February 2, 2020

Galaxies: Blades of Grass in the Meadow

Passage: Psalm 139

8 a.m.

Psalm 139

You have searched me, Lord, and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.

You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely.

You hem me in behind and before,
and you lay your hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.

Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?

If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.

If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.

My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.

Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.

My son is two, so we read several dozen books per day. Hop on Pop. Brown Bear, Brown Bear. The Bear Snores On. Good Night, Good Night, Construction Site. A is for asparagus, from Mrs. Peanukles Vegetable Alphabet. We could easily do a sermon series about all of these kid books.

But, as Bill began our current sermon series on Elemental Spirits, it was the phrase “Y is for Yotta” that stuck out to me. “Y is for Yotta” (y.o.t.t.a.) comes from a kid’s book called The ABCs of Science. “Y is for Yotta: Yotta is the largest unit of measurement in the metric system,” reads that important penultimate letter. “Yotta is one million, million, million, million. The earth weighs six yottagram.”

Just about everything in The ABCs of Science is above my scientific paygrade. Though, The ABCs of Science might pique the interest of Kenilworth Union Church choir members in that, after A is for Amoeba, B is for Bond and C is for Conductor… how did they know?

But “Y is for Yotta” is the kind of thing that has the capacity to give me goosebumps. It is, for me at least, an entryway into the transcendent: a way into the presence of God. Thinking about how deep and wide the universe pushes me, in other words, toward the holy.

“Y is for Yotta,” mentioned as scientific fact for the sake of early toddler immersion into scientific understanding, draws me near to God. It entangles me with the presence of the divine because it places our pint-sized problems in perspective and roots me in that core theological conviction of Psalm 139: that God knows us intimately all the same.

So, “Y is for Yotta.” How far away is one yotta from this place anyway? What would it take for us to go one yotta from this chapel, this sacred place in which we have brought our weary bodies? It would be quite a journey.

Climb into a metaphorical a space-ready hot air balloon and start floating up.

  • at one meter away, we can still see the branches of the trees outside this window.
  • We get to about 100 meters up and we can see the village of Kenilworth.
  • From about 10 kilometers up, we see most of the city of Chicago.
  • Move up to one thousand kilometers and you can see most of the United States.
  • Once you hit 1,000 kilometers, you can see most of this hemisphere.
  • At one million kilometers, you can see the entire orbit of the moon.
  • But, we’re nowhere near a yottameter, yet.
  • At 100 million kilometers, you can almost see the entire orbit of Venus.
  • At 10 billion kilometers, most of our solar system is visible.
  • Move back to 100 billion kilometers, and you’re outside our galaxy.
  • Now things get tricky. Scientists switch to light years.
  • At 10 light years away, our entire galaxy is visible.
  • Our galaxy is just one among many galaxies: our galaxy is just a pinprick of light.
  • Then, finally, we get to yottameters: 100 million light years distance in which galaxies are no longer individually visible but disappear into galaxy clusters.
  • Scientists urge us to go farther still: at 100 yottameters or 14 billion light years away, every little dot you see will be a supercluster of galaxies.
  • Finally, at 880 yottameters, is a view of the entire known universe: as far as scientists can see. Welcome to the view: 100 million superclusters of galaxies across the visible universe.

These ancient images of God that Bill has been talking about—wind, fire, water, earth—they come out of an entirely different world: a world in which the idea of the earth weighing six yottagrams would be entirely out of sync with their understanding of the universe. The concept of the earth as we know it—a spinning blue marble of carbon and iron and oxygen—had yet to be born.

Ancient Greeks understood the world to be held up by pillars. The pillars held up a dome. The dome held back the waters from above. There was no sense that the world was round. There was no telescope to pursue the world beyond what your eyes can see. Humans can see 6,000 stars with the naked eye. That was all they had. With a telescope, we now see 100 million superclusters of galaxies. Galaxies beyond galaxies.

Here’s what’s transcendent about all of this, for me anyway…. The ancient poets of the Bible ask these big theological questions of God, like: What are humans that you are mindful of them? Any time you get a chance to zoom out, we see just how cosmically insignificant we are.

We begin to see: there’s something beyond this: beyond this everyday, beyond this routine, beyond the daily “how I spend my life.” There’s so much beyond this.

But holding a telescope out beyond our everyday problems doesn’t have to push us toward the nihilistic thought that life is meaningless. Instead it points to this bigger theological truth: that you are fearfully and wonderfully made. The universe isn’t some divine cosmic project in which the insignificance of our little corner of this project means that we were sloppily made and can be quickly discarded.

