Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Process of Revision

This week we had a beautiful outdoor service complete with a baptism to celebration God's work of creation. At Presbury United Methodist Church, we are beginning to use the Narrative Lectionary through Pentecost to better explore the story of our faith. 

Gospel Reading: John 1:1-5
Creation: Genesis 1:1-2:4a (Inclusive Bible translation)
In the beginning,
God created the heavens and the earth.

But the earth became chaos and emptiness, and darkness came over the face of the Deep--- yet the Spirit of God was brooding over the surface of the waters.

Then God said, “Light: Be!” and light was. God saw that light was good, and God separated light from darkness. God called the light “Day” and the darkness “night.” Evening came, and morning followed--- the first day.

Then God said, “Now, make and expanse between the waters! Separate water from water!” So it was: God made the expanse and separated the water above the expanse from the water below it. God called the expanse “Sky.” Evening came, and morning followed--- the second day.

Then Gd said, “Waters under the sky: be gathered into one place! Dry ground: appear!” So it was. God called the dry ground “Earth” and the gathering of the waters “Sea.” And God saw that this was good. Then God said, “Earth: produce vegetation--- plants that scatter their own seeds and every kind of fruit tree that bears fruit with its seed in it!” So it was, the earth brought forth every kind of plant that bears seed, and every kind of fruit tree on earth that bears fruit with its own seed in it. And God saw that this was good. Evening came, and morning followed--- the third day.

Then God said, “Now, let there be lights in the expanse of the sky! Separate day from night! Let them mark the signs and seasons, days and years, and serve as luminaries in the sky, shedding light on the earth.” So it was: God made the two great lights, the greater one to illuminate the day, and a lesser to illuminate the night. Then God made the stars as well, placing them in the expanse of the sky, to shed light on the earth, to govern both day and night, and separate light from darkness. And God saw that this was good. Evening came, and morning followed--- the fourth day.

God then said, “Waters: swarm with an abundance of living beings! Birds: fly above the earth in the open expanse of the sky!” And so it was: God created the sea monsters and all sorts of swimming creatures with which the waters are filled, and all kinds of birds. God saw that this was good, and blessed them, saying, “Bear fruit, increase your numbers, and fill the waters of the seas! Birds, abound on the earth!” Evening came, and morning followed--- the fifth day.

Then God said, “Earth, bring forth all kinds of living soul--- cattle, things that crawl, and wild animals of all kinds!” So it was: God made all kinds of wild animals, and cattle, and everything that crawls on the ground, and God saw that this was good.

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image. To be like us. Let them be stewards of the fish in the sea, the birds of the air, and everything that crawls on the ground.”

Humankind was created as God's reflection:
in the divine image God created them;
female and male, God made them.

God blessed them and said, “Bear fruit, increase your numbers, and fill the earth--- and be responsible for it! Watch over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air and all the living things on the earth.” God then told them, “Look, I give you every seed bearing plant on the face of the earth, and every tree whose fruit carries its seed inside itself: they will be your food; and to all the animals of the earth and the birds of the air and things that crawl on the ground--- everything that has a living soul in it--- I give all the green plants for food.” So it was. God looked at all of this creation, and proclaimed it was good--- very good. Evening came, and morning followed--- the sixth day.

Thus the heavens and the earth and all their array were completed. On the seventh day God had finished the work of creation, and so, on that seventh day, God rested. God blessed the seventh day and called it sacred, because on it God rested from all the work of creation.

These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.

Sermon: The Process of Revision
At the beginning of God's creating God told a story “that became the universe.”1 This beginning was not so much a time so much as a process,2 a process that may be still going on today, as the earth continues to change and adapt, as we change and adapt. This is a story not just about the earth and how it came to be, but it is also a story about us, about how we as people of faith came to be. This is not a literal, civil-engineer certified blueprint for how to create a world. It is a story. But it is a story that shows us the power of Word and Spirit.

When we translate this story from Genesis into English, it seems very straightforward. I had Minister Jackie read from a translation called the Inclusive Bible because it lets some of the confusion of the verses sink in. Where we usually read “formless and void,” in this translation we read something a little bit closer to the Hebrew: “chaos and emptiness.” But these two things together are confusing. My office in my house is chaotic BECAUSE it is not empty but full of stuff I have to organize. And every other time a phrase similar to this occurs in the bible, it signifies ruin and desolation.3 But isn't this the beginning? How could things be ruined already?

The text nurtures our questions but does not give answers to them specifically. Instead, we get another kind of answer. We get the Spirit and the Word. The Spirit of God broods over the surface of the waters, “the way a bird broods over the eggs in her nest...represent[ing] the divine power to recreate and restore that which has been spoiled or destroyed.”4 The story doesn't end with chaos and emptiness. It begins again with Spirit and Word; the power of God is to elicit goodness, to elicit life in the world again. From this brooding, God speaks, and that which God speaks becomes. And God saw that the desolation, the chaos, was transformed into goodness.

