Monday, May 19, 2008

Sermon: It Is Good

Text: Genesis 1:1-2:4a
My text this morning comes from Brian McLaren. He recently wrote: “There seem to be three main kinds of religious people in the world. First, there are the fearsome -- those who like to make others afraid. Second, there are the fearless -- those who refuse to be intimidated by the fearsome. Then in the middle are the fearful -- those who are afraid to associate with the fearless because they might incur the ire of the fearsome. He continued to defend Kay Warren, Rick Warren’s wife, who was going to be a speaker at an event with Brian McLaren and some other post evangelicals. I admire Kay Warren. She listened to God’s call to her and has brought the issue of AIDS in Africa to millions of Christians, including her husband, who had ignored the plight of the poor around the world.
I think how McLaren describes religious folks describes people in general. There are those who incite fear in others. We see them in politics, the politics of dirty tactics, the politics of name calling, the politics of racial innuendo, the politics of gender innuendo, the politics of fear of the other, whoever the other might be—someone different from me and maybe you. We see them in religion: those who tell others that if you do not believe exactly what I believe in the way I believe it, you will go to hell and burn in the lake of fire forever.
Scripture tells us over and over and over again “Do not fear.” In this experience of mine, several of you have come to me and said “You will be fine.” Or “miracles do happen.” So I have a question for you: with respect to this congregation, why are some of you afraid? Why do you not trust that God has good in store for us as a congregation? Are you afraid to believe because if this congregation doesn’t survive it means you have trusted in a false God? Because if you trust and nothing happens, or at least the same thing that has happened over the past, what fifteen or twenty years will happen again? That God will desert you? That God may not be here? I know you trust God in your personal lives, but when I listen to some of you, I hear fear for the life of this congregation.
Or do you not trust that God will give you the energy to go to some new place? Look at Abraham and Sarah. They were old, really old. Older than any of you sitting here. And God tells Abraham to leave a comfortable home and move his entire family to a new place and begin an entirely new way of life. Look at Jesus followers at Pentecost when the Spirit blew through the house where they were praying. The Spirit gives us what we need when we follow Jesus. The Spirit gives us all we need.
The scripture read this morning is as much a promise as anything else. There are those who would cast it as scientific history: as fact about how the world was created. To read it as science misses so much of what the text is saying.
The story of creation in Genesis 1 was written by a priest, probably in Babylon sometime in the sixth century before Christ. In all probability it was written during the time of the exile of the Jewish people into the foreign world that was the most important empire in the western world at the time. It is written against the backdrop of Babylonian mythology. In the Babylonian creation story, there are many gods. They war with each other. Finally one Marduk slays the mother of the gods Tiamat, who is also the great sea. He slices her body into two parts: to form the sky and the earth. For the Babylonians, there was no separation between the human and divine. Both were equally caught in chaos. At any time, the world could be plunged again into the chaos which had existed before creation of the earth.
The priest writing in Babylon tells a different story. There is only one God, certainly a surprise to many, including Israelites who were used to there being many gods. The earth is there, waiting for God's work. God begins by creating light and separates the light from the darkness. The God creates sky, a tent to separate the waters that were on the earth from the waters that were beyond the sky. Then God separates again dry land out of the water and on that same day, God creates plants. On the fourth day, God creates the sun and the moon, mirroring the work that God did on the first day. On the fifth day, God creates the sea creatures, mirroring the creation of the sea. And on the sixth day, God creates the animals of the earth, mirroring the creation of the earth itself on the third day. God creates humanity, male and female both at the same time, both equal, both in God’s image. Then God creates a Sabbath for rest.
In contrast to the Babylonian story of creation, this is a story of order, not chaos. God is eternally there to ensure that chaos does not return to the earth. That is half the promise: that chaos will not finally rule the earth. That may be hard to believe in this week. We have seen aid to Burma thwarted by a military junta more intent on feeding the army than on helping its citizens. We watch in helpless horror as experts predict mass starvation that can be easily prevented. We have seen a massive earthquake in China bring death and grief, unimaginable grief to the Chinese parents who have only one child, that child now buried in a schoolhouse, or pulled out by now and buried in the ground. This has been a week in which I have spent four days at the cancer center getting a shot each day to boost my white blood levels. I have met men and women there with stories of disease and fight far greater than mine. On Monday, I met a family, two sisters and two brothers. One of the sisters has a son with leukemia. She had been a bone marrow transplant donor for her son who is still at St. Judes fighting that disease. Her father has been diagnosed with leukemia. Now her sister and brothers were there to see if any of them matched her blood type so that they could donate to her because she has been diagnosed with leukemia. Each day I met someone who had been fighting longer and harder than I and on Thursday I met a man who was celebrating because he has been cured. Alleluia.
This morning’s text was probably written at one of the lowest point in Judah’s history. They had been conquered. God had apparently deserted them. They were living in exile, in a place far from home. And yet, this text, this story of order from chaos, this assurance that creation, the world and all that is in it is good, comes from that time. It is a story of hope in the midst of despair, of God’s control in the midst of chaos, of the triumph of good in a time of evil.
How can we doubt that God intends good for us and more importantly, good from us? Neither Abraham nor Sarah saw God’s promise to them fulfilled. The fulfillment would take generations. The grandchildren of those in exile came home to a destroyed Israel or stayed in Babylon. Neither saw the fruits of the exile in the increase of learning in Judaism, how the experience of exile would lay the foundation for their survival as generation after generation would be removed from their homeland in Palestine. Those in the house at Pentecost would not see how God intended for God’s church to grow and flower and bear fruit. We may not see how our lives bear fruit for God’s realm on earth. I am sure, though, of two things: God intends good for us and the only way we can live into that good is to let go of fear. Amen.