Sermon Trinity Sunday, June 15, 2014, Genesis 1:1–2:4a
Genesis 1 (excerpt)
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.
And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.
…Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
The Icon and the Bubble that Matters
This Trinity Sunday is also father’s day here in America. I am blessed to be among those who was raised by a great father who loves and provided for his family. One of my favorite memories I have of my father from childhood was of climbing Mt. Garfield with him in my mother’s home state of Colorado.
Mt. Garfield is in the Rocky Mountains. It juts out of a long rock face wall they call the book cliffs. There are still donkey trails leading to old abandoned coal mines that make the climb possible for inexperienced young climbers like me.
There were some scary parts, but with my father’s strong hand and relaxed confidence, we would get to the summit safely. From there, we could look out over the vast Colorado plane, all divided into square farm fields by little narrow roads.
Vastness, like the view from a mountain, or of the ocean from the shoreline, or of the night sky, makes us feel small. Even more so now, for us, who, in this generation, having seen how the earth looks from space: like a little blue ball in an ocean of blackness.
Vastness and Presence
I used to listen to Joni Mitchell who captured this feeling in her song “Refuge of the Roads.”
“In a highway service station,
Over the month of June
Was a photograph of the earth
Taken coming back from the moon
And you couldn’t see a city
On that marbled bowling ball
Or a forest or a highway
Or me here least of all.”
We feel something more profound than merely overwhelmed and small next to the vastness of nature; we also feel an odd and uncanny presence.
Another one of my old favorite singer songwriters, Joe Walsh said:
“There’s a feeling I get when I look to the sky
As if someone is watching,
Someone hears every word.” – “Song For Emma” by Joe Walsh
That is not far from the feeling of the Psalmist who, several thousand years before had felt both small and that there was a present “you” to address his creation psalm to; a “you” that even cared for him, in spite of his smallness:
“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?” (Psalm 8)
It is fine to think about how awesome the world looks, on a clear day from a mountain summit, or on a starry night, by the sea shore, but the natural world can also be a frightening place. Here on the Alabama Gulf Coast, we are not strangers to loud thunderstorms that send our pets cowering under the furniture – let alone tornadoes and hurricanes that leave massive destruction in their wakes. Nature can be literally terrible and terrifying.
Perhaps experiencing nature as vastly beautiful, and terrifying, and somehow watching and present made ancient people wonder how it could be all of those things at once. The important question was always: whatever is going on up there and down here, how does it affect me? What is my place in this world?
Stories of Origins
There are many stories that explain it. One such story, that exists in many versions is this:
“William James, father of American psychology, tells of meeting an old lady who told him the Earth rested on the back of a huge turtle. “But, my dear lady”, Professor James asked, as politely as possible, “what holds up the turtle?” “Ah”, she said, “that’s easy. He is standing on the back of another turtle.” “Oh, I see”, said Professor James, still being polite. “But would you be so good as to tell me what holds up the second turtle?” “It’s no use, Professor”, said the old lady, realizing he was trying to lead her into a logical trap. “It’s turtles-turtles-turtles, all the way down!”
— from Wilson, R.A. (1983, 1997) Prometheus Rising. Phoenix, AZ: New Falcon Publishers, 1983.
Humans have always told stories about how the world was made, where it came from, and how it all fits together. They call these kinds of stories “cosmogonies.” We tell stories because that is how we come to understand our place in the world.
We just read our first creation story from Genesis. It clearly describes the world as a bubble in between waters above and waters beneath. Our biblical story shares many features in common with other iron-age cosmogonies, like sacred trees in special gardens, fruit with either dangerous or miraculous powers, and of course, devious talking snakes. Our story also tells of the origins of the first humans, as others do as well.
Stories are the way ancient way people explained the world and our place in it, and for that reason are profound in their implications.
The Babylonian Story
The Babylonians told a story of how the gods who lived “on high” got into a huge conflict. Marduk, the hero of the story, killed another god, Tiamat, by driving a huge wind into her, filling her belly, then piercing it with a spear, like popping a balloon with a pin. Having nothing better to do with the fragments of her body, the gods decide to make humans. Humans’ could then make life easier for the hungry gods by supplying them with their daily food through sacrificial offerings.
So, if this is your story, what do you understand? That humans are after thoughts; the products of violence. They are servants of the brutal gods, whom they must constantly supply.
The Israelite’s Alternative Story
In this ancient context, the biblical writers told another story – a radically alternative story. It does not begin with violence nor even with competition, but with one God who has no rivals. This single God forms a good physical world, methodically and artfully, creating spaces and populating them.
