Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you always.
Every once in a while, I have most of a sermon written—or even am totally done—and then something happens in the world and it just has to get put into my sermon, because I would be remiss to ignore its importance, or it just slides right into place with the texts, even better than what I had written before. Today, that happened twice.
This morning, students all across the United States walked out of their classrooms to protest a whole host of things. Many of them, inspired by the work of their peers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland, FL, were raising their voices about gun violence in their schools. There were organized walkouts on university campuses, high schools, middle schools, and even elementary schools. I saw images and video of fifth graders who organized themselves in orange t-shirts.
These kids—truly, children—are out here, trying to change the world. I am so impressed by them. And I don’t know which of them believe what about politics or about God or anything else, but I know that God hears them. I know that God sees their pain and their fear, and hears their cries for justice. The next steps will revolve around if we—the adults who love them—do our part, too. These kids did small things, and they did big things. Just like we all do, day in and day out. We show the world who we are by how we live our lives.
It may not seem as important, especially because I don’t think any of you are studying physics...but you probably heard that renowned physicist Stephen Hawking died early this morning at his home in Cambridge, England. He was 76 years old, and lived with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis—ALS—diagnosed when he was 21. His doctors gave him a prognosis of about two years, and he lived for 55, instead. He lived an incredible life, and it is important to note that he did not achieve scientific greatness “in spite of” his physical abilities. He was a genius, and his body couldn’t do the things he wanted it to. But his mind could.
According to his BBC obituary, Dr. Hawking was “renowned for his extraordinary capacity to visualise scientific solutions without calculation or experiment. But it was perhaps his ‘theory of everything’, suggesting that the universe evolves according to well-defined laws, that attracted most attention. ‘This complete set of laws can give us the answers to questions like how did the universe begin,’ he said. ‘Where is it going and will it have an end? If so, how will it end?’”
Dr. Hawking asked big questions. And he is not the only one. You wonder about things like this every once in a while, I’d imagine. Humans have wondered about the origins of the universe from our very beginning—it’s why all of cultures have creation myths, including the stories in our own scripture. His commitment to investigating as widely and deeply as he could is admirable, and even we aren’t physicists, Dr. Hawking taught us a lot.
Sometimes, when famous people die, we want to celebrate them and gloss over anything unseemly in their life story, because they’re not around to defend themselves. But we know that, just like every other human person, Stephen Hawking was a saint and a sinner. Dr. Hawking himself might have resented that classification, because he was a devout atheist. His studies into the expanses of the universe did not lead him to believe in a gracious Creator. And not that anybody asked, but that’s okay with me. I don’t use physics to determine if God exists, either.
One of my favorite authors, a different kind of genius, is John Green. Do you know him? He wrote The Fault in Our Stars, most famously, and a ton of other Young Adult fiction. He is also an Episcopalian! He considered becoming a priest, and did a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education, like Pastor Jocelynn and I both did in seminary, where potential future ministers serve as hospital chaplains for a summer or a semester. During his unit of CPE, he met a young girl with cancer who inspired the character of Hazel Grace Lancaster from TFIOS. I digress.
One of my favorite things that John Green has ever said—and he has said a lot of things—is that whether or not God exists is perhaps the least interesting question you can ask about God. [I tried to find the source for this but couldn’t because he has made like 700 videos about approximately this and I could not weed through them all in a remotely timely manner.]
It’s a yes or no question, and it doesn’t take you anywhere. It’s just yes, or no. So, instead of asking that question, I prefer to talk more about who we are and what we do because we believe that God exists—or we’re pretty sure, or we don’t really know but we’re not comfortable saying for sure no, because we can’t for sure know that God doesn’t exist either.
We’re here in this chapel together tonight because we are wondering, at some level, about who we are and whose we are and why. It is my duty and my joy to remind you that you are a beloved child of the God who created you. If you’re not confident about that all day every day, that’s okay. I am, on your behalf.
Why have we gone down this particular path today? Because the Gospel assigned for this week contains the most famous line in perhaps the whole Bible, but certainly the New Testament—John 3:16. Did you recognize it when I was reading? “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” You’ve seen it everywhere, right? On a bookmark, tattooed on someone, on a t shirt, on a poster at a professional sports game, on the sign that one of the yelling street preacher guys by the MU is carrying...it’s out there.
Sometimes it can be difficult to preach a sermon on something that has so much popular use. We all sort of have an idea about what the meaning of these words are, and that contributes a lot to how we hear them in this context. My friend and colleague Kim Gonia mentioned that in the sermon she preached on Sunday. She said that “The popular understanding” of this verse “revolves around our need to believe, and specifically our need to believe that God sent Jesus, [God’s] only and loved Son, to the world as a sacrifice so that we might have eternal life, which to most people means, go to heaven.”
But just like any other cherry-picked Bible verse, “The reality is that John 3:16 does not stand alone. It is part of the longer, more nuanced story of a people wondering what the accounts and memories of Jesus’ ministry meant for them. What they revealed about God, and about their hope for the future.” [Pastor Kim again]
Just like you and like me and like everyone who has lived since then—including Dr. Hawking—the person (or people) who wrote this Gospel had questions about the meaning of life and death and the universe. They had heard the stories of this man, Jesus, and his work to bring about the kingdom of God. They had seen God active in their own communities, through the people they knew and loved. They had not seen Jesus’ life and death and resurrection with their own eyes—just like we have not—but they knew there was something true there.
When we focus on John 3:16 as an admonishment to “believe—or else” we miss the whole part about what God did and does. Our reading from the letter to the Ephesians tells us exactly what’s up! “By grace you have been saved, through faith; and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works” (Eph 2:8-9). That makes my little Lutheran heart sing.
And then John 3:17—the significantly less popular verse that follows the famous one—tells us that God did not come into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world. And do not skip over the part where God came into our world! God created the galaxies, the stars, the asteroids, the nebulas, the planets, the moons, and even the black holes that Dr. Hawking demystified. That very same God lived a whole human life, here in the dust with us.
Online this morning, folks were noting the cosmic nature of this date of Dr. Hawkings’ death. It’s “pi day” 3.14, the first three digits of pi, March 14th, haha. And 300 years ago, today, famous astronomer Galileo Galilei also died. And on this date in 1879, famous physicist Albert Einstein was born. Perhaps life and death in this universe is slightly more intentional than we think. It is worth noting, to me, that Dr. Hawking died during the season of Lent. Do you remember on Ash Wednesday, just four weeks ago, when I reminded you that you are made of dust, and to dust you shall return? And that I blessed you with words from my colleague Emily, who says that we are dust and stardust, and to the cosmos we shall return. Dr. Hawking didn’t believe that there was a heaven to go to, but, atomically, he is certainly returning to the cosmos from whence he came.
The universe is immense, and so is the God who created it. Our lives on this fragile earth, our island home, are very small. But God loves this world. God loves you. God loves Dr. Hawking, and Galileo, and Einstein, too. God loves. Amen.