Blessed are the Decentered – Lent 2 – 2/24/13 – Gen. 15, Luke 13:31-35

Blessed are the decentered

Hanging on the bulletin board on the door to my office is an Opus cartoon from several years ago.  Maybe some of you have seen it.  It is set outside, on a patch of grass, with Opus and his young friends Oliver, Michael and Milo sitting under a night sky.  After Opus looks at the reader and says, “I love these summer evening reality checks from Oliver,” it’s Oliver, the intellectual of the bunch, who does most of the talking.  Sitting by his telescope, Oliver says, “Hold out a speck of sand at arm’s length…”  As the picture moves in tighter and tighter on the grain of sand he is holding up, and the piece of the night sky and outer space that lays beyond it 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!”

Opus, Hubble deep space

And then, back to Oliver and company under the vast, luminous canopy, he continues, “All in the space of a single grain of sand, on the vast beach of the cosmos.”  Then with Oliver, facing 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 and looking up at the sky, “Me, baby.”

Blessed are the decentered.

“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 Genesis 15 passage, we read of an impossible promise given to a rightfully suspicious recipient.  After the promise is given and doubt is 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, an elderly woman will have a child together, an issue from their own bodies.  It’s probably impossible for us to imagine just how central having an heir was.  This isn’t just about passing on the flocks and herds, but is connected even to one’s life going on beyond one’s death, rather than being the end of the line.  A son means that their lineage will not end, they will live on in the life of their child, who will inherit the good things they have been given in their lifetime.  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.

We’re not told why Abram believed, and just what it was about this night of stargazing that caused him to trust God.  So, whenever there is this kind of gap of explanation, we have some freedom of imagination in interpretation, even if it is a modern reading of an ancient story.

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 cosmosogists 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, before giving their first fruits, the Israelites recited, “A wandering Arimean was my ancestor.”  This week, a fiery ball of hydrogen was my ancestor.

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, through the marvelous, impossible, grace of God.

Blessed are the decentered.

Sing The Story 31 “Jesus be the Center”  vv. 1,2

Blessed are the decentered.

This past week I leafed through a book called Mighty Giants: An American Chestnut AnthologyIt tells the story of the massive, beautiful, and remarkably useful American Chestnut tree; from its prominence in the eastern US, through its devastation at the beginning of the 20th century by an Asian blight that wiped out an estimated 4 billion chestnut trees – pretty much all of them – to its potential resurrection through generations of careful crossbreeding with resistant strands of chestnut.

The American Chestnut has been called “the perfect tree” because of its combination of traits.  It was massive, up to 100 feet tall.  It was beautiful, turning the Appalachian mountains snow white in the spring with its flowers.  Its fruit was prolific, sweet, and nutritious, for wildlife and for humans who wanted to roast them over an open fire.  It was shade tolerant and fast growing.  Its wood was strong, but not as heavy as oak.  Straight grained to make it easy to split.  And it was highly rot resistant.  It was the wealth and key livelihood of Appalachia.  And it’s gone from the landscape because of a little bark fungus from another place, and it’s very sad.

But this is an ongoing story, and it’s not just the story of a tree.  It’s a story of people who love the tree and generations of these people who have been working from the time of the blight to restore this American wonder.  It’s about seeds, and it’s about saving and planting seeds and crossbreeding with Asian chestnut trees which are much smaller, but blight resistant.  Currently I believe they have worked up to trees that are 15/16’s American chestnut, with the 1/16th Asian variety hopefully able to hold off the blight.  In 2005 President George W. Bush planted one of those hybrid chestnut trees on the lawn of the White House.  Go George!

Chestnut trees grow fast, but this is the work of generations, with the original generation knowing they would never see the hoped for outcome of their work.  Human years are to trees sort of like dog years are to humans.

The center of hope lies not in any single human lifetime.

Blessed are the decentered.

The Hebrew word for offspring used by Abram and God- “what will you give me, for you have given me no offspring,” and “Count the stars, if you are able to count them.  So shall your offspring be.” – this word is the word for seed.  Count the stars, so shall your seed be.  It’s a wonderful biblical word, and was one of the choice metaphors Jesus used over and over again to illuminate that ever-present and luminous reality he called “the kingdom of God.”  It’s like a mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds, which grows up for birds to perch in its branches.  It’s like seed that a sewer went out and flung onto a field, landing on different types of soil.  It’s like seed planted in a field which also contained weeds, and the farmer decided to have them grow up together until harvest time.

Abram believed the promise, but he and Sara did not live long enough to see its fulfillment.  They lived long enough to have their son, Isaac, but they didn’t live long enough to see anything resembling a great nation as plentiful as the stars.  There’s a wisdom and a humility in this.  There’s a rearranging of life priorities that comes with this.  There’s a decentering of ourselves and a recentering on the ongoing story of God that happens when we take proper inventory of the span of a life, and the nature of a seed.

Reinhold Niebuhr wrote: “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.”
( quoted by Martin E. Marty, University of Chicago Chronicle, Feb. 20, 1997).

Hope, faith, love, forgiveness.

Blessed are the decentered.

Sing The Story 31 “Jesus be the Center”  vv. 1,3

Being decentered does not just involve an intellectual re-arranging of our map of time and the universe.  We sing “Jesus, be the Center” as a way of proclaiming a whole way of being in the world as central to who we are.  Or, at least, who we seek to become.  For us Jesus is that perfect icon of the Christ reality, the cosmic Christ of the letter to the Colossians who is the first principle of creation, knocking us off center and introducing us to the surprising and liberating center of Being Itself, around which we all revolve.

Today’s passage from Luke messes with our map of the world right off the bat as it is some Pharisees, the supposed archrivals of Jesus, who come to him with a warning.  “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”  Might this small contingent of Pharisees be seeking to protect Jesus from harm?   We are told nothing about their motives, and are confronted with the possibility that supposed enemies can become allies.

Blessed are the decentered.

Jesus is aggressive, and even sarcastic.  “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.  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.”  There’s the sarcasm.  The holy center of the world for his people, Jerusalem, is the place where it’s most dangerous to actually speak the truth, as prophets are known to do.

Jesus has called one of the central political leaders of his time a fox, and now the aggression 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.

God has 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 which is guaranteed to protect from all injury and harm.  The divine shield, of which Jesus saw himself as 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 more by love than by brute strength.  It gives itself away, like a star, like a seed.  It is generative and powerful.  It can do impossible things.  Anything’s possible, if you give it enough time.  How long will it take for the hen to tame the fox?

We who are propelled through the vastness of space under the protective shield of our planet’s precious atmosphere, and the Christ-mother-hen-wing, are free to be decentered.

Blessed are the decentered.