by Lin Story- BunceRomans 12.1-8 (NRSV)
On the narrow strip of the Outer Banks shores, just off the Carolina coast, sits a mostly desolate corner of the earth where the rising tides flow on undeveloped sands, the sun sets to unobstructed horizons, the night skies still glow with undimmed starlight even as you witness the dawn giving to the morning sun. Drum Inlet is a hidden treasure that holds such raw, incredible beauty and nurtured my young love of surf fishing. For most of our elementary school years, Drum Inlet served as our home one long weekend each fall. A spot only accessible by ferry, our family would head off from our Lexington home while the morning was still dark, arrive at the dock in time to catch the morning ferry, and then drive our Land Cruiser to meet my grandparents whose camper was waiting for us. We fished the day – and my granddad and dad would often fish well into the night.
I remember one particular trip when I was finally given the opportunity to fish the night with them. It was like a right of passage and I was thrilled. I imagined this night of staying up with the grownups, feeling twice my age, just the three of us talking and fishing until sunrise the next morning. This, of course, isn’t how it went at all. Instead, I became one more person on the night-watch rotation. I began my shift at 4am. Once I had been given my thermos of hot cocoa and some blankets to keep me warm, my dad and granddad both retreated to the camper to get some sleep. Left to the company of 5 motionless fishing rods, my attention was drawn to the stars.
Have you ever been star-gazing? Have you ever been out on a clear night, where there isn’t a lot of extraneous light pollution and you feel like you can see every star in the sky?
I was blown away. I just sat taking it all in, in total awe of what was before my eyes. Millions of stars completely covering the sky. It was incredible and I still have never seen anything like that.
I want you to take a moment this morning and imagine that you are star gazing. That you are in the middle of a big open field – or on ocean side on Drum Inlet. The only light you see are the millions of stars that shine brightly around you. You are one point in a galaxy of brightly shining stars… and you can see them all around. The stars that stand out to you might be different from the ones I notice, but they are all out there. Our perspectives are unique, but we gaze upon the same vast array of beauty and wonder.
Many have done the same – more than likely from the beginning of time. People have looked at the night sky in wonder and admiration.
The stars serve as indicators of time, place, space, and orientation. Ancient farmers who lived in temperate climates – where seasons weren’t as easy to predict based on feet of snow or blazing hot summers – would use the stars to let them know when it was the best time to plant and reap a harvest.
Navigators, when looking to orient themselves on the oceans would follow stars, and align their travels by the patterns they recognized in the heavens – allowing them to travel safely from one coordinate to another, and hopefully sail into a welcoming harbor at journey’s end.
Stars help us find our way. Before GPS, before satellites signals were “not found”, we had stars to guide us, to lead us.
Some ancients even believed that when you die you join the stars – becoming an actual star yourself!
Perhaps that belief was shaped by something we recognize to be true about those we love, about those who have been guiding lights for us: that their light goes on and on beyond their earthly life, shining brightly for all to see, filling our world with light, love and wonder.
If you watched the Lion King as a child or later as an adult, then you might remember the scene where Simba, Pumba, and Timon are lying in the open field considering the nature of the stars – those sparkling dots up there. Timon is the first to answer with certainty – “I don’t wonder – I know … they are fireflies that just got stuck up in that big blueish-black thing,” he says. Pumba laments that all this time he imagined they were balls of gas burning millions of miles away. And Simba confesses that he was taught as a child that they were the ancestors of the past watching over us. Of course, we know that Pumba was right – but Simba is kinda right, too.
In a 2015 interview with CBS correspondent Charlie Rose, astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson said this about our relation to the stars:
That the atoms of our bodies are traceable to stars that manufactured them in their cores and exploded these enriched ingredients across our galaxy, billions of years ago. For this reason, we are biologically connected to every other living thing in the world. We are chemically connected to all molecules on Earth. And we are atomically connected to all atoms in the universe. We are not figuratively, but literally stardust.”
This especially resonated with me as we placed ashes on your foreheads just a couple weeks ago. I found, as the day went on, that my traditional blessing of the ashes morphed from “you are dust, and to dust you shall return” – to include “but you are also more than dust – you are the dust of the stars and of creation, and you are filled with the very breath of God.”
As my friend Rebecca Hewitt Newson reflected on Ash Wednesday, “there may not be a richer depiction for imagining our creation, or for storytelling our human origins with children: we are fashioned and formed out of earth and star stuff, a creature of the elements. What fun to envision God as a creator in an earthen workshop: mixing stardust, worm poop, all-but-invisible germs and bacteria, ocean water, sunlight, gases, and other pieces of the environment to form me, to form us. And just imagine the joy of this whimsical Creator, sending humans out to walk and dance and roam the planet, exclaiming “Oh, this is really quite good!”
