Together or apart?
Enough or not enough?
Good or bad?
Include or exclude?
Community or disunity?
Grateful or selfish?
Respect or indifference?
Lifting up or putting down?
Faith or fear?
Reverence or disregard?
Open or closed?
Bridge or wall?
Mine or ours?
Outward or inward?
Beauty or ugliness?
Attention or neglect?
Respectful or rude?
Kind or harsh?
Respect or indifference?
Understanding or ignorance?
Compassion or cruelty?
Who doesn’t like to have a plan.
Especially when Sunday mornings roll around with surprising regularity.
And I am both expected and have the privilege and the responsibility to be here with you and to have something thoughtful to say about that intersection of life and faith and God and world and Bible. So, in an effort not to panic or leave it to the last minute, this summer I found myself wondering about this fall and what was it about God and faith and world in which we live that was tugging at my heart and mind and soul, and maybe tugging at yours as well. What I found myself thinking about is this. Two very different narratives compete for our attention and for our allegiance. And each day, sometimes each moment, we chose between them. An example of the predominant narrative surrounding our lives is what we find on the pages of the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal or the Huffington Post. It is the narrative of the world as it is. Or, at least a narrative of what the poet Robert Burns described as “Man’s inhumanity to man.” which we now name as the news. Abuse. Fighting. Disease. Destruction. The second narrative is the one we find woven through the stories and the witness of the Bible. That narrative often stands counter to the first providing a very different picture of who we are and how we are to see and to understand and to respond to each other and to the world in which we live. We live immersed in the first narrative each and every day. It takes intentionality to hold onto and to turn towards the second.
So, on that lazy, less hectic summer day in August I began to list several stories and passages from the Bible which I find thought provoking and which might provide a snapshot of that second narrative for us to think about together.
“Great!” I thought. “I have a plan.”
And, as I said a moment ago, who doesn’t like having a plan.
But, as I sat down to begin to prepare for this morning I discovered a problem.
The passage I had been thinking about for today was also the passage I spoke about 8 or 9 months ago. I spent a day trying to decide what to do and, in the end, decided to stick with my August best laid plan. I rationalized my decision in several ways.
- First, some of you weren’t here on that particular Sunday so if I repeat myself you will never know.
- Second, if you were here, maybe you have forgotten what I said. After all, who remembers sermons from 8 or 9 months ago. I didn’t.
- But, if you were here and happen to remember what I said, I will fall back on what a friend and colleague used to tell me: Tell them five times five different ways and half the people will get it. So, I am in luck. I am only on my second time.
But, the real reason I decided to stick with this passage is I need to hear…
I think we need to hear…
The witness of this particular portion of the Bible.
So, here goes…
From the very first words you read in the Bible.
Genesis 1. In the beginning God.
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. And God said, “Let there be light” And there was light. And it was good. And God said, “ Let there be a sky.” And there was a sky.” And it was good. And God said, “Let there be dry land and plants and trees.” And there was. And it was good. And God said, “Let there be seasons and stars and sun and moon. And there was. And it was good. And God said, “Let there be fish and whales and jelly fish and octopuses.” And there was. And it was good. And God said, “Let there be cattle and wild animals and creeping things.” And there was. And it was good. Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our own image.” So God created humans. Male and female God created them. And God saw what God had made and, behold, it was very good.
Two mistakes sometimes get made when we hear or read this passage.
The first mistake is we think this passage is primarily about how things were created. It is not. The second mistake is, since this passage begins the Bible, we think it was the first thing written. Again, it was not. These words were sometime around 580 BCE and long after much of Hebrew scripture was already in place. It was written as an affirmation of faith and placed at the beginning of the Bible as something of a Prologue to set the tone for all that would follow. But, for today, our job is to avoid making the first mistake.
Instead of being about creation, the fundamental question these verses wrestle with is this.
Looking around at the world as it is, is creation fundamentally good or evil?
Is the world good?
Are human beings basically good?
Or, is chaos and violence and suffering and sorrow the order of the day?
The witness of these verses turn in the direction of goodness.
You and I and the other, whoever the other happens to be, and the world in which we live are from their beginning and at their very core…at our very core…fundamentally good.
As you hear me say that, what is important to know is that these verses were written during one of the darkest times in Jewish history. Everything that the Jewish people at that time had thought was good and secure and permanent was gone. Wiped out and destroyed by the conquering Babylonians. It was out of that time of deep sorrow and struggle and searching that these words were carefully and painstakingly written and intentionally placed at the beginning of their sacred text.
So, why these words for us today? Despite the assurance or reassurance of historians and/or social scientists that tell us that there is less violence in the world today than at any other time in recorded history, at times in the last couple of months it felt to me like the world had gone to hell in a handbasket.
The fighting in Gaza.
The tragedy in Ferguson.
The brutality of ISIS.
Ebola in Africa.
The ongoing fighting and humanitarian crisis in Syria.
And, add the Ukraine and Nigeria and other places around our world.
And, this doesn’t even begin to touch the day in, day out struggles or sorrows you face or your friends face or your co-workers face.
For much of the summer I walked around with a knot in my stomach.
The narrative which surrounds us tells us that the world is awful.
And the other, whoever they are at any given moment, are evil or might be evil.
In response to all that we read and see and, sometimes, experience, the anger or hatred or fear we experience shrinks our lives pulling them into smaller and smaller circles which we hope against hope we can protect and keep safe. The predominant narrative which surrounds our lives turns us inward. And, turns us against one another. And, reinforces stereotypes which separate you from me and us from them. It is not by chance that in many ancient languages the word for stranger and the word for enemy are often the same word or share the same linguistic root.
Counter to that narrative of how the world is and who we are is the witness of the Bible.
And God saw what God had made and it was good. It was very good.
These words are not meant to gloss over or to discount or to deny or to turn away from the suffering or the hurt or the injustice or the awful things we do to each other, but instead it points to something more.
Another way of seeing.
Another way of being.
So, here is the question.
If the Bible is right and the world is fundamentally good…
If the Bible is right and you are fundamentally good…
If the Bible is right and they are fundamentally good…
What difference would it or could it or does it make for who we are and how we think and what we do? That was the question I asked myself as I was sitting alongside a lake on Saturday afternoon trying to find words for what I wanted to say. Here is what I thought about.
Narrative number one points out the ugliness and the selfishness and the greed in our world.
Claiming goodness, I think, makes space for beauty and grace.
Narrative number one shrink wraps our lives.
Goodness, I think, makes space for gratitude and for generosity.
Narrative number one relies on retribution and punishment and power to maintain control.
Goodness, I think. makes space for forgiveness.
In the end, I think, goodness makes space in our lives for each other.
I don’t say this out of a false naivete.
Nor do I think it is some magic wand.
I say it because I think it is a choice.
A conscious choice about what direction you will face.
So, what do you think?
New York Times or In the beginning God…?
Goodness. Can you believe it?