Science & Faith: Wonder by Rev. Leah Rosso

Psalm 104; Genesis 2:4b-9;15

This summer as we have celebrated the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, there have been many documentaries, podcasts, and other ways of reflecting back on this significant event. As a family we watched Apollo 11, a documentary that showed in depth the actual footage of the moments immediately before and after the spacecraft, the Eagle, landed on the moon. How Armstrong took the the Eagle off of auto pilot because otherwise they would’ve landed in a crater, and successfully flew them over a ridge to land on a flat open area. How an error code kept coming on that baffled the astronauts so that they didn’t know whether they should be concerned or not. How close they came to using up too much fuel, which wouldn’t have left them enough to get home. And how everything was planned so that as soon as they landed, the astronauts on board had to immediately prepare the Eagle for take off again because they didn’t know what was going to happen and if they would be able to stay. In those first few minutes after they had landed, no one knew if they would immediately begin sinking into the surface of the moon or if there would be too much radiation to stay or what exactly they would encounter. So the first thing the astronauts did after landing, was get ready to take off, just in case. Now, fifty years later, we have discovered all kinds of things — we’ve learned about dark matter, we’ve learned more about black holes, and we’ve discovered that there are definitely other planets out there capable of sustaining life.

We have so much to learn! There is so much we don’t understand!

In the book of Psalms in the Bible, many of the psalmists refer to nature, and specifically to trees, as praising God. I always thought this was a metaphor, but now I’m not so sure. I have been intrigued this past year as I have read The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben because what scientists are finding is that trees actually have a very complex way of communicating with one another. It doesn’t happen quickly, of course, like me texting you when I need something, but they are communicating. When one tree is bitten by an insect, it begins to change it’s taste by sending chemicals out to its leaves; but it’s not just the tree that is bitten that fights back. They have found that trees a mile or two away will begin to change their chemistry, even without having direct interaction with the insect. They do this in a variety of ways, sometimes through chemicals sent in the air, sometimes through the vibration of their roots The trees are communicating with one another. And what’s perhaps even more startling, is that trees that are planted by humans, do not seem to have these defenses. When taken from their natural habitats, trees and plants act differently and don’t know how to communicate.

We have so much to learn! There is so much we don’t understand!

And it’s not just our world that we are just beginning to figure out. It’s true of ourselves too. This past year as we have dived into learning what it means to be trauma responsive, as we have learned about Adverse Childhood Effects and how trauma physically effects the brain, I have been in awe of how much we now know and how little. I am told that our brains have as many neurotransmitters as there are stars in the sky, and we still know so little about what so many of them do. Up until several years ago, scientists knew that there was a part of our DNA that didn’t seem to do much— some scientists began calling this part of our DNA “junk DNA.” But recently they have figured out that this portion of our DNA that seemed useless to us before, is actually the part that turns on or off the other parts. When trauma happens in our lives, when outside forces impact our brains and our bodies, the “junk” part of the DNA, now called regulatory DNA, turns on certain things and turns off other things. So that we can see now that the age old question of nature vs. nurture is much more complex than we ever imagined. The nurture that we receive, especially when we are young, or the lack of nurture we encounter, changes the nature of who we are— both for ill and for good, but not necessarily forever.

We have so much to learn! There is so much we don’t understand!

And every time we uncover a little bit more about any of the many worlds that we live in, it has implications on how we see ourselves, how we understand our place in the universe, and how we understand God.

In Genesis this morning we see that this was true even thousands of years ago, with our Biblical ancestors. Last week we explored the foundations of Genesis 1– where God creates everything in six days, rests on the seventh day, and pronounces all of it good. That is the first creation story in Genesis, well known for its rhythm and pace of seven days. Immediately following that creation story, we are given another creation story in Genesis 2, thought to have been written by another source. Oftentimes we meld the two together in our minds, but this one is quite different. In this creation story God creates a human first. There is some mention of land that is there already, and some mist on the land, which keeps it watered and fertile, but the human is named as God’s first creation, with God taking the dirt of the earth, like a potter would with clay, and forming the man we later called Adam. It is only after creating a man that God creates the plants and trees; names the rivers; creates all the animals to find a companion for the man, and then creates a woman. While Genesis 1 reminds us that we are reflections of God’s image— focusing on our divine nature; Genesis 2 reminds us that we are dirt; not in a derogatory kind of way, but rather as a symbol of life and connection and intimacy with all living things. Here we have the people of God exploring what it means to be part of creation. What does it mean theologically to be intimately connected, by our very elements, to the earth.

