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A Sermon About Nothing – 1/27/2013

I often begin with a story or quotation from one of the world’s religious traditions; this morning I want to open with something from the history, or at least the mythology, of science. Ernest Rutherford was a pioneering physicist and chemist from New Zealand. After already winning a Nobel Prize for chemistry, he and some collaborators conducted the experiment for which he is most famous. They fired particles at a very thin sheet of gold, and based on how many particles bounced off, and the direction they flew, and how many they observed making it through to the other side, Rutherford deduced certain things about the nature of atoms. Basically, that almost all of the stuff inside of them was concentrated into a tiny mass in the center – the nucleus – with a varied number of other particles (littler bits of stuff) moving all around that center.

This demonstrated an idea that most of us who’ve taken high school science are at least familiar with in passing: every physical thing that we can see and touch is made up of lots and lots of incredibly tiny things called atoms, which are themselves made up of even tinier things. Inside those atoms are mostly empty space, which means that everything in the universe – the floor of the sanctuary, the pew it is resting on, or you yourself sitting in that pew – is mostly made up of nothing at all. So the story goes that on the morning after Rutherford demonstrated this in the lab, he couldn’t bring himself to get out of bed. He had the irrational fear that he would fall through the floor. Every morning up to that point he had gotten out of bed without that particular problem, and he had slept through the night without falling through the bed. But now that he knew that there was so much nothing inside of everything, he felt a powerful sense of dread.[i] It sounds a bit like the old cartoon in which the hapless Wyle E. Coyote chases the road runner off of the cliff, and only falls when he looks down.

There may be no idea so frightening to us as human beings as the concept of nothing at all. The total absence of being is something that many people – and many of the world’s religious traditions – shudder to consider. The book of Genesis, the first entry in the Hebrew and Christian bibles opens with a line that may be translated, “In the beginning, all was formless and void…” It is out of this emptiness that the God described in that first chapter of Genesis calls everything into being, and pronounces each creation – each thing made to replace nothing – as good. The horror of nothingness is a theme returned to repeatedly in the biblical tradition. In Deuteronomy, the Holy Voice speaks of the disloyalty of the Israelites by calling them “a nation void of counsel”.[ii] Isaiah describes the power of God by saying, “God brings potentates to naught, makes rulers of the earth as nothing.”[iii] Job warns not to trust in emptiness, for emptiness will be our payment.[iv] And the Christian evangelist Paul is reported to have written in his first letter to the Corinthians,

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging symbol. If I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to die, but have not love, I gain nothing.”

The place that is void, the soul which is empty, the person who is nothing; the Jewish-Christian biblical tradition views these things with foreboding and dread. One possible explanation for why this is such a common theme comes from the physical predicament that the ancient Hebrew-speaking people who wrote these documents found themselves in. The strip of land they inhabited at the eastern end of the Mediterranean was bounded on one side by the sea and other the other by desert. For an agrarian people with little skill at sailing (and few natural ports), they may have looked both east and west and seen only a vast emptiness; barren of the ability to sustain lives like their own all the way to the horizon’s edge. Conquering armies might surge across the desert at times, and storms sweep into the sea; but little good would have seemed to come from either place.[v]

Some years ago, there was a certain popular television program – it ended 15 years ago, which makes me feel very old – that was said to be a show about nothing. In one episode Jerry Seinfeld and George Costanza are chatting over lunch at the neighborhood diner, discussing the growing popularity of salsa as a condiment and the easy confusion of the words salsa and seltzer. Jerry is trying to think of an idea for a new tv show to sell to the network, but coming up empty. George, inspired by their conversation, proposes that the show should be about what they are doing right then: a show about nothing. Given that their dialog is really about a show within a show, they have, for the moment at least, become a show about a show about nothing. But still, the crazy scheme is followed through to its natural conclusion: the new sitcom is a flop; who wants to watch a show about nothing, anyway.[vi]

