Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘Rosh Hashanah’

Genesis #2: Creation is Pretty Cool

Genesis 1:14-25

 The Still-Creating God

How many of you have a baby book? I’m looking at mine right now. I also have my HS scrapbook that my mom put together before my HS graduation party. The only reason that I have these in front of me is because my parents just recently moved to Colorado and thus emptied their Josh memorabilia in my lap. Honestly, I haven’t looked at my baby book before. As for my HS scrapbook, I thought it was pretty cool when I was 17. But a week after my HS graduation, I was prepping for college and never looked at it again. I haven’t seen it since. It’s fun to reminisce and look at pictures, isn’t it? At the time when we put together these memory collections, they seem to be a pretty accurate summary of our lives—where we’ve been, what we looked like, the specific dates and occasions. It’s a bit like the Facebook timeline, which provides a year by year, linear sequence of pictures and events, places we’ve lived and worked, people we’ve connected to. But I admit to you that as I look through these pictures and walk down this nostalgic path, I see a baby or boy or a teenager far removed from the person I know to be myself. Do these snapshots with actual dates written on them tell the story of our lives? Or is there more to the story that goes far beyond what we see or write down?

We are looking at the creation stories in the book of Genesis. As we do that, we also reflect on our own stories—discovering where and when God’s story intersects with ours. It’s like what one of my favorite writers, Flannery O’Conner wrote: The divine will works in and through the most ordinary human motivations and aspirations.[1] Also, perhaps tonight and tomorrow you will hear the sound of a ram’s horn being blown, the shofar, because tonight begins the Jewish observance of Rosh Hashanah. It is indeed the Jewish New Year celebration to remember the creation of the world. So we, with our Jewish brothers and sisters, dig into the Genesis story, to reflect on the special relationship between God and humanity. Just as a reminder to all of us Christians–the book of Genesis is part of what we call the OT, but really it is part of the first 5 books of Moses, called the Torah or Pentateuch.

Also, a gentle reminder that the creation stories in Genesis are not black and white, scientific accounts of how all that we see came to be. These stories are not about proving something true or false. They are instead incredibly beautiful, creative, and mysterious narratives telling the story of the birth of the moon, sun, stars, land, water, plants, animals, and human beings. The Biblical accounts were never meant to be scientific proofs or history books. This was and is not their intent. Poetic writing, as Genesis clearly shows, is meant to draw out of us a playful and rich imagination. Genesis chapter one is part of the family of creation myths that exist around the world. Now for some reason, the word myth attached to Genesis can be troublesome for some. But let’s keep in mind what a myth actually is: a traditional or legendary story, usually concerning some being or hero or event, with or without a determinable basis of fact or a natural explanation.[2] For generations, sacred myth stories have sought to express what is unexplainable in our human experiences. Just because something is a myth does mean that it is not true. But the truth of a myth lies not in its scientific explanations or proofs, but in the story’s message. GK Chesterton, famed English writer, once wrote: [even] fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.[3]

Perhaps we are afraid of referring to the Genesis creation stories as myths or fairy tales because we think that by doing so we dishonor God. But I think this sort of understanding of scripture is quite narrow. If we really think about it, what is the purpose of Genesis? Is it to prove scientific facts? Is it even to promote a religion? Or is it to express a genuine context and perspective of people trying to make sense of their lives? Is the story deeper than what appears on the surface? Whenever we look at a Bible story, we must always ask: who are the people writing this? Where did they live? What were they experiencing? Why would they write it in such a way? What inspired them and challenged them? And in this case, what were they afraid of? Keep in mind that every story comes from a deep, human place. When was Genesis written? We don’t really know. Some say before the Israelites’ exile in Babylonia [sixth century b.c.e.]; others say afterwards, so post-exile. But let’s just say that for the moment, we can escape timeless debates about when Genesis was written. Let’s imagine for a moment that pre or post exile–the Israelite people [including the hero character Moses]–were a suffering people. They were driven from their homes. They got lost. They were anxious for things to change. They needed hope. They lived in uncertainty. This is true to the story—the deep place it comes from. Much of Israelite story-telling is about remembering where they’ve been, the struggles they encountered, the hope they found, and how these experiences made them who they are.

