No Ordinary Sun
By Colin Gibson
This recent sermon NO ORDINARY SUN by Colin Gibson at Mornington Church is a splendid example of how Christian faith has borrowed ideas and images from many traditions and sources. It is a sermon that ideally should be read in the context of three readings, mentioned at the end of the text. But it also has contemporary relevance for those concerned about global warming, and leaves us with the question - whether the human race is to continue "to enjoy the sun's benefits, or perversely imitate its death-dealing potential." A must-read.
From the beginning of time we have told each other stories to explain who we are and to make some kind of sense of the world around us. Some of these stories turn out to be what we call ‘true’, that is, the kind of knowledge we have acquired (called science) confirms them in some way or other. Other stories cannot be confirmed in this way and some of them are completely counter to what we call ‘fact, but even so, they may carry a kind of truth which is still important for us as human beings.
The Otago Daily Times for Wednesday 17 September 2008 carried the headline, ‘Expected sunny, equable weather should put a spring in your step’. The item under the headline told us that according to Metservice’s seasonal forecast, ‘our season of Spring should be more settled than winter has been, with a tendency for some places to be drier and warmer than normal’. Two stories for our comfort: one (not much of a story really) trying to make sense of all the little bits of weather data patiently gathered by our scientists, another linking our behaviour with the effects of the sun. (And there is much scientific evidence that our bodies and our moods really do function differently depending on the amount of sunshine we receive in our part of the world.)
The little poem by Sri Chinmoy we heard among our readings brings us a similar story:
The rising sun blesses my mind with joy,
The setting sun blesses my heart with peace.
This poem by a famous Bangladeshi poet is a religious poem describing, an ideal relationship between a human being and the natural world. It is a story of mind and heart (reason and emotion) experiencing what a Christian might call a state of bliss or blessedness.
The sun has always attracted stories of this kind. The big story of our times is called ‘Global Warming’. It’s a moral story: and the moral is that because of the human race’s foolish and careless behaviour in the past this planet is being warmed up by the sun’s action on its atmosphere to the point where we may be consumed by its radiation. Not everybody believes this to be a true story, though many do. Whether or not it changes or compels our future behaviour it is in large part another story about ourselves, our world and the sun.
Throughout human history, in every culture we know there are sun stories, partly because light and warmth (words we use in our candle greeting) are absolutely fundamental to our existence and survival as human beings.
Take the story the children were told the Maori hero Maui. It’s the kind of story scholars call a myth. That is, it is an ancient and significant story for a people’s understanding of themselves and the world they inhabit.
What did you get out it?
As usual, the hero’s people are facing a crisis that threatens their whole way of life. The God Sun, Te Ra, is hurrying too quickly across the sky to the great pit into which he vanishes at nightfall. Even Maui cannot do what needs to be done alone. He enlists his four brothers; he thinks of a strategy; he finds a means—a network of plaited ropes. Together they catch the Sun and hold him down. Maui uses the magic jawbone of his grandfather to beat up and finally tame the Sun, who now crosses the world more slowly than before. The world returns to normality—enough time to do what you need to do.
That might remind you of another myth: the story of the Hebrew hero Joshua who commanded the sun and the moon to stand still in the heavens for a whole day to allow the victorious Israelites to massacre their opponents. A much more vicious myth altogether.
But to return to Maui: in this story, the sun represents one of the most powerful forces in the universe, Maui and his brothers, the Maori people at their most heroic, clever and unified. Success, says the story, comes from working together, as a community, as a tribe, as a family. The plaited ropes make the same point. They are strongest plaited together (like the bundle of sticks in Aesop’s fable.) So does grandfather’s jawbone, standing for the voice of the ancestors contributing their strength as part of the existing family. Is this a ‘true’ story? Is a united community capable of taming even the gods?
Now for our Bible reading Psalm 19: 1-10: one of the most poetic and beautiful of all the psalms.
The passage about the sun (verses 4-6) is possibly the most beautiful of all. No wonder. It shines and sparkles with imaginative ideas: ‘there is no speech, nor are there words, their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth and their words to the end of the world.’ The allure of gold, ‘much fine gold’; the sweetness of honey and the honeycomb. Who watching some glorious sunrise or sunset, or looking up at the stars on a clear night hasn’t shared the feeling that we exist in a sacred God-made universe?
Joseph Haydn found the text irresistible and set it as part of his great oratorio, the Creation. Haydn, an honest good-natured Catholic, doesn’t tamper with the biblical text. His magic is in the majesty of his music, the noble grandeur of massed human voices and brilliant soloists and orchestra.
