Faith, Science, and the Journeys We Take

Note: the following was originally delivered as a sermon at the Congregational Church in Exeter on July 26, 2015.

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day. – Genesis 1:1-5

One of the questions I get most when a new friend finds out I’m a Christian, is some variation of this: How can you believe that stuff?

The “stuff” part of that is always different. Some folks have difficultly believing in a virgin birth. Others a literal resurrection. Others that there is a life after this one. And I tell them that there are good Christians who have a variety of different beliefs on “that stuff”, and that a large part of being a Christian is living between faith and doubt, and not always being 100% sure, but being open to a greater truth.

So that’s what happens sometimes. Other times I get a question like this: “Do you really believe that this world was created in six days?” Or, “Do you really think Darwin was wrong? Do you reject evolution?” Or, my favorite, “What about the dinosaurs?”

I get questions like this all the time. They are all a little different, but all variations on the same theme: how do we reconcile faith and science?

And, in a world where things are given credence only when there is scientific proof, how do we believe without it? And I’ve recently had some of you ask me if I would preach a sermon on these questions, so that’s part of why I’m doing this today.

They’re good questions. And they’re not questions that are easily answered. Or, I should say, they are not easily answered in this particular church and others like it.

Because in some churches they are. I knew people growing up who believed that the earth was created in six, 24 hour days. They believed that this happened a few thousand years ago. And they believed that anyone who believed otherwise was not a real Christian.

The

The “Space Window” at the National Cathedral, donated by the crew of Apollo 11. (Photo copyright National Cathedral.)

It always troubled me to hear that. I wanted to be a good believer, but one of my favorite places in town was the science center and planetarium. And I couldn’t reconcile what I heard those loudest voices of Christianity in my town say with what I learned when I went to the science museum and saw the exhibit on the dinosaurs. Because they had lived long before a few thousand years ago, and things just didn’t add up.

And on a few occasions I even heard Christians say that God had put the dinosaur bones on the earth to test our faith. If we were real believers, we wouldn’t be distracted by them and we wouldn’t stray from the story: God created us in six, 24 hour days.

I could never accept that. I’m grateful that I’ve never been a member of a church that has asked me to check my brain at the door. I’m thankful for a faith that tells me to glorify God not just with my soul, but with my mind.

But not every church is like that. When my a friend of mine’s sister in law had her first child, my friend sent them a box filled with things for the baby. One of the things in the box was a picture book about dinosaurs. They called her and angrily demanded that she never send anything of the sort again because “real Christians didn’t believe in things like that.” My friend, who considered herself a good Christian, was baffled.

I feel baffled sometimes too. I love the Bible. I take the Bible very seriously. I think it contains an inherent truth about who God is and how God loves us. But I also think that taking the Bible seriously is different than reading it mindlessly. Faith is too precious, and God’s creation too extraordinary, to approach God’s word with anything less than our full selves; minds included.

But learning how to do that has been a process. Like I said, I loved science as a child. I loved that science museum and its exhibits. Everything was fascinating to me. And in a real way I credit that first interest in science with inspiring the big questions that led me to theology.

If there are all these stars in the sky, all these galaxies, how did they get there? Who created these dinosaurs? Who created a universe that even the greatest scientific minds of our generation cannot explain?

I had a Biology teacher in ninth grade who was also a Christian. One day in class a more fundamentalist classmate was asking her how she could believe the things she believed about how old the world was and still be a Christian. She responded simply that even if she didn’t believe that the world was created in six, 24 hour days, she still believed that God created the world. Genesis, while not a literal timeline of the beginning of the world, was true to her none-the-less. God’s hand was no-less a part of creation in her scientific view than it was in their literal view.

That always rang true with me. That idea that taking something literally and taking something faithfully are two different things. That God’s involvement in the world is not something that can be quantified and understood by our human measurements. That God’s work of creation can stand on its own and does not need to be supported by living in a scientific world and believing literally a story told by pre-scientific people. Especially one that seeks to explain what we as humans, of whatever age, will never be able to fully explain.

