14 June 2017

Genesis 1: probably not the way you heard it in Sunday School.

On Sunday 11 July 2017 at Southwest Central Houston, I preached my first sermon. I am 68 years old; I never thought such a thing would be possible in the fellowship where my husband and I have chosen to worship and serve since our university days. I am publishing my sermon as written and I was pretty close to the script. There were a couple of stutters and missteps early on but I did get into the groove. One of my male friends said, "I saw that silver hair in the pulpit and you started and I said, 'Oh, oh! we're in trouble." I certainly intended this sermon as a response, a corrective, to much faulty teaching, doctrine, and practice.
 I will also add a link to the audio posted by my church.

I had prepared a PowerPoint and there were a number of additional slides. I attempted to use only slides which I believed to be in the public domain but I am only going to publish the word clouds I made myself and NASA's Carina Nebula. 

Call to Worship: “Every Sunday people come to church overwhelmed by chaos.” (Walter Brueggemann from notes I made during a lecture I attended) As our own Phil Rice so often prays, “Our world is a mess…” We are overwhelmed by the mess and chaos of politics, poverty, illness, loss, exhaustion, pain, indecision... Yes, we gather here as people overwhelmed by chaos. We gather here to encourage one another, to proclaim faith in the Creator, to remember Jesus, and through our presence and our praise, by the Spirit of the living God, we “transform chaos into creation.”  (WB said, "by our liturgy we transform... )

{The congregation read the 8th Psalm in unison and I cited that Psalm in my conclusion.}

Cynthia Bird graced us with her spoken word performance of “The Creation” by James Weldon Johnson, 1871-1938.

 Link to the recording. After Cynthia, I begin speaking about 06:25

I had trouble loading this audio on my iPad.

The Creation: not like you heard it in Sunday School 
by K Cummings Pipes 11 June 2017

 The message I bring today is rooted in my concern for ever increasing numbers of friends, family, and even a few of my former Sunday School kids who come to me and whisper, “In my heart I believe, or really want to believe, in a loving God but I just cannot believe…” And the thing they cannot believe is usually some very simple version of The Creation Story which denies all the evidence of geology, physics, astronomy, and biology…” And it breaks my heart that we Christians have needlessly erected such a barrier to faith.  The Apostle Paul wrote:
“…that which is known about God is evident, for God has made it evident. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made.” {Romans 1:19-20}

So today we’re going to take a fresh look at the Word of God.
The Word of God
Before the Apostle Paul wrote a single letter to the church…
Before tongues of fire and the Holy Spirit-filled preaching of Pentecost…
Before “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” and “was the light of all humankind… (John 1)
 Yes, The Word of God before
Before all the Writings of Hebrew Wisdom that “are a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path…”
Before the Prophets…
Before the Law
Before the 10 “words” of Sinai
Indeed, before any word was ever written...
Before the voice from a burning bush called Moses to lead God’s own people to freedom…
Before Jacob…
Before Isaac…
Before God called Abraham…
In the beginning...

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and empty and darkness covered the face of the deep, The Spirit of God was moving gently on the face of the waters, the breath of God moved across the face of the deep.

Then God said…”

Yes, that’s it! The Word of God! When God spoke and “made evident, His invisible attributes.”

“Then God said, ‘Let there be light! And light there was! And God saw the light was good.”
We call this text the creation story but it is not historical narrative. It is a poem and the word, create  בָּרָ֣א  bā-rā in Hebrew Strong 1254 will not be used again until v. 21 (when God creates the life of the sea and the birds) and again in v. 27 (when God creates the life of the earth and then humans in God’s own image)
Contrary to what you may have heard, contrary to what I once taught
create does not mean “make something out of nothing.” Creation means something new! something is that has never been before
The Hebrew word conveys a sense of “feeding” as wool is fed onto the spindle when making thread or  as a weaver “feeds the loom”. There may be a reason we say “the web of life” Everything is woven together.
The Hebrew word create also conveys a sense of “fattening” or growth through abundant nourishment.  
{There was also a slide with Psalm 90:12 Teach us to number our days...}

Thus, Creation is not instantaneous; it is a process over time. And that is why the Genesis text includes 6 time markers and a Sabbath rest.
We are finite beings and we experience time as finite. We have little concept of eternity. But God is not finite and His Days are not as our days.

But at least one thing we all learned in Sunday School is absolutely correct! 
Only God creates.

Rather than a focus on the word create, what the text says repeatedly is that God spoke, And God said…”
So, this text is primarily about the Word of God, the Spoken Word of God. Other than speaking, God’s actions on the first days are “separating and dividing”: Light from darkness. Day from Night. Waters above from waters below. Heavens. Sea. Earth.

