Earth Day, Science and Religion

I spent Earth Day morning participating in one of the hundreds of Marches for Science held around the world today. I am not a scientist, although there was a time when I thought I would be. I did well in science and math in high school, and inspired by the 1960’s space race and my hometown hero Neil Armstrong I began college in a pre-engineering program. All went fairly well until I hit calculus and suddenly an earlier call to ministry started feeling like a much better fit for me.

So I mingled at the Ohio Statehouse on a chilly Saturday morning (void of any global warming benefits) with a few thousand other people of all ages feeling a bit out of my element. The speakers at the rally were all from the scientific community, and except for a few mentions of God when we sang “America the Beautiful” there were no official theological overtones to the program. I was pleased to see a couple of people from my church and a theology professor from my alma mater there.

I should say that my awareness to the issue of theology and religion was heightened by the fact that I am currently reading “Why Religion Matters” by Huston Smith, a very weighty tome that explores the impact of what Smith calls the Traditional and Modern worldviews. The former for Smith represents a theological/mystical perspective and the latter a purely scientific one. I readily admit it has been too many years since I studied philosophy for me to do justice to Smith’s argument, but he makes one distinction which I found very helpful, and that is when he distinguishes between “science” and “scientism.” He describes the difference like this: “Scientism adds to science two corollaries: first, that the scientific method is, if not the only reliable method of getting truth, than at least the most reliable method; and second, that the things science deals with—material entities—are the most fundamental things that exist.” (p. 64)

Theology and religion on the other hand deal with the mysterious and more ambiguous questions of meaning and purpose that lie beyond or deeper than any knowledge scientific experiments can provide. So while my co-marchers today were chanting about “peer reviewed research” and “scientific data,” my motivation for being at the rally had more to do with the Psalmist’s assertion that “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it; for God has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers.” (Psalm 24:1-2) I didn’t take time to make a sign for today’s march, but if I had mine might have had a footnote that said “marching for science (not scientism) AND faith.”

I hasten to add that scientific and theological worldviews are not mutually exclusive, even though they have often been characterized as foes. Speakers at the rally today celebrated a long list of illnesses that have been eliminated by medical science; they praised improved air and water quality made possible by environmental protection initiatives. And they legitimately, in my opinion, criticized short-sighted attempts by the Trump administration to cut back on important funding for the very programs that have given us a quality of life we take for granted.

I fully support the need for the NIH and the EPA. History should teach us that unregulated capitalism and free market motives quickly give into profit over prophetic concern for the general welfare and long-term preservation of God’s creation. So the political motives for today’s marches are grounded in the very theological issues of stewardship of what is not ours but God’s. It is good and necessary to celebrate all the advances in knowledge that scientific research has provided. But science without the safety net of theology always comes to the edge of human knowledge—the edge of mystery where we must take the proverbial leap of faith and trust in the source of being itself that some of us call God.

That partnership between science and faith was captured in my favorite sign among the hundreds held by marchers today. It contained this quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge, which is power; religion gives man wisdom, which is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals.”

If we are going to save our planet from human foolishness we need to join hands and work together, scientists and people of faith, government and private industry, young and old, and people of every political persuasion. There is no time or energy to waste on false battles between different perspectives or worldviews. I heard an interview on NPR this week about someone dealing with working class populations that are too consumed with just staying alive to go marching for science or the environment. The reporter said, “They don’t care about polar bears, they care about jobs.” The one to whom the earth belongs and all that is in it says we need to care about both. A nation that can eliminate polio and smallpox can figure out how to put people to work. If we can send people and spacecraft into outer space we can establish social justice and turn back climate change.

It’s a matter of priority. Those urgent human problems will not be resolved by building ugly walls or more obscene methods of mass destruction. The scientific method itself is proof that our hypothesis that war will solve human differences is blatantly false. How many times do we need to run that experiment before we realize it is a false hypothesis? All of the world’s great religions are based on a better hypothesis that the way to world peace is to love our neighbors, and that includes caring for mother earth that is our common home.

On my way to the march today I heard a piece on NPR about a woman who has started a support group for people who are suffering from anxiety about climate change and what it means for our future and especially for that of our children and grandchildren. She did it because she realized that there were lots of other people like her who were feeling isolated and powerless in the face of the forces denying the very existence of climate change. I confess I suffer from some of those same feelings and if that support group wasn’t in Utah I might join up. My own personal struggle with powerlessness took the form this week of not deciding until the last minute if I was going to the march today. My skeptic voice kept saying it won’t make any difference, your arthritis won’t like the chilly temperatures, you have too much else to do around the house. But the stronger voice was the one that argued for responsible stewardship, discipleship and citizenship, a pretty powerful combination.

