8-19-18 - “Creation as Blessing”
At the end of worship today, we’re going to sing the song, “What a Wonderful World,” by Louis Armstrong. Hopefully, this message and service will make the reason for that clear to you. I love this song, both the original version recorded by Armstrong in 1967 as well as the version recorded years later by Izzy Kamakawiwo’ole that beautifully blended “Wonderful World” with “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Knowing we would use this song, I tried to remember when was the first time I might have heard it - or at least, the first time it made an impression on me. I knew it had to have been from a movie and soon concluded that it was from the “Forrest Gump” soundtrack. So, with that “fact” firmly planted in my brain I began my work.
Now, as I shared once before, my sermon writing process often looks like one of those family circus cartoons depicting the winding and circuitous path taken by the little boy as he simply goes from one place to another. Sermon writing invariably leads me off on tangents that often include various books, websites, YouTube videos, and who knows what else. This one is no different. In thinking about this song and sermon I Googled “Forrest Gump soundtrack” and scrolled through the many incredible pieces of music that are part of that wonderful film. To my surprise, I found no reference to the song anywhere. Confused, I again Googled - because that’s what one does - but this time the song title with “in film” and learned that the song wasn’t in “Forrest Gump,” but rather, the Robin Williams film, “Good Morning, Vietnam.” Convinced that I “knew” this song was in “Forrest Gump,” I was forced to “unlearn” and “relearn.”
Now, that’s a pretty insignificant example, but we have to unlearn things in life all the time - I know I do. When I switched over from a Dell laptop using Microsoft Windows to an Apple and began using a Mac I had to unlearn the ways of a Windows machine and adopt the ways of the Mac’s operating system. Now, if Lynn asks me for help on her Windows based laptop, I’m lost.
I used to know how to do basic maintenance on my cars - changing the oil and filters, replacing hoses and belts. Now, cars have become so complicated and computerized, with so much stuff jammed into an ever smaller engine compartment, I’ve had to unlearn basic auto care and learn instead the name and number of a good mechanic.
I used to know how to do the laundry. But after Lynn and I were married I had to unlearn that, because she said I didn’t separate things correctly and wouldn’t let me do it anymore. With her frequent trips to Sandusky lately, though, last week I had her show me how to use our new washing machine - also computerized - so that in case I needed to, I could do laundry. We’re constantly forced to unlearn old things we thought we knew, old ways of doing things, in order to learn new things to keep up with life.
But it transcends technology. We all had to unlearn our childhood understandings of life, family, where babies come from, etc. as we grew older and more mature. Science has compelled us, over the centuries, to unlearn not only how we did things but also what we thought about things. For example, the earth is not at the center of our universe; our planet is not flat - we won’t fall over the edge if we sail too close to the horizon; and the Titanic was not unsinkable as first thought. We rethink and relearn things all the time - probably every day if we really thought about it. So, it should come as no surprise to us that sometimes we have to unlearn and relearn - we have to rethink - our ideas about God, the Bible, about Creation, and about the world in general.
Our image of the world is largely influenced by our culture and by the media, by what we see, what we hear, how we’re told things are. And if what “they” say is true, then the world and the people in it are mostly bad, evil, and selfish. Apparently there are kidnappers, terrorists, criminals, rapists, and serial killers lurking around every corner.
But let me ask you - is that how you personally experience the world? Think about the people you know, the people you encounter every day in the grocery store, the drug store, at the restaurant, the library, the church - are these people all evil? Are they all child molesters, pedophiles, pornographers, swindlers and the kind of people who seek to hurt other people? I doubt it.
