sermon for Universe Sunday

(Season of Creation)universe

Proverbs8:22-31; Psalm8; Colossians1:15-20; John6:41-51
I invite you to pause for a moment and really appreciate where you are. Yes in church, in Madison. But also appreciate the wood of the chair you’re sitting on and light shining at you, in from windows and down from electricity. Appreciate the air you’re breathing, how it smells, how it tastes. And your surroundings, the clothes touching your skin, those gathered with you, and the trees and sky and soil surrounding you.

Now change your thought. Picture instead the farthest place away from here you’ve ever been. You may think of another country, or another geography, or another time and era. Recall how the people were different, and the birds you didn’t recognize, the weather that was unusual.

If that place seems far away, then think about this detail: six months ago, at the time we were celebrating Easter and resurrection, you were about 186 million miles away from here. Even if in this same sanctuary, you were located far away on the opposite side of the sun.

As the earth zips along its orbit at 66,000 miles per hour, even if you’re passing the time waiting for next year to be back to that same location, still you’ll be someplace new, as our solar system goes hurtling within the spiraling arms of our neighborhood in the Milky Way galaxy at 483,000 miles per hour. We won’t complete that trip of rotation around the galactic year for another 225 million of our years.

But even then you wouldn’t be back to an original location, because the whole of the universe has continued expanding at maybe 1.3 million miles per hour over the 13.8 or so billion years since the Big Bang.

If you’re trying to keep up with the math, these grand distances end up measured in lightyears, which are unbelievably great, since light moves at 186,000 miles per second, so the distance over a year is about 6 trillion miles. For that, we could say that you’ve covered a lot of territory in your life, but “territory” is still an earthbound word, for the terra firma of land. We don’t want to say that you take up a lot of space. Sillier still, this unfathomable scale has been summed up in a Monty Python song[1], so we need to dig deeper.

How about thinking of it this way: for the promise of resurrection to keep up with you since Easter six months ago, the Holy Spirit has had to fly after and keep trying to alight on you against the stiff breeze of million mile an hour solar winds and cosmic radiation. So, as our group prepares to travel to the Holy Land, we’re not reversing the spacetime continuum to go back to the Jerusalem or Bethlehem of Jesus, yet we must confess Jesus continues forward, not only the Lord of what has gone past but also the fullness of what’s to come.

Amid an expanse of his cosmic domain, let’s first pause for perspective at our nearest star, the sun. There’s been a sense for a couple hundred years that nature is “red in tooth and claw,” with survival of the fittest. Either that makes God our Creator a brute or else it plain doesn’t square with a Lord who was willing to die on the cross, emptying himself in love, in which case nature would (as old the old poet had it) “shriek against [the] creed” for those “who trusted God was love indeed.”2

Yet we need not be distracted by what goes violently wrong. We may still trust love as the shape and goal of the universe. With our detour past the sun, David Keesey-Berg shared an excerpt from cosmologist Brian Swimme,3 that the sun gives 4 million tons of itself every second for our life, using up and sacrificing for our warmth and light and photosynthesis creating food. And stellar fusion creates the elements that make up our bodies, perhaps a hint of life out of death. From this generosity of the self-giving sun, then, we see the shape of life not merely or even mostly in competition but as a symbiosis, sharing, life together, in relationship.

Trusting this is the Wisdom and guiding force present since before worlds began, we should be able to identify such fingerprints as godly indicators.

But the harder trust, the more incredible sense, may be to forecast that into the future, not only of origins but also of destinations, of goals. That requires the language of redemption, which the writer of Colossians understood must be entirely true to be true at all.

