Scientific Life and Christian Life

This morning, I had the great pleasure of worshiping at the Church of the Ascension in Seattle, WA.  Here is the sermon I preached.

Readings

Collect

Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, you know our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask; through the worthiness of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Romans 8:12-25 (“the creation was subjected to futility”)

Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43 (The parable of the wheat and the tares)

 

Sermon

In seminary, we used to joke that the lectionary [assigned readings for the day]

should come with difficulty ratings, just like ski slopes.

On Advent 4B, the last Sunday before Christmas,

            we hear of Nathan telling Samuel not to build a Temple

                        out of wood

            and Gabriel telling Mary that her son will be the Son of God,

                        in short, a living Temple.

I’d call that a bunny slope.

They’re wonderful passages and they practically preach themselves.

I like those Sundays.

Other Sundays are more difficult.

I would call today a double black diamond.

            Proceed with caution.

Trail may contain exceptionally steep slopes, narrow trails,

obstacles, and sudden cliffs.

 

So, let’s see what we’ve got here.

In Paul’s letter to the Romans we have

            creation subjected to futility and bound to decay,

            rejection of the flesh and the spirit of slavery,

            and hope for what we do not see.

Just to make things more fun, this passage has been used

      to justify body/mind dualism and dogmatic (unquestioned) obedience.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells us of

            the devil planting evil seeds among us

                  that will grow into the children of the evil one

                  who will be cast into the furnace at the end of days.

This passage is invoked to justify the idea

      that some people are inherently evil

      as well as the doctrine of the Rapture.

 

Nonetheless, there is some really good stuff here.

            There is good news.

So, bear with me, while we make one last check of our equipment

With caution, and a little help from God,

            we should be able to get to the bottom of the passages,

            and even have some fun along the way.

Are you with me?

 

 

Like Marilyn, I am an ordained scientist,

            and that means I use both my theological training

            and my scientific training

            as safety equipment

            when reading scripture

                        or generally when going about

                        the business of Christianity.

Like all safety equipment,

            it’s only good when it protects you from falls,

            without getting in the way of clear vision,

            and true appreciation for what you’re doing.

Science should not get in the way of scripture,

            but it can help us not be overly swayed by our own opinions

            (Which dictum, incidentally, is a paraphrase of Richard Hooker.)

Both science and theology have hammered home the importance

            of waiting to see the actual results of an experiment,

            rather than pre-judging what the outcome will be.

Today’s passages are all about life,

            but not necessarily the life with which we are most familiar.

In particular, they caution us to wait and see what fruit a plant will bear,

      before ripping it up.

It may look unsavory, but be quite useful.

Or, as the Gospel suggests, it may be that tearing it out

      would damage the good plants around it.

Lesson number one: allow yourself to be uncertain about scripture

            and people

            and ideas

            until you’ve had the time to see them in action.

 

On the other hand, being an ordained scientist has taught me

            that science and Christianity are not always on the same page.

This is not to say that they contradict one another,

            only that they sometimes focus on different things.

Our common sense definitions of life and seed and fruit

            may not be the same as the scientific usage,

            and even that may be different from the way Jesus uses the words.

 

As a trivial example,

            think about tomatoes.

Fruit or vegetable?

[Shall we vote?]

As a biologist, I have to say that tomatoes are fruits.

            Like apples and oranges,

tomatoes develop out of one particular tissue in flowers

Tomatoes are fruits.

A chef might give me a different answer.

            Along with the Oxford English Dictionary,

                        many people expect fruit to be sweet.

            If you use it in savory cooking,

                        it must be a vegetable.

There is nothing contradictory about these two ideas of fruit,

            but what you are planning to do

makes a difference in how you see the world.

Are you making a sauce, or classifying plants?

 

A less trivial example of competing definitions

            involves whether a corporation

            has the same rights as a person

            in the eyes of the law.

What is a person?

And how similar should common sense, legal, and religious definitions be?

 

One of the most important versions of this dilemma

            arises when we start talking about life and death

            as Jesus and Paul do in todays readings.

Lesson number two: The same word, even the same idea,

            can have two radically different meanings,

            when we have different goals in mind.

 

Knowing this, we can be prepared for times when the trajectory of the world

            seems to be going one way scientifically

– death and decay – even heat death if you like –

            while Christians see if it going in a completely different direction

                        – redemption and salvation – the kingdom of Heaven.

We must be prepared when listening to Paul and Jesus,

            to look for times when they want you to see it both ways,

            understand both perspectives

            to better appreciate the kingdom of Heaven.

 

Paul’s letter to the Romans

            speaks to some of our most pressing questions about faith

            and some of our greatest concerns in science and religion.

How am I to reconcile the powers of the world,

            including human weakness and political expediency,

            with God’s good will for us in creation and salvation?

Or, in modern philosophical terms,

            how am I to reconcile evolution and entropy,

            with my Christian hope for repentance and resurrection?

How do I hope when the world seems rigged for selfishness and decay?

 

Life is something profound within the context of our universe.

It is profound, unexpected, and holy,

            as are choice and forgiveness.

They represent something that runs alongside

the normal rules of physics.

I do not say they contradict them –

            I do not believe they contradict them –

            but they require us to focus our attention differently.

