…at its heart, it is good!
January 7, 2018
Scripture: Genesis 1:1-5
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
As I sat on Thursday morning, safely inside while a storm raged on all around us outside, I looked back on this past year and thought deeply on what I wanted to share with you on this the first Sunday of a new year. I had also been thinking for a while on the scripture from Genesis that was listed for today and wondering how to possibly speak on verses that were so familiar to all of us. And then fortunately I remembered that I need to listen as much as I need to think and to talk if I truly wanted my words to reflect even a touch of what the Spirit was trying to share with us. And in reflecting back on what I had read, what I had recently heard, and on the deepest yearnings within my soul, a kernel of an idea began to form. At first it was elusive and fleeting, as though it was hiding from my full consciousness so as not to be misinterpreted or undervalued, precious as it was. But eventually it began to become clearer in my mind’s eye as I sat there listening on Thursday morning.
And somewhere, between an essay by Debie Thomas in a Textweek post titled ‘Journey With Jesus’, a fascination with the fact that there are two distinct Creation accounts at the beginning of Genesis, a story on the morning news about the latest issue of Time Magazine, and my own penchant for being a ‘glass-mostly-full-most-of-the-time’ individual, I realized that I truly wanted to talk today about ‘good news’…about hope and promise, about goodness and happiness, of all that seems so hard to find in a world so tied up in knots of fear and disappointment.
Debie Thomas wrote her piece the last time this selection from Genesis came up three years ago. And I was reminded by her essay that the tone of the two accounts of Creation were so very different one from another. And in truth I must admit that until I went to Seminary I never really thought much about the fact that there were two accounts, in fact I am not sure I was all that aware. Perhaps it was a lacking in my Sunday School experience or in my failure to follow up over a lifetime of occasional bible reading, but I think my lacking most likely came from a faith and cultural emphasis that has forever tended to focus almost solely on the second account of Creation which gives us the story of Adam and Eve, the apple, and the betrayal orchestrated by a snake. Somehow I think I must have merged the two accounts into one, remembering the progression of the first through the seventh day and the notion of God resting on the Sabbath as well as the proclamation that ‘God saw that it was good’. However, all in all, the Creation story for me seemed to be focused pretty much solely on the origin of evil that actually makes up the second Creation account.
And I am not sure that this is not a fairly common experience for many who have been raised in our culture that places such an emphasis on crime and punishment or at least on sin and all its consequence. But in truth the first account of Creation gives us much to take heart from if we look at what makes it so distinct from the second narrative. There is significant difference between the two accounts, in tone to be sure, in literary purpose most likely, and in emphasis no doubt. Truly if one focuses solely on the second narrative with its seeming primary attention to evil, betrayal, and eventual consequences it is not hard to be pessimistic and discouraged at the state of the world in which we live. If we only had the second account upon which to construct our understanding of God, and if it were as partial as I believe it truly is when it comes to acknowledging the true depth of God’s love and forgiveness, then despair would truly be warranted as we start this New Year.
However, the first account calls for something entirely different from all who profess to be followers of our God, of the one God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Hagar and of Ishmael. And that is because the first account is predicated on the revelation that in fact, at its heart, all is good. Before sin, before Adam and Eve, before human kind in general…God declared all of Creation to be utterly and entirely good. At the end of each day of Creation the account tells us, God looked out on the work of the day and ‘saw that it was good’. And strikingly at the end of the sixth day of Creation, when all had finally been completed and prior to God resting on the seventh day, God looked out and ‘saw that indeed it all was good’. And our poor English translation of that sixth’s day utterance does not convey the difference between that day and all the rest which actually meant to convey that God looked, and God saw that indeed all that had been created was now in harmony and balance, ready to be left to begin to fulfil its potential and divine promise’.
So you see, the reading for this first day of the New Year is one which seeks to tell us that the Creation which God wrought, the world in which we live is based not on fear or evil but rather on goodness, harmony, and balance. It started out as a good earth; it started out as a wondrous and beautiful, balanced and mutually beneficial Creation. Anything we see that contradicts that original state is a result of human sin and willful separation from the original operating principles of God’s vision and desire.
So the real good news here is that this is something we broke…therefore it is potentially something we can fix. The underlying pattern or trajectory of human culture and history going forward does not have to be a repeat of past fallen empires and destructive habits, but rather can be something truly glorious and good if we can begin to find our way back to God’s proclamation given on day six.
And that is most likely where I am accused of being a ‘glass-far-too-full’ dreamer. However, I would challenge anyone to read the gospel accounts closely, to really study the life and ministry of Jesus, to acknowledge all that was central to his life’s work and still to hold that the kingdom of God is a pipe dream and just a wistful delusion of so many prophets…including the one born in a Bethlehem stable.
We are a people called to live believing in a risen Lord who defeated the strength and power of human evil once and for all…we are a people called to imitate the one who gave his life in service to all who were poor and oppressed for whatever reason and, who told us that the guiding principle of our life’s work must be to lay down our lives in service to his commandment to love one another…every one another …regardless of any of those things we usually covet to help us divide and segregate ourselves into self affirming and self-protecting tribes or clans. The ‘kingdom’ Jesus sought to convince his followers was at hand had, and still has, no room whatsoever for hatred, bigotry, prejudice, greed, selfishness, or the profound lack of respect and indeed destruction currently being visited upon Creation as a whole. Rather, the ‘kingdom’ Jesus spoke of, the ‘Day of the Lord’ the prophets of old dreamed of is that moment in time when humankind begins to remember and returns to the search for and realization of the harmony and balance which was Creation’s original intent and purpose.
