Date: Oct. 2, 2016, World Communion Sunday
Scripture Lesson: Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
Sermon: Come Union
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
You probably don’t know that Alexander von Humboldt was very likely the most famous person on Earth in the 19th century. He was a scientist, writer, polymath, and world traveler. In later life, Humboldt lived in Berlin. An American travel writer of the 1850’s tells us that “he had come to Berlin not to see museums and galleries but ‘for the sake of seeing and speaking with the world’s greatest living man.” [The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, Andrea Wulf, p. 270]
On the hundredth anniversary of Humboldt’s birth, Sept. 14, 1869, there were celebrations of great magnitude the world over. There were festivities in Buenos Aries, Mexico City, and Moscow. In the US, there were parades and events in San Francisco, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, Charleston and beyond. Eight thousand gathered in Cleveland. Fifteen thousand gathered in Syracuse. There were 10,000 gathered to celebrate in Philadelphia including President Ulysses S. Grant. In New York, 25,000 gathered to remember Humboldt. Perhaps the biggest celebration was in Berlin where 80,000 people gathered in torrential rain for speeches and singing. [p. 6-7]
Why was Humboldt so renowned? Basically, he came up with the concept that nature is one living, breathing, interconnected whole. Through his scientific investigation and calculation, Humboldt developed the concept of nature, the web of life, that we assume today. He discerned that cutting down trees led to less rainfall and the drying up of a lake and could lead to global warming. This was in the early 1800’s. He speculated about there being tectonic plates that influenced the shaping of the earth as we know it. He traced global weather patterns. He identified links between different forms of life.
But Humboldt did not only study the natural world. He was moved by it. He had an intense emotional response to nature. So his scientific findings are intertwined with poetic descriptions of the glories of nature. He wrote many books with vivid illustrations to share what he was discovering. They were translated into many languages and widely read around the world. He also lectured to great acclaim. “I have never heard anyone in an hour and a half give expression to so many new ideas,” one scholar wrote. [p.196] Humboldt’s presentations were known to have “wonderful depth” and “lightness of touch.” People remarked on the extraordinary clarity with which Humboldt explained the complex web of nature. As his biographer Andrea Wulf describes it, “Humboldt was revolutionizing the sciences.” He was bringing scientific knowledge together into one cohesive whole. Human and animal. Life and land. Water and sky. All linked into one amazing system of which people were only a thread in a much larger tapestry.
We see this kind of wholistic view of Creation in the Genesis imagery of the Bible. Everything is created in an orderly manner to fit together to form a cohesive world. We also see throughout the Bible the use of nature imagery to portray and reveal the interconnectedness of humanity and nature and God. Nature reveals God. One world. One creation.
In the teachings of Jesus we also see this unity. Religion and society were busy trying to divide people up and separate them into haves and have nots, clean and unclean, citizen and alien, slave and free, etc. We see Jesus treating everyone as a beloved, precious, sacred child of God. Samaritan. Beloved. Blind. Beloved. Woman. Beloved. Prostitute. Beloved. Widow. Beloved. Tax collector. Beloved. Leper. Beloved. Jesus shows us there are no borders or boundaries to Divine Love. Divine Love embraces all: Those with HIV. Victims of human trafficking. Corporate executives. Corrupt politicians. Religious extremists. Homeless people. Drug addicts. Refugees. Immigrants. Communist. Capitalist. Everyday people. You. Me. Whatever our past. Whatever our politics. From the perspective of the Divine, we are sisters and brothers all. One community. One family. This is what Jesus shows us. His ministry is an affirmation of what we heard from Jeremiah. Live together. Seek the well-being of others and you will secure peace and security for yourself.
We also see Jesus showing us the interrelatedness of humanity and nature. Many times Jesus draws upon nature to express the character of God. God knows of the sparrow that falls to the ground. Surely, then God cares for you. Lilies neither toil nor spin. Surely God intends for you to thrive without stress or worry. Foxes have dens, birds have nests. Surely God wants everyone to belong and have a sense of home. Jesus follows in his tradition using nature to communicate about God and God’s love. A love that is universal. That knows no bounds or borders. As Shimon Peres, the former president of Israel who died this week said, “When you climb mountains, you don’t see borders.” [Heard in an interview with a former aide of Shimon Peres on the BBC]
Alexander von Humboldt was the first person of modern times to articulate and promote the unity and oneness of all of Creation. He portrayed the web of life. He showed the interconnectedness of land and water and animals and plants and people as part of a unified, miraculous whole. He also proclaimed the richness of nature integrating the scientific perspective and an artistic view. Intellect and emotion, thought and feeling, measurement and awe were of a piece. And from his travels and studies, Humboldt also affirmed the unity of the human species and was very much against slavery and oppression. He was a fierce defender of human rights.
Humboldt significantly influenced the poets Goethe, Wordsworth, and Coleridge. He was revered by Thomas Jefferson, Simon Bolivar, and Henry David Thoreau. And he was the inspiration for Charles Darwin.
As I read Andrea Wulf’s beautiful testimony to Humboldt, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, I kept asking myself why we don’t know more about Humboldt today? I didn’t recognize his name. My spouse, a science teacher, knew the name but not much more. Humboldt’s ideas were spot on. He predicted the problems that would be caused by cutting down trees, especially in the topics, and how that would lead to global warming. And this, 200 years ago. Why don’t we know more about him? In the epilogue of the book, I finally got my answer. One reason we don’t know more about Humboldt is that during his lifetime and subsequently, science was dividing up into separate specialities and disciplines. And science was also moving away from art and literature. So Humboldt, with his view of unity, was running against the intellectual grain that was subdividing and specializing. Wulf tells us, Humboldt with “his more holistic approach – a scientific method that included art, history, poetry and politics alongside hard data – has fallen out of favour. . . As scientists crawled into their narrow areas of expertise, dividing and further subdividing, they lost Humboldt’s interdisciplinary methods and his concept of nature as a global force.” [p. 335] And here we are in the 21st century, aware of the limitations of specialization and looking for connections once again and trying to see things from a variety of disciplines because we have come to know that the best arrangements and solutions for humanity and the Earth come from looking at things from multiple perspectives.
Also, as an explanation of Humboldt’s more recent obscurity, Wulf posits that his ethnic origin contributed to his fading from memory. Humboldt was of German heritage and the anti-German sentiment, as least in the United Kingdom and the United States, was so great from the First World War on, that Humboldt was ignored and forgotten. Specifically Wulf tells us: “In Cleveland, where fifty years earlier thousands had marched through the streets in celebration of Humboldt’s centennial, German books were burned in a huge public bonfire. In Cincinnati, all German publications were removed from the shelves of the public library and ‘Humboldt Street’ was renamed ‘Taft Street.’” [p. 336]
When we separate and divide, when we label and limit, we move away from the oneness that is intended for Creation. And we do so at our peril. We lose our center; our connection to the sacred, to our deepest selves, to one another, and to all of the natural world. We wither and perish. This World Communion Sunday invites us to celebrate our faith which calls us to oneness with all of our brothers and sisters and with all of nature. It is an affirmation of this miraculous, mysterious reality of which we are a part. It is a reminder that all of creation is our home and all of life our family. Amen.
The information about Alexander von Humboldt used in this sermon is taken from Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature.
A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.