Sermon, The Rev. Lorna Grenfell, June 18

During my younger son’s junior year in high school–most of which was during the Gulf War–we had 3 teenagers from Nazareth living with us and closely watching the news footage every day to see if their homes had been hit by a scud missile.  Never one to avoid a fray, that summer my son, age 17, expressed a desire to go home with them for a while to the Holy Land.  We searched around and finally sent him off to St. George’s College, part of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem.

While there for two weeks with 85 other young people from all over the world, my son read the Bible in the actual places where the events occurred.  For example:

-he walked in sandals down the 15 miles from Jerusalem to Jericho

-he explored, with water up to his chest, Hezekiah’s Well Tunnel under the city

-and one dark night a bunch of these kids was taken out into the Sinai Desert.  The leader flung open the door of the jeep and said, “Welcome to the land of a million, million stars!”  They were told to go off and find a place where they were totally alone—could not see another soul—and stay there for an hour.

Although I only heard about this after my son Sinjin returned home, I can tell you that his experience alone in the Sinai desert under the night sky was…life changing.

Today, with ambient light from cities, towns, and villages all over the world, I wonder how many of us have actually seen such a night sky, a sky brimming over with stars, a sky in which God seems to have thrown handful after handful of silver glitter into the dark?  To give you some idea of the abundance of stars up there, there are 100 billion stars in 2 trillion galaxies in the universe—200 billion trillion stars.

We are told that, realistically, with the naked eye, we can perhaps see 4-5 thousand stars at once.

But, I guarantee…it’s enough.

It’s enough to rend one speechless.

It’s enough to bring one to stillness.

It’s enough to give us humans a visual image to begin to understand and be open to

-our immanent (not far from us) God 

-and our transcendent (who birthed all creation) God. 

It’s enough to make one feel that (in Rev. Miranda’s words a few weeks back) “divine life is swirling in and through and around all things, all the time, all the way out to the edges of creation and beyond.”

The thought of the divine swirling right here and also through 200 billion trillion stars and beyond is hopefully enough to urge us to be open to receiving moments when the swirling transcendent God becomes the swirling immanent God, and we are overcome with the ineffable magnitude of all of it and overcome with the understanding that God’s promises do not depend on us humans.  We are not in charge here.

It was certainly enough thousands of years ago for Abram to trust his total life to God.  So let us turn to Abram and Sarai.  Their long and convoluted story in Genesis revolves all around a promise from God, and the message there, then and here, today, is that the awesome promises of God do not depend on us.

-God tells Abram, ‘Go to a country I will show you, and I will make of you a great nation’.

-Abram and Sarai leave Haran with their entire household—servants, tents, goats, sheep, family members: all of it

-They trek to Canaan and then move on east of Bethel and on again to the Negeb. 

-Then a famine forces them to move down to Egypt. 

-The Pharoah takes a liking to Sarai and they must quickly hurry away.  

-Back in the Negeb, Abram and Lot argue over the land.

-and on and on, troubles mounting up as troubles do…and still no child.

Finally, Abram complains to God about the unfulfilled promise of many descendants. So, God takes Abram outside the tent and says, ‘Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.’  Then he says to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’  and Abram believed the Lord.

Years pass and still the yearned for child, much less the promised descendants that ‘number the stars in the heavens’, do not appear. No. Not even ONE child.  

And here is our Psalm of Lament: 

“How long, O God? Will you forget me forever; how long will you hide your face from me?”

Slowly, their trust in God wanes.  ‘God has forgotten’, they whisper to each other in the dark.  

And Sarai’s Egyptian handmaiden Hagar is sent to Abram’s tent.  The resulting child Ishmael is born, and more discord follows.  Mother and child are banished into the desert and must be rescued and saved by an angel of God….

As the years continue to roll on, the prospects grow dimmer and dimmer.

Sarai is now 90 years old, long past childbearing, and Abram is now 100 years old.

And then, quite suddenly, there are three strangers outside the tent—

3 angels ineffably swirling the transcendent into the immanent.