While I am not someone who thinks we should look to the Bible for knowledge of science, there is a lot of wisdom in the Bible that could help inform what we do with the knowledge science gives us. In the second chapter of Genesis, as we ponder what it means to be made of dirt and what our relationship with the earth should be, the writer has a very specific idea. Instead of using the word dominion to talk about people’s connection to the earth, as was used in Genesis 1, this writer uses the Hebrew words ‘avad’ and ‘shamar.’ Ellen Davis, in her book, Getting Involved with God, points out that while ‘Avad’ is often translated here as “to work,” it is not just about tilling the soil. The word ‘avad’ is used hundreds of times in the Old Testament, very few of which have to do with soil, and more often than not, it means to work for someone or something; to serve someone or something. So this word, which is often translated into English as tilling the soil, really goes much deeper than that— implying that humans are to be subservient to the earth— serving the source of our food and shelter. And the word ‘shamar,’ translated here as ‘to keep,’ also means “to watch”— implying a sense of protection; of doing no harm; of recognizing the worth of the earth. So the fact that the author of Genesis was inspired by God to use these two words, that are generally translated as “to till and keep” the garden, in fact have a much deeper meaning in Hebrew. Here, before God’s law has been created for the people to keep, the first responsibility God’s people are given is for keeping the earth. For serving the earth. For protecting the earth. And, in fact, the claim that is made directly, is that we are all intimately a part of that earth that we are protecting and serving and keeping. What is it that we say on Ash Wednesday every year? From dust we came and to dust we shall return. From dirt we came and to dirt we shall return. These words may seem strange or archaic for those of us who no longer spend our lives with our hands in the dirt; but for those early agrarian people of God, this was just a reminder of all of God’s goodness and the ways we are deeply connected. Today we can see, through the use of science, that by overusing the soil, by seeing the land as a commodity instead of as part of who we are, our food is no longer as nutritious. We know that when we strip the earth of its natural resources, that there are consequences that are creating poor drinking water and the destruction of natural habitats. We know that there are islands of plastic floating around our oceans that we will have to deal with because we have ignored the consequences of our actions for so long. We are part of creation, and when creation suffers, if not immediately, eventually so do we. We have a responsibility for caring for that creation because it cares for us; of protecting it, because it is our home that protects us; of keeping it, because all of it is a gift from God, and we were supposed to be a gift to the earth.

I’ve heard scientists lament that we actually have the knowledge to solve problems like the global food crisis, the clean water crisis, and the climate change crisis, and yet, as it turns out, it’s not the knowledge we lack, it’s the fact that these problems exist because of our greed, our selfishness, our apathy; and scientists don’t study how to change those things.

But we do. As people of faith, we know something about the practice of confession, repentance, and forgiveness. We know how to go back to scripture and recognize that we have made mistakes, and be humble enough to admit it. We know that God’s plan includes us having a relationship with the earth and that we can change our ways. And while it may seem simple, I think it absolutely starts with the most basic thing— wonder.

I wonder how things can be different when we take up our first responsibility as God’s people, to keep and serve the earth. I wonder how we, at First UMC, can make a difference by decreasing our footprint as individuals and as a church community. I wonder how God will bless this whole St. Cloud region as we continue to turn our prairie back over to its natural habitat.

Wonder is one of the characteristics I think Jesus was talking about when he told us to be like children. Wonder, curiosity, awe— when we reclaim these practices of faith, not in relationship to all of our gadgets and stuff we consume, but instead about the creation around us, and the human relationships that are in front of us, and our relationship with God— then our habits, our attitudes, and the way we use technology and science, will change too.

It may not seem like much of a solution, but wonder is really important for both science and faith. Wonder and awe keeps us humble, keeps us looking for new answers, keeps us curious about what is happening in our world and what God is up to. Wonder takes us back to the beginning— to the garden called Eden, which means delight. Wonder and delight are deeply connected; just as wonder and gratefulness are deeply connected. Those practices keep us in right relationship with God and can help re-order our relationship with the earth.

We have so much to learn! There is so much we don’t understand! When we face difficult challenges; when we wonder about suffering in our world; when we explore the solutions to the problems we face; may we do so with wonder, with awe, with appreciation of all that God has given us. And may we remember what the verse from Ephesians that the kids at Vacation Bible School learned this week: Glory to God who can do far more than all we could ever ask or imagine by God’s power at work within us.