In our rigorously logical journey to make sense of our universe, we occasionally stumble upon something that seems completely unintuitive. Maybe it even seems like the complete opposite of how it should be. But both science and belief don’t always coast smoothly on an uninterrupted bed of logic, and as we learn to accept this, we find that the most impossible truths can also become the most fundamental.
This is an excerpt of a sermon given by Sinai and Synapses Fellow Rev. Zack Jackson on March 4th at Community United Church of Christ in Reading, PA.Read Transcript
Our second reading today comes from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 1, verses 18 through 25. You can find that on page 166 of the New Testament.
“For the message about the Cross is foolishness. Foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the very power of God. For it is written: I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning, I will thwart. Where is the one who was wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has God not made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of the world, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For the Jews demand signs, and the Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ Crucified a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles. But to those who are called both Jews and Greeks, Christ, the power of God, and the wisdom of God – for God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”
Here ends our reading, may God add His blessing to the hearing of it.
So in honor of spring training, and the fact that Opening Day is only a month away, I thought we could do a little baseball-themed thought experiment. Now, this is just a thought experiment (laughter). So there is no more potential mess involved. No need to worry or put on your goggles.
So let’s say, in this thought experiment, you are a pitcher, and you haven’t really thrown a ball all winter, and you’re kind of rusty, okay. So you need to work on your accuracy, so, because you are a unique sort of person, you decide to set up a piece of cardboard up against a wall with a rectangular hole cut out of it. Because I only want to practice pitching on the inside of the plate, because I don’t want to get – I don’t want my balls to go right in the middle, cause then they’ll hit them.
So I’m going to practice just hitting the inside of the plate. You throw a couple of balls against the wall trying to get it in that hole, and you suddenly realize “I can’t keep track of where these are going.” So, I know what I’ll do, I will dip this baseball in paint and throw that. Are there better ways to learn how to pitch? Absolutely. But you’re a very special person, and we love you anyway. So you take a bucket of paint-covered baseballs, and you throw 100 of them at this target, trying to get into that hole. After you throw in one hundred yards and start to feel pretty good, you take this away, what do you think you have on the ball? Anyone who’s worked with stencils knows what you would see, right. You would see a rectangle, in wonderful red paint, right there on your wall. Should have thought of that ahead of time, okay. (laughter)
So now you’ve gotten really good at pitching to the inside of the plate, but you want to also practice hitting the outside part of the plate. You don’t want to hit in the middle, because then they’ll hit the ball. You want to learn how to get corners, to “paint the corners,” as it were, and yes, the whole thing was just a setup for a pun.
So you then take your paint-colored balls, and you now have two rectangular holes. And you throw these 100 balls alternating – left side of the plate, right side of the plate, left side of the plate, right side of the plate. Some of them you miss, but the ones that go in hit the wall behind you, okay. This is easy stuff. So then when you’re done throwing the 100 balls, you’re like, “I’m done practicing for the day.” and you go move this and put it back. What do you see on the wall? Two rectangles, which is exactly what you would find if you were a normal pitcher. But we’ve already established that you’re not normal, you’re already doing some strange things. And it also turns out that you are not a normal person. In this thought experiment (because it’s a thought experiment we can do this), you’re actually an itty bitty microscopic baseball player throwing tiny protons at these two openings – not baseballs. So when you move your board and look behind, you don’t see two rectangles behind the holes, you actually see some thin lines, and then a gradient between them. And you look at that wall and you go “what on earth just happened?”
And if you’re feeling a little bit confused as to how that could happen, you’re not alone. In 1927, the scientists who did this actual experiment, not with baseballs but with protons, discovered that protons weren’t acting like they should. They weren’t acting like solid things, like balls, like particles, they were acting more like ripples in the water, like waves, and that didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Hmm.
You see, what they discovered was that at the subatomic level, the level that’s smaller than an atom, the normal rules that we live by, that we all know intuitively, don’t apply anymore. It turns out that when a proton is fired towards those two holes, it doesn’t just take one or the other, it takes both. Yes, one proton takes both holes. In fact, it takes every possible one, colliding with itself, interacting with itself, to make this weird interference pattern on the plate behind it.
What – I’m sorry, it is way too early to talk about quantum physics. But I had to. How can a proton be both a solid particle, like this baseball, and a wave, like a ripple in a pond? It can’t possibly be both, but yet it is. And I don’t understand how it can be both, but the proton doesn’t care that I don’t understand it. It is both.
