Sunday, June 26, 2016

"With All Your Mind" (Psalm 19)

Last Monday evening, here in this sanctuary, Boy Scout Troop 29 had an Eagle Scout Court of Honor to recognize the accomplishments of two young men who achieved scouting’s highest rank. As a leader in the troop, the pastor of this church, and an Eagle Scout, I was asked to open and close the ceremony with prayer.
Afterward, I was talking with some of the scouts during the reception. The troop is getting ready to go to summer camp at the end of July; summer camp for boy scouts is an opportunity to earn merit badges while having all the fun that a camp can offer.
Many years ago, for four summers in a row, I was on the staff of a boy scout camp. I was the nature director. With help from an assistant, I helped scouts earn merit badges like Environmental Science, Forestry, Soil and Water Conservation, and Mammal Study.
One of my favorite merit badges to teach was astronomy. You can't really earn the astronomy merit badge at home, if you live in the city. The requirements include identifying in the sky a number of constellations and stars, and there’s just too much light pollution in the city. But high up in the Sierras, where my camp was, the sky was dark and the stars were bright.
And we could see the Andromeda galaxy. I told you about the Andromeda galaxy in a sermon last year, but just in case you forgot, the Andromeda galaxy is the farthest thing you can see with the naked eye. Pretty much everything you can see in the sky – all the stars and planets – are part of our galaxy, the Milky Way. But the Andromeda galaxy is, needless to say, a whole other galaxy, over 2 million light years away.
You can find the Andromeda galaxy in late summer by locating the constellation Pegasus, which features a great square making it easy to locate. Off the corner of Pegasus stretches the constellation Andromeda, and in that constellation you can see a faint fuzzy patch of light that is the Andromeda galaxy.
When I would point out the Andromeda galaxy to scouts earning the Astronomy merit badge, I would remind them that 2 million light years away means that the rays of light reaching us left that galaxy two million years ago. In other words, what you see when you look up at the Andromeda Galaxy is actually what the Andromeda Galaxy looked like 2 million years ago. You’re seeing the ancient past. It’s literally a trip 2 million years back in time.
That’s how far away the Andromeda Galaxy is; yet it is the closest major galaxy to our own Milky Way galaxy. Except for two mini-galaxies called the Magellanic Clouds, all the other galaxies in our universe are even farther. Obviously you need a telescope to see them.
How many other galaxies are there? Scientists say there are at least 100 billion galaxies in the universe, and maybe 500 billion galaxies. That’s a lot of galaxies. Remember: everything we can see in the sky on a dark night, except for the Andromeda Galaxy, is in our own Milky Way Galaxy. Multiply what you can see by hundreds of billions, and that’s the universe.
The psalmist didn’t know most of this. The psalmist didn’t know about the hundreds of billions of galaxies, or what that fuzzy patch of light in the constellation Andromeda is, or that the light from it takes 2 million years to reach earth. What we know about the universe has changed a lot since the time of the psalmist.
Actually, what we know about the universe has changed a lot since I taught the astronomy merit badge at boy scout camp 25 years ago.
On the other hand, the psalmist could look up in the sky and identify the constellations he saw, which many people today cannot do. I’m sure he knew what phase the moon was in, and probably he could look up and tell you which points of light were planets rather than stars, even if he didn’t know exactly what a planet was.
But one thing hasn’t changed since the time of the psalmist: then, and now, the heavens tell the glory of God. And the more I learn about the universe God has made, the more I see that. The more I learn about the universe, the more I am able to love God with all my mind.

In the late 1500s, a young man named Galileo Galilei was considering the priesthood, but his father encouraged him to study medicine instead. While studying medicine, he became fascinated by mathematics, and he eventually became a teacher of mathematics as well as astronomy.
At the time, there were many in the scientific world who believed in a sun-centered solar system. We think that Galileo introduced this idea to the world, but he did not.
However, just as there are some people today who, for political reasons, still insist that climate change is not real, there were many in Galileo’s day who still insisted that the earth was the center of the solar system and not the sun. After all, not once, but three times in the Old Testament, it says: “The earth is firmly established; it shall not be moved.” Verses like these backed up their own political reasons for refusing to accept what many scientists of the day said was true.
But they blindly quoted these scriptures to fit their already-formed political ideas, rather than delving into the scripture and learning what it really meant and could mean today. This is what happens when we refuse to love God with all our mind. We become fools.
Even worse, the church loses credibility when we refuse to use our minds in the worship of God. There are days when I’m embarrassed to be a Christian, let alone a pastor, when I hear the mindless things some Christians are quoted as saying.
The Bible was written by dozens of different authors over many centuries. It is a book full of great truth, but not all ways of interpreting scripture bear witness to this. God gave us minds, God gave us reason, and that is an important tool when it comes to biblical interpretation.
The Bible accepts slavery. But using our minds and our intellect, we can read the Bible and still come to the conclusion that slavery is wrong. In fact, we can conclude that slavery is contrary to the overall liberating truth presented in scripture. Using our minds, we can read those passages that accept slavery and conclude that, even though they are in the Bible, they express an idea that is contrary to God’s will for humanity. We come to this conclusion through the use of our mind.
Today there are Christians who find it very easy to take verses out of context, and use them to support unbiblical ideas, or use scripture that presents an idea that is contrary to the biblical witness as a whole. Four different gospels consistently show Jesus as one who stood up for the vulnerable in society, who was a friend to those who had been pushed to the side by society. Samaritans, women, children, foreigners, travelers, lepers – they all feature prominently and positively in stories about Jesus; and those who tried to condemn them as a threat to moral society were routinely condemned by Jesus.
Yet there are many who still mindlessly take various scriptures that condemn minority, disenfranchised populations as proof that God hates all the same people they do; they use scripture to reinforce their own fears and anxieties, which is exactly what the people who were against Galileo’s ideas did.
In the end, they are all exposed for having foolishly followed ideas that make no sense, even if they do appear in scripture, because they did not use their minds when discerning the truth.
But still, every day I hear someone say “I’m done with religion” or “I’m done with the church,” because every day there is some news story about the church or a religious leader who has mindlessly quoted scripture to justify his or her own hate or fear.
The early leaders of the movement that became the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) – including Alexander Campbell – encouraged a rational, thinking faith. And ever since, we have been a church that encourages people to use their minds.
Don’t accept blindly everything you hear. Ask questions! Every great scientist asked questions. Lots and lots of questions. It’s how you learn.
Every good person of faith should do the same. Those who don’t ask questions are afraid of the answers. They are afraid of the truth. But the truth is not something to be afraid of. The truth will set you free.
The answers may challenge some of your currently held beliefs, but in the end, they will set you free.
Psalm 19 begins: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.”
Faith and knowledge, mind and spirit, they are all connected.
The second half of this psalm praises God for God’s teachings in the law of Moses. My research informs me that this second half was likely written later, by a different person. This leads my mind to ask many questions, including this:
Was the writer of the second half trying to expand on what the writer of the first half was saying, or was the later writer trying to balance the first by providing a different viewpoint?
The first half sees God’s glory in the universe, the stars and the sun; the second sees God’s glory revealed through the law. Contradictory or complimentary?
Only the mind knows to ask these questions! It’s as if the Spirit intentionally coordinated with the human writers of scripture to place these ideas together, and then ask the reader: So, what do you think?
I see that challenge throughout scripture, the challenge that comes with being asked, “What do you think?” We talk about what scripture says, but scripture asks, “What do you say?”

And to answer that, we have to use our minds.

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