Rev. Danielle K Bartz July 3, 2022
Luke 16:10-13 “A Letter to NASA”
When I was 10 or 11 years old, I wrote a letter to NASA asking if, when the time came, it would be possible for my ashes to be taken into space outside of the gravitational pull of Earth and shot towards the sun. My pre-adolescent self reasoned in that letter that the sun’s gravity would do the rest of the work, pulling my ashes towards it, assuming of course no UFOs got in the way. 10 or 11 years old. I couldn’t quite remember how old I was when I sent that letter so I called my mom to ask, and we figured it was around then. Then, completely unrelated, my mom reminded me that a few years later I decided I was going to dedicate my summer to doing a self-directed study on Astro-physics. So, being the supportive mother she is, she took me to the public library to get a stack of light summer reading material on Astro-physics (this being the time before the internet was an accessible tool for research for most people). The Astro-physics story has nothing to do with my point this morning, but I thought it was a fun little tid-bit for you all to know about the woman you hired to be your pastor. And my mom thought it was really important for you all to know that she was immediately supportive and never made fun of me and my big summer plans. How I ended up in ministry is anyone’s guess – I feel like I am living proof of that saying, “God moves in mysterious ways.”
But, anyway, back to NASA and my quest to have my ashes taken to space and shot into the sun. I don’t remember if the letter was handwritten or if I used the old typewriter we had in the basement – and, incidentally I don’t remember how I got the mailing address for NASA as I assume it wasn’t in the Rochester, MN Yellow Pages, perhaps that was another trip to the library – but the letter was sent. Quite a bit of time passed, at least in the way children mark time, but eventually I received a packet back from NASA will a lovely little note on official NASA letterhead thanking me for my letter and suggesting I write again when I was a little older, but they currently had no programs available to send cremains into space. As another aside, a few years ago when Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry died, his ashes were taken into space by NASA, so they have a program now.
I don’t really remember what motivated me to send the letter, and the reply letter sent by NASA has been lost, but I have always wondered what the person who opened that letter thought of this kid making, quite literally outlandish plans for their eventual death and burial. I want to be clear, I wasn’t sick or surrounded by death – my family and friends were healthy. So, this wasn’t some sort of young person’s existential crisis – this was more of a young person thinking about the future and wanting to set in motion a series of events that would ensure an impact was made and a return to the cosmos at the end was possible. Or – more likely – it was just a kid’s growing fascination with all things outer space and it was just that kids way, albeit weird way, of making a connection.
It is also possible that this was a part of my growing curiosity about God. It was right around the same time that I started to attend church and was being exposed to Christianity and scriptures and liturgy and big ideas and even bigger questions for the first time. That church, Congregational UCC in Rochester, lives well into its denominational heritage of making room for people’s wide imaginations. Ideas of God were not, and are not, limited to religious doctrine. Rather room is created for exploration and wonderment, and even the deep-space sized imaginations of 10-year-old girls who looked into the stars and there glimpsed the face of God. I was, whether I was aware of it or not, seeking a connection with God. And I was going about it in my own unique way, as we all do.
I like to observe the ways people seek a connection with the Divine – especially outside of the confines of traditional religious exploration. There are beloved people in my life who are staunchly opposed to the idea of formal religion, but who have a profound connection to nature. Others who won’t attend a Sunday morning service, but will drop everything to celebrate even the most insignificant of milestones with a child they love. Many won’t utter the words of the Lord’s Prayer, but will march in the streets demanding and seeking justice for all. And every night, across this world, children who have never attended a religious worship service are looking up into the stars and beginning to understand they are connected to something far bigger than they will ever be. And, God willing, their imaginations are sparked and they are carried to a place of wonderment.
I also know people who would say that the love of nature, the attendance of family gatherings instead of organized worship, the passive staring into the sky are forms of idolatry. If their lives are not focused on God and God alone – and in particular the way God is defined by human institutions – then they are on a path towards damnation. I know all of that sounds dramatic, but I recently had a conversation with a clergyman in our region that told me that his only purpose in ministry was to sell ‘fire insurance’ – meaning that his only concern was to ensure people went to heaven when they died in the manner he prescribed. Focus on anything else was a path directly to hell, he told me. And then he quoted the text I read for today. “No slave can serve two masters” he said to me and ended the conversation there.
I was startled, then, when that text appeared just a few weeks later in the Womanist Lectionary – one of those mysterious movements of God that I have found it easier to just accept without too much skepticism. And the text doesn’t leave much wiggle room. You can either love God or wealth, but not both. Wealth, in this case, is all earthly things – tangible things, possessions, accumulation of more material. If that is what you love, then you cannot love God the text warns us. And there is truth in that. I don’t need to remind you of examples of the way humanity’s quest for wealth and material goods have damaged this world. I know you all well enough to know you understand that. But, what I fear is, this text creates a line that some could use to urge people away from loving the gifts of God’s creation as a way of loving God.
I believe, with every fiber of my being, that a person can love God and seek a deeper connection with God and never once step inside a place of worship or open the Bible or utter a formal prayer. I celebrate those who have dedicated their lives to teaching children art or advocating for watershed management in their free time or creating music that stirs the soul. I believe God celebrates each and every time a child reaches out to the new kid in the playground with the same passion that God celebrates when someone comes to the Communion table for the first time. God is so much more than we can ever grasp.
This scripture was flung at me in an effort to shame me for spending some of my time in ministry doing some on the ground organizing – I was seeking that minister’s support for a Habitat for Humanity project. While I brushed it off initially, I kept thinking about that 10 year old girl who wrote to NASA – seeking in her own unique way a connection with something greater. And I wonder what would have happened had I been told that what I was doing then was sinful, idolatrous, and a direct pathway towards hell because I wasn’t focused on an understanding of God and God’s creation created by limited human doctrine.
Loving and exploring this life that God has gifted us is a way of loving God and exploring a deeper connection with God. Yes, we must be careful to remember that the love of material things around us over the love of neighbor can lead us to a path of destruction. But the love of this wild and wonderous life is not a path away from God, but rather a way to experience God.
And, in case you are wondering, I no longer want my ashes shot into the sun when I die. In the wisdom I have gained over the years, I now recognize the logistical challenges that request entails. Instead, I want my ashes dropped into a crater volcano named Massiah by indigenous people of Nicaragua – a place a visited once when I was in seminary and there had a profound experience of God. While the logistical challenges of that request are complicated, at least they are not astronomical. But in the meantime, I will continue to love this world, this universe, and all of the people in it. I will work to embrace life despite my periodic despair, and I will explore the joys of creation around me – all which I believe will lead me even closer to knowing God. And I hope you will join in that exploration with me. Amen.
Good and Loving God, before you created us, you first created a universe filled with wonder for us to revel in. The gifts of your creation are a part of you, just as we are, and for this we are so grateful. It is in this gratitude that we come before you in prayer and praise.
On this day we pray for all those who are exploring you and your creation in wide and wondrous ways. For children and all those who are young at heart who find a connection with you in their own unique way, we give thanks. For those who have been limited in their understanding of you by forces of power and empire, we offer our prayers for resilience and comfort.
And, on this day God, we offer prayers for this country. We pray for the divisions to be bridged, for justice to reign, and mercy to flow freely. For all those who have worked for liberty and justice for all in this country, we offer our thanks. And we ask for your strength, God, as we continue that work in whatever way is right for us.
And now we pause for a few moments of silence to offer to you those prayers on our hearts that are too deep for words…
God of all, we offer these prayers and so much more in service to you and on the path our teacher, Jesus Christ, has set us on. And we pray in the way he taught by raising our voices together…Our Father…