You are fearfully and wonderfully made. Matthew and Luke both put it this way: God counts every hair on your head. The Psalms say that God knows our standing up and our sitting down. The letter to the Romans says: nothing in life nor in death can separate us from this God who loves us.

In 1974, National Geographic published an article called “Incredible Universe” in which the scientists try to put into perspective exactly what 20th century scientific knowledge entails. They write, “Galaxies are as common as blades of grass in a meadow.”

This little phrase was picked up by authors and journalists and quote collectors and has been scattered across hundreds of publications so that we might never forget: Galaxies are as common as blades of grass in a meadow. In other words, we are small potatoes compared to the Herculean project that is the universe.

Tangentially, when you download old issues of National Geographic from their archive, it brings up the whole magazine, ads included, and so things like the brand-new-at-the-time 1974 Dodge Dart, the now “retro” and not quite yet obsolete technology of the 1974 Minolta SR-T 35mm film camera and an invitation to buy US Bicentennial collector coins remind us just how quickly things change these days, and how the scope of time we are talking about when we envision yottameters at 100 million light years distance puts those epic human cultural changes even more into cosmic perspective.

“Galaxies are as common as blades of grass in a meadow.” It’s difficult to know, too—without a degree in astrophysics—exactly how imperfect this 1974 National Geographic description of the universe is compared to today’s understandings, 45 years later. Neil deGrasse Tyson could tell you.

The intensity of scientific discovery seems to compound our own lack of understanding…. We know so much more now than we did then, and yet we have had to reorient our understanding of the universe so many times in the last thress generations that it’s hard to know what my son’s grandchildren might one day be learning in high school science class. Facts, in fact, no longer seem to be the end-all-be-all. Knowledge and understanding are precious commodities more and more difficult to fully grasp.

Drawing near to not-knowing, to admitting that we don’t know, is part of the work of seeking God, too. We seek to hold onto ultimate truths about who God is and how God draws near to us, and yet, ultimately, God, too, is as mysterious as the farthest galaxy, and as incomprehensible as the distance between here and there.

Thankfully, while the idea that “galaxies are as common as blades of grass in a meadow” is an idea incomprehensible to those who understood the world through the lens of those four elemental spirits—earth, wind, fire, and water—our 21st century understandings of the world meets the Ancient Greeks anyway, when we consider the ultimate unknowability of God and the limits of human knowledge. Or, to quote the 1980s punk band Operation Ivy (who, quite possibly, has never been quoted before at Kenilworth Union Church), “All I know is that I don’t know, all I know is that I don’t know nothing.”

Any new knowledge about the universe is simply a reframing of our inability to know what is truly out beyond our own experience of the world. We take enormous strides toward knowing, only to see there is so much more to know and understand.

The words of Psalm 139, then, remain true for us today—as true as the would have been 300 or 3,000 years ago. In fact, it seems as if those ancient spiritual poets so many centuries ago were responding to that same sense of awe that comes with thinking about the vast size of the universe and thus the power of God’s attentiveness to our own comparatively small lives.

Despite the greatest of distances—as far east or west or north or south—you are still with me, God. Nowhere can I flee from your presence. Into the depths of the oceans, or into the place on the other side of the farthest star, there, you will be with me, O God. “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me.” The psalmist stands in awe before the presence of God who pays attention to you and me despite the great horizon of the universe and all there is to oversee.

God is there. God knows us completely. God sees us and remembers I made you, you are fearfully and wonderfully made. The wide reach of the macrocosm drills home this point with intimacy and a sense of vulnerability: me, with all my foibles and mistakes, my imperfections and peculiarities…it is me that you see, God. It is me that you know completely. “You hem me in behind and before, you lay your hand upon me.”

The psalmist’s view of God takes in what is incomprehensibly large, and then magnifies the tenderness of our own everyday lives and says, “Yes, I bless this.” God blesses this. God blesses this day. God blesses this work of dragging our weary bodies to worship. God blesses this work of imperfectly gathering around bread and cup. God blesses this invaluable work of saying before God, “please: hold these things that are impossibly painful.”

God blesses what has come before: the places we were this week, the people we met along the way. And God blesses what comes next: the work of leaving the comfort of this sacred place and wondering, “What is God calling me toward today?” God blesses our daily struggle to amplify what is good and sabotage what is savage. God blesses what is frail in us. God blesses what is strong. God blesses what is unfolding. May God know what needs to be blessed in you today. Amen.