A couple weekends ago, Bruce and I went up to Middlebury for my 40th college reunion. It was an exquisite June weekend in Vermont, blue skies and brilliant sunshine during the day, and deeper blue skies and brilliant moon and stars by night. Friday night the College observatory on top of the Science Center was opened, with 3 smaller telescopes out on the roof and the big, 23-inch telescope reaching up through the dome. One of the retired astronomers who was there to provide extra help remarked, “Wow, we probably get 4 nights a year like this in Vermont.”
Through the smaller telescopes, we saw the surface of the moon, including the shadows in the craters; we saw Saturn and its rings; we saw Jupiter and 4 of its moons. I needed a step ladder to reach the lens of the big telescope in the tower, and that was trained on M… 137..or some such number, a globular cluster some 20,000 light years away. It was awesome, in the original sense of the word. At a moment like that, I was reminded of a question one woman posed, wondering whether “we still want to pester God about good weather for the family reunion or the new member drive at church?” (Barbara Brown Taylor, The Luminous Web, pp. 90-1)
20,000 light years away. That means the light from that cluster of pinpricks we were looking at through the lens began its journey to earth 20,000 years ago–that’s what that globular cluster looked like 20,000 years ago, when here on earth, human beings were at the end of the Stone Age. The oldest non-contested human remains are 200,000 years old, although a few years ago archaeologists in Israel found 8 teeth that are believed to be human from 400,000 years ago.
I told you last week that I sometimes read metaphysical texts when I need to burn away the cobwebs forming in my brain. Thinking about 200,000 years ago and light that began its journey to the retina in my eye 20,000 years ago has the same effect. I am lost in the mystery, or as one of my favorite hymns puts it, “lost in wonder, love, and praise.”
And yet, “in 1611, the King James translation of the Bible was published with a note to readers that creation had occurred on the evening before the 23rd of October in the year 4004 BC. In 1616, the Catholic church banned all books that suggested the earth moved at all.” (BBT, op cit., p. 52) This calculation of the date of creation, I gather, was obtained by working back through the genealogies in the Bible from the time of Jesus. There are people today who still believe this, that the earth is 6,000 years old, and I struggle to understand how holding to such a belief gives glory to God and the evidence obtained through science doesn’t. The Dalai Lama, as you may know, has entered into collaboration with neuro-scientists at MIT who are interested in studying the brains of monks who have spent a lifetime meditating. The Dalai Lama has said that if science discovers something that shows an error in what Tibetan Buddhism had thought to be true, then, he says, we must change our belief. How different from the history of the Christian Church!
The opening chapter of Genesis which David read for us this morning is a story about origins. It is not history or science, but rather poetry, hymn, doxology, myth, not in the sense of something that is untrue, but rather a truth so big it can only be told in story. “If we in the post-modern world struggle to see truth in those art forms,” as one writer puts it, “it is not because Scripture is lying. It is because our post-Enlightenment imaginations are impoverished.” (Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus, 6/9/14) Albert Einstein said, “Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.” And the American humorist Will Rogers quipped, “We’re all ignorant, just on different subjects.” (Both cited by BBT, op cit.)
When the Hebrew priests and sages wrote down this creation story, they were most likely living in exile in Babylon. They knew that if there was any hope of retaining a sense of identity in the midst of this foreign land, their people would need to have a way of remembering who they were. The origin myth of their Babylonian captors said that the “cosmos had been made from the dismembered corpse of the goddess Tiamat, whose skull was split by her youngest son Marduk. By murdering his evil mother, Marduk brought order out of chaos with an act of redemptive violence.” (BBT, op cit., p. 27)
The Hebrew story was very different, and what we have in Genesis 1 and then in Genesis 2 & 3 are two of the stories that the Hebrews told to their children about who they were and Whose they were. We are their children as well, and if we can allow our imaginations to speak in their own language of images and poetry and song, we too can find deep truths here about who we are and where we come from.
We come from “a God who pays delighted attention,” as one wise woman observed. (Debie Thomas, op cit.) “A God who lingers over leaf and wing,” every scale and hoof, stream and crystal. This is not merely an engineering, mechanistic, utilitarian God, but a creative, artistic God with a sense of humor. Have you seen an aardvark or a zebra?
