Season of Creation 4 (22-09-2019)

Coming Home to the Cosmos

(Much of the following sermon comes from Rev. Rex Hunt)

Read Luke 16:19-31

Today we celebrate Cosmos Sunday, the fourth Sunday of the Season of Creation, hence the sermon title. But in looking at the cosmos, we are not simply exploring an appreciation of its wonder and majesty, but we are confronted with the prospect of radically revising our ideas about God.  First, however, allow a wombat to introduce our topic. (Click on this link-   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GqJUeRltxs8&t=2s  )

“Everything in the universe is related./ Can you feel that umbilical cord to the Cosmos?/ Can you feel the strands of connectedness – the interdependent web –of all existence, even with all human beings?” (DeWolf 2008)

In the first chapter of his book, Darwin, Divinity and the Dance of the Cosmos, Bruce Sanguin, Canadian author and minister, tells of a time, while still a theological student, he was in a café eating an egg salad sandwich and reading a poem. The poem so affected him he said it felt as if “someone had peeled back a layer of reality to reveal the invisible radiance of what lay behind and within all creation”  Here is that poem:

This sunset…This smile…This word you are writing…This pain you are feeling…The question you are asking…This omelette you are cooking…/The meaning of life is the tear of joy shed at the sight of the well-cooked omelette (JPramuk).

Reflecting on his poem experience, Sanguin says: 

“If the poem I read expressed any truth at all, it was this: if we could truly see what is before our eyes, day in and day out, the sacred radiance of creation would drop us to our knees and render us speechless.  We would know ourselves to be in as much divine presence as we can handle in this earthly realm.” 

Today, Cosmos Sunday, is an invitation to once again feel deeply and organically connected with planet Earth. Today also brings an invitation for the Church to accommodate a 21st century cosmological program: 

“There is a new story of creation, which needs to inform our biblical stories of creation… [And this new evolutionary cosmological story] simply cannot be contained by old models and images of God, and outmoded ways of being the church.” (Sanguin)

In every age, the worlds of theology and religion interact with the cultural and scientific world views of that day.  Such interaction between the two is essential “to make religious faith both credible and relevant within a particular generation’s view of the world and how it works.” (Sanguin)  My friend and mentor, the late Prof. Robert Anderson, was of the opinion that the most crucial issue for the church and its continued existence was to evolve an image of God that was relevant to, and compatible with, a modern understanding of reality.

Sharing Sanguin’s and Prof. Anderson’s concern, Catholic theologian Elizabeth Johnson also says: 

“In sum, theological reflection today should endeavour to speak about God’s relation not to an ancient nor medieval nor Newtonian world, but to the dynamic, emergent, self-organising universe that contemporary natural and biological sciences describe” (Johnson 2007:287).

Scientists tell us the ‘Great Story’, as we understand it today, begins with the ultimate mystery of the Big Bang, some 13.8 billion years ago.  Life on Earth originated some four billion years ago.  Homo habilis, our human ancestors, begin using tools only 2.5 million (that’s ‘million’, not ‘billion’) years ago.  Symbolic language emerges between 50,000 and 500,000 years ago.  Classical religions emerge around 3,000 years ago.  I emerged just over 73 years ago.  

Billions of years of cosmic evolution have produced us.  The ancestral stars are a part of our genealogy.  “Out of the stars in their flight, out of the dust of eternity, here have we come, Stardust and sunlight, mingling through time and through space.”.

If we put our 13.8-billion-year universe on a clock of one hour, humanity appears in only the last few seconds. The numbers, the sheer immensity of the cosmos is very hard to get one’s head around. For example:

    • one million bodies the size of Earth can fit in the volume of the Sun;
    • each star is a sun;
    • there are 100 billion (100,000 million) stars in the Milky Way galaxy;
    • there are approx.  100 billion galaxies (i.e. 100 billion x 100 billion stars= !!!);
    • it has taken light 12 billion years to reach us from the farthest reaches of space;
    • the current diameter of the observable universe is thought to be about 93 billion light years, i.e. light from one edge won’t reach the other edge for another 80 billion years or so.

It is absolutely essential to make religious faith both credible and relevant within a particular generation’s view of the world and how it works. According to Roger Gillette, a retired physicist and systems development engineer, nature is “the whole complex, interrelated and interacting unitary universe of matter-energy in space-time, a universe of which humans are an integral part…” That is, the universe is a whole, is and must be, of intrinsic value, and each part: galaxy, organism, individual atom, participates in that intrinsic value as it participates in the universe.

Karl Peters suggests that nature is in us as much as we are in nature.  “We are webs of reality, woven out of the threads of culture, biology, and the cosmos according to recipes (structures of language and values, DNA codes, and laws of nature) in each.  As webs of reality each of us is a manifestation of a large part of the universe as a whole.”

These comments, plus many others, go to the core of our beliefs: How can we now describe the experience we call G-O-D?  Traditionally, it seems, most Christians have imagined God as ‘The Creator’, a kind of person-like reality who has brought everything into being.  However, for many, all that is now changing. New religious stories are being shaped. Stories which understand a presence of God that is compatible with the ideas of modern science.

