This Sunday I had the pleasure of worshiping with the people of University Lutheran in Cambridge, MA. Here is the sermon I shared.
Acts 7:55-60 (The stoning of Stephen)
1 Peter 2:2-10 (“you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood”)
John 14:1-14 (“I am the way, and the truth, and the life”)
Hello. My name is Lucas Mix and I am a recovering academic.
It’s been 7 years since I last took a degree.
I was working on a PhD at Harvard in evolutionary biology.
About three years into the program, I made a horrifying discovery.
I was not in control of my own productivity.
As hard as I worked,
as many nights as I studied instead of sleeping,
as carefully as I attended to my research,
sometimes I simply couldn’t make progress.
The progress in question
had to do with culturing strains of green non-sulfur bacteria,
filamentous anoxygenic phototrophs,
so that I could isolate their proteins.
After a year, I had almost nothing to show for my work.
We live in a society, particularly here in Cambridge,
where our worth is measured in productivity,
success, money, publications, appointments.
And, though I was doing all I could, I simply could not produce
in the way that I wanted to.
I was afraid of being a failure as an academic,
and having invested so much of my life, my identity,
in the academy,
I was afraid of being a failure as a person.
In retrospect it seems trivial;
at the time it was terrifying.
I had to learn, as an academic, and as a person,
that there would be seasons of growth,
and seasons of stagnation,
times of increase and times of stasis,
even times when things seemed to be going backwards.
Above all, I had to learn that,
though there was always something I could do,
I was not the only one in control of the outcome.
I had to let go.
As heart wrenching as this was for me,
I suspect I can barely imagine the sort of anxiety
Thomas must have felt in today’s Gospel,
my favorite skeptic, pragmatist, and (occasional) pessimist:
“Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
These are words for a disciple,
words for the foot of the cross,
words for the road,
and I think words for every day.
How are we to make sense of this God, so seemingly in control,
and yet seemingly out of control,
this world so strange and wonderful
and occasionally terrifying.
“Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
I like to use the words of the twelve steps from alcoholics anonymous.
I have come to believe that in times like this
a Power greater than myself
can restore me to sanity.
I have made a decision to turn my will and my life
over to the care of God
as I, in my limited understanding,
I don’t mean to make light of alcoholism.
I consider myself immeasurably blessed
to be free from chemical addiction.
Still, I see the twelve steps as a terribly useful spiritual practice,
crafted in response to a real problem many of us face,
and applicable to the life of any disciple.
I commend them to you.
We are confronted again and again in our lives
with circumstances beyond our control:
events, communities, challenges
that make us question who we are,
whether we have the power to succeed,
or even just make the world a livable place.
Thomas faced the death of God incarnate.
Paul and Stephen faced persecution
by the religious and civil establishment.
We face war and natural disaster,
systems of oppression, violence, and corruption.
And it all seems overwhelming sometimes,
but there is a response.
Neither do I want to make light of the academy.
I have chosen to live my life,
largely within the confines of the ivory tower,
to serve as a scholar, a student, and a teacher.
This is a valuable pursuit,
one I never left.
Still, I consider myself a recovering academic
for one very important reason.
I have a tendency to forget why I study,
and why I teach.
I forget that I do it because I take joy in learning,
and because God asked me to.
I forget that learning is, by itself a wonderful thing,
and not just a means to an end,
even if that end is “fixing” the world.
I forget that no matter how hard I try,
I am not the only one in control.
Knowledge cannot fix everything,
and sometimes true knowledge is hard to come by.
So, in my fourth year of doctoral work,
I came to understand that academia,
only made sense in light of my relationship with Jesus.
He said, “I am the way, the truth, and the light.”
What matters to me,
at the end of the day, is whether I know him,
and the children of his Father,
and the world that, through him was made.
As a Christian, everything makes sense in the light of Christ.
I am an academic,
but only in moderation.
God gives knowledge and productivity.
I seek God through these things,
and I seek these things in God.
That letting go,
that acceptance that I can plant and water,
but only God gives growth,
that is freedom for me.
It allows me to be a skeptic, and a pragmatist,
and occasionally a pessimist.