And I’m very glad I went. It felt wonderful to be part of a movement that stretched far beyond downtown Columbus, to feel connected with the earth and with kindred souls who share a common purpose. That sense of belonging was summed up nicely in one of the other songs we sang at the rally before the march, John Lennon’s “Imagine:”

“Imagine all the people sharing all the world,
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will be as one.”

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Blinded by our expectations?

One of the most consistent  things about our interactions with Jesus is our failure to recognize who he is. We too often are caught unaware and when it’s too late we sing a sad refrain with Mahalia Jackson, “Sweet little Jesus boy, we didn’t know who you was!”  From his birth in a barn to his hanging out with sinners, to his  refusal to defend himself in the garden or before Pilate, Jesus refuses to show up how and where we expect him to. His entry into Jerusalem  is not in a stretch limo  befitting a king but in a beat up old Volkswagen beetle. The crowds who shout “Hosanna!” on Sunday change their tune to “Crucify him!” only five days later because he isn’t the conquering hero they were expecting.

Those expectations are understandable for people who were oppressed and dying for liberation.   We might guess  those strangers who lined the streets of Jerusalem had not spent time with Jesus. Their failure to recognize who he really is may be understandable.   But what about those disciples who are closest to him who had spent three years listening to his teaching and watching the way he healed the sick and comforted those who were excluded by society?   They too deny and betray and hide when their expectations are not met.  Have they never heard the words of Isaiah who tells us that the Messiah will not be a worldly ruler but a suffering servant?  (Isaiah 52:13-53:12).  Or like us have they chosen only to hear and believe what they want?  We are expecting Rambo and we get Gandhi instead!

Even Mary Magdalene who stood by Jesus at the foot of the cross and was one of the first to go to the tomb doesn’t recognize Jesus on Easter morning!   This woman who was one of the most devoted and loyal disciples  mistakes Jesus for a gardener!  (John 20:11-18).  How could someone who owed so much  to Jesus fail to recognize him at this most triumphant moment?  Is it not because of her expectations?  She went to the tomb to minister to a corpse and instead is the very first to encounter the resurrected Christ!

How often do we fail to recognize Christ in our midst, in the least of God’s children around us? Whom do we expect to encounter  when we go to the tomb this Sunday? Will we recognize the risen Christ?  What we know from past experience is that he probably won’t appear the way we expect him to. So let’s go with eyes and hearts wide open  to see what our amazing God is up to this Easter!

The Palm Sunday Road Less Traveled


Most anyone who’s ever been to Sunday School knows the shortest verse in the Bible is John 11:35, “Jesus Wept.” In that case they are tears of grief over the death of Jesus’ friend Lazarus. But I realized at our Palm Sunday service today that there is another time when Jesus weeps. We sang our Hosannas and the cute kids paraded with their palms as usual, but when the Gospel lesson from Luke was read my ears perked up when I heard something that only Luke records:

“As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” (Luke 19:41-44).

With this week’s missile attack on Syria much on my mind, this warning that failure to know “what would bring you peace” leads to total destruction struck me as ominous indeed. The Syrian situation has been catastrophic for years, and no one has come up with a way to end the suffering and devastation. We have seen the refugees and the victims of chemical weapons. The suffering has gone on so long I’m not sure anyone remembers what they are fighting about. But for the US to launch an attack that risks confrontation with Russia raises the stakes to a new level of anxiety.

Once again we have gone down the road of military force even though it has never led to lasting peace. Thinking about the Syrian capital of Damascus as we approached Palm Sunday got me to thinking about the choices we make about the roads we travel. The most dramatic conversion ever occurred on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-19) when Saul was literally struck down by the power of God’s spirit and transformed from being the most violent tormentor of Christians to the greatest evangelist for the very Christ he had been persecuting.
It feels to me like the world needs to be knocked off its high horse the way Saul was. What else but a Taser-like blast from God’s Holy Spirit can bring an end to our warring madness? Jesus wept over Jerusalem because his people had rejected again the way of peace. He weeps even as he showed us for one last time that God’s ways are not those of conquering heroes on mighty steeds but those of humble servant leaders who choose the road less traveled, the narrow path that leads to salvation.

