Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
On February 14th, 1990 the Voyager I space probe sent a love letter. It was Valentine’s Day. The probe had already travelled 13 years and nearly 4 billion miles from earth when the late-great astronomer Carl Sagan, convinced NASA engineers to turn Voyager’s camera toward earth for one final photo. The famous image, called “Pale Blue Dot,” depicts a single pinprick of light in a dark, vast, empty, expanse of space. Voyager has travelled 43 years without stopping and is now more than thirteen billion miles from earth. It is the first human-made object to leave our solar system.
Carl Sagan wrote that pale blue dot, “That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was…every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” (Carl Sagan, “Pale Blue Dot,” 1994)
This is what Bulgarian-born writer Maria Popova has called a telescopic perspective on our world. It’s when we think of life, not in the span of days or years or even generations, but across geological epochs and cosmic space. From such a distance we ask ourselves different questions — not, “What matters to me?” but instead: What does it mean to matter? And what must we choose to care for when life is both so precious and so lonely in the universe?
As we end one year reading the gospel of Luke and are about to begin a new one reading from Matthew, our story pans out to include the beginning and the end. This stretch of Sundays, from All Saints to Christmas, our bible trains us to look at life through this telescopic perspective with its language about the end-times. From this vantage point so-called big things become very small and certain small things loom large.
As they walked past the magnificent Temple in Jerusalem, Jesus told the disciples, not one stone would be left upon another. The ruin of it must have been impossible to imagine.
The historian Josephus wrote: “The outward face of the Temple…was covered with gold plates of great weight, which at sunrise, reflected a fiery splendor that forced those who looked upon it to turn their eyes away, just as they would have done at the sun’s own rays. At a distance this golden Temple appeared like a snow-covered mountain, for…those parts…not covered in gold… where exceedingly white. (As quoted by William Barclay).
When the Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D., it was a bewildering event that seemed to signal the end of the world. Josephus’ account of the conquest of Jerusalem by the Romans just thirty years after Jesus’ resurrection is no less spectacular that his description of the Temple itself. He writes, “The roar of the flames streaming far and wide mingled with the groans of the falling victims; and owing to the height of the hill and the mass of the burning pile, one would have thought that the whole city was ablaze” (War 6.271-275) [p. 359].
We are not the first people to live in a time it seems everything is upended. In a new twist on an old story, Jesus points to the beginning that is beyond the end. He invites us to look at life as if through a telescope. Regardless of our leaders, Jesus Christ is king. Of all the things that exist today, tomorrow, and yesterday, only the Word of God is eternal. God opens the way that rekindles our hope even as kingdoms the world are brought low.
In a sermon collection titled, God in Pain, Episcopal priest Barbara Brown argues that disillusionment is essential to the Christian life: “Disillusionment is, literally, the loss of an illusion — about ourselves, about the world, about God — and while it is almost always a painful thing, it is never a bad thing, to lose the lies we have mistaken for the truth.”
Viewing life through the telescopic perspective of the end-of-days, may provoke grief and disorientation in us. Like Job, sitting in the ashes of our own human striving, we cry out to God, ‘What does it mean?’
As we envision ourselves in the disciples’ place, listening in bewilderment as Jesus pops our spiritual bubbles, we start asking ourselves different questions: What lies, and illusions do I mistake for truth? In what memories or traditions do I attempt to “house” God? On what shiny religious edifice do I pin my hopes, instead of trusting Jesus? (My denomination? My church? My spiritual heritage?) Why do I cling to permanence when Jesus invites me to evolve?
Am I willing to sit with the fact that things fall apart? (Things I love, things I built, things I cried and prayed and strived for?) Can I embrace a journey of faith that includes rubble, ruin, and failure? (Debie Thomas, By Your Endurance, Journey with Jesus, 11/10/19)
The 13th century mystic Meister Eckhart wrote, “Let us pray to God that we may be free of God,” implying that our conceptions of God and faith must always fall short, always fail. “Let’s name honestly, he suggests, the imposter gods we conjure because we fear the Mystery who really is. Let’s admit that we shape these gods in our own image, and that they serve us as much as we serve them. In other words, let’s endure apocalypse so that truth will set us free. Let’s dare to see what Jesus sees.” (Debie Thomas)
From the perspective of eternity and the far-flung distance of space big things that fill our minds and calendars begin to look small and certain small things loom large. From four billion miles we can clearly see life itself is breath-taking and miraculous. The most important legacy of our lives is in sustaining and extending life on this beautiful pale blue dot rather than in subduing and extinguishing it. Our fate rests in how we choose to care for what’s right in front of us, day after day, no matter how miniscule that may seem. As Carl Sagan wrote of that distant image of our tiny world, “It underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”
You do this at Immanuel when you take time to help a child learn to read and be successful in school. When you build community among young families. Through your support of an immigrant family torn apart by detention and deportation. By welcoming young people to Christ and belonging as siblings of God. When you take time to listen to a co-worker, care for a friend or family member, or take risks to oppose injustice. When you lift your voices to sing and give God praise. When you answer the sabbath call to gather here for worship to hear the word, to be nourish at the table, and made new in the waters of the font. The sacrifice of your time, sweat, and money for these small things loom large because these are the very things that sustain us and add to the vibrancy of all life. All the angels in heaven sing, and all that is, was, and is to be, will join us in celebration. May Christ be praised. Amen!