"Thoughts about Starlight, the Dust of Earth and the Breath of Life"
A sermon based upon Genesis 1: 1-15 & 2: 4-7 and Psalm 8
Today is EARTH DAY… a day to reflect on the world of nature, and our interdependence in the wide web of life.
The words of Psalm 8 (that we watched in the video clip a moment ago) capture the wonder: "When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, God? Mortals, that you care for them?"We are mere specks of dust on a little "blue boat home" planet called Earth.
The photos from outer space (that were in the songs that Leigh Copeland shared with us) are really awesome! For almost 30 years the Hubble space-telescope has been gathering distant light and relaying it to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. In a sense, those photos that show stellar clusters and cosmic gases are as though we are looking back in time… watching the formation of the universe in its infancy… back to the day when God first said: "Let there be light!"
Alpena is fortunate to have a working Planetarium at the Besser Museum, whose expert staff helps us to understand the intricacies of the galaxies. But if you’ve ever been to the Griffith Observatory in LA, or to the big telescope at Mount Palomar, you realize that the size of the reflecting mirror, and the length & girth of the body of a telescope, have to be very large if the lenses are to have adequate focal length to gather light from far-off galaxies and record it clearly enough for human eyes to study.
Well, that was the best we could do before the Hubble space-telescope was launched beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. I understand that the Hubble is as big as a house, and the J.P.L. camera that records the images and relays them to earth, is as big as a car. If you’re as old as I am, you might also remember back 25 years ago when "corrective lenses" were inserted into the Hubble by the crew of the Space Shuttle Endeavor… that was in Dec. of ’93…25years ago! Long-ago old history, isn’t it?
It’s amazing to me that all that heavy machinery is floating on nothing up over our heads! It’s orbiting the Earth; suspended in space by invisible laws of matter, & motion, & mathematics too complex for my mind to grasp. The pictures were transmitted to earth across empty space by invisible electronic means... which are based on laws of electromagnetism and physics, once again way too complex for my mind to figure out. (!) For that matter, I don’t understand how digital photography works. (There’s no film!)
Frankly, I'm glad that the universe doesn't have to rely upon only what my mind can grasp and handle for its existence. For as much as I read, and I think, and I experience, and I observe... the vastness of what I don't know sometimes overwhelms me! Even a "smart-phone" baffles me…. its circuitry, "apps", Google.
The invisible reality which keeps a Hubble (or any of the orbiting satellites) suspended in empty space, and which is able to communicate in quanta of light-energy across vast distances of darkness, is too awesome for me to "use" in any practical terms... but I trust it. I trust the laws of physics & energy & motion & mathematics, which are at work in the orderly sustaining of the Universe--even though I can't see them, and even though I certainly do not fully comprehend them. I trust "physics" works.
I credit those laws of physics, as does the Bible, to the mind of God...which is far more complex & awesome than mine.(!)
All the marvelous light-energy of those distant galaxies (and all subsequent events in the evolution of matter) are, to my mind, observable signs of the Creator's active doing from the very "beginning" --the Genesis of Life on Earth --about which James Earl Jones spoke so eloquently in the video clip from "God’s Trombones" by James Weldon Johnson. The artwork flowed from mountains and valleys, rivers and seas, to plants and animals, culminating in that wide variety of facial features of humankind. One continuous process of forming & reforming life.
To me there is no conflict between good physics and good poetry, nor between science & theology --it’s all God’s cosmos… God’s Universe.
The writer of Psalm 8 says: When I gaze into the night sky, and see the works of your hand…it makes me wonder: what are we (mere mortals) that the Creator of it all should be mindful of us?...(!) And yet,the poet continues: "You have given us a crown of glory and honor, and have made us little lower than the angels. You have put humankind in charge of all Creation."
Rather than being intimidated (or feeling "dwarfed") by the expansive reality of the universe, the Psalmist (like the poet-theologians who wrote the opening chapters of Genesis), saw in the marvels of nature the guiding hand of God. So do I. And I hope you can, too. We see God in nature, not separate from it.
Leigh Copeland’s song by Peter Mayer ("Holy Now") says that "everything is Holy Now. The challenging thing becomes, not to look for miracles, but finding where there isn’t one! The fact that anything is here at all, is a miracle! See another morning come and say it’s not a sacrament? I tell you that it can’t be done… ’cause everything is holy now." He says "he walks the world with a reverent air, because everything is holy now."
