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Before We Begin: The Creation
The Reverend Matt Gaventa
June 17, 2018
A Reading from Genesis
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.
And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.
And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. Then God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.
And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth,to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.
And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.” So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.
And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.” And it was so. God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good.
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”
God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so.
God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude.And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.
These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created. In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.
Reading the Bible is notoriously difficult. You may have noticed. It’s very long. The language isn’t always hospitable. And at times, I admit, it can be a little dry. Among clergy there are a variety of schools of thought about what advice to give when people come to us saying that they’re going to read the whole Bible. I don’t know if this is a broader phenomenon. I don’t know if English teachers have people who come to them and say “I’m going to read Moby Dick, what do you recommend?” but maybe it happens. Among pastors, there is a growing trend to which I am rather sympathetic that says that when folks want to read the Bible what we should say is, great, start anywhere but here, Genesis, chapter 1, verse 1. Because of course the problem with starting in Genesis is that not five chapters in we’re doing genealogies and lists of tribes and if you make it past that you’re good for a while until about halfway through Exodus, at which point we’re reading the very long assembly instructions for the arc of the covenant and very few survive to Leviticus. And now whatever New Year’s Resolution inspired you to read the Bible cover to cover is dead and gone and we haven’t gotten to David or the Psalms or the Prophets much less to Jesus. So the trend is, you just skip right to Jesus, and then you go from there.
The other problem with starting with Genesis 1 is that there are so many traps, and there’s so much baggage. It’s hard to read this passage without seeing the skeletons of bad readings and the sometimes terrible consequences they inflict. Verse 28 famously records God offering dominion over creation to the humans God has just created — and when the medieval church read this verse, they heard in it justification for invading other countries in the name of exercising Christian dominion, and when the American colonists read this verse, they heard in it justification for seizing the lands of Native tribes in the name of exercising Christian dominion. That very American concept of Manifest Destiny has its origins in the interpretation of this language about dominion, as does every bad environmental ethic you’ve ever encountered — after all, if we have dominion, if God gives us dominion, then who cares what becomes of the trees of the field or the birds of the sea or the ice caps that float above the sea. It’s a pretty tight race for the title of “Bible verse with the most awful legacy of interpretation,” but this one has got to be in anybody’s top five.
And then there’s Apartheid. The readers of the Bible who created Apartheid — and make no mistake, Apartheid was created by Biblical interpreters — they loved Genesis 1, every bit of it, every verse. They loved Genesis 1 because they loved the order of things. In the beginning there was this chaos, this formless void, and God made order: day 1, day 2, day 3, each in its place, each in its time. And those readers looked around at what felt like the racial chaos of post-colonial South Africa, what with its ancient tribes and its European settlers and its south Asian migrants who had traveled down the imperial coast, and what with all of the beautifully mixed children that had been borne of that chaos, and those readers looked at that chaos and declared that some order must be made because God would want them to make some order and so Apartheid was born, motivated by what they thought was the desire to solve a theological problem, but what of course we understand now simply to be garden-variety racism. And of course, I haven’t even mentioned the century-long attempt to read this passage as scientific documentation about the origins of life. All of which is to say. Reading the Bible is difficult. Reading Genesis, doubly so. The stakes are terribly high. As is the body count.
All of which is why, if you come to me and tell me that you want to read the Bible and you ask my advice, I will probably tell you whatever you do don’t start at the beginning. But I want to resist that instinct today; today, instead of skipping forward, I want to jump even further back. Back to the beginning. Back before it. “In the beginning, when God created the Heavens and the Earth,” the story goes. Before the ordering of things. Before the creating of people. Before dominion and male and female and the image of God. Before any of us, before we began, before we begin, this wonderful moment when the story seems not to be about us at all, when God created. Of course God did not have to. God could have let the formless void remain a formless void; God could have simply walked away. But God created. And maybe you consider this literal history and maybe you consider it myth-making at the best, but it is, to be sure the story about God, that Israel wanted to tell, the story that Israel who had known God through the wilderness and in the promised land, the story that Israel wanted to tell about God who did not have to create but did so anyway, a story about God who did not have to create but loves to create, a story about God who did not have to create us but wanted to create us, wanted to know us, wanted to love us.
Consider it this way. Imagine that your four-year-old granddaughter decides to paint your portrait. Maybe it’s high art, but probably it isn’t, and that’s not the story. Or imagine that your high school boyfriend wants to cook you dinner. Maybe the rice is under cooked, maybe it’s not, but that’s not the story. Or imagine that your great-grandfather wants to sit with you and spin a yarn you’ve heard a thousand times before, and it’s never the same way twice, but that’s not the story. The story is an hour spent laughing with a granddaughter, her fingers covered with paint. The story is an evening spent in young love and it hardly matters how the food tastes. The story is an afternoon spent with a grandparent when there’s nothing more important in the world. The story is how creation becomes an act of relationship. The story is making something and sharing it. The story is the love embedded in the act of creation. The story is that even before we begin, God wanted to create. For you. For me. For everybody. That’s what you do for people that you love. That’s what this story really is. It’s not a story about the ordering of the days or the numbering of the stars. It’s not a story about what the earth looks like or what the stars sound like or which one gets top billing. It’s a story about love. It’s a story about the delight God takes in a creation God calls good. It’s a story about God loving us so much that God made everything.
I get it. Reading scripture is difficult. And as far as I can tell, the more time you spend reading it, the more difficult it becomes. At some point, everybody comes to it with a lens, and this one is mine, which is that God wanted to create the world, that God so loved the world, and God called it good. And if God’s creation is good, then I do not understand how we can desecrate it with contempt. And if God’s creatures are good, then I do not understand how we can treat them with violence. And if God so loved this good world that God gave God’s only son, then I do not understand how we can conspire to treat one another with enmity or hatred or spite. This is my lens, admittedly, but I like it, it comes right here at the very beginning, it’s in the very first words of the book. And anybody else who reads the Bible in such a way as to deny God’s love of all creatures or God’s peace upon all creatures or God’s justice for all creatures, anyone who would join that long litany of those who have bent this book towards their own selfish interests, anyone who would use this book to deny God’s love for you or for the person next to you or for anybody else in this whole good creation then I think that person needs to go back and read again. And this time, start from the beginning.
This summer at UPC we are preaching our way through a very specific set of texts, which are the stories of scripture that make up the service of readings during the Great Vigil of Easter. They are the stories that we read, gathered in the north courtyard, waiting for Easter to arrive, waiting for the mystery to unfold, waiting to enter into the sanctuary with Alleluias. There are a lot of readings — the service of readings takes its time — and not all of them are comfortable. Next week we’ll hear the story of the Flood, and then the story of Abraham and Isaac; these are not always the easiest stories, and they do not have the rosiest history of interpretation, and all in all, it might be easier if we just skipped them entirely. After all, reading scripture can be difficult. But I think we can do it. I think we can do it because we already know the most important part. I think we can do it because we’ve already heard the most important part. I think we can do it because before the story even begins we’ve heard the most important part, which is that God so loved the world. That God so created the world, and called it good. That you are part of God’s good creation and I am part of God’s good creation. That everything in creation is part of God’s good creation. And if we can believe that, before we begin, we can read anything.