Here are my thoughts for the 5th Sunday of Epiphany (Year A), 9 February 2014. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 58: 1 – 12, 1 Corinthians 1: 1 – 16, and Matthew 5: 13 – 20. This is the message that I will give at the Sloatsburg United Methodist Church this Sunday (I may make some changes in it between now and Sunday but this is essentially what I shall say); services there start at 10:30 and you are welcome to attend.
Today is Scout Sunday and something of an anniversary for me. In 1965 I was working on my God and Country Award in the Boy Scouts. I actually received the award and was confirmed as a member of the 1st Evangelical United Brethren Church (now 1st UMC) of Aurora in May of that year, this Sunday serves as a marker and a reminder of when I began this journey with Christ.
As I noted in my summary sheet for Boy Scout Sunday, there was a period of time when I didn’t do much after earning the award. But sometime around 1984, I felt the need to do something that reflected the choice I had made twenty years before. Since then, I have either been the liturgist or presented the message on the second Sunday in February as a reminder of a choice I made many, many years ago.
My appreciation for the environment around us also began when I was in the Boy Scouts. And when I began my college studies a little over a year after completing my God and Country work, I began a second journey, a journey of investigation of this world.
This weekend is also Evolution Weekend and marks the celebration of Charles Darwin’s birthday on February 12, 1809. This message marks the 6thyear that I have participated in this part of the Clergy Letter Project, an effort to show that science and religion are compatible and can safely interact with each other. (Here is a link to my previous messages and posts – Evolution Weekend.)
Let me begin by saying that the United Methodist Church has 1) endorsed this project, 2) included a statement concerning the relationship between science, technology, and theology in The Social Principles section of The Book of Discipline (¶ 160 – The Natural World, section F), and 3) this will not be a science lesson.
Now, in one sense, perhaps I shouldn’t concern myself with issues about evolution and the creation of the universe and life on this planet. After all, I am a chemist more than I am a biologist and the issue of evolution and creation is one of biology, isn’t it?
But there is a lot of chemistry involved in the beginning of the universe and the development of atoms, elements, and compounds. And the combination of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen to ultimately form the various components of DNA means that I have to be interested or at least should be interested in how it all works.
So, I participate in this project, not because I don’t believe that God didn’t create the universe, this planet, or the life on it but rather because I do believe that He did create the universe, the planets, and all the life that we see.
It never occurred to me back in 1966 that by declaring that I would study chemistry that such studies would be conflict with my belief in God and that Jesus Christ was my Savior and that I could not be a certified lay servant/speaker in the United Methodist Church. Nor did it occur to me that my acceptance of Christ somehow prevented me from being a chemist and from searching for answers to questions sometimes out of reach.
I hold a view of the relationship between science and faith similar to that expressed by Alan Lightman, the first person to hold dual appointments in physics and the humanities at MIT. In an essay entitled “The Spiritual Universe” (from his book The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew) he writes
If science is the religion of the twenty-first century, why do we still seriously discuss heaven and hell, life after death, and the manifestations of God? Physicist Alan Guth, another member of our salon, pioneered the inflation version of the Big Bang theory and has helped extend the scientific understanding of the infant universe back to a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after t = 0. A former member, biologist Nancy Hopkins, manipulates the DNA of organisms to study how genes control the development and growth of living creatures. Hasn’t modern science now pushed God into such a tiny corner that He or She or It no longer has any room to operate—or perhaps has been rendered irrelevant altogether? Not according to surveys showing that more than three-quarters of Americans believe in miracles, eternal souls, and God. Despite the recent spate of books and pronouncements by prominent atheists, religion remains, along with science, one of the dominant forces that shape our civilization. Our little group of scientists and artists finds itself fascinated with these contrasting beliefs, fascinated with different ways of understanding the world. And fascinated by how science and religion can coexist in our minds. (“Brain Pickings for 15 January 2014”)
And while Lightman and those in his group might see a world in which there is a need for both science and faith, there are those today who would tell you that to be a scientist, or in my case, a chemist precludes one from being able to study and preach the Word of God, just as there are those who feel that one’s presence in the pulpit prevents being in a lab somewhere during the week.
And as a science educator, I have to be concerned about what is transpiring in this world today, when people seek to limit free and independent thought about things both secular and sectarian to the point of being forbidden. This limits what we can do, what we can envision and where we might go.
The title of this message comes from a term often used in fine arts and music classes. A master class is one in which a recognized expert comes and teaches something a topic that everyone knows but in greater depth and detail that normally covered. It is designed to take you beyond where you are and to where you can be.
If as it is written in Genesis, we are created in God’s image, how can I not ask questions? Am I, as some would have me to do, to blindly accept something as the truth when other information tells me otherwise?
What I find interesting is that I have learned more about the Bible, Christianity, Methodism, and my own personal faith in the past few years than I learned in the two years I devoted to earning the God and Country Award and becoming a member of this church. But if I were to accept the notion that such knowledge was fixed, I would not have learned anything. And where would I be on this journey that began almost fifty years ago?
You may disagree with me on this point but telling me that I cannot pursue this information just makes me want to find out what it is you don’t want me to know. And I am fully aware that in some translations of the Bible, it was eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil that drove Adam and Eve out of the garden and destroyed their relationship with God. In looking for and finding Christ, we have the opportunity to restore our relationship with God.
