Feb 21 – A Poetic World

Texts: Genesis 3:1-7

Milton, Paradise Lost, Book 12

So spake our mother Eve; and Adam heard
Well pleased but answer’d not: for now too nigh
The Archangel stood; and from the other hill
To their fix’d station, all in bright array
The Cherubim descended; on the ground
Gliding meteorous as evening mist
Risen from a river o’er the marish glides
And gathers ground fast at the labourer’s heel Homeward returning. High in front advanced
The brandish’d sword of God before them blazed
Fierce as a comet which with torrid heat
And vapour as the Libyan air adust,
Began to parch that temperate clime; whereat
In either hand the hastening Angel caught
Our lingering parents, and to the eastern gate
Led them direct, and down the cliff as fast
To the subjected plain; then disappear’d.
They looking back all the eastern side beheld
Of Paradise so late their happy seat,
Waved over by that flaming brand; the gate
With dreadful faces throng’d, and fiery arms:
Some natural tears they dropp’d but wiped them soon; The world was all before them where to choose
Their place of rest and Providence their guide
They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow, Through Eden took their solitary way

As you know, every year around the date of Charles Darwin’s birthday, February 19, I preach a sermon on some aspect of his work. I have done this at the behest of an organization called the Clergy Letter project which got started 6 years ago or so, when a man named Michael Zimmerman circulated a letter to clergy asking them to sign on the statement asserting that there was no fundamental reason for science and religion to clash so, as they were over evolution at the time.

This year, I thought I’d give it a break, and I did not sign on.  But the leadership, sent out a letter around the holidays to those of us who had not signed up yet, urging us to do so.  I read a letter from a professor of biology at Rockhurst, a small Jesuit College.  She said:

I am writing to thank you for your past participation in Evolution Weekend, and to encourage you to sign up to participate in the upcoming Evolution Weekend 2010 (February 12-14, 2010).

As I reflect upon this holiday season I cannot help but remember a conversation I had last year with my teenage nephew.  He was stunned that I would be helping to plan a celebration for Darwin’s 200th birthday.  He then asked me if I accepted evolution why I went to church.

Sadly he had been led to believe that he needed to choose between religion and science.  When those of us who recognize the compatibility of religion and science are silent then students, like my nephew, will hear the voices of those who push that false dichotomy.

However, when clergy members by the thousands stand together and make it clear that there is absolutely no reason for such a false choice to be made, both religion and science are strengthened.  That is the major message associated with Evolution Weekend.

So, while I don’t think that you all have the kind of difficulty that Professor Haskin’s nephew has, I signed on, realizing that this is a bigger issue than me, or even us.

Today, I want to share a few poems recently published by  Darwin’s great-great granddaughter Ruth Padel.  The poems are published in her newly published book titled Darwin: A Life in Poems.

For someone who came up with what has been described as “the single greatest idea anyone has ever had”, Charles  Darwin has been vilified as an enemy of religion.  The letter I read to you this morning testifies to the that.   But to actually study  Darwin and begin to understand him, is to discover a genius of the religious spirit melding with the genius of superb observational skills and exquisite powers of deduction.  “Philosophy,”  said one of Darwin’s contemporaries,  is the “product of wonder.”  On the other hand, the scientist “acquires knowledge to appease his passion for discovery.” It becomes clear in this poetic biography that Darwin’s science is a product of wonder.

The poems that comprise this biography are inspired by the writings of Darwin and contain snippets and quotations from his voluminous corpus of scientific tracts, letters, and essays,  The first poem of Padel’s I want to read to you is called “Plankton.”

In this poem, Darwin has been taking some time getting his sea legs aboard the Beagle.   Now it’s January 1832.  He’s been wretchedly sea-sick off and on for months.  Suddenly, the sea calms and he is entranced by the life forms before him which he’s never seen; life forms that have evolved to this strange environment in ways that stirred his fevered mind.


The deck is dazzle, fish-stink, gauze-covered buckets.
Gelatinous ingots, rainbows of wet flinching amethyst
and flubbed, iridescent cream. All this
means he’s better; and working on a haul of lumpen light.

Polyps, plankton, jellyfish. Sea butterflies, the pteropods.
‘So low in the scale of nature, so exquisite in their forms!
You wonder at so much beauty – created,
apparently, for such little purpose!’ They lower his creel

to blue pores of subtropical ocean. Wave-flicker, white
as a gun-flash, over the blown heart of sapphire.
Peacock eyes, beaten and swollen,
tossing on lazuline steel.

Darwin once said that if he had his life to live over again, he would read one poem every day.  He carried Milton with him on all of his journeys.  The poem I want to leave you with is called “Remembering Milton in the Night At Sea.”  It’s about the experience of sailing through waters filled with luminescent creatures —  an extraordinary phenomenon that makes the boat seem as if it were sailing through life itself.  The bow splash sparkles like the stars above.  And the boat and sailor are transported into another world.

‘The night pitch dark.  The whole sea luminous.
Every part of water which by day is seen as foam
glowed with pale light.  The vessel drove before her bows

Two billows of liquid phosphorus.  Her wake was a milky train.
As far as the eye reached, the crest of every wave was bright;
& from the reflected light the sky — just above the horizon —

not so utterly dark as the rest of the Heavens.
Impossible to behold the plain of matter, as it were melted
& consumed by heat, without remembering Milton!”

Today, as you know, is the first Sunday in Lent and as such is for many of you the first step in this 40 day long prelude to Easter that takes us to the depths of humanity, and has us explore the power and beauty of life as it stands in stark contrast with it’s inevitable pains, with its many disappointments, with its sheer fact of evil destroying so much of what is good in our midst.  The journey we take through scripture and through our own examination of the commitment to the gospel, which we see clearly is full of risk, is not always easy.    So I ask you now to remember Milton, as you get started.

The world, as Milton said at the end of Paradise Lost, is all before you.  So, now, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow — find beauty in your work and may it trail a milky train of luminescence.  Amen.


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