A sermon Preached at the Larchmont Avenue Church
March 23, 2014
Rev. Julie Emery
Text: Psalm 95
O Come, let us sing to The Lord;
let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
Let us come into God’s presence with thanksgiving;
let us make a joyful noise to God with songs of praise!
For The Lord is a great God,
and a great King above all gods.
In God’s hand are the depths of the earth;
the heights of the mountains are God’s also.
The sea is God’s, for God made it,
and the dry land, which God’s hands have formed.
O Come, let us worship and bow down,
Let us kneel before The Lord, our Maker!
For God is our God,
and we are the people of God’s pasture,
and the sheep of God’s hand.
O that today you would listen to God’s voice!
Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,
as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,
when your ancestors tested me,
and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.
For forty years I loathed that generation and said,
“They are a people whose hearts go astray, and they do not regard my ways.”
Therefore in my anger I swore, “They shall not enter my rest.”
Tonight, at 9 pm, Fox will air the third episode of Cosmos: A Space-time Odyssey. The show, if you have not been following, is a remake of the 1970’s show by the same name, originally created and narrated by Carl Sagan. Sagan’s assumption was that everyone can be turned on to science, and his vision was a hope of igniting the flame of curiosity about the cosmos in each one of us.
This updated version has all the wonder and excitement of the original, for those that remember it. Now created and narrated by Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson and bolstered by exquisite images both real and created of our entire observable universe, Cosmos is designed to inspire.
The first episode walks viewers through the “cosmic address” of earth, or where our home planet is located within the known universe. DeGrasse Tyson illustrates the known history of the universe as a one year cosmic calendar, walking through its scientific evolution beginning with the Big Bang on January 1. On this calendar, every day represents 40 billion years, every minute – one billion, and life on this planet doesn’t appear until the very last moments of December 31.
The vast expansiveness of this storyline, alongside the awe-inspiring footage of space is enough to make each one of us marvel at our relative insignificance within the bounds of our universe. From the imagined visuals of the Big Bang, now recently found to be provable (can you get better timing than that?) to the creatively enhanced footage of each of the planets, asteroids, the Milky Way…
How small we are in comparison to the great expanse of our world!
Neil DeGrasse Tyson certainly has the right assumptions – how could we not be in awe at the wonder of the cosmos? It is easy to find God in the wonders of creation. Who among us does not gasp at the color and wonder of a close-up picture of an asteroid, or at a spectacular sunset? Who among us does not admire the intricacies of an orchid or the mesmerizing dance of fire? On a warm Spring day like yesterday, who doesn’t say a silent word of praise and thanksgiving to our creator?
The lectionary Psalm for this morning is the first of six consecutive Psalms of praise. From Psalm 95 to Psalm 100, we find an expanding crescendo of adoration of God and God’s wondrous ways.
Psalm 95 begins with the wonder of God’s creation, as it calls us to song and thanksgiving, proclaiming that our God holds in God’s hands the depths of the earth and the heights of the mountains, the sea and the dry land. How awesome: this great and limitless universe in the palm of God’s hands. The Psalm continues to imagine those expansive sustaining hands as the same hands that guide us, the sheep of God’s pasture, in our journey of life.
Psalm 95 does not end there, however. The Psalmist takes a striking turn; Even the voice changes. Suddenly we are in the words and mind of God, who yearns for us to listen to God’s voice:
“Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, when your ancestors tested me and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work. For forty years I loathed that generation, and said, “They are a people whose hearts go astray, and they do not regard my ways.”
The wilderness of Meribah and Massah to which the Psalmist refers is from the Exodus story read just a moment ago by Alexandra. It is not long after the Israelites have been saved from the oppressive hand of Pharaoh and begin their journey to the promised land that they start what the Psalm calls “testing and putting God to the proof.”
First they complain to Moses in hunger and then in thirst, dramatically crying out, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt? To kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” And so Moses takes these complaints to The Lord, and they are given manna and quail from heaven; And Moses is directed to strike a rock with his staff (that same staff he used to show Pharaoh the power of God and shepherd God’s people to freedom) and out poured water for the people to drink.
Meribah and Massah are remembered forever as the place when the Israelites questioned, “Is The Lord among us, or not?”
This question comes in contrast to our innate feelings of assurance of God’s presence in Creation. Instead we are faced with our other natural tendency to ask: “Is The Lord among us, or not?” How quickly the Israelites turn from gratitude and trust to doubt and disquiet. “Is The Lord among us or not?” they ask, and we do too.
We ask it when the beauty of that same creation turns against us, in flood or hurricane or oppressive cold. We ask it when faced with sudden loss or frightening diagnosis. We ask it, when our children are slipping into a black hole of fear and anxiety, when our family is crumbling before our very eyes, when the eyes of our most beloved parent become cloudy and confused.
“Is The Lord among us or not?”