And Genesis is of course an ancient writing. The people of ancient times saw the world differently. The stars, the moon, the sun, the land, the waters—they were all part of a miraculous, mysterious world. They didn’t have GPS tracking devices, cell phones, atlases, Google Earth, TV meteorologists, or sonar. They read the stars as they were. They measured the sun’s rising and setting as it naturally appeared and disappeared. They had great respect and fear for all of creation. Their perspective could not have been more different than ours is today. The ancient Israelites were like the indigenous peoples of the Americas–the Mayans, Aztecs, Navajos and Lenape–those who first walked these lands, people of the earth, sea, and sky. They heard, saw, and felt nature’s great acts. And in nature, they saw, heard, and felt their Creator. Truth be told, you and I cannot see the world as they did. We are living in 2012. Many of us cannot even remember a time before cell phones or the internet. Many of us have never hunted and gathered for our food or navigated the stars in a boat we built or followed a river to its source or cultivated crops in a once-barren land or measured the hours of the day and night by only the sun and the moon.

So in order for us to experience the meaning of the Genesis myth, we have to read it through other people’s eyes. Joseph John Campbell, a mythologist, once said: Read myths. They teach you that you can turn inward, and you begin to get the message of the symbols. Read other people’s myths, not those of your own religion, because you tend to interpret your own religion in terms of facts — but if you read the other ones, you begin to get the message. I wonder, have you ever thought of the Genesis story as someone else’s story and not your own? What if we read Genesis as the story of the ancients, and stopped interpreting it according to our modern-day religion? How would that shift the meaning of the story for us?

Perhaps we would be more open to the imagination of it. Lights in the sky, signs, and seasons. Days are not 24 hours, but endless ages. Stars are more numerous than numbers can count. Sun sheds light generously—reminding us at the start of each day that whatever happened yesterday is over. Likewise, when the sun disappears on the horizon, we remember that the day is nearly done and all that we are stressing about because it’s incomplete can indeed wait; there is closure. The moon looms over us at night, lighting our path even when it’s dark. We remember that even when our lives seem aimless and full of doubt—light is still present, never leaving us. We are not alone. And then we just might hear the voice of the Creator, saying that it is good. Yes, the world is good. Even though it is full of wars, violence, and hate. Yes, it is good. Even though we struggle to forgive ourselves at times. It is good.

And the waters come rushing down the mountains forming great rivers that empty in the sea. If we hear them, we realize that water is a source of life. We could think about baptism; we could think about washing, cleansing, and making things new. The waters, of course, have their source in the ground and the sky—moisture forms in the ground and is lifted up into the clouds, which open up to rain down and the waters flow. It is nature’s great pilgrimage reminding us that we all have a common humanity, each one of us a common purpose. And then birds fly and fish swim; monkeys and squirrels climb and deer leap and buffalo run. So many species. So many varieties and yet so much harmony. They eat and drink what they need. They replenish the soil naturally. Their instincts lead them to symbiotic relationships with other animals and even with us, if we so choose. God sees them as good—not just mindless creatures. God sees them as good. And God speaks a blessing to them. Fill the waters and the trees and the lands. It’s meant to be. We are all connected. We are all good creations, in spite of how we destroy and neglect and forget to share the land, waters, and trees. It is still good, says God.

My hope for everyone is that the Genesis creation story ceases to be about religious or scientific debate. Instead, this story is about the Creator speaking, blessing, and giving life. And the story leads us to ask about our own stories: What is God speaking to us today? What is God creating today? How are we blessed today? Do we think of ourselves as good—along with trees, plants, animals, waters, sun, moon, and stars—all connected and purposeful?

We talk about a Still-Speaking God in the United Church of Christ. This phrase still-speaking and the phrase don’t place a period where God has placed a comma give testimony to a belief that God is not finished with us or with the world. The words written in this Bible are not frozen in time nor limited to traditional perspectives or church doctrines and dogmas. On the contrary, God is still speaking through the stories of the Bible. Getting caught up in human arguments that turn us into enemies is the wrong path to take. We are created to be grateful. We are made to offer our thanks and praise for life all around us–just as our ancient ancestors around the world did and still do.

Friends, God IS still speaking in your life–intending to create and bless you. Don’t let the darkness of life fool you—it’s part of good creation, too—and it also doesn’t last forever. Eventually, the night sky is it up by the sun. Eventually, the rains come and wash through us. We are created to realize that the Genesis story is a sacred myth—one with symbols and meaning and truth. It is a story. It’s not meant to be figured out; it’s meant to be enjoyed. And the story continues in our lives. For God is still speaking to you, still creating in you, still blessing you. Will you see and hear and feel this? Will you recognize that this is good? Will you see all others around you as good? The story is not finished. The Divine story mingles with our story. Participate in the creative, beautiful, good work of the Creator. See, hear, and feel where it takes you. Amen.

[1] Flannery O’Conner: Mystery and Manners, 1961

[2] Webster’s Dictionary

[3] Tremendous Trifles (1909), XVII: “The Red Angel”;


In the Beginning….

