Trinity Sunday May 18, 2008
Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Matthew 28:16-20
In the beginning…
First of all, in the beginning, I was an eighth-grader, when I got my first taste of the debate between fundamentalist Christians and the rest of the world. The subject was the story of Creation, and the fundamentalist point-of-view was that it must have happened in seven days measured just as our days are. It must have happened that way because it says so in the Bible.
And I wondered why that seemed so important? Something in my young adolescent mind said no to the whole argument! Don’t try to prove it to me, I thought, but don’t try to disprove it either.
It was the first time I realized I wasn’t a Biblical literalist, and I suppose it was the first time I realized that other people were. For some Christians, faith seems to mean an insistence the Bible consists of nothing but facts.
The insistence on literalism surprised me, in the beginning, because I was a girl who read a lot of books, and particularly loved mythology. When I was 10 and spent a month in bed with Hepatitis A, D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek and Roman Mythology was a constant companion. I understood that people devise stories to try and explain things they cannot see or explain but somehow believe anyway. I understood that people dream solutions to problems they cannot solve. I believe that people use stories to understand themselves and to explain themselves, in a sometimes desperate and fruitless attempt to reach others.
Jesus used stories that way when he taught in parables. Do you have a favorite? I love the story of the lost sheep. Jesus used familiar materials, herds and crops and the life of hired people and tenant farmers to explain God’s kingdom to his followers and to anyone who wanted to listen. He understood the need to trim the wicks, the value of certain coins and the way a housewife might sweep the floor to find a lost one.
Those were not factual stories. Jesus wasn’t writing for the newspaper. The gospel writers were not i-reporters for CNN. They paint a picture of a man, and more than a man, a person who fully inhabited his humanity at the same time he brought people directly into contact with the divine. These stories gave us a glimpse of a truth beyond our imagining.
It makes me wonder why we don’t give people even more ancient, such as those who first wrote down the stories we read in Genesis, their due credit as storytellers, as word-weavers praising God.
But in the beginning, I, too, was inclined to dismiss people of long ago as primitive in their thinking. A literalist would say they were merely recorders of words dictated by God. I would have said that they did the best they could to make sense of things that were beyond them, and that stories were their best means of doing it. Today I see that neither of us gives them the credit they are due. Now I believe they had a sense of the mythic and the metaphorical, that they knew they were being poetic and imaginative. It is modern people who get caught up in details and facts and try to reduce creation to a supernatural construction schedule, to reduce God to a more manageable size.
When the people of long ago dreamed of how the world began, they dreamed big. And it’s a little sad that envisioning of such a grand scale doesn’t belong now to people of faith but to people of science. And it’s very sad that so much of the conversation between the two is now largely argument.
The words of Genesis 1 are stronger than factual proof. They are a testimony of a community’s faith that we are not alone, that the universe did not come into being randomly, that a benevolent force lies behind it. They are testimony of the faith of people who didn’t know all that we know, but believed in God anyway.
In the beginning, God—
Let’s stop right there.
In the beginning, God.
Before anything else, God.
When The Princess was a little thing, going to Montessori school, she learned about the Big Bang Theory. Her teacher, who excelled at teaching science, didn’t think about the fact that she had both a preacher’s child and a seminarian’s child in the school. The preacher took exception to the teacher’s presentation. How, he asked, do you think the Big Bang happened in the first place?
On the sidelines of the discussion, this seminarian said, “Go, Preacher!” I do believe God had a hand in the whole operation, even if “hand” is a human term for powers we cannot possibly imagine.
But does it take God away from the beginning if we substitute the details of evolution for the storytelling of Genesis? I don’t believe so. The creation story of Genesis 1 *is* a story of evolution, of unfolding creation, of developing the universe from chaos and darkness to something formed and purposeful. It begins with light, and then there is a division into waters and sky. Next comes the dry land, and the things that grow on it.
In his television series about life on this planet, David Attenborough illustrated the wonders of creation through simple plant life. In the beginning, ferns were underwater, later appearing on dry land. No one picked them up and moved them. They evolved and changed to improve their existence, to protect themselves from being eaten up by sea-dwelling creatures. They developed not one, but two means of reproducing, in case one failed.
If ferns evolve, why not people?
Science evolves, too. I sometimes tease my Physics major husband that science is always right until it proves itself wrong!
Good scientists are open to the possibility that they are wrong. They adapt their theories to coordinate with new discoveries. And although I am sad that there was never really a brontosaurus, my favorite of the dinosaurs, and I have never learned to like the Apatosaurus as much, I think it’s thrilling that painstaking study of fossils tells us so much about the history of our world.
Albert Einstein once said, “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” Religion, or believing in things we cannot see, provides the creative space to imagine unending possibilities. Science continually proves just how awesome and wondrous the initiating acts of creation must have been.
This was a good week for experiencing God as Creator. Sunshine and hyacinths and the hint that lilacs are nearly ready all brought me into contact with the magnificence of what we think of as the First Person of God, the one who was there in the beginning. A hummingbird at a feeder hanging from the front porch at the F___’s house testified to the wonder of how creatures are formed.
Mr. F___ pointed out that two hummingbirds will fight for the food in a feeder, each one convinced he has the right to the food. And we know these kinds of struggles are part of human reality. I’m as competitive as the next gal. I want to do well, I want to give my children what they need and even what they want, within reason. I want to serve God as usefully as possible, but I tend to have my own idea of what that might mean. And when I get caught up in my own striving, I realize I need to go back to the basics, to remember what happened in the beginning.
In the beginning of the universe, God created.
In the beginning of the church, Jesus commissioned.
Go out and bring the word to the world, Jesus tells them.
Come into being and thrive, says God.
In the life of any particular church, we may forget that our faith journey is not a line but a spiral. We come back again and again to places that seem familiar, both on the outside and on the inside. This church, over its history, has come to many places of change, of endings and new beginnings. This church has created and re-created, formed and re-formed.
Churches everywhere are asking the same questions: how can we be the church when the culture doesn’t support us anymore? How do we compete with sports and brunch and Sunday morning birthday parties and baby showers? How can we sustain our familiar events and activities? Isn’t it our job to keep things going?
I’m not sure it is.
It may be our job to go back to the beginning and look around at where it all started. Further back than the building of this church after the last one burned down, further back than the first First Parish Church built to make it possible for this town to come into being.
We need to be clear about what came first.
In the beginning, God.
In the beginning, God is: God creating, God mysterious, God unknowable, God unstoppable.
And in the now? What might we be able to do together, if we could look at this time of transition as a new beginning?
I believe good things are possible, if we will all remember how it started, if we will say together: “In the beginning, God.”