The sermon for week August 19, 2012
John 6:51-58 and Romans 7:14-20
NPR’s RadioLab introduced me to the confusing life story of Fritz Haber that fits with our scriptures today.
Jewish scientist Fritz Haber lived in Germany in the early 1900s.. The country was going through a revival and was very tolerant of Jewish people at the time. He attended university and graduated with a degree in chemistry around 1900. Haber became intent on solving the biggest problem facing his country: How to feed a growing population. At the time, everyone was starting to worry that we'd maxed out how much food the Earth could produce. Haber was obsessed with finding a solution. So he started experimenting...and pretty soon, he made arguably the most significant scientific breakthrough in human history--he figured out a way to pull nitrogen out of the atmosphere and feed the world. People at the time call his process, “creating bread out of air.”
Nitrogen allows soil to keep growing plants without getting worn out. This nitrogen gets into our food supply, into our water, and then into us! Fritz Haber is the reason half of our bodies contain nitrogen. He is the reason we have 7 billion people on the planet.
After his discovery, he’s promoted and hobnobbed with the German elite. Then World War I broke out and he immediately volunteered for service. He then weaponized his discovery. He made a chlorine gas and unleashed it on the allied troops in a small town called YEEPS in the French countryside.
Haber opened the valves on 6,000 tanks, and a 15 foot high wall of gas crept across the landscape. As the wall of gas approached, the grass shriveled up and turned a metallic color, the leaves fell from the trees, birds fell from the air. Then it hit the British trench line and began to kill the troops. The poisonous process is horrible: It irritates your lungs and they produce mucus. It’s like instant pneumonia. Essentially the troops are drowning in their own mucus, which is coming out of their pores, eyes, ears, nose.
Hell on earth.
In Germany, Haber is celebrated and promoted again. He spent a week at home on leave before his next assignment. His wife confronted him on the night before he is supposed to head back to the front. They argued about whether he should ever use chlorine gas again. She was aghast that he had weaponized his discovery and it had lead to such horrible and painful deaths. He argued that it is for the higher cause. She wanted him to stay home, but he said he was going. After the fight, his wife killed herself. This doesn’t even give him pause: Right on schedule, he goes back to the front and unleashes his gas again.
Germany lost the war, and Haber was crushed. The Nazis eventually take over, and Haber had to leave the country because was Jewish. The Nazis then discover his gas and use it to kill Jewish people in concentration camps. Members of his extended family, friends, and co-workers died in these camps.
How do you measure this man’s story? How do you define his legacy? Is he a bad guy? How do you square the idea of a bad person who does great good? Or a good person who does terrible harm? A man who gave bread to the world and also who invented a terrible way to die and didn’t even flinch when his wife took her own life in protest to his methods (above paraphrased from RadioLab, The Bad Show).
When I first heard this story, I immediately thought of Paul’s letter to the Romans we’ve heard today. Paul writes, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” Huber is a great example of this line of thought. He wanted to feed his country. And when his country went to war, he wanted to fight for his country. His passion for his country was all consuming. Just as Paul’s passion for the law was all consuming. He writes in Philippians 3:5-6, “I am a Hebrew among Hebrews, by the Law, A Pharisee, as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”
Paul was a zealot for his country, an adherent to his faith. But then on that road to Damascus, he is blinded by the light. He falls, and his life is radically changed. So much so that in Philippians 3:7-8 he writes, “Whatever gain I had, I now count as a loss for the sake of Christ. I have suffered the loss of all things, and I count it as rubbish, in order that I might gain Christ…” A note on the Greek word Paul uses that is translated to rubbish, doesn’t mean rubbish. It means… well, we can’t say that word in church.
Paul feels so strongly about Christ that he writes a letter with a cuss word in it to a church. Well. That was 2,000 some years ago, and Haber was 100 some years ago, so obviously much has changed. We can’t possibly be capable of such dumb allegiance and blind faith as they were, right? We’re not subject to the same sins they committed, right?
We are. I might not be on the scale of killing Christians in the first century like Paul or killing British troops in World War I like Haber, but the same type of sin exists in me that existed in them.
This has been a hard lesson to learn. I entered seminary not believing in this fact, disagreeing with Paul’s statement, “For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” I guess I just thought that Paul really wasn’t all that self-aware, that he didn’t have science or a good therapist or whatever. I knew better than Paul, what did that tent-maker 2,000 years ago know?
