Scripture Lessons: 1 Corinthians 3:1-9 and Matthew 5:21-37
Sermon: Spiritual Evolution
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
In December of 1831, the HMS Beagle set off from England on a voyage to chart the coastline of South America. On board, as naturalist and geologist, was Charles Darwin who was born on Feb. 12, 1809. The journey was projected to take 2 years. It took 5. In those 5 years, Darwin did geological study and collected natural history specimens including fossils. Darwin made drawings, took measurements, and kept extensive notes on his travels, which as we know included the Galapagos Islands. The expedition returned to England in 1836.
In the years following the voyage Darwin continued his study of his findings on the trip. And he pursued additional investigations as a naturalist. He examined the evidence and information that he was amassing. He looked for the ideas and explanations that were emerging from the data.
Up to that point, the accepted view was that each species was created in its final form as we know it. The religious view was that God created each species individually. All the biodiversity on Earth came from the hand of a creator God, species by species, one by one.
Darwin and others were seeing the relationships and connections between species and their studies led them to see that species were not independent and unrelated but that they were related and connected, evolving and changing over time.
Finally, after many years of investigation and exploration, in 1859, 23 years after the Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin, in collaboration with Alfred Russell Wallace, published a paper entitled, “On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection.” Later that year, Darwin’s full views about natural selection were presented in On Origin of Species. Darwin made the case for what we know as the theory of evolution. That was in 1859. By the 1870’s, Darwin’s views on natural selection and evolution were widely accepted.
The basic understanding is that species adapt and change over time in light of changing circumstances and conditions in the environment. Genetic traits that promote the survival of the species persist. Traits that are detrimental to the perpetuation of the species do not. Through this process of change new species emerge and some species go extinct. This is a natural on-going process that is part of the dynamic ever-changing environment. Change and adaptation are part and parcel of Creation which is in a constant state of flux.
Just as plants and animals adapt and change, so humans, too, are evolving and changing both biologically and culturally. For instance, the appendix is getting smaller and smaller as humans evolve. It is disappearing because it no longer serves a useful purpose. So, at some point in the future, it may be that people are born without an appendix.
In addition to the biological evolution of human beings, we also see that human culture is evolving and changing over time. This, too, contributes to the perpetuation of the species. There was the harnessing of the power of fire. There was the development from being hunter-gatherers, to settled agriculture. There was the age of fossil fuels which powered industrialization. Human culture is continually adapting, changing, and evolving.
We also see the evolving of religion in the history of humanity. In past times, people thought the world was controlled by gods who had different jobs. One was in charge of rain. One took care of the thunder. There was a god of the sun and a god of the moon. People believed in many different gods that were doing different things to keep the world running. Humans believed they could influence these gods to their benefit.
With Judaism, we see the emergence of the first form of monotheistic religion, religion with just one God. And Christianity and Islam emerge from that. There has also been the emergence of many other religions. These religions emerge to meet the spiritual needs of people in varying circumstances as humanity develops. Religion adapts to the ever advancing human understanding of the world and nature and science. As humanity has grown and progressed intellectually, religion has adapted accordingly. Or it should.
In our religious tradition, we see the process of evolution at work. Jesus was Jewish. In the scripture that we heard today, Jesus references traditional Jewish teaching about murder. Thou shalt not kill. Jesus builds on this. He doesn’t replace it, he takes it further. He affirms that our religious ideas are growing, changing, and deepening as humanity moves forward.
Sure, it is fine to have a teaching that we should not murder or kill. But Jesus adds to this the challenge to look at what causes killing and murder. Anger. Hatred. Strife. So he encourages people to deal with their conflicts in a constructive manner. Don’t just “not kill.” Work out your problems. Learn to get along with others. Pursue reconciliation before you are thinking about killing someone. And the sooner this happens the better. The longer we wait, the more difficult it can become. We are to work out our differences and to pursue right relationship with others. He is encouraging reconciliation not exploitation or violence.
Jesus’ message is basically the same when it comes to marriage. Sure, there are legal standards around marriage. There is what is lawful. But Jesus is encouraging people to do what is good and true. He is viewing marriage not as a property transaction but as a human relationship of mutuality, dignity and respect.
As for a vow, if you have to take a vow to make sure you are not lying, the presumption is that the rest of the time, you may very well be lying. Jesus is saying don’t lie. Ever. So you don’t have to worry about taking a vow. Be true all the time.
What Jesus is showing us is the evolution from needing rules to keep us from harming each other to offering teaching that shows us how to get along with each other and live as brothers and sisters in communities that foster life and creativity. Jesus is showing us how to transition from a basic view of “don’t do the bad,” to “do the good.” It’s not enough not to hate, we must love one another, even those we consider an enemy. Jesus is drawing upon the traits of his religious tradition that he feels are needed to advance the perpetuation of the species. He is offering what is good for the continuing future of humanity.
In a time of extreme conflict and challenge, Abraham Lincoln drew upon those teachings to foster the perpetuation of the United States, its people and ideals. Lincoln was born on Feb. 12, 1809, the same day and year as Darwin. While Darwin was busy helping us to understand how species develop biologically, Lincoln shows us how a species develops morally. He is a great teacher of the practicalities associated with the moral evolution of humanity that we are taught by Jesus. While Lincoln was not much for church, he was an avid reader of the Bible and very much committed to the teachings of Jesus including the teaching that we heard this morning.