Seinfeld was actually a show about many things: friendship, family, betrayal, ridiculous and yet somehow fitting twists of fate, the banality of evil, and the lives of well-to-do, morally oblivious and often deplorable white Manhattanites. But its most consistent subject was the small, seemingly mundane events of life: one of a million forgotten conversations, one of a thousand tiny victories or defeats. Visiting a restaurant, and having trouble getting a table; losing a job, and having trouble finding a new one; celebrating the profit made by returning a load of bottles for deposit; agonizing, endlessly, about the etiquette of telling another person something they don’t want to hear. So much of the world tells us to think of these moments as worthless, as empty, as nothing. But while we must be wary of self-flattery with the idea that these minor events are more important than the moments, major or minor, in the lives of others, our tradition affirms that these minutes have meaning too. It is possible to learn, to love, to struggle and to hope in every second of existence.

It is not just that there is a popular fear of nothing in our culture; it can be difficult even to speak about it, or to hold onto it in our heads. As many of you know, in my household we celebrate the festivals of Judaism. My family and I are glad to be a part of a community in which we can be different, in some respects, from others, and still share a sense of religious identity and purpose with the larger congregation. Yesterday was Tu B’shvat, a somewhat more obscure holiday that people outside Judaism rarely participate in. Tu B’shvat is “the new year of the trees”, and there is a practice associated with it that involves eating particular types of fruit. Each category of fruit is sometimes described as representing one of four mystical levels of existence: the realm of only matter, the realm in which spirit begins to infuse matter, the realm in which no matter remains, only objects formed of spirit, and the final level of the uttermost heaven, in which nothing resides but God.

Each year, it seems, when my partner and I start to plan a celebration for Tu B’shvat we remember that there are four categories and start to make up a mental grocery list. We’ll need fruits or nuts with a hard or inedible outside: almonds, say, or oranges. We’ll want to pick up some fruits with a hard pit like peaches or plums. And we’ll also want to have fruit which can be eaten whole – figs or strawberries. And then we scratch our heads and look at each other trying to remember what the fourth fruit is. Shell, pit, neither and…And then one of us, usually Sara, remembers that the fourth category is not something that can be represented with a physical object. The fourth fruit is no fruit – nothing at all.[vii]

In some religious traditions, nothing is held in a somewhat higher repute; it is less a thing to be feared and more a subject to grapple with, and try to understand. The Buddhist tradition has a concept called Sunyata, which might be translated as “nothingness” or “emptiness”. It is the quality, or absence of any quality, that defines all things. All things are empty, defined by nothingness, because no thing is essentially itself : everything is impermanent and changeable, and can be understood or not understood in a different way from a different perspective.

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In one illustration, a monk was talking with a king who was very proud of his fine royal chariot. The monk described taking the chariot apart, asking at what point it would cease to be a chariot – “When the wheels are removed? When the axle’s disassembled? When the paint has peeled off and all the nails taken out?” At some point its chariot-ness ends, and so “chariot” cannot be said to be its truest and deepest identity. [viii] So the teaching goes, that this is true of all things, including each of our selves – everything I might call my self, everything that I think makes me me is just as temporary as the identity of the chariot. So all identities, all categories, all things are defined by sunyata, by emptiness, by their non-thingness.

Now that is a tough nut to crack for a lot of people. Particularly for we Unitarian Universalists, who are so adamant about the worthiness of all people, the sacred and abundant meaning inherent to our lives and the lives of every person. It’s a dimension of Buddhism that I’ve struggled with personally. Our tradition draws wisdom and inspiration from many sources, among them the teachings of Buddhism, but this was a teaching that did not sit well with me. And then, a friend of mine pointed out that emptiness does not mean purposelessness; if it did, there would never be any reason to take or not to take any action. A cup – a temporary, imperfect, never truly defined by its cup-ness, cup – gains its purpose from its emptiness and the fact that it can be filled by many things.

