A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, August 7, 2016
Sirach 38:34-39:8 NRSV
On our “bucket list” is visiting as many of the major US national parks as possible as long as we are able to travel. To date, we have visited 21 of the 59 major parks, and several of the additional hundreds of national monuments, historic sites, seashores, and wildlife refuges. This summer’s travels took us to four California national parks: Death Valley, Yosemite, King’s Canyon, and Sequoia. And again this year, as in years past, on more than one occasion I found myself standing in awe and marveling at some of the sights we beheld: the marvelous, brilliant colors of Death Valley landscapes; the breath-taking majesty and beauty of the polished granite formations of Half Dome and El Capitan in Yosemite Valley; the massive, 2000+-year-old sequoia trees in King’s Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. We were able to stand before the two largest (by volume) living things on earth: the Generals Sherman and Grant giant sequoia trees. You can stand in their presence and admire and marvel, but there is no way to either adequately photograph or describe to another the experience of standing before such majestic stateliness.
Also, as in vacations past, I was again struck by the great mystery of how such wonders of Nature come to be. How was granite compressed and created deep within the earth, and then exposed and polished over eons of time to create something as majestic as El Capitan? How does a tiny seed fall from a giant sequoia tree, land upon the earth at just the right place and time, and spout and grow and persevere so as to become the largest and longest-living thing on earth? How is the terrain cut and carved so as to produce King’s Canyon that is several thousand feet deep? And in a general sense, where in the world did all the elements and materials come from to begin with so as to produce such beautiful, impressive landscapes? Such, for me anyway, constitute mysteries of the highest order!
Well, as I pondered these considerations and sought to place them within a religious or spiritual context, it occurred to me that religion from the earliest days has been concerned with marvels and mysteries, questions and answers. In that light, I was reminded of the very fitting passage from the book of Sirach, which not only speaks of religious wisdom and understanding, but also being “at home with” obscurities and mysteries.
It very well may be that the earliest religious inclinations of humankind revolved around mysteries and marvels of the natural world. Religious inclinations and rituals based upon the cycle of the seasons; admiration for the sun, moon and stars; believing the Divine was the cause of storms and other natural phenomena—such things evoked within early, thinking humans religious impulses, beliefs, and practices.
So it was only natural for religion to begin to try to provide answers for all the questions and mysteries evoked by natural phenomena: Where did it all come from? Who made it? How do we live so as to appease the power behind it all so as to assure good harvests, plenty of food to eat, and safe-keeping from storms and natural disasters. And so, uncomfortable with the mysteries of life, religion sought to provide all the answers. Sometimes the answers that religion provided were intended to be taken literally, and sometimes the answers given were meant to be symbolic or metaphorical.
We know that from the beginning within the Judeo-Christian tradition religion has been concerned with providing answers to life’s questions and mysteries. Who is God? How should humans live so as to best get along in society and the world? What does the Almighty require of us? What happens after death? Such are some basic questions that religion early on sought to address. And such resulted in Jews and Christians being called “People of the Book.” That book includes Genesis and stories of creation; Exodus and the Ten Commandments; the eighth-century prophets like Micah, Hosea and Amos; Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew; letters of Paul addressing the mysteries of resurrection and life after death; and much more that seek to provide the answers.
And many of the answers that religion has given over the millennia have been invaluable to life on earth and human progress: You shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not bear false witness; do justice and love kindness; do unto others as you would have them do unto you; and so on. Yes, the answers religion gave often were right on target.
But at other times the answers religion gave were not quite as accurate and on target. For instance, there was the answer that the earth and the rest of creation were created in six twenty-four hour days, just over six thousand years ago, in the year 4004 B.C.E. There was the answer that the earth is the center of the universe with everything else—the sun, moon and stars—revolving around it. There was the answer that erratic, unexplained behavior that today would be diagnosed as mental illness was caused by demon possession. Perhaps it was in the areas of mystery where religion sought to provide the answers that it wasn’t always on target.
However, there are still branches of religion, including conservative branches of the Christian Faith, that feel they have to give this-is-the-way-it-is answers to every question of life and every mystery of creation. A prominent American evangelist once made the statement that all the answers to all the questions that mankind has are to be found in the Bible. And the recently-completed “Creation Museum” in Petersburg, Kentucky, has caused no small controversy because of its cut-and-dried approach to creation of life on earth, which includes dinosaurs walking around with Adam and Eve.
But it seems to me that intrinsic within religion by its very nature is embracing the mysteries of life and creation. That is one thing about religion that may make it different from science—religion seeks to embrace and hold and foster reverence for the great mysteries of creation and life itself. At least that is the way I experience it.
And so, when I stand before the marvels and mysteries of creation and the natural world, such becomes for me a type of spiritual or religious experience. Standing before El Capitan in Yosemite Valley, and strolling through the Giant Forest of sequoia trees in Sequoia National Park was nothing short of a spiritual, religious experience for me. You can’t help but stand in rapture and awe before such marvels and wonders. Now, I realize that science has provided interpretive plaques that seek to explain how El Capitan was created and how the giant sequoia trees have been able to grow as they have and resist numerous forest fires and other possible destructive forces so as to survive and reach the stature they have. Yet, for me that doesn’t diminish in the least the wonder and awe, mystery and marvel that I experience in their presence.
I like the way that American mythologist and comparative religion writer Joseph Campbell put it: “Anyone who has had an experience of mystery knows that there is a dimension of the universe that is not that which is available to his senses. There is a pertinent saying in one of the Upanishads: When before the beauty of a sunset or of a mountain you pause and exclaim, ‘Ah,’ you are participating in divinity. Such a moment of participation involves a realization of the wonder and sheer beauty of existence. People living in the world of nature experience such moments every day. They live in the recognition of something there that is much greater than the human dimension.”
And so, the bottom line is I am truly grateful for the practical answers—“the wisdom of all the ancients,” as Sirach puts it—that religion has provided for the world about how to get along in families, society, and the world at large—the Ten Commandments; the prophets’ emphasis on justice and kindness; Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount and his teachings on compassion, forgiveness, service, and so on.
But at the same time, I am “at home with the obscurities of parables,” to quote Sirach again; grateful that religion as I practice it gives room for embracing and reverencing the marvels and mysteries of life and creation. Though I appreciate many of the answers to life that our religious tradition offers, at the same time I do not have to know all the answers to all of life’s questions and mysteries. I am content standing in awe and holding in reverence and “meditating on” the great mysteries of life and the marvels of creation and the natural world. And religion should give us space to do that: hold in reverence the marvels and mysteries of life and creation. That is the way I see and experience it at least. Amen.