For the ancient Hebrews and for Paul,

            life meant more than the ability to eat and drink and reproduce.

It meant that the plain ordinary dust of the earth

            had been filled with the Spirit of God,

            and that spirit, moving in it, moved it.

The specialness, the wonder of life and choice

            was not the product of the individual particles of dirt

            but the product of God’s breath

            that moved within the body.

We are literally inspired by God,

            breathed by God.

 

As bodies, we are subject to futility and decay.

There is no escape from that through slavery to natural laws,

            through works of the flesh.

And yet, our souls, our very selves

            need not suffer the same deterioration.

That aspect of us, our power if you will,

            comes not from our physical selves

                        or even mastery of our physical environment,

            but from having God moving within us.

We alone cannot overcome the barrier of death,

            nor can we conquer selfishness, greed, and scarcity.

God can and God has.

 

We suffer futility and strife because there really is a difference

            between scientific life – the biochemistry of our bodies

            and theological life – the movement of our souls.

And we, as individuals, have trouble remembering which we are.

Theological life and scientific life are not the same thing.

 

And many religions have stopped there.

Many believers, sadly many Christians, have stopped there.

            They said you simply must choose one picture over the other.

            There is a war between flesh and spirit.

But we do not stop with an uneasy dichotomy,

            nor did Paul,

            for such a divided universe makes God

            only half of a creator – making Spirit but not matter –

            or some sort of bookie – taking bets for both sides.

In either case, this war of spirit against matter does not match up

            with the good news of Jesus Christ,

            a material human, in whom God was pleased to dwell.

 

Paul says:

“creation was subjected to futility … in hope that the creation itself

will be set free from its bondage to decay

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now;

and not only the creation, but we ourselves …

while we wait for the redemption of our bodies.”

God has planned that our individuality will be consummated

            in the Spirit.

In some way, currently unseen,

            the Spirit, moving in the flesh,

            will redeem the flesh.

It is not a war, but a process of development.

We are growing into our selves.

 

More than that, God’s inspiration of the entire universe

            involves our participation, through faith, in the work of the Spirit.

This is why Christians can be so enthusiastic about science.

As we come to know the physical world,

            we can better understand the role we play in redeeming it

            and better play our part in seeing it reach its full potential.

I do not know how that will work, exactly:

            “hope that is seen is not hope.”

And yet I believe in learning all I can about the world,

            both from the scientific perspective and the theological perspective,

            so that I might take my place.

 

Paul says we have the first fruits of the Spirit,

            and I can see that,

            so long as I remember what work he does with the idea of fruit.

We have life and faith, will and conscience, love and forgiveness,

            and joy in these things God is bringing to fruition.

 

Paul has given us hope for these things,

            but Jesus has given us practical advice.

Knowing that we play a role in salvation is one thing;

            knowing how is so much more challenging.

 

We are tempted, upon learning that we can help,

            Become overenthusiastic.

Like first time gardeners,

            first time teachers,

            first time pastors,

            we do not trust in God to do the heavy lifting.

Jesus says we have an important role to play,

            but we must understand what it is.

 

In the middle of Matthew’s gospel,

            in the midst of five other parables,

            all comparing the kingdom of heaven to planted seed,

            we find today’s lesson:

the parable of the wheat and the tares.

It is as though Matthew wanted to remind us

            that we should not take any one metaphor too seriously.

The seed may be all people – planted in the soil of the world

or all good people – wheat among the tares

            or their treasure – the fruit of the wheat

            or the word – which takes root in the soil of our hearts.

The gospel, like a seed in good soil, has a life cycle.

            It is planted in our hearts.

            We treasure it and pass it on to the next generation.

            We become it as it produces fruits in us and through us.

 

In this one parable, wheat and tares appear,

            the good seed and the bad,

            the good fruits and the bad.

We are tempted to judge as early as we can.

We are tempted to rip out the bad seeds and the bad plants,

            to judge before time

            what must come and what must go

            and what will endure.

But that is not our role.

We do not know yet just what will bear good fruits.

And even when we do,

            we cannot predict what harm will come

            from trying to weed the plot too early.

It was never up to us to separate the wheat from the tares.

God will do that.

 

We cannot say just what aspects of our body will lead to redemption.

Nor can we speak for our body politic,

            the church or the country,

            though I have my suspicions.

I have very strong suspicions.

 

Still, I believe it is my job to plant the good seed,

            to tend and to water,

            to encourage all to grow,

            and see what comes.

It sounds strange in the 21st century,

            but I even have faith in the reapers and the harvest.

That too will come, though I don’t know how.

 

So I find myself

            in the growing field.

I can appreciate the good seed and the bright light of righteousness

            that shines through.

I can appreciate the evil seed,

            the weeds that choke and tares

            that will eventually die and burn away.

Sometimes that field is within my heart

            and sometimes it is my community.

Sometimes it is the world

            and sometimes infinitely more.

 

You have a part to play in all of that.

Allow yourself to be uncertain about scripture

            and people

            and ideas

            until you’ve had the time to see them in action.

It never hurts to learn more,

            even when you have to act before you know all the details.

The same word, even the same idea,

            can have two radically different meanings,

            when we have different goals in mind.

Pay attention to the fruit you bear.

            Pay attention to what you call weed

                        and what you call a flower.

It matters.

 

 

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