The Work of Your Fingers

Passage: Psalm 8
Date: October 15, 2017
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
Guest Preacher:

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It all began with Cassini. A few weeks ago, the Cassini space probe, having ended its twenty-year mission, changed its path orbiting the planet Saturn, sent itself into the planet’s atmosphere and burned itself up. It was an extraordinary mission by all accounts, this joint effort of American and European space programs.

Cassini gave us a glimpse of Venus, and our own moon, and then traveled all the way out to the sixth planet of our solar system, studying the rings we have wondered at and learning they are not flat but three-dimensional; discovering moons that have water and methane and could possibly support life; and discovering the way water forms in hexagons and not circles, seeing hurricanes at both of the planets formed.

Between that and the eclipse in August, I’ve been thinking about space and the stars, and I feel a kinship with psalmist who says, “When I look at your heavens, 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?”

We are in a season when we need to go out and look at the stars for a good long while. There is something healing about that. Annie Dillard reminds us that “You do not have to sit outside in the dark. If, however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is necessary. But the stars neither require nor demand it.” (Teaching a Stone to Talk)

But maybe our souls require some stargazing these days. Going outside, preferably in the middle of nowhere on a clear night, reminds us of the good rhythm of the dark, the quiet unhurriedness of the evening. And if you can go outside in the dark and lie down on the ground and look at the sky, you will be rewarded. The few familiar constellations make themselves known – the dippers, and Orion. The seven-sistered Pleiades may be out, and the swirl of the Milky Way may make itself known.

To consider the work of God’s fingers is to consider a master at the peak of his or her art. Some of the greatest scientific minds of this age have wondered at the artistry of the universe and how we may be part of the picture. As Albert Einstein said, “The human mind is not capable of grasping the Universe. We are like a little child entering a huge library. The walls are covered to the ceilings with books in many different tongues. The child knows that someone must have written these books. It does not know who or how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. But the child notes a definite plan in the arrangement of the books… a mysterious order which it does not comprehend, but only dimly suspects.”

Most of us are here this morning because we suspect, however dimly or brightly, that there is a mysterious order to life and creation, and that a being we call God has made that order. And when we contemplate the universe, and when we contemplate all the “omni” aspects of God – omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent – we can start to feel small, powerless, maybe useless. What are we human beings that God is mindful of us?

It’s an important tension – the tension between the majesty and power of God and the small-minded weakness of humanity. The tension is important, like the tension of a violin string is important – just right, the violin can play a note of melancholy or great beauty. The tension between God’s greatness and our smallness allows for the beauty of God’s love to be played, a beauty that can produce a sadness when we realize how we have failed to live up to God’s love, or a beauty that shines through all the fog and smoke as we receive the gift of grace.

Likewise, the universe itself feels simultaneously awe-inspiring and cold. The light we see is ancient, from stars that may be now dead. We cannot breathe in space; we have no weight in space. We are swallowed up by its vastness.

Yet we human beings explored it anyway. We went into the void, into that cold immense dark, visited the moon, sent probes to other planets, and learned about creation itself, about neutrinos and atoms and dark matter and dark energy, about white dwarfs and red dwarfs and supernovas and black holes. And in learning about space, and in learning about the stars, we learned, through the efforts of elegant science, that we human beings are made of the same stuff as the stars. We are part of the same creation. We are children of the same Creator.

In the Creator’s grand scheme, we have been given a home, this planet we call Earth. When the first Apollo astronauts made it out into space and were able to gaze at their home from such a distant perspective, it changed them, and it comforted them.

John Glenn said, “I don’t think you can be up here and look out the window as I did the first day and see the Earth from this vantage point, to look out at this kind of creation and not believe in God. To me, it’s impossible – it just strengthens my faith. I wish there were words to describe what it’s like. …truly awesome.” (Broadcast from the Discovery Space Shuttle, 11/1/98)

Jim Lovell, captain of the fateful Apollo 13 mission, said this. “The most impressive sight I saw was not the moon, not the far side that we never see, or the craters. It was Earth. The Earth was the most impressive sight. As we came around the far side of the Moon and saw the Earth come up above the horizon, we could see the only color in our part of the Universe. The blues of the oceans, the white clouds, the tans, the pinks. I could put my thumb up and hide the Earth completely. Then it dawned on me how completely insignificant we are. Everything I had ever known – my family, my country, my world – was behind my thumb.

“So there in the distance was this small body orbiting a rather normal sun, — nothing so particular about it — tucked away on the outer edge of the galaxy we call the Milky Way. I thought how fortunate we are to live on this small body, with everyone.”

From space, the earth looks so small, manageable, its problems contained on the blue and green marble we call home. On this planet we call home, we live with all those folks who, like us, were created little lower than the angels. Oh, how that should change things for us.

I wonder if at the root of so much of the sorrow and suffering we are now experiencing is our failure to see the stardust in each other, to see the near-divinity in each other, to recognize what we have in common. We all need to breathe clean air, and drink clean water, and eat healthy food. We all need shelter from the elements, and clothing that keeps us cool or warm. And so we need to be good stewards of this earth and its resources.

Beyond that, we need laughter and beauty. We need community. We need people who will hold mirrors up to us so that we can see the truth of our lives. We need compassion and empathy. We need generosity in one expression or another. We need wonder. We need curiosity. We need mystery.

And we have been given all of that. Our gracious Creator, who made the ever-expanding universe, and this gorgeous planet, and us, has given us everything we need. But we don’t always deploy our resources in life-giving ways. We keep too much, more than we need, for ourselves, so someone else goes wanting. We give too much away, give away too much of our souls for that which destroys, or we give too much of our time away to silly little things, and there’s nothing of substance left.

We judge who is deserving of clean air and clean water and healthy food, and we forget the rest. The planet is out of balance; our stardust is hidden by the debris of our wastefulness.

It doesn’t have to be that way. To go outside at night to gaze at stars is to reset our perspective on things. It is to remember how great a thing time is, and how every minute is an opportunity to love someone.

To wonder at the heavens is to consider beauty, and to be mindful of the beauty we know in a song, in a baby’s cry, in a note from a friend, in the beauty of the person sitting next to you in the pew. If I didn’t think it would embarrass the heck out of everyone, I’d ask you right now to turn to the people to your right and left and say, “You are beautiful. Thank you.”

In my preparatory reading for the sermon, I revisited a book by Ursula Goodenough, who wrote, “the Sun has existed for about 4.5 billion years and has enough hydrogen to burn for another 5 billion years or so. During its terminal phases it is expected to become so hot that the Earth will turn into a cinder.” (The Sacred Depths of Nature)

I realized that someday all life on earth will come to an end. When that happens, later rather than sooner I hope, our bodies will turn to dust once again, and go back to the stars from whence we came. Our souls will return to the heavens, or to heaven, wherever that is, where we will take our place among the angels, little lower than gods.