Certainly, Lent is a time when we are supposed to ask such questions. These forty days of Lent are modeled after the 40 days Jesus spent being tempted in the wilderness, as well as the forty years the Israelites spent wandering in the desert, unable to enter the Promised Land because of their hardness of heart. We spend these days of lent in our own Spiritual Deserts. We fast, we pray, we abstain, we ask, we notice. “Lent,” says Greg Pennoyer, “cleanses the palate so we can taste life more fully; It cleans the lens so we can see what we might otherwise miss.”
Perhaps this is what we find in this difficult contrast in Psalm 95: the choice of how we will frame our understanding of these short insignificant moments of our lives. Will we spend it in awe and gratitude or in fear and doubt? Will we live a life of praise and adoration or will we let our hearts harden and go astray? Will we trust in God’s presence or will we constantly ask, “Is The Lord among us, or not?”
It’s painful to hear, God’s anger and judgment against the Israelites. “These are people whose hearts go astray,” he says, “Therefore in my anger I swore, they shall not enter my rest.”
It seems a little harsh, actually. After all, they were only human. Wouldn’t we all experience a little anxiety as we stepped out behind Moses into the desert? Wouldn’t we all wonder how we would be sustained amidst such adversity? Wouldn’t we all fear for our children, our families, as we awoke morning after morning in the heat, not knowing where we would find food or water? Wouldn’t we all say, “Is The Lord among us, or not?”
It is not as if we should not doubt! Doubt is a necessary part of a meaningful and rooted faith. Questioning the presence or even the existence of God is something each one of us must do, often, as we make the journey of our faith. Another way to ask that question is one we should ask ourselves daily: “Where is God in this?”
Where is God in this?
That first episode of Cosmos a few weeks ago illumined along with the beautiful images of the universe the story of the Italian monk Giordano Bruno, who in the late 16th century had a vision of the universe that was amazingly scientifically accurate to what we understand to be true now. Bruno dreamt of an infinite universe, where the other stars were suns just like ours, with other universes oriented around them, just as expansive as ours. Without any scientific evidence, he imagined what was proven through science just days ago.
This idea, along with other ideas of Bruno’s, was heresy to to the church during the time of the Inquisition. Bruno was excommunicated and ultimately killed for his undying proclamation that our understanding of God was too small. Our vision of God too limited.
We are all of us restless. We are all of us conflicted, doubting, confused and lost. Saint Augustine once wrote in his “Confessions” that our hearts are restless until they rest in God. Amidst the doubt and the assurance of our daily lives we are all of us moving towards that rest.
God’s rest in our psalm which was denied to the Israelites was “more than the cessation of labor and striving. It is sharing in God’s own Sabbath rest, taking delight in the joys and goods of life, and sharing the blessing of God’s abiding presence.” It is the promised land. It is the feast which is prepared for us. It is the joy of resurrection; The empty tomb; The laughter of delight in the garden.
These contrasts are the boundaries against which we press – deep and abiding assurance on the one hand, forsaken doubt on the other. And each of us must ask ourselves, where do we stand today? How will we frame our lives?
A number of years ago I had the chance for a night sailboat journey across the northern point of Lake Michigan with my parents. We had had engine trouble, so we were pushing the boat by our dingy for the several hours it took to get where we were headed. Because of the snails pace and our limited stopping power it made sense to go by night, when there was the least amount of traffic on the water.
Both my dad and I confess it was one of the most memorable times we had on the water. The sky was crystal clear – and the low hum of the dingy motor meant it was almost silent except for the sloshing of soft waves. Dad and I sat in the cockpit naming the constellations: Orion, the Big and Little Dipper, the Northern Cross, the Seven Sisters. It was late into the night when we saw our first shooting star – not so uncommon for a night as clear as this.
But then we saw another, and another, and another. And then the sky was literally cross-hatched in shots of light for over an hour. We sat in awe and wonder, we had never seen anything like it. I can think of few times as humbling – as I gazed upon the stars and marveled at the smallness of our boat amidst the great expanse of the night sky.
When we arrived the next morning at our destination, we learned from the front page of the local newspaper that it had been a remarkably vivid night to view the Perseids meteor shower, which happen upon our earth in early August every summer. What could have been a night of anxiety and worry was instead a night of awe and amazement. What was clearly a chance of stars and space became a moment of spectacular blessing and gratitude for the wonder of our creation.
Giordano Bruno was not a scientist, but a faithful zealot, Bruno asked a question we should all ponder: is your God big enough?
Is your God big enough for the possibility of faith alongside of and not in spite of the expansiveness of science?
Is your God big enough for the pain and fear, the sorrow and grief you are facing?
Is your God big enough to make failure an opportunity for our growth?
Is your God big enough to hold all the people in our lives: for the trans woman who passes us on the street and our cousin the card-carrying member of the NRA? For your daughter’s undocumented classmate as well as the Immigration officer who arrested her father?
Is your God big enough for you: with all your doubts and faults, with all your hopes and questions?
The Psalmist points us toward an expansive vision of God: big enough to hold in his hand the depths and chasms of our deepest doubts and the heights and mountaintops of our greatest assurances. Big enough to hold us in the palm of God’s hand. Big enough for us to rest there.