You’ve heard of the number pi—how about the number phi? Last year this time my father and I were in Rome touring the Vatican. We went with the crowds to go and see the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo’s masterpiece.
But our guide also brought us to a lesser-known masterpiece, a spiral staircase designed by Donato Bramante in the early 16th century using the Divine Proportion, also know as the Golden Ratio, or in mathematics, the number phi.
This English major isn’t going to try to do the math for you. Euclid, the father of geometry, already took care of that. Imagine a line divided into two sections: a and b. The Divine Proportion is a + b is to a as a is to b. Is that clear?
You don’t have to puzzle it out. Picture a spiral staircase or the swirling pattern of a mollusk shell. The petals on a rose. The Milky Way galaxy. All of them are fashioned according to the number phi, or 1.61. There is a sacred geometry in God’s creation. The world that God created isn’t just good, it’s very good, a masterpiece that takes our breath away.
Remember a moment this week when your breath was taken away by the beauty of this world. Now, imagine the wonder and love that God experienced in creating you. This is something that we lose sight of every day. You take God’s breath away because you’re one of God’s masterpieces.
The psalmist reminds us of our sacred geometry: “Lord . . . you yourself created my inmost parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I will thank you because I am marvelously made; your works are wonderful, and I know it well.
My body was not hidden from you, while I was being made in secret and woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my limbs, yet unfinished in the womb; all of them were written in your book; they were fashioned day by day, when as yet there was none of them.”
This is the message we hear today in our Scripture: you are a masterpiece, marvelously made in divine proportion as you were knit together just like Samuel was knit together in his mother’s womb.
When we meet the prophet this morning, he’s ministering to the Lord under Eli, the priest. You might be wondering why Samuel, a boy, is living and serving in the temple in the first place.
Recall Samuel’s mother, Hannah. She wanted a child more than anything, but she couldn’t conceive. She prayed incessantly to God. She was so filled with the Spirit of God as she prayed in the temple that Eli thought she was drunk.
Go back a couple of weeks ago to the Day of Pentecost: the apostles are so filled with the Holy Spirit that those witnessing the scene make the mistake of thinking that the apostles have been drinking. “No,” Peter explains, “They are filled with the Spirit of God.”
Filled to overflowing with the Spirit in a time when God’s Word and Spirit were precious—it wouldn’t be wrong to compare our own time to that of Hannah and Samuel—Hannah prays deeply and tells God, “If you give me a child, I will dedicate the child to serving you.”
God knits Samuel together in his mother’s womb and beholds his limbs, all of them written in God’s book. And after the child is weaned, Hannah makes good on her vow. She brings Samuel to the temple, where he becomes Eli’s assistant.
The temple, the place of God’s presence among the people, becomes like an artist’s studio. God stretches out the canvas on a frame and begins to paint a masterpiece through speech.
It’s just like how God creates the world in the first place. God speaks the world into existence. God says: let there be light. God says: let there be form and meaning and purpose to life. Life isn’t just good, it’s very good.
God speaks to Samuel. He calls out to the boy, who would become the prophet who would anoint David king over Israel. It’s God’s call that gives divine proportion and direction to Samuel’s life.
We move now to a different temple and artist’s studio. Jesus is in a synagogue with his disciples, a group of religious authorities and a man with a withered hand. It’s the Sabbath day, a day when God’s people are to rest.
But Jesus the artist is called to create. He asks the man with the withered hand to come forward. He calls out to him just like God calls out to Samuel. Step out from the crowd, he tells him. You are marvelously made. God beholds your limbs. All of them are written in God’s book.
And then he asks the religious authorities, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or kill?” Jesus gets angry at them for remaining silent.
Here’s why he’s so upset: the authorities can only see the frame, not the painting. The law is there to give boundaries, to frame the scene, but it should never be mistaken for the masterpiece itself, which is a human being filled with the healing light and love of God. Or to paraphrase St. Irenaeus: “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.”
Jesus, in healing the man with the withered hand, is restoring a masterpiece. The man’s disability is difficult enough. Imagine what it must have been like for him to sit there in the temple, pitied by others. In this man, Jesus doesn’t see a pitiful reproduction—he spots a masterpiece fashioned by God, a child of the light marvelously made in God’s image.
Now, all of this sounds very beautiful, but life isn’t always very poetic, is it? So, how do we discern the divine proportion in our daily, prosaic lives? How can we hear and respond to God’s call? How do we even know that it’s God calling out to us in the first place?
Howard Thurman can help us here. (Thank you to Valerie Bridgman for this insight.)
He’s a theologian who thought long and hard about questions like these. A spiritual father to Martin Luther King, Jr., Thurman is the key teacher who introduced King to the power of non-violence and how all social action must be grounded in prayer and a deep relationship with God.
Thirty years King’s senior, Thurman was the Dean of the Chapel at Boston University, where King once studied.
When King was wounded during an earlier assassination attempt, it was Thurman who visited him in the hospital and encouraged King to use the time of his recuperation as an opportunity for spiritual growth.
Thurman was like Eli, the older priest. At this point in his life, King was like Samuel, saying “Here I am” to every voice calling in the night.
King was being pressured from so many directions during the Civil Rights movement and responding “Here I am” to so many different voices that Thurman worried that King was at risk of becoming a reproduction of other people rather than an original masterpiece.
Thurman taught King and many other students that “there is something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself.
It is the only true guide you will ever have. And if you cannot hear it, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.”
The first three times that God calls out to Samuel, he responds, “Here I am.” But after Eli’s counsel, the boy replies: “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
As King rested in his hospital bed for two weeks, he listened for the genuine in himself: the authentic prophet of non-violence.
Samuel becomes the prophet Samuel when he slows down and listens to God rather than reacting through a flurry of activity. This holds true for us as well.
In the coming week, slow down and listen for sound of the genuine in yourself. Have the courage to be still and listen silently for the voice of God.
By listening, you will discover the genuine in yourself, that sacred geometry, and become a masterpiece painted by the hand of God.
A sermon preached by the Rev. David C. Killeen at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Tallahassee on June 3, 2018.