Last month, much of this country was brought together by the sight of a solar eclipse. Even though tensions have been rising and Americans have been arguing for some time about a variety of issues – most of which could be grouped under the classification of “politics” – we were able to put it all aside for a few hours and gaze at the wonder of nature.
Of course, there was a time when the sight of the sun being blotted out by the moon would have worried, even frightened spectators. Earlier humans didn’t understand the rhythms of the celestial planets and they were likely frightened at the sudden darkness and drop in temperature. To address their fears, they developed theories about what was happening. To feel more in control of nature, they created stories about their world.
Those stories are the foundations of religion. Faiths throughout the world have at their roots the desire for humans to understand who we are and the search for our purpose. Throughout the course of human history, our understanding of how our universe works has changed and evolved. When we look back over the traditions of the Judeo-Christian tradition, we find that our scripture and our church music have actually recorded many of these changes.
“In the beginning.” The first part of our Bible, the book of Genesis, is one of the earliest records of humankind’s attempt to figure out the universe. Scholars disagree about and exact date that it was written, but current thinking puts its composition as early as the 10th century BC or, more likely closer to the 6th century BC. So, 1000-600 years before Christ – or, about 2,500 years before us. Scholars also believe that there were at least four distinct sets of editors, each with their own point of view.
The authors and editors of Genesis are trying to make sense of their world. The image first presented is one of disorder, emptiness, and darkness. Chaos goes against our instincts as humans. We want order, we want meaning, we want everything to have a purpose and a place. And so Genesis begins to give order to the world. Darkness and light become separate, as does earth and sky, and day and night.
Verses 6-8 tell of God separating the waters “up there” from the waters here below and forming an expanse called “sky.” The Hebrew word that is translated here as “expanse” means something hammered out. We might think of it as a thinly beaten sheet of metal. The sky is being depicted as a vaulted dome. When the Hebrew Bible was translated to Latin, this word was translated to firmamentum, later Anglicized to “firmament.”
As our ancient ancestors sat on Earth were trying to figure out God’s plan for them, it was easy to believe that humans were the center of God’s Creation. They believed that we stand on firm ground with a firmament – a vaulted, domed sky – above us. This view lasted for centuries, including among Greek philosophers and cosmologists. As our imagination of the universe became even more detailed through the years, a model was created of concentric circles of celestial orbs, with Earth at the center. This notion remained unchallenged until the late 1500’s when Copernicus’ heliocentric model put the sun at the center. Although, even then, there was an outer sphere, a stationary firmament, which held the stars while the earth rotated daily on its axis.
As you’ll hear when we sing our next hymn, our church music echoes this understanding of our universe; the spacious firmament on high, the shining frame, displays our Creator’s power; the planets and the stars turning around us each night, listening to the earth repeats the story of her birth.
Our ancestors probably gazed at solar eclipses with wonder and fear. Sudden darkness and cold could easily have been seen as sign of a vengeful god, punishing earth’s inhabitants for some real or perceived wrongdoing.
But our imaginations didn’t stop there. Science marched on. We began to wonder and explore and experiment more. New technologies helped our knowledge to keep evolving.
By the time we get to the 18th century after Christ, we reach “The Enlightenment” or the “Age of Reason,” we find a period of great scientific and technological advances. In many ways, science and reason begin to challenge religion. Humans needed to reconcile their faith with their changing understanding of the natural world. As science progressed, some were able to see the wonders of the universe as more evidence of God’s existence. In 1712 English writer Joseph Addison summarized this change in attitude. The first two verses of our hymn of reflection, “The Spacious Firmament On High,” paint a picture where the Sun and Moon daily roll on tracks across the firmament of heaven and produce a sound known as the music of the spheres. The third verse reflects a change. Addison adapts the more contemporary view and admits that the only sound that can be heard is in the ear of reason.
Our understanding of the universe has undergone many changes in 2500 years. Some see science and religion at odds – believing that only one can hold the “true” answers to the meaning of life, the universe, and everything, But religion and science can – I believe, should – be partners, the tools of faith and reason can work together to help us understand our world.
