Sermon for February 7, 2016, United Church of Christ in Simi Valley, CA:
Two weeks ago Charles Wei stood here to give a remarkable sermon, the first one I ever heard about a barnyard animal. If you didn’t hear it, then corner Charles at the coffee hour and ask him to tell you about the chicken.
I just want to remind you of how Charles started out; he said that God has many facets, and he wanted to talk about one. In other words, he was making a partial statement about God, a metaphorical statement. In fact, everything we say about God is partial or metaphoric. Nothing we say can possibly express the whole truth about God. Our human brains cannot completely comprehend God.
When Groucho Marx was invited to join the Friars Club in Hollywood, he wrote to them, “ I DON’T WANT TO BELONG TO ANY CLUB THAT WILL ACCEPT PEOPLE LIKE ME AS A MEMBER.” I would say something similar: “I don’t want to worship any God that my little brain can understand.” There must be a bigger God, a much bigger One.
Maybe I caused a little stir some years ago by calling myself a Christian agnostic. There is a footnote here:[Here I inserted a shtick of ostentatiously reading from a footnote: “Footnote 1: An agnostic is a person who does not know, or does not claim to know. A Christian agnostic tries to follow the teachings of Jesus, but thinks that the Christian tradition is not totally based on hard facts.”]
The very funny text that Curtis Rodgers wrote for a T-shirt mentions an agnostic going to church, and that might be me. (For sure, my wife is the Jew.) [Here, I held up the t-shirt, which reads: “A Christian, a lesbian, an agnostic, a Jew, a gay man, a Buddhist, a Republican, and a vegan… walk into a church. Around here… we just call that Sunday.]
Something has happened to me over the years and it came as a surprise. I have become a lot clearer about what I believe. The change has come about because of the visits that our congregation received from Rev Michael Dowd, who has spoken here twice, and because of the thoughtful conversations of our Monday Night Book Study. We spent about a year discussing his book, “Thank God for Evolution.”
Michael Dowd introduced us to the Great Story, capital G, capital S, the story that stretches back over 13 billion years. We believe it is that old because astronomers have calculated the distance to the farthest observable galaxies and calculated how long it took for their light to reach us. The mathematics for that is dizzying. You take the speed of light, 186,000 miles per second, times the seconds in a year, 31,536,000. That gives you the distance light travels in a year. Then add 9 zeroes to get the distance light travels in a billion years and multiply that by 13. The result will be supposedly the distance from here to the farthest galaxy. Not star, galaxy.
Now some questions: Is our universe too big for God? [This got a big laugh.] Is God in it somewhere? Or is God out beyond the universe, controlling it all and making it happen? What does it mean to say “out beyond the universe”? Michael Dowd’s answer is that the universe includes God and God includes the universe. Every part of the universe is connected with every other part. He calls that Reality (with a capital R).
At present, scientists [here, stick again, reading: “Footnote 2: Science means what is known about the physical world right now. It is considerably different from what it used to be. When I was in high school, only 65 years ago, there was no talk about DNA or plate tectonics or global warming. Those things were all around us, but science did not know about them yet. And when my grandson is 80 years old, science will have changed greatly during his lifetime.”].
At present, scientists who study the origin of the Earth believe that some elements that are essential to life were not originally present in our solar system. One of them was oxygen! Imagine the Earth without oxygen. Those elements were created in distant stars and came to us across space. We are, in part, star dust.
This idea allows me to feel that we are all connected to the universe. We are only here because clouds of mineral particles came and are still coming from exploding stars. Those clouds sweep through the solar system, dusting the Earth with essential elements. Furthermore, we are only here because some sea creature crawled onto land 4 billion years ago, found food and stayed. We are only here because a great meteor wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, leaving room for mammals to become dominant. And so on. The Great Story of the universe, of the Earth, of human evolution– is that all accidental? Is it all a matter of chance, of inevitable cause and effect? Not at all, according to Michael Dowd. Something drives the universe, in ways that we don’t have to understand, to create ever more complex structures. It’s true that we see things die and decay and fall apart, but at the same time new things, new creatures come into existence in all of the dazzling variety and beauty that we can see in the world or on the nature programs many times a week on the TV.
For the first 13 billion years, so far as we know, there was no living being who looked around and asked the questions we ask. The human eye and brain make this possible. We are the part of the universe that is becoming aware of itself, studying itself, questioning itself, possibly for the first time. The Great Story tells us that we are connected to the universe, to everything in it, and the energy that drives it, connected even to God. We don’t have to define God or describe God. I can’t tell you what pleases or angers God or what is God’s will for myself or anyone else. Perhaps as good a statement as any about God is the great line from the Star Wars movies, “May the Force be with you.”
Especially during the coming week, leading up to Evolution Sunday on February 14, please remind yourself, at least once a day, of the Great Story. If you are using a dustcloth, remember to be respectful of the dust that comes to Earth from the Universe. We are at the leading edge of the Great Story that began over 13 billion years ago and is still stretching out toward the future, however long that may come to be. And now and then, if we are open to it, we can feel in our beings the truth of what we sing with our children every Sunday, “God is in us, and we are in God, Hallelujah.” Amen.