I had a high school principal who always used to quip, “It’s always that 5% who ruin it for everyone!” No, I believe the world is mostly good, it’s just that we mostly only hear about the bad. We hear about a crime somewhere and the story is repeated so often that it feels like it’s happening everywhere, all the time. The evening news, national and local, spend 80% of their airtime telling us all the bad that happens and then give a token few minutes at the end of the broadcast when we’re already disgusted, depressed, and demoralized -
to share one good news story. Twenty-five years ago, before the advent of CNN, the non-stop 24-hour news cycle, and smart-phones, most people heard the news from one of just a handful of trusted sources, once or twice a day, and that was it. But now, cable news has to program every minute of every day, 24/7/365, creating an incessant drumbeat of negativity being reported around the clock and it skews our outlook, it taints our perception and understanding, or to use a metaphor I’ve used with you many times before, it smudges the lenses through which we view the world. And when bad news is the message we’re fed day after day, week after week, year after year, it distorts our understanding of the nature of the world.
So, as people of faith, what do we do? Well, we can turn to the Bible, to see what it has to say about the world. And the Bible opens with two stories of Creation. The familiar story of Adam and Eve in the Garden, from what is called the Yahweh or J source, is written in prose and found in the second chapter. The first story we encounter - the opening passage in the Bible - is in the form of a poem, and comes to us from what is called the Priestly source. And when we read it, we recognize in it the patterns of freeform poetry or even liturgy -
God said, “Let there be light.” And so light appeared. 4 God saw how good the light was. God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God named the light Day and the darkness Night.
There was evening and there was morning: the first day.
Or perhaps even of a song…
I see skies of blue and clouds of white
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
And I think to myself what a wonderful world
Or later, where Genesis 1 records,
God said, “Let the earth grow plant life: plants yielding seeds and fruit trees bearing fruit with seeds inside it, each according to its kind throughout the earth.” And that’s what happened. 12 The earth produced plant life: plants yielding seeds, each according to its kind, and trees bearing fruit with seeds inside it, each according to its kind. God saw how good it was. There was evening and there was morning: the third day.
Or as Louis Armstrong sang…
I see trees of green, red roses too
I see them bloom for me and you
And I think to myself what a wonderful world
One of the things we must unlearn and relearn when we read these chapters is simply this: these stories are not intended to tell us the “how” or the “when” of Creation, but rather the “why,” the “who,” and the “what.” Young Earth Creationists trace back, as though on a calendar, the ages of the various people mentioned in the Bible and declare with great certainty that the earth is only 6,000 years old. Scientists, using a multitude of tools in astronomy, astrophysics, biology, geology, and other sciences, tell us that the earth is 13.1 billion years old. Christians who believe the Bible to be the literal, dictated words of God, look at Genesis 1 and see a Creation story that says God created everything in 6 days - sometimes justifying that thinking by suggesting they were really long days - but whose overall approach to Scripture can be summed up by the bumper sticker, “The Bible Says, I Believe It, That Settles It.” But does it?
The Creation story from Genesis chapter 2 is completely different, from a different source, written at a different time, with a different order of Creation.
Both cannot be literally true - they can’t both be historical, factual, renderings of how it all began. And that’s good, because neither were intended to be.
The Biblical Creation stories lived in the oral tradition for centuries before either was written down. It was when Israel and Judah were conquered, first by the Assyrians and then by the Babylonians, and the people sent into exile that these stories, and most of what we now know as the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, were put into writing. And what prompted that? Exile. They found themselves suddenly far from home, immersed in a very different, very strange culture from what they were used to. Being in exile, surrounded by polytheistic religions vastly differently than their own, away from their homeland for several decades, people intermarried, blending their identities. Their cultural heritage, their religious beliefs and understandings began to fade, to intermingle, even to be forgotten by some. They were exposed to other beliefs and ideas that were in conflict with what they had learned or always understood.
One example of that conflict is in how creation occurred. Both the Assyrian and the Babylonian people understood creation through an account called the Enuma Elish. Enuma Elish, recounted on seven tablets, begins with the universe unformed and containing only water. Only two beings exist in this unformed creation: Apsu, god of the fresh waters, and his wife, Tiamat, who is god of the salt water and the chaotic oceans. Tiamat is depicted as a monstrous dragon. From their union, these two gods have children of their own, and soon there are many of them ruling the cosmos. But bothered by the noise and commotion caused by these other gods, Apsu decides to destroy them, never mind that they are his offspring. Tiamat, horrified by her husband's plan, opposes Apsu, but cannot defeat him.
