Sunday, October 27, 2019

Cosmos: What Am I to You?

"Cosmos: What Am I to You?"

Rev. Paul Mitchell

Vashon United Methodist Church

September 22, 2019 

John 1:1-14; Proverbs 8:22-31

Forty years ago, when my eyesight was better, I was a summer camp counselor on the staff at Wesley Acres, the United Methodist campground in eastern North Dakota. The campground was tucked in a river valley, surrounded by farmland, 20 miles from the nearest town, and that town even then had only a hundred or so residents. At night we had our campfires at the top of a small hill, so that if you laid on your back you could see nothing but night sky. When the fire would die down, the stars would blaze. We could imagine ourselves falling upward into the milky way – the gravity of the stars both pressing us down and drawing us in. The constellations sang choruses of delight and wonder. My favorites were not the brightest or the easiest to connect into the creatures the ancients saw in them, but the tiny cluster known as the Pleiades. It is among the nearest star clusters to Earth and is the cluster most obvious to the naked eye in the night sky. The Pleiades are middle-aged, hot B-type stars. They are between 75 and 150 million years old compared to our star’s age of 4.6 billion years, and they are about twice as hot as our star.
Both Amos and Job call out the Pleiades.
Amos connects mundane, earthly injustice to the maker of the stars:
Ah, you who turn justice to wormwood,
and bring righteousness to the dust –
seek the One who made the Pleiades and Orion,
who turns the dusk to dawn,
and day to the darkest night,
who summons the waters of the sea
and pours them over the land –
seek YHWH!
And God challenges Job’s indictment of God’s justice also by reference to the mastery over the stars:
Can you harness the Pleiades,
or untie the ropes of Orion?
Can you direct Venus from season to season,
Do you know the laws of the heavens?
Can you fix their rule over the earth?

When I look at the faint dust of the Pleiades, I can’t help but wonder, what would the creatures on a planet circling around one of them see when gazing in our direction? Probably nothing. Our star would be invisible to the naked eye – or at the very best, it would be lost in a field of other, brighter, bigger stars. We cry out to the sky, “Cosmos! What am I to you?” And the Cosmos is silent; patiently shedding its ancient light on us.
The prophets and the wisdom tradition see a direct connection between our puny lives and systems and the vastness of creation. We are to look to this vastness for wisdom in our earthly interactions. Psalm 8 declares:
YHWH, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your Name in all the earth!
You have placed your glory above the heavens!
When I behold your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars which you set in place –
what is humanity that you should be mindful of us?
Who are we that you should care for us?
You have made us barely less than God,
and crowned us with glory and honor.
And yet here we are, a middling planet near a minor star in a far-flung branch of just one galaxy in a vast universe. Wisdom and the prophet seem to be telling us that we too easily think far too grandly of our place in the scheme of things. As if the message of the heavens were not enough, Psalm 8 give us two more important sources of prophecy and wisdom.
From the lips of infants and children
you bring forth words of power and praise,
to answer your adversaries
and to silence the hostile and vengeful.
Have we not heard it this week? Our infants and children are arising and declaring that they deserve a future that is unimpeded by the errors and atrocities of the past. “On Wednesday, 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg appeared in front of Congress before a hearing on climate change. Thunberg, though, told Congress she didn't have any prepared remarks.

Instead, she referred to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's special report on global warming, which reported a temperature increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. ‘I am submitting this report as my testimony because I don't want you to listen to me, I want you to listen to the scientists,’ she said. ‘And I want you to unite behind the science. And then I want you to take real action.’”[i]
Then on Friday, “Anxious about their future on a hotter planet and angry at world leaders for failing to arrest the crisis, masses of young people poured into the streets on every continent on Friday for a day of global climate protests. Organizers estimated the turnout to be around four million in thousands of cities and towns worldwide. It was the first time that children and young people had demonstrated to demand climate action in so many places and in such numbers around the world.”[ii]
“You had a future and so should we.”
These young people are not merely concerned with their own individual futures, but have been born into a world that is infinitely more aware of depth of the unknown universe, and also infinitely more aware of the depth of our disregard for our impact on delicately balanced natural systems of immense power. They have a cosmic outlook. And they have been listening closely to the third voice in Psalm 8, which declares:
You have made us responsible
for the works of your hands,
putting all things at our feet –
all sheep and oxen, yes, even the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, the fish of the sea
and whatever swims the paths of the seas.
YHWH, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your Name in all the earth!

A recent article in Business Insider magazine points out:
“We're headed for ‘climate apartheid,’ in which the poor will suffer while the rich save themselves, warns a chilling UN report. The consequences of climate change, including sea-level rise, more severe droughts, wildfires, and other natural disasters, is likely to hit poor people hardest. According to the new report from the United Nations, climate change “could push more than 120 million more people into poverty by 2030.” The report's authors warn of a future “climate apartheid” scenario, in which the wealthy pay to escape overheating, hunger, and conflict while the rest of the world is left to suffer.”[iii] It is the very essence of our mission as followers of Jesus – to prevent this form of injustice – this atrocity as Amos would call it – and to champion the common good.
We human beings on planet Earth are both beasts and more than beasts. We can certainly be beastly. And yet contemporary theologians are increasingly cognizant not only of our hubris in relation to our sibling mammals, our cousin vertebrates, our neighbor fauna, our compatriot flora, even the inanimate systems of weather and geology, but also, as far as we are aware, our unique position as the consciousness of the created universe. Catholic theologian Ilia Delio writes in her latest book, “Every human life is the cosmos winding its way into the future. Every life makes a difference to the life of the whole. I have come to know that the fire in my heart is the fire in the heart of the universe and that its flames will not be extinguished.”[iv] If we take seriously our place in the cosmos, we are not small after all, but essential.
What does this mean to people of faith? What does this mean to the people of the Abrahamic tradition, who from its beginning have been called to leave home in bold trust? What does it mean to us as progressive, mainline, Cascadian Christians? The care of our planet is not an optional task. If Christ, the Word, who like Wisdom – or perhaps as Wisdom – was not merely present but essential in the birth of the cosmos, then we have a special and undeniable responsibility. Christlikeness, as Paul tells us in Philippians, is a pouring out of the self. It is a setting aside of the privileged and honorable place that we are tempted to claim as the beloved of God, and to clothe ourselves in sacrifice and humility. That process may have been a solo voyage for Jesus. He certainly was painfully alone at times. His invitation to us to come and follow him, though, is an invitation to a community that delights in what God delights, that wonders at God’s wonders, and that lives a love that burns at the core of every being.
Beloved, I am the first to admit that I have done harm to our planet, and that the privilege which I have inherited is nigh on impossible to shed. It will certainly be uncomfortable. We cannot do it without each other, and we certainly cannot do it without the voices of the animals forced from their habitat, the voices of the children chanting, “You had a future and so should we!” and the voice of Wisdom reminding us that we are as significant as the task at hand, the salvation of our planet.

[iii] Peter Dockrill,”Science Alert’ “We're headed for 'climate apartheid,' in which the poor will suffer while the rich save themselves, warns a chilling UN report” Jun. 26, 2019
[iv] Ilia Delio, Birth of a Dancing Star: My Journey from Cradle Catholic to Cyborg Christian (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2019).

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