“A Sense of Wonder”

April 22, 2012


Exodus 15:1, 11-18

I Corinthians 3:21-4:1


As most of you know, we are one of 37 congregations who received a grant from the Scientists in Congregations initiative and are currently involved in an eighteen month long project exploring the relationship of faith and science within our congregation. As a part of this project Marilynne Robinson recently gave the first in a series of public lectures on science and faith. This fall we will host Harvard astronomer and Iowa native Owen Gingerich, UIHC physician Nancy Andreasen, and physicist and United Church of Christ minister Bob Russell. We have an ongoing book study group. We’re developing curriculum for the church school and confirmation class.

Another component of this program is a series of sermons that will look at science and faith from several angles.

This morning I want to consider the sense of wonder in science and religion.

Last fall we gathered a group of scientists in our congregation to start talking together about their faith and their vocations as scientists. Given the large amount of ink used by the popular press in recent years to report on the conflict—even the war—between science and religion, I was expecting a lot of doubt or a number of troubled spirits or a general sense of angst in our conversations. There was none of the above.

Instead, scientist after scientist said that he or she saw no conflict between science and faith.

A universe that began some 15 billion years ago with the big bang—no problem.

The evolution of life on earth over billions of years, the origin of the species through natural selection—no problem.

A scientific method that requires researchers to assume a closed universe in which divine intervention is ruled out—no problem.

As we’ve talked together over the past six months, as I’ve listened to the scientists in this congregation, I’ve gained a sense of the strong humility that governs their professional lives. Of course, they have the academic degrees and the university positions and the experimental successes and the professional advancement and the grants that are reasons for pride. But these people also have a deep and abiding sense of how little they know, of how much remains to be discovered, of the mystery that surrounds us and in which we live.

They have a sense of wonder that is basic for science and for faith. They look at this world that they investigate with amazement and awe.

The psalmist expresses something like this in asking:

            When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,

            the moon and the stars that you have established;

            what are human beings that you are mindful of them,

            mere mortals that you care for them?

To look at the stars is to be reminded of our finitude, our smallness. In the vastness of the universe, our own solar system is almost non-existent. The universe itself is mostly “enigmatic dark matter.” The distance to and empty space between even the nearest stars are so vast that they make us dizzy.

To look at the stars is to be reminded of our limits. We are bound to this earth, bound to these few years, watching star light that started toward us long before this church was founded, long before the time of Jesus or the Hebrew prophets.

Sometimes to look at the stars is to feel small and limited and painfully alone in it all.

To look at the stars is also to sense something even greater. Owen Gingerich, Emeritus professor of Astronomy and the History of Science at Harvard, who will be speaking here in the fall puts it this way: “For me, part of the coherency of the universe is that it is purposeful—though probably it takes the eyes of faith to accept that idea.”

To look at the stars is also to hope that beyond all that light and all that darkness in the night there is a Creator who still knows us creatures.

We look up to the heavens in the hope that beyond the beginning—and beyond the ending—is One who is both beginning and end, first and last. This hope also sustains those who look through microscopes and those who look at all manner of animate and inanimate things.

We hope. In our finitude and our smallness, we hope and we wonder.

Our experience of God begins in wonder and ends in worship. In between wonder and worship we think—studying and reflecting—and we act—working, speaking, listening, and sometimes even loving one another as we have been loved.

The Hebrew people spoke of the wonders that God had done.

These were not so much marvels of parting the sea as the wonder of setting a people free, releasing them from captivity.

These were the wonders of meeting the forces of chaos and destruction, really, the very forces of death head on—and overcoming them, bringing life to individuals, to a people, to the world.

Paul, too, knew of these wonders. How were the early Christians to regard him and other teachers and leaders? Not as good, virtuous people, not as wise people, but as stewards of the mysteries of God. That is, they were people with a sense of wonder, a sense of the amazing good news of God’s creative, life-transforming love made known in Jesus Christ. And they were to be stewards as well—people who care for that wonder—nurturing it in themselves and sharing it with other people.

The problem for us today is that much of what passes for wonder is simply glitter-inspired awe. I still carry in my head a commercial jingle encouraging people to embrace “the wonder of it all.” It’s an ad for the enormous Foxwoods casino in Connecticut—reducing wonder to a big meal, bright lights, and throwing away money at a roulette table.

I like to think there is more to it than that.

Where else, then, are we going to look?

Most churches have gotten out of the wonder business.

We seek so hard to understand God that we forget most of what is holy is mystery beyond our understanding.

Or we raise up our hands in despair—announcing that we just don’t get it and we stop trying.

Or we become more concerned that everything runs smoothly and shut down any openness to the surprising ways that God might want to work in our lives, in our congregation, in our world.

Or at least all of these things happen to me often enough that I’m willing to imagine they happen to you as well.

And yet, we have the hope, perhaps first expressed centuries ago by Brendan of Ireland, who described the Christian life to a tribal chieftain by saying: “You will stumble upon wonder upon wonder and every wonder true.”

God is still bringing wholeness and healing into our lives. God is still setting us free from the greed, and the envy, and the cheap desires that enslave us. God is still working wonders.

Several years ago, after visiting relatives in Illinois, my family drove back to Connecticut through Canada and stopped at Niagara Falls.

Those of you who have been there know the beauty, the grandeur, the wonder of this place.

What really struck me was the “motto” or the mission statement of the Niagara Falls park system: “Sharing the Wonder. Serving the World.”

Sharing the Wonder. Serving the World.

To me those words spoke clearly and powerfully about what a church should be doing.

Sharing the wonder suggests first a stewardship, a recognition of what we have and its value.

At Niagara Falls there seems to be an awareness that this natural wonder is a gift. No one made it, no one earned it. No one deserves the beauty of the Falls. But there they are. And the thing to do is to receive the gift, accept it, enjoy it.

And then to share it with the world. And really the Canadians do a much better job of this than their neighbors to the south. From what they received they created a place of parks and beauty.

It serves as a reminder that we have all received gift upon gift, all free.

“Sharing the wonder” also suggests a willingness to—well, to share, to offer it to others, to invite them to be a part of a community that is open to being amazed by God and astonished by life.

Sharing the wonder. Serving the world.

We probably know more about serving than about wonder.

And that’s not a bad thing.

When the pastoral search committee described this congregation they wrote about our commitment to remain in this historic building at the center of the city and the University.
“We will never be able to offer easy parking,” they said, unafraid of the uncomfortable truth. But, they added, “aside from taking responsibility for maintaining a significant feature of the cityscape, we also provide a chapel, space for counseling services, meeting rooms, and the occasional use of our kitchen for the local and student community.” The point? “We have chosen a commitment to service over a commitment to growth….The service to students and young faculty and their families is to provide a rich experience of religious life to carry with them wherever they go.”

Share the wonder. Serve the world. We do this remarkably well. And that is why members are responding so generously to our capital campaign.

We serve the world when the meditation chapel opens each day. We serve the world when we provide meals for the free lunch program. We serve the world when we worship together.

We serve in all sorts of ways that go unnoticed by most but make all the difference to somebody.

The world is the object of our love and concern and our service. For the Christian, charity does not begin at home. It begins wherever there is human suffering that needs the healing, life-giving power of God. That might be down the street—or it might be half a world away.

Service without a sense of wonder can become dreary, mere duty. But when we serve the world because we ourselves have been astonished by God’s wondrous love, we find strength and joy.

All of our knowing—in Christ, through science—all of our knowing grows out of a sense of wonder and finally leads us to awed-filled enjoyment of our Creator.