Grace and Gravity

Psalm 147:1-12, Hebrews 11:1-3, February 14, 2016 

Once a year I preach about what astronomers are learning about the universe. Often I schedule the astronomy sermon for February, because there’s an annual effort called “The Clergy Letter Project” that encourages religious groups of all kinds to state that faith and science are compatible.

 People have been talking about this for a long time, back in 1915, Sir William Bragg, who won the Nobel Prize for Physics that year said this.

 “Christianity and science are opposed…but only in the same sense as that which my thumb and forefinger are opposed – and between them I can grasp anything.”

 I preach on astronomy for the simple reason that I believe faith begins with wonder and curiosity—the very things that prod scientists to discoveries and artists to new forms of expression.

 Kallistos Ware said, “ is not the task of Christianity to provide easy answers to every question, but to make us progressively aware of a mystery. God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder.”

 Frankly, I am baffled by those who believe that faith and science are incompatible. There are some people who believe that the Bible should be read literally and that its claims are as valid as a modern science textbook. This is an idea that John Calvin, the founder of our faith tradition, dismissed about 550 years ago. In his commentary on the Book of Genesis, Calvin wrote

“[T]o my mind, this is a certain principle, that nothing is here [that is, in the Bible] treated of but the visible form of the world. He who would learn astronomy…let him go elsewhere.” [on Genesis 1:6]

While Calvin did not regard the Bible as an astronomy text book, he said this about it, “For astronomy is not only pleasant, but also very useful to be known: it cannot be denied that this art unfolds the admirable wisdom of God.” John Calvin

Calvin believed that studying Creation pointed one, inevitably, toward the Creator.

“It is the first evidence in the order of nature, to be mindful that wherever we cast our eyes, all things they meet are works of God, and at the same time to ponder with pious meditation to what end God created them.” [Institutes 1.14.20]

That sounds a lot like a line from the first hymn we sang this morning, “Lord, how thy wonders are displayed, where’re I turn my eyes, if I survey the ground I tread or gaze up on the skies.” [I Sing the Mighty Power of God]

Encountering nature, for example the bright stars on a cold winter night, is an experience that fills me with wonder and awe. That experience points from the Creation to the Creator. For me astronomy and discoveries in astronomy are encounters with the Living God. I’ve got a colleague who follows breakthroughs in the study of DNA for the same reason. He’s fascinated, humbled and filled with wonder by what scientists are discovering.

Last month a new discovery in our own solar system caught my attention, and this is unusual, most of the discoveries that expand my mind—and therefore expand my concept of the vastness of God’s creation—are in distant galaxies. Before I get to that local discovery, I want to walk through the history of humanity has understood the universe.

Here’s a picture of how the author of Genesis understood the universe.

See how heaven conceived as a dome above the earth, it holds back water. The Sun, moon and stars are implanted in the dome of the firmament and it rotates every day. The earth is set on an immoveable foundation and there is water around the earth and under the earth. If you read the first chapter of Genesis, this is what it described.

About a century after Jesus’ birth, the Egyptian astronomer named Ptolemy suggested that the earth was the center of the universe. Here’s a visual representation of that.

Ptolemy made careful observations of the movement of the Sun, moon and planets. And, in all honesty, in many ways we still have this worldview. We talk about the sunrise and sunset, which clearly speaks of an earth-centric worldview. Learned Europeans held Ptolemy’s view for more than 1,400 years. Then came Copernicus. Here’s how he saw the universe.

Copernicus was also a careful observer of the night sky. He believed that the Sun was the center of the universe, not the earth. This was shocking, and upsetting, it seemed to suggest that the earth, and humanity were not the central, most important part of the universe. Still, this was an improvement over Ptolemy’s scheme, because it explained why planets and the moon sometimes appear to reverse course in the sky. The astronomical term for this is to travel retrograde. This happens because the earth and say Venus sometimes travel closer together and sometimes farther apart in their respective orbits around the Sun. Ptolemy was able to observe, measure and predict these movements, but couldn’t really explain why the universe operated this way.

A generation after Copernicus, Galileo famously got in trouble because of the things he was discovering by looking into the sky with a telescope. Two of his controversial discoveries were that Jupiter had moons—well, everyone knew that the earth is the center of the universe, how could anything revolve around something other than our planet? He also reported seeing sunspots, which implied imperfection on the star which we understood as being a gift from God, and the source of all energy and light.

Galileo didn’t exactly prevail over the church, but his discoveries eventually came to be accepted, and the Sun came to be considered the center of the universe.

About a generation after Galileo’s death, Isaac Newton developed the Law of Gravity, which explained why things fall to the ground when we drop them, and why bodies maintain orbits around more massive bodies. This was really an important concept.

