Rev. Dr. Scott Herr
Please Read: Mark 6:30-44; Colossians 1:15-23
I just got back yesterday afternoon from a short trip to Zurich to give a presentation there for the 50th anniversary of the International Protestant Church of Zurich, where I served for six years. I bring you warm greetings from Andreas and Renate Kuklis and Scotty and Maria Williams, the two pastors and their wives who will be coming in May to the pastors’ conference that we are hosting. I was able to stay with some friends who have a beautiful home on the lake of Zurich. And with the beautiful weather that we had there the last two evenings I went out and admired the awesome night sky. You can actually see the stars there on the lake…. When’s the last time you’ve looked up with wonder and awe at the vastness of the universe, and felt how small and insignificant we are? When’s the last time you looked up in the night sky and wondered with the Psalmist, what are we, that you, God should be mindful of us? Why would God care about us? Or perhaps you’ve wondered if there is any other life out there? Are we really that special after all?
Today I want to encourage you to remember that as small and meaningless as life may seem at times, as absurd as our place in the universe may seem at times, I want to remind you today that you are something and someone very special!
As we come to the table today, I am reminded of the fact that of all living species in the history of planet earth, 99% are now extinct. That means that over the millennia, over the millions of years that life has struggled and suffered forward on this planet, much death has taken place in order for us to be alive today… We hold a very important place in the history of known life. Our very existence is in many ways priceless when considering the cost of life that has gone before us so that we could be here today…
But we also have a very special place in the universe relative to the rest of physical reality. Professor Rolston writes, “The size of the planet [earth] is near the geometric mean of the size of the known universe and the size of the atom. The mass of a human being is the geometric mean of the mass of the Earth and the mass of a proton. A person contains about 10²⁸ atoms, more atoms than there are stars in the universe and that number puts us at mid-scale. ‘The human scale is, in a numerical sense, poised midway between atoms and stars.’”
But not only are we at the unique mid-range of three dimensional space, we humans are the most complex phenomenon in all of known reality. Holmes writes, “The human brain is capable of forming something in the range of 10⁷⁰′⁰⁰⁰′⁰⁰⁰′⁰⁰⁰ thoughts – a number that dwarfs the number of atoms in the visible universe (10⁸⁰). On a cosmic scale, humans are miniscule atoms, but on a complexity scale, humans have ‘hyperimmense’ possibilities in mental complexity. In our 150 pounds of protoplasm, in our 3 pound brain, is more operational organization than in the whole of the Andromeda galaxy.”
But here’s the kicker. In our complexity, we also have the greatest capacity to suffer. It’s always amazing to me to go back to a congregation I have served in the past. I spent the last few days having a lot of conversations with old friends over coffee. I listened to a lot of stories and laughed and cried. People needed to tell me what they had suffered in their lives since we last met. It was painful to hear of changes in career, troubles with children, deaths and miscarriages and divorces and betrayals. But what struck me, is how these people are still going on. They are believing in God and have hope for the future.
In fact, it has been through suffering that humanity has evolved to such an awesome, amazing complex state! One of the most profound insights for me that Professor Rolston has made is that God is the One who opens up possibilities through the cycles of life for new creation and creativity to emerge. This is true from the view of long term historical evolution, as well as in the more immediate experience of the seasons of life for each of us.
Like those first disciples at the feeding of the five thousand, we may at times find ourselves hungry with what seems like limited resources, we may find ourselves out in the middle of nowhere with nothing that we think we need. But God is able to open up new possibilities, new resources that we could not have previously imagined. Despite ourselves sometimes, God directs our collective path to paradoxical new openings to life, to a new way of life…
I love the story of the cross here in our sanctuary, the beautiful Celtic cross that Lionel and Monica designed and painted. But it’s important for you to know that Lionel did not set out to design a cross, but wanted to symbolize the fact that we humans are at a crossroads in history. We are at a turning point, and the impact on our world remains to be seen. Indeed, the choices we make politically, economically and environmentally will have cosmic consequences. Just a few years ago we crossed one threshold; there are now more human beings living in urban areas than in rural areas. And in 2050 it is estimated that 70% of the world’s population will live in cities. And while we know that nuclear energy is most efficient and probably necessary for our future, we live with dangerous limits on our ability to control and harness this source of energy (the most obvious example of this is the Daiichi power plant in Fukushima prefecture in Japan). So Lionel and Monica took tires to symbolize one of the tools we use that impacts the earth as the instrument to apply the pain on the canvas. The cross is all tire tracks. And the paint they used, a diversity of colors, is meant to symbolize the different races and ethnic groups and nationalities of all people. The cross symbolizes the historical intersection in human history. And then they drew a circle, symbolic of the earth, around it. Using Leonardo Davinci’s divine mean, they discovered they had designed a Celtic cross!
Which brings us to one of the more important theological insights Professor Rolston has made: Nature is cruciform. “The way of nature is the way of the cross.” All of history leads to the cross and in our very personal stories we know this to be true. To be human is to suffer. The question is, can we also discover that the cross is the way to new life, to rebirth and renewal? In our brokenness can we receive the grace to let go of our old ways, our old patterns, our old matrix of thinking in order to welcome resurrection life, Easter renewal that God offers to us?
Holmes writes, “To be chosen by God is not to be protected from suffering. It is a call to suffer and to be delivered as one passes through it… So far from making the world absurd, suffering is a key to the whole… The capacity to suffer through to joy is a supreme emergent and an essence of Christianity. Yet the whole evolutionary upslope is a lesser calling of this kind, in which renewed life comes by blasting the old. Life is gathered up in the midst of its throes, a blessed tragedy, lived in grace through a besetting storm.”
Friends, here at the table we remember the One who entered into the throes of this life, who gave himself into the tragedy of this reality, who threw himself into the storm of suffering to bring peace to us and to all creation. The One who is the image of the invisible God formed his body to match the cruciform shape of our lives and world; the firstborn of all creation came to show us the way to the new creation through suffering; the One who through whom all things were made and in whom all things hold together brought peace for all of reality through the blood of his cross.
The question is not whether or not we will suffer. Rather, the question is how will we suffer? Will our suffering be for life, to bring forth new creation and hope for a better world? Will we suffer the consequences of our own self-centeredness, or will we suffer in giving ourselves in our friendships, in our marriages, our families, our schools and workplaces in the way of the cross, for new life, for creativity, compassion and love?
I want you to notice the beautiful ascension window back there over the balcony. Notice all of the stars. When maybe you can’t notice them… I sit there most Sundays and look up at that window. It’s the artist’s intention that even the stars pale when compared with the face of the risen Lord. As we remember our place in the vastness of this universe, we celebrate that at the center of it all is Christ, and he came like us to be for us, to redeem and restore us.
He invites all of you who hunger and thirst for righteousness; who yearn for something more to believe in him. To follow him. All of you who seek a better life, a fairer world, though you may journey under the distant stars, draw near to the cross, and be fed at this table.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. AMEN.