Sunday, February 26, 2023

Phil Kniss: Quantum entanglement of earth and heaven

Jesus reveals the call to forgiveness
Matthew: Jesus the Revealer
Psalm 32:1-2; Genesis 33:1-4, 10a,c; Matthew 18:15-35

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I have never studied poetry, I know very little about it, I’ve written only a small handful of poems in my lifetime. But for some reason, last Sunday, it seemed like a good idea to write a poem, make it central to my sermon, and read it out loud to all of you, and our radio audience, and anyone in the world with internet.

From what I could tell, it wasn’t catastrophic. So . . . emboldened by my success, I will once again take something I know nothing about, and make it central to my sermon. Today I will talk to you about quantum physics. Despite never taking a class on, even regular physics. I earned a B.A. in college, not a B.S. although BS may be an appropriate description for what I’m about to say on the topic.

I have managed to get through a couple paragraphs of a journal article, and one time I was on a road trip with a friend who was way smarter than me, and he tried to stay awake by explaining to me what to him was the most exciting theory in quantum physics: entanglement.

Let me explain it to you the only way I know how, oversimplified, and probably wrong. But it makes my point, anyway. Which I’ll get to very soon.

So entanglement is when a group of subatomic particles interact in such a way, that the state of each particle cannot be described independently of the state of the others. Any property—such as position in space, speed, rotation, polarization— is shared, instantly, by the entangled particles, no matter how close or far away they are. So say that a pair of entangled particles move at the speed of light, in opposite directions, a change in the position or speed of one particle, is instantly reflected in the other entangled particle, even at great distances, even light years apart. When my friend in the driver’s seat explained this to me, that’s when my mind was officially blown.

And no, this is not some new idea of wacko pseudo-scientists. This phenomena was observed by the likes of Albert Einstein. Einstein thought the behavior they observed was impossible, so instead of confirming the quantum entanglement theory, he just called it, “spooky action at a distance.” That’s his exact phrase, published in a scientific paper 90 years ago. In recent years, more experiments have been done, and this entanglement theory has been confirmed multiple times, in multiple ways.

So how does this relate to Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness? Glad you asked. I think it serves as a useful, and beautiful, metaphor for how heaven and earth are connected to one another— for how human action impinges on divine action, and vice-versa. A metaphor, I said. I’m not claiming our theology can be explained with subatomic particles. It’s a metaphor. Jesus used a phrase in today’s reading from Matthew 18, that as I pondered it, preparing for today, reminded me of that mind-blowing conversation I had inside the car.

Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Now, whenever a saying of Jesus starts with “truly, I tell you,” there is more there than we see at first glance. It’s the Gospel writers’ way of signaling to us to pay attention. This is not a filler line, thrown out in passing. This is a crucial point to everything that surrounds it.

This saying shows up in a teaching section in Matthew 18 on conflict and wrong-doing in the church, and on accountability and forgiveness and restorative justice.

And remember again the likely origin of this Gospel, and Matthew’s likely intended audience— the conflicted church in Antioch in a hotbed of mutual wrongdoing and offense, of real damage caused by human beings against each other.

None of our four Gospels were written in the abstract, just for the sake of compiling a neutral history of Jesus. They are stories with an audience, stories with a purpose. When we have a sense of the audience and purpose of a Gospel, it helps us be more authentic when we apply it to our own context. And I just think ancient Antioch may not be as far away as we think from where we sit today.

In his Gospel, Matthew repeatedly showcases mutual offense of human beings against each other. From the birth narrative of Jesus— Matthew being the only Gospel to focus on the social conflict, Joseph’s dilemma, the magi, the state-sponsored violence in response to Jesus’ birth— To John the Baptist condemning the communal sin of the people, To the Sermon on the Mount teachings on reconciliation before worship, on turning the other cheek, on love of enemy, and “Why do you look at the speck in your neighbor’s eye, and don’t notice the log in your own eye?” And to Jesus’ warning to his disciples that he was sending them out like sheep among wolves, and to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.

And that’s just a small sampling from Matthew that we rēad before we arrive at today’s passage on offending and forgiving— this gem of a story that leads to a gem of a parable.

So as I rēad Matthew 18 again, with these words of Jesus in mind— “whatever you bind on earth is bound in heaven,” and as I think about the idea of quantum entanglement, I start seeing it all through this text. Heaven and earth are entangled— in the best sense of the word. We cannot treat heaven and earth as two entirely separate and disconnected entities. 
Another way of saying it, is, God is fully invested in life on this earth, to the point of being enmeshed and entangled. As such, everything that happens on earth, impacts heaven, and vice-versa.

It started at the dawn of creation, according to Genesis 1, when God created human beings in God’s image. That’s a theological statement of our origins, not a scientific one.

We were made to reflect the actual glory of God. Remember last Sunday’s transfiguration story? There is that of God within us, God’s imprint, God’s image, theologically speaking, that forever entangles us with God, earth with heaven, human with divine.

