"At War With the Dragon Tyrant"

Sunday sermon from August 11, 2013
Texts: Genesis 5:1-8, 21-31; John 3:1-17
Preached by the Rev. Matt Gaventa

The numbers are inconceivable. Nine hundred and thirty years old. Nine hundred and twelve years old. Nine hundred and sixty-nine years old. Our Genesis text this morning may not be the most exciting text in scripture, but it is in some ways the most unbelievable. You will not remember the names of all the characters; I definitely don't remember the names of all the characters, but you will remember this one thing about them, that everyone in this seam between the stories we've already told - of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel and the stories we are about to tell - about Noah and his family - that everybody in this seam lives a very, very, very long time. The numbers are inconceivable. Eight hundred and ninety-five years old. He's one of the young ones.

I admit that I haven't myself done the math, but I have it on good authority that if you try to put all of these generations on a timeline they all end up overlapping. When you have kids so young -- Adam was only one hundred and thirty when he became a father, you know -- you have a chance to see your son become a father in his own right. And a grandfather. And a great-grandfather. And so on and so on -- by my count, by the end of this text, we've got ten generations of fathers and firstborn sons and unmentioned wives and sisters and brothers all living together, no human being in scripture yet having suffered a natural death, each of them in the fullness of their days reaching out towards eternity. What joy in watching a family grow and grow and never enter the shadow of death and loss! No less a theologian than Martin Luther observes of this text that:

It was really a golden age, in comparison with which our own can scarcely be called filth, for nine patriarchs lived at the same time with all their descendants... This is the greatest glory of the first world, that in it at one time were people who were so much more pious, wise, and holy. For we ought not to think that they were simple, ordinary people; on the other hand, they were the greatest heroes.

Is this in fact what we have in front of us today, a kind of nostalgic history of the age of giants? Of a time when, unencumbered by the spectre of natural decay, the original children of Adam could and did do anything and everything? Put differently: how would you like to live long enough to meet your own great-great-great-grandchildren? And I don't mean hanging on at the end of your days as the clock ticks by -- I mean years, decades, centuries of life and vigor, something only at the furthest outreach of our own imagination? Unbothered by the shadow of death, would you also become one of the greatest heroes? How would you like to live nigh unto forever? Well, I can't quite promise you that. But here's the thing: thanks to modern science, and thanks to the modern scientific imagination, it's a bit closer than we think.

The cover of the most recent issue of National Geographic has a picture of a baby with the caption "This baby will live to be 120," which, still a far cry from nine hundred, is something of a marvel in the scientific history of human evolution. The average American lifespan has increased about three decades over the last century thanks to advances in healthcare and sanitation and diet. But the National Geographic story pushes rather into the future. The story traces current scientific research into the genetics of certain human populations that for whatever reason are more prone to long life or to immunity from some major diseases -- the argument being that our genes themselves carry the secret to radically extending our own natural lives, that maybe the legacy of that age of giants is written not only in the words of Genesis 5 but also in the nucleotide sequence of our own DNA. All of which is but one train of thought in the vast pool of research being done to slow and even eliminate the progress of time upon the human body, even to the point where scientists are seriously questioning the inevitability of death itself : so I ask you again: how would like to live long enough to meet your own great-great-great-grandchildren? It sounds like a crazy question, but maybe it's not as crazy as it once was -- and with it come all sorts of moral and ethical and theological questions that we are just now beginning to ask ourselves.

In the last decade, a futurist named Nick Bostrom published an article in the Journal of Medical Ethics that has come to have a defining place in the conversation about the ethics of our own fight against age and death. His article is really a fable, "The Fable of the Dragon Tyrant." In it, Bostrom imagines the planet plagued by a terrible dragon who every evening demands a tribute of ten thousand human beings. Unable to mount any kind of resistance against the dragon, for centuries the planet simply accepts the terms, and every evening the losses mount. But as technology advances, gradually and gradually the idea begins to circulate that perhaps humanity could in fact attack the dragon head-on. But still, debate rages, hamstrung by doubt and by the massive economy that has emerged to support those who deal with the daily grief of loss. Finally, humanity strikes, killing the dragon and ending the curse. But the cost of inaction and delay has been thousands if not millions of lives.

