Event Name Sermon given at Matins on the Sixth Sunday of Easter 2017
Start Date 24th May 2017 10:00am
Description

The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon in Residence
In the beginning, perhaps 14 billion years ago, the world sprang forth.  In the tiniest fraction of a second space boiled out in rapid expansion.  Gravity began to balance the outward movement in a more stable order.  In that fine-tuned balance matter, galaxies, stars, formed, and when they died their dying dust became the stuff of life on earth.  That life evolved from jellyfish to mammals until eventually homo sapiens got to his and her feet, with dawning mind, consciousness, spirit; more than 100 billion of us now having walked this earth, creating countless cultures, swelling as if in another slow-motion big bang: Kalahari bushmen with instinctive mysticism; ancient Greek and Roman cultures of towering intellect; Arabic philosophy; Hindu culture, Chinese and Buddhist dynasties; great Semitic religions; Judaism, Christendom, Islam; western cultures of enlightenment and scientific discovery.  

Such is the vastness of time and space of our setting in natural and human history, and the wider universe.   A vastness of which we’ve become ever more aware.  Just as we’re also more aware of the likely end of it all when that fine-tuned balance fails, the universe implodes, and we all return to the very star-dust from which we came.

So I often wonder as I look up at the myriad stars in a night sky, or at the multitudes of people crowding daily past me on London streets, and recently when I walked the streets of Hong Kong - I wonder both at this vastness of our teeming universe, and at its transience. Both make me wonder about our significance.  How can we as individuals, or even as particular societies, have real significance when we are only such tiny and transient players on such a huge stage?  Such thoughts can prompt a kind of dizziness, a metaphysical vertigo;  ‘…the eternal silence of these infinite spaces fills me with dread’, wrote Pascal.  They are thoughts which gnaw away at faith.  They can easily undermine that confident faith we heard in the second reading, the faith that we’re actually so significant that we’re destined ‘to be with God for ever’.  And so this is the issue I want to address now.  It is part of a series of brief reflections on Sundays in May on the difficulties of belief.  In the face of this vastness and our own smallness and transience, how can we believe we have real, lasting significance?  

I want to offer two simple responses.  

First - it’s surely worth reminding ourselves that size is in fact a complete red herring for significance!  A piece of music isn’t normally considered more significant just for being longer.  A person isn’t normally considered more valuable just because she’s lived longer, or because he’s taller.  Neither music nor people are measured in that way.  The power of music or the unique value of a person doesn’t subsist in the amount of time or space we occupy in this universe: it lies in some other quality altogether – it lies in its being loved.  So this fact that each of us is but a tiny speck of passing dust in such a huge and crowded universe need not be in itself so disturbing.  If anything, we could say the vastness of the universe might even be a tribute to human significance not an affront.  If it took the labour of 14 billion years, the birth and death of countless stars, to fashion us, perhaps that tells us how much we are worth, loved, in God’s sight, not how little.  

This doesn’t mean that the universe is only a process to produce us, only a stage for us to strut on as individuals, or even as whole cultures. The Lord of the Universe delights in it for its own sake, not just as a setting for us, as Job had to be reminded: ‘where was he when God laid the foundation of the earth?’  Nowhere!  But the stars were there, already, ‘singing together for joy’ in praise to their Maker.  God, it seems, rejoices in and gives significance to all he has made, individuals, cultures, and the wider world.

Yet the main point remains: whatever it is that God has made, size is not the measure of that significance: ‘it’s not because you were greater than other peoples that I loved you’, God said to Israel.  And that is why we who are small can always hold our head high even amongst the stars and the crowds.  As long as we know we are eternally loved.  

But are we? Eternally loved?  How can we be, when we also know we’re transient, not just small?  And when, the other elephant in the room of faith, we know we and the universe are also so flawed ?   When we are mortals ‘few of days and full or trouble’,  as Job also reminded us. Doesn’t this still undermine our sense of significance?  

Yet here I offer a second response. Not, of course, to solve such huge questions of sin, evil, mortality, but just to suggest another perspective.  Yes, the flaws and transience of everything are all too real.  But - aren’t they also the reverse side of an extraordinary intrinsic potential?  Those paths of natural evolutionary history which cause so much collateral damage, aren’t they also what has generated natural beauties, the loveliness of sunlight on sea, spring flowers, snow on mountain tops? Those cruel paths taken by so much human history of sin, aren’t they also what has generated courage, compassion, passion for justice, great sacrificial loves?  

In other words, it seems that this flawed and transient instrument of the universe does also inextricably produce music of infinite and unique worth.  And so what if at least that good music generated in this world - our loves, strivings, perceptions of beauty - can be kept in eternity (‘kept in heaven’ in that evocative biblical phrase)?  We would then see that the transience of things isn’t the troubling end of everything, but just the route by which this flawed instrument of the world, having done its job, is allowed to decay - so that it can leave that unique good it’s generated free to live on beyond space and time, without its flaws.

This is a picture many poets and platonists from those myriad cultures have long dreamed of.  It’s a picture even scientific cosmologists can now imagine as they conceive eternal multiverses able to receive such elements of our decaying universe.  But above all, in Christ, it’s a picture not just imagined but real. For is not Christ the pre-eminent example? - a small point in this vast history, subject to death, yet also raised to eternal significance - and so giving us, by grace, the same hope.  

Yes - we were made from dust, and to dust we will all return.  But in Christ, can we not see, that dust is also the very stuff of eternal life.  And so it is of truly eternal significance.

© 2017 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

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