I wanted to believe the good in people, the transformational power of the gospel, and have compassion for people and not call them utterly depraved, intrinsically bad, or corrupt. Yet as time wore on, my view grew from an idealistic view of people to a more realistic view; not only of those around me but also myself and my personal history (Lindon).
We live in a world where people are getting shot, babies are getting shot in our own city. At movie theaters, in places of worship, in their homes. We are seeing the poor get poorly paid while the rich get ricocheted into higher and higher income brackets. We are seeing all sorts of social ills. With all this bad news, I can shut off, be callous, hide away in my house and pretend things are fine. Inner city Toledo can be light years away from my comfortable home in Sylvania. I can hid behind my ideology, my country, my religion, my career, even the brands I like to buy, the stores I like to shop at, the restaurants I choose to eat at. I can be very selfish and dismiss the social ills because it would hurt too much to open myself up to these things, I don’t want to risky my comfortable routine. I don’t want to risk myself.
As church member Al Palmer once said to me, “We don’t remember our actions as much as we remember our intentions.” I think that’s what Paul is saying. We human beings often have the best intentions. We live amid all sorts of limitations and are born into a world where sin is already in existence. Human beings are inexpressibly complex creatures in whom great good and great evil often cohabit as they did in Paul, as they did in Fritz Haber, and as they do in me.
So where is our good news? Our good news is that Jesus is the living bread. Paul’s life bears this out.
Paul was radical. He was trying to be the best Pharisee, the most zealous, the most loyal, the most God-loving-holy-man-there-has-ever-been. Paul was also vain. A lot of his letters back that up. He thought very highly of himself. In his drive to be the best, he persecuted the early church, literally killing the early Christians; or at least holding the cloaks of others while the deed was done. But all of that is waste, all of that became a dirty word we can’t say in church when he met Christ on that road to Damascus. He MET the Living Bread and that was enough. Jesus was enough for Paul.
Paul gets what Jesus is saying in the Gospel of John. There is no knowing who Jesus is without visceral, total engagement. We cannot sit back, in the comfortable pew, and coolly consider him, as if he were an abstract, disembodied idea. Incarnation means that we must get up, come forward, hold out empty hands, sip wine, chew bread. Jesus is the incarnation, flesh and blood, fully divine and fully human. Jesus’ truth wants to burrow deep within us, to consume us as we consume him, to flow through our veins, to be digested, to nourish every nook and cranny of our being (Willamon).
This is completely counter-cultural in today’s world because the best life, defined by the dominant voices of our world, is more. We are pressed to seek more, to want more, to convince ourselves that we need more. Never mind the evidence that our consumer mentality is destroying the earth, destroying other people, even destroying ourselves. The quest for consumption sucks the life right out of us.
Audrey West, a theologian who writes for the Christian Century says that “this week's Gospel text is all about consumption, but of a different kind. This is consumption that gives life, rather than taking it away. It promises real life. This kind of life is not fulfilled by earthly measures of ‘more,’ such as a longer length of time, but rather by its quality of existence. This life that we and the disciples are seeking, that Paul found, is in the bread that came down from heaven & is worth far more than we can imagine” (West).
What this means is that when we give of ourselves, like Jesus gives of himself, we find life everlasting. We find that we give life to others when we give our lives to them. Fritz Haber missed this idea. He started off well but became distracted by the goal of taking lives. Paul started off the opposite way: He was taking the lives of those early Christians but found more meaning when he gave his own life for the sake of Christ.
Same with being in ministry to others. We can decry those homeless people on the street, but when we give just a little of ourselves in outreach, we find that we are fed by them and we feed them as well, literally, as well as figuratively.
All this not for a cause, not for some abstract principle, but just one person giving of him or herself to another person. That is the kingdom of God. That’s the bread of life.
Yet, we are often selfish, distracted, and hurried people. We are complex animals who remember intention and not action. We are capable of feeding the world as well as destroying it. Left to our own devices, we can easily divide on country, political party or whatever subset we identify most strongly with. This route leads to chemical clouds and oppression of those not like us. We must take the bread of life route instead. The giving of our time and talents that lead to feeding the hungry, writing letters and breaking bread with complete strangers from all around the world.
Let us intend to be bread to one another based on the example of Christ. And in that personal intention, we need community; to give us feedback and make sure our actions match that intention. For our sake, for Christ’s sake and for the sake of our world, may it be so. Amen.
Radio Lab. My existential crisis.
West, Audrey. Better, not more. Christian Century.
Willimon, Wiliam H. Homiletical Perspective on John 6: 51-58. Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3. Page 357-361.