This Sunday, the 4th Sunday of Easter, I am at Dover United Methodist Church in Dover Plains, NY (Location of church). The service starts at 11 and you are welcome to attend. The Scriptures are Acts 4:5 – 12, 1 John 3: 16 – 24, John 10: 11 – 18.
Updated on 18 November 2017 to include reference to measurement of parallax
In “A Study in Scarlet” Sherlock Holmes tells Dr. Watson that “it is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence.” A corollary to this is that you cannot and should not make the facts fit the theory. Too often, I am afraid we do just that; force the facts in front of us to fit our pet theories and common concepts about life.
It would have been far easier for Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler if they had looked at the evidence that they had gathered on the motion of the planets and not tried to make it fit into their own ideas about the solar system as well as those of society, that is, the geo-centric or earth-centered solar system.
Brahe is best known in history for the detailed observations that he made of the planets and the stars prior to the invention of the telescope. His observations of a supernova in 1572 contradicted the accepted notion that the cosmos (or universe) was fixed and unchanging. His observations of the movement of a comet in 1577 showed that comets were further away from the earth than was the moon, a conclusion that also contradicted the teachings of Aristotle.
In his observations of the heavens, Brahe determined that there was no parallax for the stars. Parallax is the apparent movement of something when you look at the object with one eye open and the other shut and then change the eye which is open and the eye which is shut. As you blink your eyes, the object you are looking at appears to move; that is what is known as parallax. (see http://www.digitalsky.org.uk/lunar_parallax.html or http://spot.colorado.edu/~underwod/astr/para.html for a demonstration) Brahe showed that the stars did not exhibit such movement and this meant that either 1) the stars were very far away or 2) the earth was motionless at the center of the universe.
Like so many other instances of human thought, Brahe correctly formulated the responses to his thought but choose the wrong answer. He did not believe that the stars could be as far away from the earth as his observations suggested so he concluded that the earth was motionless and at the center of the universe. (adapted from http://csep10.phys.utk.edu/astr161/lect/history/brahe.html)
Kepler took the observations that Brahe had collected and worked on the orbit of Mars. Unlike Brahe, Kepler accepted the Copernican view of the solar system that placed the Sun at the center of the solar system. But the Copernican system had the orbits of the various planets in circles, a relic of Aristotle’s ideas about the motion of planets, and the description of the motion of the observed planets (including Mars) required a manipulation of the data to fit the model.
Try as he might, he could not make the observations fit the theory of circular orbits. Ultimately, Kepler was forced to throw out the idea of circular orbits in favor of elliptical orbits and formulate the correct theory of the solar system. We know where this revelation led. In 1633 Galileo Galilei was tried and convicted of heresy for his public support of the Copernican view of the solar system.
See Annual Parallax and the debate over whether the Earth moves for further information about the measurement of parallax
But even today, with our knowledge of science greater than it was some four hundred years ago, we still have difficulty with scientific concepts, as the recent outbreak of H1N1 flu would suggest. The use of the popular term “swine flu” has lead to problems for the pork industry and there are cultural implications where some may have the virus but whose beliefs require that they avoid pork and pork products. It has been demonstrated that you cannot get the H1N1 virus by eating pork but the use of the term is causing problems not related to the virus.
It is also clear that many people today would rather hold onto a mythological explanation of the world and the universe while denying the truth of observed evidence. There is nothing in this statement about the role of a Supreme Being in the creation of this world and this universe. But the efforts of many today to deny the observed truth and force the teaching of altered truths to fit mythological explanations suggests a path that can only lead to a new “Dark Ages.” I would offer as evidence that we are on that path as our responses and reactions to this latest flu outbreak demonstrate.
I do not deny the existence of God and I believe that He did in fact create the world in which we live and the solar system of which we are a small part. But as I have said many times before, God created us in His image and He gave us the ability to think. If we did not have the ability to think, it would be very difficult for us to be created in His image.
In this month’s issue of Connections, “Curiosity that led to Growth”,Julie Fuschak tells her faith story and how she has grown in the church and her understanding of what it means to believe. She indicates that
I now understand that the Bible has been written by people of faith, out of their faith experience, their world view and their culture, as they felt led by the spirit of God. With that understanding, I find God speaking to me through their faith stories. I am free to question, doubt, ponder, experience, and listen to my heart and mind for the leading of the spirit.
The world in which we live and the church of which we are part is in the midst of a struggle right now; a struggle for the hearts and minds of the faithful and those without faith struggling right now. It is a struggle between a fundamentalist version of a faith and its prophetic vision. It is a struggle between a religion that promises easy certainty and one that prompts a deeper reflection. One version attacks all those outside the circle of faith while the other seeks a dialogue that does not compromise its sacred ground. One version seeks to maintain the status quo, just as it did some two thousand years ago; the other version seeks to root out the internal hypocrisy and religious dysfunction that so dominates our church and faith today.
Too often, we are like the sheep that the shepherd watches over. Or perhaps it is the idea of sheep as meek and mild creatures that follow the shepherd unquestioning where they are going and why they are going that way. We too often accept the ideas in the Bible at face value and do not think about what it is that we read. Now, there are those who will tell you that the words in the Bible are the inerrant words of God, fixed and unchangeable.
