Monday, February 16, 1998

Sermon -- 15 February 1998

6th SUNDAY after the EPIPHANY — 15 February 1998
Trinity, Iowa City — 8:00 & 10:15

Jer 17:5-10 Ps 1 1Cor 15:12-20 Luke 6:17-26

I’ve mentioned before that I, like many of you, subscribe to some internet e-mail discussion lists. One of them is the Anglican Music list, inhabited largely by organists, choirmasters, choir members, and some clergy, and it mostly talks about church music, but understandably wanders off into general liturgical issues. (That’s often quite interesting, as it’s a fairly international list — not only Americans but Canadians, English, Australians, South Africans, and others.) A few weeks ago somebody said something about Eucharistic Prayer C. This immediately provoked a chorus of derisive hooting and hollering (electronically speaking!) about the “Star Wars” prayer, so called of course from the paragraph:

At your command all things came to be: the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home. By your will they were created and have their being.

Evidently this is considered insufficiently Cranmerian language; and of course it isn’t Cranmerian language, which is in part the point. I don’t know what the critics’ problem is. Granted, my fields are theology and history, not literature, but I think I have a decent ear for the English language, and I like this paragraph. I found it particularly ironic that those very days the critics were poking fun at the phrase “this fragile earth, our island home,” an international conference on global warming was shamelessly whining “We won’t clean up until you do!” Christians need to read the newspaper as well as the Bible.

But I digress.

We have, I think, only in this past century come to have any idea how vast the expanse of interstellar space really is. “Galaxies, suns…” In our own galaxy there are hundreds of billions of stars, of suns. That’s hundreds of billions. Do we have any grasp at all on a number like that? We simply cannot imagine it. (Unless you are an astrophysicist, or unless you work for the Office of Management and Budget in Washington.) Hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy. And there are a hundred billion galaxies. We just absolutely do not have a clue about this universe in which we live.

In fact, to deride Eucharistic Prayer C as the “Star Wars” prayer is very seriously to miss the mark. Now, as far as enjoying science fiction goes, I imagine I am in the top quartile of the population. I’m not really a serious “Trekker,” but I’m certainly a fan, and my VCR clicks on at 6:00 every night to catch the reprises of the first four years of “Babylon 5.” I really like that stuff. But I don’t kid myself: it’s all baloney. It’s fun, but it’s baloney. Because the folks in these stories go galavanting all over the galaxy with warp drives and jump gates and who knows what, giving the impression that interstellar space is a place where a couple hundred years down the line human beings (and assorted other sentient beings as well!) will be cruising around like we today cruise back and forth on I-80. It will never happen. And I say this not because I am shortsighted about the possibilities of technology or have no vision of the future of humankind, but because, even though I’m a historian and theologian, I do know a little about physics. And the world of Star Wars, Star Trek, Babylon 5, and the rest, is a world that very seriously has absolutely no clue about “the vast expanse of interstellar space.” We will look — we will look at a universe very much of which we can see only as it was billions of years ago in the dawn of time itself — but we will never go out there. This fragile earth is our island home. (Oh, a few people will eventually go poking around other parts of our own solar system, and that’s fine, I’d love the chance to go myself, but that’s it. Humankind as a whole is island-bound. Do the physics. Run the numbers. Don’t bother to pack your bag.)

And for this immensely, unimaginably, incomprehensibly vast expanse of interstellar space that is our universe — and for any other universes there may be — it is still the truth that “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

Our understanding of this physical universe — tentative and rudimentary though it is — must inform our understanding of God and who God is. All too often, as J.B. Phillips chided us a generation ago, “our God is too small.” Certainly a lot of the “religious” talk and argumentation we hear around us in a variety of contexts appeals to a very small and often quite petty God. And I suspect this is one reason why some people in the scientific community — and some non-scientists who nevertheless have some genuine scientific appreciation — have difficulty with traditional religious expressions: not because they do not experience a certain religious awe as they contemplate the universe, but because the only God of whom they have ever heard — from us — is a trivial deity altogether inadequate as a cause to so wondrous an effect.

The God in whom we believe is the God by whose will “the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home” was created and has its being. I don’t mean, by the way, that we should rush to plug “God” in every time there is an aspect of the universe we don’t yet understand. God is not a “God of the gaps” in our knowledge. “God” is not an appropriate answer to genuinely scientific questions for which there is in principle or will be and should be a scientific explanation. Science, however, cannot answer the question, “why is there anything at all rather than nothing?” God is the One by whom and through whom the universe exists at all, and exists as it does rather than otherwise. And with all due respect, “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” do not know this God, at least not very well, in part because they do not really know “the vast expanse of interstellar space.”

And yet, and paradoxically, this God who cradles billions of light-years in the divine hand holds also every quark of every particle constituting each of the billion billions of atoms in each of the billions of stars in each of the billions of galaxies. And this hand is at work in the world about us, and holds and cradles us. And God whose mind encompasses the vast expanse of interstellar space knows also each of us more intimately than we know ourselves, and loves us with that divine love that powers galaxies and suns, and has become flesh and lived and lives among us to draw us into that love, and is known to us in the breaking of bread.

No comments: