Today, I was delighted to worship with the people of St. Margaret’s, Prestwich, just north of Manchester. Here is the sermon I shared.
2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14 (Elijah leaves Elisha behind)
Galatians 5:1,13-25 (“For freedom Christ has set us free”)
Luke 9:51-62 (“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”)
Preaching is hard. This week’s readings are full of teachings about freedom and belonging, holding fast and moving on, home and pilgrimage. Jesus passes through a Samaritan town, and they are willing to believe in his power, but not in his destination. The Samaritans saw themselves as different, for they believed that God might be worshipped anywhere, and not just at the Temple in Jerusalem. They accepted Jesus’ message of change, but wanted even more change. Jesus was bound to Jerusalem, and they would not accept this. And so they did not accept him. And yet, Jesus tells his followers: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” They must be always traveling to follow God’s call. And this week’s news is also full of talk about freedom and belonging, holding fast and moving on, home and pilgrimage. Paul’s words as well as Jesus’ could be used to argue both sides of the Brexit issue. No doubt they have been used on both sides. But I am from the US and I shall not, partially out of self-preservation, wade into the issue, other than to say this: whether we are part of something or hold ourselves apart is indeed a Christian issue, perhaps even one of the deep mysteries of faith. It is something worth praying about. So this week, preaching is doubly hard. I am honored to feel at home in Manchester, But I am also a pilgrim. Every year I come to Northern England for a retreat. I am a member of the Society of Ordained Scientists, a group of priests and deacons who are also trained in the sciences and invested in making the most of human wisdom wherever it may come from. My own background is in biology. I took my doctorate at Harvard University, studying the evolution of photosynthetic reactions centers, and I work with NASA on the search for life in the universe. That means I think a great deal about what it means to be at home in the universe, and what it means to travel. One of the recent insights of biology has been to note the amazing diversity that is the human body. Each of us is made up of trillions of cells. One half of those are genetically you. The other half are tiny organisms that live in your gut and on your skin. Those organisms help protect us from the environment, they help us digest our food, and they exist in a complex network of relationships with one another just as we exist in complex relationships with plants and animals. It turns out that being human is more complicated than we thought, biologically. What we thought was essential and sufficient – our DNA – is only part of the story. An important part, to be sure, but only part. Humanity is more than we thought, and what we thought was our all in all, turns out to be only a part. You may have been told you ARE your body, but that can mean many things. Certainly we are made up of physical stuff, and I’m comfortable saying that I AM PHYSICAL. Still, that physical stuff comes in an amazing array of genetics, processes, and interactions. I exist in constant communication with my environment, as I take on new cells and new organisms, as other cells and organisms pass away. I am in the process of living. When you are priest and a biologist you think about these things. You notice, for example, that bread and wine cannot be made without plants – wheat and grapes – without microorganisms – yeast and bacteria – and without human action. And so we celebrate here, with bread and wine the amazing interconnectedness of creation. We should not be surprised that we, too, as individual people and as the church, are made up of diverse parts. In Galatians, Paul encourages us to follow the freedom of Spirit, and not be slaves to our flesh. I do not think he means us to deny our physicality, our particularity, our fleshliness. Rather, I think he means we are to understand ourselves as flesh in process. God is moving through us, so that through us flesh might become Spiritual. We live by holding on to our physicality, to our specificity, to our place and time and customs, but only for so long. My flesh, which I must care for if I want to live now, I must shed if I wish to live forever. I must take on new flesh, just as I eat food to make new cells, and new tissues; just as I take on new habits. Jesus calls on the Samaritans to change, and turn toward Jerusalem, just as he will invite the Sadducees to turn from the Temple and invite the Pharisees to turn from the Law, so that they may find God in him. This is the peace that is no peace, our constant pilgrimage from where we are to where God calls us to be. We must not pin ourselves in place, so we cannot follow where Jesus leads. I hope you don’t take me to be too progressive. Truly, I am not. Sometimes we must hold fast. Sometimes we must set our face towards Jerusalem. To what, then, do I hold fast? I hold fast to God – not as an abstract idea, but as a concrete person for some, like myself, it is easiest to talk to God as Creator and Governor of the cosmos for others, it is easiest to talk to Jesus Christ, the man for still others, the Spirit of God speaks in sighs too deep for words but all of us hold fast to a personal relationship with God. I hold fast to you – not as an abstract church, but as concrete neighbors, transitory and confused, just as I am transitory and confused by the changes of life and yet taking joy in the relationships, in discovering God in you and discovering more about myself every time I see myself as I am with others. I hold fast to the coming kingdom, both the hope of a home beyond this passing world and as God breaking into the bizarre physicality of the now, in bread and wine, in word and sacrament, in the Spirit blowing through the dust. I can be both a theologian and a scientist, because each keeps me humble. Every time I grow too attached to the here and now, God reaches out, through observation, reason, and revelation to remind me of something greater, just beyond my understanding, something to reach for in curiosity and delight, in faith and hope, and, of course, in love. I can be at home in my body, and yet know this is not my final home because I have faith in God who works out a divine purpose in frail and fragile and transitory things. I am here because here is where I am meant to be – now, but not forever. So, I will ask from you a pilgrim’s blessing, and I will give you mine. Remember that this is not our home. Our freedom and our hope lie in the home God builds within us. May the Spirit stir you to action and fill you with peace; May the God of Creation be with you going out and coming in; And may Jesus who goes before you greet you kindly when you arrive. Amen.