And suddenly, Abram is running around trying to make them welcome.

And suddenly, he is urging Sarai to prepare a meal, a good meal, for these men.

And where is Sarai?  We find her inside, crouching behind the tent flap, stuffing a dish cloth into her mouth to keep from laughing.  She’s 90 years ol…and going to have…a baby?

90 years old?  Is there really any reason Sarai should not be laughing?

Now.  We need to stop here a moment.

I had Miranda put up a photo of Apo Whang-Od while Gail read us the Genesis passage this morning about Sarai.  Apo is 106 years old and, this spring she was on the cover of Vogue Magazine in the Philippines.  Apo still actively pursues her career in the ancient tradition of “batok” tattoo.  In her beads and wearing her red lipstick at 106, she’s absolutely gorgeous! 

Also, if you don’t already know, you need to know that there is a fairly powerful and beautiful group of women of a certain age here at St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church who meet regularly.  Elvice, Betty, Gretchen, Diane, Kathy, Gloria, Barb and myself were at the last “Aging” zoom gathering with Miranda, our ‘honorary’ leader.  Some may call us old ladies, but we prefer “wise women” or “seasoned saints” or “baba-yagas” or even “crones” or just simply “the coven.”  There is always much sharing of stories and laughter, and when all is said and done, the conclusion is inevitably reached that it would be a big mistake to underestimate the importance of an old woman—any old women!

Back to Sarai.  Sarai, age 90, is to have a child.  God’s promise—descendants to number the stars in the heavens—is finally being fulfilled.  We left her covering her mouth, choking with laughter, the tears running down her cheeks.  She’s no doubt watching Abram rushing around doing his own very best to keep a straight face and not treat himself to shouts of knee-slapping, raucous guffaws.

And here is our Psalm of Joy: “May all lands be joyful before you, O God, serve with gladness and come before your presence with a song.”

Yes, I do picture Sarai smiling with tears.  I think many of us tear up in moments of unutterable joy or beauty or sheer delight.  There is joy for the coming child, but there is also lament—for the long waiting, for the lack of trust, for our human frailty, for all that has gone before, some of which proved at times NOT to be so very good.

What is that vulnerable, deep place within each one of us that moves our mouth to smile and our eyes to fill up?  I suggest to you this morning that these moments are when the divine, which is indeed ‘swirling all around us’, becomes actually known and actually felt, overwhelming us humans: as when Abram hears God speak to him and upends his whole life, as when Sarai learns she is to have a child and can’t stop smiling and can’t stop the tears. It’s intense and sudden, this awareness of the transcendent becoming immanent, this God of all Creation becoming known and felt right here with us.  We feel it.  We sense it.  We know it, this assuring, presence of a Promise-Keeping God.  And we are filled in our deepest core.

I feel certain that some of you are already right now remembering such moments in your life.

Here are some examples:

  1. A slip of a girl–what is she, 11 or 12 years old—is standing as straight as she can over three huddled children.  She slowly raises her thin arms high over her head and her wings of glittering, gold cloth fall gracefully in perfect pleats to the floor.  With the deepest, most authoritative voice she can muster, the girl says to the small shepherds, “Fear not!”  And because you know this girl, you know her family, you know the cookies she likes at Coffee Hour; you know she is fond of shopping at Goodwill, and you know the particular pair of Doc Marten boots she wants so badly is probably already wrapped and under the tree, because you know, you smile.  But the ‘divine is swirling all around’, and in your joy, your eyes fill because you also know that because these children are so young and because you are, well, old enough to have memories, there will occur a number of occasions as their lives unfold and they grow and come into their own, a number of occasions when each of them may quietly whisper those very words to themselves: “Fear not!”

And because there is a past and a present and a future, the transcendent becomes immanent right there in front of you, right there inside you.  The ‘divine swirls all around’–the angel, the shepherds, Joseph, Mary, the Innkeeper, the animals, and you.  The presence, compassion and love of a Promise-keeping God is made real.  Very real.   And suddenly…it’s Christmas.

