Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Creation

A Sermon by Bob Ellis
I had a friend who said that we can’t not tell our story.  I believe that is true, so James Weldon Johnson is telling his story in this poem, just as the writer of the version of the story we heard from Carol last Sunday and the writer of the story Phillip read to us this morning.  
THE CREATION
by: James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938)
pastedGraphic.pngND God stepped out on space,
And He  looked around and said,
"I'm lonely -  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!" 


 
Then God himself stepped down --
And the sun was on His right hand,
And the moon was on His left;
The stars were clustered about His head,
And the earth was under His feet.
And God walked, and where He trod
His footsteps hollowed the valleys out
And bulged the mountains up.
 
Then He stopped and looked and saw
That the earth was hot and barren.
So God stepped over to the edge of the world
And He spat out the seven seas;
He batted His eyes, and the lightnings flashed;
He clapped His hands, and the thunders rolled;
And the waters above the earth came down,
The cooling waters came down.
 
Then the green grass sprouted,
And the little red flowers blossomed,
The pine tree pointed his finger to the sky,
And the oak spread out his arms,
The lakes cuddled down in the hollows of the ground,
And the rivers ran down to the sea;
And God smiled again,
And the rainbow appeared,
And curled itself around His shoulder.
 
Then God raised His arm and He waved His hand
Over the sea and over the land,
And He said, "Bring forth! Bring forth!"
And quicker than God could drop His hand.
Fishes and fowls
And beasts and birds
Swam the rivers and the seas,
Roamed the forests and the woods,
And split the air with their wings.
And God said,  "That's good!"
 
Then God walked around,
And God looked around
On all that He had made.
He looked at His sun,
And He looked at His moon,
And He looked at His little stars;
He looked on His world
With all its living things,
And God said, "I'm lonely still."
 
Then God sat down
On the side of a hill where He could think;
By a deep, wide river He sat down;
With His head in His hands,
God thought and thought,
Till He thought, "I'll make me a man!"
 
Up from the bed of the river
God scooped the clay;
And by the bank of the river
He kneeled Him down;
And there the great God Almighty
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,
Who rounded the earth in the middle of His hand;
This Great God,
Like a mother bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till He shaped it in His own image;
 
Then into it He blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul.
Amen. Amen. pastedGraphic_1.png

