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Article | June 11, 2023

Sermon: The Faith of Science Fiction

Blog|The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm Clemens Young

1. What is faith? This may be the most important question of our time. This week the indictment of our former president reminds us how questions of trust underlie every human relationship and institution.[i]

In 1996 Mary Doria Russell published a science fiction novel called The Sparrow. It imagines a then near future in 2019 when the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program at the Arecibo Observatory discovers sung music coming from near Alpha Centauri. Jesuit priests led by the linguistics scholar Father Emilio Sandoz organize a mission to that world. They travel to Rakhat via newly invented technologies developed from mining asteroids.

With the turn of a page it is suddenly the year 2060. Sandoz seems to be the only survivor and returns to earth. Damaged physically, psychologically and spiritually he tries to answer his superior’s accusations. The reader experiences the story in parallel in two temporal settings both as Sandoz and his friends encounter a whole new form of human-like life, and much later as he explains what went wrong. It is an anthropological pleasure to imagine the language and society of the inhabitants of Rakhat. One almost wants to stop reading there before the inevitable disaster.

Emilio Sandoz grew up surrounded by drug crime in Puerto Rico and first began to be educated by the Jesuits as a teenager. He has always struggled with doubt. As the story unfolds he begins to see the circumstances that brought the team together as more than a coincidence perhaps even a miracle. As he finds his place among the far more social, even herdlike, inhabitants of Rakhat they physically touch him and he discovers a new conviction about God, a kind of ecstasy that fulfills him.

This makes his disappointment so much worse when through his actions everything falls apart and he causes the death of his old friends and new ones. Near the end of the story two priests talk about Sandoz’s struggle with faith. The Father General says, “There’s an old Jewish story that says in the beginning God was everywhere and everything, a totality. But to make creation God had to remove Himself from some part of the universe, so something besides Himself could exist. So he breathed in, and in the places where God withdrew, there creation exists.”

“’So God just leaves?’ John asked, angry where Emilio had been desolate. ‘Abandons creation?’ ‘No. He watches. He rejoices. He weeps. He observes the moral drama of human life and gives meaning to it by caring passionately about us, and remembering.’ ‘Matthew 10:29… “Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.’ ‘But the sparrow still falls.’”[ii]

These are two different pictures of faith. First, as a kind of disposition which is a grateful response to good things in our life. This attitude is nonetheless vulnerable to suffering. And we might wonder whether the good outbalances the pain. Or second, faith can be regarded as the knowledge of a silent watcher, a loving but invisible companion who is with us, but constrained in the help that can be provided.

2. If someone asked us to describe our faith we might say something like that. But today the Gospel offers a very different and surprising kind of answer to the question “what is faith.”

My friend Matt Boulton likes to describe the Christian year as divided in half. There are six months of holidays from Advent through Epiphany, Lent and Easter. Then six months of ordinary time which begins now. He says this rhythm is like inhaling and exhaling or like the tide coming in and going out again. Ordinary, does not mean commonplace, it means ordinal as in part of a series. In this case it means a series of episodes from the Bible that teach us how to live and give us a framework for interpreting our experience.[iii]

The first eight chapters of the Gospel of Matthew describe Jesus’ birth, his later baptism, temptation in the wilderness, the calling of his followers (the fisherman on the sea of Galilee), then his first sermon and stories of healing. In chapter nine Jesus invites the one who seems to be the last of the twelve disciples, a tax collector named Matthew.

Imagine Matthew’s daily life charging taxes on goods going to market. The author of the gospel uses the word tax collector as a synonym for sinner. People hate tax collectors for three reasons. First, taxes were cripplingly high. Second, these taxes were levied by, and used to pay, an occupying army that punished and crucified the local people. Tax collectors collaborate in this oppression. Finally, tax collectors extorted more money than required and did this for the sake of enriching themselves.

Jesus immediately befriends and shares a meal with Matthew and “many tax collectors and sinners” (Mt. 9). I wonder what the other disciples thought about this. Matthew seems to be last one chosen, the twelfth disciple. The pharisees, a group seeking to purify the religion of the time, deride Jesus for the company he keeps. Jesus does not make the argument that these people are not really sinners. Instead he says that like a physician he has come not to heal the healthy but the sick.