This past summer, I had the opportunity to attend a series of lectures by Reb Zalman Schacter-Shalomi. Reb Zalman sits at the intersection of religious identities: he is a Rabbi and a Jewish scholar of considerable standing. He is also an initiated shaykh of a particular school of Sufism, the mystical current in Islam. His work as a teacher has brought him into dialog with leaders in Christianity and Buddhism, and he also has a history of friendship with us Unitarian Universalists. The lectures I attended were sponsored by the Starr King School for the Ministry, the Unitarian Universalist seminary where I received my theological education. Incidentally, the course which First Parish member and ordained Unitarian Universalist minister Karin Peterson will begin teaching this Wednesday – “Being Older and Wiser” – that course was developed from a training she received from Reb Zalman some years ago. For those of you who are at least 50 years old – the only course requirement – I recommend that you look into joining the class if you haven’t already done so.

During the course of his talks, Reb Zalman told a story about the time just after his father died. Jewish practice places a lot of importance on the prayers recited for the dead, particularly when a parent is being mourned by a child. And to really observe the fullness of the ritual, you can’t do it alone; you need a minyan, a quorum of other Jewish people to join you in the practice. Now it happened that in the place where Reb Zalman lived at the time, most of the other Jews he knew were practicing Buddhists. They had all grown up Jewish, they knew the prayers, some of them may have still kept the practice, but the teachings of Buddhism had come to be central to their lives as well. This wasn’t a particular problem; Reb Zalman thanked his friends for coming to his aid, and they began to pray together so the Rabbi could honor and remember his father.

Now, in the traditional prayer service, there are a few lines about how great we are – we, the people praying – and how foolish and bad all the other religions of the earth are. It’s a sentiment that unfortunately can be found in a lot of religious traditions – not one to which we Unitarian Universalists are always immune, I would point out – and many modern liturgies remove it, or try to balance it out or get around it somehow. But they came to this place in the service, and recited together: “For they bow down to emptiness and void, and we bow down to the King of Kings.” How embarrassing: to welcome guests into your home, who have come to show you a kindness, and then to say, even to ask them to join you in saying, words that denigrate them.

But, in that moment, that is not how it felt. Surrounded by Buddhist practitioners – they happened to follow the Zen school, whose religious practice is so much defined by reflecting on the emptiness of all things – Reb Zalman read these words in a new light. Now they seemed to say, “For they bow down to emptiness and void, and we bow down to the King of Kings,” and both of those acts are pathways to holiness. Even if we do not have the same thing in mind as we bow, we still may bow together.

This same insight is particularly important here in this place. For our community includes both theists and atheists: people for whom the existence of God is essential, and people for whom the non-existence of God is assumed. People who believe in an afterlife that we will share in together, and people who believe that what we share is the here and now. And of course, many people who exist somewhere between these points, or off the scale entirely. But all of us bow, literally or figuratively, to the source of purpose in our lives. It is not the presence or the absence of the thing which is so important, as the meaning of that presence or that absence. We are all upheld by the same earth; even if it is mostly composed out of nothing at all.

[i] Read (or listen to) Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson telling this story as part of his criticism of how we usually make pictures and sculptures of atoms:

[ii] Deuteronomy 32:28

[iii] Isaiah 40:23

[iv] Job 15:31

[v] Credit for this idea should go to Fr. Michael D. Guinan O.F.M., my instructor in Hebrew Scriptures when I had the privilege of cross-registering at the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley, CA. Any mistakes are my own.

[vi] You can watch the scene here:

[vii] This is a small anecdote about one of my spiritual home practices. Those wishing to learn more about Judaism’s festival of Tu B’Shvat should consult resources more knowledgeable than I. To begin, I recommend Paul Steinberg’s Celebrating the Jewish Year: The Winter Holidays, The Jewish Publication Society, 2007.

[viii] A story of Nagasena from the Milinda Panha, a text from the Burmese edition of the Pali Canon.


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