Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, October 2, 2016: Season of Creation – Cosmos Sunday

Texts: Proverbs 8:22-31  +  Psalm 148  +  John 6:41-51

Throughout this Season of Creation, we’ve been listening to voices from a genre of literature within scripture known as “wisdom literature,” the Book of Job, the Book of Psalms and today the Book of Proverbs. In the verses that precede those we’ve already heard this morning, Wisdom is personified as a noble lady present with God since before creation, standing at the crossroads and calling out for humanity to heed her voice. In this way, she introduces the idea of God’s own existence being inherently communal which Christianity later transformed into the doctrine of the Trinity, the second person of which we call the Christ. By faith, we claim that this Christ, the Word and Wisdom of God, present with God before the cosmos came into being, has taken on flesh and entered history in the person of Jesus of Nazareth who stood himself at the crossroads of history and spoke words of divine judgment and divine grace so that we might know salvation in a whole new way.

Wisdom literature operates by analogy and relies on metaphor. Whether the tightly crafted sayings found in proverbs, the evocative music of the psalms, or the courtroom drama of Job’s argument with God, wisdom literature works best by saying just enough to get us thinking but not enough to tell us what to think.

 

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Joesph Mills

Here’s another kind of wisdom literature, a poem, this one by Joseph Mills titled, “Questions.”

 

On the Interstate, my daughter tells me

she has only two questions. I’m relieved

because she usually has two hundred.

I say, Okay, let’s have them, and she asks,

What was there before there was anything?

Stupidly, I think I can answer this:

There was grass, forests, fields, meadows, rivers.

She stops me. No, Daddy. I mean before

there was anything at all, what was there?

I say that I don’t know, so then she asks,

Where do we go when we die? I tell her

I don’t know the answer to this either.

She looks out the side, and I look forward,

then she asks if we can have some music.

“Questions” by Joseph Mills from The Miraculous Turning. (c) Press 53, 2014.

The poet presents us with another Lady Wisdom, this time a young girl who — like many children — has already intuited the limits of human knowledge and so tests her parent, wanting to know if age is enough to provide answers to the hardest questions.

Speaking as though she were already in a dialogue with the passage from Proverbs, the young girls asks, “What was there before there was anything?” The Hebrew scriptures reply, “The LORD created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth.” (Prov. 8:22-23) But the girl’s father can only say, “I don’t know.”

Then she asks a question none of us can answer from direct experience because we are still living. “Where do we go when we die?” While the child’s father cannot answer this question either, John’s gospel tells us that Jesus was sent by a different Father, a cosmic Parent, a universal source whose wisdom emanates throughout creation to such a degree that no one race or religion or clan or nation can lay claim to it, but that we have all been taught by God. (John 6:45) This Jesus utters wisdom sayings of his own, speaking in poems and parables, using metaphor to describe truths as complex as theoretical physics. “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (v. 51)

Jesus calls himself the living bread that has come down from the heavens, like the manna that fell from the sky to feed the people of Israel as they escaped their slavery in Egypt. Jesus, avatar of the Christ, God’s living wisdom, present since before anything created was, comes to us as food. Can we just play with that image for a moment and consider what it might mean?

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Like the breath that passes between us, each inhalation drawing our neighbor’s life into our own body, bread — like all food — carries with it vitamins and minerals, proteins and sugars, catalyzed from the soil of the earth; earth composed of elements that were ultimately birthed in the hearts of stars like our own sun. Each breath we take, each bite we consume, is an act of participation in the unity of creation. By connecting the act of eating to the story of salvation, Jesus reminds his followers that ultimate salvation comes when we realize that we are all intimately bound up in one another’s lives in ways that are sewn into the fabric of reality. As real as gravity, there is a strong attraction that binds us to one another, that makes our individual existence dependent on the actions of everyone and everything around us.

And vice versa. So that we cannot pollute our oceans, or destroy the habitats of our animal kin, or warm the atmosphere to the point of climate change that unleashes devastating storms at sea and along the coasts without killing ourselves as well. We may live inside the myth of rugged individualism but, in truth, we are all and always in this thing called life, called existence, together because all of creation, all the cosmos, are one.

There’s something poignant in the poem, as the child recognizes that her father cannot answer the questions she’s thrown at him. They look away from one another and she asks if they can have some music to fill the disappointed silence. It’s beautiful writing, acknowledging the limits of our knowing. But we do not fill our silences with song simply because we have no words to offer, but also because music and poetry and all good art allow us to tell the truth in ways that other modes of knowing cannot access as easily. While I marvel at the elegance of physics and mathematics to describe the universe, they often leave me speechless, locked outside their wisdom.

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But when we gather for worship and begin to sing, when the breath leaving my body joins the breath leaving your body to vibrate at frequencies that fill the air with harmony, and together we create something that none of us could create alone, then for a moment, I remember that we are all a part of something vast and limitless, but also something that needs us, and our skin and bones and breath and questions if it is ever going to know itself at all. And in that moment, it is as though the whole creation, the whole cosmos, cries “Alleluia!”

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, September 29, 2013: Fourth Sunday in Creation — Cosmos Sunday

Texts:  Proverbs 8:22-31  +  Psalm 148  +  Colossians 1:15-20  +  John 6:41-51

We are all stardust. This is most certainly true.

Writing for the famous PBS science series, Nova, Peter Tyson explains,

Every single atom in your body — the calcium in your bones, the carbon in your genes, the iron in your blood, the gold in your filling — was created in a star billions of years ago … You and everything around you, every single natural and man-made thing you can see, every rock, tree, butterfly, and building, comprises atoms that originally arose during the Big Bang or, for all but the lightest two or three elements, from millions of burning and exploding stars far back in the history of the universe. You live because stars died; it’s that simple.

Every atom of my body has traveled the stars, exploding with limitless potential energy in the first nano-seconds of creation.

I wasn’t sure, initially, how to preach on a theme as large as the cosmos. The gift of this task has been to discover in my research how interconnected all of creation is. Not just us and the oceans, or us and the animals, or us and the climate; but us and the stars in the sky, where God forged the atoms from which we are built.

I was given a timely and unexpected opportunity to think about this a week ago today when Kerry and I were in Los Angeles celebrating the installation of Bishop Guy Erwin in the Southwest California Synod. On the advice of friends, we drove up into the hills to Griffith Observatory, best known as the setting for famous scenes from such movies as Rebel Without a Cause and Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, but also a very fine planetarium in its own right.

Griffith Observatory

Griffith Observatory

Inside the observatory Kerry and I browsed exhibits on the rotation of the earth, the role of astronomy in the evolution of human society, and the science of photographing the universe.  As we wandered through the observatory, one display really caught my attention.  It was a series of short films explaining the life cycle of the sun and its relationship to the rest of the galaxy.

Accompanied by scenes of our solar system set against the larger galaxy, the film explains that

Long ago, the sun was smaller and cooler. In the future, it will be very different from today. More than 4 billion years ago, the sun formed from a collapsing cloud of gas and dust. The cloud’s center grew very dense and hot. Gravity pulled the cloud into a spinning disk, where planets formed. As the sun grew more massive, pressure triggered nuclear reactions. The increased energy drove away the remaining dust and gas.

Then the scene shifted from a view of our solar system among the stars to one of our star, the sun, seen from the vantage point of the earth.  The film continued, “today then sun is a stable, middle-aged star.”

That’s what caught my attention.  I was startled to realize that we have that in common, me and the sun, that we are middle-aged.  Granted, the sun has figured out how to be both middle-aged and stable, but it’s had 5 billion years to work on that.  I’ve had only forty, so I feel entitled to a little slack in that department.

The film continued,

In a few billion years, it will run out of fuel. It will become a “red giant” star. Its heat will melt the Earth’s surface. After a few million years, the sun’s outer layers will escape to space. When the Sun’s nuclear reactions end, it will collapse to become a “white dwarf” star. It will provide little light or heat to any remaining planets. The sun we know is just one chapter in the long story of our star’s life.

NASA image of the Omega Nebula

NASA image of the Omega Nebula

It’s not just that we are like the stars, but that they are like us as well.  They are born in stellar nurseries at the center of the galaxy; they burn brightly, but eventually they die as well, their elements returning to the rich, dark sea of interstellar space.

Even then, nothing is wasted. You’ve probably already learned at some point along the way that the light we see when we look up into the night sky has actually been traveling for millions of years before it ever reaches our eye.

So, the light and heat released during those final epochs of our own sun’s life will race through the ever-expanding universe traveling, perhaps, to some unimagined future eye which will behold it.

