Preacher: Canon Ralph Godsall, Precentor (2001-2008)
10 October 2005, 09:00 (Diocesan Thanksgiving for Marriage)
Preached to King's School, Rochester
There have been two remarkable stories in the newspapers this year. One was about the Sun, not the newspaper, but the vast thermonuclear reactor in space whose unbelievable heat makes life possible on earth.
To us the sun appears to be the largest and brightest of the stars, but it is actually the smallest and the faintest. The illusion arises because of its comparative nearness – it is only 93 million miles away, while the next nearest star in nearly 300,000 times as far away, more than four light years.
To get some idea of how far that is, consider that light traverses the 93 million miles from the sun to earth in only eight and a half minutes. In four light years, it travels more than twenty trillion miles. The Sun is a dwarf star, lying in a region of our galaxy, the Milky Way. Our galaxy contains about a hundred billion stars, ranging in mass from a few per cent to a hundred times the mass of the Sun.
And that is only our galaxy. There are many billions of galaxies in the observable universe. Our planet earth is a small object in a violent, unbelievably vast and expanding universe, yet it has remained hospitable to life for at least three and a half billion years.
Earlier this year we caught a glimpse of the violence of that great burning star. Scientists detected a shockwave on the sun and mapped solar flares and great tornadoes whipping round the Sun at more than 100,000 miles per hour. It is that violent and blazing star, whose light and heat come to us from 93 million miles away, that allows us to sit here today thinking about it all.
And that act of thought is as great a wonder as the universe. We are a submicroscopic dot in a tiny corner of a small galaxy in a universe containing billions of galaxies, but in us the universe has become conscious, has started thinking about itself. The Sun is not thinking about itself as it burns; the universe is not conscious of itself as it explodes through space; but we are. Something is going on in us that is as wonderful and miraculous as the universe itself. And that brings me to my second story from the news.
At the end of May a man called Tom Whitaker reached the top of Everest after a climb of 29,028 feet. By any standard, to reach the summit of Mount Everest is an extraordinary achievement. What made Tom Whitaker’s success even more spectacular was that he had only one foot. Whitaker, who is 49 years old, lost his foot in a car accident 19 years ago. His climb in May was his third attempt. In 1989 he got up to 24,000 feet before abandoning the climb, because of frostbite and altitude sickness. Six years later he was forced to stop at 27,500 feet when his oxygen supplies ran low. But last May he did it. It was an act of extravagant recklessness as aweinspiring in its own way as the fury of the sun whose explosive constancy makes our life possible.
There is something in our universe that calls us all to such recklessness and extravagance. It is the mark of Francis of Assisi and some other saints, who respond to the glory of God in creation with lives of extravagant selfgiving. And we see the same passion at work in great artists and musicians, in great explorers and scholars, in the great social reformers. The burning love and passion of God kindle them into life, into thought, into heroic achievement, into poetry and art, into love and compassion, into daring and laughter and glory.
When we let ourselves, we too can be ignited by the force of reckless and selfconsuming love that lies behind the universe, challenging us to live adventurously, to live up to the reality of things, not to be held back by our own fears and limitations, but to burn with holy fire. We are to live up to the measure of the universe and the mind that called it into explosive being.
Of course, there is a day for prudence and carefulness, for counting the cost and studying the options, but it is not this day. St Francis Day is a day of reckless disregard, explosive passion, uncalculating love, because on this day we catch a glimpse of the terrible glory of God, whose nature is burning love, a love that is poured out in creation.
Meditation on the majesty and energy of the universe, and our place in it, should increase our love for humanity. It should widen, not narrow our hearts. St Francis calls us to mediate on the extravagance of God, so don’t let this week pass without some act of extravagant kindness in return. Open your heart to someone you have closed out.
And a last word: extravagance is one of the keys to faith. For many of us it is not easy to believe in anything. If only the meaning of things could be made more obvious: if only the logic of faith could be worked out to an inescapable conclusion; then we might have faith. But it is never like that. There is an unresolved quality to faith.
In my own case, I do not so much possess faith as long for it. I am haunted by its possibility, by the sense that there is a mystery in the universe that calls me to look for meaning and purpose and to live with a vulnerable integrity. But who can afford such extravagance of effort for something so elusive and windflung? Why waste time on such a search?
Thankfully there are some in every generation who do not wait for an answer. Like Francis, they simply pour all their longing into the extravagant uncertainty of faith. And sometimes their reckless selfspending lights up the darkness for us all. I pray that some of us today may glimpse something of that generosity of spirit that is beyond all prudence and calculation and respond to the glory of God in creation with lives of extravagant selfgiving.