The Noble Gases
Helium, Neon, Argon, Krypton, Xenon, and Radon – these are the noble gases. If you recall your periodic table of elements, the noble gases sit at the right-hand side, and they have their own column – all to themselves.
Interestingly, they are called the noble gases, not because they are particularly rarified or uncommon. Helium and argon for example are among the most common elements in the entire universe.
They are called “noble” because like gold and platinum they have absolutely no interest in joining atomic hands with oxygen – or any other undesirable element. They are rather pejoratively called “noble” because they have always been thought to be unengaging, aloof and inert – indeed Argon means lazy in Greek. The noble gases are like Britain’s limited monarchy, which George Bernard Shaw describes as the civilized embodiment of the lifeless wooden idols of primitive savages.
Whereas lusty hyrdogen will explosively couple with oxygen at the slightest flirtation, the noble gases are simply not uninterested. If the wealthy passengers on the Hindenberg had only insisted on a noble gas for their luxury blimp ride – instead of that proletarian hydrogen – the fiery explosion never would have happened. As any person of class can tell you, noble helium is unflappably inflammable.
The noble gases are thought to be unresponsive to mingling with other atoms because they are complete, stable and totally satisfied – as they have always been, unchanged since the Big Bang.
Now in the early 1960’s, liberal scientists started to forcibly integrate noble gases with other elements, and they actually managed to create stable compounds out of xenon, krypton and radon.
But the atomic civil rights movement has seen no gains in the last 37 years. Until last week, when a group of scientists in Helsinki managed to get lazy lady Argon out of her noble tower of confinement. In a stunning announcement, newpapers around the globe announced the three-way marriage of Argon with the inflammatory hydrogen and the poisonous flourine. One headline pronounced Argon “still noble, but inert no more.”
Speaking of inertia – in Newtonian physics, inertia is the tendency of bodies at rest to stay at rest, and bodies in motion to stay in motion. Sir Isaac teaches that bodies will continue to do what they are doing – or not doing – unless an outside force impels them to either get going, or stop moving.
Inertia is why golf balls must be struck by clubs, carried by wind, and stopped by the ground. Golf balls have no motivating will of their own. They have no inner fire, no vision, no hope to accomplish, and they can do nothing without taking a beating.
Inertia is why a man who is lying on the couch will tend to stay on the couch.
Now in the literature of human nature, inertia is not considered a positive human trait. One of Newton’s contemporaries – Gottfried Leibnitz – wrote that the inertia of physical bodies is a perfect analogy for original sin and the corruption inherent in all things.
And as that great Yankee Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, the inertia inherent in every human creature is a “conserving, resisting energy” which inspires great “anger at being waked or changed.”
It’s that very same, deep inertia, which makes it so hard to hear the Gospel today. Which makes the reading from Joshua so hard to take to heart. For Joshua and Jesus say one thing: “against all odds, all understanding, and all old habits of thought and belief, choose the Lord … or die in your sins.”
I believe Leibnitz on this one. I agree that the deep seeded urge to do nothing, to say nothing, and to change nothing, grows out of some original human principle, planted in all of us, which desires that we become nothing.
I agree that the human tendency to stay where we are, planted in the ground, or always moving in the wrong direction, never coming closer to the Will of the Holy One, is comparable to the principle of inertia which governs all physical bodies in creation.
And just as even the noble gases are becoming increasingly ‘social’ by the active input of human will power – I believe that God’s moving Spirit seeks to knock us off the couch, or out of the fast lane, and back toward Him.
But unlike Leibnitz who denied the possibility of Free Will – Joshua and Jesus alike declare that we must choose. And we must choose that Spirit of God today.
And if we let it in – we will become far nobler than we have ever been, and far less inert than we thought we wanted to be.
Now I came to this parish a little more than a year ago – and quite a lot of water has already flowed under the bridge. We’ve laughed a lot, we’ve prayed hard, and yes, we’ve suffered some serious setbacks to our good will and faith in others.
But has always impressed me most about this place was the way it has been active, energetic, and inspired enough to “think outside the little boring box” which many critics call ‘church.’ I was impressed that this ancient parish was not – like many historic churches and noble gases – aloof, unenthusiastic, and resistant to God’s life-giving oxygen. I put real faith that the Holy Spirit breathed new life into this church in the wake of the fire which burnt the place to the ground six years ago. And I still have high hopes that we are still highly susceptible to the oxygen and fire of the Holy Spirit.
But I have to tell you – I am a little worried. I am a little worried that in our wounding, and in our always rapid healing, we have stiffened up a little bit around here.
I am a little worried that this cooler-than-normal summer has begun to cool things off at St. James’s … just a little too much.
So I stand here, without the mandate of Joshua, and without the vision of Jesus, but with at least the concern of your priest that we must read the Scriptures today not simply as individuals, but as a parish. We must not allow ourselves to gloss over the tough parts – because I think they speak directly to this community.
And this is what I read there:
If we wish to walk away and return to our old ways beyond the river, then we will do it without God’s blessing.
But if we wish to stand up and serve the LORD, then let us just do it – and we will again gather around St. James’s and witness the lightning bolt of God set fire to our hearts, our families’, our friends’, and our neighbors in Richmond.