Apsu is eventually conquered by the god Ea, his own great-grandson, who uses a spell to subdue Apsu and keep him imprisoned in a deathlike state of sleep. All seems well, and Ea and his wife have a son, the god Marduk, who as a child is the favorite of the other gods.They give him the winds as a toy to play with, but the winds stir up trouble on the salty seas, enraging Tiamat. Tiamat, her new husband, the god Kingu, and a group of gods to which she has given birth swear revenge for this and for Ea's treatment of Apsu.
The gods are frightened at the prospect of facing this army, with Kingu at its head. They don't know how they could possibly defeat it. Marduk speaks up, offering to fight for the gods and defeat Tiamat and Kingu on one condition: that he be made absolute king of the gods, having even the power of life and death over his fellow divinities. The gods ultimately agree to his conditions. Marduk is armed and sent off to do battle.
Marduk faces the dragon Tiamat in single combat, catches her in his net and dispatches her with an arrow. Marduk then cuts up Tiamat's body and uses it to construct the dome of the sky, as well as the earth.
He buries her head under a mountain and pierces her eyes; her tears the sources for the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. And in this way, Marduk demonstrates his absolute mastery over the natural world.
[study.com, “Enuma Elish,” accessed 8/15/18.]
So clearly, this is a radically different idea of creation than the stories that Israel had passed down orally from generation to generation - some that we know and others since lost. And in a large cosmopolitan city like Babylon, these and other variations circulated among the people. Wanting to solidify their own traditions, the Hebrew exiles began to write down, at different times and in different places during these two distinct periods of exile separated by 130 years, their cultural stories of Creation. But beyond the differences we encounter in the two Biblical versions found in Genesis, the bigger difference we find between the Hebrew and Babylonians stories, is their image of God.
The Babylonians epic is polytheistic, there are multiple gods, and they are an angry, violent, and power hungry brood. Humanity is a mere afterthought.
The world, the universe, is created out of the waste and remains of a slain dragon-like god. That is not the God that the Hebrew people had come to know. Not wanting their God stories to be co-opted or forgotten, they began to record them. And in writing a story down, as is often the case, it becomes both solidified and clarified. Solidified as in less open to being changed as it is passed on than when a story is passed for centuries in what amounts to an ancient version of the telephone game. Clarified in the sense that, as a formal written account, it is more easily studied, compared and contrasted, and dissected in order to draw meaning from it.
What we find in the Hebrew stories is not multiple gods, but one God - monotheism. And that one God didn’t create the universe from leftover parts in a Frankenstein sort of way, but created everything out of nothing - in God’s own image. God’s desire to create didn’t emerge from conflict, anger, or war, but from love, out of God’s desire for relationship. This is a much different picture, a much more loving image of God and Creation than what the exiled Hebrew people heard in Assyria and Babylon. Genesis presents creation as an act of God’s love.
The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces of people going by
I see friends shaking hands saying how do you do
They're really saying I love you
But even that doesn’t resolve all the differences found in the Genesis accounts. The second creation story, from Genesis 2, relays the epic of Adam and Eve in the garden. And while this too, is a beautiful story, our tendency is to go straight for the bad news - what we call the Fall. It’s as though we’re watching a reality TV show - “Survivor: Garden of Eden,” or something - and we skip the beauty and poetry offered in Genesis 1 and settle into the dirt with the talking snake, wrapping ourselves in what would much later become the idea of “original sin.”
Oh, how so many in the church love to look at the world through the lens of original sin. And when sinfulness, the Fall, inherent evil, is the lens through which we look at the world - like watching cable news - we are sure to find it everywhere, all the time. When we choose to live in the dirt, we get dirty.