I love the imagery in this poetic version of the creation story.   “God smiled and the light broke.”  “And God smiled again, and the rainbow appeared, and wrapped itself around his shoulder.  What beautiful images.
These stories say to me that we are all part of creation; that we are all related and connected to each other through God who created us.  There are two truths about ourselves that I can see in this story.  
The first is that we are good.   Robin reminded us of that when he preached a month or so ago.  
The second is that we all bear God’s image.   Women and men; children and old folks, rich or poor, Muslims or Christians;                                         we ALL were created in God’s image;   there are no exceptions.
Can you imagine how radical this message was when there were kings and emperors who ruled.  Easy to see them as the ones who were God like because they had the wealth and power.  
But in this story the people who were created in God’s image were very ordinary people like us.  
There was an exhibit at the Seattle Science center depicting the first humans,  Lucy was the name they gave to this first person.
They lived in a garden with none of the things that we consider essential for life.   
Jesus seemed to underline this when he noted that the Creator loves every sparrow and wild flower, and so how much God loves every person.   
Every woman, man and child is Good!
Every person in every culture has value!
Every person bears the image of God!   and that is Good.!
But, that is not the only story.  There is a second account of creation, which many of us believe is a much older story.  In this account the possibility of “not so good” enters the story.  In this earlier account  the early author says that there are two trees in the garden.  The first is for Lucy / or Eve and that first man to enjoy; the tree of life.  What a beautiful image - it suggests health, growth and all that we think of when we talk about being fully alive.
But they are not to eat fruit from the other tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. When we eat from that tree we gain knowledge.  As we gain knowledge it is possible that we can begin to think that we are God and can judge parts of creation - which by the way God has called good.  Brian McLaren suggests that God’s judging it always wise, fair, true, compassionate and restorative. But our judging is frequently ignorant, biased, retaliatory and devaluing.   So, he writes, “When we judge, we inevitably mis- judge.”
Think about some ways we begin to think of ourselves as God. 
(When I was younger and new in the ministry, I thought that I should be able to reach every one;  and that obviously wasn’t happening so I became depressed.  Doctor Hurley, The psychologist I saw asked me “who ordained you God?”  —— We talked about that, and my life started getting better. (I still work on that, but it begins to get easier when I realize that I am not in control of every thing and I just have to be the best me I can be.)
(And sometimes we do that as a church; begin to think we are God and we have to appeal to everyone.  We wring our hands when someone disagrees and leaves)  There are a lot of differing answers to that.  Kathy is  helping us work out who we are; “I think, hope, that the slide showing the finding from our survey is showing now.”   as we know who we are life becomes easier for us to do what we can to make our world a more friendly place.
When we eat from that second tree we are in danger of judging that which God called good, as evil.  We may begin to see those people who are different than we are as not God’s people.  
So the second creation story is challenging us as human beings, who constantly face a crucial choice.   Will we eat from the tree of life; aliveness so that we continue to see and value the goodness of creation.   Or do we eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and thus tempt ourselves to play God and judge and then mistreat our fellow human beings.
It is a good and really a beautiful thing to bear God’s image; but it comes with some responsibility.
We may decide to use our intelligence to be creative and generous, or to be selfish and destructive.
We may choose to use our physical strength to be creative and generous, or to be selfish and destructive.
We can use our sexuality to be creative and generous, or to be selfish and destructive.
We can use our work, our money, our time and other assets to  be creative and generous, or to be selfish and destructive.
Think about your hand:
 It can make a fist, or it can reach out in peace.  (And even a fist can be used as a peace full offering, as in a fist bump; which is good when we are worried about spreading germs)    
It can hold a weapon or it play a piano or violin.
It can be used to point in derision or it can reach out in compassion to help others.
It can steal or it can serve.
If the first creation story is about the gift of being human, the second (or older) story is about the choices we all live with every day.  
It seems to me that to be alive means to live with the image of God.  
To be fully alive means to stretch out our hands and take from the tree of life and aliveness  --  and thus to join with God in creative and healing work.

How Can I Keep From Singing?

A sermon by Cindy Haverkamp for Labor Day, August 31, 2014
School started for my family this week and the “labor” of a new school year has begun.  After a lovely summer of late risings and unscheduled days, we are back to the routine of getting up early, frantically packing lunches and gym uniforms and racing out the door, hoping to arrive close to on-time, 7:40 am.
Although mornings are hectic, the saving grace is that each and every day, I drive along Chambers Creek and through the picturesque town of Steilacoom, with its incredible view of sound and mountains.  Sometimes, Fiona and I pause in our conversation to notice a duck or a particular shine on the water or some snow on those mountains, but we never, ever stop that car because most days, we are on target to be between 10 and 15 minutes late, usually both ways - either on our way to school or on our way home to get Brenna from her afterschool care program.  Most days our drive to and from school feels more like a desperate escape from blood-thirsty demons than the opportunity to enjoy and appreciate God’s incredible gift of beauty shining placidly all around us.
The missed opportunity that I experience each and every day on my trip to and from school is especially vexing to me twice a year – in late fall, when frost bristles the tall grasses along the creek and the creek fills to the brim with waterbirds resting in their migratory travels and again, in spring, when that creek fills, once again, with bird families – mostly Canada geese moms and dad with their adorable yellow goslings.  You see, my most favorite hobby is birdwatching and the drive along Chambers Creek is a birdwatching wonderland that I, out of necessity, do not have the opportunity to enjoy as I rush to and fro.  Last fall, I felt so frustrated by this situation that I almost started taking I-5 to school!  No…just kidding…but I did write a lament expressing my consternation and now I will share it with you:
I Miss Birds
I know they’re there
Buffles, Widgeons, Mergansers...
Their round bodies bobbing gently
In the small pond beside the road

