February 9, 2020
All Saints’ Church
This past summer, I was afforded the luxury of a sabbatical. For a little over two months, I had time away from my usual duties at All Saints’, and I used this time to relax, think, write, and travel. I had read that one thing that sometimes happens to people on sabbatical is that they develop new hobbies or interests. What I didn’t expect was the new interest that would grip my imagination: astronomy.
It happened like this. In June, I visited my mother in northern Michigan. There’s a place near where she lives called a dark sky park. Every evening, a few hundred people gather at dusk at an amphitheater by the shore of Lake Michigan to watch the stars slowly appear in the summer sky. There are astronomers present who guide you through the constellations. There are also telescopes pointed at objects in the sky.
That night, the first thing I saw through the lens of the telescope was Jupiter with its four largest moons: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. I learned these are called the Galilean moons, because they were first discovered by Galileo in 1610. It was an incredible sight. I mean, I could see them, right there, in the sky. I even took a picture in my phone. Then they pointed the telescope deep into the sky at an object called a globular cluster. It was a fuzzy-looking ball of thousands of stars like our sun that orbits the core of a galaxy thousands of light years away. I was already amazed to see these things, hiding in plain view just above our heads every night.
But then I saw the doozy, the one that converted me to astronomy. I leaned over the eyepiece of the telescope, and saw a sight I had seen all my life in pictures, but there it was, right there: Saturn. I immediately recognized its rings, its stripes. How could you not? I couldn’t pull myself away from the telescope. I mean, Saturn is up there, in plain view, and this is the first time I’m seeing it. And this thought lodged in my head: I’m a person of faith who believes in a God who created the universe and all that is in it—but I know almost nothing about that universe, not even this beautiful, terrifying, graceful, giant planet right here in our solar system.
Friends, after that night, I went full nerd. I spent hours and hours watching documentaries and YouTube videos. I devoured basic articles about our theories of the workings of the universe. I learned basic facts that I now realize--as someone who claims to be educated--I should have known a long time ago. Here are some of those facts. The universe is 13.8 billion years old. Gravity is not a force, but a fabric. Our own system is ringed by something called the Kuiper Belt, filled with small rocky objects, and beyond that is the Oort Cloud.
I also developed a new habit. Instead of starting the day by reading the invariably depressing headlines, I read the astronomy news. Let me tell you: getting news about the cosmos puts the pettiness of the 24 hours political news cycle in perspective. Here are the highlights of 2019. For the first time, scientists photographed a black hole. An object from outside our solar system was discovered inside our solar system—only the second such alien object recorded. The big news right now is that the star Betelgeuse has mysteriously gone dim. You can see Betelgeuse this time of year in the constellation Orion, and it’s usually the 11th-brightest star in the sky. But now it’s number 21. Some astronomers think it might be getting ready to explode in a supernova. The whole astronomical community is watching the light of this star that is 642 light years away.
And that brings me to today’s Gospel reading. Jesus tells us that we are the light of the world. The light of the world! Can you imagine? Little old you, little old me, little old All Saints’ Church—we are the light of the world. Jesus Christ himself says so. I used to stop right there, because honestly, it’s spiritually powerful enough message on its own. If you’re feeling down about yourself or the world or whatever, look yourself in the mirror and remember what Jesus says to you: you are the light of the world. We are bright shining lights in the darkness. Place your light high up on the lampstand and let it shine before all people.
But you see, now that I’ve dipped my toe into astronomy, I’ve learned a lot more about light. There’s a whole lot more to this truth Jesus tells us, because light is a complicated thing. And in fact, most of the entire science of astronomy is about light.
First off, nothing in the entire universe can travel faster than light. Think about that for a second. Your light, God’s light, the light coming through these windows, or the light of the moon or the sun or the stars—that light is the absolute fastest message that can be given or received. And that’s according not to the Bible, but to the laws of physics. So if we really are the light of the world, and the world is covered in darkness, the minute we let our lights shine, it will push the darkness back faster than anything else imaginable. The fastest way to make a change in the world is to let your light shine. Amazing.
But here’s the other pretty crazy thing. Because light travels so quickly, unlike anything else, it bridges the great divide of time. Let me explain. The sun is an incredibly far distance from the Earth, about 100 million miles. But light from the sun travels so quickly that it reaches us in 8 minutes. Still, it takes 8 minutes to get here. That means that when you watch a sunset, you’re actually seeing the sun not as it is now, but as it was 8 minutes ago. Back to Betelgeuse. I said Betelgeuse is 642 light years away. Even though a light year sounds like it should be a measure of time, it’s actually a measure of distance: the distance light can travel in one Earth year. So when you look at Orion and see Betelgeuse in his left shoulder, you’re actually seeing Betelgeuse not now, but as it was 642 years ago. If indeed the star does explode tomorrow, that would actually mean it blew up in the year 1378. We’d just be seeing it now.
I warned you: full nerd. But it’s a nerdiness with some really deep spiritual truth here. Nothing travels faster than light. And nothing connects us to the past and the future more than light. And YOU are the light of the world. That means that your light is shining out into the future in ways you will never understand in your lifetime. It means that every act of faith, charity, and love will shine light for years, decades, and centuries to come.
If you’re skeptical of my astronomical reading of the Bible, think about this. Jesus told his followers that they were the light of the world 2,000 years ago. And here we are, still talking about it. They’ve been dead and gone for a long, long time. But their light shines on. In the church, in Scripture, in the sacraments. Kind acts from that time begat kind acts after that, and so on and so on. The Letter to the Hebrews says that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. I think of them like that globular cluster I saw through the telescope—thousands upon thousands upon thousands of lights, shining through the darkness of time and space on us, even today. And you are one of them.
There’s no doubt that we are living in a dark time. But when you are light, the darkness is nothing. It’s just something to shine yourself through. The darkness doesn’t communicate anything. It doesn’t help anything. And it doesn’t last for the ages. It’s just there. When you’re light, you pierce the darkness. Scatter it. Subdue it. When you are light, darkness is nothing at all.
And you are the light of the world. Those aren’t my words; they’re Jesus’ words. So in the weeks and months ahead, if you start to feel overwhelmed by the darkness, just wait until night falls, and look up. Even in New York, you can see some pretty amazing stars. Their light shatters the darkness and bridges time and space to rest on you. Then, take a look in the mirror. Because that light is inside you. That light can never be extinguished, because it is the light of God. The same God who created the heavens and the earth, who is of time eternal, and who lights the paths of all holy people. Let your light shine brightly before all people, so that they may see your good works, in this age and in the ages to come, and my give glory to your God, the God of heaven. Amen.