I would like to thank Pastor Gatton for inviting me to the pulpit and you for welcoming me. I’ll keep today’s comments brief. I will only look at today’s two passages, consider the practice of preaching, human approaches to both revelation and science and delve into the heart of the universe. This should only take a few minutes.
A conventional way of preparing a sermon is to look at the world around us and try to make some sense of it in the context of the preaching texts. This is a liberal approach, because it both assumes that believers need to apply their faith to daily life, and that faith should be responsive to the world around us. Historically, this means reading newspapers, but today it probably means obsessing over Twitter. Either way, unfortunately, for the last two, twenty, or two hundred years the news that gets our attention tends to be bad. Some crisis or disaster occurs and so the theological response is one of fortitude, or patience, or endurance or hope. I’ve preached the same myself. I’ve preached the same from this pulpit. So you would be forgiven if you expected to hear something about the January 6th hearings or the drought in the southwest, the war in Ukraine or any number of things, but that’s not ultimately what focused my attention this week. There was something else to talk about, and it made me very happy. Perhaps you too.
After many years and enormous cost overruns, the James Webb Space Telescope has given us images of wonder. And by us, I mean the whole world. As with other NASA-led projects, this telescope feels like a global accomplishment, and that’s noteworthy in its own right. But I keep going back to those pictures: the birthplace of stars within nebulae, the cliff-like formation deep in the Carina Nebula and of course that speckled image with the multitude of galaxies all found — and here’s a phrase that will enter the vocabulary of wonder — in
the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length. (Quotation from NASA) Something that seems so small yet holding multitudes. There is so much out there and so much yet to be found. The telescope will produce data which will take lifetimes to process and analyze.
But since most of us aren’t astrophysicists and astronomers, why the popular interest? I suspect many of us owe a debt to Carl Sagan and other popular scientists who gave us a language of wonder when we look up into the heavens, a position formerly held by theologians. (So if NASA would like to invest billions into theological exploration I wouldn’t say no.) And it is theological, because the questions the James Webb Space Telescope raises, even if it cannot answer, come as close to public theology as we have today. What is our place in the universe? And by extension, our purpose? Is all the life in the universe found on the crust of our small blue world? Are we alone, or are we awash in an ocean of life, not knowing what else exists because of the great expanse of space, the limitations of our understanding and the shortness of our lives? The stellar portraits are important and not simply beautiful because I express our wonder in the vastness and grandeur of the universe.
Of course this is not the first time human beings have looked up to the heavens and marveled. We look into the night sky, and cannot reach those lights: a metaphor for the Divine which carries over from generation to generation and beyond. Whether astronomy or astrology, now or thousands of years ago, with the naked eye or an observation platform literally a million miles from here, the stars and heavens are an ideal context for our questions, and an ideal dwelling place for the unknowable reaches of God.
Our reading from Colossians is full of such imagery. Angels, rather than galaxies, are the multitudes. It is the seat of God, and the place from which Christ arranges creation. It’s not clear if the apostle Paul wrote it. He may have dictated it to someone who changed his particular style or it may simply be attributed to him. It does come from an early period of Christian thought. Here Jesus the humble preacher in Judea is recast as the image of the living God, the agent through whom all things are made and the keeper of deep primordial truths. I think I understand why. It has to do with how God’s truth is presented to us. Universalists have long professed the presence of revelation within Scripture. We make reference to it in our declaration of faith, which is itself derived from earlier denominational professions. So at one level, yes, we can find truthful and personally meaningful texts within scripture, but there are other levels. For example, there’s a kind of development within scripture. As human beings change, our understanding of God changes, for example. It’s hard for us to imagine as God as anything but a universal spirit now, but that’s not how God is always depicted in scripture. The author of Colossians expresses Christ’s role as a bridge between humanity and divinity in cosmic language.
Revelation isn’t just about what’s written, but it informs our approach to knowledge, and gives us guidance about how we interpret our response. Revelation is not just what is given to us in scripture but what we find when we try to understand it. It shows us what the value. Revelation includes the a-ha moment that helps us be more truly and deeply human in the best sense. It’s the same sensation as when we are touched by great art, natural beauty and those awe-inspiring images from the James Webb, but with an added dimension of morality. What do we do with these great and wonderful feelings? Once our awe of the universe turns back to Earth, what do we make of the life we see around us? You and I might not be as exciting as extraterrestrial life, but we are here, and our life together makes demands on us.
These demands are the focus of our reading from Luke. I’m personally conflicted by today’s gospel passage, probably because I’m a Martha by nature. She does all the right things and works her hands to the bone, but Mary becomes the hero of the story. Martha was busy, but Mary heard the truth and responded to it, accordingly Mary knew the true value of discipleship. Or as St. James (2:18) put it, faith without works is dead. It’s not enough to be busy, you have to discern what is worth doing and treasuring.
And this brings us back to some bad news. (There was going to be some bad news, wasn’t there?) When I started in the ministry, I served a small church in Georgia and supplied the pulpits of other churches, including two in South Carolina. This involved a lot of driving. To mix it up a bit, I would visit roadside attractions, and the quirkiest of these was something called the Georgia Guidestones. It was a vaguely Stonehenge-like monument made of granite, set in a field outside of Elberton, Georgia. But no one knows who paid for its construction in 1980 but the reason it was there was obvious. That part of Georgia sits on an enormous exposure of monument-grade blue-gray granite. The industry, in short, is headstones, and so the material and construction skills were nearby. The Guidestones, far from being massive headstones, had advice inscribed upon them in a number of languages, for example
Prize truth — beauty — love.
Like the funder, the purpose of the Guidestones was unclear but the internal evidence of the writings and their location provided a plausible answer. The site is near a river, the Savannah, but far enough from population centers to survive a nuclear war. Presumably future survivors might use the Guidestones has a foundation to rebuild and recover. Like Stonehenge, the Guidestones even had grooves cut into the stone so they could act as a solar observatory. From here too, future generations could look up into the heavens.
At some point, persons with extreme opinions considered the Guidestones to be Satanic, possibly by misreading the population goals as a mass elimination of today’s population. One candidate for governor even made it a part of her platform to have them destroyed. And earlier this month, persons unknown blew up the Guidestones; the county demolished the rest as the remains were deemed a safety hazard. It just makes me sick to think that something that was probably meant to help humanity by being put in a remote area was destroyed because it didn’t belong to anyone to be properly tended. Better that the space telescope is a million miles away….
All of this serves as a warning. American democracy, our climate, a peaceful world order and stable food supplies seem particularly fragile now. But so is our grasp on the truth. I believe a liberal approach to theology is ultimately stronger for individuals because it is less fragile to contradictions and shocks. But it takes a lot of work, too. Seeing different points of view, gently holding contradictions in tension, using imagination joyfully, being patient but firm towards ignorance… all of these take a lot of work. And when we are feeling stressed, it may not feel like it is worth the trouble. When you’re hunkered down. It might seem like an unaffordable luxury. If the news rattles you everyday, it’s easy to be stuck in the moment and not take the longer view. Remember Mary and Martha. Stay cool, and remember what is important. Our days are not the accumulations of individual tasks, but a living out of God’s purpose which involves greater and higher things. Instead. Let us look into the heavens, the depth of eternity to explore their depths, ask those questions and find greatness and truth.