Like hymn-writer Maltbie Babcock wrote 120 years ago:
"This is my Father’s World. And to my listening ears, all nature sings
and around me rings the music of the spheres. … The morning light, the lily
white, declare their Maker’s praise!"
He saw in the marvels of nature the guiding hand of God.The Bible sees God in nature, not separate from it. Jesus tells his followers to "consider the lilies of the field and how they grow…" and gives God credit for the whole process, including their beauty.
Even though we don’t speak much about science in a typical worship service, it’s not because we are intimidated by it. Like the authors of the Bible, I trust the energy & the physics (yes, even the "E=mc2") of the ever-evolving Universe, because it is all from God: created over eons of time, well-ordered, guided and sustained, by the unseen "almighty" Creator-God.
I can’t "prove" it to anyone else’s skeptical satisfaction, but I trust it! God’s presence in the processes of nature is invisible, yes; but it’s nonetheless powerful, pervasive, & ultimately trust-worthy. The complexity, and novelty, and creativity of all forms of life in nature are reasons to celebrate, not argue about! Like the telescope has done, every scientific investigation (in my opinion) simply extends our knowledge and our experience into more detailed, or more diverse, or more distant realms of reality.
Which brings me back to Hubble. Its very reason for being --for the expenditure of three or four billion dollars so far --is to look out and away, far beyond what earth-bound eyes can measure. With finely-tuned instruments of such huge magnitude, and with considerable skill (and with a substantial bit of luck!), NASA scientists hope to get a picture from the farthest margin of the cosmos.The Hubble space-telescope is gathering light from 15 billion light-years away (the most ancient light in existence; the very edge of the expanding universe!) --in effect, to get a picture of "the Big Bang" as it happened!(!) The very idea is mind-boggling.
Relying upon all those invisible structures of the universe --laws of physics and thermodynamics, electromagnetism, and the property of gasses, of spectral analysis &mathematics... Having relied upon the constancy & orderliness of the laws of Relativity, & Quantum Mechanics and Chaos theory, space researchers might presume that they are seeing the initial creation of the cosmos –that they are, in fact,"seeing God" in star-light hat is 15-billion light-years away! That’s nice, in a poetic kind of way.
But, friends, I’m here to tell you that God is much nearer than that! God may be invisible, yes --as are all the laws of physics "invisible" --but God is very much present... right now, right here, on earth! Invisible, but nonetheless real! God (here in Alpena; here in these pews!) is as real as any quanta of energy-matter anywhere else in the Universe! In other words, we don't need to magnify the farthest-fringes of outer-space to find the pulse of God.
In the opening poetry of our Bible, we are told that the Wind of God (the Spirit of God; the Ruach) hovers over the chaos and deep darkness of that original moment of Creation. "In the beginning of all things"(says Genesis): the Wind, the breath, the Spirit of God moved in the void before the first burst of light.
This moment of energy is not confined to some distant cosmic cloud of atomic gases 15-billion light-years away! No, God's Spirit is right here! Hovering over our emptiness, our chaos, our deep darkness... In other words, God's creation didn't stop back at the Big Bang! The Creator wasn't (somehow) stuck forever at the outermost edge of the cosmos... No, our story of Creation (Genesis) begins with a purposeful God, who entered the formless void and darkness of chaos with a Big Bang of Light --"Let there be light!" --which set all things into motion... I believe that God is still speaking: let there be light, and let there be life and it is followed by God staying involved as the process moved forward: to include air and water, land and plants, and all the rest. God "created," yes; God brought all things into "order-liness," yes; but the point is: God continues to create to this day! And to sustain it all, moment by moment, by God’s all-embracing, invisible,yet majestic energy. "O Lord, our God, how majestic is your name! It transcends the earth and fills the heavens with your glory."
Although the Genesis story, like the best of modern science, starts with the creation of LIGHT(electro-magnetism, pulsars, energy), it is not content to leave it there, with only the first Word in Creation. God's dynamic, creative, forward-thrusting Word continues to be spoken--and to be made manifest for all to see and to experience --in air, in water, in dry land, in plants and in planets.