He makes the bubble from the chaotic primordial waters, and then separates the sky from the water, and the water from the land inside it. He fills the water with fish and the sky with birds. Above them in the heavens he hangs lights to mark out days and nights, seasons and years. It is all good, we keep hearing repeatedly, as if to reinforce the difference between the world of this Israelite story and the Babylonian’s bloody battlefield.
When the good world is made, the bible tells of God’s intentional decision to make his crowning achievement: human beings. He makes them, we are told, in his own image or “icon.” Just as an ancient king would set up statures of himself in his kingdom to proclaim his authority, so every human, male and female, are walking icons of this good God, celebrating his creative genius by our very existence.
It would be silly, if not tragic, (and wildly anachronistic) to read iron-age cosmogonies as scientific descriptions of origins. They are not that. But what they are, are deep theological reflections on the nature of the world and of our place in it.
Icons of God
Genesis tells us that every person on this planet is an icon of God. There is no one who is not worthy of dignity and respect. This is our essence. It is not an achievement. Icons of God are what we are in our beings.
It has nothing to do with how rich or poor we are, how clever or strong we are, how beautiful or skilled we are. This essential sanctity of every breathing human does not have its origin in a constitution or a bill of rights, and cannot be negated for lack of either. It is not the entitlement of one or two what we communally call “races” or “ethnicities” and not to others. All of us are made in God’s image: icons of our Creator.
As icons of God, we share with God the capacity to be responsible stewards. The ancients looked around and saw that humans, unlike other animals, could domesticate wild beasts. We had learned plant farming and fishing. We had enormous abilities for exerting our will over plants and animals.
Therefore, understanding that God created this world and blessed it with fruitfulness, and that God put us in charge, we are responsible for its care. Our job is to be managers that have the same goal and perspective as the owner – the flourishing of the good earth God made.
The First Words: Blessing
And we are supposed to hear the first words spoken by God, in our story, and take them to heart. “Be fruitful” God said. This is a blessing. The first words God says to the humans he made in his image is a word of blessing, full of hope and promise.
So our story is about as opposite the Babylonian story as it could be in every meaningful way. Our story tells us that we humans are part of a good world, made by a single, free and unchallenged God. The good physical world is a blessed world, and we humans are blessed by its fruitfulness.
The vastness of it all may make us feel small and insignificant, but each one of us has incredible value: we bear the image of our Creator in our DNA. We are here for a purpose.
The thunder and wind may make us feel threatened, but we need not fear. God is good, not evil. God is for us, not against us. God has supplied our needs and is now at rest, not hungrily waiting for us to supply his needs. We have the responsibility of stewardship, not the burden of slavery.
There is a reason we feel awe and wonder; a reason we feel a personal presence when we look up. This is God’s world; we are God’s people. We are not alone.
Our Story, and What to Do About It
Personally, this makes us want to worship; to say “thank you.” To feel loved and protected. This life, here and now, is an amazing precious gift that we are alive to experience!
And the implications are huge. They are both personal and public. Every relationship with another human is a relationship with a person of worth and dignity. There is no excuse for attempts at domination or abuse, whether physically nor even verbally or psychologically, whether in our personal relationships, nor publicly in our economic or political relationships.
Creation theology such as our story teaches makes it absurd to countenance the thought of starving cats, or making dogs fight, let alone subjecting fellow icons of God to torture. Every human life is to be respected and protected from harm.
Creation theology makes human suffering of all kinds all of our urgent concern. Hunger of any of us is unacceptable. Refugees everywhere are our problem. Victims of any kind of violence or abuse are our responsibility. Homelessness, especially in our abundant nation, is our shame.
And this planet is not ours to spoil, but to protect. Pollution is a theological problem. God did not put us here in this fruitful garden in order to turn it into a toxic wast dump. So therefore, wasting resources, endangering life forms, and even wildly risky activities are unacceptable. There is one planet that sustains us: there is no second chance.
Live as Intended
But what a planet it is! We are given one span of years to live this life. Let us live them as intended. Let us wake up to awe and wonder – this is an amazing world to live in.
Let us cultivate our own unique and complex capacities for appreciating beauty in all of its forms – music, the arts, dance and drama. Let us stay in touch with each moment, taking time to breathe deeply and stay present to the present.
And then let us renew our zeal to fulfill our roles as wise stewards, protectors of human life and dignity, and protectors of the eco-systems we and our grandchildren depend on for life and health.
Let our words echo the Psalmist who was overwhelmed by the goodness of creation, saying,
“O Lord, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!”