  1. Or maybe you’re late and rushing to the airport.  You’re going to meet and bring home a person whose face has long been lost to you.  Maybe a sibling who’s been living abroad for a few years.  Maybe your elderly, widowed Dad whom you have finally convinced to make the short but dreaded plane trip to see his grandchildren.  Maybe it’s an estranged adult son or daughter wanting at last to let you be a part of their life.  The flight is late. The waiting crowd is milling about, but finally the light flashes on the arrivals board.  And suddenly the face, the face you have waited so long to see, appears smiling at you out of the crowd, and of course you smile—but for just a few moments, your eyes fill up because the ‘divine is swirling’ all around and through this waiting, churning airport crowd, and it has touched your innermost being with profound joy in this moment and lament for all the lost moments, and the transcendent is right there, immanent, palpable, a very real presence enfolding the two of you in its embrace.  
  1. Or maybe you carefully watched the latest showing of the video of St. Dunstan’s Tale during which you mourned all over again the passing of narrator Celia Fine, and at the very end you see young Wren playing the king with his royal cape and lopsided crown tipping over his eyes.  He was probably 3, maybe 4, and reading his part so well—only turning once or twice to an ‘aide’ behind him for help with a big word like ‘principalities’ or ‘iniquities’.  You smile because he is, indeed, absolutely adorable and just seeing him fills all the world with joy, but suddenly the tears come because you know all children grow up and understand someday that every king’s crown is always slightly lopsided and that royalty always need aides–many, many aides.  And you recognize the transcendent and immanent becoming one right there, that very moment, in front of your very eyes–in young Wren.
  1. But it’s ordinary lives we are living. Try this. It’s the middle of a cold, dreary November, and you have yet again lived through September and October, the busiest, most over-scheduled months in our American culture.  You wake up. It’s early morning and still dark, and you’re suddenly conscious that there is no sound at all—only silence as you lie there.  The late theologian Frederick Beuchner put it this way.  You jump up. “You…pull up the shade, and what lay there the evening before is no longer there—the sodden gray yard, the dog droppings, the tire tracks in the frozen mud, the broken lawn chair you forgot to put away last fall.  All this has disappeared overnight, and what you look out on is…the fresh snow….  The earth is covered with it, and it is falling still in silence so deep that you can hear the silence.”  And despite the shoveling and the bad roads ahead, you open the window and let all the newness of the world flow in over you.  And the stars shine down and the cold, crisp air fills the room, and the ‘divine is swirling all around’ and you smile with joy in the moment and your eyes fill up in lament for all the times you might have missed just such a moment as this.

To me, a symbol of all this ‘swirling of divinity’, this incomprehensible transcendent becoming immanent, is the night sky of a “million, million” stars.  Thousands of years ago, Abram stood under it and looked up as the transcendent became immanent and God spoke and made his promise.  And those few moments were enough to carry Abram and Sarai through a life journey of much travail and missteps and wavering of trust—much like our own lives.  My friends, the awesome promises of God do not depend on human beings.  Sarai at age 90 finally has a baby whom they name Isaac, meaning laughter, and her own name is changed to Sara.  And Abram becomes Abraham, the father of three world religions.  The awesome promises of God do not depend on us humans.

Four years after my son’s trip to the Sinai desert, he returned there as a writer for a travel guide. He backpacked alone for six weeks through Israel, Jordan and Egypt, and every chance he got, he climbed Mount Sinai to spend the night in his sleeping bag lying under those same stars.  As I said, such an experience can be life-changing, and we humans want more of it—this transcendent God ineffably becoming immanent right here with us.  We need always, therefore, always to be on the lookout for the ways God chooses to be with us and make God’s own multifaceted self known and felt in our lives.

You may know of the International Dark Skies movement which strives to find and preserve places all over the world where there is little or no ambient light, places where the real heavens can be seen with the naked eye. Such a place is Wisconsin’s own Newport State Park on the tip of land in Door County that juts up into Lake Michigan.  This is where the Hassett family is this week.  May the dark, starlit sky inspire them to see and feel the ‘divine swirling around them’.   Amen.