Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
Imagine holding a single grain of sand at arm’s length. That’s roughly the area of the night sky we saw this week in the very first picture taken by the James Webb Space Telescope now in orbit four times further from earth than the moon. In that photo, rather than individual stars or solar systems, we see dozens of galaxies each with billions of stars and billions of planets. One billion is an unimaginably big number. I’m told that one billion grains of sand would weigh around 11 tons. And it’s all there, in that tiny little speck-of-sand-sized part of the sky—and every other sand-sized speck contains just as many billions of galaxies. (Stephen Johnson, 8 Ways James Webb Space Photos are Giving Me and Existential Crisis, 7/14/22)
Here we read God’s first bible—written in nature itself. Many were moved to tears and filled with awe. The photographs are beautiful. We see “…gas cliffs sheltering newborn stars, a four-billion-year-old star cluster appearing to dance across a dark sky, a star shedding its dust toward all corners of the universe, and five galaxies of such luminosity that they seem to be angelic beings.” (Diana Butler Bass, The Cottage, 7/13/22)
The Psalmist cried out, “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?” (Psalm 8:3) Space is so darn big. It’s just light years of emptiness. You could travel for a billion years at the fastest speed possible and never run into anything. I remember that feeling after hitting the side of my knee on the raised corner of a cement sidewalk. The pain was intense. I rolled on my back, looked straight up into infinity. The night sky seemed empty and unfeeling. Are we alone in a universe of random events?
There is something in nature has always spoken to us of a creator. God’s first revelation kindles a sturdy and primordial faith. Rabbi Abraham Heschel wrote, “Wonder or radical amazement is the chief characteristic of the religious [person’s] attitude toward history and nature.” Liberation theologian Dorothee Soelle said much the same, “I think that every discovery of the world plunges us into jubilation, a radical amazement that tears apart the veil of triviality.” Wonder. Amazement, Jubilation. Such things bring us human beings to our knees.
Dr. Suess tells the famous children’s tale of an impossibly small world of creatures living on a tiny speck of dust no one can see and who only Horton the elephant, with his impossibly large ears, can hear. No one believes Horton and their tiny world is threatened until every who in Whoville shouts and is finally heard. “We are here! We are here! We are here!” Apparently, in the real world, this story runs in reverse. We are who’s who hear Horton. In nature, and in scripture, in Word, and Sacraments, and most of all, in Christ Jesus, God declares to all of us living on this tiny blue marble in an unremarkable corner of an ordinary galaxy –I am here, I am here!
We are blessed to have seen God’s face. St. Paul wrote to the Christians in Colossae, “[Christ Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:15-17) And to the Christians in Corinth, “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:6)
Last week, we read the story of the Good Samaritan. We learned that a disciple of Jesus must continually do works of love of neighbor. This Sunday, we learn from the example of our good sisters, Mary and Martha (both of whom are founding members of Christ’s church), a disciple of Jesus must also continually sit and listen at Jesus’ feet. We must center our hearts and minds on Christ Jesus in prayer and contemplation so that our faithful actions may abound in grace.
Poor Martha is familiar to most of us. We’ve all been there. She is anxious and distracted by her many tasks while her sister Mary sits and learns at Jesus’ feet. The word for what Martha is experiencing is perispaomai. It literally means ‘to be pulled from all directions.’ It is used only this once in the entire New Testament. (Brian Stoffregen, Proper 11C, Cross Marks Christian Resources)
I become perispaomai flipping between Facebook, Twitter, newspapers, email, and the reply I’m thumb-typing in two separate text messages that momentarily disappear because I have an incoming phone call. Perispaomai is an onomatopoeia –a word that sounds like what it means. Martha is perispaomai while stewing and steaming at her sister Mary at the same time she is rushing around attending to hosting chores at the arrival of Jesus and his merry band of followers.
The tyranny of the urgent is a timeless human problem. By attending only to whatever is most pressing long-term goals and avowed ideals are crushed under the squeaky wheels that demand our attention. The Samaritan, Mary, and Martha teach us how us to slay the dragon of false urgency with silence. There must be time in each day and every week to sit at Jesus’ feet. I hope each Sunday at worship is such a time for you. We need time to pray, to sing, and to meditate upon God. Rather than be pulled from all directions, the fever and frenzy of our lives is pulled toward God and propelled by grace.
“Awe,” wrote Abraham Heschel, “enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple; to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal.”
God’s vision opens us to re-imagine the world. Encounter with God points us in the direction of our life’s work. Focus on Jesus shifts our perspective. Our hearts and minds and hands are opened to embrace each moment as an opportunity both to receive and to return grace. The still small voice that speaks from within nature is revealed as loving parent, as mother hen, as a mighty stream, and rolling waters sweeping all things to live and to live better. Mary is freed from restrictive gendered roles. Martha is challenged to taste and see. The Samaritan sees a neighbor in the suffering stranger. We are pulled from deadly busyness. Our lungs are filled with a cleansing breath. We are not alone but loved. The rocks and hills give praise. The trees clap their hands. The very universe shouts in thanksgiving. Let the people say, Amen!