Practicing awareness: stars and cities | Lent 2 | March 17

Texts: Genesis 15:1-6, 12-16; Luke 13:31-35

One of the comic strips that has rotated on and off my office bulletin board is from Opus.  For the uninitiated, Opus is a large-beaked penguin in a world of humans, plus Bill the Cat.   This particular strip is set outside in a grassy meadow.  Opus and his young friends Oliver, Michael and Milo are sitting under a night sky.  Opus begins by looking at the reader and saying: “I love these summer evening reality checks from Oliver.”  Oliver, the intellectual of the bunch, takes it from there.  Sitting by his telescope, Oliver says to the others: “Hold out a speck of sand at arm’s length…”  The picture moves in tighter on the grain of sand he is holding up.  Then we can see through it, revealing the piece of outer space that lies on the other side.  Oliver says, “That’s the portion of the night sky at which they pointed the Hubble telescope for a week.  It was there – deep within the dot of dark nothingness ten billion light years distant – that they found the unexpected:  Galaxies!  Thousands!  Thousands!  …with billions of stars…and trillions of new worlds.  And beyond these…more!”

Several frames show colorful images of deep space.

Then we’re back to Oliver and company under the vast, luminous canopy.  He continues poetically, “All in the space of a single grain of sand, on the vast beach of the cosmos.”  Oliver faces his friends: “Which nicely frames the question humanity has been asking for millennia.”  To which Michael replies, “What question?”

Oliver, looking back up with his hands open, “What’s the center of it all?”

To this question Michael and Milo, looking back at Oliver, have the same thought bubble:“Me.”

And Opus’ thought bubble, smiling as he reclines on the ground, looking up at the sky: “Me, baby.”

The young Oliver’s attempt at practicing awareness doesn’t quite have the intended effect.

“After these things the word of the Holy One came to Abram in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.  But Abram said, ‘O Lord, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus.’  And Abram said, “you have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.’  But the word of the Holy One came to him, ‘This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.’  God brought him outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’  Then God said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’  And Abram believed the Holy One; and the Holy One reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

In this passage, we read of an impossible promise given to a rightfully suspicious recipient.  After the promise is given and doubt expressed, a guided walk outside under the night sky becomes an occasion of belief for Abram; or, another way of translating that same word, an occasion of trust.  “And Abram trusted in the Lord.”

What he is believing and trusting, is that he, an elderly man, and his wife, Sarai, an elderly woman, have something yet to give this world.  Their lives are not good as done.  Something the world desperately needs awaits to be birthed through them.  In their case, they will have a child together – an issue from their own bodies, as the passage says.

It’s difficult for us to imagine just how central having an heir was.  This wasn’t just about passing on the flocks and herds.  It’s connected to one’s life going on beyond death, rather than being the end of the line.  For them, a son means their lineage will not end.  They will live on in the life of their child.  Not only will this come to pass, but they will be the ancestors of a great nation, who will number as many as the stars in the sky.

If you haven’t picked up on it yet, I’m a fan of the kind of awareness stars have to offer.

Cosmologists like Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson have helped popularize the discovery that stars are the engines of the creation of the elements that make up the universe.  Originally composed almost entirely of hydrogen, the most basic element, the core of each star is a furnace of transformation, as each star fuses together hydrogen to form helium, and then proceeds to produce the higher elements through fusion and supernovae explosion.  The atoms of our bodies, these cosmologists tell us, with scientific rigor and poetic eloquence, are the issue of stars, formed in and given by stars through their living and dying, made available to us for our being.  In other words, the stars are our ancestors, and their lineage continues through us, their children.  This has come to pass through no doing of our own.  It is a gift, a sign, from impossibly far away worlds.

Last week the children learned about the Israelites giving their first fruits from the land, reciting their story of where they came from: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor,” it began.  This week, a fiery ball of hydrogen was my ancestor.

Old Abram looks up into the night sky and relaxes into the realization that he is not the center of it all.  He gazes, still childless, at his ancestors, and trusts, somehow, that he himself will be an ancestor.  Life will continue its bursting forth through him.

We’re less concerned with male lineage, but can perhaps be just as anxious about whether what we’re about in this life has any lasting meaning.  And who knows what the lasting part will be?  Star awareness suggests that what descends from us is about as predictable as a human descending from a distant ball of gas.

