Readings: Carl Sagan quote; Mary Oliver: At the River Clarion; Ps 139:7-12
Carl Sagan: By far the best way I know to engage the religious sensibility, the sense of awe, is to look up on a clear night. I believe that it is very difficult to know who we are until we understand where and when we are. I think everyone in every culture has felt a sense of awe and wonder looking at the sky. This is reflected throughout the world in both science and literature. Thomas Carlyle said that wonder is the basis of worship. And Albert Einstein said, `I maintain that the cosmic religion feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research.` So if both Carlyle and Einstein could agree on something, it has a modest possibility of even being right.
Mary Oliver - At the River Clarion
I don`t know who God is exactly.
But I`ll tell you this.
I was sitting in the river named Clarion, on a water splashed stone
and all afternoon I listened to the voices of the river talking.
Whenever the water struck a stone it had something to say,
and the water itself, and even the mosses trailing under the water.
And slowly, very slowly, it became clear to me what they were saying.
Said the river I am part of holiness.
And I too, said the stone. And I too, whispered the moss beneath the water.
I`d been to the river before, a few times.
Don`t blame the river that nothing happened quickly.
You don`t hear such voices in an hour or a day.
You don`t hear them at all if selfhood has stuffed your ears.
And it`s difficult to hear anything anyway, through all the traffic, the ambition.
If God exists he isn`t just butter and good luck.
He`s also the tick that killed my wonderful dog Luke.
Said the river: imagine everything you can imagine, then keep on going.
Imagine how the lily (who may also be a part of God) would sing to you if it could sing. If you would pause to hear it.
And how are you so certain anyway that it doesn`t sing?
If God exists he isn`t just churches and mathematics.
He`s the forest, He`s the desert.
He`s the ice caps, that are dying.
He`s the ghetto and the Museum of Fine Arts.
He`s van Gogh and Allen Ginsberg and Robert Motherwell.
He`s the many desperate hands, cleaning and preparing their weapons.
He`s every one of us, potentially.
The leaf of grass, the genius, the politician, the poet.
And if this is true, isn`t it something very important?
Yes, it could be that I am a tiny piece of God, and each of you too, or at least
of his intention and his hope.
Which is a delight beyond measure.
I don`t know how you get to suspect such an idea.
I only know that the river kept singing.
It wasn`t a persuasion, it was all the river`s own constant joy
which was better by far than a lecture, which was comfortable, exciting, unforgettable.
Where is my home?
When I started this sermon, I was reading a book from Thomas Berry, writer, priest, ecologist and a leader in the call for Christianity to embrace a wider image of God.
The book is called `The Christian future and the fate of the earth`. So, I started to think how I would talk about this. And then my thoughts came to firstly the video you saw at the beginning and the idea of home. Where is our home? Of course, our home can be the house or family or place we grew up in, or our faith community, but really it is much grander than that. Home is the planet we reside on, home is the spirit we believe infuses everything, from the beginning of time until now. Home is a mixing of everything that connects us to one another on this beautiful blue dot, as Carl Sagan would say. But it`s in deep trouble.
We live at an amazing time in history. A time when we can explore both ourselves and our universe at a level unheard of only a few years ago. We saw earlier pictures from earth and the effect they have had on the astronauts who have been in space. But we can now marvel at the universe and its structure via the Hubble telescope and send ships to Mars. Incredible progress. Yet we are also at a time when we consume more, pollute more and populate more than the planet itself can withstand. We have become, as David Suzuki points out, a super species. So, this time is also a time when a great transformation is required. We have come to a junction in the road of life, where it divides, and we can go in either direction. And based on which direction we take hinges the future of our species and our earthly home.
This is not a question just for scientists to solve, but for people of faith to engage and help determine. To do this there are some hard questions to face, and some remodelling to do. Christianity is only 2,000 years old, while the earth is 14 billion years old yet somehow our view on things has become very human-centred, and worse still individual-centred. Where what is needed is cosmos-centred thinking.
The universe is our home. God is our home. And we are part of both.
Let me read how Rex Hunt puts it in a sermon written not that long ago. (Against the Stream, Rex Hunt, 2012)
Scientists tell us the `Great Story` as we understand it today, begins with the ultimate mystery of the Big Bang, some 13.7 billion years ago.
Life on earth originated 4 billion years ago.
Homo Habilis (our ancestors) begin using tools 2.5 million years ago.
Symbolic language emerges between 50,000 and 500,000 years ago.
Classical religions emerge around 3,000-4,000 years ago.
I emerged just over 57 (me not Rex) years ago.
Billions of years of cosmic evolution have produced us.
The ancestral stars are part of our genealogy.
`Out of the stars and their flight,
Out of the dust of eternity, here have we come,
Stardust and sunlight, mingling,
Through time and through space`. (Weston 1993)
If we put our 13.7 billion year universe on a clock of one hour, `humanity appears in only the last few seconds` (Peters 2002:127).
The sheer immensity of the cosmos is very hard to get one`s head around.
