Rev. Danielle K Bartz January 9, 2022
Matthew 2:1-12 “Gazing into the Heavens”
On Christmas Day, the James Webb Telescope was launched into space. The largest, most sensitive, and most sophisticated telescope ever created by humanity was years and years in the making. It was a dream in the making, a chance to explore the universe in ways never before imagined. It is appropriately named after the NASA administrator who oversaw the majority of the Apollo moon missions – another endeavor of exploration, discovery, and imagination. So far all of the stages to deploy the telescope have gone well on its trip to its final destination about one million miles from Earth, and barring any complications, we should start to see images later this summer.
I am particularly excited about this telescope, and not just because of my devotion and fascination of all things outer space. The images of its predecessor, the Hubble Telescope, have been extraordinary. One cannot even image what we will see through this new one. Its powerful mirrors and sensitivity to pick up infrared light means it will be able to peer back in time, to see what the universe looked like near the time of its creation.
I was gushing my excitement about the James Webb Telescope the other day to my friends. I was expressing my amazement and wonder about the beauty of science and what it can achieve. I was wondering aloud about what we might see and learn. And I said, “We may even see the face of God.” My friend, another clergy person, smiled at me and said, “You can’t see God through a telescope.” Not meant to be dismissive or unkind, he simply wasn’t able to connect his devout faith with the possibilities of science. I was neither hurt nor offended by his comment, but I couldn’t help but think to myself, “How do you know we won’t be able to see God?”
Science and religion have long had a precarious relationship. The Church has a long history of dismissing, even punishing, scientists who challenge long-held assumptions about humanity’s place within creation, and our role in shaping that creation. The mutual suspicion between the religious world and the scientific world has caused a division that at times can seem impossible to overcome. However – that division doesn’t exist in today’s scripture reading. Today we are celebrating Epiphany, the day in which the Church remembers when the world discovered the Christ Child. The sages as our text translates it, or the wisemen as they are more commonly referred to, were the scientists of their time. They made careful observations of the world around them and the sky above them. And when they noticed something new, a new star in the sky, they dedicated their time to try and understand what it meant. These were not philosophers with their heads buried in books, extolling just thoughts and ideas. Rather, these sages were scientists who observed, studied, and explored. They observed a new star in the heavens, followed that star, sought out information, took risks, travelled far, and there they found the face of God. Every year the church celebrates the discovery, or revelation, or Epiphany of the incarnation, of God-in-flesh, made by scientists. The division between religion and science seems rather absurd when you really think about it.
At the very beginning of the pandemic, I recorded a little video message about how we were going to adjust our congregational life. A phrase I said was, “We trust in God and we believe in science.” I didn’t think much about it, until I got an email from a clergy person in another town I didn’t know asking if he could use the transcript of that video message as a starting point for his own message to his congregation. I obviously said yes and sent it to him. He replied with sincere gratitude but then wrote, almost as an aside, “But of course I can’t say we believe in science.” I raised my eyebrows at that, but quickly moved on. But, that sentence has lingered in my thoughts, and as the last two years have unfolded, I have come to realize how unfortunately prophetic that was.
I don’t want to spend my time or yours railing against the startling large number of people who have chosen to question the expert scientists who are doing everything they possibly can to keep us safe. And please don’t think I am naïve enough to not understand how some scientific discoveries have led to destruction. I, of course, understand that. Humanity has proven time and again that we can so easily ignore our God-given responsibility to do good in this world, not evil. I know that. But, today, on Epiphany, the day in which the Church celebrates the world’s discovery of the Christ Child through the observations and travels of early scientists, I want to celebrate with you the extraordinary gifts from God that have been created when humanity has come together to explore and create and do good.
The green energy technology that is being developed to combat climate change can be considered a scientific act of repentance for the lessons we had to learn about what damage we can do in powering our lives. We still have a lot to learn, a lot to discover, and a lot of damage to fix – but we are proving to ourselves it is possible. Medical technology and treatment – in particular the scientific advancements in cancer treatment that make so many diagnoses that were once terminal, now survivable – are wonderous and amazing when we take time to think about them. The technology that was created so people can stay home where they feel more comfortable and safe and still join worship – something this congregation didn’t realize we needed but was able to quickly get is, when we think about it, a great gift of science. The COVID test I was able to take following my travels so I knew I was a safe presence in this space with you and the vaccine I had to fight the virus I know I was exposed to – is also a great scientific gift from God.
These are just a few examples of how science and faith walk the same path – the path of creation, the path of good, the path of justice, and the path of loving our neighbors. Yes, we have a responsibility given to us by God to use science in a way that is ethical, and we need to check ourselves at each step. But with faith and trust in God, I have tremendous hope in the future of this world.
In a few months the James Webb telescope will begin to help us peer further into space than ever before. We will see light from millions and millions of years ago. We will likely see planets that can sustain life as we understand it. We will see galaxies long extinct and ones just forming. We will see just how small we truly are and yet how vast our interconnected existence is. We will be amazed. We will ask new questions. We will find old answers. And, maybe, just maybe – while looking to the heavens, the stars will lead us to the face of God. It has happened before. There is no reason to think it won’t happen again. The scientific epiphanies that await us will, if we allow them, draw us closer to God. As we start this New Year, I can’t think of a more exciting possibility. Amen.