Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | September 20, 2015

2015.09.20 “Season of Creation: Sky” – Jeremiah 4: 23 – 28; Psalm 19: 1 – 6

Central United Methodist Church
Season of Creation: Sky
Pastor David L. Haley
Jeremiah 4: 23 – 28; Psalm 19: 1 – 6
September 20th, 2015

atmosphere

I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void;

and to the heavens, and they had no light. I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking,

and all the hills moved to and fro. I looked, and lo, there was no one at all,

and all the birds of the air had fled.

I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert,

and all its cities were laid in ruins before the Lord,

before his fierce anger.

For thus says the Lord: The whole land shall be a desolation;

yet I will not make a full end.

Because of this the earth shall mourn,

and the heavens above grow black;

for I have spoken, I have purposed;

I have not relented nor will I turn back.

– Jeremiah 4: 23 – 28, NRSV

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims the work of God’s hands.

          Day unto day conveys the message, and night unto night imparts the knowledge.

        No speech, no word, whose voice goes unheeded; their sound goes forth through all the

earth, their message to the utmost bounds of the world.

There God has placed a tent for the sun; it comes forth like a bridegroom coming from his

tent, rejoices like a champion to run his course. – Psalm 19: 1 – 6, NRSV

[Note: For the Children’s Message, why try to explain Sky, when we can experience it, by joining (through video) the exciting and inspiring record-breaking free fall jump by Felix Baumgartner in 2012. You may view it here. (Note: The first 50 seconds are historical material, Baumgartner’s jump begins about 50 seconds in)]

How long has it been since you lay on your back in the grass, or on a blanket, and looked straight up into the sky?  I know the answer; it is: “Too long.”

Whenever I think about this, I think of when Lucy and Linus Van Pelt did it, in the 1969 film, A Boy Named Charlie Brown, by Charles Schulz.

Lucy says: Aren’t the clouds beautiful? They look like big balls of cotton. I could just lie here all day and watch them drift by. If you use your imagination, you can see lots of things in the cloud’s formations. What do you think you see, Linus?

Linus: Well, those clouds up there look to me look like the map of the British Honduras on the Caribbean. That cloud up there looks a little like the profile of Thomas Eakins, the famous painter and sculptor. And that group of clouds over there…gives me the impression of the Stoning of Stephen. I can see the Apostle Paul standing there to one side.

Lucy: Uh huh. That’s very good. What do you see in the clouds, Charlie Brown?

Charlie Brown: Well… I was going to say I saw a duckie and a horsie, but I changed my mind. (A Boy Named Charlie Brown, 1969, Directed by Bill Melendez and written by Charles M. Schulz.)

Whenever we did do this – no matter how long ago it was and even if we only saw a duckie and a horsie – how can we not remember the beauty and vastness of sky overhead? This is especially true here in the Midwest, just as it is on the Serengeti in Africa, to name only two places on earth, where our view of the sky is panoramic and commanding.

The only “out-of-body” experience I’ve ever had was in a field in Africa, when I was listening to a guide explain how stone tools had been found at that site. As I stood there under that awesome African sky, I could feel a kinship with these ancient ancestors, standing where they once stood, under that African sky.

When we look into the sky, what do we see? Do we see a blue sky and fluffy white cumulus clouds, like yesterday? Was it during a storm, such that we saw the wind rock the treetops and black clouds rolling in like a wave over us? Did we “ooh-and-aah” at the red, orange, and purple skies of sunrise or sunset? Or did we look up at night, up into the canopy of stars, picking out the ancient constellations, as our ancestors have done for millennia?

Think of all the effects the sky – in its variety – has upon us, and the way we feel. Literally, our moods seem to change with the weather: when the sun is shining, we are likely to be happier than when clouds cover the sky. Think of the change as a storm comes rolling in, clouding the sky. Or think of the approach of night, and the effect of darkness. In about six weeks, when Daylight Savings Time ends, and early darkness begins, all of us will be affected.

Why does the sky affect us so much? Is even our faith influenced or related to the sky in some way?

For our ancestors, especially our religious ancestors in the Ancient Near East, this was the case. The ancient understanding of the world (cosmology) was that the sky or the heavens (the word is the same) were the dwelling place of the gods; the realm of earth that of the living or humanity; and under the earth (sheol, in Hebrew), the place of the dead. This is the understanding of the cosmos reflected in the Bible.

Isn’t it odd, that even though we now have a different, scientific understanding of the universe, we still sometimes think in these concepts and use their language? We think of God and Jesus “up there” in the sky or heavens, and may even look up when we worship or pray. Reflecting these understandings, I wonder how many human beings throughout history have looked up into the sky and uttered prayers to God, either blessings or curses, with imploring arms or defiant fists thrust into the air? Even now, when we pray to God or Jesus, where do we locate God or Jesus in our mind or our faith? Are they figures on a throne in the sky? Or cosmic presences that permeate everything?

Now, living in the age of science and exploration, we humans have the understanding (chemistry), technology (instrumentation), and means (air and space travel) not only to explain but to explore our world (as in the Felix Baumgartner video above), and we have a very different understanding of the sky as Earth’s atmosphere, and the entrance to the heavens, which we know as space. Even if we have not been into space, we have flown through the air in airliners, looking down on the clouds from above. (And no, even if it looks like we could walk upon them, we cannot). I can’t stress this enough in this Season of Creation series, how privileged we are among ALL the people who have ever lived, to be able not only to understand these things and explore Earth as we do.

