Evolution Sunday: Words without Knowledge?
[sermon audio above]
On Sunday, February 12th of 1809, two of the most consequential men of history were born: one was born into poverty in a log cabin in Kentucky, and the other was born into wealth in a mansion in the English town of “Shrews-bree” (Shrewsbury). During the course of their lives they shared some things in common: both loved Shakespeare, both gained notoriety later in life–in their 40s, both of their mothers died when they were young–when they were 8 and 9, both suffered the death of their own child–one child age 10, the other age 4, both loved music but neither of them could sing, and both were abolitionists. I am talking about Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin.
Students get tomorrow off from school, Presidents’ Day, thanks to Lincoln’s and Washington’s birthday (2/22). That I know of, Darwin’s birthday is not celebrated as a holiday. Instead, many days in school are devoted to studying biology, which was revolutionized by Darwin’s discoveries.
Along with more than 15,000 other Christian clergy, I am a signer of “The Clergy Letter Project.” The project was initiated by the biologist Michael Zimmerman in 2004, and the letter itself was written by John McFadden, who at the time was the pastor of the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Appleton, Wisconsin. Zimmerman and McFadden endeavored to build a movement of religious leaders that do not see science and religion at war with each other. You can read the letter online by Googling “The Clergy Letter Project.” Here are some key elements of the letter:
- “Religious truth is of a different order from scientific truth. Its purpose is not to convey scientific information but to transform hearts.”
- “We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests.”
- “We urge school board members to preserve the integrity of the science curriculum by affirming the teaching of the theory of evolution as a core component of human knowledge. We ask that science remain science and that religion remain religion, two very different, but complementary, forms of truth.”
To strengthen this healthy understanding of science and religion, The Clergy Letter Project sets apart this weekend every year as “Evolution Weekend.”
Welcome to Sunday, the first day of the week, the day when God spoke and said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
The German Christian mystic and teacher, Meister Eckhart, who lived 700 years ago wrote this poem:
Every creature is a word of God.
If I spent enough time with the tiniest creature –
Even a caterpillar –
I would never have to prepare a sermon.
So full of God
Is every creature.
The main conclusion of evolutionary science and overwhelming evidence is this: all life as we know it on planet earth is the result of common descent with modification. Much like the science of the “big bang” concludes that everything there is–time and space–originated in a singularity about 13.8 billion years ago, evolutionary science concludes that all life began on earth about 3.5 billion years ago.
As Methodists, we like to say we are “connectional.” There are about 70 million Methodists across the globe of different persuasions, of which United Methodists are about 12.5 million. As with the “big bang” and the “origin of life,” we Methodists trace our origins back to a singular experience, “Aldersgate Day,” Sunday, May 24, 1738, when John Wesley experienced his heart “strangely warmed” after hearing a Moravian read from Martin Luther’s “Preface to the Epistle to the Romans.” Wesley described his experience: “I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
Indeed, we are all “connectional.” Planetary scientist and stardust expert Dr. Ashley King explained in a blog post for the National History Museum in London: “It is totally 100% true: nearly all the elements in the human body were made in a star and many have come through several supernovas.”
We are crystalline snowflakes of stardust. Architected in the depths of time and the universe, falling gently and beautifully from the heavens, melting swiftly upon contact with the mortal earth.
The 23andMe blog posted some numbers from the Marian Koshland Science Museum of the National Academy of Science: “Chimpanzees, our closest living animal cousins share 98% of our human genes, meaning that for 98% of our genes, there is a similar gene in the chimpanzee genome. Even mammals that look quite different from us share a large percentage of our genes; small and furry mice share 92% our genes.”
We are angelic primate mammals. Architects of skyscrapers and civilizations, reaching tirelessly for the stars from which we came, wandering aimlessly upon the speck of dust that is our birth planet.
The Apostle Paul repeatedly taught that we are all connected. One such example is Romans 5:15: “For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!”
Humanity, all life, the entire earth, the solar system, the galaxy, the entire universe are all connected! Everywhere you look there is some mind-blowing relationship between the one and the many, and the many and the one.
From the Iona Prayer Book, hear these words: “We gather to worship the God who crafted the whole of creation yet who can neither be contained by its expanse nor described by its majesty. We gather, mindful of all that is unknown, we worship a God who seeks to know and be known by us.”