With that, Joseph Sittler, a Lutheran theologian, gave a famous speech at a World Council of Churches gathering in New Delhi 55 years ago in which he proclaimed with Colossians that some views are too small, with the error (he said) of “assum[ing] that there were ‘thrones, dominions, principalities, and authorities’ which have a life and power apart from Christ, [assuming] that the real world was a dualism, one part… (ensconcing the power of evil) was not subject to the Lordship of the Creator in Christ.”4 Sittler highlights how Colossians won’t back down, though, emphasizing “all things” six times in these few verses. Sittler even says, in the aftershock of hydrogen bombs, that “When atoms are disposable to the ultimate hurt then the very atoms must be reclaimed for God and [God’s] will.”5 From the microscopic to the vastest unimaginable scale, this proclamation can leave nothing out.

So to be your redeemer and Lord, Jesus must be able to redeem you from your wrongs and sins, be able to redeem and restore fractured relationships, must offer salvation from illnesses and death. His message of resurrection must chase you through the stars and across the galaxy, and it must include not just small personal moments of human trust and doubt, of justice versus evil, of worries and endings, but must also include the eventual fate of the whole cosmos, or else it can’t be true. “All things, in heaven and on earth, things visible and invisible.” He must be Lord of your very specific life on earth, simultaneous to being responsible for and committed to the nearly infinite details of the universe.

So the instances of interactions with our life simply must be everywhere. Trusting this fullness and Wisdom of Christ as Lord of all, for example, we attend especially in this time of stewardship to him as Lord of our finances and schedules. But it’s not just the microeconomics of families, but the macroeconomics of this household of earth. So his lordship must also include banks that steal from customers and fail in their role even as they’re too big to fail and he must redeem them and us from their failure. And the lordship of Jesus must save us from commercial capitalism that tries to convince us comfort and convenience are our kings and queens. Mortgages and markets must not ultimately control or own us. Jesus must be Lord for the whole economic system that pretends it can persist in depleting a finite earth.

With Professor Sittler’s word on evil authorities, we must once again proclaim that Jesus is Lord of the sad, disgusting politics we face right now, not just in claiming votes of those who believe a candidate is chosen by God, but Jesus is somehow redeeming even those who are deemed irredeemable, since no rulers or powers remain outside his reach.

In another separate aspect of his same realm, Jesus is Lord of zoology and climatology and astronomy, as we’ve noticed better in recent weeks of this Season of Creation, delighting in beastly monsters and abundant animals, and commanding even the weather. So, again, Jesus must be Lord not only of sunsets over serene mountain lakes but also in redeeming toxic waste and bringing good, raising new life from landfills.

He is Lord not just of morality and ethics, as is most often the presumption of the religious, not just for the innermost contemplation that guides future motives, but also Lord of the nebulae and galactic clusters farther away than our best telescopes can peer into the past. And as Lord, he must be expected to bring newness not only out of supernovas but also somehow to pull life out of black holes and the cold, lonely distance of expanding entropy.

This Lord Jesus came because God so loved the world, God so loved the cosmos (with that original Greek word), and—should we discover realities beyond ours—God so loves the multiverse.

He came down from heaven, as he says in John. We needn’t hold that as someplace up above the sky, beyond space. We might simply say Jesus came to the existence we know, even if we only know it in part, only dimly. He came to give you life now, and on the last day—whatever that means and whatever we expect—on that day he will still be giving life. This is his ongoing work, the will of God, even when we don’t really get it and fall back into the clutches of the other authorities or imagine life lacks his wholeness.

Yet again to remind and reconnect you, of the blessing and your role in it, to conclude here is another poem from Colossians Remixed. As I shared back in July, this stunning updating is an expansion of the reading we heard today:

