Sermon from June 7, 2020, the Rev. Deadra Ashton

Sermon on Genesis 1
Rev. Deadra Ashton
United Church of Strafford, Vermont
June 7, 2020    First Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 1:1-2:4a

[This sermon is from our On Line service on June 7, 2020. You can watch the video recording of this sermon at the end of this text and you can see the entire On Line Service by clicking here.]

When or where or from whom did you first hear the Genesis creation stories?

I can’t remember a time that I didn’t know them.  Maybe I first encountered them in the beautifully illustrated children’s Bible that was part of a collection of storybooks that my parents purchased from a door-to-door sales representative.  I know for certain that I explored it with my Sunday school teacher as a very young child.  After all, this story is tailor-made for children.  It’s a positively magical tale with water and sky and stars and plants and animals – even human beings – suddenly appearing out of no where at the say so of an all-powerful being.

The irony is that the qualities of this story that are so magical and comforting are the very qualities that can cause us to dismiss it in later life.  And so, in such a time as this, what does this story offer us in the midst of all of these layers of pain and grief – some fresh, some very old and moldering.

It’s been another unsettling week.  As much as we might love for the news to get better it seems that continues to be hard and discouraging; soul crushing, even.  And our hearts break as we try to navigate this uncharted terrain, caught between the pandemic and the pandemonium that is fast becoming part of our country’s daily life.

Where is this all leading us?  How will it end?  How will the larger story of this era be recorded in history – not just in books and documentaries but also in the depths of are collective psyche?  How will this story look five, ten, fifty years from now?

Human beings are defined by the stories we believe and tell about ourselves, individually and collectively.  For example, the stories of how the United States came into being are very different depending on who’s telling the tales.  The narrative from the perspective of European colonizers is quite different from that of the people who were already living on this land.  And both of those perspectives differ from that of those who were kidnapped from their homes, forced into impossible conditions in the dank dark holds of ships, only to emerge into the new reality of life as chattel – someone else’s property.

Do we experience the foundational story of our nation one of triumph or trauma?  That depends on your perspective and which piece of the narrative rings most true deep down in your bones – it depends on which bits of this complicated drama were told over and over again and ultimately formed us.  After all, we act on what we believe to be true.

So, what about the Genesis story?  What about this story that has been taught as an explanation for how the earth was formed?  What about this story that doesn’t square with what we’ve come to learn through scientific observation – and that seems to perpetuate endless debate and division?  What can does it have to say to us in this time and place?

For openers, this foundational story has far less to do with providing an explanation for how the world was created than it does with the fundamental goodness and sacred nature of both creation and the creator.  Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann says that to view the story primarily as a means to explain where we came from and how we got here is to miss that point.

This story is actually a radical statement of dignity and self-worth honed during a period when our spiritual ancestors were living in exile from their beloved homeland.   The Jewish people had been forcibly relocated in Babylon where they now found themselves living a life of servitude to enrich the ruling class; they were valued only for what they could produce.  Living in the midst of what was, from their perspective, a chaotic and unpredictable existence, they sought stability not in the trappings of the culture, but in their identity as people who are loved and valued by the God who is love.

Subsumed by a culture that wasn’t their own, surrounded by gods they did not worship, forced to engage in practices that were antithetical to their values for the sake of enriching their captors, our spiritual ancestors refined and recorded their sacred stories as they sought to define themselves inherently worthy simply because they were human beings.

And so it should come as no surprise to us that as these dislocated people crafted their foundational story they would start with chaos.  In the midst of the instability and chaos of unmoored cosmic dust and matter, the God whose very name is a variation on the verb “to be” was present and brooding over it all until some semblance of order was created.   And as the story unfolds it paints the picture of our world as lush and exquisitely beautiful, supplying everything any creature could ever need.

Human beings are the last to enter the scene – like children coming into loving families who have longed for their birth and prepared a cozy nursery.  The baby doesn’t have to do a thing; it’s all right there and has been since long before the child’s arrival.

But babies grow up and part of the process of maturing includes assuming some responsibility.  And that’s how our ancestors ended their story – with the reminder that human beings have a responsibility to tend this place of wonder and beauty that we’ve been born into.  I chose to read the Genesis text from Eugene Peterson’s “The Message” because of his translation of the last few verses of the first chapter.  Instead of using the words “subdue” and “have dominion over” he went with the spirit of the story and used the phrase “be responsible for.”  I think he’s right about this. We have been given this beautiful gift.   And now we’re responsible for it.

Ah, but that’s not the end of the story – far from it.  Remember, there’s the bit about day seven when God, as divine role model, takes a break, stands back and just gazes on all of this goodness.  Take time to disengage from the work, the text teaches us.  Rest and recover because there’s way more to come and we’ll need all of our strength to live into the next chapters.  The stories that follow are filled with betrayal and destruction and forgiveness and reconciliation and despair and hope and love.  And it’s one huge mash-up of being human and living in this world.  Chaos and creation happen all at once.

Like the chaos that was somehow ordered into the beauty of this world, chaotic moments are the times we define who we are.   As such, we find ourselves in a defining moment.  What will we create?  How are we to be partners with the Spirit of God that continues to move among us?

I want to end with the last couple of stanzas of Langston Hughes’ poem “Let America Be America Again.”

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

So be it; Amen.

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