Genesis 1:1-13 NRSV

 The Ginormous Story

VIDEO: Children of Eden

Let there be

Let there be

Let there be…light

I woke up from a curious dream
I dreamed a perfect garden
And there were whirling shapes
And swirling sounds
And I wasn’t lonely anymore

I woke up from a wonderful dream
Woke, full of energy and hunger
And now this hunger will be stilled
And my emptiness be filled
As I set about to build
My dream

Let there be, let there be morning
Let there be evening, day
Let there be, Let there be waters, weathers, winters, wonders
Let there be land and Speeding comets with hearts of ice!
Spinning planets with rings of fire!
Cosmic sparks and quasars and quarks
And suns convulsing
Pulsars pulsing
Let there be Whales! Snails! Sharks! Larks!
Apples trees with dappled barks!
And granite mountains and flaxen plains
Giant lizards with tiny brains
Flourescent fish and crescent worms
And a million bugs and trillion germs

Let there be
Let there be
Let there be

You just saw a performance of Children Of Eden, a musical based on the Genesis stories of scripture, book by John Caird of Les Miserables fame, and music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, known also for Godspell and Wicked. This particular live staging is from the 2011 production of the Actors Charitable Theatre in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Children of Eden tackles one of the most known [and misunderstood] stories of scripture. Creation. Creator. Sky, water, land. Plants. Animals. People. How do we make sense of it all? Creation stories are huge in every culture of the world and certainly this particular creation story is not the only one. For example, in the Americas, the most well-known creation story that is truly American is the Popul Vuh, the Mayan story; in English, the Book of Counsel or Community. The Popol Vuh was found in the Guatemalan Highlands, somewhere around 1550. Its significance looms large because it is the main surviving Mesoamerican creation document; the others were destroyed during the various conquests. The Popol Vuh’s story focuses on the creation of all in nature, including human beings who eventually are made out of corn. Popul Vuh continues with the adventures of the twin gods, Hunahpu and Xbalanque.[1] Here is an excerpt:

This is the account of how all was in suspense, all calm, in silence; all motionless, still, and the expanse of the sky was empty. This is the first account, the first narrative. There was neither man, nor animal, birds, fishes, crabs, trees, stones, caves, ravines, grasses, nor forests; there was only the sky.  The surface of the earth had not appeared. There was only the calm sea and the great expanse of the sky. There was nothing brought together, nothing which could make a noise, nor anything which might move, or tremble, or could make noise in the sky. There was nothing standing; only the calm water, the placid sea, alone and tranquil. Nothing existed.

There was only immobility and silence in the darkness, in the night. Only the Creator, the Maker, Tepeu, Gucumatz, the Forefathers,* were in the water surrounded with light.[2]

For the next month or so, we will be focusing on stories—creation stories from sacred texts, but also the stories of our lives. While we explore the two creation stories in the book of Genesis, we journey alongside the children in our faith formation class, who are learning about the same stories. It is appropriate, too, that a week from now, Sept. 16-18, our Jewish brothers and sisters will be celebrating Rosh Hashana. This festival is the Jewish New Year celebration that commemorates the creation of the world. Jews pray and reflect on their sins against God or against their fellow human beings. Of course, there is food, special teaching and worship, and the Shofar–ram’s horn—an instrument blown to symbolize an awakening from spiritual slumber. Rosh Hashanah is a time to emphasize the special relationship between God and humanity. So it is appropriate for us to be exploring Genesis during this time; after all, Genesis [bresheit in Hebrew] is one of the five books of Moses called the Torah [or Pentateuch]. Remember too that the word “torah” can also be used to refer to the entire Jewish bible (the body of scripture known to non-Jews like us as the Old Testament and to Jews as the Tanakh or Written Torah). Torah can also mean, very broadly, the whole body of Jewish law and teachings.[3] As we look at the Genesis creation stories, remember that these stories are shared. Christians, Jews, and Muslims draw from the same stories—though we often write and speak in different languages.

Of course, there are a million different directions in which to go with this first Genesis creation story. Right of the bat, let me say something. We’re often tempted to turn Genesis into a science vs. religion argument. This debate is distracting, because surely we cannot compare the days of creation in Genesis 1 or the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2 &3 to the theory of evolution. Do we really expect this road to lead us to real answers? Instead, we must all keep in mind that the Genesis stories are small parts of a larger story—just like our daily stories are part of the great-big story of our lives. In fact, as I mentioned before, the word Torah is used to describe different parts of one big thing. So Genesis is not just about chapters 1-3, but about the whole, ginormous story. Let us look at the creation stories as scenes in a larger act of a dramatic play. There are characters. There are sets. There are lighting schemes, entrances and exits, symbols, and props. And someone wrote it!