“God Is Not In a Hurry” by Rev. Ted Berkland
God is not in a hurry in the work of creating,
unlike a wizard waving a magic wand
and–Wow! A whole universe, complete
with fully-grown beings on earth–and beyond,
sun, moon and distant galaxies,
all new and instant realities.
But God does not move in momentous haste.
More like a potter shaping supple clay,
God carefully crafts each living thing
and gently molds all life in God’s own way.
The uninformed call for brevity.
There is no rush. God has eternity.
I may have shared this before with you. When I studied Judaism with Rabbi Herman Schaalman, he asked us this question, “What is the first commandment?” Immediately our minds jumped to the ten commandments and “You shall have no other gods before me.” That is incorrect, he taught us. The very first commandment God gave, according to the scriptures, is recorded in Genesis chapter 1:28: “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.” Rabbi Schaalman then asked us, “What was the very first thing that God created?” Easy, we thought, he’s got us in Genesis 1: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth …” That’s the very first verse of the scriptures, telling a poetic story about the beginning of creation. That, again, is incorrect, he taught us. He took us to Proverbs 8, where the personification of Wisdom gives a poetic speech:
22 The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of long ago.
23 Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
24 When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no springs abounding with water.
25 Before the mountains had been shaped,
before the hills, I was brought forth—
26 when he had not yet made earth and fields,
or the world’s first bits of soil.
27 When he established the heavens, I was there,
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
28 when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,
29 when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
30 then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
31 rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the human race.
The first thing God created was not a “thing” at all, but the female personification of Wisdom, Sophia. Before the “big bang,” before the earliest stars and galaxies, before our solar system, before the earth, before Adam, before everything, God created female Wisdom, Sophia.
In chapter 4 of Mark’s Gospel after the parable we heard this morning, the writer tells a story of Jesus explaining what the parable means. The Gospel writers do this on occasion. They show Jesus explaining what the parable means. Many scholars think the authors added these scenes of Jesus as the “explainer” to the original parables because the explanations “evolved” as important teachings for their communities. Therefore, in Mark 4, the scattered seed becomes the “word” or “teaching” about “God’s coming kingdom.”
In New Testament Greek, the word “parable” literally means to “throw alongside.” Isn’t it curious, then, that one of the earliest parables of Jesus is about just that, “throwing alongside?” “Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed …” What happens in our imaginations if we let go of preconceived teaching and focus on the poetry and wisdom of the words?
Let us hear the Gospel reading again from this morning from Mark 4:
3 “Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.” 9 Then Jesus said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”
Doesn’t that sound like a poetic description of evolution? There are various environmental conditions, random natural encounters, and survival of the most well-adapted, and the result is fruitful multiplication … the first commandment.
“Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”
To truly hear the sufferings of the world today, we have to give up our preconceived notions of “scientific truth” versus “religious truth,” “good” versus “evil,” “right” versus “wrong,” “justice” versus “injustice.” We have to hear and experience the sufferings in and of themselves. This is the very core of Christian religion, that God came in Christ to suffer alongside us. All of the other beliefs and teachings of Christianity are additional interpretations of the Christ event.
Only then, once we truly encounter the world’s sufferings with humility, without trying to fix them first, only then can we begin to have wisdom about how to repent and act. Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying to discard “truth,” “good” / “evil,” “right” / “wrong,” and “justice.” I am saying we have to give up our preconceived notions. This is exactly what God asks us to do in the story of Job. In Job 38, God asks: “Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge? … Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand.” At the end of God’s great speech to Job, we read this toward the end of the book in chapter 42:
1 Then Job replied to the Lord:
2 “I know that you can do all things;
no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
3 You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know.
4 “You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.’
5 My ears had heard of you
but now my eyes have seen you.
6 Therefore I despise myself
and repent in dust and ashes.”
Job contains a Hollywood, “and they lived happily ever after” ending; everything is restored to Job. Maybe the book of Job should simply end right there … “repent in dust and ashes.”
“Meditation on the Astral and Ancestral” by Rev. Jessica Purple Rodela
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust –
We here are descended from stardust,
Gathered of galaxies,
Created of carbon.
From the first tremblings of a vibrant planet
We carry the memory of the cosmos
The evolution of our cousins
The encoding of our kin
The adaptations of our cultures.
From planet to people,
Our lives matter only as much as we mean to make it so,
And it is infinitely, possibly, probably so –
From the plan and planes of the astral and ancestral
We transformed, and are transforming still.