Because God could have created the world in a second. God did not need six days. And God could have created the world over the course of millenia, always active in creation, always working, always transforming. Because God is creating the world, and all of us, even still today.

And that means God is still creating our ways of understanding the world. Back when the books that make up this book were written, thousands of years ago, and over hundreds of years, the world looked so different.
The Bible is a pre-scientific book. It comes from an era before this one, one in which human beings did not know all that we now know. But we are now living in a scientific world, and sometimes it doesn’t translate well. We know the world is not flat, heaven is not literally just above the clouds, and the world is more than 6000 years old. But that doesn’t mean that this book is worthless. Because it still holds truth. It just means we have to read it in a different way than we read a science textbook. And we have to say “both ways are valid”. Read it like poetry. Read it like inspiration. Read it like a testament to the greater truth of God.
Because if you can do that, you will find something great…you will find that you can see the world itself in new ways. And that can be a gift.

And that’s also the other side of this. Because the other half of the questions about faith and science that I get are about this: how do we know? How do we know God is real? How do we know that God loves us? How do we know it’s true?

It’s not like back when you had to do a project for the science fair. This is not like scientific knowledge. Because, great truths are discovered through the scientific method. It would be a whole lot easier if we could approach faith that way. But there’s no controlled experiment, no equation that can yield us a definitive answer. It doesn’t work that way.

I’d love it if we could do that?. Wouldn’t you? But faith, just like science, is not that simple. It means taking risks. It means opening your mind to new things. And it means being willing to be changed by new discoveries.

Your minds are always welcome in this church. Your questions are always honored. Your struggles to find God’s truth are always allowed here. And your questions, your search for God’s love, with your heart and soul and mind, will always be respected. To do anything less, would be to disrespect the God who created us good all those years ago.

I’ll close with this. Thursday afternoon, after I’d already picked the text and topic for today, and after the bulletin had been planned, I was walking back to the church from lunch. And there was a car parked in front of it with a bumper sticker. It read, “Too stupid to understand science? Try religion.”

I had to laugh. But then I thought about our church. I thought about many of you. Physicists, biologists, chemists, science teachers, medical professionals. I thought about one of our members who is in the Galapagos right now studying what Darwin studied. I thought about even our children and youth who love science and devour every book they find.

And I thought, “science isn’t an enemy to us here.”

I left a note on the car. Not an angry or hostile one. Just one that said, hey, I’m not trying to convert you but I’d love to show you Christians who love science. So, I invited that person to worship today. I don’t think they came. But I hope that maybe their perception of what it means to be a person of faith changed, just a little bit.

Because in the end I believe both people of faith and scientists hold something in common: we are explorers. We don’t stand on the shore and say it can’t be done. We get in the boat, and go on the journey. And if we look hard, we just might find something there that is true. Something worth searching for. Something worth believing.

Scientists are on voyages to find the next vaccine, the newest planet, the cure for cancer. They never stop exploring. And if we are true to our faith, and to who we are created to be as human beings, than neither do we.

We keep going on our own voyage. Our own journey that defies easy answers. We have to work at it. We pray. We struggle. We wonder. We ask the big questions. And somewhere, despite all odds, we find faith, and when we least expect it, we just might find out a little more about God.

The Bible Clearly Says…: Sermon for June 2, 2013

Martin Luther, by Cranach

Martin Luther, by Cranach

Earlier this week I was reading a news article about a social issue, and the reporter had interviewed a pastor. And he was talking about this issue and he said, “the Bible clearly says that this is wrong”. And I remember thinking to myself, “actually, I don’t think that’s what the Bible says at all.” In fact, I think that the Bible says the exact opposite.

