SERMON FOR FEBRUARY 12, 2023 (SIXTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY)
The Reverend Margaret Sagar at St Matthew’s United Church, Halifax
GENESIS 1. 1-17 JOHN 1. 1-9, 14
THE UNIVERSE OF LIGHT
Brief story with reference to Gordon Murray’s reflections on multipurpose sanctuary:
St. Andrew’s in Truro-former gymnasium used as multi-purpose space, with chairs to rearrange and movable communion table, font and so on. Suppers, meetings, UCW sales and teas, community events as well as Sunday worship, weddings, funerals all took place in the same space. One story: my late husband loved to entertain- he organized variety shows at St Andrew’s. One fun time was when our janitor, Chris, desperate for a partner, asked me to sing a duet with him-“You don’t bring me flowers anymore”. I agreed although I don’t sing very well as a soloist! We practised secretly. For the show, my hairdresser lent me a gorgeous auburn wig – straight and longer then my own hair-wish I could have kept it- and I wore a striking red dress. When I came out on stage, Chris, who was not aware of the wig, showed his astonishment and I could hear the audience whispering “who is it?” Of course, my voice gave me away as soon as I began singing. Next morning, I was back in the pulpit, minus wig, wearing my alb leading worship as usual in the same space. I loved that entire building- it never did not seem holy, a sacred space. Everything that took place there was sanctified. I found it challenging to adjust to old-style sanctuaries like this after 11 years there.
I live now in Terence Bay on the shores of a bay and small cove-Last Saturday, that coldest day in years, I pulled up my window blind and gasped. A fog of sea smoke was rising from the water; the fierce, freezing cold North West wind was blowing sea smoke towards the land so that all the vegetation around the shore was frosted with frozen sea spray. The violence of the wind drove the waves into white horses, and battered directly against my house. It was a stunning white world in that direction, while devoid of white on the other side of the house! Later in the day as the sun rose higher the land and seascape sparkled in the light until the sun gradually thawed the frost and the bright white world dissipated.
Last Sunday, Betsy’s sermon focused on our being salt and /or light in the world, bringing glory to God in all we do as we live our daily lives. I was thinking about all the scriptures that speak of light and of God’s glory, which in some Hebrew texts is the word Shekinah, meaning the shining presence of God in the world.
Every day I receive by email Daily Meditations of Matthew Fox. On Monday, I read this:
“Our universe is flooded with light, and light is far more prevalent in the universe than is matter. Astrophysicist Arne Wyller puts it this way: A flood of light dominates our Universe today and …matter is numerically insignificant among the stuff of the universe. For every particle of matter there are 1 billion particles of light. Matter is just a minor pollutant in a universe made of light”
Wow. That was new to me- I have a very elementary grasp of science! This scientific fact really caught my attention.
A word about Matthew Fox: a theologian and teacher, for 50 years he has been writing about his understanding of spirituality and religions in relation to cosmology. The Encyclopedia Britannica defines cosmology as “field of study that brings together the natural sciences, particularly astronomy and physics, in a joint effort to understand the physical universe as a unified whole.” Fox was a monk in the Dominican Order but Cardinal Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict, kicked him out of the Order. He banned his books, considering them hieratical. However, that did not stop Fox from exercising a priestly ministry in the Episcopal Church, nor from pursuing his studies, writing many books which have influenced many people. He, along with other theologians before and since, has narrowed the chasm that some have found or still find between science and religion. His focus is creation spirituality. “CS is about recovering nature and all of creation as sacred again. It reaches back to the earliest humans who were struck with the awe of their existence in the midst of the awe of nature and it is found in the earliest writer of the Hebrew Bible and in the Wisdom literature of the Bible which scholars all agree was the primary influence on the historical Jesus as were the prophets who also speak often out of a CS context and message. CS holds up the archetype of the Cosmic Christ (or Buddha Nature or Image of God) as a symbol of the sacredness of all things, micro and macro. The universe itself is the ultimate sacrament therefore.” Creation spirituality is evident in the experiences and reflections of many mystics throughout Christian history as well, of course, among the indigenous peoples of this land. In the same vein, Thomas Berry wrote: “An absence of a sense of the sacred is the basic flaw in many of our efforts at ecologically or environmentally adjusting our human presence to the natural world. It has been said, ‘We will not save what we do not love.’ It is also true that we will neither love nor save what we do not experience as sacred….Eventually only our sense of the sacred will save us.”Fox has also been eager to demolish the theory of dualism “matter versus spirit” which has dominated western philosophy for centuries. He sees this dualism as the root of deep problems in human relationships and our relationship with the universe and the natural world.
I read his earliest books decades ago. They had a huge influence on me. Fox firmly believes that the universe-the cosmos- is good in itself- “God saw that it was good” as we heard just now in the reading from Genesis. God’s first act of creation is to declare “Let there be Light.” Scientists now have evidence that indeed the universe came into being as a big bang, a huge burst of light energy that radiated out into the world, gradually over billions of years forming the universe as we now see it looking up into the vast night sky.