Have you ever seen the comedian Louis C.K.’s comments about air travel, about how there are always people complaining over how long it takes to board or that the flight left late, or that they only gave us peanuts to eat. And Louis C.K. says: “Do you know how amazed and grateful we should be to fly at all: Think about it, you are sitting in a chair flying through the sky!”

Here are the facts: What we call the sky, or the heavens, is Planet Earth’s atmosphere. The atmosphere is an extremely thin sheet of air extending from the surface of the Earth to the edge of space. The Earth is a sphere with a roughly 8000 mile diameter; the thickness of the atmosphere is about 60 miles, less than the distance from here to Milwaukee. Let’s think of it this way: if the Earth were the size of a basketball, the thickness of the atmosphere could be modeled by a thin sheet of plastic wrapped around it. In this photo (see above), taken from a spacecraft 200 miles above the Earth, we can see the atmosphere as the thin blue band between the surface and the blackness of space. Gravity holds the atmosphere to the Earth’s surface. Within the atmosphere, complex chemical, thermodynamic, and fluid dynamics effects occur, constantly changing with time and location. We call such changes the weather. Again, we like to complain and give Tom Skilling a hard time about it, but we are dependent upon it.

More facts: Our existence on this planet depends upon that thin strip of atmosphere wrapped around the earth, like a sheet of plastic. As we know, the actions of our species are damaging it, and as it is damaged, it in return will threaten us.

Did you catch this theme in today’s Scriptures? Even the ancients knew that not only does the sky and the heavens affect us, but we and our actions affect them, as well.

The prophet Jeremiah, for example. The reading from the Book of Jeremiah is a vision of what it will be like when their great enemies, the Babylonians came from the North, to overwhelm God’s people and devastate the land. The disaster Jeremiah sees coming is so destructive he depicts the event as a reversal of the God’s original acts of creation, when there will be no vegetation upon the land, no birds in the air, no light in the sky, in effect a return to pre-creation, when all is ‘waste and void.’

For Jeremiah, this portrait is more than a metaphor: the destruction brought about by the invading armies of Babylon and the subsequent fall of Jerusalem was more than a national catastrophe; even nature was affected. War brings environmental devastation; this is why so many refugees are on the road today, still – as in Jeremiah’s time – in the Middle East.

And did you catch it in the Gospel? Why on earth – here in mid-September – would we read the Good Friday text of the crucifixion of Jesus? Because in Mark’s description of the crucifixion of Jesus, we meet the sympathy of the sky. Mark tells us that from noon on the day Jesus was crucified, ‘darkness came over the whole land’. Or, in the language of our reading from Jeremiah, the sky was ‘mourning.’ Even in the understanding of the ancients, what we humans do on earth affects the heavens.

Now, more than ever, we are learning that the way we live is damaging not only the planet, but our precious atmosphere. While it might still be denied by climate change deniers (many of whom hide under the guise of religion), the scientific consensus is clear: human activity is damaging the earth and earth’s atmosphere, bringing unprecedented climate change. We have increased ozone (O3) where it should not be, in the nearest layer of the atmosphere (the troposphere), in the form of smog, causing increased respiratory disease. How many have been to Kathmandu, New Delhi, Beijing, or even Los Angeles? And we have damaged the ozone in the place it ought to be (the stratosphere), where it protects us from UV radiation, which has lead to an increase in skin cancer.

Furthermore, the increased amounts of carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution (roughly [1750), has increased global warming, which has in turn accelerated climate change. Examples of climate change include increases in global warming, changes in rainfall patterns, and changes in the frequency of extreme weather. Did you know this summer has been the hottest summer ever recorded (not locally, but globally)?D id you know that by 2050, Chicago’s climate could approximate that of New Orleans? Did you know that Chicago has already started planting trees accordingly, like swamp oaks?

Children, by 2050, I’ll likely be pushing daisies, but you’ll be pushing 50, and I worry about how your lives – and the life of your children – is going to be different, due to climate change. Unless we humans begin to change how we live, and begin to – if not reverse the effects – at least slow the rate of change, allowing us time to accommodate, we are going to face escalating consequences.

So it is well past time for us to lie on our backs and look up, into the blue or starry sky, and consider not only our fragile existence, but that of our planet.

Except for the winter months, I try to get outside each morning, to walk or run, for my health and my faith. Did you know that, according to a recent study (Gretchen Reynolds, How Walking in Nature Changes the Brain, the New York Times, July 22, 2015), a walk in nature can soothe our mind and even change our brains, in ways that improve our mental health?

Mostly, when I walk, it takes awhile to get disconnected from me, and what’s bothering me, and to look around: to see the streets, the grass, the trees. Finally, I look up – almost with surprise – to see the sky, so often stunningly beautiful. In our indoor existences, how blind we have become to it, how often we ignore it.

Because if looking down at the dirt beneath our feet and the grass and the trees and animals grounds us and connects us to the earth, surely looking up at the sky lifts us up and connects us to the heavens, which reminds us of God’s glory. Look up, people! Look up!

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