“Gravity and Other Weighty Matters”

March 6, 2016


Job 38:1-7; 31-33

Colossians 1:15-20


From out of the whirlwind, the God who created heaven and earth, who made light shine out of darkness, asks the lowly Job:

“Do you know the ordinances of the heavens?

Can you establish their rule on earth?

These are rhetorical questions really. The answers are: “Of course not.”

And yet we are now closer to knowing those heavenly ordinances. We are closer to understanding the ways in which they rule us.

Zen masters have long asked, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

We still don’t know.

But now we do know what it sounds like when two black holes collide.

Last month scientists at the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory—I love that name, but it’s known by its acronym, LIGO—announced that they had detected gravitational waves, the rippling of space-time that was the result of a collision of two black holes some 1.3 billion years ago. These were the waves that Einstein predicted 100 years ago to be a consequence of his general theory of relativity. At the time he thought that such waves would be impossible to detect. But they were detected and the scientists at LIGO “translated” them into a pulsing sound for all the world to hear.

The LIGO works by splitting a laser beam and sending the two resulting beams back and forth along two mile-long tunnels built at right angles. One of the beams is then subtracted from the other. Because they are identical, the beams normally cancel out so that nothing is seen in the photo detector. When a passing gravitational wave briefly deforms space around the detector, the two beams are temporarily out of sync and the photo detector registers a signal.

Two orbiting black holes of enormous mass emitted gravitational waves as they whipped around each other. The waves got shorter and stronger as the black holes got closer and they peaked when the black holes merged violently. The LIGO did not detect the light or the sound that came from the collision of those two massive black holes. No light, no sound can escape from the extreme curving of space that a black hole creates. The LIGO detected the waves of gravity that resulted from the collision—weak ripples, barely registered.

At least that’s how scientists who know about these things describe what happens. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around all of this.

What do we make of this discovery?
No one can really say what, if any, effect this new knowledge will have on our lives or on the lives of future generations. Certainly, as with other scientific achievements, it will no doubt offer opportunity and challenge. But this confirmation of Einstein’s theory is being hailed—and rightly so, I think—as of major importance in our understanding of this vast universe in which we occupy such an insignificant part.

Something happened over a billion years ago in a place more than a billion light years away from us—and we know about it! What amazing beings we are, able to uncover such secrets and yet posing such destructive threats to this small planet that is our home, our only home. After all, the other science news of the past month told of coming extinctions of birds and bees that pollinate much of the food we depend on, of global warming and climate change advancing far more quickly than we thought, and of new and growing class of refugees who are being displaced from their homes as a result of climate change.

What amazing beings we are.

Speaking from faith, we also say, what amazing creatures! We recognize that our very being is dependent upon a God whom we call the “Creator.”

Harvard astronomer and Iowa native— and that’s the greater qualification, isn’t it?—Owen Gingerich, who visited with us a few years ago, calls our attention to the one of the “astonishing features” of the Big Bang: the incredible balance between the outward energy of the expansion and the gravitational forces trying to pull everything back together again. …the initial balance had to be accurate to about one part in 10 to the 59th –a ratio of 1 to 1-followed-by-fifty-nine-zeros, an unimaginably larger number.” Without that balance there would be nothing rather than something. Gingrich says that the balance between the energy of expansion and the braking power of gravitation had to be extraordinarily exact—to such a degree that it seems as if the universe must have been expressly designed for humankind.[i]

And billions of years later, we find ourselves on a planet that is the right distance from the sun to allow the development of life, that circumstances over earth’s five billion year history have led to the existence of creatures like us who are capable of not only knowing great things but of giving thanks, of even worshipping the source of all things, the ground of our being, the living God.

We call ourselves Christians because in some way, to some degree, we believe that this creative ground of being was manifest on our planet as one of us in Jesus of Nazareth—“the visible image of the invisible God”  in whom all things in heaven and on earth were created,“ and through whom God was reconciled to the world,” as Paul put it in his letter to the Colossians. That is a profound affirmation of faith and about as far away from a scientific statement as we can get. If we will linger over those words, however, they will point us toward a deeper understanding of this world, this cosmos in which we live. They will help us grasp the divine source of our life—of all life.

We listen to the teachings of Jesus and seek to follow in his ways, known and to be made known to us, as we say in our congregation’s covenant. Our faith is like that of the early astronomer, Johannes Kepler, who wrote at the conclusion of his Harmony of the World that he would praise God his Creator, “for both those things of which we are entirely ignorant and those of which we know only a tiny part, because there is still more beyond.” Or, as that UCC motto puts it, “God is still speaking.” God speaks from the whirlwind—that place where all our assumptions and conclusions are called into question, a place of surprise.

As a congregation, we affirm that we are a people who don’t know it all, who are seeking to discover just what it means to follow the One in whom all things in heaven and on earth were created.

And as we follow this Jesus, we are now in a time of year in which we give particular attention to his life and his death, and his resurrection. They are all of a piece—and if we separate them out it is only to better understand something that is as close to us as breathing and yet as distant as the farthest star.

Now, death is a kind of darkness. “Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” the poet says.

Eventually the light does die. Eventually we die. We remembered that again on Ash Wednesday. And death is like a black hole—no light can escape it; all we see are its results: our grief, our thanksgiving for a life well lived; our hope that human life will be enriched because we have lived.

But Ash Wednesday is only a beginning and death is not the final word. Christianity is the joyful announcement of the resurrection. Writing to the Colossians, Paul quoted what was even then an old hymn affirming that Christ is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead.

As with death, we can’t see resurrection. We can’t see the resurrection of Jesus any more than we can see light escaping a black hole. What we can see are the results: the way in which the followers of Jesus acted and how their actions continue to ripple across history.  It hasn’t always been a pretty sight—and we are in one of those times right now when many would rather not be associated with those who call themselves followers of Jesus.

Still, we take the name of Christian. We act. It often takes a while, but what at times are barely detectable signals do show up:

After centuries, Christians recover the basic equality between men and women that the early followers of Jesus knew and lived,

After centuries, Christians recover the message of peace, the message of concern for the poor, the call for justice.

After centuries, Christians recover the biblical call to stewardship of the earth.

After centuries, Christians awaken to God’s unlimited love for all people—of all races, gay or lesbian or straight, rich or poor.

We accept the invitation to journey toward possibility, miracle, and wonder. We welcome the stranger; we support the marginalized; we work with those who are poor or poor in spirit. 

Little blips of resurrection waves are detected by those within these walls and beyond our doors—waves of resurrection generated by amazing creatures such as us.

[i] Owen Gingerich, God’s Universe, pg. 49.