Sermon by the Rev. Marek Zabriskie on Sunday, July 26, 2020.
Like so many others, as the pandemic stretched into the summer, I felt the need for color and beauty to perk up my life. I made trips to McArdle’s Garden Center and Sam Bridge Nursery in search of plants to transform the exterior of the Rectory.
The world is better with color and diversity. Soon, I was digging up sod, breaking up clumps of soil and adding organic mixture to create a large flowerbed where once there was only lawn. I planted Liatris, Lavender and Lamb’s Ear, Russian Sage and roses, Bee Balm and Buddleia, Phlox, Salvia and Scentropia, Catnip, Chaste Trees, Allium and Agastache – a Hummingbird Mint, which attracts pollinators.
My garden soon welcomed a steady stream of bees, which have eyes composed of hundreds of six-sided lenses. They use one eye for outgoing flights and the other eye for the return journey. Their search for food can cover up to 40 square miles, but usually is limited to a four-mile radius. On their hind legs, each bee bears a basket-like structure for storing pollen. When the bee returns to the hive, it does a dance to let other bees know where to find pollen and nectar. When the food is close, the bee performs the round dance. When the food is far away, it dances the waggle dance – a figure eight with loops separated by a straight run.
The duration of the dance and the length of the abdominal flicks show the distance. It’s speed reveals the amount of nectar and pollen. Soon, other bees take off to gather food. Karl von Frisch discovered and decoded the dance of the bees in 1923 earning a Nobel Prize. That same year, the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke was diagnosed with leukemia. As Rilke searched for a metaphor to describe the role of the poet, he wrote, “We are the bees of the Invisible,” adding,
one earthly thing
truly experienced, even once, is enough for a lifetime…
Truly being here is glorious.
So it is with our Creator. God is not found in the past or the future, but in the present moment. W encounter God in the here and now, and when we are fully present we, like the English poet William Blake, can see the “infinite” in everything. Blake wrote:
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 an hour
Blake saw the human body lit by the windows of the five senses, noting, “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.” Likewise, the thirteenth-century saint, Dame Julian of Norwich, experienced ecstatic delight while gazing at a hazelnut, which she believed contained the essence of all creation. The poet and mystic, Thomas Traherne, saw God in every hill and valley. He wrote:
You 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 sole heirs as well as you. Till you can sing and rejoice and delight in God, as misers do in gold, and Kings in scepters, you never enjoy the world.
Who can love anything that God made too much? His infinite goodness and wisdom and power and glory are in it. What a world this would be, were every thing beloved as it ought to be!
In 1723, Bishop Joseph Butler, one of the greatest Anglican theologians, wrote The Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed – a famous, but rarely read book. In it, he noted that both natural and revealed religion teach us about God. Revealed religion comes from the Bible. Natural religion comes from observing nature. Both help us to experience and learn about God.
Surely, Matthew had this in mind when he recorded Jesus telling a series of parables about the kingdom of heaven and what it is like. Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed…” “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in…” “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field…” “…the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls…”
Our world is marked by patterns, which are the fingerprints of God. The night stars move in patterns through the sky; the nautilus shell has a perfectly shaped-spiral pattern, waves break on the shore in symmetrical patterns like the patterns of desert sand, which point to the laws governing the flow of sand and air. Michael Mayne, the late Dean of Westminster Abbey, where our choristers would have sung last Tuesday had the pandemic not cancelled their trip, wrote:
And nothing is more intriguing than the mathematical equations that link leaf and flower patterns with the exact proportions the Greeks used in their architecture.
Mayne notes that Leonardo Fibonacci was born in Pisa, Italy about 1170 A.D. and wrote extensively on numbers theory. His most famous discovery is known as the “Fibonacci sequence,” which notes that each number is the sum of the two previous ones: hence 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144… These numbers, Fibonacci notes, dominate the natural world.
The numbers of petals on most plants is a Fibonacci number – 3 petals on irises and lilies, 5 on buttercups and wild roses, 8 on delphiniums, 13 on ragwort and corn marigolds, 21 on asters, 34, 55 and 89 on various daisies. Fibonacci numbers appear on sunflowers, where the clockwise spiraling seed-heads will always be 34, 55 or 89, and the counterclockwise spiral 55, 89 or 144. Pineapples have 8 rows of diamond-shaped scales sloping left and 13 to the right.
