This morning I had the pleasure of worshiping with the people of the Manchester Cathedral (dedicated to St. George, St. Denys, and St. Mary). Here are the words I shared.
Ezekiel 2:1-5 (God sends Ezekiel)
Psalm 123 (“To you I lift up my eyes”)
II Corinthians 12:2-10 (“I will not boast, except of my weaknesses”)
Mark 6:1-13 (Jesus in his hometown, the sending of the disciples)
“on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses” (II Cor. 12:5b) A strange place to start, but let us start there. Christianity is unconventional. When we do it right it doesn’t look like wisdom and yet it delivers truth. I want to talk about that truth, the unconventional, unexpected, satisfying truth promised by both Christianity and science. I am a member of the Society of Ordained Scientists, a group of priests and deacons, mostly Anglican, who are also educated in the sciences. For my part, I have a doctorate in organismic and evolutionary biology from Harvard University, over in the other Cambridge. For my Ph.D. I worked on the evolution of photosynthesis, and I consult with NASA on questions related to the search for life in space. So I think I can boast of a little knowledge about science. I have also been blessed to attend seminary, have worked as a pastor, and have taught the history of science and religion at three universities. So I can say I know something of theology, philosophy, and history. And yet I am not nearly so proud of this learning as I am of that which I do not know. As a member of the Society of Ordained Scientists, I frequently encounter concerns about faith and reason. As a Christian and an evolutionary biologist, particularly in the United States, the question arises. So, as I am in town for the retreat, and as Bishop David and the Dean were kind enough to ask, I wanted to speak about how we know things, and what things we know in science and in Christianity. As usual, the Lectionary has been more than helpful. It got me thinking about strength and weakness and the strange balance between bringing truth and awaiting truth. All of our readings today highlight the role of prophets as unexpected and extraordinary truth tellers. First, we must accept that expected and ordinary truth tellers, while sometimes useful, don’t leave much of an impression. It’s morning. It’s a Sunday. We are in Manchester. See. Not so interesting. Even if I were to tell you something new, but unexciting… There will be a barbeque after the service. The Episcopal Church in the US had our version of Synod last week. That probably won’t stick. So let me tell you something unexpected: In science, not knowing is better than knowing. Even worse: The same is true of Christianity. Now you’re awake. We remember Moses, Ezekiel, Peter, and Paul because they got things wrong before they got things right. We remember Moses claiming his own incompetence before God – Don’t send me to Pharoah. I’m no public speaker. We remember Ezekiel. God literally put words in his mouth, so that he might speak them to Israel. We remember Paul, persecuting Christians, before becoming one on the road to Damascus. We remember poor Peter, who seems to get things wrong more often than not. It can be so easy to think they were wrong, and then they found God – or God found them – and they were magically right for the rest of their lives. But scripture doesn’t give us this picture at all. Abraham and Moses wrangle with God all of their lives, they fall and recover over and over again, reaching for God. Paul speaks of constant temptation and weakness, that simply will not go away. My friend Nadia jokes: “This is Peter. Dumb as a rock. And on this rock I will build my church.” Don’t even get me started on Jonah and Job. Even Jesus, and I hesitate to say this, fails to communicate when he is in his home town. The neighbors simply cannot reconcile what they are actually hearing, with what they expect “Mary’s boy, you know the one who makes the nice tables. Why doesn’t he just find a nice girl and settle down?” Christianity and science are both about breaking us out of our old habits of knowing, so that we can appreciate what’s right in front of us. In Christianity, we call it humility. In science, we tend to say curiosity, but I’d like to suggest it as the same thing – The constant willingness, to have been wrong so that we may become right. Truth, like love – or God for that matter – is not a simple thing to be possessed; we must pursue it. We must run after it with abandon. And we must be willing to be found by it, no matter whose voice utters the words, no matter what avenue provides it. And at the same time, we must constantly check in on the truth we already have. Is it still true? Is it still meaningful? Is it still surprising? Honestly I have very few arguments with truth seekers, whether Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, or Atheists. The real arguments arise when I meet people who are unwilling to ask the questions, unwilling to talk as though God were there, just to see if God answers back, or unwilling to pray about certain things, just because they are afraid of how God might answer. God did something different with Ezekiel; he led the people back from captivity, using the power of the captor. In some ways, he was the mirror of Moses, who defied the ruler, to save the people. It is never enough to remember what God did, we must keep our eyes open to what God is doing. So Christians pray without ceasing, and we take pride in our weakness, in our repentance, and in our constant reformation of the church. So scientists strain our brains to think clearly and control every last detail of an experiment, and record the results, so that we can hear what the world is telling us, even when we were looking for something completely different. Neither one is about certainty. Jesus sent the disciples out with nothing – no bread, no bag, no money – because what they found when they arrived, would play a crucial role in the tale they had to tell. God was the power that welcomed them and fed them and abided with the families long after they had gone. They did not carry the Gospel, but they did reveal it. They knit together the experience of Jesus Christ with the Holy Spirit that upholds all things, the Spirit that resides in and goes before all of us, as familiar as the air we breathe. Prophets and apostles are important, even necessary. They make the common truth uncommonly visible. And they made the invisible transparent. I firmly believe that this is our job as Christians, to help manifest God’s grace, which is already present in creation – to be truth-tellers and unveilers and midwives. And because the truth was already there, we too will be surprised, amazed, astonished, even struck dumb, by what we discover. How could we not be? For many years I met arguments about creation and evolution with facts. “We know it’s true, because of these finches, and these lizards…” Facts and theories are important. Later, I learned to meet such arguments with philosophy. “We cannot know anything for certain, but science gives us confidence, based on reproducibility.” “Paul and Aquinas and CS Lewis all embrace scientific reasoning.” Philosophical sophistication and clear reasoning are important too. But in the last few years, I have taken a new tack. I meet arguments with curiosity. “Why is this important to you?” “What do you hope for when you say that?” “What do you fear?” And here I must emphasize – it has to be genuine curiosity; it can’t just be a conversational gambit or a logical trap. We have to care and listen. I find I learn a great deal more. I build relationships, and often I relax the anxieties that led to the argument in the first place. I find that God is doing work in Creationists and Atheists and all manner of people. The trick is to figure out what, and help where I can. I find that helping them be right, is far more important to me than proving I’m right. And so, I am an evangelist for passionate curiosity and for the ability to accept correction graciously. Hold fast to what is good because it is good, but not because it is what you are holding. Be ready at all times to speak the truth that is in you, and also be ready to let go. You never know when you will discover a pearl of great price, and be called upon to lose all that you have, so that you can accept this one new thing. The search for truth is never over, at least not in this lifetime. God has so much more for us to see and do and love. To bring love is to wait for love. It doesn’t work any other way. To bring truth is to wait for truth. So I will continue to boast in my weakness, and I will continue to travel light, knowing that God can, and will, and does provide infinitely more than I can ask or imagine, at every stop along the way. Amen.