Sunday, August 12, 2007

This Morning's Sermon

"Number the Stars"

A few years ago, I came across a little book by a woman named Lois Lowry. She writes books primarily for children and young adults. This book was about the Danish resistance during World War II. Some of you might know a little bit about this story. The Danish people knew that they didn't have the military might or strength to opposeHItler by force. But they didn't just give in, either. They all worked together to keep the Jewish people in their communities safe. They would do things like: change the house numbers on their block so that the Nazis had ahard time finding people. They helped their friends escape to Sweden in the middle of the night. There's even a story -- I don't know if it's true -- that the King of Denmark wore a Star of David on his sleeve when he went out in public. This book told the story of the Danes through the eyes of young people who were brave and who helped with this resistance movement. The name of the book is: "Number the Stars."

The book's title is taken form our first reading this morning, the reading from Genesis. Abraham has received a promise from God, a few chapters back, in Chapter 12. God promises Abraham: "I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." (Genesis 12:2-3) In this chapter Abraham reminds God of his promise and wonders how it can possibly be fulfilled. How can a man with no child become a great nation? He just can't imagine it. And then God invites Abraham to look at the sky and imagine that his descendants will someday be as numerous as the stars of heaven. "Number the stars," God tells Abram. "Just see if you can count them all." And then God goes on to say: "So shall your descendants be." And as the scriptures relate, "Abraham believed God, and God reckened it to him as righteousness."

Lois Lowry's story of the Danish resistance and the story of Abraham are both, at the heart, stories of faith. I believe a better way to translate that last sentence in Genesis 15 is "Abraham TRUSTED God..." because here "believing is not so much an intellectual activity, but a relationship of trust. Abraham didn't look up at the stars and have an intellectual understanding of how it might be possible for him to become a great nation. Abraham trusted God -- this one who had called him to take his family and set out for a place he had never seen before -- so he looked up at the stars -- and something there captured his imagination. In Lois Lowry's story, the people -- and especially the young people -- look not at the stars, but into the faces of their Jewish friends and neighbors. And they see children of God, worthy of life, worthy of love, worthy of protection.

I don't know about you, but I've been thinking a lot about faith lately -- what and who I have faith in, and what and who I might not ha ve faith in. Especially recently, I have caught myself, when out on the road, looking up at an overpass bridge, and thinking: "How does it look? Are there cracks? Is it ok?" I used to drive around the city without thinking at all, trusting, believing that every bridge would hold me up. In fact, I don't think I could imagine the possibility that a bridge might not hold me up. I trusted the steel, the concrete, the mortar, and the skill and wisdom of those who had designed and built them -- just like I trust so many things and so many people every day, without thinking about it.

As I said, faith is, at its heart, a relationship of trust, not primarily an intellectual activity. We don't have to understand the mechanics of car maintenance to trust that when we put a key into the ignition and turn, it will star. I trust not only the people who built the cars (whom I have never met), but the ones who taught me how to drive. We live our lives trusting, often without thinking. Until lately, and lately, I have been thinking, "Where do I put my trust?" Places that seemed to be solid and trustworthy, firm foundations, have proven to be insecure ones. People who we trusted to be wise and vigilant have proven to be fallible. Where do you put your trust? Where do I?

In these days since the bridge on 35W collapsed, we have seen many images and heard many stories. We've seen pictures of fallen concrete, smashed cars, broken foundations: things we thought were secure, and weren't. We have prayed for people we don't even know; we have grieved for people and given thanks with others. We've been angry and frustrated and bewilded. Where do we put our trust? Where do you? That's the question. And what does it mean to trust... when bridges can fall down, when foundations can crumble?

One of the most famous passages in the Bible is from Hebrews 11: "Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." I'll say it again: "Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." So we HOPE that bridges will not collapse, and in faith we drive across them. We HOPE that the pilot of our airplane is well-trained, and in faith we board the plane. We HOPE that our spouse will be waiting for us when we come home from work, and in faith we drive in the driveway. The assurance of things hoped for. Faith is being so assured of what we hope for -- that we are willing to take action because of it. But I like the second part even better: "The conviction of things not seen." This is where imagination comes in. This is where Abraham comes in, looking up at the stars and imagining descendants. This iw where the Danish resistance comes in, looking at their Jewish friends and neighbors and imagining them as precious in God's eyes as they were. Imagining that they might even be willing to die for them. Faith is trust: trust in one who is sure, and in a foundation that won't crumble, and in a hand that will never let you go. And faith is imagination: imagining that the things God tells us, no matter how far-fetched they seem, really are true. We can stake our lives on them.