Yes, I’m responsible for the work,
but God is responsible for the result.
It allows me to devote myself to the best scholarship I can,
without fear of the outcome.
Thomas said to Jesus,
“Lord, we do not know where you are going.
How can we know the way?”
Jesus replied, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”
We are Christians,
we know the truth,
but that doesn’t mean we don’t have to follow it.
It doesn’t mean we don’t have to run to keep up.
Many, both inside and outside the church,
would take my sermon so far
as an excuse not to reason,
not to study,
not to work at the wisdom of Christ.
But that is not what Jesus asked for.
In Jesus’ most famous response to Thomas, he said,
“Do not doubt but believe.”
“Have you believed because you have seen me?”
“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Thomas’ care for the truth was rewarded,
but it was a care for the person of Christ,
and not just a care for the doctrines of Christians.
How could the Truth be a reason not to seek truth?
And how could the way mean anything if it is not a way to walk.
And so, I am a Christian academic,
one who trusts God can stand up to any amount of questioning,
indeed, one who trusts that God wants to be questioned.
How else are we to come to know the truth?
I finished my Ph.D. and headed off for seminary.
I now have a tendency to overthink things,
both as a scientist and as a theologian.
Seriously, though, I have found my calling in life
in helping people speak the different many languages
of reason and faith,
because most of us do have our eyes on the prize.
We want real understanding of the world we find ourselves in.
For my part, I continue to explore theoretical and theological biology.
How do we understand the concept of life?
What work does it do in religion and biology?
How do our models shape the way we think about
and investigate the universe?
And every once in a while, I think too hard.
Every once in a while I think my pursuit is about capturing
or claiming the truth,
about putting it in a box so I can control it,
or pinning it to my chest so I can brag about,
or forging it into a hammer
so I can hit people over the head with it.
You’ve all done these things.
I know you have.
I have too.
There is a profound difference between knowing God
and knowing about God.
Christianity reminds us that the truth is not some thingto be used.
It is someone to be met:
someone who doesn’t always show up,
someone we sometimes have to track down, chase, and find,
but also someone who shows up,
perhaps even unwanted,
but always exciting, joyous, and revealing.
Christianity says not only that the Truth can be met,
but that when we meet him,
we will discover that he is good.
I have a dual vocation.
As a scientist, I pursue the truth about the natural world.
As a priest I help people to encounter it for themselves,
and encounter him through whom it all makes sense.
I am a member of the Society of Ordained Scientists,
a group of people with a similar dual vocation,
who know that speaking truth
sometimes requires knowing a second language,
a group of people who feel that our two vocations,
support and strengthen one another.
My pursuit of truth in science and academia has been enhanced,
not only by my relationship with Christ,
not only by the wisdom found in theology,
but by the concrete practices of the church,
by daily prayer and meditation,
by reflecting on scripture,
by knowing that I am not alone in my pursuits.
This community, the Church, is with me.
The rituals of the Church comfort and support me.
The rules of the Church (usually) keep me in line.
And the words of our tradition,
including, believe it or not, the twelve steps,
help to keep me sane.
This is not just my calling; it is a calling for many of you as well.
To seek and share the truth through knowing.
This is a Lutheran congregation.
I shouldn’t have to tell you that all of us are priests.
All of us have been asked, even required, to go into the world,
sharing the love of Christ
and making the ways and wisdom of the Church
accessible to all.
All of us have been asked to mediate God for one another,
as my friend, Bill Countryman says,
to serve as guides, living on the borders of the holy.
Academia can be such a border,
a frontier, where the truth of God’s creation
and God’s coming Kingdom,
may be seen more clearly and lived more fully;
but only if we are willing to let it be the border country,
and not the homeland,
the path and not the destination;
and only if we give up being completely in control of the process.
“you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people,
in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts
of him who called you out of darkness
into his marvelous light.
Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
I hope, with me, you will follow Thomas,
in questioning God, so that you may come to know,
in questioning reality, so that you may come to serve,
and it in letting go of responsibility for the outcome,
so that God, working in us,
can bring about infinitely more
than we can ask or imagine.