“One Summer’s Day”
A Sermon by the Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania
June 17, 2018
Our readings from Scripture today are shot through with images of nature – a lofty cedar tree, a mountaintop, birds that nest, trees of the field, a palm tree, fields of ripe grain and a mustard seed. Rather than focus on any one of these lessons in specific, I wish to meditate briefly with you upon how nature, especially at this time of year, often becomes a window for us to God.
The Christian Gospel is all about seeing with changed eyes. For van Gogh, Christ is the supreme artist, “disdaining marble and clay and colors, working in the living flesh.” Painters, poets, playwrights, musicians, sculptors and scientists are there to alert us, “Look! Listen with your full attention to what nature can teach us!”
If we are fortunate to discover or if someone takes time to teach us we might learn how to see with what the poet William Blake called “the inward eye” and catch a glimmer of what the saints were blinded by. Blake saw the human being as lit by the five windows of the senses. He wrote, “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.” Blake mused about this in his poem Auguries of Innocence, writing,
To see a World in a grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in our hour.
Likewise, a parish priest and mystic living on the Welsh border in Hereford named Thomas Traherne wrote a collection of poems called Centuries of Meditations. He had the great gift to see God in the common things of life. He found God was manifest – in “every spire of grass,” “every stone and every star,” “heaven in a wild flower” – but most of all in human beings who bear God’s image. Traherne wrote,
You will never enjoy the world aright till the sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world: and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs, as well as you.
To believe that God created everything out of nothing is to say that there is nothing other than God from which God created the universe. While the world is other than God, the world is wholly dependent upon God. All things are of God, and God is in all things. This is not pantheism, which confuses creation with God and fails to note the transcendence of God. This is panentheism, the belief that the Being of God pervades the entire universe.
Dame Julian of Norwich marveled in delight that something as small as a hazelnut can speak to us of God. In her book Revelations of Divine Love, she wrote, “See, I am God! I am in everything. See! I never lift my hand off my works, nor will I ever. See! I lead everything toward the purpose for which I ordained it.” Elizabeth Bowen notes, “Wherever one looks twice there is some mystery.” The key is to slow down and pay attention.
Such a view of reality should lead us to look more closely at nature and see the handiwork of God. Today, if you can, sit in a garden and admire the bluebells, bleeding hearts, buds, blossoms and branches, the dew-dappled daisies, the primroses and periwinkles or watch a hare hasten by a hedge and hurry to her home. Walk in the woods and see the great copper beeches, oak and maple trees and perhaps a meta sequoia towering above the other trees. See baby ducks skim across the surface of a pond or watch and wonder as a great blue heron takes flight.
Author and spiritual writer Eugene Petersen writes about how his wife Jan and he decided to become bird watchers. The colors, beauty and grace of the birds swirling around them was often lost on them. They turned to a young friend to teach them about birds. One day, they were driving on a road passing a marshy area near Flathead Lake in Elmo, Montana. There is little to see in Elmo. It’s a small, depressed town with a few flimsy houses, where it’s not unusual to see a doorless refrigerator sitting on a porch and an old 1951 Ford disintegrating in the front lawn. There are no gardens in Elmo, just a few cattails and some cottonwoods on the edge of the lake. After they passed through this quarter-mile stretch, their friend and guide, David, asked,
“How many different birds did you see?” “We hadn’t seen any,” writes Peterson. “I counted nine species,” said David.
David was a patient teacher, notes Peterson. He kept reminding us to look for flight patterns, silhouettes and habitat. Gradually through the years Peterson and his wife learned to see more birds, and when they fail to see them they know that their eyes have become lazy or they have become lost in self-preoccupation.