If you missed it, here's the metaphor: the dragon tyrant is death. And for most of the planet's history, we have been powerless against so great a foe. But Bostrom believes that we are entering into an era in which science can put death itself squarely in its crosshairs, where through the magic of genetic excavation or nanotechnology or something I else I don't entirely understand, that we will be able to forestall death itself and thus save literally thousands upon millions of lives, if only we can emerge from our own ethical quandaries and moral suspicions and scientific doubts. Bostrom means to argue that, if death is properly conquerable, that doing so is not just a scientific curiosity; it's a moral imperative. It's an ethical imperative, because of the lives that are lost day by day as we bide our time.

It's hard to imagine the implications of a world literally cured of the sting of death. And yet I think part of the significance of this Genesis genealogy is that it allows Israel to imagine the ramifications of just such a world. Adam lives longer than Israel can imagine; his sons and grandsons and great-grandsons live longer than anyone in Israel can imagine. And if Luther is right then surely the effect of this longevity is beautiful and bounteous and yet I think the text offers us good reason to be suspicious. For nine generations the pattern continues almost identically, but in the final stanza, centuries after the original curse laid upon Adam and Eve at their departure from the garden, Lamech announces over the birth of Noah, that now this one "shall bring us relief from our work and the toil of our hands." Lamech's prayer isn't thanksgiving for the bounty of family and longevity; it's a prayer of hope for deliverance from a long age of restless labor and servitude. Noah himself, of course, will harken in an age of death on an unprecedented scale, such that Lamech's original invocation seems not to thank God for long life but rather beg for the deliverance of death.

As if to reinforce this interpretation, the text singles out Enoch, the only one of Adam's offspring who quote "walked with God," and gives him a much shorter span of days, only three hundred and sixty-five years. The difference is drastic, and the reason is critical. The Old Testament is littered with figures who notably either walked or didn't walk with God, very often judges and kings whose relationship with God was often seen as a reason for the overall success or failure of their rule. Which is to say that walking with God wasn't just a question of personal faith; it was its own kind of moral or ethical imperative, because it affected the whole city or the whole kingdom or the whole nation. For this phrase to wind its way back into the prehistory of Genesis 5 suggests that Israel was thinking about Enoch's relatively short life as a kind of social good. There's no tragedy here. There's no dragon. There's no moral failure. Rather, Israel realizes that death is not only part of our own natural biological cycle but in fact necessary so that our families and our communities and our nations and our species can survive and grow and adopt and change, that death, even death that stings closest to home, can have purpose and value beyond our imagination. I think Israel would agree with Bostrom that the question of death is very much an ethical question, a question that affects us not just as individuals but in our bonds of social obligation. But they would disagree entirely about the answer.

This past week, the quest for immortality has been somewhat differently in the news in the hands of a particularly notorious anti-aging laboratory in Miami called Biogenesis. Thanks to the testimony of a former employee, thirteen Major League Baseball players this past week were suspended from the game, accused of using performance enhancing drugs provided to them by this Biogenesis lab. Foremost among the suspensions was infamous New York Yankee Alex Rodriguez, A-Rod, whose sentence seemed to reflect both his use of the product and also something about his attitude towards the investigation: A-Rod has been suspended for the remainder of this season and the entirety of 2014, pending appeal. One imagines that A-Rod, once owner of the largest baseball contract in history, and the Yankees, who are now free from the burden of that contract at least for one year, will both cry all the way to the bank.