In the second chapter and first verse of Genesis, we read, “Thus the heavens and the earth and all their array were completed.” When we read that verse, sometimes we focus too much on the word “completed” and forget the first verses of chapter one that hinted at the processes of revision and restoration that are continually a part of creating.

I, unfortunately, am not a crafty person; when I want to create something, I use words, and used to write a lot more fiction. In an introduction to creative writing class I took in college, I got frustrated with my professor for denying that a story can be “completed,” as we read here in Genesis. He said that we are never wholly finished with a story. We do not attain perfection after receiving feedback from colleagues and writing a certain amount of drafts. We may get to a point where we decide that we cannot work on the story anymore, but we never craft the perfect story.

What made me mad about this point my professor made was that I could theoretically come back to a published story--- not a huge problem for me since I have not published any of my fiction, but it is the principle of the thing--- I could come back to a published story and find a word I wanted to change, or a paragraph I wanted to move around, or even something like a comma that should have been a semi-colon. I found this first hand when I stripped a novella I had written for this class--- at least a hundred pages--- down to a simple, one-page prose poem my senior year of college. All that work, hours of writing, for one single page? But where I was as an eighteen-year-old, fresh from Harford County wondering what the heck she was getting into, was not where I was as a senior who was fluent in another language, had lived in big cities, slept outside of train stations, made new friends, and heard my calling. And so I saw in revising that story how we ourselves are constantly revised.

God is constantly at work among us, revising, restoring, recreating. Always trying to lure us back to that goodness when things seem to get all ruined. Just look at the story of our faith:
  • We're having a good old time with God, but we eat this fruit God told us not to, and so we have to revise our way of living away from the garden;
  • we hurt one another and creation so badly that God sends a flood to kill everything but a small remnant to start over, but such an action makes God so sad that God promises never to do it again;
  • we get caught in the clutches of slavery, and God rescues us and gives us the Law to help us start over;
  • but still we fight and squabble and so God gives us a king to lead us;
  • only the king God gave to lead us becomes inept and corrupt, and we are sent into exile, but God sends prophets to give us words of repentance and of hope until we return home at last.
And those are just some of the moments in our faith story in the Old Testament that demonstrate this process of revision and restoration. We fall away, and God works with us to bring us back to that goodness God proclaimed at the beginning of God's creating. And of course then, in the New Testament, God gives us Jesus to walk among us and teach us and show us a new way to live, helping us revise our lives full of sin and oppression into ones of life and light. These are big moments where God shows us how that creation process really is never complete until the kingdom on earth Jesus preached is fully realized on Earth.

But there are smaller moments where God helps us to revise the story we're writing about ourselves and our community, helps us to revise our own stories from ones about isolation and greed, loneliness and grief, injustice and oppression to ones about goodness, light, and life. Maybe we had a Sunday school teacher like Miss Minnie or Miss Ethel or Baylee who instilled a love of God in us at a young age so deeply that we remembered that love when we were feeling at our worst. Perhaps we heard a song that spoke the gospel to us in such a new way we found renewed energy for life and service. Maybe a stranger offered us kind words in a moment of need that shed light on how we need to shed lives of busy-work for ones of intimacy. Through people and situations, the Spirit of God broods over the chaos and emptiness we may feel in our own lives and helping us create something good out of it all.

Baptism is a type of revision and recreating too. As Methodists, we often baptize children, which can be confusing, for most of us don't view infants as inherently sinful creatures who need to die to the chaos and emptiness within them and be born again in the goodness of Christ. Instead, baptism is a way that we as a community come together to proclaim God's constant recreating and restoring work in our lives. That's part of why we only do it once as Methodists--- if we were baptized every time God was at work in our lives offering goodness and redemption, we'd have to walk around with little baptismal font Supersoakers holstered on our backs or something. And if we chose to be baptized only after experiencing some particularly saving event, we could accidentally forget the power in all the events to follow in which God broods over us. Rather, baptism is a time where we as a community enter into this story of a God who has the power to restore and create us no matter what happens throughout our lives.

Now, we could live our entire lives with God brooding over us but never crack that shell to emerge into a world of goodness. When God creates humans in this story, God gives us co-creating responsibilities, telling us not only to bear fruit, but to watch over the life on the earth. We don't do this well. Sometimes we actively refuse to work for goodness, and use our co-creating powers for destruction and ruin. But God still reaches out to us, still demands a response that will lead to restoration.

The Gospel of John reminds us, that, “What has come into being in the Word,” both the Word God spoke at the beginning and the Word that is Jesus, “was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Let us live into that light together, my friends, rejoicing in God's power to recreate and restore all to goodness again.

1Michael Williams, editor, “The First Account of Creation: Genesis 1:1-2:4,” The Storyteller's Companion to the Bible, vol.1: Genesis (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 1991), 28.
2Notes to verse 1 of Genesis 1 in The Inclusive Bible: The First Egalitarian Translation.
3Notes to verse 2 of Genesis 1 in The Inclusive Bible: The First Egalitarian Translation.

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