, and they live again, restored not just to life, but to covenant and relationship with God. And not just these recent dead, but the whole of Israel is to be restored. The tribes formerly lost beyond the Jordan, the tribes of Israel that were now Samaritans, they are to be reunited with their brothers and sisters, their differences of nationality and place stripped away by the Holy Spirit in it’s transforming work.
For the Schrödinger’s Judeans, this news must have been critical. Life would be restored – they no longer had to worry about being trapped in the liminal space between being and non-being, but could exist in that difficult space for a time. At the end of that time, God promised that reality would collapse in such a way that they would be living, restored, renewed, and filled with the Holy Spirit. Ezekiel preaches the Gospel and it moves the ruach, the breath of God to restoration. The Good News that Ezekiel preaches at the urging of God, and the spirit it inspires, transforms the dead and the living into a reality that transcends their original intent of a Kingdom regenerated, to a new reality, in which all of God’s people are restored to relationship with God, restored to harmony with the world God has granted to us, restored to community with one another.
Today’s reading from Acts is centered on the disciples. We know who those disciples were, as the first chapter of Acts tells us that after the ascension of Jesus, the eleven remaining apostles, joined by a new twelfth apostle in Matthias, were in Jerusalem with the other disciples, including several women. They were waiting for the Paraclete – the Advocate whom Jesus had promised would come to them. The followers of Jesus Christ, were fasting and praying, their spirits buoyed by the resurrection of their Savior, but unsure of what was coming next. They were in constant prayer, Luke tells us, waiting for the sign that Jesus was coming. I think it is likely they were in hiding – for the forces of Empire which had killed Jesus were likely still looking for his followers. They are Schrödinger’s Disciples, caught between life and death, waiting for the moment that will tip the balance.
It is not until they come together as a community, with everyone there, that the ruach comes among them. In a piece of imagery every bit as vivid as the bones clattering back together, tongues of seeming fire descend from heaven to rest on all the disciples. Men and women together, they burst out of the house into the street, and begin preaching the Gospel, proclaiming the Good News of God’s Love for All People. All of the possibilities collapse as they come out of that liminal space into a new reality they moment they come out of their box, observed by the people of Jerusalem. The crowd around them, from many different nations, of many different languages, each hear of Jesus miracles and the prophetic hope of the preachers in their own tongue. The divine reality – the Heavenly Realm in the Here and Now – intrudes on the world as the disciples and the crowd knows it, creating at it’s intersection something new and beyond imagination. In that moment, the Church is born, not out of perfect people, but out of fishermen, housewives, tax collectors and sinners, transformed by the spirit into Saints.
Peter gives the first sermon of this new church, refuting the claim of drunkenness to instead proclaim the new world they can all enter into. He recites the words of the prophet Joel, who promised that everyone, men and women, children and adults, young and old, and even the people pushed to the margins of society shall become filled with the Holy Spirit. A new vision will take hold, a new dream will surface. Even the oppressed shall prophecy the truth of a new and liberating hope. Joel promised a world turned on its head because of the ruach of God coming into the people of God. It is this same vision that Jesus was calling out, when he promised that the last shall be first, and the mourning shall again be filled with joy, that the least shall become the most blessed. Peter closes by assuring us that everyone, the Greek word means All people, shall be saved. Not just transforming waters of our baptism, but also the transforming fires of the spirit, are what give us the ability and courage to proclaim the Gospel in word and deed.
By contrast to these two previous readings, the John reading feels a little…technical. These words come from the final address of Jesus to his disciples before his arrest. He is promising them they will not be alone, even when he cannot be with them. Jesus promises that the Paraclete will come, the Advocate. Paraclete is the Greek word for this spirit of God which Jesus promises, and like all translated words, the word we use in English, Advocate, doesn’t quite match the meaning. The Paraclete was more than just the Advocate – that word feels a bit too much like defense attorney, and prepares us for an adversarial defense before God. The word also carries the connotation of a helper and inspirer. Though Jesus says that the Paraclete will guide us into all truth, the Greek word means lead the way in truth – just as Jesus lead the disciples. Finally, its worth pointing out that Jesus wasn’t speaking Greek, but Aramaic or Hebrew, and that the Greek used by John which renders the Paraclete or Holy Spirit as male, was likely the feminine ruach when Jesus spoke. The image of God is reflected in each one of us, male and female, each a part of creation and a part of the new creation.
So here we are, Schrödinger’s Church. The Holy Spirit has come down, and it still inspires to this day. This is a liminal space, a place where our reality meets the divine reality in the moment of worship of our God. Here we are fully alive and fully beyond life. Here the Holy Spirit flows among us freely, inspiring and empowering. And there’s the challenge – if our Gospel of Love for All People is kept within the box of the church, it makes no impact on reality. Unlike the cat in the steel box in that infamous thought experiment, we have the option to both open the box – to invite people in, and to leave the box – to go out into the world. Until we are observed by people in the world, until we interact with the world, we are unbridled potential, both silent and proclaiming the gospel all at the same time. So we must go and prophesy the Good News to the world. We must proclaim to the Good News of God’s Love for All People to ALL PEOPLE. Like Ezekiel’s prophetic voice fell upon all of the people of God, like Joel’s promise that even the people pushed to the edge, our brothers and sisters who are sick, or poor, or foreign, or Gay, or Lesbian, or Bisexual, or Transgendered, or Queer are included in the blessing of the Ruach, the Holy Spirit as she moves among us. When we work to be radically inclusive within our Beloved Community, welcoming all of those on the margins among us, and when we live the Gospel out loud beyond those doors, we can help God tip reality to the Heavenly Realm, here and now.