Counting the Stars

With more time on my hands, I could easily become obsessed with genealogy. But I’m at least sensible enough to avoid going down that rabbit hole. Purchasing a subscription to ancestry.com would be like opening Pandora’s box for me. I’d never get any sleep. I’d be up all night delving into the never-ending genealogical black hole, determined to see just how far back I could go in finding my ancestors. Found those ancestors from when the Magna Carta was signed? That’s nothing! Let’s go for the Norman Conquest!

The most I’ve done is send a packaged tube of saliva off to 23andMe. Modern genetic science is incredible, isn’t it? After a couple of weeks, a computer-generated map had the bulk of my DNA located right in the heart of France.

It’s an odd fascination we humans have with ancestry, isn’t it? We’re awfully preoccupied with where we came from. Whether it’s finding that famous king or queen in your family tree or seeing how your surname has morphed ever-so-gradually over time, there’s some mysterious human obsession with lineage and the history of one’s own family. Is that obsession itself genetic?

Maybe some of us are less interested in where we came from than in where we’re headed. Are my genes really that good, or will I be prone to cancer, dementia, and a long, lingering illness that ultimately ends my life? The possibilities for worry are endless. I don’t need to name them for you.

There’s an innate human desire to imagine our biological connection to future generations, as well as to our past. Call it pride, but maybe it’s really just a practical concern about survival and a hope that something of ourselves can live on after we leave this earth.

This is Abram’s great fear, isn’t it? When God’s word comes to Abram in a vision, God first acknowledges that Abram is scared. Can we blame Abram? He’s legitimately worried about the future of his family. He and his wife Sarai are really too old to produce children, and his property and bloodline are all at stake. Family ties were sacred in ancient Israel, and perhaps that’s exactly why Abram nervously laughed when God later announced that Sarai would conceive. Abram thought it was a preposterous idea at his ripe old age and yet, at the same time, he couldn’t bear the thought of not having an heir.

When God’s word comes to Abram and tells him that his reward shall be very great and urges him not to be afraid, Abram has every right to be scared of a future without any children. He’s already put a lot on the line for God, and God’s promise of innumerable heirs is still a pipedream at this point in the story.

Abram has uprooted his family from Haran and moved to a strange place. He’s experienced a sojourn in Egypt to avoid a famine. He’s gone into battle against invading nations who threatened his kin. It’s an epic story. Abram’s vision from God in chapter 15 is, in fact, the third time that God has said to him that he will make a great nation of his descendants. And guess what? Abram still has no heir. Things aren’t looking so hot.

I don’t know about you, but I’m on Abram’s side when he verbally takes God to task and challenges God to honor his promise. It’s hard not to sympathize with Abram after all he’s been through in following God’s call. And so, Abram lays it all out there. He reminds God of his promise and he specifically notes how that promise has not yet been fulfilled. And God’s response must be more than frustrating. It’s yet another rephrasing of the same assurance God has made all along: look at all those stars in the night sky, uncountable in number. Your descendants will be just as numerous.

Given the circumstances, is that really reassuring news to Abram? It’s not until several chapters later in the Book of Genesis that Abram’s wife does indeed conceive a child. But after God promises him descendants as copious as the stars in the night sky and without a biological child in sight, Abram suddenly ceases his questions and we are told that he believed the LORD. Can you believe it? He believed the LORD. For this, Abram is considered righteous.

Now, I think a modern reaction is to turn on Abram. Abram, you chickened out! Why didn’t you stand up for what you had been promised? Why didn’t you wait to believe until you saw the delicate head of your firstborn child? Don’t we want to cry out and defend him: Abram, make God deliver on his word!

Abram is kind of like the spiritual forefather of the modern person of faith, isn’t he? He’s still putting trust in a God who often seems not to deliver on promises, at least immediately or in any form that resembles the expectation. And the modern skeptic is waiting in the wings to point this out. Oh, you foolish believer! Look around, can’t you see your naïve and superstitious ways? Show me the proof. The proof is in the pudding.

It’s a point well taken. For those of us, like Abram, who are concerned about the security of our descendants and who consider ourselves descendants of Abram himself, trust in God’s promises might seem ludicrous indeed. Are we wrong-headed to be afraid that our own ancestors might drown in a natural disaster caused by receding coastlines? Is it idiocy to worry that our own relatives might be killed when shopping for groceries? Are we silly to fear that a reckless political leader with access to nuclear weapons might get angry enough to hit that red button? Sure, we can look at the night sky and try to number the stars and imagine an endless earthly future for our offspring and future relatives, but it’s hard to be assured of that promise. Sometimes, because of the havoc we have wreaked on our planet, it’s even hard to see the stars.