To be sure, the words of the Bible are true and they are a fine description of what this world was like some two thousand years ago and they are a fine basis for how we are to live in this world today and in the years to come. But if we are to walk the path that Jesus, the disciples, and the early church walked then we must understand that path and the direction it leads us.
And I am as guilty as the next person when it comes to not understanding the words that I have read in the Bible. I know that I have stood in the pulpit on many occasions, most notably during Advent, and pointed out that presence of the shepherds in the manger was a statement that there was a new order in the world. I just never understood how much the order was changed by their presence.
When we hear the words of the John the Evangelist telling us that Jesus called Himself the Good Shepherd, we have to understand how revolutionary and world changing this statement was. In Jesus’ time the general populace considered shepherds to be generally untrustworthy and ceremonially unclean. This was because they were in daily contact with the carcasses of animals and came into contact with all sorts of unclean animals.
The level of cleanliness that we are talking about in this case goes beyond the cleanliness that we are dealing with right now. The division between clean and unclean was a fundamental part of Jewish life. They were commanded by the Law to be physically clean, ritually and ceremonially clean, as well as morally clean. And when you became unclean, you had to wash yourself until the religious authorities deemed you clean again. It was a process that we have encountered time and time again in the Gospel readings. (Adapted from http://holyordinary.blogspot.com/2007/12/shepherds-of-sheep-and-lamb-advent.html)
And while shepherds held an esteemed status in the time of David, it was a status that was quickly lost in the time between David and Jesus. As the people settled into Palestine and acquired more farmland, pasturing and the shepherd lifestyle of the ancient Hebrews decreased, shepherding became a menial vocation for the labor class.
And while shepherds were the symbol of judgment and social desolation in the days of the Prophets, shepherds in the days of Jesus were despised and mistrusted. People were told not to buy wool, milk, or a baby goat from a shepherd because it was most likely stolen. Legal documents show that shepherds were deprived of all civil rights, could not hold judicial office, or be admitted to courts as witnesses. And for someone who grew up in the segregated south, that sounds all too familiar.
In the Jerusalem of Jesus’ day, rabbis would ask with amazement how, in light of David’s words of Psalm 23, God could be called the shepherd of His people. (Adapted from http://www.epm.org/artman2/publish/holidays/Shepherd_s_Status.shtml)
It must have been that way when Jesus told the crowds “I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd puts the sheep before himself, sacrifices himself if necessary.” These were words that did not fit the image of a shepherd in that society. They were words that challenged the people to think in a new and different way; they were words that suggested a new order to life.
In the same way, Jesus proclaimed a new life and a new way. To a people who saw a life of rules and regulation as the only way to Heaven, Jesus offered an alternative. He rejected ceremonial and external observances of religion to stress that religion was an inward matter of the heart, of a direct encounter with the Father through Jesus Himself.
He will tell Nicodemus that one’s inner rebirth is a matter of love, not law. He will tell the Samaritan woman that worship will no longer be determined by the place one worships but by the attitude that one has when they worship. Jesus will contrast the Bread of Life with the “clean” foods on the Holiness Code. He will tell the adulteress that her life is not forfeited to the external law if she has a saving love. And Jesus will engage the Temple authorities about their conduct in maintaining the Temple as the House of God. (Adapted from “What the Gospels Meant” by Gary Wills)
The proud religionists of Christ’s day should have faded from view and into obscurity but they are still with us today. They are the ones whose actions, words, thoughts, deeds, and inability to see what the Gospel means are driving people away from the church. People are leaving the church, not because they have something better to go to or because they do not believe but because the church’s actions, words, deeds, and thoughts do not match what they see and hear and what they know and feel. Those who are leaving the church are not dumb; they have heard the Gospel, they just do not believe that it can be found in many of the churches of today.
We know that there were those in the religious and political establishment of Jesus’ day who had the same thoughts. We remember the story of Nicodemus, a member of the Sanhedrin, who came to Jesus in the middle of the night so that society would not see him.
But he left that meeting confused about what Jesus told him about being reborn again. But we know that he must have thought about what Jesus said because, at Jesus’ trial, he suggested to the other members of the Sanhedrin that they should perhaps hear what Jesus had to say before condemning him. They are said to have responded “Don’t tell us that you are from Galilee, too.” Keep in mind that for the elite and powerful, Galileans were only one step above the shepherds so this was meant to shut up Nicodemus.
But Nicodemus, along with Joseph of Arimathea, would see that Jesus’ body was placed in the tomb after He died on the Cross, even if it meant violating the very codes of cleanliness that so dominated his own life. In doing so, Nicodemus proclaimed that he believed in what Jesus was saying and doing and that there was a new order in his life.
It was that same new order that would allow Peter to proclaim that Jesus Christ was the cornerstone of the new faith and the new kingdom. It was this new order that allowed John to write to his followers and proclaim that our lives must be lead by love; that our lives must be identified by our actions and by the truth of the Gospel.
The order of life changed when Jesus came into this world. It seems to me that the church today must begin to think about what it has become and how it has forgotten what it once was. We have heard the words and we have seen the evidence. We can ignore what we have seen and heard and nothing will change. We can struggle to put what we have seen into place in the old order but we know that cannot work. Or we can open our hearts and our minds to the power of Christ to change the world, to bring a new order of things.