The fragments of knowledge we do have suggest:
- One million bodies the size of Earth can fit in the volume of the Sun;
- Each star has a Sun;
- There are 100,000 million stars in the Milky Way galaxy;
- There are approximately 100,000 million galaxies;
- It has taken light 12,000 million years to reach us from the farthest reaches of space;
- The current diameter of the observable cosmos/universe is thought to be about 93 billion light years.
I could go on, but it`s clearly utterly incredible. And as Rex Hunt says, difficult to get one`s head around it. But it sparks the sense of awe and wonder that Carl Sagan was talking about in the reading this morning.
So what do we do with this information? We live and move in the midst of a mystery than is deeper than ourselves and broader than our own creativity and genius can possibly grasp.
Someone once said contemplation is a long loving look at what is real. This is real, this is where we come from.
This is where the church has to take up the challenge. To accept what is real, what we are inexplicably linked to. What is our home.
Yet somehow the Christian church has lost that connection, lost its way. Let me explain, although you probably already know it.
Thomas Aquinas has said that a mistake in our understanding of God will necessarily cause a mistake in our understanding of creation.
God can be limited, by an understanding that is only about us, only about our family, only about our church. Or about believing in Jesus and going to heaven.
Or God can be found as Michael Morewood says within each of us, a universal presence, never absent, at work at all times, in all places, in all peoples, all through human history and all through this amazing and mind-boggling universe. In this scenario God is the divine mystery urging each one of us to connect with one another in love. There is no separation between us and God, between us and another or with the whole of creation. This separation is artificial and as Einstein put it, an optical illusion. The psalmist knew it and spoke beautifully about it. So did the poet.
Charles Birch, a theologian and scientist, has written:
The universe is a happening of happenings. Stop the happenings and the universe collapses. God is necessary for the world. God is not the world and the world is not God. God is not before all creation but with all creation. The world includes God and God perfects the world. There is no world apart from God.
Accepting this universal story means we see our relationship with the rest of creation in a totally different inclusive way. God is not a magical figure intervening at regular intervals in order that humans can somehow have it easy. No, God is far, far bigger than that. This God can be called many things, creator, holy one, mystery, love, light, spirit, or even the incomprehensible holy mystery. Whatever the name it calls us into relationship with each other and the world. The whole world.
So, can we make a difference to our world, which is slowly dying.
Yes, we can.
But it requires seeing things as they really are.
And seeing our faith in a radical new way. As Thomas Berry suggests in the book I mentioned at the start, the 21st century church which has lost a sense of its basic purpose in these past centuries, could restore its efficacy and extend its influence over human affairs. The church could be a powerful force in bringing about the healing of the distraught earth. The church could provide an integrating interpretation of this universe story, our story, as a place of awe and wonder and responsibility.
But there is more.
Because it will involve not just ecological sustainability but a search for justice as well. We have to become eco-centred, or creation-centred, or cosmos-centred rather than human-centred, which means challenging a human-centred approach to ethics, economics, religion and culture. Albert Schweitzer calls us to have `a reverence to life`, to all life. Not a bad starting point when attempting to act on behalf of the planet and all its inhabitants.
David Suzuki, a leading environmentalist and scientist, also suggests the problem is one of economics as much as ecology. To go on and on expecting that we can grow forever, produce and consume forever is ridiculous without there being major consequences. Already we are suffering not just a global environmental crisis but a crisis of inequality and social upheaval. Because as the world has got cleverer and human achievements more advanced, not everyone benefits. The rich get richer and the poor poorer. And for those who are rich, more possessions and money do not necessarily make each person happy or a society well balanced or an earth sustainable. The need for more also is likely to destroy us.
Sounds a bit like Jesus really. While he didn`t know much about global warming he knew a lot about the effect of money and power on those who have it and those that don`t. We cannot follow God and money. Solutions to environmental issues, and particularly climate change must be designed with the needs of the poor in mind.
So, in the end we are called to be involved in a transformation to a new way of living that includes all in the banquet of life in a sustainable, supportive way. A transformation similar to that the astronauts had when seeing the earth from space. A transformation that Jesus called for in his teachings.
This includes rich and poor, black and white, human and non-human alike. It will involve seeing ourselves as part of creation, and as part of the answer to her problems. It will require us to see that we have a special role to play. Not a special place, but a special role, as co-creators to life. We as humanity have now come to a point where we can help choose the future of God`s evolving creation. But we have to shed some religious baggage along the way. For the God who claims us is also the God of everything else.
As Val Webb wrote in her book Like Catching Water in a Net, 2007 -
The sea of divine attention
Laps my soul,
But not only mine.
Others feel its stroking,
On the other side of the ocean,
By sharing these waters,
The world is connected.
And this is where the church needs to be. Thomas Berry calls ecological restoration the great work of our time. It is time for the churches to get on with that work - and in ways that are visionary, adventuresome, prophetic, grace filled, inviting and celebratory of creation. We need to integrate ecology, economics and faith, developing a sustainable river of life for all. But the work has just begun, and while essential it is not going to be easy.
Because this tiny blue dot is our home, and our only one!