We can read in those first words of Genesis—that we are dust and to dust we shall return—as a curse, or we can read them as a blessing, a statement of identity. They’re words that should not only be mumbled in somber recognition of our mortality, but they could just as well be shouted amongst the trees in celebration:
“I too am earth stuff—that is how God chose to make me!”
We are dust – and yet we are also more than dust. We are the dust of the stars and of creation – deeply and fundamentally connected to the universe and one another – and we are enlivened by the very breath of God. Or, as Neil deGrass Tyson says, “we are stardust brought to life, then empowered by the universe to figure itself out – and we have only just begun.
Lent is shaping and reframing the way I’m reading this letter from Paul today.
Romans 12 is such a rich, dense chapter – a chapter that might be understood by some as Paul’s own variation on the Sermon on the Mount; a lecture or lesson on how we can learn best to live with one another in the ways of love and humility as Christ taught us, and as we believe God is calling us. This past Wednesday night we focused on the second half of the chapter, vs 9 – 21, today we are reading the first half of the chapter, and this coming Wednesday we will tackle the whole thing again. Like I said, there is a lot to unpack. But if the second half is a focus how we might best love one another – then I might argue that this first part we consider this morning focuses on how we might best embody humility with one another and with God. Romans 12 as a whole has three uses of our greek word for this Lenten season Allelon, and one of those occurs here.
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
For by grace I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgement … For we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are (allelon) of one another.
We are members of one another … the dust of “one another” text … we belong to one another. When I read this passage through the lens of our interconnected molecular make-up, I hear both the ordinariness, the smallness, the impermanence of our bodies – and also the significance of our very being, the beauty of our individuality, the extraordinary interwoven web of creation. Blair Ramsey said it so well in her sermon this summer – we exist in the balance of both our smallness and our significance. She says, “when we perceive our actions as small, yet significant and stamped by the divine, we are reminded that our lives and what we do with our lives matter.”
This is what true humility in life together looks like. It is not a false humility that downplays our individual importance and relieves us of our responsibility to be acting in the world. It is also not, as Paul puts it, thinking too highly of ourselves – for we have all seen the harm and damage done to communities when individuals or groups of people are considered more important, significant, or worthy than others. But this is a balanced sense of humility – a lesson that we must practice and embody in order to live out lives of love and belovedness that are outlined in the verses follow – the kind of humility that can lend itself to lives that are genuine, to actions of mutual affection and communal good, to patience and hospitality and forgiveness. To a full, meaningful embodiment of who we are created to be…
to a full realization that we are in fact dust, but we are also more than dust.
I felt this especially moving into this season of Lent after the deaths of two whom we have known and loved as a community – Cynthia Stone and Denver Lennon. As I considered those words … you are dust … it seemed to fall so short of all that those two were and the place they held in our world and in the world of all who loved them. I felt this again yesterday as we celebrated Denver’s life with his family – his ashes, his stardust on the table before us – and yet his very life, his stories, his memories, his love filling every bit of the space within and around us. Certainly we feel this in this season as we utter the words … you are dust … and are still wrapping our heads around the 500,000 lives that have died from Covid – and others whom we have said goodbye to in this year. And this is how we feel in the depths of our souls when any with whom we have shared this life go on from here – yes, they are dust – but they are dust aflame with God’s spirit and love. And perhaps this is why we might locate their eternal presence both within us and among the stars.
We belong to one another – we are deeply connected at the very core of our molecular being and our spiritual being – and as Paul suggests, that means something for the ways that we live life with and among one another.
Today we celebrate those individuals who have helped us find our way. Those people in our lives who have loved and nurtured us – those who have contributed something of wonder and beauty through soul and body into the world – those who have helped us to better understand this life of humility to which Paul calls us.
And we give thanks for those who have shone brightly enough over the course of our lives that they have revealed something of love to us. Those through whom we have found ourselves oriented in the direction of love, or have become at least more aware of its brilliance. Those who shown us what it means to be stardust fully alive with the love and spirit and breath of God.
Barry Shoemaker was a beloved member of College Park whose love and memory live on with us after his death in 2008. He loved this saying, “we can’t all be stars, but we can all sparkle.” He even painted it on the wall in the room that our 3rd-5th graders now use for Sunday school. And I have thought of him often in considering what it means that we are each made from stardust. I think he would be thrilled to learn that in fact we all can be and ARE literally stars.
We were created and empowered to be points of light – little stars – in our universe. How beautiful is that? And in my experience the brightness of our light depends on the ways we are willing to fully embody God’s love.
We are dust – but we are more than dust. We are stardust fully aflame with the spirit and love of God, brought to life by the breath of creation and empowered to live fully into the belovedness of all that means – and in a journey that in so many ways has only just begun.