About 4 centuries later, when I was first learning about the solar system, there were nine planets. I led a revolution in 1975. I did my WHOLE science fair project on one planet, I called it “Jupiter: the Gaseous Giant.” I used cutting edge research, National Geographic had reported the month before that there were 13 moons around Jupiter. Paul Matthews said there were only 12. Chump. This morning I looked on line and found that NASA says Jupiter has 50 moons and 17 provisional moons. This is the solar system as we understood it in 1975.

Back then astronomers believed that the asteroid belt was created when a planet that had been between Mars and Jupiter was pulled apart by the competing gravitational pulls of the Sun and Jupiter. Astronomers no longer believe that.

Following Galileo we continued to get better at building telescopes and found planets beyond those we could see with the unaided eye. Uranus was discovered in 1781, Neptune in 1846 & Pluto in 1930.

And each one was about where astronomers expected them to be; their distance from the Sun increased in a predictable ratio. And this was what was accepted and known--until 2006, when the International Astronomical Union declared that Pluto is a dwarf planet. Remember how upset people were? Here’s what happened: We saw more clearly and learned more about the vastness and mysteries of the universe, because the powerful telescopes we built found smaller and smaller objects in space.

From Copernicus’ time until well into the 20th century we believed that outer space, beyond our solar system, was empty. Nothing existed beyond Pluto for light years where the next thing one would encounter would be a star, and, possibly planets around that star.

But with more powerful telescopes astronomers found that outer space was far from empty. In fact, out around Pluto there was a huge collection of objects which compose the Kuiper belt.

 And when we could get a better look at Pluto’s neighborhood, astronomers realized that it is more like other objects in the Kuiper Belt, than it’s like the other eight planets in the solar system. In fact there is at least one object in the Kuiper Belt that is larger than Pluto. Pluto has always been a little odd: its orbit is much more elliptical, less circular, than the other planets’ and it’s not in the same orbital plane as the other planets. The more objects we discovered in the Kuiper Belt, the less Pluto belonged with the planets. We thought that because we couldn’t see anything beyond Pluto, that there was nothing there! Astronomers made us aware that the universe was much more complex than we realized.

Which brings us to last month, when Mike Brown, an astronomer at CalTech, who proposed 10 years ago that Pluto be downgraded to dwarf planet status, announced the discovery, kind of, of a planet much more massive than earth beyond Pluto. I say, “kind of,” because the planet hasn’t been observed visually. Here’s what he and his colleague, Konstantin Batygin, have found:

The lines in pink show the orbits of various Kuiper Belt objects that orbit Neptune. It’s hard to depict their orbits in two dimensions, but the diagram seeks to show that their orbits are perpendicular to Neptune’s and the other planets’ orbital plane. OK, here’s where I can’t explain the science, but Brown and Batygin can, the best explanation for the orbits of those Kuiper Belt objects around Neptune is the presence of another planet, about 10 times the mass of earth, in an orbit about 20 to 100 billion miles from the Sun. [For comparison, Pluto is about 4.6 billion miles from the Sun.] At this point astronomers have not reached consensus on the existence of this planet. It could be anywhere in its up to 20,000 year orbit around the Sun. The evidence is all indirect. It’s the subtle motion of distant objects billions of miles away, detected by very, very sophisticated instruments that tells astronomers where to look, and what they can expect to find.

But at this point, no one has seen the potential 9th planet, only evidence that indicates it might exist, and where to look for it. Astronomers and, I hope you, are filled with wonder and excitement at this theory.

Notice that in each different cosmology from Old Testament times to today, the earth has become less central. As we discover new things, we see the universe as more vast and complex than we used to imagine. All of which points to a Creator God who is more amazing than we used to conceive.

Here’s what got my attention about the news of the potential planet: we can’t see it, but there are signs that indicate that it’s real. The force of gravity, the power it has to move objects across great distances is what we observe.

No one can see gravity, we can only see and feel its effects. One could say we take gravity on faith, because as the author of Hebrews says, “Faith is assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen…By faith we understand the worlds were prepared by the word of God…”

You can’t see love. That’s why I asked the little ones to tell me what love looks like. It’s really easier to see love’s effect than love itself.

What does grace look like? Not only can I not say what it looks like, I have never been able to define grace. The best I can do is to describe it as a moment when I have received a gift that is so huge, unexpected and kind that I have been unable to even say, “thank you.” We can’t see grace, but we know it when we feel it.

When I see images like that last one, where cutting edge science is helping us understand parts of Creation we couldn’t even see a few years ago, I am filled with feelings of wonder, awe and humility. The intricacy and mystery of the stars and planets is one way I encounter the Living God. Living God. God is alive—and the cosmos is filled with motion. And part of that motion is the embodied love of our Lord who moves in our lives in ways we cannot see, but can feel and trust. Like gravity, the love of Christ keeps us connected to the Living God, and the Holy Spirit which resides in all other people. Amen.