This is a world that is, before anything else, essentially good, not evil. The first word before evil or sin or flaw is blessing, original blessing, not original sin. Marcus Borg observes that “Genesis is strikingly world-affirming,” not world-denying, (Cited by Thomas, op cit.) focused on this world, not some other, “heavenly” place. If “good” rather than “evil” were our default setting for looking at the world, might we see the world differently, when we are overwhelmed by the violence, destruction, depravity, and greed that so often seem to be the only way to describe it? Rather than simply holding on until we can get to “that other place,” might not our broken hearts and deep gratitude for the beauty of this place nourish and empower us to do all that we can to heal the world?
We come from a God who makes all things new. Out of void and chaos, God doesn’t split open a skull and dismember a corpse, but God’s Spirit moved over the waters and breathed light, spoke a world, created human beings, male and female, out of God’s own image. You think Apple keeps coming up with new things? They are nothing compared to what God can create. Every morning you wake up it is actually a brand new day, never before dawned. Your body is new, different, as is the body of the person or dog or cat waking up beside you. This new day, this present, is a present, a gift. We come from a God who makes new things.
“…And there was morning, and there was evening, the second, and the third, and the fourth day.” We come from a Source with rhythms, morning and evening, work and rest. Our 24-7 lifestyles are literally killing us. We’ve forgotten who we are, where we come from.
God also created and named the light and the darkness. We must not be too quick to dismiss the gifts of the darkness, as Barbara Brown Taylor’s latest book, called Learning to Walk in the Dark, reminds us–gifts of insight, of quiet, of rejuvenation, of stillness. In fact, all our dualisms, opposites–light and dark, good and evil, black and white, up and down, in and out–are fraught with peril. There is territory in between. If we can accept and affirm only one half of the dualism and reject the other, we end up blinded by the light, with stiff necks from looking only up, afraid of “the other,” with only striving and no release, only aggression and no submission. “To want a life with only half these things in it is to want half a life,” one sage observed, “shutting the other half away where it will not interfere with one’s bright fantasies of the way things ought to be.” (Debie Thomas, op cit.)
And finally, for now, this origin story tells us that we are made in the image of God. What does that possibly mean? Physically? Spiritually? Morally? Those are questions to be pondered and experienced throughout a lifetime. We are made in the image of God. But in Jesus of Nazareth, we do seem to get the beginning of an answer. This is what it means to be fully human in the image of God. This is the deep truth of who we are and Whose we are. This is the Fully Human One, what we are intended to be, what we all can be, if we open to, awaken in, the fullness of God that is our heritage and birthright. We are sons and daughters of God. That’s what the origin story in Genesis 1 is telling us. That’s what Jesus tells us.
That other current origin story–the story of the Big Bang–tells another truth about us. It says that from a “singularity,” a primordial burst of energy spewed elements and fire, stars and galaxies, planets that cooled and tilted, like ours did, at 23 ½ degrees, and from that stardust, all life and all the features and creatures on earth were formed. “We are stardust,” Joni Mitchell sang, “we are golden…” The 2nd creation story in Genesis says the same thing in a different way– “And the Lord God formed the earth creature (adam) from the dust of the ground.” How can we poison, use up, exploit the earth, without committing suicide? This is who we are!
“Mommy, where did I come from?” the little boy asked his mother. “Oh man, this is it,” she moaned. Sweating, fretting, the mom did her best to describe the process where moms and dads come together, and there’s an egg and a sperm, and it grows inside the mommy’s tummy, and finally the baby comes out of his mother’s body. The little boy looked confused. “But where was I born?” he asked a different way. “In Utica,” the mom replied. “Oh,” he said, and went back to his Luke Skywalker action figure and its desert scooter.
Lots of different origin stories. Where do you come from? Utica? Blackwell, Oklahoma? Pownal? Switzerland? California? Mississippi? What is the question you’re asking really? If the question is deep enough, the first chapter in Genesis is a good place to start looking for some answers. “In the beginning, God….”
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark