A story by The Rev. Dr. Lane Denson
(A story told as a homily at Otey Parish, Sewanee, on the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, 29 July 2001.)

Once upon a time when children were given the alphabet to copy and learn, following the "Z" was placed the rather squiggly symbol (&) we now use as an abbreviation for "and." This was called originally, "and per se, and." It survived as "ampersand," and it remains now as the sign for joining together other symbols and such like, as we say, a "conjunction." There are, of course, numerous ampersands, some of elegant design. The cross is one.

The lesson from the Epistle to the Colossians this morning is about the cross, the symbol of the extent of God's mercy so tentatively revealed in the Old Testament lesson about Abraham's plea for Sodom. It is also about how God "disarmed all the principalities and powers of their day and made a public example of them, triumphing over them..." (and) nailing them to the cross. (Gen 18.20-33; Col 2.6-15)

Let me ask you now to imagine for a moment a scene many, many centuries from that time, but only a short distance around the corner into our future.. A final international summit conference about missile shields and ABM treaties and global warming and the Great Economy is deadlocked at a point beyond which our proud, flag-draped leaders on both sides simply will not go.

Standing thus in their last refuge of patriotism, they release their weapons, their "clean bombs," and simply set fire to the planet. They never quite realize the difference between arson and Armageddon, grandeur's delusion long since blinding them beyond any remaining sense of stewardship at all.

Now. as the old Eucharistic liturgy put so well, "this fragile earth, our island home" orbits, cremated, a giant cinder cast aside along some cosmic byway. But it was not without notice.

All the while and for centuries before this holocaust, this once vibrant cell of life has been circled and monitored by intergalactic probes no larger than grapefruit, rendered invisible even to our most sophisticated stealth initiatives. Messages about us in every detail from Irma's "Joy of Cooking" to Alex's "Joy of Sex" are faithfully recorded by another people intent on peaceful exploration and expansion in the universe.

They've watched our "progress." They realize that Earth's atmosphere once vaporized, now gradually returns, sufficiently rejuvenated to sustain life, perhaps even life such as theirs. And so, they come. They come not to experiment, but to explore, not to conquer, but to conserve, not for greed, but for grace.

And imagine further that first landing party, excited, skillfully trained, disciplined. They touch down. They move out into the ruins, collecting, sampling, filing, their data instantaneously noted and analyzed into appropriate cyberarchival systems at their faraway origin. Perhaps, they conclude, this may indeed be a safe environment to nurture back to life.

Then one of the landing parties, sorting gently through the crumbling remains, sifts and dusts to expose to their astonishment intact and hardly damaged at all a large cross. They cease work immediately. They cordon off the area. They send for their leader who arrives and approaches cautiously the display as they stand hushed, awaiting instructions.

With the care and respect of a competent archeologist, their chief observes the artifact at some distance, then reaches down to examine it more closely. As she does, her tunic opens ever so slightly at the neck allowing a pendant chain to swing free and reveal, hanging there, a cross.


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