Well, I scribbled away all afternoon, and traded instant messages with my theological consultant in North Carolina, and eventually came out with a sermon for the Canterbury Northwestern service (which will appear in the “extended” section below).
Then Pippa and I motored down to North Shore Baptist Church, site of Tripp Hudgins’s ordination. We arrived not in time to catch my Disseminary brother Trevor, certainly not in time to hear what I’m told is the best ordination sermon ever, but just in time to scarf down some delectable canapes and to be pointed toward Tripp’s house, where the party would continue indefinitely. A splendid time was had by everyone I could see, and Tripp introduced me to some interesting family members and leaders of the North Shore Baptist community.
Now, a full day of meetings and appointments for Monday — whee!
Canterbury – Northwestern
Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18; Psalm 149; Ephesians 1:11-23; Luke 6:20-31
November 7, 2004
It looks as though we have five or ten minutes together this evening, so I thought we could clear up the problem of free will and determinism tonight. If you have a pen and paper, you should feel free to take notes; this’ll save you a lot of confusion later in life, and of course you can rely on me to straighten everything out correctly.
There’s a problem, of course, because passages of Scripture such as this evening’s lessons from Daniel and even Ephesians make it sound as though God has our futures all pinned down, so that Daniel can get a sneak preview, a trailer of all the best scenes from the coming attraction, and just as certainly as Anakin Skywalker will turn into Darth Vader in next summer’s Star Wars movie, so surely four kings shall arise out of the earth to oppress the faithful. We play our parts according to a screenplay determined by a heavenly director, according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will. And yet, we sense ourselves to be free to defy God, and indeed other parts of the Bible warn against the perils of resisting God’s will for us – which it seems as though we oughtn’t to be able to do. The character of Obi-Wan Kenobi doesn’t have any say in how the movie turns out, and even if the actor Ewan McGregor starts improvising on the set, director George Lucas just cuts that footage. Obi-Wan does only what McGregor acts, and McGregor acts only what Lucas allows.
So, on one hand, you know you were free to skip chapel this evening (too late now!); and on the other, God had determined from the foundation of the world that you would be warming the pews in just these places, wondering when this homily would end, hoping it doesn’t get any more tedious.
Does it makes sense to suppose that God has determined the rough outlines of history, and we fill in the details with our free choices? Sometimes people take that line, and argue that God doesn’t mess with plate tectonics, cause and effect, other laws of nature, but only intervenes in the processes we don’t fully understand: Heisenberg uncertainty, adolescent psychology, the relation between exit polls and the actual results of touch-screen voting in Ohio. That line – in theological jargon, we call that approach “the God of the gaps,” the God who makes divine power known only where we can’t explain things on the basis of reason and science – that line may play well for casual observers, but it just flat-out conflicts with Scripture and with the wisdom of millennia of saints. The closer you look, the shabbier the gaps look. When someone in the Tech Center discovers a new wrinkle in chaos theory, God doesn’t just retreat from that area; when the Centers for Disease Control announce new understanding of hantaviruses, God doesn’t stir up some new mysterious ailment as a way of controlling people. And if someday a brilliant Northwestern student announced an algorithm that predicted infallibly whether at the ice cream counter I would choose a scoop of Coffee Heath Bar or Oreo Cookie, God would not retreat from the universe, nor would you be able to convince me that I wasn’t choosing freely.
For all things come of God, the quarks and bosons and leptons, and God enacts the very “natural laws” of which our discoveries make so much; and the God whom we know invites us freely to cooperate with God’s will as a gift, as an opportunity to which we come out of trust and love. Gravity is a gift from God, as is our understanding of it – and because of gravity, we can freely enjoy a sitting in a comfy chair without floating away from it, and if we exercise the freedom to sit down where there is no chair, we can freely experience the effects of God’s gift very differently. The limit to our freedom lies not in God’s restricting us but in our ignorance and our disinclination honestly to accept our limitations. God offers us a world of abundance and fullness; in fact, God’s every encounter with us comes always by way of superabundance, of exceeding glory, of a beauty and greatness that beggar our capacities to recognize and take it all in. God’s presence overwhelms us with so very much to understand that none of us has a chance of grasping all of it, that each of us needs help discerning God’s will and God’s ways.
We need one another to understand our freedom. We need the saints, all saints, the run-of-the-mill disciples gathered here and in churches and chapels and storefronts and cathedrals, today and through the ages, and for ages beyond our anticipation; they are part of us, like it or not, and our freedom comes from living out our lives, our characters, our selves as inheritors of the promises they’ve handed down to us. We can’t abstract ourselves from the gifts that brought us here except by enslaving ourselves to the lie that we are our own creation. We didn’t write our own parts here; we didn’t determine the laws of the universe, nor do we decide how our lives best receive and reflect God’s grace and love. It’s not about me or you; it’s about our communion, our coming-together in harmony and thankfulness, in freedom, to join our lives with different, sometimes disagreeable neighbors, strangers, friends, and ultimately to join our lives with God.
That’s our destiny, sisters and brothers – the hope to which God has called us, the the spirit of wisdom and revelation, the riches of God’s glorious inheritance. This destiny lies beyond our grasp just now, but we taste it, we scent it, we make it real for others, here and now, by our patience, by our unwillingness to answer evil with evil, by our free sharing with one another. We make the promise of the kingdom real for others, and we receive the promised kingdom when others extend themselves for us, when they forgive us our anger and spite and folly, when they share with us what we can’t attain for ourselves. We make God’s promises real, because God has already made them real before we even appeared on the scene, and by the grace of freedom God gives us the opportunity to make it real and keep it real in following the way of discipleship.
Coming in at around ten minutes, I think, so here’s the executive summary: Live in freedom by aiming your every step toward the path where love freely embraces hate, where nonviolence freely withstands violence, where abundance freely transforms poverty to the fullness, the immeasurable power of God’s greatness working among us, for us and for all the holy ones. Find freedom in God; discover, reveal a kingdom determined not by power or spin or domination but by an extravagant grace that passes all we can ask or imagine, destined for freedom in a drama whose ending makes us real, forever and ever.