Peering through the guardrail
I catch
A flash of white
A flutter of gray
A flicker of black…or green…or purple

The identification of birds
Requires a stationary eye,
But I move quickly
Keeping my eyes upon the road.
For I am late (again) for something (important?)
I miss birds.
Is that a sin?
Now, the first time I showed this poem to my friends they said, “Of course that’s not a sin”, but they may have missed my meaning.  The poem suggests both that I really miss looking at birds, but also that I feel guilty for “missing” the birds when I am so focused on getting to and from school.  After all, these amazing creatures are only a small part of the incredible Creation that God has set before me and if I am so busy that I can’t even see this small example, how much more of this gift am I taking for granted?
Genesis 1:1-2:3 tells us that our existence on this planet, at this time – an existence of ripe peach, crisp apple, tall mountain, bright leaves, sparkling water, flickering flame and wondrous birds and animals – was created OUT OF NOTHINGNESS by GOD for US. This reality, both unspeakable gift and privilege, began with God’s joyful invitation, Let It Be!  With these words, day and night, land and sea, birds, beasts, YOU and ME as well as ALL we would need to thrive came into being – an artistic and creative expression of all that God called “Good”.
It was so good, in fact, that God set aside a FULL day to simply sit and enjoy it.  Can you imagine God’s smile?  Can you imagine the sense of peace and contentment God must have felt to see all the beauty and wonder of creation?  Imagine God’s gratitude in the sense of a job well done.  In the busy times we live in, in our constant striving for money or power, fame or security, how often do we simply sit and appreciate God’s amazing gift to us – the gift of being alive in such a beautiful place, at just the right time, with all the right people around us, a week’s worth of fruitful, satisfying work at our back?  I know that most weeks, spare moments, Sunday afternoons included, find me poring over papers to grade, unfinished to-do lists and dishes or laundry piled around me with nary a moment spent peering out the window or giving thanks for all that is good in my life.  And how does this make me feel?  Grumpy, guilty and ungrateful.  Does this happen to you?  Well, there is a solution and it takes its rules from the world of birdwatching – call it orni-theology, if you will!  If you follow along, I guarantee you will reawaken to the beauty and blessing that is God’s gift to you.
The first thing I must do if I wish to go birdwatching is to set aside a space and a time for it in my schedule.  Theologians suggest that before God could create this world,Godneeded to create a time and a space for it.  Some say God made himself smaller to make room, others say God created the universe within himself, and my favorite suggestion is that God created a “space” somewhere “out there” which God then filled with galaxies, inhabiting it like bird song fills a forest, like candlelight fills a dark room or like love fills a heart.  We, too, will need to set aside something – maybe something broken or dark or useless that inhabits our souls – to make room for the appreciation of beauty.  I know that I will need to set aside some extra time to see the birds on Chambers Creek.  I will strive this year to leave my home 10 minutes earlier so that, if there are birds in the creek, I can stop the car for a moment and enjoy them.  How will I get that 10 minutes?  Well, maybe I have to get up 10 minutes earlier or maybe I have to plan my outfit and my lunch before I go to bed to create that space for beauty.
Secondly, birdwatchers need to cultivate quiet.  A psalmist says that all created things speak or sing of the God who made them, but are we too busy making noise to hear them? In a 1997 poem, Wendell Berry says,
Best of any song
is bird song
in the quiet, but first
you must have the quiet.
I know, from birdwatching with kids, that birds come a lot closer if you are quiet and still.  Busy lives try to steal the quiet from us at every turn, but we have to have the quiet, or we will miss the beauty.   As this school year begins, I will try to hear the song of God’s creation by turning off the radio and the TV sometimes (especially the news!), opening the windows or going outside and creating some quiet.  
Thirdly, to remember all that is good – all that we’ve seen and heard in the space, time and quiet we’ve created – we must, like all good birdwatchers, update our life lists.  Genesis contains a list of all that God created.  Birdwatchers make lists of all the birds they’ve seen.  We must write down each instance of awe and wonder that we experience and review that list often to remind us of all that is good, to jog our memories, when we forget how good we have it.  The Gratitude Journal is an old idea that has been reborn, of late, in digital form, on facebook, and I encourage you to take up this idea in some form as soon as you can.  Maybe you keep your gratitude in a Mason jar on little slips of paper or maybe you buy a beautiful empty journal and fill it with three things each day that you are grateful for or maybe you type your gratitude onto facebook.  However you do it, intentionally making time, space, and quiet to see the beauty around you and then taking the time to reflect on it and write it down WILL gradually change your attitude about everything that is challenging or dissatisfying in your life, make you a happier person and giving you a concrete opportunity to thank God for all that you have.  
I have, in the past, kept a Gratitude Journal and it had a profound effect on my ability to appreciate God’s gift to me.  One of the many things I wrote in that journal was, “I am grateful for the herringbone pattern on the white feathers of the male mallard”.  It may seem oddly specific, but those feathers gave me such peace because I knew, by seeing this beauty for the sake of beauty, that our planet was truly made by a creative and incredible God who knitted together each and every beautiful and amazing creature, including me, and called it “Good”.  
Is it a sin for me to “miss birds”?  The answer is, emphatically, “Yes” in so many ways.  It is sinful for me to waste my precious life in a mode of “hurry and worry”, as God has commanded me to “Fear not”.  It is sinful for me to think that by driving a little faster, while texting or checking my email, that I can “control” all the minutia of my life, when the Bible tells me that God is in control and that I should trust in God’s plan.  And it is surely sinful that I pass up opportunities every single day to truly notice, with wonder and awe, the gift of God’s creation.
Genesis means beginnings.  At the beginning of this new season, in fact, with each and every new day, we are invited to stop for a moment and create a quiet time and space to remember God’s amazing gifts to us…to smell the rose, to peer through the binoculars and check out those mallard feathers, to really look into the eyes of those we are privileged to share this life with and say a little prayer of THANKS. We will all be glad we did…and so will God!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Logic of Abundant Life