Just last month, much of our nation was brought together as we gazed in wonder at the eclipse. Since then, we’ve watched in horror as two storms more powerful than any we’ve seen have barreled down at our neighbors to the south. Since the eclipse, our nation has also been battling wildfires in the west. There have been monsoons in India, Bangladesh, and Nepal that have killed and displaced hundreds. Mexico has seen its strongest earthquake in a century.
We could look at our world today and wonder if a vengeful, angry god is punishing earth’s inhabitants for some real or perceived wrongdoing. We could look at our world through the clinical, calculating eyes of science, collecting raw data and statistics to simply understand the processes and interactions that create these outcomes. Or we could do both. We can pair our scientific minds with our faithful hearts. We can understand the mechanisms behind weather and we can hear God’s call to be caretakers of Creation.
Now, I really want to paint a picture of religion rising above science here. I want to say that our faith tells us to “be responsible” for the earth and to “watch over” all the living things – That’s what our translation says today and it’s pretty similar to the most English translations of these verses. But the truth is the original Hebrew says we are to kabash the earth and radah the animals. Both of these words mean something very different than our peaceful, liberal translations may have us believe. In Genesis, God tells the humans to kabash the Earth – to subdue it, to dominate it. This word, in other instances, is sometimes even used to describe vicious, violating assault and abuse.
The early authors and editors of Genesis seem to believe that the Earth is ours to do with as we please. They want to believe again that humans are at the center of God’s Universe and that we have the power to enslave creation to do our bidding.
That may be easy to believe if we focus on just one or two words of our scripture. And, in fact, it has been used in the past to justify how humans use the earth. “We shouldn’t have to worry about how we use the earth.” “We can tear down and dig up whatever we want.” “We can fill the spacious firmament with whatever we want.” “We can dominate the earth to do our bidding.”
But then, God continues to talk to us. Through scripture, yes, but also through science. Climate scientists and prophets have been telling us for decades that we’ve been headed down the wrong path; that subjugating and dominating our planet will result in death and destruction.
Science tells us that the solar eclipse is not the result of a vengeful god. Science also tells us that powerful hurricanes and earthquakes and natural disasters are a result of our sins against God’s Creation. Not the actions of a vengeful god, but a reaction to our careless ways.
I admit, sometimes scripture gets it wrong. Kabash is the not the right word. We were not meant to dominate our word. This is evident through the voice of reason and science but it’s also obvious when we look at the rest of the Bible. The next 2000 years or so of scripture holds up a mirror to all the ways that domination goes wrong. It shows us how we divide and choose enemies and scapegoat others. And through the prophets of the Hebrew testament and the good news of the Christ’s gospels, we hear over and over again our call to love our neighbors, love our children, love our world.
We are not the physical center of God’s universe. There are not concentric domes above us creating a celestial spectacle just for us. But I do believe that we are at the center of God’s heart. God has given us the gifts of reason and of love and of hope.
Our call in God’s world is to open our minds and our hearts to all of the ways that God is still speaking to us. We worry that the scary world around us reflects and angry god. Instead, we need to believe that these are exactly the moments when God’s love calls to us most strongly.
We are not the center of God’s world. The Divine hand that made us calls us to be co-creators, to care for every inch of the planet we inhabit. It’s not enough to only lift up hymns of grateful praise to God for the beauty of our earth. We must also lift our hands and hearts to do God’s work.
When we witness the disaster and destruction, we hear our call to care for the displaced and dispossessed. We must care for those directly impacted and we must pledge to work harder to prevent it from happening again. We must do better for the most vulnerable of our siblings.
Last month, much of our country looked on together in wonder at the sight of the solar eclipse. This week, we watch together in horror at hurricanes and floods and fire. From this point on, let’s look at our world together with love and hope. Together, let’s hear the voice of our still speaking God calling to us from scripture and science and from every aspect of our lives. Together, let’s be the church, working towards creating the world that God intended – a world of equality and peace, where all are safe and cared for, on earth as in heaven.
This work is not easy and it cannot be done alone. We will gather here as church seeking God’s word, we will gather here as church seeking God’s peace, and we walk out those doors, we’ll still be church, and we will do God’s work. Together.
This week and always may we be aware of God’s call, of Christ’s leadership on our path, and of the strength of the Holy Spirit as we journey together. Amen.