To begin at the beginning...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for Sunday, June 10, 2012. This will actually be our first Sunday in my summer series:  The Top 7 Key Stories of the Old and New Testaments.

More than at any other time in my life – including the social chaos of the late 60s, the potential for mutually assured nuclear annihilation in the 80s and the political and economic polarization of our own era – I believe that people of faith are called to:

… live calmly in the middle of the chaos, live productively in an arena of waste, live lovingly within the maelstrom of individualism and live gently in a world filled with violence. (Joan Chittister)

This is neither romantic utopianism nor spiritual denial, beloved:  it is a calling from God by faith – an embodied alternative to the status quo – a living vision of God’s creative word for our moment in time.  You see, the Church, the Synagogue or the Mosque was not ordained and brought into life simply to serve as a spiritual club – a religious alliance that only reinforces our particular prejudices and fears – but rather our sacred associations were given shape and substance by God to provide a living alternative to the greed, sin and death that surrounds us.

·       That’s what the 19th century American evangelicals meant when they told us that the church was not born to become a museum of saints, but rather a hospital for sinners.

·       And that’s what the opening words of the Jewish/Christian Bible tell us, too in Genesis:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God* swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Today, in the first of a summer series exploring the 7 Key Stories of the Old and New Testaments, I want to start at the beginning with you: 

·         I want to think out loud with you about why we begin at the beginning

·         I want to share some key insights from the Biblical texts that are essential for living faithful

·         And I want to encourage you at the deepest level to wrestle with both the wisdom and challenge of this sacred story so that you make it your own

Apparently the ancient teachers of Israel prohibited people from reading Genesis One until they were at least 40 years old – or until they had proven to possess a measure of wisdom – whichever came first.  I am going to trust that those of us here today fall into at least one of those categories, ok?  I am also going to trust that you want to go deeper into the foundations of our faith not only for the blessings they will bring you personally, but also so that you can be a part of God’s creative healing of the world.

I am clear that in “a world given over almost entirely to the superficial and tinny,” God’s people are called to offer depth – and integrity – and a measure of wisdom.  “In a world that has been seduced by gimmicks and quick fixes…” we have a unique role to play in sharing God’s “good news for hard times.”

The invitation of faith, to paraphrase Sr. Joan Chittister, is to show others:

… how to see the word as good (without sugar-coating the evil), to show people that their needs are legitimate  (but only in balance with God’s will) and that human support for the common good is essential (lest the chaos and darkness overcome the light of the cosmos.)

So, let’s begin at the beginning of the Bible with the first story:  the ordering of Creation.  Bereishit bara Elohim et hashamayim ve'et ha'aretz – in the beginning of God’s creating the heavens and the earth.

The first thing you need to know about this story is that it was designed to give people of faith a lens through which they might look at reality and make sense of their world.  There is a precise organization to this story that I will describe it in a moment that strives to give folk both shape and order to a world that sometimes feels malevolent and appears chaotic.

·       At our Monday night book discussion, we talked a little about this – how many of us have acquired a lens through which we look at the world - that helps us evaluate and make sense out of our experience. 

·        Someone mentioned the metaphor of gardening as their guide – how there are weeds and work, seeds and sunlight and all the rest – and this gives them a way to create understanding of life’s ups and downs.  Another mentioned balance as a lens for comprehending how to best use time and energy and resources.

·         Are you with me?  Am I communicating? 

Well, the story of creation in Genesis One is a lens through which the people of Israel were invited to see God creating order out of the chaos.    Their temple had been destroyed, the holy city of Jerusalem had been sacked and most of the wealthy, educated elite had been driven into exile in 587 BCE.

Like anyone experiencing such anguish and loss, at first our cousins in faith were in shock.  Psalm 137 puts it like this:

 By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.On the willows* there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’  How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.

It was agony, yes?  The bottom had fallen out on reality – everything they knew and cherished had been taken from them – they were literally strangers and exiles in a strange and brutal land.  It reminds me of something the great jazz trumpeter, Wynton Marsalis, wrote in his primer on jazz history.  He said that as a Black American musician it is always painful for him to hear the early music of New Orleans referred to as “Dixieland” because… what do you think?  Somehow the music of my people was identified with the Confederacy’s battle hymn:  you play about freedom, but we’ll make it an homage to your enslavement.” (Moving to Higher Ground, p. 91)

·       As a middle class, white intellectual and musician, I never thought about it like that – an homage to the Confederacy - but that’s because I hadn’t looked at life through brother Marsalis’ lens 

·       That’s part of what this creation story offers us:  a way of seeing life from the bottom up – from those wounded and enslaved – who ached for an alternative to the pain and chaos.

And that’s exactly what the exiled priests and leaders of Israel began to do in their captivity: they began to retell their own story of God’s love through the lens of Sabbath.
How is it stated in the 10 Commandments?

Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.

The Sabbath is about freedom – about experiencing in our everyday lives the love and grace of God – it is an encounter with blessing and beauty.  So, within the context of their exile and pain, the enslaved Jewish imagination returned to Sabbath as the fundamental guideline for helping their people move from anguish to hope.  In fact, Sabbath becomes the lens through which everything else makes sense – from the beginning of time until right now – and even beyond – if you have eyes to see and ears to hear.

