May 14, 2017
Church of Peace, UCC
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
To Go Stand Under the Sky
It’s almost like we can’t help but look forward and consider the future. It’s like we human people were knit together in our mother’s womb with the ribboning impulse to keep asking, What’s next? When the time comes, what’s going to happen then?
Sometimes this looks like worry. Sometimes it’s strategic planning. Or hope-flung fantasy. But as far as I can tell, there’s no avoiding it. If you’re out on a clear night, there is something in you that will turn your eyes toward the stars and entice your imagination toward the future.
Of course, there are people who say God has everything all the way planned out. I am really hoping they’re mistaken. I believe God is still planning, that some part of God is also wondering how things might unfold.
For many young adults, this question of what the future holds intensifies its circling around the question of having children —whether to have them, whether to consider adoption, how many children… Now I know that for a great number of our sisters and brothers, there is no choice in this matter. A lot of people become parents when that was never their desire. A lot of people would give anything to become parents and cannot. We all have options before us. When it comes to being a parent, we don’t all have the same ones.
Even still. For those who do have a choice, it can be deceptively demanding. Becoming a parent is so much more than simply wanting kids or not. And so it is that when people find themselves grappling with this question, it is not uncommon to come before God with prayers of discernment. You might feel wrapped in terrifying darkness. The pressure is on! What is God’s will for our family? What if we make the wrong choice?
These are the kind of questions I have asked before. Maybe you have too. So has comedian Tina Fey. In her memoir Bossypants, she describes agonizing over whether or not to have another baby. She writes this: “I have a great gynecologist who is as gifted as listening as she is at… exams. I went for my annual checkup, and tired of carrying this anxiety around, burst into tears the moment she said hello. I laid it all out for her and the main thing I took away from our conversation was the kind of simple observation only an impartial third party can provide. ‘Either way, everything will be fine,’ she smiled…”
Tina Fey’s gynecologist is not wrong. In the prayer that goes, “God what is your will for my life?” it is tempting to think there is only one right choice. Like there is one unchanging plan for all the universe and it’s our job to figure out what God wants. But what if. What if there are many right choices? What if any path you start down could give glory to God if only you’ll let her in on it?
Every path could lead to greater blessing than you ever imagined, to the love you never thought was possible, and I know this for sure. Every path leads through grief. It is not the same kind of grief. The grief of not being able to have children is different from the grief of having a baby who dies. This is different from the grief of wanting children and having children and letting go of what-once-was. Which is different from the grief of having the adoption fall through. We don’t all have the same grief. But there’s no way to walk through this chapter of life and not grieve. So we have this in common.
-Everyone is destined to dream about the future.
-Every path leads through grief and beyond.
-Every one of our lives gets connected to God’s deep longing for the world.
Today we’re continuing our Easter sermon series on the spiritual work of imagining, and our scripture comes to us from the middle of the action. Now Lot was Abram’s nephew. In these days of journeying and settling in different countries, Lot was captured in a battle. When word reached Abram, he assembled his army and led a military operation that rescued Lot, then he negotiated with the kings as to who gets to keep what.
This is where our story begins. The LORD comes to Abram in a vision and invokes the words of the angels: “Do not be afraid, Abram” says God. “For I will be your shield.” “Okay but that’s not my biggest problem,” says Abram. “How can I believe you when you won’t let us have a baby?”
Now in our world, there’s a lot of social pressure to have children. But this is nothing like the problem of not having children in the ancient world. First, there is the problem of inheritance. Without a son of his own, Abram’s inheritance would go to the son of one of his slaves. But it’s even more than money. It’s as though a person’s identity was bound up with their legacy. See your children carry on your name; your children carry on your dreams. So without children, who are you?
It is also the case that in the ancient world, children were given as a blessing by God. Receiving this blessing was the norm, kind of like an entitlement. This means, not being able to have children was a sign that God was withholding this promise. Abram felt cheated and punished. So now God shows up promising to be a shield. Thanks. I’d rather have a baby!
And I love that Abram has no reservations about saying this to God. Abram and Sarai are experiencing a very particular, very personal problem. Without any embarrassment, Abram picks it up and lays it before the LORD like an offering. Strangely enough, in this story, God listens to Abram’s desperate demand then says, “Okay. You got it.”
First, God sends Abram outside in the night, and she tells him to look at the stars. Try to count them if you can, but of course he can’t. See all these stars are the promise that you will have descendants, starloads of descendants. And Abram believes the LORD. For a minute.
The next thing that happens is God promises to give Abram the land, and Abram asks, how can I believe you will come through on this promise? So God moves from the vast poetry of the stars to the specific sacrifice of several three-year-old animals. This ritual might sound bizarre to our ears, but it is like the ancient world version of somebody making a promise then saying “Cross my heart and hope to die.” The animals cut in two made tangible this promise between God and Abram.
But still, Abram was worried. “As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a terrifying darkness descended on him.” That’s when God speaks to Abram and tells him what will happen. God warns Abram about the future oppression that will befall his descendants and the promise of exodus.
And so this story of promise-making between God and Abram swings between the expanse of the future of nations to the specifics of one man terrified in the dark, the expanse of all the stars conspiring in the sky to the specifics of this three-year-old cow cut in half. Behold all that is, and was, and ever shall be! See this man right here wants a baby!
And so it is that God keeps raising dreams for the future of the universe. Whoever you are and wherever you are on life’s journey, you harbor dreams for your own life. Now the trick is seeing the tender and exquisite points where God’s dream and your dream come together.
This is not the same as believing God has one plan for your life, and you better figure it out and follow the plan, or else. Instead, what if every choice can give glory to God if only we’ll let her in on it?
When it comes to considering the future, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed. You could get lost in all the looking up, and I find myself not thinking seriously about how the world could be. You know. It’ll all be robot doctors, and melted ice caps, and teleporting working moms, and who knows what else…
Except, recently, I read about an initiative dreamed up by Scottish artist Katie Paterson. Even though she began this project back in two thousand fourteen, it is called The Future Library. Right now, there is a forest growing in Norway. In the year twenty-one fourteen (ninety seven years from now) trees from this forest will be harvested to make paper to print one hundred books.
Now every year, for a hundred years, a different author is contributing a manuscript that will remain unpublished until the year twenty-one fourteen. In two thousand fifteen, Margaret Atwood offered the book Scribbler Moon and last year, David Mitchell contributed From Me Flows What You Call Time.
Can you imagine writing a book today that will not be read until ninety-seven years from now? So often in writing, you try to empathize with your readers and tune in to what they care about. But what will someone in twenty-one-fourteen be hungry to read? What will the world be like then?
You know there will be someone who is worried about choosing the right path. Somebody will be wondering where to settle and make a home. Somebody will be desperate to have a baby.
One hundred years from now someone might be sitting in this sanctuary. Maybe they’ll be praying for direction, or forgiveness, or freedom. Maybe what they will be dreaming for their own life has something in common with your dream. I really believe we are more connected than we realize.
I really believe your dream for your own life is luminously linked to God’s deep longing for the world. The question is, how can we see this connection? May this become our prayer.
As the sun is going down, when the terrifying darkness of uncertainty descends upon you, may you hear the voice of God pleading with you to go stand under the heavens. See the darkness is giving birth to a whole skyfull of stars. Amen.
 Fey, Tina. Bossypants. Little, Brown and Co: New York, 2011. page 274.