Lincoln was committed to the hard work of being in right relationship with others personally, in society, as a nation, and in international affairs. We see this carried out by Lincoln who said, “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” He applied this in all circumstances including war and peace.
In addition, Lincoln very specifically selected a cabinet that included people with differing points of view, from each other, and from Lincoln himself. Lincoln believed in the honest sharing of a diversity of ideas and perspectives. Through this give and take, he felt that a better result would emerge. From conflicting viewpoints better policy could be created. Lincoln wanted to learn from others and felt that a diverse cabinet would best serve him and the nation. You can read more about this in the book, Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin.
In Lincoln, we see the commitment to reconciliation over exploitation especially in the aftermath of the Civil War. We remember those great words of his second inaugural address: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
In this address, we see Lincoln’s desire not so much to win a war as to win a peace. And he knows that to win peace means pursuing reconciliation with the South. That will require compassion and generosity. It must be based on respect and dignity. This is not how those who win a war typically treat the loser of the war. What is customary is for the loser to be punished, debased, stripped of power, agency and resources; exploited. Lincoln would have none of that. He exhibits the commitment to making things right with the South in accordance with the teaching that we heard from the Gospel this morning. Lincoln tells us, “I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.”
Lincoln was very much inspired by the Bible and the teachings of Jesus. And we see the ethics of Jesus borne out in Lincoln’s life and work. It is for this that he is revered and remembered, though, sadly, not enough emulated.
We see Lincoln drawing upon the traits of Christianity that he feels will best serve the good of the world. In him we see the evolution of Christianity as a force for good not just in the North, or in the United States, but in the world. And this leadership is based on the Bible. But notice that Lincoln chooses carefully what teachings in the Bible to follow. He could have followed teachings in the Hebrew Bible and Christian Testament that would have supported punishing the South. Taking the spoils of the South. Degrading and demeaning the South. Lincoln could have impugned the South with threats of the fires of hell and burning for eternity. There are plenty of verses in the Bible that Lincoln could have drawn upon to support that agenda. But just as biological species evolve and change and adapt to ensure survival, religion changes to meet the challenges of the circumstances that it confronts. Lincoln knew that vindictiveness and revenge were not going to promote the survival of the United States of America. And so he chose carefully from the Christian tradition the traits that would best serve the interests of survival and peace at the moment and into the far future.
The church has always been involved with choosing from its heritage what to preserve and what to let go of to meet the current situation. The church has always been choosing what traits to carry on and what traits to let go of. This is nothing new. Jesus came for the good of the world. The church exists for the good of the world. So it is incumbent upon the church to always be seeking how to serve the good of the world in the current circumstance. And we have a rich heritage to draw upon.
Today, the world needs a witness to right relationship, to dignity and respect, to truth and integrity. The world needs to be shown how to engage in reconciliation. Our first response seems to be weapons and conflict and violence when there is a problem. The world needs a world view; looking at what is in the best interests of the world, not just one people, one country, one place, but the world needs a planetary perspective including all of Creation. Given our technology, weaponry, mobility, and the rampant greed around us the world need the witness of the expansive moral vision of Jesus now more than ever.
We see Darwin and Lincoln giving the world their best for the good of the world. We see them giving the world their best intellectual capacity, their best creativity, their best moral vision. In their own way, they are contributing to the perpetuation of the species. The church needs to be giving the world the best it has to offer.
It is in the DNA of the church to be an agent of reconciliation and right relationship not only between people, but between humanity and the natural world, plants, animals, land, water, and space. The church must draw upon those traits for they are necessary for the survival of the world and offer them as a bold witness.
We are living in a time of strained relationships from the court room to the board room to the situation room to the bedroom. In decades and centuries to come, looking back upon these days, will the church be remembered as a spiritual infant, an image we are given in Corinthians? Will the church be remembered for promoting a faith of prohibitions. Don’t do this. Don’t’ do that. Avoid evil. Will the church be remembered for promoting intimidation and threat? Don’t do that or you’ll spend eternity rotting in hell. Do this if you want to go to heaven and live for eternity in paradise. Will the church be remembered for fostering inequality and division?
Or will the church be remembered for preserving the traits of our heritage that promote universal love and extraordinary reconciliation? Will the church be remembered for its spiritual maturity embracing the full scope of the ethics and teachings of the Jewish Jesus?
In biology, when traits are no longer serving the survival of the species, they adapt or the species becomes extinct. In culture, when practices and attitudes no longer serve the future interests of the community, they are left behind. So it is with religion as well. Aspects of our tradition that are no longer useful, that no longer serve the good of the whole Creation need to be jettisoned. The church has significant traits to offer to the world that can definitely contribute to the survival of humanity and the planet. Will the church continue its evolution and perpetuate those traits? If the church ceases to exist in a significant way, we will know that the church was not serving its purpose. That it did not allow adaptation and natural selection to work.
Christianity has been opting for various traits since faith communities began gathering in the first century CE. Slight variations to fit the circumstances. Slight differences being preserved so that the radical love and scandalous reconciliation of the way of Jesus will continue to be enfleshed for the good of the world. Our religious tradition is needed to be a source of good news, new life and the transformation of creation into the paradise God intends for it to be. May the church encourage the process of natural selection and continue to evolve and contribute to the good of the world.
A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.