June 18, 2017
O Lord, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
to silence the enemy and the avenger.
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?
Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
O Lord, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
My sister’s daughter Annie got married in January, and I got to do the wedding. Annie’s a librarian, and she and her husband Spencer are avid readers. So much so they included eight different snippets from literature as part of their wedding ceremony. At the end of the service was a quote from Jane Eyre: “Reader, I married him.”
They are all about ‘the story.’ So in my homily for the service I talked about the story of the Bible. A lot of people don’t think of the Bible as a story, but it is. It’s not so much a list of rules or laws or even self-help advice, but a narrative with a beginning, middle and end. There are heroes and villains, plot twists and surprises and – spoiler alert – a happy ending.
In fact, the Bible begins as many stories do: “Once upon a time…”
Genesis 1:1 – 13
In the beginning 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.
And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. Then God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.
* * * * *
Every culture has a story of beginnings. It’s a kind of mythology that says how things got started, and why the world is the way it is. The Bible actually has two – this one, and the story of the Garden of Eden, with Adam and Eve and the serpent. It’s not meant to be history, or science, or fact. It’s a narrative that describes the world we live in, and tries to explain how it got to be that way – the goodness, and the evil – and how it was meant to be.
The Bible begins with the goodness – the goodness of God, and of creation. The first chapter is really more like poetry than prose. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that there’s so much poetry written about the creation. Trip found a gorgeous video of James Weldon Johnson’s poem The Creation for the newsletter (here’s the link).[i]
If you have time to take a look, it’s worth it.
This is how it starts:
The Creation by James Weldon Johnson, 1871 – 1938
And God stepped out on space,
And he looked around and said:
I’ll make me a world.
And far as the eye of God could see
Darkness covered everything,
Blacker than a hundred midnights
Down in a cypress swamp.
Then God smiled,
And the light broke,
And the darkness rolled up on one side,
And the light stood shining on the other,
And God said: That’s good!
Then God reached out and took the light in his hands,
And God rolled the light around in his hands
Until he made the sun;
And he set that sun a-blazing in the heavens.
And the light that was left from making the sun
God gathered it up in a shining ball
And flung it against the darkness,
Spangling the night with the moon and stars.
Then down between
The darkness and the light
He hurled the world;
And God said: That’s good!
Genesis 1:14 – 25
And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky 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 lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, to rule over the day and over 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, the fourth day.
And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.” So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.
And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.” And it was so. God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good.
* * * * *
Now, one of the really interesting things about this part of the Bible is when and where it was written. You would think that this glorious poem of creation was written at a high point in Israel’s history. But that’s not what scholars think. This Ode to God’s goodness was written at their lowest point – during the Exile, when the kingdom of Israel had been destroyed, Jerusalem leveled, the Temple demolished and the Southern kingdom of Judah sent into exile into Babylon.
For all intents and purposes, the future of God’s people was over. At least that’s the way it seemed. There would have been every reason to lose hope. But God’s people kept the faith; kept the faith alive, revised their rituals for a different place, remembered God’s promises even when things seemed bleak.
And some poet wrote this witness to God’s greatness. It was a reminder of God’s vision for the world, God’s plan for creation. Against all reason, it celebrated the essential goodness of the world. God wasn’t just the God of Israel, he was the creator of every time and place. Wherever they were, God was there. Nature itself was God’s witness.
It’s still true. People often talk about feeling God’s presence in nature. We’re reminded of God’s power, how small we are in the grand scheme of things. We find comfort, we find calm. We can rest in the beauty, and find peace.
Wendell Berry describes this beautifully in his poem, “The Peace of Wild Things”.
The Peace of Wild Things by Wendell Berry
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Genesis 1:26 – 2:4a
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.
God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” 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.
These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.
* * * * *
It’s so astounding, how scripture tells it: we began as one small part of an enormous universe, not until the very last day of God’s work. And yet we are said to be made in the very image of God. Creative, like God is creative. Compassionate, like God is compassionate. Given responsibility, and authority, and power over the work made by the very hand of God. Stewards of all good gifts.
We are the recipients of abundance, given the ability to be aware of the grace we have received. The only right response is gratitude, even awe. Wonder, and delight…
And the way to enter that place of wonder, and awe? The place to start?... Is to stop. Just stop. Stop, God stopped, on the seventh day, to rest. Stop working and planning and making and using and fixing and doing and doing and doing.
One more poem… which is simply an invitation, to take part in the creative rest of God.
The Summer Day by Mary Oliver
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Rev. Karen Chakoian
* * * * *
Charge and Benediction, from Instructions to Painters and Poets
by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
I asked a hundred painters and a hundred poets
how to paint sunlight
on the face of life
Their answers were ambiguous and ingenuous
as if they were all guarding trade secrets
Whereas it seems to me
all you have to do
is conceive of the whole world
and all humanity
as a kind of art work
a site-specific art work
an art project of the god of light
the whole earth and all that’s in it
to be painted with light