A week ago Friday night I gently got after my granddaughter Brianna. Wonderfully, she was cleaning up from dinner without complaint but she had the kitchen faucet running at full force while re-arranging the plates for a simple rinse before placing them in the dishwasher. Granted, my reprimand was partly in response to being in Cuba where water is closely managed and I had the experience of delaying a shower, due to limited water, then preparing for a shower, only to find out that there was no water. Water is precious and carefully doled out in that land, like most of the world. “Brianna, just look at how much water you are wasting. You don’t need to leave it running.” “Oh, Grandpa …..”
Water. We are surrounded by it and rarely experience a shortage. Sure, many are nostalgic of the days of swimming in Spa Creek and the other fingers of the Chesapeake that most avoid today because of contaminants. And many, including some in our midst, have spent most of a lifetime trying to clean up our beloved Chesapeake. But a shortage of water is something we hardly know. Yet, in Cuba the water flow is frequently interrupted. In Syria a drought sent thousands of young men to the cities in search of jobs and in their poverty found groups like ISIS and others who turned on Assad. I’ve read that climate change is the back story of the civil war in that land. Israel and Palestine? The next explosion might well be around water. To our misfortune, climate change got politicized in our divisive setting even to the point that the Defense Department’s request for funding to deal with the rise of water in Norfolk could not use the words “climate change” lest the proposal be scuttled in Congress.
Water, land, air. Today is the 48th anniversary of Earth Day and I invite you to enter into prayer for our mother, earth. My hope is that we can move from fear to wonder, from indifference to awe.
These are grand, epic stories, these accounts of creation from the book of Genesis. In this first story, where humans are created last, not first, as in chapter two, we are told that God made humankind in God’s own image – male and female they were created. And, it was very good. When God separated light from darkness it was good. It was good when the waters moved apart to create dry land. And good again when the birds and fish, even the sea monsters were created. But, when humankind arrived on the scene it was “very good.” What a tender moment – in God’s image, and very good. This is our original blessing. In some settings it was popular to speak of creation out of nothing, “ex nihilo,” but that is not the Biblical story. Creation comes from God, out of God, in the image of God. As the Scot theologian, George MacDonald, put it, “not out of nothing …. but out of God’s own endless glory.” (As quoted by J. Philip Newell in The Book of Creation, p. 83).
While it is important to tell the honest truth about struggles, sorrows and sin – as we do in the prayer of confession, it is also equally important to remember that what comes first in the story is the blessing. Original sin? That comes later and is often misunderstood. The story begins with an original blessing. For God created them male and female, in the image of God and it was very good.
Blessed. Really? Even though the egocentric abusers of power attract most of the attention, it is important to remember that a greater number of our brothers and sisters suffer from being beaten down or put down – not feeling blessed at all. You see it in the cast down eyes, slumping shoulders and phrases that begin, “I don’t want to but …..” or “I am not so sure ….” Or “I doubt if we can ….” How many movements began with a summon to our basic humanity. Martin Luther King, Jr. joined the garbage workers’ march with the call, “I am a man.” Not a cog in the system but a man. And in other civil rights marches there was the chant, “I am somebody.” Often I begin a prayer for a person in need with words like this, “Lord, it is hard right now but life is such a good and precious gift. Thank you. Now, Lord, we need your help.” We begin with the gift of life. And how sweet it is when one turns to the other with the words, “You are beautiful.” Yes, you are created in the image of God and you are good, no, not just good but very good.
It is good, this creation entrusted to us. Vulnerable, like each and every life, but good. Our land and waters are fragile. Friends from church who have moved to Florida are moving a second time. They took stock of the water and decided that eight feet above high tide was not a good plan. They are moving to 40 feet, a lofty height in terms of Florida. Yet again this week the local paper led with a story of rising waters around City Dock. Administrators at the Naval Academy don’t talk of if but when the buildings will be flooded again.
What is so remarkably hard to manage is the fact that we know so much of the ailments of the land and water yet do not have the will to make change. In terms of need, Matthew Fox so helpfully notes that for much of the world that we call the “third world” suffers from an impoverishment of the body - basic resources are scarce. Yet, in our setting we suffer from an impoverishment of the soul. As he writes, “the means for a just existence are within our grasp, but our wills, our social structures, and our imaginations have not yet proven adequate for that struggle.” (Creation Spirituality, p, xiii)
Worship is all about spirit and imagination. Worship is about moving beyond the self into the wonder and mystery of the divine. Worship is all about breaking the boundaries of self to experience the other, even the holy other of the Creator. Worship is about wasting an hour in the eyes of much of the world in order to enter into a different realm. Worship is all about facing fear and naming sorrow in order to move beyond it due to the presence of God.
As a young teen I would lie on my bed staring at the stars and find that my skin would crawl with the discomfort of being so small. The endlessness of space was a frightening notion. It is curious how star gazing is so different for different people. Some are amazed others scared. Some find their place within the expanse of the universe, others get lost. Looking at the expanse of space the psalmist uttered a prayer of adoration: “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth.” Now, she knew something of the kindness of God and that formed the backdrop to her amazement. “When I look at the heavens,” the song goes on, “the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”
Over the decades my star gazing has slowly turned from fear to wonder, even if the two are not that far away from one another. An ever expanding universe …. with light coming from hundreds, thousands of light years away. Is God that big? That expansive? That grand? As another psalmist asked, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol you are there.” And “even the darkness is not dark to you.” (Psalm 139)
Photographs from the Hubble Space craft surround us this morning as a gentle, beautiful reminder of the expanse of the universe and the wonder of it all. Just imagine: roughly 13.7 billion years ago all that is was in the form of a singularity that then exploded with the gift of creativity. If that explosion had been just a small factor slower, it would have all collapsed in on itself; just a bit faster and it would have scattered throughout space. But it was just right and galaxies were formed, stars and planets. And on this one planet, maybe more, but the one we know as home, had just the right mix of light and chemicals to bring forth life, first single cells then in the millions of years of development life that could swim and crawl and eventually stand on two legs and reason and think and imagine and love and worship. For what reason? Or is that even a reasonable question? To love? To imagine? To create? To be in communion with the creator and creation? There may be no reason for your existence, yet you exist. It is pure gift. O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name, your name that is beyond all names, your name that includes all names - how majestic is your name that holds all of creation.
Abraham Heschel taught that there are three ways to respond to the gift of life. “We may exploit it, we may enjoy it, we may accept it with awe.” And, as he also noted, “awe is the beginning of wisdom.” (As quoted in Creation Spirituality, p. 42). As you know, we Presbyterians are deeply committed to serving the common good and finding our calling within efforts of justice and peace. This takes us to the bedside of a dying friend, alongside the anguish of a person in addiction, and to places of poverty and sites of great injustice. Yet, behind all of this are the gifts of wonder and awe that give us the power to do what we do and the passion to persevere. Worship is a fundamental gift that we offer to each other and to the world. For wonder is the seed of imagination, awe is the source of wisdom, and gratitude is the ground of respect.
Albert Einstein concluded that “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.” (The Hand of God, p. 37) He also once quipped that “I want to know how God created the world. I am not interested in this or that phenomenon, in the spectrum of this or that element. I want to know His thoughts; the rest are details.” (Ibid., p. 47)
Annie Dillard mused that “The question from agnosticism is, Who turned on the lights? The question from faith is Whatever for? (Ibid., p. 111)
O Lord, our God, how majestic is your name in all the earth.