Sacred Suns of God
First Presbyterian Church
January 6, 2013
One of the most poetic facts I know about the universe is that essentially every atom in your body was once inside a star that exploded. Moreover, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than did those in your right. We are all, literally, star children, and our bodies made of stardust….
….essentially no nuclei—beyond lithium, the third lightest nucleus in nature—formed during the primeval fireball that was the Big Bang….
….While lithium is important for some people, far more important to the rest of us are all the heavier nuclei like carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, iron, and so on. These were not made in the Big Bang. The only place they can be made is in the fiery cores of stars. And the only way they could get into your body today is if these stars were kind enough to have exploded, spewing their products into the cosmos so they could one day coalesce in and around a small blue planet located near the star we call the Sun. Over the course of the history of our galaxy, about 200 million stars have exploded. These myriad stars sacrificed themselves, if you wish, so that one day you could be born. I suppose that qualifies them as much as anything else for the role of saviors.
--Lawrence Krauss, A Universe From Nothing
When I make the trek home to Montana about once per year or so to visit family, I spend some time connecting again with the night sky. It is big and black and the stars are the best and brightest that I have seen. I haven’t been everywhere and I am sure that in the remote parts of Canada the stars are even brighter. For my money, the Montana night sky puts on a pretty good show. It is a show I watched thousands of nights over growing up in Montana. Much of the time, I confess, I didn’t notice what a show it was. I didn’t applaud or say aloud every night how marvelous and amazing it was. It was what it was. I didn’t notice it, I swam in it. It wasn’t until I moved away to places where the sky is smaller and dimmer that I realized the difference. That is the bittersweet reality of living. We don’t know what we have until it is gone. I am not scolding. I am not reminding us to “take notice and be grateful.” I am not advocating for some other form of piety. I am just talking about stars.
If you are a teenager and are lying on the top of a haystack in Southwestern Montana in July on a cloudless and moonless night you can actually be hypnotized by your own yearning. The stars tease. “You can’t come here,” they seem to say. “You can only watch.” As you look into the sky, you can’t help but engage in theology or philosophy or poetry. As you, somewhere between the ages of 13 and 17, try to focus on one star, you wonder how far away it is. You think of what your science teacher said about stars. As we look into the sky we not only are looking out in to space but back into time. The light of that star might have been emitted 20 years ago or 100. With a naked eye, on a good clear night, on top of a Montana haystack, the farthest star you could see might be about 3,000 light years away. Of course, you don’t know that unless you know for what you are looking. Andromeda Galaxy is 2.5 million light years away. That can be seen with the naked eye, again, if you know where to look.
As you think about those stars in the night sky in our Milky Way galaxy, you realize that they are suns or that our sun, which is eight light minutes away, is really a star. You remember your science teacher telling you that there are 100 billion or more of these suns in our Milky Way galaxy. There are galaxies beyond our galaxy. Billions of them, each with billions of suns. But just back to the Milky Way, for a moment, you wonder if these suns might have planets around them. Perhaps on one of those planets 3000 light years away is another teenager on a haystack looking at the stars. One of those stars she sees is our sun, the light of which from that teenager’s perspective, was emitted three thousand years earlier. Perhaps we are watching the light from each other’s star that is three thousand years old. It really expands your mind, actually. That is only the beginning of the brain twisting.
As you lie on the haystack thinking about the universe your science teacher opened up for you, you realize that the light from that star that might be 3,000 light years away that you are seeing now was emitted a 1000 years before Jesus. So you venture into the dangerous country of blasphemy and wonder if Jesus came down to save my world, did he also bother to come down and save the world of my new teenager friend on the planet 3,000 light years away from me as well?