Psalm 145
Proverbs 8:1-36
John 1:1-17

For the next few months we will be looking at, or for, God through the lens of the Creation; through our world and our experience as human beings. There are many things that have been said about God that have become part of our understanding of theology, our doctrine. Much of what has been said comes directly from scripture, some from interpretations of scripture, and some out of human experience. Scripture itself is an attempt to make meaning out of human experience in and through creation and the human spirit. Our attempts at making meaning are sometimes helpful and sometimes terribly inadequate. For instance, the Western Christian Church has been under the curse of original sin since Augustine interpreted that idea from scripture in the 4th century. A modern theologian, Matthew Fox, read the same scriptures and claimed instead that we are under original blessing in a book with that title.  He was promptly excommunicated for his ideas, but many have found healing and hope in a new understanding of God’s dealing with humans.  Original blessing honestly makes more sense than God having unrealistic expectations and condemning human beings that, according to scripture, God originally deemed good.

Today’s readings are about original blessing—the idea that God wills good for human beings and that the created order is just that—orderly. We know what to expect at this time of year. Fruit will be harvested, leaves will turn color and fall, days will become shorter, the air will have a chill. We know what to expect with a pregnancy, and as a child grows through stages of development. We know what to expect as we age. The order in our lives is sometimes so mundane that we take it for granted. It’s the accidents and surprises in life that make us grope for meaning: a grave diagnosis, a lost job, a natural disaster. They make us question God’s goodness or God’s power. So let’s look at what we can know about God from creation. Creation has a wisdom that is orderly and generative.