Now, the problem for A-Rod is that he's never been the most likable person in baseball and now the role of cultural villain fits him a bit too closely. The court of public opinion is dangerously close to finalizing its verdict. But I think we need to be very careful about what exactly the charges are. Are the rules about steroid use in place in order to protect the health of superstars? Perhaps -- but A-Rod could hire the best doctors and trainers that money can buy. Not to mention the fact that many of the items on baseball's banned substance list can be and are used regularly outside of the sport for medical rehabilitation or legitimate strength training. There's something more here than just trying to make all of our athletes into heroes of healthy living. Nor is baseball itself some kind of victim of its own doping scandals, not for anybody who remembers the sport's own age of giants, back when McGwire and Sosa and Bonds, each of them with biceps the size of a small redwood, put their own unbelievable numbers on the scoreboard and in the seats. No, I don't think Rodriguez or any of baseball's steroid users have victimized either themselves or the game as a whole. But I do think there are victims, and they're the guys on the margins. It's the guys trying to make the team. It's the guys stuck in AAA for years on end. It's the guys who begin to get that sense that the difference between where they are and where they want to be is a needle. It's no wonder that most of the fourteen suspended players this week were people most fans had never heard of -- guys on the margins. These are the real victims -- of Rodriguez's push for his own immortality, of baseball's need for celebrities that live on and on, of our own need for unbelievable, record-breaking numbers.

The question for us, then, as we seek our own competitive advantage over age and time and death, is whether our quest will carry a similar price tag. Millions of people on this planet struggle to meet the needs of basic sanitation and nutrition. Millions more suffer at the hands of political and domestic violence, of seismic economic disadvantage; millions live in regions threatened by extinction from rising coastal waters. The wheels of science are spinning rapidly to combat these challenges, but we leave so much undone. We are literally surrounded by those whose own lives we have not yet found time to value. How can we say that the problem of human death is so much greater than the problems of real human lives? Of course you would want to meet your own great-great-great-great grandchildren. We all would. But this is where I think the fable of the dragon tyrant loses its grasp on human nature. Because even if science made us a pill that gave you fifty, a hundred, nine hundred extra years, you and I both know that it would only be within the grasp of the very wealthiest among us. And even if there were enough pills for everybody, you and I both know that our own scarcity of resources would still compel us to violence and greed and warfare. As always, it would be those on the margins who suffer. The end of death may yet be firmly in the realm of science fiction, but it is nowhere near as farfetched as the end of our own jealousy and pettiness and self-centeredness. Even if we live to be nine hundred years old. It will not so easily make us heroes.

Fortunately, we are subject to a power greater even than the human imagination. Such is certainly true for Nicodemus in the Gospel story that we read today. Jesus tells Nicodemus that the promise of eternal life is for anyone who has been born from above. Now, there's a bit of a pun here, because Greek uses the same words for "above" and "again," and Nicodemus can't fathom how he is literally supposed to be born again. "Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?" His question sits at the furthest outreaches of his own scientific imagination, and even for our best scientific efforts it sits at the outreaches of ours. Fortunately, it was never the right question. Fortunately, the real promise of eternal life hinges not on Nicodemus's ability to contort himself back into the womb but rather in the majesty and power and imaginative grace of the one who contorts himself even for us. Fortunately, it's not what we do. It's what God does.

So do you want to live long enough to meet your own great-great-great-great grandchildren? The future may yet be an amazing place, and the wonders of science may yet offer you even that very possibility. The time may yet come when the universe and the genome and the nucleus bend even as far as the limits of our imagination: when the diseases that now ravage our bodies are but quaint reminders of yesteryear, when even death itself becomes subject to our command. But for everything beyond our imagination. For the intractable diseases of pride and envy and wrath; for the incurable jealousies that plague all creation; fortunately, by grace, they too will be vanquished in a place far beyond our own discovery, in the Kingdom God imagines for us and creates for us and builds for us and gives for us, for all of us, for those generations long gone and those generations yet to come and those blessed by riches and those who labor in want and those scattered to the far ends of creation and the far corners of time. Even those scattered beyond the limits of our imagination will be welcome in the kingdom that awaits each of us. The numbers are just inconceivable.