Jesus’ way is the road that conquers death not by use of cruise missiles or poison gas, but the way that leads through death to eternal life. Jesus taught his followers that those who lose their lives for his sake will find them, and now he’s on the road into Jerusalem to put his life where his mouth was. Jesus’ road is not an easy road to follow. His best friends bailed out on him when things got really tough, but on Easter morning we will learn again that he is indeed the way, the truth and the life.

We have watered down (pun intended) the significance and the way we do baptism in our churches to the point that we have forgotten what it signifies about the paths we choose to travel. I can’t remember the source of this story about how serious Christian baptism and discipleship really are, but I’ll never forget the story. It’s told about a priest in a Roman Catholic Church in Latin America. A young couple presents their infant to the priest for baptism and the Padre submerges the child briefly in the baptismal water and says, “I kill you in the name of Jesus.” The American visitor witnessing this sacrament is aghast, and then the priest lifts the child above his head and proclaims, “And I resurrect you in the name of the living Christ!”

Life changing conversion kills us to our worldly selves and raises us up as new creations in Christ. Maybe it’s just my cowardice, but I’ve always been a bit skeptical of dramatic conversion experiences. My own conversion from a rigid, judgmental brand of Christianity to one I believe to be more authentic was a slow gradual process, and I suspect the conversion of a nation to the ways of peace is also one that takes place over a long period of time.
As hard as that road of death to self is to follow for individuals, it is much harder for societies and nations. But I wonder if it isn’t just as necessary on the national level as it is for individuals? The current lack of morality at all levels of our nation, the way greed and gain run roughshod over ethics, the increase in hate crimes and systemic oppression of marginalized people, and the short-sighted refusal to take stewardship of the earth seriously have all raised questions in my mind about the future of the United States as a viable nation. All empires throughout history have risen and then eventually fallen, usually from corruption within and a lack of sustaining values worthy of survival. All of that has had me wondering lately if the United States is beginning to travel down that slippery slope?

I hope it’s not too late to turn back, but I honestly believe we are dangerously close to that point. Close enough I think that it is well worth praying very hard about which road we’re on during this Holy Week as we consider the passion of Christ for God’s people. Let’s honestly ask ourselves if Jesus is weeping over us and saying, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace.”

Be Still and Know

This is usually my favorite season of the year. New life breaking forth after a long winter’s nap, some days nice enough to get outside to work and play, and my favorite sports—golf and baseball—on the TV to distract me from all the bad news in the world. The latter isn’t working well this week as the news from Syria, N. Korea, and Washington DC just keeps going from bad to worse. As I pray hard for wisdom and reason to steer our nation and world through very troubled waters I am reminded by ancient Scripture that we are not the first to experience such times as these, and for just a moment my soul is still and knows the tumult of humankind will not have the final word.

“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
Though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns.
The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; God utters his voice, the earth melts.
The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob (and Rebekah) is our refuge.
Come, behold the works of the Lord; see what desolations God has brought on the earth.
God makes wars cease to the end of the earth; God breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire.
“Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations; I am exalted in the earth.”
The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of (Rebekah and) Jacob is our refuge.” (Psalm 46)

“Set in Stone: Rock Solid,” Matthew 16:13-20

One of the curiosities in my family is that previous generations had a real thing for nicknames. My paternal grandmother’s name was Vesta Verola and that’s no April fool! If anyone ever needed a nickname she did, and hers was Dottie. My maternal grandfather was Alma Webster, and he too qualified; but I’m not sure that his nickname, Hooker, was any better than Alma! Maybe his unusual names explain why 4 of his sons all went by different handles than their given Christian names. My uncle Carl was Bud, Forest became Frog, John Franklin always went by Hank, and the youngest Gary was Butch. Why Uncle Bill was always just Bill I do not know.

I bring that up not to confirm that I come by my weirdness honestly, but because in our Scripture for this morning Matthew tells us how Jesus’ disciple Simon got his nickname. Jesus says, “Simon, son of Jonah….. You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” The Aramaic word Cephas that we translate as ‘Peter’ is very similar to the word for ‘rock;’ so saying Peter is the rock on which the church will be founded is a clever play on words that is lost in the English translation. At least one commentator suggests that it would be better if we just called Simon “Rock” instead of “Peter” so we remember this life-changing moment in Simon Peter’s life.

