Images of God

Sunday, August 19, 2018 – Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

IMAGES OF GOD
Scripture: Genesis 1:26-27 & Mark 12:13-17
Proclaimer: The Rev. Lee Gray, Minister for Youth & Young Adults

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About a month ago, some of our youth went to Unidiversity Summer Camp. At that camp I led one of the seminars that was offered. It was on Faith & Science. I showed a video done by the John Templeton Foundation, and hosted by astrophysicist Paul Wallace. Paul shared about his crisis of faith as a teen trying to reconcile what he learned about natural history and what he learned from the Bible.

Scientific findings tell us that the universe is roughly 13.8 billion years old and that the earth and our solar system are roughly 4.6 billion years old. Science also tells us that every living creature has evolved from a common ancestor and that the human branch started about 6 million years ago and came into focus into the homo sapiens we basically are today about 100,000 years ago. To put these findings into perspective Paul Wallace compressed what the history of all of time would look like if they were compressed into one calendar year. If the big bang occurs on January 1st, it is not until May 11 that our galaxy, the Milky Way is formed.  On September 1st our solar system forms. On September 21st life first occurs in earth’s oceans. Complex cells emerge on November 8th and multicellular life emerge on December 5th. Plants come onto dry land on December 20th. Insects come into being on December 21st, Reptiles on December 23rd, and Mammals and Dinosaurs on December 28th. On December 31st, with 8 minutes to go in the year humanity arrives on the scene. With 28 seconds to go in the year humans learn to practice agriculture and with 12 seconds left learn how to write. With 5 seconds left Jesus walks the face of the earth, and with 1/10 of a second left Neil Armstrong walks on the moon. Cosmically speaking, humanity has barely arrived on the scene.

All of this left Paul Wallace with some questions. Are we really that different from the animals? Why have all the vast majority of species that have ever existed gone extinct? His conclusion – “I am nothing. My family, my friends, and I would disappear into the vastness of time.” This gave him a much different conclusion than the one he had reached from the 7 days of creation story in the Bible. That conclusion was, “I am special. My friends, my family, and I are different from the animals. We are created in the image of God.”

Paul Wallace had a love for both faith and science, but at one point did not think he could be committed to both. The faith and human implications of the findings of science have historically prompted many Christians and the Church itself to have a hostile view towards science. Yet a couple of the scientists, whose theories actually began the conflict between religion and science were actually Christians of devout faith. Nicholas Copernicus, through his studies, came to believe that the earth circled the sun, rather than the sun circling the earth as had been believed for centuries. But he knew this view would be very controversial and so he delayed publishing his research for 30 years. When nearing death, Copernicus decided he couldn’t just go to the grave without sharing his ideas so he decided to publish his research. In 1543, he first saw a copy of his book, On the Revolutions of Celestial Spheres, and died later that day.  He wasn’t around to face the consequences, but his book was immediately put on the papal index of banned books.

In 1609, Italian scientist, Galileo Galilei, first turned the newly invented telescope towards the night skies. In doing so, he was able to make observations that confirmed in his mind the Copernican idea that the earth did indeed revolve around the sun. It wasn’t just the church who opposed this sun-centered view, but it was the Pope who contacted him to demand he retract these heretical ideas. Fearing for his life, Galileo recanted. Yet, he was unhappy feeling that the truth was suppressed and so in 1632 he went ahead and published these ideas. Again under threat of torture, he was forced to recant, and spent the rest of his life under house arrest – albeit a fairly comfortable house arrest. In 1992, the Catholic Church acknowledged that Galileo was right. Now it should be noted that Galileo could not effectively demonstrate that the earth circled the sun, and it’s also true that he ridiculed the Pope in how he presented his heliocentric theory. Yet for him there was no conflict between faith and science and he said that “All truth is God’s truth.” “The Bible shows how one goes to heaven, not how the heavens go.” And “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason, and intellect, has intended us to forgo their use.”

I think it’s important to distinguish between accepting findings of science regarding the material world, and those who would claim that the material world is all that there is. We do believe that there is more to this life that what is merely physical. Yet to not accept the material findings of science agreed upon by the vast majority of scientists brings into question intellectual integrity.  In fact, even as early as 415 AD, one learned Christian scholar, St. Augustine, cautioned people about making a too literal interpretation of the creation story in Genesis for this very reason. But there is this faith statement Mattie read this morning – “created in the image of God.” What does it mean to say that humanity is created in the image of God? To begin with, we have the capacity to ask that question. Like God, we are creative. We can make tools, for instance the telescope, to discover things unseen by the naked eye. We can make art. We can appreciate beauty. We can talk a walk in the woods and appreciate the beauty of the tree canopy. If we happen to have our dog with us, he will not look up unless there is a treed squirrel. He will just look around on the ground, not noticing the beauty of the trees but will instead find the utility of several of the tree trunks. As humans, we are moral beings capable of making choices and consider the consequences of our actions. We can reflect on how we felt about what we did or didn’t do. We can ponder the meaning of our existence and the prospect of our destiny.