And it made me think about how many times I had heard that line: “the Bible clearly says”. And it made me think about the ways that we become confident that we are right, and the ways we can take what is meant to be a message of grace and hope and love for one another and instead turn it into at best a tool to justify our own worldview, and at worst a weapon used to impose that worldview on others.

I was thinking about that when reading today’s text. The passage we read today comes from the very beginning of the Epistle to the Galatians. “Epistle” is just a fancy word for “letter”, really, and this is a letter that Paul wrote to a church that he had started.

Paul had come to this community and he had taught the people there, who were not Jewish like many of the other early Christian people, all about God, and Jesus, and God’s love for them. Paul had taught a Gospel of grace. He had taught them about Jesus, a man whose compassion and love for the world had transformed the world. And he had taught them about being his disciples.

And then, after he left to go on and start other churches, the Galatians had been on their own. And that’s when other teachers had come to the church. And they started telling the Galatians, “you’re doing it all wrong”. And there wasn’t a Bible at this point, because it hadn’t been compiled yet, so they weren’t saying “the Bible clearly says”. But there was the law of Moses, the law that the Jewish community had followed for centuries. And most Christians at the very beginning had been raised in that law and saw that as the authority. And they were saying to these new Christians, “the law clearly says this is what you should do.”

And so, this church that had been taught about grace and about Christ’s love by Paul, all of a sudden was adopting the ways of their new teachers. And they were doing things like arguing about whether they should all get circumcised, and whether or not they had to prepare their food a certain way. And it was causing a rift in this new church.

Paul hears about it, and he writes them a letter. And this letter is probably the angriest letter that Paul sends to any of the churches. And he lays it out to them, starting with these first lines. He tells the Galatians, “look, I know the law”. Paul had been a lawyer, he had been raised in a family that followed the law, and he had been so committed to it that he had even persecuted the early church before his own conversion. He even says, “look, I was a zealot”. And he tells them this to show them that if anyone is going to say to them “Scripture clearly says” or “the law clearly says” he would know better than anyone.

And he tells them, “you know what I taught you” and people are trying to confuse you. He says to them, “I’m not trying to please other people. I’m trying to please God. And regardless of what the people coming in telling you what the law clearly says, don’t forget the real message of grace I taught you.”

Paul was speaking to a church 2,000 years ago. But, his words could just as easily speak to churches everywhere today. Because Christianity is caught in this tension about how we read the Scripture. And this has always been happening to some degree, but in our country the Bible is sometimes used as a political football, meant to justify or not justify whatever big issue is up for public discussion.

And I’m always fascinated when people say “the Bible clearly says this is wrong” or “the Bible clearly says this is right”. Because when it comes to practical matters, the Bible doesn’t clearly say a whole lot. Because the Bible is not just one book, it’s a collection of books, and it’s no secret to those who read it that often those books leave the reader with even less clarity than they had coming in.

And sometimes that means that the Bible has been used to justify some pretty heinous things. In the 1800’s in the South, Christian preachers used the Bible to justify slavery. The Baptist Church split into the American Baptists, the ones we have up here, and the Southern Baptists because the ones down South said “the Bible clearly says it’s okay to have slaves”. The same with the Presbyterians, the Episcopalians, the Methodists, and others, though they all later reconciled.

Fast forward to this century, and the Bible was used again to justify segregation in the South. It was used to fight giving women the right to vote. It’s used to keep science out of classrooms, and it’s used to in dozens of other ways. Someone is always willing to stand up and say “the Bible clearly says…” And God help you, literally, if you try to tell them otherwise.

It’s easy to get intimidated in those situations. Especially if you’re not someone who has devoted a lot of your life to studying the Scripture. It’s easy to feel like the other person must know what they are talking about. That’s especially true if you hear people quoting chapter and verse from memory.

But, that doesn’t mean that you don’t have something to say too. Because here’s what I believe. The Bible doesn’t clearly say much, but it does clearly say this: that God’s love for us is far bigger than anything we could imagine, that Christ taught us how to reflect that love to the world in our lives together, and that the Holy Spirit continues to guide us in every time and place.

