Sermon: "New Insights"
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry V. Ort
2 Kings 2.1-12; Psalm 50.1-6; 2 Corinthians 4.3-6; Mark 9.2-9
Last Tuesday I sent an e-mail to St. Paul’s membership in which I confessed to wrestling with the sermon for I desired to address both the Feast of the Transfiguration and Evolution Sunday. Chuck Berry’s response could be likened to that of a trout rising to a fly. Although Chuck did not write this sermon, he provided excellent input and stimulated further reflection.
Evolution Sunday is the work of the Clergy Letter Project, an organization of over 17,500 clergy from numerous denominations and world religions who hold religion and science are compatible. This year’s theme is “How Science and Religion Can Work Together to Deal with the Problems of the Climate Crisis.” The goal: “demonstrate how religion and science, each working through their specific lens, are searching for ways to solve the existential crisis posed by climate change” (http://theclergyletterproject.org/rel_evolution_weekend_2021.html).
So how does one coherently address both topics? Both yield new insights. Let’s begin our study with consideration of the Transfiguration. First, one might ask, what is the difference between transformation and transfiguration? When something is transformed, the initial form undergoes a change whereby it takes on a new form; there is a change in composition or structure, in character or condition. When we are transformed through Christ, our character is radically changed – we gradually become a more loving person through the indwelling of God’s Spirit. When something is transfigured, it takes on, or emanates, “a new and typically exalted or spiritual appearance” (Merriam Webster). Jesus’ form remained unchanged while his appearance was changed.
The account of the transfiguration begins with these words: “Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them” (Mark 9.2-3; NRSV). “Six days later” refers to when Jesus shared “he must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8.31; NRSV). As you may recall, after Jesus shared these things, Peter took Jesus aside and rebuked him, but Jesus turned, looked at the disciples, “rebuked Peter, and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Mark 8.33; NRSV).
At the Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah appeared and were talking with Jesus. Tradition holds Moses represents the Law and Elijah the Prophets. Peter, James, and John were terrified, but Peter, seemingly never at a loss for words, “said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” (Mark 9.5; NRSV). Mark tells us a cloud overshadowed them and a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” In Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism, the voice from heaven said, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1.11; NRSV). At the baptism, the voice addressed Jesus; at the Transfiguration, the voice addressed Peter, James and John. Mark further tells us that Jesus, as they were coming down the mountain, ordered them to tell no one of their experience “until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead” (Mark 9.9; NRSV).
Peter, James, and John’s experience provided new insight into Jesus’ divine nature. They gained a new understanding of Jesus’ identity with God the Father. Note they were terrified. New insights, and the experiences which accompany them, can often be terrifying, for we no longer possess the certainty or security we previously possessed; our fundamental beliefs are shaken; and our identity is threatened. As we gain further experience with new insights, and the benefits they convey, we may come to welcome them.
The placement of the Transfiguration in Mark’s gospel is also worth noting. For the past few Sundays, we have celebrated the Epiphany, the revealing of Jesus’ ministry through teaching and healing. Jesus now turns toward Jerusalem; Mark presents the Transfiguration, then leads us into the events of the Holy Week. The Church year reflects this movement.
Now, we consider Evolution Sunday. I was raised in a fundamentalist background; the Genesis account of creation was taken literally. Bishop Ussher told us the earth was created in 4004 B. C.; indeed, the first day of creation occurred on Sunday, October 23. I hate to tell you this, but Bishop Ussher was an Anglican! (https://www.lockhaven.edu/~dsimanek/ussher.htm).
The Anglican Church resisted evolution. Let us remember, only in September 2008, The Rev. Dr. Malcolm Brown, the head of public affairs for the Anglican Church, admitted the Church of England owed Darwin an apology. Brown stated, “Good religion needs to work constructively with good science – and I dare to suggest that the opposite may be true as well. … People, and institutions, make mistakes and Christian people and churches are no exception. When a big new idea emerges which changes the way people look at the world, it's easy to feel that every old idea, every certainty, is under attack and then to do battle against the new insights” (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2008/sep/15/anglicanism.evolution ).
Back to my fundamentalist background … I still remember the first time I heard the phrase, “All truth is God’s truth.” If all truth is God’s truth, it must somehow cohere! I found this insight to be threatening, yet exciting and attractive. Before long, I had committed to fully investigating and searching for truth without fearing where it might lead. I have since come to look upon truth as a seamless tapestry, or a great web of interconnections. Science, in search of truth, provides new insights; we come to realize the web is ever-expanding; and we are challenged to adjust or revise our understanding. Yes, this may mean modifying certain theological tenets, e.g., coming to understand that the creation account need not be understood literally, that it can be reconciled with the scientific account of evolution, and provide a new understanding of our responsibility to care for God’s creation.
In their book, Creation Care, a Biblical Theology of the Natural World, Doug and Jonathan Moo, a father-son team, suggest three ways in which scientific data affect creation care theology.
First, recent scientific findings have elevated the importance of creation care in the discussion of “biblical-theological issues.” Science provides new insights concerning the problems we face, problems which are well-documented through professional peer review. These problems include “the ongoing catastrophe of bio-diversity loss, the destruction of the world’s tropical forests, the acidification of the oceans, the degradation and loss of topsoil, the pollution of the atmosphere, the changing of the earth’s climate, and the human suffering that these developments are causing. … Science provides us the data of danger” (P. 40). Consequently, the theology of creation care is coming to center stage.
Second, “scientific findings provide viewpoints on the natural world that we bring to our reading of the Bible” (p. 40). For example, our understanding of certain biblical texts changed after adopting the heliocentric nature of our solar system. In our search for truth, we cannot merely dismiss the claims of science should they conflict with scriptural accounts; rather, we must consent to a dialogue which promotes a mutual search for truth and new understanding.
Third, “our understanding of the natural world has an important bearing on the output of biblical theology” (p. 41). Scientific discoveries may prompt us to understand God’s charge to care for creation in new ways. Biblical theology informs us of a set of values grounded in God’s nature and love, a set of values which is often in direct opposition to the values of a market-based economy which strives for the maximization of profits. Biblical theology serves to remind us that relationships are more important than profits. As the authors remind us, “theology has an end, a telos: the formation of Christian character and the practical living out of biblical values” (p. 42). I would argue that the telos should be more universally understood as the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth, toward which the formation of Christian character and the practical living out of biblical values contribute.
Concerning new insights, the authors point out that scientific discoveries promote a sense of awe and wonder; we are humbled before our creator and called to worship (p. 50).
We earlier noted our goal: to “demonstrate how religion and science, each working through their specific lens, are searching for ways to solve the existential crisis posed by climate change.” Science provides the data which present us with a growing awareness of a clear and present danger. Yes, some debate, even reject, these conclusions, but, to quote NASA, “multiple studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals show that 97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree: Climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities” (https://climate.nasa.gov/scientific-consensus/ ). Knowing this, how will we choose to respond?
From the standpoint of biblical theology, we must ever remember that God’s creation is an act of God’s love which should elicit a loving response to God, our neighbor, and all of creation. The earth is not here simply to be ravaged and exploited with no regard for future generations. For people of faith, stewardship and creation care should stem from God’s love at work in our hearts and minds. If we love and care for our environment, our environment will care for us.
I am pleased the United States has rejoined the Paris Agreement, for it restores a commitment which seeks to limit the effects of climate change. Keeping our promises and working collaboratively reflect biblical values. All other responses will ultimately lead to destruction, perhaps even our annihilation.