In an image-saturated world,

a world of ubiquitous corporate logos

permeating our conscience

a world of dehydrated and captive imaginations

in which we are too numbed, satiated, and co-opted

to be able to dream of a life otherwise

a world in which the empire of global economic affluence

has achieved the monopoly of our imaginations

in this world

Christ is the image of the invisible God

in this world

driven by images with a vengeance

Christ is the image par excellence

the image above all other images

the image that is not a façade

the image that is not trying to sell you anything

the image that refuses to co-opt you

Christ is the image of the invisible God

the image of God

a flesh-and-blood

here-and-now

in time and history

with joys and sorrows

image of who God is

the image of God

a flesh-and-blood

here-and-now

in time and history

with joys and sorrows

image of who we are called to be

image-bearers of this God

He is the source of a liberated imagination

a subversion of the empire

because it all starts with him

and it all ends with him

everything

all things

whatever you can imagine

visible and invisible

mountains and atoms

outer space, urban space and cyberspace

whether it be the Pentagon, Disneyland, Microsoft or AT&T

whether it be the institutional power structures

of the state, the academy or the market

all things have been created in him and through him

he is their source, their purpose, their goal,

even in the rebellion,

even in their idolatry

he is the Sovereign One

their power and authority is derived at best

parasitic at worst

In the face of the empire

in the face of presumptuous claims to sovereignty

in the face of the imperial and idolatrous forces in our lives

Christ is before all things

he is sovereign in life

not the pimped dreams of the global market

not the idolatrous forces of nationalism

not the insatiable desires of a consumerist culture

In the face of a disconnected world

where home is a domain in cyberspace

where neighborhood is a chat room

where public space is a shopping mall

where information technology promises

a tuned-in, reconnected world

all things hold together in Christ

the creation is a deeply personal cosmos

all cohering and interconnected in Jesus

And this sovereignty takes on cultural flesh

And this coherence of all things is socially embodied

in the Church

against all odds

against most of the evidence

In a “show me” culture where words alone don’t cut it

the Church is

the flesh-and-blood

here-and-now

in time and history

with joys and sorrows

embodiment of this Christ

as a body politic

around a common meal

in alternative economic practices

in radical service to the most vulnerable

in refusal of the empire

in love of this creation

the Church reimagines the world

in the image of the invisible God

In the face of a disappointed world of betrayal

a world in which all fixed points have proven illusory

a world in which we are anchorless and adrift

Christ is the foundation

the origin

the way

the truth

and the life

In the face of a culture of death

a world of killing fields

a world of the walking dead

Christ is at the head of the resurrection parade

transforming our tears of betrayal into tears of joy

giving us dancing shoes for the resurrection party

And this glittering joker

who has danced in the dragon’s jaws of death

now dances with a dance that is full

of nothing less than the fullness of God

this is the dance of the new creation

this is the dance of life out of death

and in this dance all that was broken

all that was estranged

all that was alienated

all that was dislocated and disconnected

what once was hurt

what once was friction

is reconciled

comes home

is healed

and is made whole

because Grace makes beauty out of ugly things

everything

all things

whatever you can imagine

visible and invisible

mountains and atoms

outer space, urban space, and cyberspace

every inch of creation

every dimension of our lives

all things are reconciled in Him

And it all happens on a cross

it all happens at a state execution

where the governor did not commute the sentence

it all happens at the hands of the empire

that has captured our imagination

it all happens through blood

not through a power grab by the sovereign one

it all happens in embraced pain

for the sake of others

it all happens on a cross

arms outstretched in embrace

and this is the image of the invisible God

this is the Body of Christ6

[1] “Galaxy Song,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=23Dm7sQ1C1E (viewer discretion, please)

2 Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “In Memoriam A.H.H.” canto LVI

3 The Hidden Heart of the Cosmos: Humanity and the New Story p39

4  “Called to Unity” in Evocations of Grace, p39

5 p46

6 from Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire, Brian Walsh & Sylvia Keesmat, p85-89

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Carol Stories, week 1

Creator of the Stars of Night (ELW #245, stanzas 1 & 2)

 

With this first one, there’s double trouble in claiming we’ll sing your favorite Christmas carols. A: it’s not in the Christmas section. B: it may not be a favorite. I picked it after reading a passage for staff devotions from this Advent Sourcebook. To start the book, it says, “for many, Advent would not be Advent if introduced by any other” carol. That says something about it being a favorite.