You wonder as you lie on the haystack contemplating the mysteries of stars and Jesus whether or not your preacher knows about the galaxy and the number of stars and their distances, and if so, whether that matters to him at all. It seems to you as the night gets chillier on top of the haystack that the Christian truth you have heard so far seems to be based on Earth being the center of the universe and stars as little more than decoration. You realize that won’t do for you. You know that you have a choice to make and you feel that you are the only one who needs to make it or even knows that it is a choice. That can’t be true but no one seems to want to talk about it. Must it be a choice? Must the choice be either the faith that comes with Jesus in your heart or the knowledge in your mind that seems to be expanding as fast as the universe? You wonder what God and Jesus might be like if the stars mattered.
When I go back to Montana now after 23 years of immersion into these questions through seminary and ministry, I am still trying to help that teenager with his angst on top of the haystack. I look at the stars and I still have questions. The questions are far more informed, of course. I have discovered that there are many people who have asked similar questions and still ask them. Some have found a way of reconciliation that seems to work. Others have decided to land somewhere and let it go at that. Others continue the quest. For myself I continue to refuse the choice between mind and heart. I continue to hold out hope that faith and science might yet dance. I don’t want one to be absorbed into the other. I don’t want them to exist in separate spheres unable to engage the other. I seek spirituality as if the stars mattered.
This season is the via creativa. All that means is that I have chosen Winter to be the season to explore this particular spiritual path. This is the path of creativity and imagination. Creativity is not extra credit. It is not an elective the way we sometimes treat the arts in school. Creativity is necessity. It is the path that arises out of the darkness of letting go and loss, or the via negativa. We cannot lose what we have not embraced. That embrace is the path of wonder and awe at what is, the via positiva. Creativity is almost desperation. It is in the darkness that the light flickers. "Shines" is too overwhelming a word. A shining bright light tries to obliterate the darkness. It doesn’t take seriously the darkness. Creativity is a candle in a cave. It is from death that life comes. It knows that. It is because of grief that we need hope in the first place. You don’t obliterate grief. You light a candle so you can see to stumble your way through it.
When I speak of grief, I know my own, but I know that I am not alone. Don’t think that this work is simply intellectual. Or that I think this is just mine. This is not just for the clergy or the theologians or scholars. Everyone is engaged in this. As theologian Matthew Fox reminds us, “Everyone is an artist.” Each of us finds a way to make his or her own meaning, to say, "This is what I am living for now." We are all star-gazers. To take on this courageous work of the heart is a spiritual labor. To travel the way of creativity is a spiritual path. At the same time, we don’t travel alone. We have wise teachers from the past and present, co-travelers, all seeking their place among the stars.
Creativity is messy. It comes and goes on its own schedule. It takes many attempts. Much of what is created isn’t worth keeping. There are also long stretches of nothing. As I think about this series of sermons on creativity, I do want to express my own nervousness about this. There is a vulnerability here. I am doing this in public before I am close to being finished if I ever could be finished. If you have ever created something and not wanted people to see it until you were ready, you know what I mean. Something as grand as "spirituality as if stars mattered" is likely a perpetually unfinished piece.
The second sense of vulnerability is that I do this while my heart is broken. Part of me says that it isn’t appropriate to do theology with a broken heart. It won’t be as true. It will be distorted. Another part of me says if spirituality, theology, religion, or faith or whatever you call it, cannot speak to a broken heart, then what good is it? I am not sure if I can do this with a broken heart, that is preach sermons. I’ll give it a try. I appreciate your patience and your compassion even as I feel I might have little to give in return. Sometimes it is just pain that comes out more harshly than I intend.
God is a touchy topic when you are grieving. To be honest, God is not my best buddy right now. I do have a heart for Jesus, though. Perhaps revisiting that teenager on a haystack on a Montana summer’s night wondering how to integrate Jesus and the stars might be a good way to light my own spiritual candle. While this path is mine and I don’t speak for anyone else, nor do I insist, and I don’t insist even when I don’t come across as so gracious; nevertheless, perhaps this series of sermons will resonate with you and spark your own creativity in whatever way you need that light to flicker.