Where we human beings get into deep trouble, is when we forget that reality, when we think we operate as solo actors, free to do and be as we please without consequence on the whole.

The Matthew 18 approach to resolving offenses in the body of Christ, is one we Mennonites have often pulled out as a model, for how accountability should work in the church, especially when an individual neglects to conform to the rules and expectations of the church. I remember, in my childhood, this text being used as justification for what amounted to public shaming, and confessing of personal sin in front of the church.

In the small house church context of the early church, where people’s lives were deeply, and daily connected to each other, at the table, this model could well have been implemented in a loving way. But I think our context requires adaptation. This “truly I tell you” saying of Jesus might help us adapt it in a way that forgiveness and accountability and freedom are held together as community values.

The heart of the offense that Jesus is speaking about here, is the refusal of someone to accept that what is bound on earth is bound in heaven. I need to realize whatever action I take is not taken alone, my human actions impact God, and every other human being who is tied to God, with me, that is, everyone in my covenant community.

That awareness alone— knowing that what is bound on earth is bound in heaven, and what is loosed on earth is loosed in heaven— should be enough to keep me receptive to signals that something I have done has caused offense.

Matthew 18 is a stinging indictment of good ‘ole American individualism. Yes, of course, there is always a place for expressions of individual freedom. We are not all made alike. Human respect includes celebrating each other’s unique gifts, and personalities, and experiences, and points of view.

Matthew 18 does not undermine respect for the individual. It undermines the notion that who I am and how I behave has no bearing on the people around me, and on the God who made us all in God’s image. The sin of the unforgiving servant in Jesus’ parable is not a mathematical problem, it’s a relational problem.

We don’t get any closer to the truth by using a calculator, as I did, to learn 10,000 talents (the amount forgiven by the master), was 600,000 times larger than the 100 denarii, that another servant owed the first servant. Those numbers are purposely made . . . preposterous for the sake of the story.

The great offense here, is that the unforgiving servant did not accept that his actions were entangled with everyone around him— with the one above him, with the ones below him, and with his peers. He failed to take into account that as a human being, he could not flourish as a solo actor, independent of those around him.
That’s the way forgiveness works in the realm of God. Our offense, our debt, our sin, has been forgiven by God. Undeservedly, unconditionally, unabashedly forgiven by God. So . . . knowing that what is bound on earth is bound in heaven, and what is loosed on earth is loosed in heaven, makes our own forgiveness forever entangled with the forgiveness we extend to others.

Our Christian life, our Christian calling is one of entanglement— theological entanglement. We are entangled with God, and with all God’s children. Creator God did something that seems very un-God-like. God chose entanglement with humans. Out of love, God chose entanglement. Out of love, God chose to be beholden to us. That is the only way to give and receive love: to be beholden, obligated, tethered, entangled. That’s what I’m pointing toward with the metaphor of quantum entanglement.

Our actions impact God, as much as God’s activity impacts us. It’s a given. Not so much a choice God has to exercise every time. No, it’s a given. It’s instant and automatic. It happens because that’s how God set up the relationship from the start, like entangled particles. The saying of Jesus is not, “Whatever you bind on earth, God will then freely choose to bind in heaven.”

Some English translations, including the one we used today, read, “Whatever you bind on earth, will be bound in heaven . . .” making it sound like it will happen after the fact, as a result of God’s free choice.  The verb tense, in the original Greek reads more like, “shall have been bound in heaven,” something that just is, already, because that’s the way it works even when we can’t explain it. Or like Einstein might have called it, “spooky action at a distance.”

To me, it’s more reassuring than it is spooky. God is not only with us. God is entangled with us. God moves with us, stays with us. Forever, and ever. By design.

Oh, for the wisdom and courage to live with that awareness, in our dealings with God and with each other. In response, I invite you again to a confession. Except this time we will sing it. But before we sing it, I will read it aloud.

You can turn to VT 150 – Gentle God, When We Are Driven, or you can follow along on the screen. This is a profound hymn text that speaks to fractured human relationships where forgiveness is needed.

Gentle God, when we are driven
past the limits of our love,
when our hurt would have a weapon and the hawk destroy the dove,
at the cost of seeming weak, help us turn the other cheek.

Gentle Spirit, when our reason clouds in anger, twists in fear,
when we strike instead of soothing,
when we bruise and sting and smear,
cool our burning, take our pain, bring us to ourselves again.

In the mirror of earth’s madness let us see our ravaged face,
in the turmoil of all people let compassion find a place,
touch our hearts to make amends,
see our enemies as friends.

Let our strength be in forgiving as forgiven we must be,
one to one in costly loving,
finding trust and growing free, gentle God,
be our release, gentle Spirit, teach us peace.

—Phil Kniss, February 25, 2023

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