Why then, is Abram considered so righteous rather than foolish? Is it because he’s simple-minded and too trusting and therefore allows God to withhold the fulfillment of his promises while yet demanding obedience? Or does contemporary, post-Enlightenment skepticism have us in its grip?

I think that to see the root of Abram’s righteousness, we need to return to his conversation with God. Here we see that Abram argued and wrestled with God in conversation. Isn’t that worth something? It’s precisely because Abram cares enough about God’s promise and God’s perceived trustworthiness that he demands that God deliver on what he has said he would do. Abram’s pleading with God is evidence that Abram does indeed expect that God will fulfill his vow.[1] Abram may argue with God. Abram may even accuse God of failing to honor his word, but it seems pretty clear that Abram assumes that God could do nothing other than keep his word. Abram may not see the evidence, but he’s convinced it will be revealed.

There is quite a bit of merit in that attitude, if you ask me. Isn’t it much easier and arguably less honorable to write God off by assuming that he isn’t trustworthy enough to keep his promises? Isn’t it just a lazy way of excusing a lack of trust in God or a turn to atheism? It seems to me much, much more difficult to engage in heated words with God, laying it all out there and naming the reward we expect to see because God has pledged a rich future to us, a future of believers as numerous as the stars of the sky who can still be around thousands of years later to have their own stormy conversations with God.

If we rightly call ourselves ancestors of Abram, then our genealogy should tell us something about our spiritual selves, about who we can be, and about our future and our descendants’ futures. Our spiritual DNA from Abram gives us permission to bring our questions to God. It sanctions a heart to heart conversation with God in which we name to him exactly what we believe he has promised and what our wildest hopes are based on that promise. Sure, we don’t have to win God over. But acknowledging our painful human inability to fully know the ways of God is part of what faith entails. Only in such a relational dialogue with God might we begin to see God’s offer of hope manifested in our lives in ways to which we were previously blind.

Faith isn’t unflinching acceptance of a blissful future. Faith is born in our laments before a God whom we dare to deem trustworthy. Faith is strengthened when we cry our eyes out in sorrow and anger before God because we can’t bear to hear about one more act of violence. Faith is present when we demand from God an answer to the long, slow suffering that seems to have no merciful end. Faith is present when we lie awake at night wondering if our children will ever survive into adulthood because we live as if natural resources are as plentiful as the stars of the sky. Faith is present when we are courageous enough to claim Christ’s victory over death as our shield when all seems darkness around us.

Make no mistake about it: this is hard. It’s much easier to give up and to dismiss any prospect that God has a better future in store for us and for our ancestors. No wonder so many choose this route and label the rest of us as simpletons.

But imagine this: if we only heeded our spiritual genealogy as intensely as we obsessed with our biological genealogy, we could learn a lesson or two from Abram. So, go for it: call God out on his promises. Demand that the hope that comes from Jesus, which we boldly hold in our hearts, can indeed be realized. This is our fervent prayer. Be brave and expect that God is faithful and utterly trustworthy, because he is. Go on and claim the righteousness of your heritage. Lift up your heads and look toward heaven and count the stars. Dare to believe that as countless as those twinkling stars are, so our descendants shall be.

Preached by Father Kyle Babin
11 August 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

[1] See commentary by Sara Koenig, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1730.

Posted on August 11, 2019 .

The Rich Fool

The rich fool might have known that he was a rich fool when he realized that his biggest preoccupation was with how to store his extra possessions.

If that didn’t tip him off, the rich fool might have known he was a rich fool when he spent so much time talking to himself instead of to other people. He might have noticed how stagey he was, asking himself questions filled with clunky exposition: “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?”  It sounds like a bad play.  And then he might have heard his own tone when he was supplying his own handy answers: “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.”  This not only allowed him to be a self-centered hoarder, it allowed him to be the hero of his own boring little story of hoarding.  He might have noticed that he was applauding himself for coming up with solutions to his own problems.  Dull.

