[Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from a sermon given on Feb. 12, 2023, which was designated “Mystery, Awe and Wonder” Sunday as promoted by the Clergy Letter Project. The livestream of the full service may be viewed at the bottom of this article].
Diatoms are sometimes called the jewels of the sea because this tiny little plant — this microorganism — encases itself in something inorganic — glass. Yes, glass. Glass built out of silica. And thus, because their outer shell is glass, it is geometric.They’re not kaleidoscopes, but they are very much like stained glass.
And they’re not just beautiful. They also have a huge impact on our lives. Diatoms account for 20% of the photosynthesis on earth — as much as all the rainforests combined! Which means we owe one in five breaths to diatoms.
And even when they die, they become something we call diatomaceous earth — a clay-like substance that provides raw materials that, among other things, help filter our beer and wine, and make paint for our walls.
We know all this because they were first described in 1703. And, ever since then, they’ve been a favorite of microbe-hunters. Which means they’ve been studied for over 300 years. But, as great as our current technology is, we still don’t know everything about these little plants. Scientists still don’t know exactly how they move — because some do actually move on their own — or how they create their beautiful crystalline geometry.
Diatoms. One little tiny thing — billions of little tiny mysterious things — that inspire, in me at least, awe and wonder.
Albert Einstein wrote: “The most beautiful and deepest experience a [person] can have is the sense of the mysterious. It is the underlying principle of religion as well as of all serious endeavor in art and in science … [The one] who never had this experience seems to me, if not dead, then at least blind. The sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as feeble reflection, this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious. To me it suffices to wonder at these secrets and to attempt humbly to grasp with my mind a mere image of the lofty structure of all that there is. (“My Credo,” 1932)
This sense of awe and mystery, this sense that there is always a ‘something’ that we always can’t quite grasp and which we only see as a dim reflection of itself, isn’t new to Einstein. The Apostle Paul had the same sense about God as he wrote to the church in Corinth 2000 years ago. “Now we see in a mirror dimly; then we shall see face to face.” (1 Corinthians 13:12, NRSV)
We get that, right? We know that we do not see all there is to see of God or of God’s love for us and for our world. We can sense that there is something beyond, something deeper, something we can’t quite grasp. But that’s okay. The ELCA pastor who is helping to promote Mystery, Awe and Wonder Sundays writes: As both Paul and Einstein remind us, “mystery is not a riddle or problem to be solved. Mystery is a reality or truth too “big,” complex and marvelous for us to fully take in. With mystery, the more we know of it, the more we realize how much more there is that we don’t know about it, but we are drawn to seek to learn more. Awe is our response to such mysteries. Awe is a vital dimension of faith and life, and is often identified by scientists as a major reason they have chosen to be scientists. Without awe, life becomes flat and people become hollow,” as Pastor Bruce Booher shared on his website — https://mysteryandawe.com/.
When we look deeper at the world around us — whether it’s diatoms or a bee’s face or the petals of a flower or the intricacy of a seashell or the many hues of orange juice — we have the opportunity to experience awe.
And here’s the thing, our God is a God who calls us to look deeper, to look beyond. And when we look deeper, we might see different possibilities. We might see different kinds of responsibilities. We might see consequences to our action.
Scientists are also saying that ocean acidification might weaken the silica structure of diatoms. So climate change — which is responsible for ocean acidification — and which is driven in large part by us humans — might itself destroy these beautiful little oxygen factories. Which, in turn, would destroy us.
And also, looking deeper again, these little tiny jewels of the sea also contain an oil. And oil that makes them buoyant. And which could be — maybe — harvested as an alternative fuel that would help fight climate change.
Responsibilities and possibilities both — by looking deeper. Mystery. Awe. And wonder indeed!
May we embrace mystery and pause in awe and wonder at what we discover. And in the doing, may we thank God for the intricacy of creation, the millions of years of life – beautiful, jewel-like life, on this beautiful, jewel-like planet. Life that has something to teach us even yet.
I’d like to close with a prayer — a prayer from the Jewish tradition, shared with me by Pastor Booher — the ELCA pastor who has been one of the leaders of this Mystery, Awe, and Wonder Sunday.
“HOW FILLED WITH AWE”
Days pass and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles. Lord, fill our eyes with seeing and our minds with knowing; let there be moments when Your Presence, like lightning, illumines the darkness in which we walk.
Help us to see, wherever we gaze, that the bush burns unconsumed.
And we, clay touched by God, will reach out for holiness, and exclaim in wonder:
How filled with awe is this place, and we did not know it!
Blessed is the Eternal One, the holy God!
Note: Much of this information about diatoms comes from the program “Journey to the Microcosmos” produced by Complexly. Videos are available on YouTube under the titles “How Diatoms Build Their Beautiful Shells” and “Diatoms: Tiny Factories You Can See from Space”. Additional information came from online sources like Encyclopedia Britannica, NOAA, and the Monterey Aquarium.
Pastor Lynette Chapman is pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Champaign, IL. She is a graduate of Penn State University (BS Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology) and the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg (Master of Divinity). She has served three congregations in Eastern Pennsylvania, including Trinity Lutheran, Pottsville (Associate), St. James Lutheran, Chalfont (Pastor/Redeveloper), and Trinity Lutheran, Quakertown (Pastor).