Furthermore, take the ratio of two successive Fibonacci numbers, starting with 5, and divide each by the number before it: 5/3 = 1.666, 8/5 = 1.6, 13/8 = 1.625, 21/13 = 1.61538. The ratio averages 1.618, which is known as the Golden Mean. It is the ideal proportion used by ancient Greeks in building and was found to be particularly pleasing to the human eye. During the Renaissance it was said to be the secret to a beautiful face and body. In a well-proportioned body 1/1.618 is the ratio from the top of the head to the navel, and from the navel to the ground, and the width of the mouth against the nose.
The Golden Mean is found in the shell of a hermit crab, in a ram’s horn or an ocean wave. In a bee colony the number of female workers to male drones is about 1/1.618. God’s favorite ratio seems to be 1 to 1.62 as so much of creation corresponds to this, even the climaxes in a Mozart piano sonata. All things reflect their Maker with a near-perfect symmetry ranging from whirlpools to honeycombs to ripples on a pond, adding beauty to our lives and revealing that God is omnipresent – in galaxies, oceans, animals, humans and vast ecosystems.
In 1965, two American radio astronomers at Cal Berkeley discovered the existence of background radiation, which they believed was part of the residual heat from the Big Bang that still suffuses our cosmos. They dubbed this structure “the handwriting of God.” God’s fingerprints are found in the Milky Way Galaxy, that sweeping band of light, which turns in space like a great wheel, composed of 300,000 million stars or in the Cat’s Eye Nebula, 3,000 light years away from the Draco constellation, which unfurls like a giant cosmic scarlet poppy.
Geneticists tell us that we have only begun to catalog the vast extent of God’s creation, possibly describing only one living species in a hundred. So far, we have catalogued 330,000 kinds of beetle. When J.B.S. Haldane, a Christian biologist, was asked to describe his concept of God, he replied, “[God] is inordinately fond of beetles.” Likewise, as she stood silently at Tinker’s Creek, author Annie Dillard recalled that there are 228 distinct muscles in the head of an ordinary caterpillar. This is not pantheism – the belief that God is everything – but rather panentheism – the belief that the Being of God pervades the whole universe, which exists and is sustained by God, who contains the world, but transcends it. Surely, the kingdom of heaven surrounds us.
Dame Julian of Norwich wrote:
See, I am God. See! I am in everything. See! I never lift my hand off my works,
nor will I ever. See! I led everything toward the purpose for which I ordained it.
Yet, the German mystic Meister Eckhardt notes that we may seek God in the world about us and find God nowhere, but if we first find God within ourselves then we shall find God everywhere. Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21). It is our interior faith that allows us to detect God all around us, as we hike in the Babcock Preserve, walk around Tod’s Point or putter in the garden. God reveals Godself to us through science, mathematics, beauty, reason and natural world. Hence, the Psalmist writes:
When I consider the heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars
you have set in their courses, what are mortals, that you should be mindful of them? (Ps. 8:4)
Theism better than atheism best explains this incredibly complicated, interconnected, stunning world with its vast varieties, shapes, sizes, species, complexities and colors. The mathematician, physicist, astronomer and theologian Isaac Newton discovered a universe that worked according to rational, elegant laws undergirding both the simplest and most complex structures, all of which were shot through with the mind of a universal Creator.
The world is better with color and diversity. We were put on earth to be stewards of creation, which Jesus calls the kingdom of heaven. God has given us “dominion” over nature, but this does not mean that we are to dominate it, but rather we are called by God to care for it. Climate change is a real and grave danger. So is pollution and human destruction. The Black Sea, which once had 156 species of fish, now has five. At least a thousand species are disappearing each year from the rainforests. Of all the fish species, 70 percent are now being fished faster than they can replace themselves. We must care for God’s creation. A Rabbi speculates that God’s first question at the judgement will be, “Did you enjoy my creation?” And we might add, were you a good steward of it? How will you answer these questions? Amen.