I consider myself fortunate that I grew up in a rural part of England; I had many opportunities to gaze up at the night sky. It was awesome! Now that I am aware of the astounding discoveries of exploration of the cosmos, I find this universe even more profoundly awesome. When I visited Australia in 2019, I experienced sleeping outdoors in my swag in the darkness of the outback gazing up at a vast sky scattered with constellations I had not seen before. I think it is sad that so many of the billions of people who dwell on Earth live in cities where light pollution covers the vast heavens and all that incredible beauty cannot be seen. We need to imagine ourselves back into the beginnings of the human race and the first peoples as they relied absolutely on the lights of the sky for navigating daily life:
“And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.’ And it was so. God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good
Reflecting on the fact that the universe is filled with light, Fox writes:
“What more is today’s science teaching us about light in our lives and light in our food and stomachs? That light and matter are the same entities. Light and matter are ultimately interchangeable. “There is no ultimate physical substance to matter.”“Matter is frozen light.” (David Bohm) “Matter is nothing but gravitationally trapped light.”
If matter and light are “interchangeable,” then dualism understood as spirit vs. matter is dead. For light is the most common synonym for Divinity found around the world.”
“If that is so, then the ancient calls to “enlightenment” from the Buddha, or the declarations that “Christ is the light of the world” from Christianity, that “God is wrapped in a robe of Light” from Psalm 104 and that God said “Let there be Light and there was Light” in the Hebrew Scriptures, speak to us of Spirit in our midst.
This because spirit is bigger than matter, but matter is a form of spirit just as creation-centered mystics have celebrated. And the “Incarnation” is what Père Chenu insists on calling “continuous incarnation” because Divinity (Light) is always showing up in flesh or matter. It did not happen just once.”
A “continuous incarnation”- Christ as the cosmic being who emanates from the light of divinity constantly present in the world!
Have you ever thought of trees, or our food, as consisting of light? I confess that I had to delve into a few rabbit holes as I was writing this sermon to brush up on my science! Photosynthesis- derived from Greek word for light phos; synthesis is a process of bringing together. I found this definition in Wikipedia: Photosynthesis is a process used by plants and other organisms to convert light energy into chemical energy that, through cellular respiration, can later be released to fuel the organism's activities. Photosynthesis is largely responsible for producing and maintaining the oxygen content of the Earth's atmosphere, and supplies most of the energy necessary for life on Earth.
So: What makes up a tree? The body of a tree is mostly filled with sunlight. ‘Light courses through its structure, navigating vital processes and maintains the balance and health of the whole organism….The tree produces a continuous light show from its very cells.’
Thus to plant trees and to defend trees and honor them and recognize their sacredness is to honor light and the incarnation of the divine in trees. Think of sacred groves, special trees- “thin places” of Celtic spirituality -where the enormity of shining presence of the divine is experienced.
Trees go deep down into the ground where the mychorrhizal networks nourish the trees and communicate between them. Trees also reach up into the sky! Cosmic antennae, connecting earth and heavens. Here is another extraordinary fact:
Scientists studying an 807-year-old juniper tree found that the tree’s annual rings showed a definite slowing down of tree growth with each known date of three supernova explosions. Thus we can say, “Every star that dies in our galaxy is perceived by trees.”
Similarly our food is made of light, created through photosynthesis! Fox asks:“When we eat and drink the sun that is seized in fruit and vegetables, coffee and orange juice, are we imbibing Divinity? Is all food a holy Eucharist—and eating of the flesh of the Divine One? The Food of the Beloved?”
Fox writes “eating is a last act in a cosmological drama to which humans are very late on the scene. It seems that “this is my body, this is my blood,” are words baked into the history of the universe. Poet William Carlos Williams writes:
There is nothing to eat,
seek it where you will,
But the body of the Lord.
The blessed plants
and the sea, yield it
to the imagination
The poet Rilke:
All this universe, to the furthest stars
And beyond them, is our flesh, your fruit.
In other religions and spiritualities we find the same equation Light= Divinity. For the Celts Lugh, was the god of light and giftedness: Says Irish theologian John O’Donohue, “the Celtic mind adored the light…Ultimately light is the mother of life.”“Where there is no light there can be no life. If the angel of the sun were to turn away from the earth, all human, animal, and vegetative life as we know it would disappear. Ice would freeze the earth again. Light is the secret presence of the divine. It keeps life awake.”
The same on Hindu ancient scriptures: The Bhagavad Gita honors the divine origin of Light. Krishna speaks:
The splendor of the sun, which dissipates the darkness of this whole world, comes from Me. And the splendor of the moon and the splendor of fire are also from Me.
Vedas, Brahman is celebrated as Light. The cosmic waters glow. I am Light!
The light glows. I am Brahman!
Light glows within the human too and resides inside of us. “ There is a Light that shines above this heaven, above all worlds, above everything that exists in the highest world beyond which there are no higher—this is the Light that shines within humans. “
Thus we are come full circle to Jesus saying of himself “I am the light of the World” and to us disciples “you are the light of the world”” Let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” – to the shining source and everlasting presence of Light.
In Revelations, the last book of our scriptures, there is a passage which, I think, provides some unity to these reflections: Revelation. 21.26- 22.1-5.
I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honour of the nations.
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.
May it be so! To the Holy Mystery at the Heart of the Universe, Source of all Light, Life and Love be all honour and glory, all love and praise. Amen