Wembley Downs Uniting Church
Current Sermons
A Common Family Tree (Pastor Karen Sloan) 11.5.2018
Reading: John 17:6-19

In a world with such inequalities, of opportunities, of wealth, of power, of safety, today I want to talk about unity. Not a unity where everyone believes the same thing, but a unity that combines who we are biologically with our spiritual connections. One in which all parts work together harmoniously as a whole to produce a single general effect. And that effect is love for others and our world. As Barack Obama said - finding common ground based on our common humanity. In some ways finding this unity is our only chance for survival.

Let me read a quote from Carl Sagan . . .

Look again at that dot. That`s here. That`s home. That`s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every `superstar`, every `supreme leader`, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there - on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

As many of you know I teach human biology and anatomy at the Uni, but even before teaching it I have always been utterly astounded at us, the human being and the world in which we live. Who are we, what are we, and how did we get here, notwithstanding that the Genesis story has always been a myth to me. And yet we are so alike and so bound up with our fellow species on earth. The things that are different between us are so minute compared to what we have in common. Even from the beginning.

As Carl Sagan says again.

The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of star stuff. All of us.
Carl Sagan, Cosmos

So there is so much unity in our biology, in our history on this planet, and in the history of the universe.

But as a biologist I want to talk about the things closer to home that unite us. So this is going to firstly a science lesson. Sorry!

There are two indisputable points about evolution and genetics in the 21st century.

The first fact is that all life belongs to one huge family tree. This is not just about humans but about all living things, animals, plants, insects and even bacteria. And this is revealed so clearly in our DNA, the DNA that comes from the stars as Sagan suggests.

Modern genetics which has transformed how we see one another. The DNA molecule - which guides everything from our ability to breathe and think to what hair colour we have, or whether we have earlobes that hang loose or are attached, to the process by which our cells know how to differentiate to become skin or heart or brain tissue - was only discovered in 1957.

It is a double stranded giant molecule which twists regularly, called a double helix, and contains steps which code for the development and sustaining of cellular life. A bit like a picture and its negative. The 4 bases between the strands form these steps, attaching to one another across the 2 strands a bit like the teeth of a zipper. These bases are read in groups of 3 which code for an amino acid, the building blocks of proteins. There are 64 ways to arrange the 4 bases into groups of 3, and all but 3 of these possibilities code for the 20 amino acids that are produced in the human body. The remaining codes tell the cells protein machinery to start or stop when the protein is complete. Simple but incredible. A gene is a segment of DNA that is passed down from parents to children and confers a trait to the offspring. Because the DNA is so long, Genes are organized and packaged in units called ` chromosomes`, each chromosome containing a single DNA molecule. Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes which are found in the cells` nucleus. One set of chromosomes for each pair comes from a person` s mother, and the other set of chromosomes comes from the father.

Because the DNA molecule is so long, it cannot leave the cell, so needs to be copied so that the information can be shared by the protein-making apparatus which is outside the nucleus. An amazing feat itself using another molecule called RNA. And then if we think about how we grow and mature and stay alive until we are in our 80s and 90s, many of the cells need to divide and replace cells that have been injured. DNA is copied before cells divide so that the same amount of DNA is present in daughter cells as in the parent cell, like in skin. Or half the amount if we are talking about sperm and eggs.

This has all been discovered since 1957, but it`s what has happened in the last 30 years that has been the most striking. Since the 1990s and 2000s we have had a greater ability to read DNA and its genes, some 20,000 of them, both in humans and other species. From this we have gone to the human genome project, mapping all the genes in a set number of human beings to being able to splice and repair certain ones and detect other ones that lead to disease and early death.

So why am I telling you this? Apart from astounding you with how complex we are. Because it tells us so much about unity.

We share genes with all other living creatures, not just one or two genes, but thousands of them. From 50-99 percent of all our genes are shared in common with other species, depending on how closely related we are to them. For a broccoli about 50%, for a chimp about 99.98%. When we look at the non-coding parts, parts that used to be called junk but are now recognized as important regulators, we have a 90% match with puffer fish. When we look at humans, we are even closer alike, 99.99%, belonging to the same species, and all containing the same DNA.

The idea of race and nationality as separate entities is therefore completely false. Yes, we may have different skin colour and eye colour, and different footy teams, but we fundamentally the same, carrying with us our ancestral links along the way.

The second point I want to make relates to evolution. Which also involves the story of our DNA. In 1859 Charles Darwin published his seminal work, on the origin of the species by means of natural selection. He determined that the size, shape and colour of animals and plants in a species are not cast in stone but change through time and space. This change is the product of natural selection, whereby those organisms that are better adapted to their environment have a greater likelihood of surviving to adulthood and passing their characteristics on to their offspring. The DNA variation, present in species, small though it is, allows evolution to occur.

We are in fact the product of millions of years of evolution.

Yet while many people believe that evolutionary biologists do not see direction in this process or see it as purely a competitive environment where only the strongest survive, this is quite wrong. Firstly, it is not the fittest, but the most adaptable that survive and reproduce, so strength has very little to do with it. In addition, many biologists do see evolution as having a direction, one in which species becomes more complex and advanced as natural selection continues. This complexity is revealed in the research by an evolutionary biologist, Joan Roughgarden, which looks at the possibility that cooperation is just as important as competition in the overall survival and growth of species. She has found that members of a species can and do display teamwork, or the art of working together, which is not just for the survival of individuals but for a shared interest. This development is seen as a more progressive adaptation and contradicts the idea that our genes are geared only for individual success rather than group success.

