Sermon: “Radical Amazement”

Bruce Epperly, following Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, writes that, “‘Radical Amazement’ is at the heart of the spiritual adventure.” I invite you to consider: when was the last time you were radically amazed? When did you last find yourself awed or lost in wonder or enchantment?

Holy Adventure: Radical Amazement

The Rev. J. Carl Gregg

10 April 2011

The 5th Sunday of Lent

Broadview Church; Chesapeake Beach, Maryland

broadviewchurch.net

22 The whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now…. 26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words (Romans 8:22, 26).

Today is the Fifth Sunday in Lent. Next week will be Palm Sunday and then Easter.  The old adage is that, “Time flies when you are having fun,” so I hope — in all seriousness — that you’ve found our Lenten theme of “Holy Adventure” to be more fun and engaging than perhaps you have come to expect from the traditionally dour season of Lent.

Last week our author Bruce Epperly helpfully reminded us on our Holy Adventure of the famous quote from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel that, “Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy” (91).  This week he invited us to contemplate a similar insight form Rabbi Heschel: “‘radical amazement’ is at the heart of the spiritual adventure.” Accordingly, I invite you to consider: when was the last time you were radically amazed? When did you last find yourself awed or lost in wonder or enchantment?

For myself, to take the first example that comes to mind, Magin and I have be repeatedly stunned in recent weeks by the tree — some type of cherry tree — that has sprung to life in our front yard. About a week ago the tree burst into a breathtaking spectacle of shimming white petals. Then over the last few days it has slowly shifted into an increasingly vibrant shade of pink.  Just yesterday — with many petal still on the tree — we awoke to find our driveway beautifully layered with a tapestry of pink petals.

Witnessing this tree’s metamorphosis over the last week gives me an inkling of what it means to say that, “‘radical amazement’ is at the heart of the spiritual adventure.”  Neither Magin nor I did anything to make the weather warmer, to make the flowers bloom, to turn the petals from white to pink, or to layer them deftly over our driveway; nonetheless, this new life sprang forth before us with no effort on our part. To echo Heschel again, “Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.”

The writer Douglas Burton-Christie tells the story of inventing a game to help communicate with his three-year-old, which ends up being a practice of gratitude.  The game began when his daughter, Julia, started preschool.  When Douglas spent all day with his daughter, he knew what her day was like. He was able to share her highs and lows, her joys and despairs. But when she started preschool, all he got in response to “What did you do today” was a short list of activities.  So, he changed the question. He started asking his daughter, “What did you notice today?” As a result, “Piece by piece, [he] learn[ed] about her world.”   And because she demanded that he participate as well, he also “found [him]self noticing a lot more.” Taking time to notice the beauty of the ordinary world can increase our gratitude for being alive, even in the midst of the sometimes difficult and painful times in our lives.

The theological significance of such a practice is reflected in the work of the medieval Christian mystic Meister Eckhart, who said:

Apprehend God in all things, for God is in all things. Every single creature is full of God and is a book about God.  Every creature is a word of God.  If I spent enough time with the tiniest of creatures, even a caterpillar, I would never have to prepare a sermon, so full of God is every creature….

Or listen to the writer Annie Dillard reflect in gratitude about the beauty she witnessed simply lying on her back and watching birds fly overhead:

They gathered deep in the distance, flock sifting into flock, and strayed towards me, transparent and whirling, like smoke. They seemed to unravel as they flew, lengthening in curves, like a loosened skein. I didn’t move; they flew directly over my head for half an hour.  The flight extended like a fluttering banner, and unfurled oriflamme, in either direction as far as I could see….  The flocks each tapered at either end from a rounded middle, like an eye. Over my head, I heard a sound of beaten air, like a million shook rugs, a muffled whuff. Into the woods they sifted without shifting a twig, right through the crowns of trees, intricate and rushing, like wind.

Like Meister Eckhart’s caterpillar or the tree in the front yard of the parsonage, Dillard’s profound experience with bird watching is connected to her slowing down and taking time to simply observe nature in all its intricate detail. You can increase the meaning of this practice by sharing your gratitude for what your noticed with someone else, whether it is a child, a partner, or a friend. You may be surprised at what you notice.