It’s like the Hebrew Scriptures telling us that when Abram and Sarai accepted God’s covenant to be the parents of God’s chosen people they were given new names, Abraham and Sarah. Or when Jacob became Israel, which means something like “one who has wrestled with God.” These change of names mark critical turning points, just like marriage when one or both partners takes a new name to signify a sacred transition after which we are never the same.

Jesus didn’t ask Simon if he wanted to be the Rock, he just says, “Simon, you are the Rock,” and that’s the end of discussion. But why did Jesus pick Simon to be the Rock? I’m glad you asked since that is what I want to talk about today! Simon was always a larger than life character, an extrovert, always ready with an answer to any question, even if it was wrong. He was like the kid in class who no matter what the teacher asked, she always was waving her hand in the air the highest to say, “Pick me, teacher. I know! I know!” Simon was the only one of the disciples brave enough to get out of the boat and try to walk on water to Jesus, until he sank like a rock! Maybe that’s where Jesus got the idea? Simon was chosen first when Jesus was picking his disciples; so maybe he had seniority. He was certainly one of the inner circle, along with James and John, who were with Jesus at the most critical moments of his ministry.

At any rate I’m pretty sure Simon the Rock was flattered to be chosen. I can see a bumper sticker on Simon’s parents’ camel that said, “Our son is an honor student chosen to be The Rock.” Simon is the one when Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” who correctly identifies Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus’ could have just given him a gold star or a pat on the head. After all God had given the answer to that question at Jesus’ baptism and several of the disciples had already proclaimed that Jesus was the Messiah back in chapter 14. But Jesus asks again here because this is final exam time. Jesus knows the jig is about up. He’s very soon heading to Jerusalem for the last time and he wants to know if his motley crew of disciples is ready to take over when he’s gone. So he asks for assurance that they get it. And Simon offers the correct answer and he’s the chosen keeper of the keys to the Kingdom.

But when we look closely at Simon’s full resume we have to scratch our heads a bit at this choice for rockhood. And we don’t have to go far. In the very next paragraph after the words we read this morning we begin to see that Simon the Rock may not be as rock solid as we’d hope. He and the others know who Jesus is, but they still don’t’ really know. Verse 21, the very next verse after our text for today says, “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’”

You think Jesus is having a little buyers’ remorse? His chosen rock is suddenly called a “stumbling-block” because his mind is set on human things – like staying alive—and not on doing God’s will no matter what. And we know this is just a preview of bigger failures to come. But this lack of faith immediately after he gets his new name is enough to make us wonder, Why Simon? Were there no other candidates? Was he the least of 12 evils?
Before we come down too hard on Peter, let’s remember last week’s sermon. I was impressed that Mebane was willing to preach to a whole congregation armed with stones, but then I guess she was pretty confident that no one without sin was going to cast the first stone. The point is we are all fallible human beings. There’s no other choice for Jesus to pick rock solid disciples except from the likes of us!!!!

Remember none of the 12 disciples had impressive resumes. The Gospels don’t tell us how or why Jesus picked the group he did. In most cases we are just told he saw them, fishermen, tax collector, and a bunch who are not identified by profession, and, perhaps here’s the key, these are the ones were immediately are willing to leave their nets, their parents, their tax office and follow Jesus.

Anybody play follow the leader as a kid? What’s the only thing you have to know to play that game – to follow the leader, right? And your position to do so is behind the leader. I used to think that when Jesus told Simon the Rock to “get behind me, Satan,” that it was like being told to go stand in the corner. But I’ve come to realize that Jesus was just telling Peter that in order to follow he had to get behind Jesus, both literally and figuratively. He needed the disciples to have his back because they were going into very dangerous territory. And right up to the bitter end they all swore they were able to follow him anywhere, until they didn’t.
They were plain ordinary folks without degrees or pedigrees, just like you and me, and that’s exactly why they were chosen to be the foundation of the church. Someone once asked Jesus why he ate with sinners, and the answer is that if he didn’t he would always be eating alone.

This story is not just about Simon the Rock. It’s about you and me. If we claim to believe in Christ as the Messiah, the son of the living God, then we are signing up to be the rocks on which Christ’s church is built.
But let’s remember than even the strongest rocks can erode. That big gaping hole in the ground we call the Grand Canyon was carved out of solid rock over centuries by something as soft as the water of the Colorado River.
Church rocks can be worn down by the constant forces of evil that invent new and improved ways to entice us all the time. Like the mortar between rocks our faith needs to be rebuilt in each generation so we can do church in ways that are relevant to current cultural situations.