This craggy fantasy mountaintop enshrouded by wispy clouds looks like a bizarre landscape from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image, which is even more dramatic than fiction, captures the chaotic activity atop a pillar of gas and dust, three light-years tall, which is being eaten away by the brilliant light from nearby bright stars. The pillar is also being assaulted from within, as infant stars buried inside it fire off jets of gas that can be seen streaming from towering peaks. This turbulent cosmic pinnacle lies within a tempestuous stellar nursery called the Carina Nebula, located 7500 light-years away in the southern constellation of Carina. The image celebrates the 20th anniversary of Hubble’s launch and deployment into an orbit around the Earth. Scorching radiation and fast winds (streams of charged particles) from super-hot newborn stars in the nebula are shaping and compressing the pillar, causing new stars to form within it. Streamers of hot ionised gas can be seen flowing off the ridges of the structure, and wispy veils of gas and dust, illuminated by starlight, float around its towering peaks. The denser parts of the pillar are resisting being eroded by radiation. Nestled inside this dense mountain are fledgling stars. Long streamers of gas can be seen shooting in opposite directions from the pedestal at the top of the image. Another pair of jets is visible at another peak near the centre of the image. These jets, (known as HH 901 and HH 902, respectively, are signposts for new star birth and are launched by swirling gas and dust discs around the young stars, which allow material to slowly accrete onto the stellar surfaces. Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 observed the pillar on 1-2 February 2010. The colours in this composite image correspond to the glow of oxygen (blue), hydrogen and nitrogen (green), and sulphur (red).

The new story which I find personally compelling is experiencing and understanding God, not as a being or a person, but simply as the creativity that has brought forth, and still brings forth, the world and all its contents, from the Big Bang all the way down to the present, and binds them all together in one great web of being. Not an all-powerful, all-knowing ‘person’, but simply creativity itself, as it is manifested in an evolving, self-organising universe.

Much of this thinking is being led by former Harvard theologian, Gordon Kaufman.  In his most recent book he says: “Imagining God as creativity enables Christian thinkers to be much more attuned to what the modern sciences have been teaching us about our lives and the world in which we live.  It makes it possible to bridge the divide often felt between religious faith and our scientific knowledge.”

So what does it mean to be faithful to God in the 21st century? 

    • To be faithful to God in the 21st century is to see ourselves “as part of a great web of cosmos, life, and culture, so that we and the rest of our planet can continue and flourish” (Peters 2002:1360.
    • To be faithful to God in the 21st century is to be devoted to maximising the future of the earth and all living creatures whose destiny is increasingly in our hands.
    • To be faithful to God in the 21st century is to value the importance of the human relationships which bind us together into social groups.
    • To be faithful to God in the 21st century is to place the needs of the global society before those of our own immediate family, tribe or nation.
    • To be faithful to God in the 21st century is to celebrate life.

Such a 21st century religion is also a response to the vision and efforts and the life of the Galilean sage we know as Jesus, without the ‘spin’ of religious beliefs unnecessarily added by the church, which brings me to the gospel story for today: 

A rich man discovered himself in an eternal place of torment.  Was he an evil man or a great sinner? Did he hurt anyone?  No, there is no evidence to suggest this.  Was he a heretic or a non-believer?  Again, there is nothing to suggest that he was. Did the rich man find himself in this predicament simply because he was rich?  No, no one was ever condemned by Jesus for being well off.  So what did the rich man do to deserve such torment and agony?  It seems that the problem was that he took no notice of the beggar at his gate. The rich man didn’t hurt him. He wasn’t responsible for his plight. He simply failed to notice him and, as a result, failed to take advantage of the opportunity to help him.

In other words, the rich man failed to recognise that he, himself, was not an individual, separate from the rest of the world, but was intrinsically in relationship with it and with everyone else, including and especially with the beggar, meaning that anything he did for another he did for himself, and anything he failed to do for another, he denied himself.  In this case, by denying the beggar’s plight, he denied himself.  He cut himself off from the beggar and from everyone else, and as a result, he found himself eternally cut off, with a great unbreachable chasm separating him from Abraham’s side.  

Note, this is not a teaching about the nature of an afterlife; rather, a parable about life here and now, particularly about our relationships and our role in God’s kingdom.  Day by day, centimetre by centimetre, the rich man, with his comfortable life style, unaffected by awareness of those around him, had been digging a trench between himself and the have-nots of this world. A trench that widened and deepened into a great gulf: a chasm in the eternal, moral order of things, which nothing was likely to cross in life nor in death.  It is not a question of heaven or hell in the hereafter, but life or not-life in the here and now.

So where are we?  The word ‘environment’ literally means ‘that which surrounds us’.  So if we were actually to notice that which surrounds us, then, following the comments of ethicist, Jack Hill, “At the very least, we would notice changes in the seasonal flights of birds.  We would notice if the mosquito population doubled or tripled.  We would notice if more and more trees had dead limbs.  Instead of reading about the effects of global warming, we would notice them in our daily experience!”   Or, if we were to not notice, then we, like the rich man in Jesus’s story, would continue to dig that great chasm that will separate us forever from God and from life.

As contemporary theology reminds us time and time again, God or the Sacred or Creativity  or Whatever does not reside in some other place called ‘heaven’. Nor is heaven our goal. The world is our true home.  Indeed, as the wombat in our video said, “it’s the only one we’ve got,” our only home.  This life is meant to be enjoyed.  To enjoy life is to cherish the beauty of each living thing, to be interested in diversity and difference in the great web of life.

May the story of the ones who discovered that the whole cosmos is alive and changing continually, and that novelty and surprise makes life interesting, always awaken within us new possibilities for the now.

An open, virtual door to the world