And that’s twisted, because the first story we find when we crack open the cover of our Bible, is not about original sin at all. It’s about original blessing. The message that those saints who organized the Bible into what we have today wanted us to receive right out of the gate, was a message of goodness and blessing. How? By sharing the account of Creation that tells us that God created everything and declared it “good” and “very good” - in the CEB - even “supremely good.”
And that is unfortunate.
We began our worship today with these words of liturgy:
God is good - All the time
All the time - God is good
We know this! God IS Good, ALL the time. And that good God, who declared all of creation as good, has not revoked that declaration, has not rescinded that proclamation. But sometimes we are blind to this goodness because everybody and their brother, inside the church and out, are too busy telling us 24/7, like talking snakes, that this place is evil; that our flesh and bodies are evil; that it’s okay to point fingers at the perceived sin of other people because we’re better than, holier than, or more righteous than they are; that those people or that group or this religion are condemned because they’re not like us; that we can ignore and even abuse the planet God created for us because God is going to destroy all this and we’re all gonna “fly away” to heaven. But who are we to declare as evil what God has declared as good? Who are we to point to another’s sin as somehow worse than our own? Who are we to decide that it’s okay to pollute the waters, the air, the land, our bodies, because we’ve misinterpreted “dominion over” and “care for,” as permission to abuse, destroy, or profit from? We need to unlearn some of the things that the world, and yes, the church, have taught us about life, about people, about creation, about faith, and about God.
We need to begin from the perspective with which Scripture begins: blessing. Original blessing. Creation as blessing. Creation as good and very good. That’s what Creation Spirituality does. It assumes that the universe and all creation is a blessing given to all of us by the one God who is present in all things, and who continues to bless us. Creation Spirituality, which was the tradition of Jesus within Judaism, assumes a God who is present, here and now, and not just out there somewhere. It proclaims that God is found in everything, that there is no separation between what is secular and what is sacred, that everything is sacred to God and should be sacred to us as well. Creation Spirituality is not some newly discovered or recently created new-age practice - as I said, it was the tradition of Jesus. But for 21st century people, it’s a newly rediscovered tradition.
The creation story of Genesis 1 presents a completely different account of the world’s origins than what the people in exile were hearing. First of all, Genesis 1 is fiercely monotheistic. Not only is there one God, but this God is sovereign and powerful. God speaks, and it happens. Unlike in polytheistic religions, God does not have a singular specified area of competence, but rather is the creator of all things.
As well as creating the vast cosmos, God also created the animal and vegetable life, important for an agrarian society like ancient Israel. In particular, the creation of “the great sea monsters”(v. 21) represents a veiled challenge to Babylonian belief, championing the power of God. In Enuma Elish, the sea monster Tiamat gave birth to the first generation of deities, and was later defeated by Marduk. But in Genesis 1, God has no such struggle with even the sea monsters.
Most significantly, Genesis 1 provides a unique account of the relationship between humans and divine. This good God decides to makes humans “in our image, according to our likeness.”
The Genesis 1 accounts assures us that humans are not created out of the capricious whim of certain deities, but rather, we stand as the culmination of the creation event. After the creation of humans, God, in God’s powerful word, blesses them and declares them as good.
As we consider the wondrous nature of creation, it’s important to recognize the radical, remarkable, and revolutionary nature of the Genesis 1 creation in its original context. This presentation of God comes as a wonderful relief and assurance to the family of ancient Israel.
The God of Genesis 1 provides assurance to those, who work to raise crops against the numerous natural challenges. The God of Genesis 1 brings peace to the nation struggling for survival against the numerous encroaching enemies from all sides. God is one. God is powerful. God is good. And God created us in that image. This opening passage of our Bible constitutes the essence of good news.
Of course, this is not the only good news of the Bible, but only the opening proclamation. In addition to giving a refreshing account of creation, canonically, Genesis 1 parallels the start of another biblical narrative of good news and blessing that reads, “In the beginning was the Word.” The ensuing narrative assures, comforts, and challenges all who hear to understand that as blessed and beloved children of the one Good God, we live in a wonderful world. Amen.