Wordsworth speaks of “…objects recognized in flashes, and with glory not their own.” As a child Wordsworth walked in the mountains and saw the lakes and meadows around him “appareled in celestial light.” The sight was so powerful that he clung to a tree to ensure himself that these things were not mere visions. C.S. Lewis borrowed a phrase from Wordsworth “surprised by joy” as the title of his autobiography. For Lewis, joy was distinct from pleasure. His description of such moments took place in a garden as a child or while walking on a wintry hillside, where he came to understand that these moments were about desire, yet not a desire to possess but to be possessed. The yearning he felt was not just for beauty or for joy itself, but a yearning for the Other, and he makes it very clear by writing “Other” with a capital O.
These moments often come while we are alone, and a veil is lifted and we can see. We sit in our garden and sense the presence of God. We can walk the beach and realize that our heart is beating in synch to the rhythm of the waves hitting the shore and sense the interconnectedness of all things. We see shafts of light pierce through the clouds, falling on a field and transforming it into something like bright shining gold. All of this is opens us to the immanence of God, the indwelling of God in the world of matter and nature around us.
In his book The Unnatural Nature of Science, Lewis Wolpert notes, “There are more molecules in a glass of water than there are glasses of water in the sea. There are also… more cells in one finger than there are people in the world.” The world is indeed complex and magnificent.
Plato and after him, St. Augustine, argued that the world and the universe had a mathematical order. Galileo wrote, “The Book of Nature is written in mathematical characters,” and the laws of physics and the enquiry into the structure and properties of matter confirms it. The human genome, the hexagonal design within the beehive, and the perfect spiral of a shell point to this.
All of this leads us to ponder whether we live in a universe with complex structures that have emanated from the mind of God. If we dismiss this, then how can we account for this incredible structure around us? Astronomer James Jeans writes, “We discover that the universe shows evidence of a designing controlling power that has something in common with our own individual minds...”
Christianity includes many beliefs that reason could never discern on its own. These truths include the Trinitarian nature of God, the incarnation of Jesus as the Son of God and the salvation of humankind. But natural religion shows us that all living things undergo change. Caterpillars turn into butterflies. Eggs hatch into birds. By analogy is it reasonable to believe that death is another such change, from one stage of existence to another.
Jesus was constantly telling those around him, “Look. Listen. See.” He constantly used metaphors taken from nature. In today’s gospel Jesus likens the kingdom of God to a mustard seed that starts out small and grow into a large bush, where birds build their nests. Likewise, Celtic Christians have taught us to see nature as interconnected and sacred. They spoke of thin places, where we experience the presence of God in ordinary settings of nature and where things human and heavenly seem to touch in a cosmic dance of creator and creation.
I took several retreats many years ago with Esther de Waal, one of my favorite spiritual writers. She wore a magnifying glass around her neck and would often stop and use it to examine some small, fascinating thing in nature that she had come upon. We, too, marvel, whether we are watching salmon returning to their birth waters to spawn in Yellowstone National Park or sitting in our backyard and marveling at the precise pattern of a dragonfly’s wings.
The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote,
I find you, Lord, in all Things and in all my fellow creatures, pulsing with your life; as a tiny seed you sleep in what is small and in the vast you vastly yield yourself
“We are called to be attentive,” wrote Alexander Scott, “to the fathomless mystery involved in the mere existence of a pebble.” In doing so, the world around us comes alive and all things become windows to the infinite. The Holy Spirit has descended on this world of ours. There is beauty in holiness all around us, if only we stop and take time to see it. We have ringside seats!
I close words from the late Cynthia Cheston, a parishioner who made a deep, lasting impression on so many of us. Cynthia and Morris spent their summers for many decades on the island of North Haven off the coast of Maine. She delighted in teaching her children and grandchildren how to see God in nature. She taught them how to look, listen and see. After slowly reading the entire Bible, Cynthia found nature to be shot full of God and the divine. She wrote to me,
….watching ospreys, eagles soar, examining the gorgeous sea urchin, mussel shells, feeling the warmth of the stones from the beach on my face, lying on the spongy mosses, lichen with my grandchildren asking what cloud creatures they see. Showing them that God is EVERYWHERE! Because of reading the Bible, I am now so much more aware of HIS gifts to ALL of us and how much fun is it to teach my family to “observe.”