And God said “Let there be Light”
And God saw the light was good.
God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day and the darkness God called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.

Evening and morning” this phrase marks the transition form one Creation Day to the next. In it we may see images of completion and new beginning.
Remembering that the first verse described earth as “empty and dark” and that God spent the first days separating light and darkness, we might also see that phrase, evening and morning, as a boundary separating darkness and light. 
Or we could view it, especially since it is closely associated with a numbering, as the end of one step in the creative process and the beginning of another.

Then God said, Let there be an expanse, separating the waters above and the waters below. And God made this expanse and separated the waters above and the waters below.
God called the expanse Heaven And there was evening and there was morning, (Day 2)

God “made” וַיַּ֣עַשׂ    way·ya·‘aś   in Hebrew Strong 6213ThisInI

In Hebrew, this is neither the same word nor does it have the same meaning as create”  בָּרָ֣א  bā-rā in Hebrew Strong 1254
The verb “to make” hints at ideas of separation, preparation, purpose, provision. When God “creates” the result is something new! Something now is that has never been before. 
God “makes” by using something that is already present in the creation and shapes it, forms it to serve a purpose.

{This distinction between "create" and "make" is the crux of my interpretation of the Genesis Creation Poem.}
In this passage God made the expanse (e.g. the firmament). Later God made the sun, the moon, and the stars.

And God said, “Let the waters be gathered into one place and let the dry land appear. And God called the dry land Earth and the collection of waters God called Sea.
And God saw that it was good.

And God said , “Let the earth sprout”
Doesn’t that recall the creation image of growth through abundant nourishment? 
Note also that the text does not say that God created nor that God made.
God spoke: 
“Let the earth sprout” vegetation, plants bearing seeds, and trees bearing fruit with seeds each according to their own kind. And God saw that it was good . And there was evening and there was morning.  (Day 3)

And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse to separate the day from the night, and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be for lights in the heavens to give light on the earth.

God made the sun and the moon and stars in the heavens for a purpose:
  …to rule over the day and the night and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, Day 4.

Then God said, “Let the waters swarm with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth in the heavens. God created…
(There’s that word create)
God created great sea animals and every living creature that moves and the waters swarmed according to their own kind and the winged birds according to their own kind, and God saw that it was good. And God blessed the living creatures, saying
“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the
waters in the sea, and let the birds multiply on the earth.”
There was evening and there was morning.

Day 5 was a bit different! As in the first verse, God both speaks and creates. What he creates are the living creatures of the Sea and the living creatures of the Sky. In Hebrew, they are נֶ֣פֶשׁ nephesh chay “living beings having the breath of life”

“Breath of life” recalls the first verse of Genesis, when God’s breath moved across the face of the deep, when the Spirit moved gently over the waters. That first act of creation has been followed by a second, “living creations having the breath of life.” Something new! Something now is that has never been before.
nephesh chay 
Some translators would say, “living souls.”
We should note that this is exactly the same phrase that will be used in verse 27 for all the beasts of the earth and for humankind.
And for the very first time, God speaks a blessing.
Everything that has breath has been blessed by God.

Then God said, “Let the earth bring forth” living creatures nephesh chay , each according to their own kind: Cattle and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their own kind and the cattle according to their own kind” and so it was!
God created the beasts of the earth according to their own kind and everything that creeps upon the earth according to their own kind. And God saw that it was good.

At this point all the vegetation that the earth sprouted, all the living creatures that swarmed in the sea, all the birds that filled the sky, all the animals that the earth brought forth have been described as reproducing “each according to their own kind.” Each well suited and fruitful in its own environment of Sea or Sky or Earth.
God has seen that all this life is good.
But at this mid-point on Day 6 things are about to change

Then God said, “Let Us make humankind in Our image, according to Our likeness…”
Here, the word is make וַיַּ֣עַשׂ,  with its ideas of separation, preparation, purpose, provision. And from that moment, although humans are among the living creatures that the earth brought forth, we are no longer according to the same kind as are other living creatures of Sea, Sky, and Earth. We are not only nephesh chay, living creatures having the breath of life but we have been made “like God.” We are not limited but move between all the environments of earth, sea, and sky.
And we were made for a purpose:
“let them rule over the fish of the sea an over the birds of the heavens and over the cattle and over all the earth, over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
{After the fact, both David and I noticed that "to rule" was also the purpose of the Sun, Moon, and Stars. Something to consider.}

The purpose for which God made humans was to “rule” and in Hebrew that word “rule” means absolute authority as a king. {Of script here, I added, "sometimes I wish it didn't but it does."}
But for far too long, we have used that word “rule” to excuse our domination and greedy exploitation of Earth and its creatures.