Yet I was surprised it wasn’t even in the Advent section of our old green LBW hymnals. There, in the “Christian Hope” section, it has a totally different translation that goes, “O Lord of light, who made the stars, O Dawn, by whom we see the way, O Christ, redeemer of the world: Come now and listen as we pray.” I think the translation in ELW has more ring.

And speaking of translations, the Sourcebook said that the original Latin word we have as “stars” was actually way more. It also included “sun and moon and planets and all the constellations and comets and meteors, these mysterious heavenly bodies that in some unfathomable way could affect human destiny. The point was not just some lovely nightfall scene studded with gently glimmering stars.”

That huge perspective is helpful in, again, reorienting us as this season starts. We love these quiet nights, and reflecting that Jesus will be born as a baby, because we can wrap our minds (and our arms!) around that. A tiny infant we can handle. But at the same time, this God who created the entire immense universe really is unfathomably big. I started to look up a scale model, of the sort like “if the sun were the size of a basketball, earth would be a grain of sand” and that the nearest star would be hundreds of miles away, which is even more shocking when we remember that our galaxy alone has at least 100 billion stars and there are at least 100 billion more galaxies. Yowser. That quickly becomes more math than I can do. And it can make us and our troubles seem awfully small.

Yet the original version of our carol describes the Savior’s sorrow for a “curse / that should doom to death a universe” and so came to “embrace / our gloomy world, its weary race.” It’s a remarkable understanding, that out of everything—the hugeness of the cosmos, the complexity of existence, the vast stretches beyond comprehension—that God should care for us. It’s like words we’ll hear from Psalm 8 in a bit, “When I consider your universe, what are mere mortals that you should care for us?”

Yet that is exactly what we understand of God and the arrival of Jesus. And, in another (though smaller still) amazingly expansive stretch, Christians have been singing the words of this carol to these same notes since at least the 800s. So let’s join them. Let’s sing.

 

Of the Father’s Love Begotten (ELW #295, stanzas 1 & 3)

 

Our second carol is more likely a favorite, at least for me and Brent Ruffridge.

Its sound may parallel the ancient chant plainsong we just sang; indeed, this is another old, old tune that’s been sung for hundreds of years, though it’s not as ancient as the words themselves. The words are by a man who has been called “the original Christian poet.” He was writing at about the same time that our Nicene Creed was composed, and we may sense some similarities between the two. Prudentius was a successful lawyer and judge in northern Spain, appointed to his position by the emperor. But he came to see life as too temporal or temporary, that what we work and strive for and build on all too soon collapses and disappears. So he gave up his position and wealth and moved to a monastery to write Christian poetry.

His words here also try to contain some of the enormous scope of the cosmos and all of history that we encountered in the last carol. Here it includes the term “Alpha and Omega,” again as we heard on Christ the King Sunday, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. In a way, it reverses the idea that Jesus was a baby who would fit in our arms; this says that we are entirely in his embrace. So just as we’d say there is nothing before A and nothing after Z, within God’s reach and never outside God’s control is everything we know and have experienced and could ever be. The ancient prophets. The highest angels. The worst thing you’ve ever done. The Big Bang. Death. The things that are, that have been, and that future years shall see—Jesus is holding all of it and working to love and redeem it all. It sure does make our existence now seem temporary by comparison.

Speaking of knowing only in part, the version of this carol in our hymnals includes just five of ten original stanzas. In the full version, there are words about Jesus creating earth and heaven and depths of ocean and all that grows. There’s our frail and feeble bodies, doomed to die and departed souls. From Psalm 148, there’s the praise of elders, youth and maidens, and even infants, plus the praise of all creation—storm and sunshine, stream and forest, night and day. These are different words for what we have portrayed also in nativity scenes, that all come to worship the tiny, fragile, holy infant who is ruler of all times and places, from donkeys to angels, rich and wise kings down to poor ugly shepherds like goofy Gustav. For his sake and along with all creation, let’s sing.

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