Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46

I came very close at one point to majoring in physics. When I told my physics professor that I was feeling more drawn to religious studies than to physics, he paused a moment and asked, “Is there a difference?” A fair question for a Quaker astronomer to ask, and I understood where he was going with it. Must our religious and scientific worldviews be so far apart?

Someone requested lately that I should preach on evolution. Our congregation was the first place, many years ago, that this person had heard anything about Christianity being compatible with evolution, and it made a difference. However, my first question was, “Is that really an issue?” I’ve actually lost a lot of my interest in the science/religion debate, because I’m just not convinced it’s truly a debate. As Prof. Cadmus said, “Is there a difference?”

But of course there is, and it’s more of an issue than I tend to spend much time worrying about. It’s a political issue when people campaign to have Intelligent Design taught in schools as an alternative to the idea that life evolved freely and randomly into its current forms. Just to be clear, here’s Intelligent Design in a nutshell: “the proposition that ‘certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.’” The same proposition becomes a curiosity when Tim Tebow’s relationship with God becomes a topic in the Denver Broncos’ bummer of a season. It becomes a pastoral issue when, for instance, our youth grow up with a distant, moralizing God who doesn’t make much real difference in the world. The issue, the unifying question among these, is: How does God relate to this world that we say God created?

Really I should change the tense to creates; the universe is still very much in progress. Stars and galaxies coalesce, explode, and continue to accelerate apart – that last bit driven by a dark energy that physics doesn’t yet understand. Biologically, species evolve and go extinct, governments and nations are overthrown, and the very communities in which we live are transformed by demographics and technology. And it goes without saying – or does it? – that in our individual lives we continue to grow, learn, share, die, and live again.

This all happens, as we see, and there’s more than one way to think about God’s relationship to it (assuming that God’s behind it at all, which let’s assume while we’re here in church). The popular false binary is that we have to choose between seeing God as a distant cosmic watchmaker or an active interventionist. Like a watchmaker, perhaps God set up the whole universe, started it running, and walked away. Incidentally, that sounds a lot like Intelligent Design to me. The alternative is that God continues to tinker, to intervene directly and supernaturally in life as we know it. The trouble with that idea is that God chooses some unhelpful times to get involved: why would God go to the trouble of finding me a nice parking space but not work so hard to cure cancer? Of course, the argument that sets up for us is as false as the choice itself.

Today’s readings offer us two alternative ways to name God’s relationship to the world. What’s more, having both of these readings in our canon calls us to do more than just choose one or the other. We affirm that they’re both authoritative, that is, that they both reveal God’s truth in our world.

First, Ephesians celebrates the great cosmic church and the great cosmic Christ it worships: “The Lord over all things.” This is a God of the biggest of big pictures, the one whose plan and power brought the whole universe into being. More than just the divine watchmaker, however, this God’s cosmic power also works in the church for our salvation. Taken by itself, though, that idea is a little worrisome. The church has too long a history of taking God’s power as our license to mistreat the cosmos for our own benefit.

The reading from Matthew’s gospel tempers that vision, I think. Jesus talks about the Son of Man, that is Christ, coming as king – much the same power that Ephesians suggests – but he says to look for that king in “the least important” people. If Ephesians tells us about the cosmic reign of Christ, Matthew is about what Jesus means by that: God is not only revealed in the grand and the glorious, but also in the small and the insignificant. That has its ethical implications, as the parable of judgment indicates, but really it’s a way of repeating Jesus’ promise to be with us “always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

One could almost go so far as to say that you can look exclusively at the “least of these” for Christ’s presence in the world. Certainly, Jesus is with us in our sufferings, when we stand so small against the powers of life, and he’s with us in the human empathy and sharing we give and receive in those moments. But I think it pays to keep that cosmic vision in mind as well, because that’s what transforms the present, suffering Christ from therapy into hope. God is present with us in our need, and God is served in the ones we have access to, but God is also at work beyond our self-perceived issues and immediate environment.

Instead of weighing evolution against religious doctrine, let’s allow what we know of the natural world to teach us some theology. An ecosystem – a forest, an ocean, a city – is a living and dynamic thing, just as every creature in it is alive too. So there’s a big picture, where owls and voles balance each other in a way that maximizes the living power of the system. But there’s also a little picture, where every vole is deeply and passionately alive. Each of those pictures is true, in all its beauty, tragedy, and complexity. God is not far from our lives, but God’s always doing more than we can imagine, more than we can see within our particular horizons.

I’ve understood that about the way we describe God as a Parent, now more than ever. Who but our Mother can feel how great is the pain of an emerging new life? Who but a Father can understand watching a child grow up and venture into a world we don’t control? And we wouldn’t control it, even if we could, because then our children wouldn’t be grown up. It’s not that we’re not invested – every fiber of our being is bound up in our child – but our greatest gift to them is the freedom to be themselves. Your parental experience may vary, but I’m convinced there’s something of God in that tension.

So how is God there? What kind of God are we talking about? We’re talking about a God who calls us into being and sets us free to live, but doesn’t abandon us. God gives us his very self in hope, potential, and compassion, and watches eagerly to see what we’ll make of it. God remains with us as love, suffering with our pain and rejoicing with our success.

God always, insistently, opens possibilities out ahead of us. She stretches reality to contain something new, and the universe expands. He gives minds, bodies, and cells the ability to learn and share, and species adapt and evolve. The Spirit calls us into transforming relationships with ourselves and each other. Jesus teaches us what it truly is to love, trust, and be nurtured. And the church, the body of Christ, brings into completion the Gift that completes everything in eternal life.