We can learn about God’s means by “let them rule” by reading about what he required of the biblical kings “to be just and fair and merciful, to care for and provide for the poor and weak and the stranger among them.”
We can see God’s own care for the earth in many scriptures.
{There was a lovely landscape slide with Psalm 24:1 "The earth is the Lord's and everything in it.}
Because we are made like God and in God’s image our rule must be like God’s:
full of love and attention and intention,
to tend, to care, to grow, to provide, to protect all the environments and living creatures of Earth, Sky, and Sea
As Josh Day reminded us last week,“Both the land and the people belong to God.”

“God created man in God’s own image, in the image of God, God created him; male and female God created them.” And God blessed them…

Here the word is create   בָּרָ֣
Humans, male and female in the image of God. Something new! Something now is that has never been before.

 These humans, so loved by God that when we became utterly lost and separated from all that God intended, Jesus came. The Word made flesh to live, to teach, to die, and to live again to make in us a new creation. 
{I hit those last words strongly. We, individually and collectively are a new creation!}

We humans are like all life on earth nephesh chay, “creatures have the breath of life” but we also are not “according to our kind.” We are made the likeness and created the image of God.
That fact requires our recognition of God’s image in all people. 
And that recognition demands that when we look at other people, we look for the image of God.
How differently might we treat those who are strangers or poor or sick if we saw God in every face?
Is that not the point of much of Jesus’ teaching?
{My slide was Jesus a new commandment to love.}
Would we be slower to judge, slower to say “not good” to those God himself declared to be very good?
Might we not more deeply appreciate the gifts others share with us through their study of history, sociology, art, and literature?  It is commonly said that the humanities may teach us what it means to be human. I assert that it may also teach us what it means to be like a God described in scripture as a poet, a weaver, a gardener, an artist, a builder.
Would we be so sure of doctrines like “original sin” and the unworthiness of people if we saw in every face, including our own, the one thing that God both made and created, the likeness and the image of God.

I hope today that we have heard The Creation poem differently. 
I hope that we have removed highlights from endless debates of 24 hour days and young earth/old earth and that we are now focused on what the Bible tells us “God said.”
If so, we may now see in it consistencies with the science we may have also learned.

This very good creation is the Spoken Word of God, it is the Word that is ever and always in all times and in all places available to all people. Whether or not they hold a Bible in their hands or hear the Good News of Jesus. 
This very good creation, this expanding universe, makes “evident God’s invisible attributes, God’s eternal power and divine nature.”

On some level we have all always known this. 
When we take a walk in the woods, or sit on a beach, or plant a garden, or admire a mountain, or as the Psalmist did millennia ago when we contemplate the night sky, 
we know and we feel both very small and very big
and time feels unending
and beauty overwhelms us.
That feeling is awe! For in those moments God has been revealed to us.
God’s Spoken Word in Creation calls us to praise.
Jesus, The Word made Flesh, calls us to communion with God and with one another.

{Sermon is over. I had been remarkably calm but after I returned to my seat, my hands shook very badly.
After communion and intercessory prayer, our church does "a sending out" which is supposed to be a very short note about how to apply the sermon during the coming week. We were over time--not me, I stayed well within the sermon's allotted time--so I did not deliver the sending out but we went straight to our church's mission statement.}

My friends, the study of God’s Word, written or spoken, is a holy endeavor. Serving people created in God’s image is a holy endeavor. Learning how the universe works is also a holy endeavor. And our tools for learning how the universe works are the tools of science. Science can never prove or disprove God but it can make evident God’s invisible attributes and so lead people to faith.

Mission Statement:
As God has loved us
We will meet people on common ground
And journey together to the higher ground
Of life in Christ Jesus, Our Lord.

{I am very grateful that I had this opportunity to speak from the pulpit. I am very grateful to attend an egalitarian church within a historically non-egalitarian tradition. I had much support and encouragement from my friends. And for that I am most grateful.  By substituting the word "God" for all pronouns I avoided the gendered "he" because God's own image is both male and female and a whole lot more.
"May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O God. ...to the Glory of God!"}

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thanks so much for posting this written version of your sermon, Kay. I was having trouble getting the time and a suitable device together so that I could listen to the audio. I'm very thankful to be able to read it.

This section spoke the loudest to me:

We humans are like all life on earth nephesh chay, “creatures have the breath of life” but we also are not “according to our kind.” We are made the likeness and created the image of God.
That fact requires our recognition of God’s image in all people.
And that recognition demands that when we look at other people, we look for the image of God.
How differently might we treat those who are strangers or poor or sick if we saw God in every face?
Is that not the point of much of Jesus’ teaching?