The Spirit of God was not content even with the creation of animal LIFE--fish of the sea, birds of the air, beasts & cattle & wild animals. No, God pressed evolution forward until it gave rise to "consciousness." (That’s what scientists call the anthropic principle…and isn’t that an unexpected miracle!?) Like Leigh Copeland sang: The fact that anything is here at all, is a miracle! Just imagine: out of the same unconscious molecules and processes as the dust of the earth and the ashes of ancient stars, living things arose with a sense of self-consciousness, with the ability to analyze and to plan, to write poetry --like the Psalms,like Genesis, like James Weldon Johnson --and to sing! (How cool is that!?)
The point of Genesis (and of all Scripture that follows these opening verses) is the hope that we might recognize the living relationship between that "Creator God" (who is invisibly at work behind the scenes in every moment and event of life) and us mortal creatures --we who call ourselves "human beings" --we who are recipients of those same elements, and who share in the same experience of all the rest of God's Creation.
While a traditional confession of faith (or creed) begins with the words: "we believe in God, the Creator of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen..." it is not enough to leave it there, because the Bible makes clear: what God has created, God also loves. God stays involved!
What God creates, God loves. That principle leads us from the opening verses of the Creation story, to the second chapter, in which the Lord God took some soil from the ground --gathered up the common minerals of dirt and dust (the same material that nourishes the roots of the plants) --and formed a human body... a dusty, dirty, common clay replica of a cadaver. "And then God breathed into its nostrils the breath of Life; and Ha'adam (the human) became a living being."
In the face of all our experience & our scientific knowledge, how do we deal with the biblical claim that Yahweh (the Lord God) formed Ha'adam (the human) "from the dust of the ground" …and that God "breathed into its nostrils the breath of life"?
Every one of us knows perfectly well the scientific facts of sexual reproduction: of pre-natal development and hospital birth; we know all about infancy, childhood, and stages of life, maturity and death... So, how dare I assert to an astute group like you that Yahweh-God formed the human "from the dust of the ground" (the humus of earth) and"breathed into its nostrils the breath of life"?
It may help, first of all, to remember that the point of Genesis (and of all Scripture for that matter) is to say something about God...specifically, about the relationship between the God who creates, and us mortal creatures.
Genesis was not written to be a scientific treatise that would describe the world and how it works (or a history of the cosmos), but rather to say something about the nature of God and the meaning of life.
To say that God (the Creator) formed the human from "the dust of the ground" not only reminds us (first) that we consist of the same elements, and share in the same natural processes, as do all the rest of God's creatures... but it also (second) serves to prepare us for the reality of death.
I’m sure you have heard the familiar words from Genesis, (Chapter 3, verse 19) when the Creator God says to the human being:
"In the sweat of your brow you will eat bread,
’til you return to the ground: for out of it you were
taken. You are dust, and to dust you shall return."
That verse touches on the ultimate mystery of life and death.
By what miracle --by what WHAT --is life transferred across the divide between "the living," and the not-yet-alive? We can't just shout: "Wake up, Adam. Wake up!"
Even if we had all the parts in working order and assembled together (as did Dr. Frankensteinin Mary Shelley's famous story), we cannot breathe life back into a dead body --Oh, God, if only we could! "Come forth, Lazarus!" ("Master, he cannot hear you, for he is dead.")
It's the wonder and the wish of every doctor or midwife: "Will this child breathe?" It is the mystery of Ezekiel, looking into a valley (where a terrible war had left soldier-&-civilian bones strewn everywhere, piled up like the victims of the Jewish Holocaust, bleached white in the sun): "Can these dry bones yet live?" The miracle of God is: YES! Everything "natural"can be recycled, and will be over time. All the constituent parts–the minerals and chemicals, which are in themselves "inanimate" –coalesce into living beings all around us! The songbirds that are eating worms on our compost pile did not exist last year, but they are alive now!
Such is the mystery of the Spirit of God, whose Word and cosmic Wind brought forth the world of nature in all its complexity. "God breathed into it [and into us!] the breath of life; and the human became a living being."
The mystery of God --which plays itself out in the vastness of the physical cosmos, and within the intricacy of biological existence --"from star-dust, to earth-dust" (the "humus" of earth that becomes the "human" earthling!) --is the ultimate reality in which we all live, and move, and have our being.
We are a part of the "web" of all life.Treasure it! Tend it with care. It’s all we have. May we add to the flourishing of life on this 48th Earth Day. "See another morning come and say it’s not a sacrament? I tell you that it can’t be done… ’cause everything is holy now." I encourage you to "walk the world with a reverent air, because everything is holy now."