You know, you can tell you’re really a rich fool when you not only talk to yourself, but you talk to your own soul.  You address it as “Soul” (“Soul, you have ample goods stored up for many years: relax.”)  Yes, you tell your soul to relax.  In fact, you tell it to eat and drink, which souls don’t do.  It seems you’ve confused your friend “Soul” with that other nice friend, “Body.”  What you don’t have is an actual friend, someone to interrupt the little success story you’re telling yourself.  Or someone outside your own head with whom you can actually eat, drink, and be merry.

It’s easy enough to see that the rich fool wants too much wealth, power, control, and self-satisfaction. It’s easy enough to see that he can’t acknowledge the possibility of death.  But let’s go out on a limb this morning and test another possibility: that the rich fool simply doesn’t want enough. 

St. Paul tells us that greed is idolatry, and that’s crucial to hear.  Greed is worshipping something that has no life in it.  Greed is making sacrifices to an inanimate object.  Now most of us would hesitate to bow down and offer sacrifice to a lifeless object, but we do live in a world that demands bitter sacrifice all the time: unrelenting perfectionism, status, a professional reputation, our brand.  Perpetual mobilization. It may not even be our greed—we may just be trying to carve out a place for ourselves in a tough economy—but to get along in this world we are likely to be asked to sacrifice to someone’s greed as if it were in fact a god. 

So I don’t want to let this rich fool off the hook too easily.  He is certainly greedy, and I don’t have to tell you that greed is eating away at everything we care about.  I want to distinguish, though, between this flat, self-centered, unimaginative greed (“What will I do?  I know, I will build a barn.”) and true desire.

Imagine if the rich fool had known true desire.  Imagine if he had a little hunger in him for something that actually showed him the face of God.  Not a barn full of dead possessions, but a life full of love and paradox and aching need and rich satisfaction.

Imagine that fool lying on his bed at night, troubled by the poverty of other people, hungry for a world in which no one was turned away from the table.  Think of the joy the next day might bring, as he learned to give and to welcome others.  Imagine that he craves justice, or beauty, or forgiveness.  I think I’d settle for a vision of this rich fool picking up a book and wondering what’s in it. 

Imagine what it would look like if, in a fit of distinctly anachronistic self-care, the rich fool decided that he actually wanted his soul to eat or drink.  Instead of telling his soul to go nosh on something in that odd offhand way he uses, he could issue a real invitation.  “Come to brunch with me!” he might say.  “Let’s see what happens when the body and the soul and the mind sit down together to enjoy a feast!”  Again, I admit that this is a new-age idea that would have sounded funny to Jesus, but I suspect God might prefer even warm-hearted self-preoccupation to the flat, dry, dull folly of our rich hero. 

 

Is it possible, in this world full of towering heaps of stuff, that we simply don’t want enough?  Is it possible that we don’t want the frozen expanse of the Arctic, that we can’t bring ourselves to love polar bears?  That a beautiful, pristine ocean not filled with plastic is not enough to spark our imaginations?  Don’t we love good schools and flourishing communities?  Are we inured to the beautiful faces of the tiny children of immigrants on our southern border?  Wouldn’t the blessings of peace be something to celebrate?  Wouldn’t you love to luxuriate in justice?

This morning, I found myself perturbed that I had to revise this sermon to register that there had been two mass shootings in this country on Saturday.  I was shocked and horrified, of course, but also perturbed, and I felt guilty.  But it is occurring to me now that the real trouble is that I am not perturbed enough.  I would tell anyone that I love gathering with you here on a Sunday morning in worship, that I love God and the liturgy and the church.  But maybe I don’t love them enough if I can adjust my expectations to include a threat against peaceful public assembly.

Do we love each other, friends and strangers, enough to build a society in which it’s possible to gather in peace?  People of all races and genders and ethnicities, unafraid that we will be targeted by violence?  I can’t stand in front of you and say that I know the exact answer to gun violence but I can say that money and lobbyists keep us from having the open, rational, healing conversations that we desperately need.

It’s a terrible paradox that as greed strips us of everything that matters, we may discover that we’ve never truly wanted any of it enough. 

Let’s not be fooled by the glitter and trash that come with greed.  Let’s not fall for the dry self-congratulation that comes with having too much and loving none of it.  No, the next time that idolatrous image threatens to cloud our vision of God, let’s remember what God says.  Our lives are fragile.  Our earth is fragile.  Our cultures are fragile.  Love them rightly, in the name of God.  Love everything as God loves us.