One of the most powerful images, and one of the most powerful stories of the last couple of weeks wasa the school bus, full of children, on the bridge. (The school bus contained mostly immigrant children from one of the poorest neighborhoods in Minneapolis.) One of the reasons that this story is so powerful, of course, is because it turned out all right. Even though the children were scared, and some were injured, everyone was saved. And there were some heroes on that evening: a young man named Jeremy Hernandez, who thought quickly and didn't lose his head. There were others who were on the bridge, who were in danger themselves, who quickly came to the aid of the children on the bus, and who worked to make sure they were all taken to safety. One in particular was a truck driver. He's been interviewed a few times. He speaks clearly about his memory of that day, his fears as he felt his truck falling (and breaking in two), his concern about his family (I believe he's just about to become a father, or is a new father), his fear that his back might be broken. And yet, as soon as he got out of his truck, his first thought was: "The school bus!" He ran to the bus to help rescue the children. The person who interviewed him couldn't believe it. He put his own personal safety aside, and went to the aid of the children. Before he even saw them, he knew: They were precious in God's eyes, just as precious as he was. How did he know?

Faith is.... the conviction of things not seen.

Number the stars, and see if you can count them.... So shall your descendants be.

Long ago, Abraham was given a promise. "I will make of you a great nation, and I will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing... and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed." And this promise did come true. Abraham did become a great nation, although he didn't live to see it. Israel did become a great nation, and his descendants are many. But even more than that, through Abraham came Jesus -- who came to reconcile all nations and all people to God, to show God's love by dying on a cross, and rising to life. In him we are all God's children, as many as the stars of heaven, as the sands on the seashore. Can you imagine it?

While some people are stingy with God's love, only giving it out a little at a time to those they think are worthy, Jesus flings open his arms and give his life: for us. For all of us. For all of the children on the bus, wherever they come from, whose-ever they are. He give his life to save us from all of the crumbling foundations beneath us, whatever they might be, and gives us the confidence, the assurance, that in his arms we will always be safe, and his eyes, we will always be precious.

A week ago Wednesday, some of us were on the bridge, and some of us were not. But perhaps with the eyes of faith, with the eyes of imagination, we can see: we are all on the bridge, in one way or another. Somali children and truck drivers, the Danish resistance and the Jewish people, walking or in wheelchairs, all colors, all orientations: we're all on the bridge. And we can choose to live and die in fear, or in faith, together or separately. Jesus is our foundation when all other foundations crumble beneath us, and Jesus is the one who calls us to reach out to one another, calling us "brothers and sisters." "Number the stars," he tells us. "See if you can count them. That is the measure of my love for you. That is the measure of my love for the world."

How firm a foundation O saints of the Lord
Is laid for your faith in Christ Jesus the Word

Throughout all their lifetime my people shall prove
My sov'reign, eternal unchangeable love.

May God's people prove, through words and actions, God's sov'reign, eternal, unchangeable, immeasurable love ... for the world. AMEN


mompriest said...

diane, this is a wonderful sermon. so thoughtfully connected and interconnected throughout, from beginning to end. love the illustration that you used for that connectedness...

Gannet Girl said...

This is a brilliant sermon. (What a wonderful use of Number the Stars!) I wish I had been there to hear you deliver it.

Serena said...

AMEN! A brilliant sermon, indeed. As Mompriest said, to thoughtfully connected and interconnected. Thank you. As Gannet Girl said, I wish I had been there to hear you deliver it.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Diane, beautiful sermon. Yes, faith is a relationship of trust.

I saw on TV the scene in which children on the school bus were saved with the help of the heroic young man. Thanks be to God.

The hymn is one of my favorites.

David said...

It will be a long time before people can wipe the image of that bus from their memories. Thanks for the great sermon.

LawAndGospel said...

As you have before, you have put a face on God through this time. Amen and thanks be!

Barbara B. said...

Diane, this is an absolutely wonderful sermon!
"We are all on the bridge" -- I love that.

Rowan The Dog said...

Yes, I like the "we are all on the bridge..." angle too. We ARE all in this together. A much needed message in Minnesota, and beyond too.

This is a fine sermon, good way to start the day. Thanks for posting.


"PS" said...

And another "We are all on the bridge"!!!

Pastor Eric said...

I like that comment, "we are all on that bridge". I used that very illustration on Sunday when we were celebrating baptismal anniversaries. In a family or a tight knit community we feel each others pain and joy. Through baptism we are made members of the body of Christ and therefore connected to brothers and sisters in Christ all over the world. So as you say, "we were/are on that bridge" -- feeling pain, love and compassion even though we are not physically there.

Thanks for the great sermon.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a powerful and inspirational sermon.

revabi said...

Bravo, good sermon.
I had never heard of the book, but some about the Danes resistance movement. Thanks.

Diane said...

I want to thank all of you for your kind comments. To be perfectly honest, I wasn't quite satisfied with what I said... but maybe I'm a little like that.

lj said...

Just reading this late on Tuesday, but loving it. I echo the earlier comments. What a perfect hymn for your city on that Sunday.