Friday, September 21, 2018

Out of Chaos

Picture to the left entitled "Copernicus Cosmos" illustrates one artist's interpretation of the cosmos as it came to be, born out of chaos.

"Out of Chaos"

Rev. Paul Mitchell

Vashon United Methodist Church

September 2, 2018

Genesis 1:1-25; John 1:1-14

Chaos is hard to talk about, but we have all probably experienced it. Our minds seem to be structured to impose, infer, or imagine some kind of order in any situation.
Chaos is perhaps a little like pain. It’s a real condition, and yet I can never know your pain. It’s all relative. The pain I am in is absolutely real and can be excruciating, but there is no way I can truly communicate it to you. Like pain, chaos is a subjective experience…, or perhaps order is the subjective experience that we create out of chaotic situations. I’m told that having gall stones is one of the most excruciating experiences one can have, along with – in some cases – childbirth.
Chaos is unpredictable and thus can induce a variety of fear that may be more disturbing than knowing the moment of your death in advance. I really would prefer not to experience chaos or pain if I could help it. And yet it seems to be built into the fabric of the cosmos. In fact, in some sense, chaos may be the fabric of the universe – as is attested by the creation story in Genesis 1. At the start of things, it is chaos and God who occupy the scene. It’s hard to know, from the story at least, which came first. In the end, maybe that’s the fundamental difference between theists and atheists – one asserts God’s primordial existence and the other asserts chaos’ primordial existence – while the agnostic is content to remain neutral. Whichever we assert to be first ultimately becomes our god. If it is chaos that preexists, then chaos is god.
Chaos as a state of being seems akin to that ubiquitous one-word phrase that seems too common right now – “Whatever.” As if nothing really matters. It’s a state of neutral determinism. Chaos theory proposes that reality is essentially value-free. That the patterns our minds perceive come as consequences of random, though deterministic, factors. It’s really cause-and-effect without any initiating cause. On the other hand, if chaos is not first, what is? It’s ironic that our assertion as Christian theists that God is the prime mover, the origin of being…, in fact Being itself, only underscores the mystery of God.
Just as our particularly Christian experience of faith is initially expressed in documents that present a multiplicity of perspectives on God’s self-disclosure, through Jesus Christ, our scriptures contain multiple stories of creation. We all know that Genesis contains more than one creation story, but we rarely consider there are at least three in Genesis if you count the flood story that roughly parallels other creation stories of the ancient near east. And consider that the Gospels are each creation stories in their own way – the initiation of a new heaven and a new earth.
So it’s significant that over the course of time, the narrative that comprises the first chapter of our first canonical scripture is the one that begins with chaos, mystery, and the brooding presence of God. Next week, on Humanity Sunday, we’ll talk more about the implications of being made in God’s image. But for now, it’s important to explore initially what that image is in which we are created. I like how Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase The Message puts the first two verses:
“First this: God created the Heavens and Earth –
all you see, all you don't see.
Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness,
an inky blackness.
God's Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss.”
The Hebrew word we translate as earth here is #r,a (aretz), and it would more exactly – without interpretation – be translated as dirt, land, or territory. The idea of a planet is obviously outside the conception of the Hebrew people or even the first Christians. Earth here is what’s solid. It’s what you can count on – to a degree, barring earthquakes, landslides, erosion, and flooding.
In other words, the solid stuff that we tend to count and count on is “a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness.” It has not yet been differentiated from the liquid, mutable, possibility-laden rawness from which it is to emerge not until the third day. That has an important ring to it – the third day – we’ll come back to that.
Now chaos is not a bad thing – even as challenging as we mere humans find it to be. It is the source of possibility – the stuff out of which things become. But it’s not the first cause, and the first cause is what we are seeking to identify. What are the characteristics of God that we know from this narrative before humans hit the scene – not until the afternoon of the fifth day? First, God broods, or sweeps, or hovers. The Hebrew word can also mean cherish, as a mother cherishes her child both before and after it emerges from the waters of her womb. So, this is the first image in which we are created – the image of cherishing unborn possibility – even though it may appear to be dark, unpredictable, and therefore uncontrollable. Let’s call it cherishment – sounds a little awkward, but it really is a word – that means encouragement and comfort.
Next, in her brooding, we must imagine that God imagines – that there is a vision, intention, yearning, or desire – though it is revealed only in its execution. So, the implied second characteristic of God’s image is imagination – the ability to see what is not yet.
Third, God speaks. That voice is powerful. That voice makes things happen. Again, from The Message, “God spoke: “Light!" And light appeared.”
Like God, we have a voice, and it is a powerful thing. Let’s call it agency. It sets us apart from all of creation and it comes with a profound responsibility – a responsibility to use it in the Spirit that we have already discerned to be the image of God – with deep cherishing care, visionary hope, and creative power.
So far, there has been no value judgment made. These first three characteristics – cherishment, imagination, and agency, pass no judgment. It’s not until the end of the third day that God saw that it was good, and this is the pronouncement made upon earth – our focus for today. God values what earth – dirt, land, territory – represents. Dirt is good, so how is it that dirty has come to mean bad?
So, we can conclude one more characteristic about God – that the very nature of being is not neutral. That does not mean that God takes sides in the way that Switzerland purports not to take sides, but that God’s nature is self-giving and that God desires that good will come of that self-giving nature. God even cares about the dirt, the land, and yes, the planet. What could be more tangible than that?
So what does this mean for us on this first Sunday in September on Vashon Island in the middle of Puget Sound? Well, first it means that our intended image is cherishment, imagination, agency, and care. That’s what God intends for us humans in particular. And not incidentally we should care about the dirt, the land, the planet. In his commentary on Genesis, Walter Brueggemann points out that at times Genesis, along with the rest of bible, addresses the relationship between God and “creation” as including sometimes all existence, sometimes living creatures, and sometimes only humans. But at the outset, we humans are the younger cousins of light and darkness, the waters above and the waters below, the solid places, the green things, the day and night, the fish and the birds, and finally the land animals.
We come last.
It’s no coincidence that our word for fertile earth – humus – shares its root with humility and also hominid. We are creatures of earth. Again, more about that next week on humanity Sunday. For now it means that dirt deserves our cherishment, imagination, agency, and care. Could it be that dirt also is made somewhat in the image of God? Dirt is the foundation of all we build. Dirt is giving and forgiving. Dirt is a reservoir of our history and our hopes. Dirt receives our remains. Dirt holds possibility, potential, and power. From the dirt come the elements that Jesus chose to represent his life and his love, his embrace and his promise – the fruits of the field and the vine.
Part of what we remember as we celebrate the Lord’s supper is that out of the chaos of death, the chaos of loss, the chaos of disappointment, on the third day Jesus Christ revealed that embedded in creation is both life and new life – a new creation.
We thank you God for all that you have called good.

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