Scripture Texts: 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1: 26-38
About two thousand years ago, the story goes that three wisemen from the east, possibly kings, followed an unusual star that appeared in the western sky. They followed the star to Bethlehem where they found a young child who had been promised to his people to be their deliverer—they assumed—from the oppressive hand of the Roman Empire. Furthermore, this young child would be the embodiment of a prophecy given to the ancestral king David of one who would sit on the Davidic throne forever.
This fall, if you pay attention to such things, the world has been privileged to observe another astral phenomenon. Saturn has been chasing Jupiter through the night sky in the southwest. Tomorrow night, if we are lucky and the sky is clear, the whole world will be able to see Saturn and Jupiter converge in the night sky shortly after sunset before they fall off the edge of the earth. Astronomers call this event the Great Conjunction.
To the naked eye, Jupiter, the brighter of the two stars, and Saturn will appear as one star. But if you look closely, perhaps with a pair of binoculars or a telescope, you will be able to see two separate planets as well as their moons. Further back in the race at about eleven o’clock in the planetary, you will see the reddish glow of Mars; and still further behind you can see the planet Uranus.
Back in the early eighties, in his PBS television show, Cosmos, the famous astrophysicist Carl Sagan said, “We [people] are a way for the universe to know itself. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return. And we can, because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff.” Are we really kin to the stars? Do we even dare allow ourselves to imagine that our kinship is so expansive?
Family reunions were a huge and dreaded part of my growing-up years. My heart would sink when I heard my parents uttering, “Well, there is a reunion this weekend.” It seemed to me summer weekends were synonymous with reunions. They were never something that I looked forward to, especially if it involved extended family, meaning second and third cousins that I barely knew, if at all. You see, my parents both came from expansive families. My dad’s family, the Jacob E Miller family, consisted of thirteen children—eleven girls and two boys. My mother’s family, the Levi C Yoder family, was hardly to be outdone. There were twelve children in her family—six boys and six girls. That means I have twenty-three uncles and aunts, plus their spouses. And many of them had big families. I used my calculator to tally how many first cousins I actually have—that would be 124 first cousins, plus their spouses. So you can imagine that family reunions were a serious matter in our family.
Please do not ask me to identify all my cousins. I am one the younger branches on the genealogical tree on both sides of the my family. I have first cousins who are in their late nineties and still going strong. I recognize all of their faces, which family they belong to, and their names. However, I have problems attaching the right name to the right face. I’m getting better at it in recent years.
My mother, on the other hand, knew all of the nieces and nephews on both sides of the family, their spouses, and their children, and many of her great-nephews’ and great-nieces’ spouses and children. It was a monumental achievement on the part of her and her sisters to so intimately keep track of such an expensive set of kin. And yet, when you compare it with the possibility that we are kin to the stars, my family tree is quite stuffy and minute.
We find God’s expansive kingdom, or kin-dom, referenced in our scripture passages today. In 2 Samuel, David has completed building his own palace out of expensive materials, and once he settles into it, it dawns on him that his house—is more elaborate than the house God supposedly inhabited, which was simply a tent. David quickly vows that he will build an even more elaborate dwelling than his own for God’s house as if God were some sort of animal that could be caged for display. But God responds to King David through the prophet Nathan that God does not need or even want a house built of fine materials. Since their relationship with God began in Egypt, God had always dwelt in the transience of a tent. God liked the unpredictability of a tent rather than the cold confinement of stone and precious metals.
Then in a reversal of roles, God promises that he will establish David’s throne forever, that it would last for all generations. When it comes to time, it is an expansive kingdom that God promises to David.
When the angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will bear the Christ child that her people have been waiting on for years, Gabriel issues a similar promise. Gabriel tells Mary that her son will given “the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32-33).
To all of this, Mary responds with her rendition of Psalm 89: “My soul magnifies the Lord….according to the promises God made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever” (Luke 1:46,55).
Paul, in his letter to the Romans, seemingly pushes the envelope even further. He extends the kingdom of God beyond the Jewish kinship network to include all peoples when he writes that the mystery of God is disclosed “to all the Gentiles” (Romans 16:26)—in other words, to all people.