Two thousand years after Abram and Sarai, one of their descendants is on his way into a city that has formed as the center of his people’s universe.  It’s the snap of a finger in cosmic time, but a lot has happened.

Sarai does have a child, Isaac, father of Jacob, whose children end up in Egypt after a famine in Canaan.  They lose their friendly foreigner status and become enslaved, eventually fleeing Egypt and coming back into Canaan.  For a short while, they have some measure of independence.  Tribal leaders rise up to fend off enemies.  They have their own kings.  And they have their own prophets who hold the kings to account.  Who hold the people to account, calling on them to do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with God.  The prophets are not particularly popular people, if for no other reason than they continuously burst the bubble of everyone with “Me, baby” at the center of their thoughts.

The issue of Sarai ends up being no political match for the powerful empires around them.  First the Assyrians, then the Babylonians, then Persians and Greeks claim the land Abram and Sarai once wandered.  Then the Romans establish their rule, appointing Herod as a local client king.  In exchange for keeping the population under control and paying tribute to Rome, Herod gets to have his domain, including the holy city of Jerusalem which had grown up as the religious and political center of Abram and Sarai’s descendants.

In Luke chapter 13, it is this city toward which Jesus is walking.

What has descended from our nomadic ancestors is an urbanized world.  A world in which populations are increasingly concentrated in hubs of activity.  Cities are centers for exchanges of goods and services; for the exchange of ideas.  For creativity to blossom.  In cities, peoples and cultures mix, producing something new entirely.  Marginalized people can find their people in cities, creating safe havens.  Cities are places of intellectual flourishing.  They are, like stars, engines of creation.

Cities have another feature.  They are powerful places, where the powerful exercise their will.  Those with little power have a heightened awareness that this is indeed the case.

In Jesus’ time, in his corner of the world, the city at the center of it all was Jerusalem.

Luke structures the middle portion of his gospel around Jesus’ movement toward Jerusalem.  In chapter 9, verse 51, Luke says, Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.”  Everything that follows is in the context of a travel narrative, always headed to Jerusalem, until Jesus arrives 10 chapters later in Luke 19.

Here, in chapter 13, is a pause to specifically ponder what it is Jesus is moving toward.  Some Pharisees come to give Jesus a warning: “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”  Pharisees are often portrayed as archrivals of Jesus, but we have no reason in this case to believe this small group of Pharisees have any other motives than protecting Jesus from Herod.

But Jesus is undeterred.  His reply: “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. 33 Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’

He’s moving toward Jerusalem, fully aware of what his prophetic ancestors have endured.  There’s even a bit a sarcasm in his response.  Herod wants to kill me, and Jerusalem is the city where prophets go to die, so I better be on my way.  The city is the place where it’s most dangerous to speak the truth, as prophets are known to do.

Jesus has called a key political leader a fox.  He then softens to lament and compassion.  “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets, and stones those who are sent to it!  How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.”  Herod the fox and Jesus the hen.  And, despite the warnings, the hen is walking right into the foxhouse.

Before going stargazing the Lord said to Abram, “Do not be afraid, for I am your shield.”  The shield, as it turns out, is not some kind of thick steel armor guaranteed to protect from harm and death.  The divine shield, of which Jesus saw himself an agent, is more like the full and feathery embrace of a mother hen’s wing over her chicks.  Protective, to be sure, but vulnerable.  Defined as fierce love rather than brute strength.  It gives itself away, like a star.  It is generative and powerful.

There’s nothing uniquely Christian or Mennonite about practicing awareness.  Awareness is a human thing.  But our faith tradition does have a unique contribution in the practice of awareness.  About where to pay attention.  The hen walks into the foxhouse and the fox has his way.  For Christians, the crucified Christ becomes a symbol of where to pay attention.  Rather than getting caught up in self-preservation, the only mode Herod knows, we are invited to pay attention to all the places love exerts itself.  We are invited to give extra attention to those in our cities for whom the power structures do not work, who end up crucified.  Rather than fearing the fox, we are welcomed into the tender embrace of the mother hen gathering us under her wings.

When you’re in the city these days, it’s harder to see the stars.  We don’t have the nightly reminder of where we come from.

The apostle Paul was intent on communicating that if we live with faithful awareness, a Christ consciousness, we might say, that we are all children of Abraham.  We too are a part of this holy lineage, and the story lives on through us.