 Preached by Mother Nora Johnson
4 August 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on August 5, 2019 .

So It Goes.

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Whether you come to church next week or not, you will be spared hearing the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, which the authorities in the church have deemed it better for us not to read aloud in church these days.  They might be correct on this matter.

Today, though, we heard the pre-amble to God’s judgment on these two cities of the Plain, in the charming, if somewhat tedious, bargaining session that Abraham engages in with the Lord, on behalf of Sodom, in order to try to get God to think, I guess, in terms of proportionate response.  “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” Abraham asks God, when he learns of the Lord’s plan of doom for Sodom and Gomorrah, because of their very grave sin.  “Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it?”

You heard what ensued, as Abraham appeals to God’s mercy, even more than to his sense of fairness.  What about 45 - would you spare the city for 45 righteous?  Do I hear forty?  Thirty?  Twenty?  Ten?  Going once, going twice…!  Having agreed that for the sake of ten righteous people God would spare the cities their destruction, then the Lord went his way, and Abraham went his way.  But in the end things did not go well for Sodom and Gomorrah.  We are left to conclude that ten righteous people could not be found there - only Lot and his family.  And for them, a warning to flee would have to suffice.

With apologies to places like Mosul, Fallujah, Ramadi, Ghazni, and Aleppo, when I think of a city destroyed, my mind turns toward the bombing of Dresden in February of 1945.  I have been powerfully influenced in this point of view, I admit, by Kurt Vonnegut’s acerbic novel, Slaughterhouse Five*, which the author used as a way to reflect on his own experience of surviving the bombing of that city, and his witness of the aftermath of the destruction.

You won’t find much modern writing that holds up as well after fifty years as this remarkable book.  In it, Vonnegut explicitly engages Christian theology several times.  About midway through, he describes a “visitor from outer space [making] a serious study of Christianity, to learn, if he could, why Christians found it so easy to be so cruel…. He [the visitor from outer space] supposed that the intent of the Gospels was to teach people, among other things, to be merciful, even to the lowest of the low.

“But the Gospels actually taught this: Before you kill somebody, make absolutely sure he isn’t well connected.  So it goes.” (p. 108-109)

Lest this passage lead you to presume that Vonnegut is fundamentally anti-Christian, remember that the novel is introduced with a verse from “Away in a Manger” as its epigraph.  And toward the end of the book, as they make their escape from the burning devastation of Dresden, the hero and his companions are given shelter by an inn-keeper who tells them they can stay in a stable for the night.  (You get the allusion?)

Earlier in the novel, there is a scene that takes place in the middle of the night, when the hero, Billy Pilgrim, cannot sleep, so he goes downstairs to watch the late movie on TV.  He turns it on to find “a movie about American bombers in the Second World War and the gallant men who flew them.”  Billy Pilgrim has the unusual ability to watch the movie both backwards and forwards, which seems to be  little more than a conceit to allow the author to describe in reverse the narrative of a bombing sortie.  This backwards narrative unfolds in three paragraphs of eloquent, imaginative prose.  This is how it goes:

American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England.  Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen.  They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation. 

The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks.  The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new. 

When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again. (p. 74-75)

Earlier in the book, Vonnegut, explicitly references God’s destruction of Sodom with brimstone and fire.  His perspective on the episode is not charitable toward God.  The writer’s sympathies lie with Lot’s wife, who, he reminds us, “was told not to look back where all those people and all their homes had been.  But she did look back,” he writes, “and I love her for that, because it was so human.  But she was turned to a pillar of salt.   So it goes.”   (p. 21-22)

If Billy Pilgrim could watch the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in reverse, I think it would look something like this:

Lot and his two daughters walk backwards out of the hills above the city of Zoar.  They go past the city where the Plain stretches out before them and they see billows of smoke and tongues of flame being sucked into the windows, doorways, and basements of the houses, and into the ground beneath the trees, dry brush, and fields around the cities of the Plain, as if a giant vacuum is it work there.  

The clouds above exert a miraculous magnetism from above, that shrinks the fires below, and, by some unimaginable force of mercy, retracts showers of brimstone and bolts of fire, gathering them up into dark clouds that grow ever lighter, as the sky brightens above.  

Beyond the clouds, the fire and the brimstone, are carefully packed away separately to avoid just this sort of disaster ever taking place again.  And the wrath of God, horribly palpable only moments ago, now dissipates across the clear blue sky.