Because Sabbath is about freedom – about light and enlightenment – about beauty and grace in a world obsessed and surrounded with work.  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel puts it like this:

The meaning of Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called up to share in what is true… the mystery of creation… for it is not a date but an atmosphere… to set apart one day a week for freedom, a day on which we would not use the instruments which have been so easily turned into weapons of destruction, a day for being with ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar, independence from external obligation, a day of armistice in the economic struggle with our fellow man and the forces of nature… is this not a way of realizing hope?

The ancient priests and rabbis, you see, began to retell the story of God’s people in Israel through the lens of Sabbath – emphasizing the call to order and freedom it affords – and making it the very first story of the Bible.  In history, of course, Genesis One is NOT the first story of the Jewish people – that would go back to the very origins of Israel as a nation in Palestine about 1350 BCE – and includes the stories of the Abraham and the patriarchs as well as Moses and the Exodus.  But historicity was not the fundamental goal of Genesis One: 

·        The priests and scholars living in exile in Babylon needed to renew the hearts of their people, strengthen their unique identity in the midst of slavery and possible assimilation and restore a sense of hope and purpose to a wounded tribe, yes?  

·         So, they were inspired to reshape a new identity born of the Sabbath.

And the entire structure of this story is saturated in Sabbath commitments.  Jon Levenson, Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard University, writes:

 Genesis One is ordered toward the Sabbath, which is its finale.  The passage is divided into a set of seven days:  six of creative labor and one of repose. The organization of this text around strings of seven and its multiples extends far beyond the sequence of days in the primal week.  For example, seven times we read that “God saw that it was created and that it was good…” the word God occurs thirty-five times in the passage and the word for earth twenty-one… and thirty-five is also the number of words in the Hebrew original… about God’s observance of the primordial Sabbath (in which all of creation is pleasing and very good.) So the Sabbath is… the apex and culmination of the opening passage of Genesis… threading numerous sets of seven and its multiples into the text to underscore the preciousness of the Sabbath and its divine origins.

It is as if the early sages were saying that everything God does points towards Sabbath – and freedom – for those with eyes to see, right? 

·       The story BEGINS with God creating order out of chaos – the earth was a formless void (no order) and only darkness covered the face of the deep (a poetic reference to a much older Babylonian myth about the monsters of chaos just below the surface) – so God speaks a word: let there be light and there was light.  

·        And God saw that the light was good and so separates the light from the darkness.  God gave each a name, too and begins a process of separating creation in ways that helps us comprehend what strengthens or diminishes Sabbath.

Do you get a sense of what is happening here:  how chaos is being overcome by God’s creative word that results in the separation of the light from the darkness?  Step by step, this new creation story born of exile and slavery describes how God alone – not magic or politics or anything created by humankind – brings chaos under control.  This is how freedom and hope emerge we are being taught: by learning how God creates and maintains separation and order.

·       Look at the heavens and the oceans, the animals and the vegetation, the day and the night, the sun and the moon, the waters and the land. 

·       All of this creation – and all of this separation – is called good by the Lord – and you should know that when the Bible tells us that that when “God saw every thing that he had made and behold it was very good” that means what God saw was “a perfect reflection of God’s thought.”

So when God created humanity in the divine image – that is, created a living being with the powers of thought and discernment, spiritual insight, the ability to communicate and to think beyond the needs of mere survival -  this was the final act of creation.   At which point in time, what does the story say?

And it was so. God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation. 

Sabbath… right?  At the crown of creation – after humanity is made in God’s own image – the Lord sees that it is just as God intended so…  the Lord rests and Sabbath is established as the heart of God’s will.

This was the vision – the lens – that shaped those in slavery and exile in Babylon.  This was the organizing principle that shaped Jewish identity when they finally returned to Jerusalem to rebuild it and the Temple 50 years later.  This is hope a people regained hope and purpose:  they learned to see reality through God’s eyes.

·       With confidence, they could announce that God is in control whether we see it or not.  God is moving the chaos of reality in ways that bring us closer to freedom and Sabbath whether we sense it or not.

·       And we can either celebrate God’s plan through participation in Sabbath living or be a part of the chaos that subverts God’s will through opposition – and that choice is one that rings true for our generation, too.

As Christians, we took this ancient Hebrew story of God’s battle against the chaos and made it our own in the gospel according to St. John – with a few important changes:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life,* and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

You can see the parallels, of course, right?  How since the beginning of creation the very essence of Jesus has been part of God’s plan – that’s why we call Jesus the Word – for whenever God speaks the essence of Christ is made clear.  And in the beginning God spoke by the Spirit to bring order out of the chaos – and that is what Christ does in our lives – moves us from separation and sin into community and intimacy with God and one another.

And here’s the challenge:  in both the Hebrew and Christian story of creation the blessings of order and grace can be reversed.  By refusing to honor God’s work in creation – by choosing to become allies of injustice – human beings can disturb the fragile balance between creation and chaos.

We can become co-creators of the darkness rather than the light.  That’s why it is vital to know which lens you use to make sense of the world?  What vision guides your insights and habits and hopes and dreams?

·       Our lens – our vision – is NOT guided by the Republicans or the Democrats.  It is NOT given shape and form only by our race, gender, wounds or nationality.

·       Our vision is shaped by God’s will and grace – it is born of Sabbath and freedom – and anything less encourages the chaos.

Have I been clear?  Have I made a case for why we begin with the beginning?  Have I outlined what about this beginning tells us about God’s will for our lives?  As I said at the start, our vision will help us:

… live calmly in the middle of the chaos, live productively in an arena of waste, live lovingly within the maelstrom of individualism and live gently in a world filled with violence.   

So let those who have ears to hear:  hear.



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