Turning our scripture lesson for today, there are two parts of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome that I would like for us to consider. First, Paul writes, “The whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now.” Second, he says, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

Let’s begin with the first of these two quotations, “The whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now.” I invite you to consider that in this verse Paul is hinting at the process that I described regarding the tree in our front yard. The progress of the seasons, the blooming of the tree all happen without human intervention, which is not to say that we human have not had some effect — both positive and negative — on this earth. But to begin to explore in the largest sense of what it means to say — far beyond the scope of human control — that, “The whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now,” I invite you to listen to the following metaphor from Roman Catholic theologian John F. Haught:

Imagine that you have thirty large volumes on your bookshelf.  Each tome is 450 pages long, and every page stands for one million years.  Let this set of books represent the scientific story of our 13.7-billion-year-old universe.  The narrative begins with the Big Bang on page 1 of volume 1, but the first twenty-one books show no obvious signs of life at all.  The earth story begins only in volume 21, 4.5 billion years ago, but life doesn’t appear until volume 22, about 3.8 billion years ago.  Even then, living organisms do not become particularly interesting, at least in human terms, until almost the end of volume 29.  There the famous Cambrian explosion occurs, and the patterns of life suddenly burst out into an unprecedented array of complexity and diversity.  Dinosaurs come in around the middle of volume 30 but are wiped out on page 385.  Only during the last sixty-five pages of volume 30 does mammalian life begin to flourish.  Our hominid ancestors show up several pages from the end of volume 30, but modern humans do not appear until the bottom of the final page.  The entire history of human intelligence, ethics, religious aspiration, and scientific discovery takes up only the last few lines on the last page of the last volume.

We can use Haught’s analogy to give us twenty-first century scientific insight into Paul’s words from 2,000 years ago that, “The whole creation has been groaning in labor pains” — that is, groaning for 13.7 billion years.

Haught writes at a later point that the “labor pains” of creation — he uses the word “emergence” — can be summarized into eight stages: “pre-atomic, atomic, molecular, unicellular, multi-cellular, vertebrate, primate, and human stages of increasingly complexity over the course of billions of years”

I invite you to consider that Haught is tracing on a macro-scale what I described on a much smaller scale: the progression of the tree in our front yard from barren in winter, to almost unnoticeable green buds, to an almost blinding burst of white blossoms, and to a slow transition into pink petals. I have deep respect for the scientific method — the empirical process of relentlessly testing hypotheses in the crucible of reality — but part of what I mean by the word “God” is that there is something “More” going on in the universe than the scientific method alone can explain. There is something more in the universe that bring new life and warmth out of winter.

Indeed, there is something more in the universe than has prompted and lured Creation as we know it from pre-atomic to atomic to molecular to unicellular to multi-cellular to vertebrate to primate, and to human stages of increasingly complexity over the course of billions of years” — not merely random chance.

Likewise, Paul writes that, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”  In the silence that follows I invite you to consider that the same God whose Creation causes flowers to bloom — and that helped craft the evolution of pre-atomic particles into molecules and into ever-increasing stages of complexity — is also the same God whose “Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” As we enter into contemplation, listen again to these words, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

 

Notes

1 Our congregational book for Lent is Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living by Bruce G. Epperly.

2 John Haught, Christianity and Science: Toward a Theology of Nature (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2007), xii.

3 John Haught, “Teilhard de Chardin: Action, Contemplation, and the Cosmos.” Radical Grace: A Publication of the Center for Action and Contemplation 23:2 (April – June). Albuquerque, NM: 4-5. For a longer version see Harold J. Morowitz, The Emergence of Everything: How the World Become Complex (New York, NY: Oxford Univ. Press).

4 On the use of the metaphor “More” as a name for God, American psychologist and theologian William James (1842-1910) writes of the possibility of becoming “conscious that [the] higher part [of one's self] is coterminous and continuous with a MORE of the same quality, which is operative in the universe outside of [one’s self], and which [one] can keep in working touch with, and in a fashion get on board of and save [one’s self] when all [one’s] lower being has gone to pieces.” William James, Writings 1902-1910 : The Varieties of Religious Experience / Pragmatism / A Pluralistic Universe / The Meaning of Truth / Some Problems of Philosophy / Essays (New York, NY: Library of America, 1987), 454.

5 For more on the relationship between evolution and science, see John F. Haught, Making Sense of Evolution: Darwin, God, and the Drama of Life.

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