Who did write these creation stories? In traditional Judaism and Christianity, the Pentateuch [five books] is considered a faithful and exact record of the word of G-d to the prophet, Moses. On the other hand, there are many who believe that various authors at various times put together these stories in Genesis. This is known as the Documentary Hypothesis or JPED. Honestly, I don’t have time in a sermon to explain this. But let’s just say that there are many perspectives about Genesis authorship—debates that go on and on. Of course, archeological discoveries like the Dead Sea Scrolls open up even more debate about the Bible. I think we miss the point though, if we focus only on the author[s] of Genesis. Any great story that we cherish surely has an author or authors. But it is the story itself that we cherish. So it is with Genesis and any sacred text. The story is sacred to us and to Jews and Muslims alike, because faith plays a part in it. People of faith believe that God is in the story, that God is the main character who loves humankind and is active in their lives. There is no room for hate, exclusion, or separation in such a story of hope, beauty, and divine spark. Who wrote it–Important perhaps–but a question that probably won’t be answered to our satisfaction.

And anyway, Genesis isn’t trying to bombard us with details to figure out. Much is actually hidden in the story—yet to be revealed and written—without periods and exclamation points, but instead, a story with commas and three dots in a row. Even the start of Genesis 1:1 is mysterious. In the beginning is actually the title of this writing. There is no date set for when everything started. Was it a big bang or a cosmic collision of stars? These things are not important in the story. What is important is that Elohim [God] was…darkness was…then Creator began creating…plants, animals, sky, land, water…harmony…and above all—light! These words and phrases at the start of Act 1 are important. They are setting the stage; they are dramatic, beautiful, and mysterious. And they reflect upon us a hopeful, wonderful idea—that this Elohim-Creator can break through darkness, chaos, and emptiness. This Creator wants light to happen, to reveal, to shine, and to be…good. In these first few words of the great-big-story, we discover a bit about the personality of this Creator, to be revealed more and more. This Creator enjoys creating. This Creator thinks light is pretty special. This Creator judges all that is made as good.

Honestly, though, most of us have skipped ahead in the story. We know that this Creator kept on creating. We know that the story keeps moving forward to human beings. The story continues on in Exodus. We hear the story of Moses and the Israelites. They struggle, but this Creator goes before, with, and after them. They journey. They develop a relationship with this Creator. They love and are loved; they walk in darkness and find light. And then, as Christians, we skip ahead to places like the Gospel of John, re-telling and re-interpreting this story with: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.[4] The story gets personal. We start to see hope in this Creator. Life and light shining even in all of our darkness? A Creator’s light and love that can overcome all of the emptiness and fear inside us–this is good!

And that is part of our story, isn’t it? For we all have stories of pain, sadness, joy, hope, despair, light, and darkness. Some of us tell ongoing stories without periods and mostly commas–how we are still overcoming darkness. Sometimes we tell stories of addiction. Sometimes we tell stories of broken relationships, of times when we felt that we were completely alone. At moments, our stories are joyful: we finish school; we find a life partner who loves us; we forgive and are forgiven. Our stories often include births and deaths, tragedies and triumphs. And all these little, daily stories are part of a ginormous one.

Friends, I believe that the creation story is best experienced as part of our own personal story—not as a black-and-white description of what really “happened” billions of years ago. I think that if we experience it personally, then we have the opportunity to experience re-creation and renewal in ourselves, alongside Jews, Muslims, and all who share this planet. For we all have stories to share and to tell. Our stories remind us of our common values and humanity, our common questions, our common love, hope, and need for community. And this creation story reminds us that the Creator is interested in love, in light, and in all that is good. This should move us to see our neighbors around us as good creations; this should move us to care for trees, and plants, and animals. This should move us to love.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson puts it this way:

The first story we are given is of a God who cannot bear to be alone. A God who is driven by love to create a world of flowering and cascading diversity in which nothing is precisely like what came before it; in which each new creature is delightfully fresh and novel; in which God, thrilled by each new creation, says: This is good. God cannot be God if God cannot love.[5]

And so, good creations of God that you are—tell your stories. Listen to someone else’s story. And may love and light be the threads that weave our stories together. Amen.

[2] Popol Vuh: Part I, Chapter 1

[3] The Book of the Torah, Mann, Thomas.

[4] John 1:1-5, NRSV.

[5] Shavit Artson, Bradley, The Bible is a Book of Inclusion and Love.

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