Our Place in the Universe

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August 28, 2016

Many of us are reading the bookLearning to Walk in the Dark, by Barbara Brown Taylor, the well known Episcopal priest, preacher, and writer who will be speaking here at the Cathedral next week, on September 8.  Among other things, she discusses our excessive fear of darkness, to the point where we want to light up the night, both indoors and outdoors.  A great cost comes with this, she says, far beyond the energy consumption and electricity bills.  Because of what some call “light pollution,” two-thirds of us Americans cannot even look up into the night sky and see the Milky Way, the galaxy in which we reside, which contains, I am told, 100-400 billion stars and at least 100 billion planets.

Why should it bother us that we often cannot see this in the night sky?  For one thing, Taylor says, seeing the Milky Way provides much spiritual benefit.  It provides a place for us to rest with our eyes, so to speak, and (in Taylor’s words) leads us to “risk wondering things that will make you dizzy for days.  Where does that path of stars lead?  Where does the cosmos end?  What lies beyond it, and who are you to wonder about such things?  If you are ever in doubt about your place in the universe, [Taylor says], this is a good way to remember.”

So what is our place in the universe?  On the one hand, clearly, it is very tiny.  As we are now, we occupy such a small space for such a short amount of time.  Shakespeare, of course, nailed it when he has his character Prospero declare that “we are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”  He makes the same point when he has MacBeth compare us humans to “a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.”  As Thomas Gray wrote in his “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” even “the paths of glory lead but to the grave.”  On Ash Wednesday, we remember that we are made from dust and that we will return to the dust.

Our Christian tradition acknowledges our smallness in the scheme of things.  But on the other hand, paradoxically, it tells us that we are of infinite and eternal worth in this vast universe because God loves us beyond anything we can ask or imagine.  Out of love, God gave life to the dust we are made of and redeemed that life by becoming dust himself, dust that even the grave could not contain.  So, as St. Paul said, we have nothing and yet possess everything.  Barbara Brown Taylor notes that, transitory as our lives are, we, along with all creation, are made of atoms originating in the heavens.  “I and everything I love,” she says, “have come forth from the furnace of the stars by a process . . . of unfathomable, life-giving grace.”  She’s the right age, of course, to know that Crosby, Stills, and Nash song that goes, “We are stardust, we are golden, We are billion year old carbon . . . .”  Because of God’s creative, life-giving work, we are “something,” we are profoundly significant, after all.

Our service of Holy Baptism today highlights the paradoxical nature of our place in the universe.  On the one hand, we acknowledge our vulnerability and our deep need for communion with God and each other when Violet, our lovely candidate for Baptism, is symbolically buried with Christ in his death.  Then, when she is raised from the waters, we celebrate the resurrected Christ’s power, through the Spirit, to ground us in the divine life, which is love and which never ends.

This service therefore beautifully highlights the path by which we can all experience this amazing life that God offers us in Christ.  First, we must acknowledge our smallness and our need.  Not only is life short, but we are beset by weaknesses and limitations from “day one.”  Beyond physical weakness and limited personal abilities, we are, as this and every service acknowledges, sinners motivated by pride who frequently follow false paths to glory.  As today’s gospel suggests, we often spend our energies aiming for the top seat at banquets and cultivating only ties with others who we think can benefit us in some obvious way.  Our first thought is to raise ourselves up by our own efforts, and we have little tolerance for those we think are getting in our way.  As Nicholas Ferrar, a wise 17th-century Anglican lamented, he most desired that “nobody should crosse mee, that nothing should be contrary tomy mind.”

Of course we see the same prideful approach to life in the behavior of nations, including supposedly Christian nations, whose leaders have sought to exalt themselves at the expense of others.  Nicholas Ferrar’s world of early 17th-century England, for example, was torn by conflict between two prideful elements:  the government of Charles I and its Puritan opponents.  William Laud, archbishop of Canterbury in the established Church of England, promoted some good reforms (he’s commemorated in our Episcopal Church calendar, after all), but he also had three Puritans arrested for criticizing him and had their ears cut off and their cheeks branded!  (No wonder some Puritans escaped to New England for refuge!)  The Puritans exhibited similar impulses, sadly, taking power in a civil war and enforcing their own brand of conformity, even killing Archbishop Laud, the King, and many others in the name of God.  Among many historical examples, this bears out the truth in today’s reading from Ecclesiasticus that “pride was not created for human beings, or violent anger for those born of women.”  Nations are laid waste and peoples devastated by the effects of pride and ambition, as we see, sadly, in Syria today.  We humans, collectively as well as individually, have made a mess of things, which our baptismal liturgy fully acknowledges.

But that, praise God, is not the end of the story.  The gospel tells us that, once we recognize our place in the universe and our need for Christ’s help, our weakness can be turned into strength and our wailing into dancing.  Through grace, God’s free gift, we can indeed leave behind our harmful efforts to follow what the Prayer Book calls “the devices and desires of our own hearts,” the ways in which we seek our own glorification and not God’s.  We can relate to others in the church and beyond as today’s gospel reading suggests, not based on what others can do for us but on our common identity as children of God.  We will find, as the contemporary church leader Louie Crew put it, that at the altar, we are all “blood kin” and we can begin to see Christ even in those who are very different from us.

This is the community into which we are baptizing Violet today, the beloved people of the God we know in Christ—the God who gave himself out of love, so that, together, we might be eternally raised with him.