But is God’s kingdom limited to only people? And is its expansiveness only a matter of time? In other words, is it only for all people of all times? That in itself would seem impressive. Can it include both the tribe of Jacob E Miller and the tribe Levi C Yoder, as expansive as they both are? Really, is the kingdom of God only about people, or is it so expansive that it includes the stars? As we look up into the night sky over the next several nights, do we consider Jupiter and Saturn, along with their moons, our kin?
The angel Gabriel seems to have an idea of the expansive kinship network related to Christ and through Christ. He does not simply tell Mary that Christ’s kingdom will last forever; he tells her, “Of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:3). That seems to imply not only limitless time, but limitless space and beings. If you can think of it, you’re related to it. That includes Jupiter and Saturn; that includes the ocean and its creatures; that includes the forest and its dwellers; that includes Mary and your next door neighbor; that includes COVID.
The image on the cover of today’s bulletin is called Christ Pantocrator. Though there have been many depictions of this image, they have mostly been used in the iconography of the Eastern Orthodox Church. This particular one, however, was created by Aidan Hart for St. Martin’s Church of Wales in 2013, using tiny pieces of glass to create a mosaic. This image is based on a similar image found in the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, which was completed in the sixth century.
If you look closely at his depiction of Christ, Hart represents Christ with two different facial expressions: one side represents the Divine aspect of Christ, while the other side represents the human side of Christ. In his left hand he holds a book representing the Gospels.
The name Pantocrator is often translated as “All-Powerful” and is derived from the Greek words pantos, which means “all,” and kratos, which means “strength, power, or might.” However, Pantocrator is also sometimes translated as “Sustainer of the World,” or “to hold all things.”
And so the Christ child that was announced to Mary by Gabriel as the one whose kingdom has no end—or as Richard Rohr refers to Christ, the Cosmic Christ—was to be the personification of God, in whom all things exist and therefore are related.
We have a hard time grasping this in our Western minds. We think of kingdoms in terms of borders and boundaries; kinship in terms of bloodlines; and kings and queens in terms of power and authority, often misused. But what overwhelms Mary is that her son is the personification of a kingdom that knows no end, in whom all things are held together and are related to each other. Are we ready for that? Are we ready to see the moon as our brother, the trees as our older brothers, the strawberries as our sisters, and COVID as our Cousin Eddie—the one who shows up unexpectedly, unannounced, and unwelcome at our family gatherings?
The Christ child that was announced thousands of years ago in the brightness of the star in the western sky came to bring a peaceable kingdom, a kingdom in which shalom is the rule of the land: a land in which all people live in right relationship with each other, in right relationship with God, in right relationship with the earth and the universes, and in right relationship with our own being. What difference would it make if we saw all creation as our kin?
In closing I would like to call attention to a poem by Mary Oliver. Mary Oliver is a Pulitzer Prize poet who loved the world around her and spent a great deal of time getting to know that world. She developed intimate relationships not only with her pets, but also the foxes, the owls, the plants, and the geese that inhabited the woods surrounding her home.
One day while Oliver was in Chicago for a reading of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation’s annual reading gala, she was walking down the sidewalk with the director of the Poetry Foundation on the way to dinner. Mary was wearing jeans and her Carhartt jacket that she always wore on her forays into the woods around her home. They came upon the bloodied carcass of a pigeon lying on the sidewalk that had been killed by an urban hawk. Mary bent down, picked up what was left of the pigeon, and stuck it into her Carhartt pocket. After the evening was over—the dinner eaten, the poetry read—the director and Mary met at the afterparty and Mary pulled the pigeon out of her pocket, showing the director she had hung onto to the mutilated pigeon the entire evening. Mary cared deeply about the world she lived in.
This poem, called “Wild Geese,” is one of her most beloved poems. It speaks of our place in this expansive world we are coming to know as our kin.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
*Art work was accessed through Aidan Hart Mosaics.
*Poem was accessed through Vanderbilt University.