At the same time, the corpses and wounded bodies from one end of the city to the other are uncovered from piles of rubble, their burns healed, their broken limbs mended, breath filling their lungs, as the rubble is righted and repaired by a remarkable feat of gravity in reverse, and the people get up and go about their day.

With apprehension, Lot and his girls, still moving backwards, approach a pillar of salt, standing incongruously in the midst of the Plain.  Unwilling or unable to turn their heads toward the pillar of salt and the city beyond, Lot and his daughters seem unaware that they are headed straight for it.  And yet they are all crying as they draw closer.  Just as they approach the pillar of salt, backwards, with looks of grief and terror on their faces, miraculously, there is movement from within the pillar, and as their backward footsteps carry them past it, the pillar of salt is brought to life, and from its grainy contours emerges the figure of the girls’ mother, Lot’s wife.

His family restored, Lot, once beset by anxieties and fears about his future, finds that his mind is now settled and at ease, confident in what lies before him and his family, which, still they approach moving backwards more swiftly than you would have thought possible.

On arriving at Sodom, they can at last turn around, and there they are greeted by two angels - handsome men, so striking that they turn the heads of everyone in town.  And yet, no one gets fresh.  Lot puts his girls to sleep in their comfortable home, and a throng of the men of Sodom arrives to greet the family.  Realizing that the commotion created by such a large crowd might disturb Lot’s sleeping daughters, the men disperse, and tiptoe quietly home, taking care that Lot, his family, and his angelic guests, are all safe and sound for the night.  Eventually, the two angels take their leave of Lot and his family, leaving with them word that their report to their superiors will clearly indicate that the people of the city, if they ever were wicked, have now made amends for their past ways, and appear to be paragons of civic and religious virtue.

A rainbow unfolds, stretching from the streets of Sodom to the main square of Gomorrah, bringing joy to one and all, and reassuring them that God had promised that this would be the sign he’d use to remind himself not to destroy his people ever again, even when they try his patience sorely.

Who knew there was such a lovely story to be found about Sodom and Gomorrah?  If only we tell it backwards!

According to archaeologists, neither Sodom nor Gomorrah seems to have been a real place.  It may be that the value of telling the story of their destruction is mostly didactic; maybe we have to be able to tell the story forward, in order to then learn how to tell such awful stories backwards.

Most of the destruction of actual cities that I am familiar with - in places like Dresden, Mosul, Fallujah, Ramadi, Ghazni, and Aleppo, which is to say, destruction in places where we cannot just tell the story backwards and make everything alright - has been delivered not by the hand of God, but from the human impulse to destroy one another.  So it goes.  And when we allow this fact to dawn on us, it begins to make sense of the story of Abraham bargaining with God for Sodom to be spared, if only ten righteous people could be found there.   If only.

We live in an age in which many people tend to think more highly of themselves, their own abilities, judgment, and desires, than they do of God’s ability, judgment, and will.  Such attitudes prepare people to reject God on the basis of the story of the destruction of two imaginary cities, but to place their trust in human nature, which has wreaked more havoc in more cities than the Bible could ever account for.  So it goes.

But if we take the lessons of Scripture seriously, we might learn that bargaining with God on the basis of a proportionate response, or any other economic measure, is not a winning proposition.  God’s great hope for us, it would seem, is not that we should improve our negotiating skills.  It’s far more likely that God’s great hope for his people is that we should learn to tell stories of death and destruction backwards, to make them stories of life and hope.  More to the point, God’s great hope for his people, is that we should learn to live this way - which is to say that we should live in a way that will often feel backwards in a world that seems capable only of veering ever closer to destruction, disaster, and death.

If only we could fashion for ourselves factories that operated night and day, dismantling the hatreds and resentments, and dreams of power that we have transformed into missiles, rifles, and bombs.  Workers in those factories would separate the dangerous contents into less-dangerous materials. (And it might well be mainly women who are able to do this work.)  The ingredients of our destruction could then be shipped to specialists in remote areas.  And it will be their business to put those ingredients into the ground, and hide them cleverly, so we’ll never hurt each other ever again.

I believe this may be what Jesus had in mind when he taught his disciples to pray, addressing our Father with these words; “thy kingdom come, they will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”


Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
28 July 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

*All non-scriptural quotations from Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut, Dell Publishing, New York City, 1968


Posted on July 28, 2019 .