‘But how’, some would say, ‘how can you be so sure that it is possible to make what seems to be such a drastic, even 180 degree turn from the direction we are now heading in? How can you speak of hope and promise honestly in light of all that seems so broken and divided everywhere one looks?
In truth, it takes a bit of faith…it takes a bit of trust that at least some of the faith we profess, at least some of the words of our scriptures, at least a few of the hopes and dreams we hold, at least some of what Jesus is purported to have said…is true. For it seems that the balance of good news versus bad news is and has been for a while overwhelmingly weighted in favor of the negative. It seems that we have almost nowhere to turn if we are truly looking for a good word, a word of promise that we can trust in and hold on to.
And yet…here we are. We are as much a collection of diversity of thought and understandings, of beliefs and convictions as anywhere else in society. We have no reason to care for each other or to extend ourselves on behalf of another whatsoever…and yet…we choose to do so. We spend ourselves fully in trying to keep a small church open and in critical service to our community. We spend our time and resources seeking to feed those who hunger, to clothe those who are in need, to free those held captive by so many things, to provide a place and a community wherein anyone who comes may enter into the loving presence of our God as made real and present within our fellowship together. We have hope because we witness weekly the truth that wherever two or more are gathered, there our Lord is in the midst of them.
However, there are also hints that goodness is still the underlying principle of Creation as well as the innate quality of the human soul. In a year in which we have witnessed truly cataclysmic weather events and horrific tragedies visited upon humanity by depraved individuals, in every instance we saw ordinary people answer the call to greatness of compassion and self-sacrifice for the sake of another, totally regardless of all those artificial distinctions we let cloud our vision from time to time. And in the latest issue of Time Magazine, Bill Gates took a turn as the first ever guest editor for an issue devoted almost entirely to good news.
In a letter telling why he chose to take on this task Gates says, ‘Reading the news today does not exactly leave you feeling optimistic. Hurricanes in the Americas…horrific mass shootings…global tensions over nuclear arms, crisis in Myanmar, bloody civil wars in Syria and Yemen. Your heart breaks for every person who is touched by these tragedies. Even for those of us lucky enough not to be directly affected, it may feel like the world is falling apart.
But these events—as awful as they are—have happened in the context of a bigger, positive trend. On the whole, the world is getting better.
This is not some naively optimistic view; it’s backed by data. Look at the number of children who die before their fifth birthday. Since 1990, that figure has been cut in half. That means 122 million children have been saved in a quarter- century, and countless families have been spared the heartbreak of losing a child.
And that’s just one measure. In 1990, more than a third of the global population lived in extreme poverty; today only about a tenth do. A century ago, it was legal to be gay in about 20 countries; today it’s legal in over 100 countries. Women are gaining political power and now make up more than a fifth of members of national parliaments—and the world is finally starting to listen when women speak up about sexual assault. More than 90% of all children in the world attend primary school. In the U.S., you are far less likely to die on the job or in a car than your grandparents were. And so on.’
So, there is good news out there on many fronts. Unfortunately it doesn’t often make it into our hearing as the drama and market value of negative news coverage seems to hold more sway with media outlets. However, even on the small front of how we covenant to love and care for one another, it is up to us to be the bearers of a message of the best news…the truth that we worship a God whose love and mercy is far, far greater that all of the forces of evil and hatred the world has ever given birth to combined. We…here in this small gathering of our Lord’s family have been entrusted with being a light of hope in a world so often darkened by injury, pain, and suffering. We have been entrusted with seeking to provide the most basic of resources to our neighbors in need, truly believing that as we do it unto one of the least of these we are doing it unto our Lord. And we have been blessed with the most incredible privilege of seeing, knowing, and then offering this good news to all whom the Spirit places before us on the path of life.
And finally, in keeping with the goodness of which we are a part and the responsibility our call places upon each one of us, it is good to remember and to be thankful for one of the primary ways we as a congregation have always been able to call upon and rely upon the grace of our Lord…namely our call to be a house of prayer. This past Wednesday night after music practice was over we gathered in a circle as is our habit to say a prayer before departing. And for some reason…perhaps even for purposes of remembering it today, Wednesday night’s prayer was filled with both need and quiet confidence that God was both present and listening to all of the concerns that were voiced. And as we finished and bid each other farewell I was heartened within by the degree of both belief and compassion which was brought to our little time together.
So as I close out these thoughts I would like to ask you all for a favor…a way for each of you to take some time this week to be a part of something bigger, something good, something holy. Several weeks back at our Christmas Cantata we gave all those who were here an opportunity to list a prayer or a thought on a small wooden ornament and then to bring it forward to hang on the Tree of Hope up front. It was amazing to see how pretty much everyone there took advantage of the offer and made their way forward to lay their hope or concern at the foot of the altar of the nativity.
At the Cantata we told everyone that we were going to take those concerns this first week of the year and lift them up altogether in prayer prior to taking down the Christmas decorations in the sanctuary this coming week. We have placed all of those concerns here in a basket and I invite all of you to take one or more of them home with you and to promise to lift them up in prayer this week at least once and more if you feel inclined. In that way we all will be joining together in fulfilling our promise to truly pray for these concerns that were entrusted to us all. We will pass the basket around during the collection of the offering, please feel free to take as many of them as you wish.
And finally, join with me in truly believing there is in fact good news to be had…that there is good news to be shared…that indeed there is good news we are each called to be! Happy New Year! …amen