That’s the test I use when someone says to me, “the Bible clearly says…” I go back to Jesus, the man who said love God and love your neighbor was the full extent of the law, and I ask myself whether that particular person’s interpretation of the Bible is in agreement with the way Christ asked us to love the world. And, often, I find that it’s not. And so I read the Scriptures for myself instead.

Now, you may disagree with me. And that’s okay. Because the clergy do not hold a monopoly on the Bible. The Bible, and the legacy of Christ, belong to you as much as they belong to me. Clergy are trained in a certain way, and we learn tools that help us to understand the Scripture, and we can be good resources for helping to interpret them. But in the end, this book belongs to each of us, not just some of us.

Martin Luther, the great reformer who helped to launch the Protestant Reformation, really believed that was true. He had been a priest in a time when only priests and a few others could read the Bible. That was literally true because, first, not many people could read. Second, the printing press hadn’t been invented yet, so there wasn’t much to read. And, third, what was available was often in Latin and not the language of the people.

Part of the Protestant Reformation, the movement that brought churches like ours, was the idea that everyone should be able to read this book. And printing presses were invented right at the time Martin Luther was doing his work, so the timing was perfect. And all of a sudden, it was possible for everyone to have a Bible. And not just a Bible printed in Latin, but one printed in German, their own language. And those early Lutherans and other early Protestants stressed education for this reason. They wanted everyone to be able to read this for themselves. They wanted Christianity to be a religion that promoted education, and that wanted you to use your mind and read for yourself. They didn’t want to control the Bible; they wanted to open it up so that everyone could claim it.

Which means that this is your Bible too. Our church isn’t known as one full of Bible-thumpers. We don’t walk around telling people what the Bible clearly says. I hope we don’t start doing that. But we are people of this book as much as any other church is. It’s ours too. And that means that we can claim it, and read it for ourselves, and find out what is really says, not just what talking heads on TV or people with an agenda say it says.

I think I started reading the Bible because I’d been told so many times what the Bible clearly said and I wanted to see for myself. And what I found was not a scary book full of rules. What I found was grace, and compassion, and a witness to God’s love. Ironically, it’s a big part of what made me go to seminary.

And you too are free to explore. So, how will you do that? Will you read the Bible for yourself? Will you come to a Christian education class? Will you start a prayer group? Will you go to a Bible study?

Today in the visioning process we are going to be talking about some of the ways that the church can help you to do that, and so I hope you will stay and tell us what would be helpful. This book, this faith, is yours as much as it is anyone else’s. You have as much claim to the name of Christian as anyone, whether you carry a Bible in your hand, or not. That means that the doors of faith have been flung open wide to you. How will you walk through? Amen.

The Second Part of the Christmas Story: A sermon for Christmas Eve, 2012

603196_10151146235676787_1936348159_nEvery year, on Christmas eve, we tell the same story. We read a passage from the Bible, usually the one I just read from Luke, and we remember what happened one night over 2,000 years ago. You can probably tell it with me:

A census was being taken. And there was an unmarried couple named Joseph and Mary who were about to give birth. They had to go and be counted, and so they journeyed to Bethlehem. But when they got there, there was no room in the inn. And so Mary had the baby out in a manger. Not long after, the angels went to the shepherds and announced the birth, and they came and saw the baby there. And the baby was named Jesus.

We know this story. But every year we read it anyway. And, not to take away the suspense, but if you come back here a year from tonight, we’ll be reading it again.

Part of the reason is that it’s the only one we have. A lot of people have asked me during the course of ministry, why does the Bible end when it does? We have the New Testament with all these books written back in the first and second centuries, but then we have nothing. It’s almost as if the story ends. We don’t get an update each Christmas on what’s going on. We don’t get a Christmas letter filled with news from Jesus. We don’t get a new version of the Bible delivered every December. And so every year we read this story again.

