A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, June 25, 2017
Job 37:14-16, 21-24; 38:12, 18 GNT; Reading from John Muir’s A Thousand Mile Walk
Do you have any plans to be awestruck, amazed, or lost in wonderment this summer? I sure hope so, because it would be to your benefit to do so. I certainly hope to be awed – awestruck, amazed, and lost in wonderment in the midst of God’s amazing creation – at least a few times in the coming weeks.
As many of you know, one week from tomorrow I will be starting a short summer sabbatical and vacation. Or to put it more correctly, the second half of a sabbatical that I began four years ago. When I came to this United Church nine years ago, a clause in my contract granted a three-month sabbatical after five years of service, something that is now pretty standard in many denominations. Feeling that three months was a long time to be out of the pulpit and away from the church, I negotiated with the Church Board at that time to take half of the sabbatical in 2013 and save the second half (6 weeks) for a later date. Well, we have arrived at that later date. I will be here next Sunday and be back the first weekend of August to lead in Rachel Hoelzer’s wedding celebration on Saturday and preach on that Sunday. Then I hope to take the following seven days after that as the end of my sabbatical time. During my time away, Suzanne will be leading services for you and providing you with some very thought-provoking sermons, as she always does.
Throughout the month of July and some of August, I plan to embark upon another short Route 66 trip with our grandson; Mary Lou and I have a 9-day trip to Colorado planned, to Rocky Mountain National Park, Mesa Verde, and Four Corners; I hope to do some hiking and picture-taking in some of Tennessee’s state parks that I have never visited; catch up on some reading; and try to finish a book I started four years ago. But as already noted, one of the things in general that I hope to do is be awed.
Standing in awe before God’s creation is the spirit of the verses read from the Book of Job. Some of the most poetic and most beautiful verses in the entire Bible having to do with awe, amazement and wonderment in contemplation of creation are found in these chapters of Job. The passages in Job express the feelings that many of us have when witnessing a thunderstorm and watching lightning flash from the sky, or when witnessing a beautiful rose-colored sunrise or orange-tinted sunset.
“At God’s command amazing things happen,” the writer of Job proclaims;
“wonderful things that we can’t understand” (37:5).
Thunder, lightning, snow, frozen rivers, the tides of the seas, the rising of the sun and the dawn of the day, the stars of the sky, and the ways of animals in the wild – all these aspects of creation “fill us with awe,” as Job puts it.
Naturalist John Muir, in the spirit of these verses from Job, was, likewise, awestruck by the natural world, within which he saw the footprint of the God of Creation. For instance, Muir was fascinated by thunderstorms he witnessed in Yosemite Valley. He wrote in this regard, “many of Nature’s finest lessons are to be found in her storms. . . . Storm clouds on the mountains – how truly beautiful they are! . . . . A good storm-cloud full of lightning and rain on its way to its work on a sunny desert day is a glorious object.”1
Of the Sierra Nevadas, Muir would write, “The place seemed holy, where one might hope to see God. . . . Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days, . . . in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God. . . . The very rocks seem to tingle with life, and God is felt brooding over everything great and small.”2
Four years ago, at the beginning of my sabbatical time, Mary Lou and I stood in awe as we gazed at a beautiful golden sunset in the Florida Keys on the 4th of July (which, by the way, was soon followed by a majestic thunderstorm). Two years ago we stood in awe before a beautiful sunrise in Bryce Canyon National Park, something that we had not planned on doing the night before, but which ended up being nothing short of a spiritual experience and one of the highlights of our trip.
But as hinted at earlier, being awestruck, amazed, and lost in wonderment in the midst of creation is beneficial for us, not only emotionally and spiritually, but physically as well. The genesis for this sermon was a Parade insert in the Sunday newspaper I had saved from back in October. The title of that particular Parade issue was “Awe,” and the title of the article was “Feeling Awe May Be the Secret to Health and Happiness.” The article points out that “new studies show that [Awe] is a dramatic feeling with the power to inspire, heal, change our thinking and bring people together.” “’Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast or beyond human scale, that transcends our current understanding of things,’ says psychologist Dacher Keltner. . . In 2013, Keltner’s lab kicked off Project Awe, a three-year research project funded by the John Templeton Foundation.” Awe is described as “dumbstruck wonder,” and “it’s now thought to be a basic part of being human that we all need,” along with other necessary emotions.
Some of the benefits of awe that have been observed include binding us together – “we realize we’re a small part of something much larger;” keeping “us still and attentive”. . . making “us nicer and happier” . . . and altering “our bodies [as a] positive emotion that most strongly predicts reduced levels of cytokines, a marker of inflammation that’s linked to depression.” “Studies have linked exposure to nature with lower blood pressure, stronger immune systems, and more.”3
I mentioned earlier taking the first half of my sabbatical four years ago. It was one of the most beneficial things I have ever done in my forty years of ministry, bringing much-needed restoration to my soul and charting me in a whole new direction of spiritual amazement and wonder and theological study. I was renewed, re-energized, and recharged for these past four years. So I am walking, and working, proof that being awed in God’s creation holds many emotional, spiritual, and physical benefits. And I anticipate that this upcoming sabbatical time will provide the same type of benefits.
But one need not take a sabbatical to realize the benefits of being awestruck. There are so many things in our world that can fill us with awe, if we have our eyes, ears, and other senses open to them: as already noted from both Job and John Muir, watching a summer thunderstorm from our kitchen window; experiencing a beautiful sunrise or sunset; standing before a waterfall; looking up at the Milky Way; standing at the base of a giant sequoia tree; looking out across a Smoky Mountain vista; holding a newborn baby; or even finding a nest of baby birds in your front porch flowerpot.
A couple of weeks ago, I kept seeing a bird fly from the big flowerpot on our front porch. I finally discovered a nest cradling five spotted bird eggs. Finally catching the mother on them, I identified them as a Carolina Wren. After about a week, the eggs hatched. I watched the mother and father bring food to the baby birds, which now filled the nest like a clump of sardines. But the thing that most amazed me about the baby birds was their rate of growth. They seemed to double in size overnight. The way the eggs hatched and the rate the baby birds grew was a thing of wonderment indeed.
So as I asked in the beginning, Do you have any plans to be awed – awestruck, amazed, lost in wonderment – this summer? It might be as far away as Colorado, or it might be as close as our own backyards as we marvel at a tiny wildflower, gaze up at the stars or the full moon, or discover a nest of baby birds. The key is to be open and receptive to the miraculous in our very midst. And the benefits of being awed are priceless.
May we be given the spirit of the writer of Job and the vision and passion for nature of John Muir so that we, too, may know the benefits – emotional, spiritual, and physical – of being awestruck in God’s amazing creation! Amen.
1John Muir, “Stickeen,” “Snow-Storm on Mt. Shasta,” and “Grand Canyon of the Colorado.” 2John Muir, “My First Summer in the Sierra” and “Mountains of California.” 3Paula Spencer Scott, “Feeling Awe May Be the Secret to Health and Happiness.” Parade, October 9, 2016. Pp. 6-8.