Our own lives are like the stars.  The light and heat of our witness travels forward in time long after we are dead.  This morning we catch a glimpse of the light cast by the ancient Israelites who imagined the wisdom of God as if it were God’s only begotten daughter; the first of God’s many creations; the order that organizes the structure of creation to make life possible; God’s great delight, assisting God in bringing the rest of creation into being.

Other points of light in this constellation of scriptures saw the story of Jesus reflected in the image of Lady Wisdom, echoing the story of creation with a new story of re-creation and reconciliation achieved on a cross, at a tree cut down but restored to life.

Jesus, the image of the invisible God, shines brightest of all, the light of his life blazing so brightly it pierces the vast darkness of the heavens above and sheds new light on all of creation.  And just as nothing is wasted in the death of a star, so nothing of what Jesus experienced in his sojourn through creation was wasted as well.  Even the scorching heat of the crucifixion that desiccated his body proved, in time, to be the super nova that propelled his life-giving presence throughout the known world, transgressing borders and crossing seas.

You live because stars died; it’s that simple.

Jesus tells his followers that he is the bread that came down from heaven, mixing metaphors, playing with our expectations just as wisdom rejoiced in the inhabited world and delighted in the human race.

Jesus, the image of the invisible God, show us who God is and how God wants to be with us.  Jesus, naming himself the bread of life, invites us to consume this bit of cosmos wrapped up in flesh.  To wrap our own flesh around his light and to be transformed, lifted up and brought to life.

Considering the miracle of life among the vastness of the cosmos, Vicky Balabanksi and Shirley Joh Wurst, two Australian theologians, write,

The cosmos as we know it, both through revelation and through science, is characterized by an impulse to life. One of the great scientific puzzles of our time is the way in which the very nature of the cosmos seems to be intrinsically shaped — even fine-tuned — by the fundamental forces through which the particles of matter interact to make the emergence of life possible. For example, if the weak nuclear force that controls disintegration processes in atomic nuclei were only very slightly weaker or stronger, then supernova explosions would not occur and the stardust of heavy elements essential to life would not have been available to form Earthlike planets. Or, if the strong nuclear force between the proton and neutron were only slightly weaker or stronger, the sun’s processes would have been different from what they are, such that life on Earth could not have developed…

The order of the cosmos reveals an impulse to life. We might use another term for this reality, namely, “grace.” We most frequently think of grace in relation to God’s acts of salvation and redemption, but the fact that we exist at all, in a cosmos imbued with life, is itself a demonstration of grace. God’s grace is the reason there is a world instead of nothing at all or only a swirl of random matter.

So much of the season of creation has been focused on the deep peril now faced by our planet.  We’ve studied the oceans, the animals and the storms — each time being brought face to face with the damage we have done and the need to repent, to reverse course, to act.

But we end this season of creation with a celebration of the cosmos, a name for creation so vast that the ancient Israelites and early Christians could barely imagine the multiverse it suggests.  Even we, with our satellite telescopes that can paint the mysteries at the center of the galaxy, where stellar nurseries give birth to new stars, have only begun to grasp the vastness of creation.

The cosmos cannot be broken.  In its infinitely expanding, accelerating propulsion it precedes our great commission, sending itself ahead of us, testing our ability to dream even a fraction of its reality.  The cosmos dwarfs our weapons of mass destruction with infinite creation.

Before it we can only wonder.

In the explanation to the first article of the apostles’ creed, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth,” Martin Luther writes,

What does this mean? I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my limbs, my reason, and all my senses, and still preserves them; in addition thereto, clothing and shoes, meat and drink, house and homestead, wife and children, field, cattle, and all my goods; that He provides me richly and daily with all that I need to support this body and life, protects me from all danger, and guards me and preserves me from all evil; and all this out of pure, fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me; for all which I owe it to Him to thank, praise, serve and obey Him. This is most certainly true.

Surrounded, gifted, by the beauty and goodness of God’s creation — all of it born among the stars — what else can we do but thank and praise, serve and obey God by whose grace we and all the cosmos exist, by whose wisdom life emerges from the forces that bind atoms together, by whose love the world is given to us and we are given to the world — all of it a single, vast, interconnected, whole.

We are all stardust. This is most certainly true.

Amen.

 

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