You might be wondering, what’s the point? The story never changes. And if you’re talking about the words found here in the Gospel that we read every year, you’re right. But if you’re talking about the real story, the bigger story, the story about Christ’s birth and what came next, then that’s different. Because the Christmas story does change from year to year, and I’ll tell you why: The Christmas story changes, because we, you and I, change.

You know that question about why the printed story ends in this book? I think it’s because of this. I think it’s because this book tells the story of Christ’s first followers, back when there were only a few. But not long after this, a lot of other people got to know about Christ, and got to know the story of the first Christmas. And if we told the stories of all the people who have come to understand what the baby born that night was all about, if we tried to write them all down, one book would not contain them.

The national denomination this church is a part of, the United Church of Christ, has a motto that we use. We say, “God is still speaking…” And by that we mean that God did not stop being active in our world and in our lives 2,000 years ago. We mean that God still is working in this world. God still is transforming it, and transforming us. God isn’t just in the past. God is here now.

And we, the people of a still speaking God, are still listening. And we are still hearing the stories, not just ones written so long ago, but also ones all around us. And even if this story we hear on Christmas eve every year isn’t changing, we are. And the most miraculous part of it is this: If we are really changing, if we are really being transformed by God’s love for us, then we are becoming people who not only listen to the Christmas story but who also become a part of it ourselves.

If you are truly want to get to know that baby who was born 2,000 years ago, if you truly want to follow the person he grew up to become, then you cannot help being changed. And you cannot help becoming a part of his story. And that means you cannot avoid becoming part of the greater Christmas story, a story of hope, and peace, and joy, and love.

And that’s a good thing. Because the world needs all of those things in abundance right now. The past few weeks, we’ve seen that so clearly. One of the reasons that I believe the Christmas story still matters for us is that I believe God cannot be done with us if we are still inflicting pain on each other. God cannot be done with this world. And that means that God’s people cannot be done working to transform it either.

And that means that you and I, the people who come to celebrate the birth of a child so long ago, have some work to do. And we have a story waiting for us to become a part of it. The child born tonight grew up to be a man who told us to live lives of peace. Who told us to love our neighbors as ourselves. Who told us to turn away from things that ultimately mean little, and instead turn to what really matters; to turn our hearts towards God and towards one another.

This time of the year, we sing a lot of carols about that child. We celebrate in ways we don’t the rest of the year. And we talk about things like peace, and joy, and hope. But if we really mean it, if we really want to be a part of this Christmas story, then we can’t pack those things away next week along with the wrapping paper and the ornaments. We have to be a part of this story every day, and not just every December.

If we are truly doing that, then we will have incredible stories to share ourselves. Stories of kindness and compassion where they were totally unexpected. Stories of generosity in times of scarcity. Stories of peace in a time of violence. Stories of hope in our darkest hours.

What if you were to tell the second part of the Christmas story tonight? What if you were to read this passage we read tonight, and then you were to say, and here’s my second part. Here’s my story about what happened next. Here’s my story about how the love and life of this child born tonight has changed me. Here’s what happened when this Gospel story and my life’s story intersected, and everything changed. The story is the starting point. But you are what happens next.

Christmas is not just about the story of Christ being born in a manger 2,000 years ago. Christmas is about the story of Christ’s love being born in our hearts everyday. And it’s the story of how you respond. Not just tonight, and not just tomorrow, but everyday.

Next December 24th, I invite you to all join us back here once again. Here’s a spoiler: We’ll be reading the same story. But it’s just the start of the story, and between this year and next year, your Christmas story will have changed. And the more that you open your hearts up to Christ’s love this year, the more you let it be born inside of you, the better that story, your story, will be next year. May Christ’s light shine in your hearts brightly this Christmas eve, and may it shine ever brighter in your lives, and in our world, all through the year.  Amen.