Romans 6:1b-8 (from June 25)
We live in exciting times, when science and religion are asking the same questions,
pondering the same puzzles,
and often finding complementary answers.
Our culture usually assumes science and religion are adversaries:
6-day creation vs. evolution, for example,
or scientific exploration of cloning vs. religious concerns about the sanctity of life.
But on the curious cutting edges of both religion and science we find the mysteries
of how energy and matter are related,
how memories are stored in our genes,
how healing happens for those struggling with chemical or mental illness.
Paul’s letter to the church in Rome evokes the mysteries of renewal and re-creation.
Science finds new creation in cycles of death and life, as compost buries death and makes new life, as ants and worms and forest fires eat up what is old and create conditions for life to become new.
In Christianity we see new creation within one person, within one lifetime.
In our faith we seek redemption, we long to be made new.
New life comes in cycles of life and death for communities of faith, like compost or forest fires.
But usually when we talk about finding the new life in Christ Paul writes about we mean as individuals.
Where does science find this personal new life?
We live in the age of the brain – we’re suddenly learning an incredible amount about how our brains work.
For many years we believed that our personalities, abilities and intelligence were determined by our genes, and influenced by our upbringing. The nature vs. nurture debate asked if who we are is a function of our genes or our environment.
Of course the answer is always some combination of both, with the balance shifting over decades. Either way, for adults our hand has already been dealt.
Now neuroscience has added a third possibility which gives us freedom for new life.
Our brains adapt and change not just as children, not just as young adults, but up until the very end of our lives.
Neuroscientists now have scientific evidence of what people of faith have long believed.
it is never too late to find new life.
We always have a choice to change.
Whether finding new life in Christ or some other way, neuroscientists now can see how much power we have to create our future, regardless of our genes or upbringing or who we have been in the past.
Redemption, new life, being born again. Neuroplasticity.
We are divinely designed to be adaptable, like plastic, to fit all kinds of molds.
Our Creator made our brains so complex and also so flexible that we can learn whatever language or culture we’re born into.
And we can radically shift our worldview at any time in our lives. We are never too old to learn new tricks, neuroscience now can demonstrate, by identifying neuroplasticity. Of course we might not have the motivation or resources to learn new tricks, but we have the literal capacity because our divinely designed neurons can form new connections, compensate for injury and disease, move cognitive processes from one lobe of our brain to another, optimize mental processes and adjust activities in response to new situations or changes in environment.
Like the Moken people who live off the coast of Burma and Thailand. They live on the water and eat from the water.
The Moken have twice the underwater vision as the rest of us, but their eyes aren’t biologically different, they simply constrict their pupils and see twice as well underwater.
Any of our brains could learn to do this if we lived on water.
London taxi drivers have the largest hippocampi of any studied group of people on earth. The hippocampus holds spatial representation, and London taxi drivers have so many spatial images stored in their brains that their hippocampi literally grow. Again – any of our brains could do this, because our brains are plastic, agile, adaptable.
Underwater vision and huge hippocampi are impressive, but don’t have much to do with finding new life in Christ or re-creation. So I have another example for you – Nelson Mandela. Mandela lived amidst some of the worst racism our world has ever seen, in South Africa where he and other black people were considered the lowest level of human, had no civil rights or economic opportunities, and were imprisoned for trying to live with dignity.
Segregation was the law of the land and black and white people interacted only in specific settings in which black people were always the servants and white people always made the rules. So both individual people’s brains and the cultural brains of the country were filled with segregation and inequality.
Visions of racial harmony or even simple friendship across racial lines were not in anyone’s mind.
Hey gardeners – how are your gardens doing this warm, wet summer?
We planted squash, sunflowers, snapdragons, cilantro, basil, tomatoes, parsley, peppers, kale, eggplant, Brussels sprouts and a few other things. We had a luscious patch and a lean patch, we transplanted a few puny plants, we weeded and mulched and started nibbling on herbs and kale. Then I left for Annual Conference three weeks ago.
By the time we got back last week the squash had overtaken everything but the tallest tomatoes and sunflowers. Leaves large as beach balls. Vining in all directions, through tomato cages. We balked, laughed, shook our heads, and got out clippers to find all those herbs and veggies we’ve been looking forward to eating.
Some of you are serious gardeners, but even if you’ve just flirted with flowers or looked into landscaping, I bet you can relate to the sower in today’s parable. We have so little control over what grows from the earth, just where and when it pops up, and even when something grows, keeping up with pests and threats reminds us how little power we have in a plant’s destiny.
Biblical scholars and the rest of us who read scripture say that to plumb the depths of a parable we should try on each character in the story. What does this parable provoke in me when I am the sower? What does this parable provoke in me when I am the seed? Does anyone relate to the birds or the thorns or the path?
Most people read this story as the seeds, thinking God or Jesus is the sower, and we, people of faith, are the seeds. So if you’re like most Christians you hear this story and start analyzing yourself – am I a strong plant in good soil producing outrageous harvests of righteousness, generosity, compassion, self-control and all those faithful fruits?
Doubt creeps in…we know we’re not perfect, we know we miss opportunities to lend a hand or share our time or give money or spread the good news.
Who are you in the story? Seed eaten by birds on the path, or withering without roots, or choked by thorns and weeds? This parable of the sower is in Matthew, Mark and Luke. In Matthew, Jesus explains the first seeds, the ones that fell on rock, this way:
“When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is the seed sown on the path.” Since we’re all here, in a faith community, seeking God, striving to live in the way of Jesus, I think we can confidently say that we’re not the seed that fell on the path and was eaten by birds.
Jesus goes on to say of the seed that withered under the scorching sun on the rocks, “this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away.”
This might be us, at least from time to time. Our roots are deep enough that we’re here today, engaging faith and community when we could be sleeping in or watching TV or otherwise avoiding struggle. But do you ever wither in the midst of trouble? Most of us have kept silent in the face of persecution at least once – whether we were failing to speak up for what Christ teaches us, or failing to defend someone being bullied, or failing to stand up for ourselves.