Several months ago I watched an episode of Star Talk hosted by Neal deGrasse Tyson with my two sons. There were two guests on this particular show – outspoken atheist, Sam Harris, and a person I had not heard of before – Dr. Andrew Newberg. Dr. Newberg is a “nuerotheologist” – that’s a neurobiologist who studies the effects of spiritual experiences on the brain. He really impressed me on the show and so I bought one of his books – Why God Won’t Go Away. Using a high-tech imaging tool, he takes pictures of people’s brains when they are in the midst of having a deep spiritual or mystical experience.  He can take a picture of what it is like to experience God. Though the research of he and his colleagues he has that spiritual experiences are every bit as real to the brain as our ordinary experiences. Through imaging they can even distinguish between claimed schizophrenic religious experiences and more authentic ones. One general rule of thumb here, for those of us who don’t have high-tech imaging devices, is that when delusional religious experiences are described they are often negative in character while the role of the person experiencing them is elevated. Conversely, religious experiences by a healthy mind are more positive in character and the individual transcends his or her self and feels like a part of something larger. He concludes that biology itself seems to compel the spiritual urge. Our brains are “hard-wired” with the capacity for spiritual experiences.

Yet the most significant way we can bear the image of God is relational, because we are making our faith larger, by sharing it. Several years ago, our youth went on a field trip with youth from the QC Family Tree to Tiger World. They have a Liger there – half lion, half tiger. Lions and tigers can breed but their offspring often has birth defects – one of which is that they tend to grow too big to be healthy and have shortened life spans. I remember looking into the eyes of this 800+ pound liger.  What a person sees is often in the eye of the beholder, but it sure felt liked he looked at me like I’d make a good meal. Now certainly, people can look others in the eyes in threatening ways. And we’ve all met people who have a tendency to look at others only for their use. Yet, as people created in the image of God, we can look at others with a depth and concern that goes beyond function. We can look at others with a compassion that seeks understanding and wills for their good and all good. There are, of course, numerous examples of Jesus looking at others with compassion in his ministry. He even has compassion for others while on the cross. And it is this Christ-like love within relationships that gives us hope and meaning throughout the trials of life. Jesus shows us the sort of love that redeems human life and points to something beyond it.

Yet in our story from Mark, Jesus is being attacked. His adversaries have set a trap for him. They have done so because a little earlier in Mark he has essentially accused them of misrepresenting God and saying that they have turned the temple into a den of robbers. He has also just created a scene by overturning the tables of the money changers at the temple. One of the more common interpretations of this “cleansing of the temple,” is that commercial activity, buying and selling, should not be going on at the temple. Yet this may just be wrong, and it certainly misses the point Jesus was making.  People who traveled for days to get to Jerusalem for the Passover, probably didn’t want to have to bring an animal with them. The presence of the sellers was traditional, functional, and we have no indication that the sellers were gouging anyone. Yet if the point Jesus was making can be missed by the contemporary reader, it certainly wasn’t lost on those intended to hear it. In the quoting of Jeremiah – You have made the temple a den of robbers – Jesus is reminding them of a time when the wealthy elites of that day economically exploited the common people and then used the temple, the House of the Lord, as a safe-haven. Jesus wasn’t indicting the buyers and sellers, he was indicting the temple authorities who collaborated with Roman rule in his day and age for personal gain at the expense of the poor.

Now our story from Mark – though it is also found in Matthew and Luke –  who comes to ask Jesus about paying taxes to Caesar? The specific names given vary just a little depending on which gospel you read it in – but they include the scribes of the temple, the chief priests (put in place by the Romans to help maintain the peace), the Herodians (supporters of Herod, the Roman client ruler of Judea) and some Pharisees. It’s not the sellers at the temple who come to question Jesus in order to trap him. It’s the religious elite who have collaborated with Roman rule who come to question Jesus. And they get right to the point. So…“Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?”

Jesus asks them to show him a denarius – often the coin given for a day’s wages – and then asks them whose name and whose image it bears. They answer, “The Emperor’s.” In addition to having an image of the head of Caesar on it, a denarius also had the title “the Son of God” beneath the image of the Emperor’s head.  In a Jewish context, this makes clear that those who question Jesus are in possession of a graven image that proclaimed the emperor as divine. They have gone after other gods – gods of wealth, power, and personal privilege. If Caesar is not their god, they still in essence have the same god.  Jesus’s answer to their question “is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” is, “Give to the Emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.” It’s a non-answer that invites his hearers to consider what does belong to the emperor and what does belong to God. If we asked Jesus, “and what belongs to God?” What do think his answer would be? Certainly the temple should belong to God, but I think his answer would be that everything does. As it says in the 24th Psalm “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and all those who live in it.”  Everything belongs to God. Everyone belongs to God. And Genesis tells us that everyone is created in the image of God. Yet, the Roman Emperor has essentially created a god in his own image.

In 1741, the British Colonial preacher Jonathan Edwards, gave what would become a famous sermon. It was entitled “Sinners in the hands of an Angry God,” and it was about the wrath that awaited those who did not repent. About 12 to 15 years ago, a former pastor here, Richard Kremer, preached a sermon entitled, “God in the Hands of Angry Sinners.” It was about how people can conceive of God as not liking and being angry at the same people don’t like or are angry at or fear. Well, we are all sinners – but no more so for whatever sexual orientation that we are born with. We can all imagine God not loving the same people we have difficulty loving. Though God is indeed loving, she is also not a reality that we cannot manipulate. God alone is God. To be faithful, we have to be true to the imprint of the image of God on each of us. To be faithful, we cannot shape God in our own image but need to place ourselves before the One who judges us lovingly in order that we might become more loving. In about an hour, some members of our congregation will march uptown in the Pride Parade. We march today because God loves everyone.   And if we are to be true to the image of God that has been imprinted on us, we too should do our best to love everyone.

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