I know that when I began my journeys in both the secular and sectarian worlds I probably accepted the notion that the world was created in six days as described in the opening verses of Genesis. But somewhere along the line, I began to ask questions, questions that the Book of Genesis could not answer directly, questions that many people do not want answered or even asked today.
Asking questions about the Book of Genesis or any of the material in the Bible does not necessarily mean that one is questioning their faith. It means that one is trying to understand what their faith means. If I am not driven to seek more knowledge, of what value is my life? What have I learned if I do not know who God is and what He means to me?
The British philosopher and writer Alan Watts wrote a book in 1966 entitled, interestingly enough, “The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are”. In a sentiment that Alan Lightman (physicist and holder of a joint appointment in physics and the humanities at MIT) would come to echo more than half a century later in his remarkable meditation on science and what faith really means (and which I have expressed on numerous occassions before), Watts adds:
Irrevocable commitment to any religion is not only intellectual suicide; it is positive unfaith because it closes the mind to any new vision of the world. Faith is, above all, open-ness – an act of trust in the unknown. … No considerate God would destroy the human mind by making it so rigid and unadaptable as to depend upon one book, the Bible, for all the answers. For the use of words, and thus of a book, is to point beyond themselves to a world of life and experience that is not mere words or even ideas. Just as money is not real, consumable wealth, books are not life. To idolize scriptures is like eating paper currency. (“Brain Pickings for 2 February 2014”)
For me, Watts is not saying that because I have studied chemistry that I must abandon God nor because I believe in God and accepted Christ as my own personal Savior that I should ignore chemistry and its scientific foundations but rather that I should use the one to find the other.
But today’s so-called experts don’t do that; they tell you to accept what they tell you as fact and irrefutable. But basis for their knowledge is often limited and incomplete and any challenge to their authority brings ridicule and scorn.
The roots of today’s debate go back almost four hundred years. Each one of us was probably taught that the church did not want Galileo to publicize his ideas about the nature of the universe. But it was not the church, per se, that sought to limit Galileo or the work of Copernicus and Kepler; rather it was individuals within the academic establishment that had based its power and authority on the Aristotlean view that Galileo’s observations challenged.
They were opposed to these new ideas because their reputation, status, and power were built on maintaining the Aristotelian view of an earth-centered universe. The church was brought into the argument because the academic establishment convinced members of the church establishment that the changes proposed by Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo would harm the church and threaten their status, reputation, and power as well. (From “The Changing of Seasons”; I believe my original source was The Galileo Connection by Charles E. Hummel)
What I fear, perhaps more than anything else in this world, is this same sort of world today. A world where those whose power and status are maintained in a closed environment, a world in which we cannot find the answers to our questions, a world in which we say to seekers and those on a journey that this is the answer and no questions are allowed in either the secular or sectarian world.
Were Paul’s words to the Corinthians an encouragement to seek new wisdom? Were Paul’s words not an indictment of those in power who sought to limit such new wisdom?
We, of course, have plenty of wisdom to pass on to you once you get your feet on firm spiritual ground, but it’s not popular wisdom, the fashionable wisdom of high-priced experts that will be out-of-date in a year or so. God’s wisdom is something mysterious that goes deep into the interior of his purposes. You don’t find it lying around on the surface. It’s not the latest message, but more like the oldest—what God determined as the way to bring out his best in us, long before we ever arrived on the scene. The experts of our day haven’t a clue about what this eternal plan is.
Paul makes this point –– those who crucified Jesus were blind to the message that Jesus gave. They were so fixed on what they had at that moment that they could not see what lie before them.
If we are trapped in the moment that we call today, how can we move beyond the boundaries of that thought. As I read the words from Isaiah for today, I could not help but think about how those words, writen over three thousand years ago, still have meaning today and how we haven’t learned much in that time.
We are still so much more interested in our own well-being that we are others. Our greed and ignorance take precedence over caring for others and making sure that all have a chance. Isaiah makes the point, I believe, that when we are are more concerned with what we have and we ignore the plight and circumstances of others, we cannot expect much in reward.
Even Isaiah points out that when you do God’s work, you begin to shine as a light that shows the truth and the future. Those who find protection in the Law often times find themselves trapped in it.
Are we to be blind to what transpired in the Galilee some 2000 years ago? Are we to ignore the words that were spoken, the actions were taken as Jesus and His followers walked those roads? Would not asking those questions make us more like those who crucified Jesus?
What is that Jesus said to the people in our Gospel reading for today? We are to be the light of the world. Does that not mean that we show others what we have found and help them to find it themselves?
Jesus points out that He came not to fulfill the Law but to go beyond it. Those who would seek to limit what we know want the Law to constrain and prevent, to keep people where they are and not where they can be.
The lesson from the Master is very simple; if we impose boundaries on others, we will find ourselves limited. If our focus is on ourselves, we will find ourselves trapped. Our journey will be over because we can go nowhere.
But if we accept Jesus Christ as our Saviour, if we open our hearts, our minds, and our souls to Christ, we will find something beyond the horizon. There will be meaning and purpose to our lives, meaning and purpose that we cannot find any other way. That is the lesson to be taught, that is the lesson to be learned, and that is the lesson to be shared.