Christ and Entropy
I am currently remodeling my attic. And as a mere handy homeowner, this is a big deal for me. I don’t have a professional background in carpentry, plumbing, or hanging drywall, but rather a rapidly growing respect for those who do. I have a builders’ permit, though, so I (and certain others in my family) take comfort in the fact that someone with real know-how will eventually evaluate my work. In the mean time, I’m having fun with my power tools, and I’m motivated by the prospect of someday enjoying a tangible, finished product, not something I regularly get to see in the perpetual work of ministry.
One of the most challenging aspects of this particular attic remodel is that in my 100-year-old house nothing is level. I mean, nothing. In fact, I’ve noticed that the entire house tends to slant slightly on its north-south axis. This is something I try hard not to lose sleep over, by the way. So, even if I perfectly level all the new 2x4s I place, somewhere down the line things aren’t going to be square. And this, as I have learned, is where one employs the fine art of shimming. I have a whole stack of shims precut to various thicknesses so that I can quickly fill the gaps between the old twisted beams and the new ones that I’m placing. I’m proud of my resourcefulness. I just hope it’s up to code.
To use a scientific term, what I am encountering in this old house of mine, and being reminded of with literally every shim I place, is a phenomenon called entropy, or the second law of thermodynamics. To define entropy in a very simplified way: it is the nature of all things in the universe to move from an ordered state to one of disorder. A popular example of entropy is what happens went you pour creamer into a cup of coffee. When the coffee is in its mug and the creamer is in its prepackaged plastic container, you have order (And for those of us who appreciate black coffee, this is the correct order). But, when you open the creamer and pour it into the coffee, the two liquids swirl together and become something else entirely. This process is irreversible. You can’t take the creamer out of the coffee. It’s the same with houses. The second you hammer in the last nail, gravity, the weather, the entropic pull of the universe, begins to dis-order the order you have painstakingly constructed and 100 years later you end up with a crooked house.
I bring up houses and entropy this morning because I think they’re at the heart of the the passage we just heard from Mark. No, Jesus does’t specifically mention the second law of thermodynamics, but he has a lot to say about the a particular house of worship and disorder. As Jesus and his disciples exit the temple, one of the twelve comments on how large and strong the building is. The temple in Jerusalem is not just any structure, by the way. To the disciples, faithful Jews that they were, it marked the actual physical location of God on earth. It was the Holy of Holies, a place “out of time,” so to speak, linking earth with the eternity of heaven. So, to hear Jesus predict the temple’s destruction must have been quite an emotional blow. And he didn’t stop there. Expect false prophets, he warns. Expect wars and rumors of wars. Nation will rise against nation. The very earth will shake and its inhabitants will go hungry. Quite a blow, indeed.
Scholars believe that book of Mark was composed around the year 70, either shortly before or shortly after the siege of Jerusalem and the actual historical destruction of the temple. So the early hearers of this passage were witnessing order turn to disorder in real time. The physical foundation of the Jewish faith had literally crumbled. The fledgling Christian communities fared no better, suffering persecution at the hands of ruthless Roman emperors. Jesus’ disturbing predictions rang true.
There are a number of ways to think about all of this troubling apocalyptic language. You’ve seen the movies or read the books about being “left behind.” You may even come from a religious tradition where the impending “end of days” was a source of anxiety and spiritual motivation to convert others, but I’d like to suggest another way we might understand Jesus’ words. The events he describes, as troubling as they may be in the context of the Gospel, are actually quite commonplace. You and I have witnessed earthquakes. Famine is currently a real issue in certain parts of the world–even in this country. Nations rise against nations all the time; war is practically ubiquitous. Jesus doesn’t mention a global pandemic, but it feels like what we’ve experienced these past couple of years deserves a place in his apocalyptic litany. In Mark Chapter 13, Jesus is describing the way things are in this world. When his disciple looks at the temple and comments on its stability and timelessness, Jesus reminds him that even this will pass away. Order naturally moves to disorder–entropy.
Entropy is not easy for us mortals. It means wrinkles and gray hair. It means replacing HVAC units and patching leaky roofs. It means experiencing the pain of grief when we lose someone or something precious to us. It means having to look for a new rector from time to time. It means learning the art of shimming.
But, if entropy has got you down today, you’re in the right place. This religious tradition that you and I are a part of is not about “getting back to the way things were,” as if there were some holy snapshot before all the wars and famines and pandemics that we are meant to recover. In fact, the very essence of Christianity is change. Jesus delights in finding the lost, in lifting up the lowly, in making all things new–not in fortifying the status quo. Every Sunday we celebrate the amazing mystery of transformation that takes place on the Holy Table. Right before our eyes, God’s presence becomes known in the breaking of the bread. This is the good news. The very thing that seems to challenge us most–change, disorder, upheaval–is Jesus’ area of expertise. “Do not be alarmed,” he says, “these things must take place.”
I love my crooked house. It may mean using some creative carpentry in my attic project, but it’s also a reminder of all the change it has witnessed in the past century. World wars, economic depression, the struggle for civil rights–it’s seen an apocalypse or two. Much was lost, and yet much was found. Christ was surely in the midst of it all, giving hope to the lonely, the bereaved, and the desperate, converting hearts and minds to see something holy born from the chaos. And Christ’s transformative work continues today. Right now, in this place, things are being made new.
Proper 28, Year B