And the craziest bit of all, as if that weren’t weird enough as it is, when scientists wanted to see which hole it actually went through, and they put up sensors to be able to watch which hole it goes through, suddenly, like a toddler who was just discovered a painting on the walls, it stops, and it acts like you’d expect it to act. And it only goes through one or the other. The act of looking at it changes it from a wave to a particle. What!? And if this is totally blowing your mind right now, you’re not alone. Albert Einstein, who might be the smartest man who ever lived, at least in our lifetimes, was so against this new idea of quantum physics that he spent the last 30 years of his life trying to disprove it. Albert Einstein couldn’t get this. So you should feel OK if this isn’t all clear as day for you as well. But he could not, for the life of him, disprove this theory, and time and time again, experiment after experiment after experiment, proved that this is true.
The rules that govern our lives, the ones that we take for granted, the intuitive rules of “what goes up must come down,” that sort of thing, suddenly don’t apply anymore at the fundamental building-block level of our universe. All sorts of things that just simply cannot be true are foundational to the nature of our universe. Like objects being in two places at once, or particles being linked together over great distances without anything in between them, or effects happening before their causes, and so on, and so on.
Our universe is built on paradoxes, on impossible truths, on a deep wisdom that appears as foolishness to those who have not studied it. Our lives as we know it are only possible because there is an invisible, counter-intuitive framework woven into the fabric of reality. So why, then, should it be any surprise that the spiritual underpinnings of our existence should likewise be counter to our common wisdom and intuition?
Now, you have heard it said that we must destroy our enemies and show no mercy. But Jesus says “Do not resist an evil-doer. Pray for those who would persecute you.” You have heard it said by the false prophets of our era that if you just work hard, and pray, and believe, and give money to the right preachers, that God will bless you with riches. But Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor.” And God cannot – man cannot serve both God and money. You have to choose. You have heard it said that the greatest among you has the most servants, but Jesus says the greatest among you will be the servant of all. You have heard it said that there always are winners and losers, but Jesus won by losing. That’s the scandal of Christ crucified. Christ crucified makes no earthly sense. It is the least intuitive way to be that we could have been saved, that he could have [won].
You see, Jesus being crucified is a double curse. The Romans reserved the cross for political executions. Stripped down naked, tortured for days, up there on a hill that people could see, so that not only would you be executed, but that your reputation would be ruined. No one would pin their hopes on someone who’s so obviously lost. Now add that to the fact that in the book of Deuteronomy, we read that anyone who is killed on a tree and left to hang in the elements is cursed by God. So Jesus is doubly cursed – cursed by man, cursed by God. So claiming victory in the midst of this, as we do, as Christians, is foolishness. It’s naive. It’s misguided, it’s backwards, but it is true. And it is essential to the very fabric of our being. The wisdom of God appears foolish to us, and our so-called wisdom is foolishness to God.
But the good news, friends, is that just like the oddities of quantum physics, the wisdom of God can be learned. Just because it’s counterintuitive doesn’t mean that it’s out of reach.
Because God wants to be known. See, in physics, we use mathematics to overcome our intuition and to find the truth at the heart of things. With God we have been given the gift of Scripture. A messy, sometimes contradictory, often confusing library of 66 books spanning 1500 years, three continents, and at least three languages. You will find precious few answers, or reassuring platitudes, in these pages. You will, however, find the living and creative and untamed God. You will find this living God as you wrestle through this text within your community – not alone, within your community. Jesus taught his disciples “wherever two or more are gathered in my name, I will be among you.” And he promised that when he sent the Holy Spirit, that the Spirit would teach us, would teach us all things, would speak into our souls what is too essential, too deep, for our minds, which are clouded by our reason, by the prejudices that we have.
So I want to personally invite you, this week, to plug in somewhere. To discover the foolishness of the Cross, of Christ crucified, the wisdom of God that seems foolish to us. There are so many opportunities for you to do this within this community. This week, Monday, Tuesday, and Saturday, we will be beginning our discipleship groups, small groups dedicated to doing this very work, to uncovering the wisdom of God in the midst of the foolishness of the world. Or you can come to adult studies next week at 9:15 as we begin a scriptural study into the fruits of the Spirit. Come to our Monday/Thursday service this year, where we will literally just be reading the entire book of Mark. Come to one, come to all, I don’t care. Just come to something. Engage. Plug in. Make this yours. Take hold of the God that wants to be known, the impossible mysteries that have made itself possible in our midst through the contradiction of Christ crucified. For as Paul said, the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the very power of God. Let us pray.