The first readers of this story would know about the purity rules in the books of Leviticus and Numbers in the Old Testament. Verses there say that menstruating women should be regarded as unclean and corpses too. Anyone and anything, including furniture like beds or chairs, that a bleeding woman touched would also become unclean, and require a period of isolation and ritual cleansing.[iv]

Jesus in the very act of responding to criticisms of the sinners attracted to him, is interrupted by a leader of the synagogue. This man kneels and begs for him to heal his daughter saying, “lay your hand on her, and she will live” (Mt. 9). As Jesus  goes with all of his disciples following him, a woman approaches to touche his clothes. It’s amazing that there are words spoken in the Bible that we still use today. Haimorreow is our word for hemorrhage and means to bleed. For twelve years this woman has been bleeding. For twelve years she has been unclean, isolated and literally untouchable.

We hear a little of her internal dialogue. She says to herself, “If only I touch his cloak, I will be made well” (Mt. 9). The word for “made well” is sōzō related to the word sōtēr for savior. It does not just mean to be physically healed. It means to save, preserve, heal or rescue.

Imagine the drama of this situation. An unclean woman without permission goes through a crowd surrounding a great and holy teacher, past his disciples, through the law that forbids it, and in effect desecrates him. The disciples must have been stunned and wondered what Jesus would say. Jesus does not rebuke her or criticize her actions. He loves her. He commends her boldness. Not only that but rather than taking credit for his healing power, he emphasizes her role in this miraculous healing. He says, “Take heart daughter, your faith has made you well” (Mt. 9).

When Jesus arrives at the synagogue leader’s house everyone knows that touching a dead body makes you unclean. But Jesus takes the girl by the hand and she gets up. The tax collector, the hemorrhaging woman and the synagogue leader come from entirely different stations of life but they teach us that faith is boldness. It is the conviction that our more daring efforts will be met by a loving God.

During Pride Month it is especially important to linger for a moment here. We also need to recognize the way that Jesus interprets scripture. Jesus is not a prisoner to a simplistic and literalist reading of ancient texts. Jesus uses one text, “I desire mercy not sacrifice” from Hosea 6:6 to interpret other texts, those having to do with sinners, menstruating women and corpses. In our time we need to be more diligent in reading the Bible in ways that nurture and love LGBTQ+ and all people.

So for Matthew faith means more than just gratitude for the goodness of our existence. It refers to more than just a silent but compassionate watcher in our lives. Faith is a boldness in trusting God even when we cannot perfectly understand what is happening.

The theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) writes, “This is Abraham’s faith: Faith which, in hope against hope, steps out beyond human capacity across the chasm which separates God and man, beyond the visibility of the seen and the invisibility of the unseen, beyond subjective and objective possibility… to the place where he is supported only by the Word of God.”[v]

This week I received a letter from a dear friend who has been going through four terrible family tragedies this year. During the last of these tragedies he describes time moving so slowly, and about how his mind became his own worst enemy. He writes about being unable to pray, about screaming a bad word at the top of his lungs when he was home or in the car alone.

He says that because he has faith in God, Jesus, the church he kept coming to this place, to Grace Cathedral even though it brought up a tidal wave of feeling and grief. But over time things got better. He heard a setting of “Ave Maria” sung by a visiting choir. He began stopping by “Our Lady of Flowers” the photographic image of Mary in the South Transept, and for an instant he had a kind of vision in which Mary held his family member on her lap. Then in a sermon he was reminded about a dream that the Medieval mystic Julian of Norwich had. In it she held a hazelnut in her hand which represented everything God had created. She worried about its destruction. But God reassured her saying that he would draw all things to himself. My friend concluded saying, “Mary seems to be my path back to mending my relationship with God.”

What is faith? This may be the most important question of our life. May there always be the faith of gratitude for our existence. May we begin to experience God as the quiet, compassionate witness to our life. But above all, my dear ones, let us be audacious and bold in the places where we are supported only by the Word of God. In the beginning God was everywhere and everything. Lay your hand on her and she will live. Take heart daughter yo

[i] Answers surround us about faith and trustworthiness, in the Senate, newspapers, laboratories and our closest relationships. In his book Faith on Earth Richard R. Niebuhr studies Luke’s question “When the Son of Man comes will he find faith on earth.” Will human life end when no one can any longer be expected to keep their word?

[ii] Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow (NY: Villard, 1996) 478.

[iii] Matthew Boulton, “Go: SALT’s Commentary for the Second Sunday after Pentecost,” SALT 5 June 2023.

[iv] Leviticus 12:1-8; 15:19-30 and Numbers 19:11-13.

[v] Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans translated from the sixth edition by Edwyn C. Hoskins (NY: Oxford University Press, 1975) 142.

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