I have always loved the stars. There are so many moments in my life marked by stars. When Lisa said she would marry me in Sedona, Arizona, an enormous shooting star flew across the sky next to a full moon at midnight. Seriously! Magical.
When I was in high school, we would sometimes go to the planetarium at the University and watch these amazing films on stars, constellations, comets and the mysteries of space and time. I would sit there mesmerized…
And, I don’t remember what the prize was for, but in undergrad I won a package of a few dozen plastic glow-in-the-dark stars. I decided it would be a good idea to stick them on the ceiling of my dorm room. I didn’t have a roommate, so there was no danger of anyone thinking an idea as great as this was strange (right). I stuck them around the ceiling, even putting quite a few on the ceiling fan to give it an extra dimension. I would lie on my back at night and look up at these “stars” in the darkness.
They were wonderful for several weeks until it turned warm and—not thinking—I turned the ceiling fan on high before I went to sleep one night. After about twenty minutes or so, plastic star missiles began shooting around the room, hitting the wall and windows and bouncing around and making me crawl under my sheet until I figured out the “shooting stars” were actually my own great idea flying to hit me in the face!
“Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them,” the LORD says to Abram in a moment of sadness and frustration. Abram had experienced his own limits—his mortality, the absence of an heir to inherit and carry forward his legacy. The only possible male heir in his entire household was the son of slave. In that moment of “all is for naught,” God had an infinite amount of hopeful means at his disposal. And God chose stars…
Abram has hit a dead end. I imagine him lying in his tent at night, struggling to go to sleep and rest because he fears what will happen to his family and all he has established after he dies. He fears for their safety, for their future, for their stability. And “the Word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision.”
This is so much more than just Abram having an interesting idea. Every time this particular word for vision is used in the Hebrew texts it is describing an ecstatic experience, a moment when someone is taken outside of themselves and is shown something more than they could have possibly imagined. They are moments of prophetic encounter with God that open up new possibilities for growth and relationship. These moments of vision are apocalyptic encounters that open eyes and widen fields of vision to behold something…more.
Maybe that’s why God chose stars, objects of awe and inspiration that remained out of touch, out of anyone’s control, that were far enough away draw Abram away from himself just enough that he was reoriented…so that he would believe.
Yet fear is a crippling thing.
It is hard to imagine, sometimes, that more might be possible, that something else might be possible. We’re surrounded by a culture that rewards the sensational and the provocative. The “sensational” hooks us because it connects with our physical senses. We FEEL it: fear, anxiety, dread, etc. This is real, like we tell our daughter. There are neurons in your heart and your esophagus, so we truly do “feel” with our hearts and gut, in a mysterious physical connection. Butterflies in the stomach are a sensational reaction to something that has incited fear and anxiety within us. Something in us is stirred, maybe not for the better.
And this can be manipulated so easily in a culture that is so “provocative,” that “calls forth” pro-vocar this reaction within people. This is what you should be afraid of. That is what you should avoid. They are who you should blame.
If you think about it for a second, this isn’t anything new. This reality is part of our human condition. Think of how the angels had to always say, “Do not be afraid” every time they came down for a visit. Because our first reaction is often fear and anxiety. Something new. Something that upsets the way things have always been—even if they’ve been crazy, at least we know what they have been! But this, this something “different” we’re not sure about, so of course we’re likely to shy away and resist a bit. And, there’s something helpful in this caution to be sure, so that we don’t just run off with every sparkly thing that catches our eye!
There is a school of thought that says the phrase “Do not be afraid” appears 365 times in the Bible, one for each day of the year. And, while that’s wonderfully quaint and quite convenient to publish a lovely devotional guide, the folks didn’t actually take into account that Jesus didn’t have scribes who followed him around writing things down in the Queen’s English. But, it is true that this invitation not to be afraid appears hundreds of times throughout the texts, in one way or another. Hundreds of times…because it needs repeating.
“Do not be afraid, little flock,” Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “for it is your Father’s pleasure to give you the kingdom.” This comes on the heels of Jesus pointing toward the fields and the sky to invite his disciples to see a more abundant possibility: “Consider the ravens. They neither sow nor reap, yet God feeds them.” “Consider the lilies. They neither toil nor spin, yet Solomon in all his glory was not clothed as one of these.”
Look around you, Jesus says….look at what is possible. Look beyond fear.
Consider the Ravens. Consider the lilies. Look toward the heavens and count the stars, if you can count them.
Consider…something outside yourself. Something outside us. Something outside me. Something outside you.
What might be possible? I’ve done many retreats around different places exploring vision and dreaming, and every time there’s this feeling of inhibition that shows its face. This reticence or anxiety that, like a shadow, silently slides into the room and impacts the conversation. “Well, we couldn’t possibly…”
“Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.”
When we do this, when we allow ourselves to step into this space, to be led into this space of wonder and trust, Jesus advises us to be prepared. “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit” as we anticipate Jesus showing up at any moment. Be watchful, not out of anxiety or fear but out of excitement and anticipation… Move from dread of what might happen, to expectation of what will happen! Move from fear into hope.
Look up at the sky and notice the stars. See what catches your eye, what draws you in, outside of yourself, into a space of new beginnings.
We know a story about that. We know a story about people who looked up at the sky and saw something that caught their eye, a star, that led them on a journey to a space where they encountered, what…. Something, Someone, who embodied hope and had shown up in a most unusual place.
But they were led outside of themselves, outside of their normal routines, into something new, something hopeful and challenging. Not easy, but fulfilling…truth.
Star of wonder, star of light
Star of royal beauty bright
Westward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to Thy perfect light…
Fr. Stuart Higginbotham
Proper 14, Year C
Genesis 15:1-6; St. Luke 12:32-40
August 7, 2016