Beethoven, too, found this psalm enormously exciting. But being Beethoven, he wasn’t content to leave the biblical text alone. In the psalm, God is the maker of the firmament; he fashions a tent in the sky from which the sun comes forth like a bridegroom leaving his chamber. Too tame altogether for this Romantic musical genius! In his setting of the verses, ‘The Heavens declare the Creator’s glory’, also known as the Creation Hymn, his God becomes active energy itself: he ‘holds the numberless stars in his hand’; he leads out the sun, which emerges ‘resplendent’, to run a hero’s course with joy.’ As a matter of fact, it’s difficult to tell whether it’s God or the Sun being presented as some kind of champion athlete, a heroic runner rejoicing in his own superb fitness.
But it has always been tempting to confuse the Sun with God, or give to God the attributes of the sun. In the hymn we first sang, ‘Lord of all being’, written by the American poet and Professor of Anatomy Oliver Wendell Holmes, you could be excused for thinking at times that this is a hymn to a Sun God, whose glory flames out, who sends forth quickening (life-creating) rays, who offers light and warmth and sits on an ever-blazing throne while we go up in flames as living altars ourselves. The famous hymn that follows this sermon, Charles Wesley’s ‘Christ, whose glory fills the skies’ simply transfers the idea of God as Sun, to Christ as the Sun of Righteousness, a title found in the poetic writings of Malachi (fifth century BC prophet): “But to you who fear My name the Sun of Righteousness shall arise with healing in His wings; and you shall go out and grow fat like stall-fed calves. You shall trample the wicked, for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet.’
It’s just this kind of heated imagination that appears in the Hebrew poet’s centuries-old psalm of praise.
I wonder if watching a magnificent sunrise over the Otago peninsula you have ever thought of a bridegroom emerging from his honeymoon tent and proceeding to run several laps of the local sports ground! That’s what this poet thinks of. But there’s more to it than ancient (or modern) marriage behaviour.
The Hebrew tribes moving first down into Egypt and then escaping and driving north into Canaan were surrounded by other people who actually worshipped the Sun as a God, sometimes the supreme God. For the Egyptians the Sun was the supreme god, Re; the Arabian tribes worshipped a sun goddess; Babylon had a huge statue of the chariot of the Sun God in its principal temple; the Baals of Canaan were sun gods. It was an enormous struggle for the Hebrews to develop and preserve their own worship of a god beyond all other gods. Exodus actually prescribes the death penalty for those backsliders who fall to the worship of the Sun or the Moon.
Yet, there are traces of such beliefs even in this psalm. The bridegroom Sun emerging from his chamber reflects the widespread pagan myth of the passage of the Sun through the sky during the day to sink into the arms of the goddess of the Ocean or the Night, with whom he spends the hours from sunset to sunrise, leaving his partner each morning. O those romantic Hebrews! What a pity to discover that it is in fact ourselves who whirl round the gigantic dying star which is our sun, and worse still that far from making a circuit of the heavens, our Sun with its planetary system is merely one of uncounted star systems in a universe beyond the scope of all of our imaginations.
But against all these hymns to the Sun, these splendid romantic celebrations of the heavens as demonstrating the unutterable majesty and greatness of God, I have to set Hone Tuwhare’s poem, ‘No Ordinary Sun’, with its reminder that in our own disastrous way we humans have tried to imitate and capture the vast energy of the Sun….in the bomb that exploded over the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In this poem a single tree (is it the Tree of Life itself?) is outlined against the catastrophic flash of light and the mushroom cloud that heralded our most destructive weapon of war against each other
I don’t want to draw any cheap morals. The sun continues to haunt our imaginations as well as our hearts and minds. It provides us with the essential means of life—or death. As human beings exercising our freedom of choice we can simply enjoy its benefits, reach beyond it to celebrate belief in a loving God at the heart of the universe, or perversely imitate its death-dealing potential and bring about the destruction of our own race and of the planet on which we live. As an ancient writer put it centuries ago: ‘I call heaven and earth to witness that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live.’ (Deuteronomy, 30:15) The sun places a doorstep of light on the horizon: which way will we step?
This sermon draws on three readings: the opening verses of Psalm 19. A short poem by Bangladershi poet Sri Chinmoy, and Maori poet Hone Tuwhare’s ‘No Ordinary Sun’, which may be found in his collection No Ordinary Sun (1964 and reprinted many times) and is also available on a number of websites.