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“AETHER”

 

(as you can plainly see)

 

 

A post-homiletical discourse delivered by the Rev. Dr. James R. Beebe

Rector, St. Patrick’s Church, Incline Village, Nevada, December 04, 2011

Text:  Psalm 107:17:22 – “Some were sick through their sinful ways….”

 

 

“Don’t let worries kill you; let the church help.”

 

     That, a church placard brought to you by the United Methodist Church.  True in its own way, I assume.  [Richard Owen]  Nevertheless, not too long ago Archbishop Paul Cordes, the German head of the Vatican’s agency for humanitarian aid, said rather pointedly that people get sick because they sin.  (Interesting choice for Vatican head of humanitarian aid, don’t you think?) 

     "Jesus heals sickness and banishes sin," the good Monsignor said.  "He therefore teaches us that there is a link between sin and illness. This does not happen in every individual case, but it is a fundamental law. The history of salvation shows us that illness is a consequence of sin."  

     Not only that, he says its true because the Roman Catholic Church has been teaching it for a long time.  "Man's desire to be healthy, good-looking and strong is justified because it anticipates our future salvation.  One cannot deny that death, of which illness is an anticipation, has always been seen as a consequence of sin."

     He quoted the Gospel According to John, which describes Jesus curing a crippled man he found lying on a pallet by the pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem.  Jesus told the man, who had been crippled for 38 years:  "Take up your bed and walk". Finding him later in the temple, Jesus ordered the cured man to "go and sin no more, or something worse may happen to you".

     Twenty years ago or so, I spent a year preparing to take the Episcopal GOE’s (officially, “General Ordination Examinations,” but affectionately known as “God’s Own Exams”).  I was paired up with a priest from North Carolina, with whom I became good friends.  About every three months, Ed and I would drive to Alexandria, home of Virginia Episcopal Seminary, and spend the week there studying Anglican history, ascetical theology and liturgics.  We also discovered Murphy’s Pub, but that’s an entirely different homily….

     At any rate, to make the three-hour drive more interesting, Ed would buy the latest issue of the Star, which, at the time, rivaled the National Inquirer for its journalistic excellence.  I remember one story that claimed that tiny, invisible space aliens have a particular liking for sofas and that the reason you fall asleep while watching TV on the sofa is that they feed on your energy.  (I just knew there had to be a scientific explanation….)

     Richard Thaler, Director of the Center for Decision Research at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, has a broader picture of what’s going on here.  According to the ancients – who witnessed waves traveling through water and sound traveling through air – light must travel through something, also.  And that something they called aether.  I mean, it only stands to reason….

    The theory of aether held its ground from ancient times through much of the 19th century, during which time it was generally agreed that aether was odorless, colorless, inert and otherwise not proveable.  It was like gravity, they said – you can’t see it, but you’re always subject to it.  

     Well, one thing led to another, and pretty soon Dr. Thaler had become pretty enamored with the whole concept of aether.  Often, he says, aetherists think that their use of the aether concept renders the theory untestable.  I mean, who’s going to prove them wrong

        Thaler suggests that the next time you’re faced with an explanation that relies on unseen and unproveable data, just substitute the word, “aether” for the offending concept.  So everybody knows at this point where this homily is going.  You are ill and you suffer because of aether.  Or not….

     Enter William of Occam, 14th century Franciscan friar.  He had a saying that went like this:  entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity"  It’s often called, “Occam’s razor.”   Picture yourself as a European peasant in the 12th century.  It’s getting dark and you’re walking home through the woods.  Suddenly, you trip and fall.  You pick yourself up and quickly return to your hut.  Then you tell your family that you would have been home sooner, but the demons that live under the logs in the forest tripped you up. 

 

     Occam’s razor would maintain that the demons living under the logs in the forest are an unnecessary complication of the story.  The fact that you were clumsy or didn’t see the obstacle would suffice.  There is a popular medical adage even now that says, “When you’re in Texas and you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.” 

 

     Well, so what?  It’s just that John the Baptist was baptizing Jerusalemites in the River Jordan for the remission of their sins.  You see, the people of Jerusalem believed that all of their ills, sicknesses and bad luck was caused by their sinning.  So what better way to retain the mastery of your own ship than to go and be baptized?  Cause…effect.  I sin.  I get dunked.  I’m good to go….

 

     By the way, that’s the rationale for Roman Catholics being required to do confession before they can partake of communion.  Of course, that professional intermediaries are required to dispense God’s grace through penance, absolution and the distribution of communion was something Paul says nothing about.  I guess it’s good for job security….

 

     Blaming the victim has always been popular in church circles:  you are sick or mentally ill and it’s all your fault.  But blaming the victim is its own sickness and it points to something very revealing about ourselves.  If we are left to a world in which microscopic organisms – transmitted unseen by touch or through the air…..if we are left to a world in which mental illnesses may have only vaguely understood organic causes in the brain…..if we are left to a world in which children have no say about being born with AIDS or fetal alcohol syndrome….if we are born into such a world, then we are vulnerable to things quite beyond our control.

 

     Control is the issue here.  We want to develop theologies in which we can control the outcome.  Make up rules and ways of behaving so you’re on the gold team.  In that game, it’s totally up to you.  Your decision.  It’s aether, folks.  Grace rarely comes into the picture.  That’s really what is at stake when people say they aren’t religious, but they’re spiritual.  If we only were to acknowledge that what Jesus brings us is not a religion, but, effectively, the end of religion. 

 

     [Robert Capon]  Religion consists of all those things – like believing, behaving, worshiping and sacrificing – that the human race has ever thought it had to do to get right with God.  Jesus came into the world proclaiming that we are already right with God.  Jesus came to raise the dead.  The only qualification for the gift of the Gospel is to be dead.  You don’t have to be smart.  You don’t have to be good.  You don’t have to be wise.  You don’t have to be wonderful.  You just have to be dead.

 

     If sin causes disease -- if we cause our own misery – then our world becomes controllable.  Our salvation is controllable.  And, in the end, God is tamed and He is controllable.  In such a world…

 

…there is no need for faith.