That takes a team effort. There is a plaque on a large boulder along the 13th fairway at the TPC Scottsdale golf course that commemorates the day in 2011 when Tiger Woods hit a wayward tee shot that ended up right behind that large boulder. Commentators estimated the rock weighs close to a ton, and with his ball lying perhaps 3 feet from the rock there was no way even for Tiger to hit the ball over the rock. That would mean taking a one-stroke penalty for almost every golfer in the world.

But Tiger had two things going for him that most of us don’t. He knew the rules of golf very well.
Rule 6-7: “Stones of any size (not solidly embedded) are loose impediments and may be removed, provided removal does not unduly delay play.”

The rules official determined that the big rock was not “solidly embedded” in the Arizona desert and could therefore be moved legally. But remember the boulder weighed 2000 pounds. Enter ruling #23-1/3: “Spectators, caddies, fellow-competitors, etc., may assist a player in removing a large loose impediment.”
Now many serious golfers might have known about those rules, but very few of us have a large and strong enough group of friends to move a 2000 lb. impediment! Tiger of course always has a large gallery following him around the course, and several fans volunteered to help.

That may seem like a trivial example to non-golfers, but the point is that we all face big problems at times, and we need to know what all of our options are and not just surrender when something unexpected blocks our way. Secondly, none of us are equipped to figure out a solution to every problem, and that means being humble enough to ask for help. Tiger had a resource that I’m glad I don’t have on the golf course—a whole mob of people watching him, and with their help his obstacle was rolled away.

The church is like our gallery –our crowd of fans, people ready and willing to pray for us and help us when we have problems. But guess what? Being a mind reader is not required for church membership or ordination. To get help we have to be humble enough and brave enough to ask. That doesn’t mean every problem can be easily fixed or even quickly prayed away; but the love and support of other people and the assurance of God’s presence with us through dark days can help make any suffering a whole lot easier to bear.

But sometimes we think we’re too far gone or feel God’s too far away to help. And that’s when our troubles double. The temptation to withdraw from others when we need them most is a common human weakness. We don’t want to be a burden or inflict our pain on others, or we’re too embarrassed to admit we have a problem. Another Simon, as in Simon and Garfunkel, wrote a very sad song about that back in the 1960’s, and guess what? It just happens to be called “I Am a Rock.” The chorus to that song says, “I am a rock, I am an island; and a rock feels no pain, and an island never cries.”

That’s a pretty bleak picture of life, but we all feel that way sometimes when we just don’t want to risk being hurt again by letting anyone into our hearts. But that’s not really living is it? There’s an alternative to that lonely approach to life from a much older source. John Donne wrote 400 years ago: “No one is an island, Entire of itself, Every one is a piece of the continent, A part of the main….And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”

We usually think of that bell tolling in funereal terms, but when we are in community together we also share the joyous bells of celebration. We are all part of the main, and the super glue that holds all of us together is the almighty power of God’s Holy Spirit.

We need each other because Jesus doesn’t promise his followers a rose garden. Following him leads to the Garden of Gethsemane and he’s not looking for fans but cross-taker-uppers. And God knows we will all stumble and fall just like old Rocky Simon Peter.

The church has not always been rock solid for Jesus and the temptation to follow an easier path has to be faced every day. The church in 2017 is not immune to the political divisions of the world. We Christians too often choose up sides to debate controversial issues and sometimes think winning a theological argument is more important than lining up to play follow the leader with Jesus.

That means simply to live like Christ even when that’s very hard. And it’s especially hard to do when personal problems and failures become boulders that seem too heavy to carry. When intimate relationships shatter, when jobs feel like prison sentences, or when there’s no job to be had. When school work seems impossible, or taking care of loved ones exhausting; when chronic illnesses rob us of our strength to carry on. When the world seems to be getting crueler and addictions seems the only way to escape—we all struggle and fail just like not so rock solid Simon.

So when all seems lost and hopeless, please know that you are not alone. All of us feel like our faith is anything but rock solid at times. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from God and from others. No matter how shaky our rocks feel, please hear Jesus’ assurance which he speaks to us just as he did to Peter “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” The victory of good over evil is guaranteed because it’s not our church; it’s not Simon the Rock’s church; it’s Christ’s Church.

Simon’s faith wasn’t always rock solid. Our faith is not always rock solid. But God’s promise is rock solid—solid enough to build a church on, to build your life on, and the gates of hell will never prevail against it.

Preached at Northwest UMC, Columbus, Ohio, April 2, 2017 as part of a Lenten series, “Set in Stone.”