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"Of Dinosaurs and Saints"
Sermon Preached by Thomas R. Stout
Sunday, November 3, 2013
Prayer for Illumination
Pour out your Spirit upon us, O God; with your word enlighten the eyes of our hearts, that we might live in hope; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, Amen.
The Lesson: Hebrews 11: 1, 4, 8, 23, 29, 32, 13-16
1Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
4By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain. Through this he received approval as righteous, God himself giving the approval to his gift; he died, but through faith he still speaks.
8By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive and an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going.
23By faith Moses was hidden by his parents for three months after his birth because they saw the child was beautiful; and they were afraid of the king's edict.
29By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land...
32An what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets...
13-16All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.
"Of Dinosaurs and Saints"
"They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth." If I had a text to set alongside of my sermon title this morning, these words would be it:
"They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth."
I asked Mary Beth Davis if she could provide a picture for this sermon title - similar to the "stacking stones" that accompanied my last sermon. The one printed in this morning's bulletin is one of the ones she found. No, it is not some kind of manta ray that we see beside the human foot. It is a dinosaur footprint found a few years ago somewhere in Texas. The whole photograph shows a line of these prints moving across what is now stone, probably mud when the impression was first made. This was probably some kind of bi-pedal predator on a trek, a journey after...after what? Food? Who will ever know for sure?
And then, look at the human foot. On this stone it will leave no lasting impression. But it too tells us that someone is on a journey, a trek, going somewhere, seeking...what? More dinosaur prints? Who knows for sure?
When we come to this day in the church's calendar, All Saints, we remember those who have preceded us in this place, and on this journey. Here is what it touched off in me this year. I knew some of these people whose names we will soon read in our prayer. Not many of them, in my case, but in Susan Moseley's case, and in many of you, you all know and have memories of many of these folks. For me, some of these folk left way too soon, before I was ready for them to be gone. I miss them, and so do you. Some lived fully and completely, for that we give thanks. And for all of them, wouldn't it be grand if we were still journeying together? My friends, this has been going on among us for a long time. Someone is always going, but so too I have found has someone also been always coming along. It is why I picked the Hebrews text as our scripture lesson for this morning. It says so simply that this journey of faith and life is on-going. In Old Testament times, they were looking for land, for children, for a savior; and while they believed what they had heard God promise, they never saw it, or achieved it, or held him. And when we come into the New Testament saints, and all of those since them, have we achieved yet the goal, the peace, the shalom, the unhindered vision of the Divine promised us by Jesus, and Paul, and John?
"All these died in faith without having received the promises."
And that is where we still are. What does such an uncompleted journey mean? Why is this how the Divine created us to be? Will we ever get there? And who will be there with us? And just here I think we need to remember the words with which our lesson began: "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."
A few weeks ago, one of my favorite magazines, The Christian Century (October 2, 2013) had this wonderful cover with a picture of a dinosaur skeleton on it. The cover advertised an article entitled "Extinction and a Good God: The Purpose of Dinosaurs". I skipped right to the article and read the whole thing. The writer, Bethany Sollereder, posed an important question: Is the extinction of species part of God's plan? To that she added this fact: "beyond just dinosaurs about 99% of all species that have ever lived are now extinct." She does not cite her source for this number, but even if it is not completely accurate the question still remains. How could a good God let such magnificent creatures as iguanodon or the allosaurus simply fade from the Earth? Extend that just a bit further, and we can ask the same question of members of our family, or friends, or colleagues, or mentors, and on and on. Why are they so soon gone from our midst?
I do not for a moment pretend to have a satisfactory answer to this age-old question. But I did come across, in Sollereder's article, an answer that I think is worth pondering for a while. Quoting yet another theologian (Ruth Page, God and the Web of Creation), here is what this article proposes regarding the purpose of dinosaurs:
"Creatures who die in the recurrent ice ages, or who are caught in the lava from volcanoes, have their importance to God, and their relation with God during their lives.
The value of any given life is found in God's companioning of creature, God's co-experience of life, and God's remembering of that life."
To be a companion of God; to be, as Abraham was, a "friend of God"; to be alive at all is to share in the being of God - in the same sense that being belongs to God. Do you catch the point? Right now, you and I are, as Jesus himself called us, children of God. We are part of God's family. We share with God what is part of God's essential nature: to be! Remember when Moses asked God by what name he should call God? Sure you do. And the name God gave Moses was simply: "I am". "Be". In noun form, this is our word "being". From the four Hebrew letters used in this story in the Bible, we get the name "Yahweh", or "Jehovah". And that name can be past tense, present tense, future tense: I was, I am, I will be. I just love how that sounds and feels.
Of course there is more to being and to being with God, companioning with God, than just sharing this sense of being, of existence. Is God indeed good, loving, just, merciful? All sorts of questions can be, and must be asked after we see that we share in this being of God. And that is why, I believe, God came among us in the person and presence of Jesus of Nazareth - to remind us that even when we fall short, far short, of what we could be, we still belong to God. Not to ourselves alone, dear saints of God, but to our faithful God - our father, our mother, our divine parent - if you will accept such an image. And that too is what I believe the saints and dinosaurs, and all other creatures who have gone before us bear witness to:
"They confessed that they were strangers and sojourners on the earth." And "They desire a better country, that is a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed he has prepared a city for them."
And that is where the footprints are going.
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