About a decade ago, I was introduced to the idea of fractals. I am not a mathematician or a physicist, although our son is and this is where I’m sure I’m going to embarrass myself.

 Here’s a definition of fractals from the Fractal Foundation:
A fractal is a never-ending pattern. Fractals are infinitely complex patterns that are self-similar across different scales. They are created by repeating a simple process over and over in an ongoing feedback loop. Driven by recursion, fractals are images of dynamic systems – the pictures of Chaos. Geometrically, they exist in between our familiar dimensions. Fractal patterns are extremely familiar, since nature is full of fractals. For instance: trees, rivers, coastlines, mountains, clouds, seashells, hurricanes, etc. Abstract fractals – such as the Mandelbrot Set – can be generated by a computer calculating a simple equation over and over.

The idea of the “picture of Chaos” being part of an order that is bigger than I can see intrigues me.  What we see as chaos or randomness is actually part of a larger order.  My son introduced me to the golden ratio which is a mathematical function related to fractals—I won’t even try to explain it.  But we see the ratio in naturally occurring phenomena along with fractals every day.  It explains the pattern of seeds in the sunflower on the cover of your bulletin and in the objects on the screen.  The recreation of individual parts over and over in a fern frond is just one example.  As is the natural regrowth of a forest after the explosion of Mt. St. Helens. 

The wisdom of God in nature creates abundant life that is logical and ordered. Brian McLaren suggests that humans have developed systems of logic of their own. Being human means that we have the freedom to make decision that are wise or foolish, creative or destructive, thoughtful or rash. There are limits around our freedom: just because I want to fly doesn’t mean I can fly; although human creativity may make that possible in other ways. 

Even though we desire and work for peace, it does not guarantee that others will share our desire. Being human means that we have freedom within limits. Most of us order our own lives around a kind of logic. We may have experienced living a logic of self-interest (you only live once), compliance (you have to go along to get along), or jealous envy (trying to keep up with or emulate a life style), or we know someone who has. We know the destruction of human lives and human creativity that is caused by living a logic of rivalry or revenge. Our forebears in the faith tell us that the wisdom of God, God’s logic, is based on love. If we live within the logic of love, we will have abundant life. Listen again to how creation is described in the gospel of John:

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

The author goes on to say that God’s Word became flesh and “from his fullness we have all received grace upon grace. . .grace and truth.” What we can know about God through the created world and through Jesus is that the wisdom of God, the logic of God, is life and light and love and grace and truth.

This past week, I went with Cindy Haverkamp as she met with the District Committee on Ministry in her candidacy process. In her interview, Cindy spoke about discovering God’s love and in doing so, she made a common observations among modern Christians that the Old Testament is about rules and law and the New Testament is about love. Most of us would probably agree with that statement. But the chair of the committee, my friend the Rev. Dr. Joanne Carlson Brown, corrected that misconception by quoting from the 43rd chapter of Isaiah in the First Testament, the scriptures that Jesus loved and that shaped his ministry:
1 But now thus says the Lord,
   he who created you, O Jacob,
   he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
   I have called you by name, you are mine.
2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
   and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
   and the flame shall not consume you.
3 For I am the Lord your God,
   the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. . . .
4 Because you are precious in my sight,
   and honored, and I love you.

She went on to say, “Notice that it does not say if you pass through the waters, but when, because we will experience difficult times in our lives. But we will not be overwhelmed or consumed because we are so loved. The First Testaments is the same as the second.” 

They are about the powerful love of God. No matter what happens in our lives, we are held within the wisdom of abundant life, the wisdom of generative love, whether we know it or not, whether we feel it or not. The God who orders the universe will not let us go. You are as precious as the chambered nautilus, the unfolding rose, the spinning galaxies. You are precious in God’s sight, honored and loved.