This later point, one of interdependency rather than individualism, together with the first of a single tree of life represented in our DNA and our evolutionary past, presents us with a biological view of unity. It is impossible to imagine that we are not linked to other humans, just as we are linked to all other living creatures and that by cooperating rather than competing we are continuing the evolutionary pathway of life.

As Roughgarden suggests,

I trust few readers will be troubled that we and other living things are one another`s kin. Many of us have been dismayed to discover previously unknown brothers and sisters. We can`t choose our parents or kin. Starfish, worms and plants, even rose bushes and redwood trees, are our distant relatives, whether we like it or not. Rather than troubling, for me it`s appealing to think that all of life is united into one body through membership in a common family tree.

Is God within this process? Many, including me, would say a resounding yes, that God is immanent in the ongoing process of evolution, as a spark of divine creativity integral to the ongoing development of our world. And in that creative spark there is a spark of unity. God is not some external ruler but that `mysterious reality that permeates the universe and holds everything together in connectedness and relationship`. (Michael Morwood) . All of life shows the presence of God`s spirit, in which we live and move and have our being.

Relationship is at the core of life, from the cell to us. The process of evolution reveals our organic links to one another, in which God is manifest in the process. Both spiritually and biologically we are connected to the rest of the created order in a way that is deep, universal and everlasting.

An incredible picture, don`t you think? One that should unite us, for both biologically and spiritually we are one. We are born from the same stars, born from the same divine life force, born with such commonality it is mind blowing.

In this view of the world, we have a responsibility to engage in the ongoing creative process with God. As Michael Dowd puts it,

The meaning and purpose of one`s life is how he or she contributes to the well-being of any of the components of the universe. For us that includes family, community, secular and religious institutions and creative pursuits that make civilizations possible and persistent. Similarly, the meaning and purpose of humanity is how we as a species contribute to the larger body of life both now and seeded into the future.

But what is the reality in our world today? A lot different.

Rather than unity we get disunity, rather than people working together, we see many disputes, from minor ones to all-out war. Instead of seeing one great family we are divided into black and white, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, ghettos and suburbs, worker and unemployed and between those that are safe and stable and those persecuted and fleeing.

We now live at a time when the world is a global village, and information is readily available day and night, when the internet connects us to every conceivable piece of information, and to every conceivable shopping mall. One would think that with this ability to communicate and interact we would reflect greater unity within our human family, but not so. Even within the church itself, which confesses to follow the spirit of God and the example of Jesus, we find deep divisions. Divisions that lead to a mixed message, or a message so watered down by the pressures of modern culture that it is difficult to hear. The creative love of God and the support and compassion for our brothers and sisters and for the rest of the creative order is lost amongst the need for comfort or personal salvation. We don`t understand science, so we think it is in conflict with faith, but they hold hands in our search for truth and beauty.

Yet if the entire universe is evolving and we are part of the process, then knowing, loving and serving God, who is the great creator and unifier, is the only way into the future. We are to be co-creators with God in this great commission.

So does our tradition have anything meaningful to say to us about this? Does Jesus have anything meaningful to say about unity? Diarmuid O`Murchu thinks so, when he released a book called Inclusivity, A Gospel Mandate . He feels Jesus has a lot to say about unity, about who is in and who isn`t. And funnily enough it seems Jesus called everyone in, no one was to be left out.

So let us hear what Jesus had to say today in the reading from John. This reading announces this truth through the words of Jesus, and although Jesus had no knowledge of evolution or even much about biology, he understood the nature of God.

This reading is a prayer from Jesus for his disciples and for those that would come after. It looks at both the responsibilities and the consequences of those responsibilities for his followers and the wider church. But as Jesus says, these words are not words of despair but words of love, of calling forth the love that Jesus has known from the father to sustain his disciples. The relationship that binds Jesus to the Father in unity is the relationship he wishes for them. `May they all be one . . . that the world may believe it was you who sent me . . . that they may be one as we are one, with me in them and you in me.` But this relationship is not without danger, and in the prayer, Jesus sends a cautionary note, `I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world.`

It is a prayer reflecting John`s belief that we are sustained by the love of God as reflected in Jesus but also the need to call the church community to be accountable for its actions in the world. He knew God was to be our strength and our sustainer, but that serving God would not be easy.

Yet the world is what we are connected to. We are not separate from it, rather we are part of it. And we know more so today that at any other time, that individualism is the norm, conflict and tension the overwhelming response to one another, and that the idea of unity is a dream only held by a few.

John Perkins suggests, however, that

The great calling and witness of Christians in times of conflict is that when everyone else is choosing sides, we are reconciled across national, racial, cultural and economic barriers.

We are to be unified in responding to the conflicts in the world and to the disunity that fragments families, villages, cities and nations. We are to be examples of how the relationship between God and between each other should work.

This is the role of the church, which is not some club one joins, but an outward reflection of the love of God and the action of Jesus. It is to challenge the idea that we can survive as individuals and still develop and grow. Rather fullness of life can only be achieved through a unity, seen biologically and spiritually, which seeks to support, nurture and connect with one another. To draw all those physically and emotionally separated into the common body, including all of creation.

This is where God, whatever you define that word to mean, can be truly seen.

Let me finish with one last quote from Carl Sagan . . .

Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light‐years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.

Amen to that.

130 Calais Road, (crnr of Minibah Street)
Wembley Downs, Western Australia.
Phone 08 9245 2882

Ten kilometres northwest of Perth city centre,
set amongst the suburbs of City Beach, Churchlands,
Scarborough, Wembley Downs and Woodlands