(Genesis 1:1-2:4a – selected verses)
One of my minister colleagues this past week shared that the first line of his sermon today was going to be, “I suspect I might make some of you mad today.” And when someone replied how that was an ominous way to begin a sermon, he assured them there was a second sentence following it that said, “If I do, it’s not my intent, but rather to speak to important things for us as people of faith, because I love you enough to talk with you about them.”
Even after eight years of us being in ministry together, I still feel the need to offer a similar preface this morning. Even though you and I know each other and trust each other, even if we don’t always agree with each other. I’m grateful for that trust. So I can tell you that, while I had a perfectly good sermon in the works for today, sometimes the world does its thing and requires a different word. I wasn’t sure what that word needed to be; so on Thursday Rebecca and I met to talk about it – we actually brought our walking shoes and took a few laps around the campus. And the question that guided our conversation – that guides all of our conversations about what comes from this pulpit – was what do we think our people most need to hear in this moment?
And by the end of that walk, we felt compelled to lift up a different word. Because, as our General Presbyter Jan Edmiston captured in her Friday blog post, “Jesus never said: ‘Let’s pretend this didn’t happen.’” We simply could not pretend this week didn’t happen. We love you too much to do that.
When it comes to our prayers and our preaching, your pastors subscribe to the understanding that it is possible, and in fact necessary, to talk about political things without being political; to dig deep into the complicated nuances of society and culture from a theological, biblical, and spiritual perspective.
And so even though it’s weird doing this virtually, even though it’s strange to say what I’m going to say and have no idea what’s happening on the other side of the screen, I trust you will hear this with the love in which it’s given. And if it makes you uncomfortable or mad, let’s talk about that. Seriously, reach out to me and let’s chat about it on the phone this week. And if you like the sermon, if you’re moved by Rebecca’s prayer, instead of telling us that, tell us what you are going to do because of it. Tell us what actions you’re going to take, what steps you will make, to be a more faithful witness to the love of Jesus Christ in the world.
So, with that, would you pray with me?
Almighty God, uphold me that I may uplift you, AMEN.
This past December, my wife hit the jackpot with a Christmas gift for our niece. Riley is every bit of 2 years and 10 months old; boundless energy and an inquisitive mind. She is, in this uncle’s unbiased opinion, exceedingly awesome. We ordered online and shipped to her Raleigh address these magnet tiles – flat plastic squares and triangles of all colors and sizes with magnets around the edges so you can stick them together in three-dimensions. And so on our Christmas Day family Zoom, when multiple Lindsleys were checking in and celebrating, Riley could barely be bothered with the distraction of human interaction. Throughout the zoom, she sat at the table, immersed in her construction work, occasionally pausing to show us her masterpiece before going right back to it. Her mother later asked where we got them so they could order some more.
There is something in the human spirit that drives us to create – to take what the world gives us and make use of it in such a way as to bring into being something that was not there before. Magnet tile houses. Music, poetry, art. A four-course meal. Ministries and programs. Even life itself. There is something deep in us that longs to create.
Our scripture today is the very first scripture, the story of creation, of how everything that is came to be. It is beautifully presented; the language reaching for something beyond. It is, obviously, not an eye-witness account. It was written long after the fact looking back and, in one of those grand moments of inspiration, finding just the right words in the same way an artist matches the perfect colors with the best canvas.
It is not by accident that the story of creation appears first – and it has little to do with chronology and everything to do with theology. The first four words of the entire Bible: In. The. Beginning. God. The authors of scripture were making a theological proclamation here. Before water and sky, before sun and stars, before plants and creatures and us, before all of that was God. God is placed right where God belongs – in the beginning.
God is placed there because the creation that follows is a direct act of God. Now this may seem obvious, but it’s enlightening to compare our story of creation with creation stories from other ancient civilizations. Theirs, like ours, seek to explain the origin of things. But the creation story of Genesis stands out in one very significant way: it describes creation as the intentional act of a God who longed to be connected with something outside of God’s own self. Other creation epics speak of the world coming into being by happenstance or accident – two deities fighting it out and worlds coming out of the rubble. Or gods who create a universe and then just walk away from it.
But in our creation story, God engages in an intentional act. God creates because God wants to create. And after the created order is made, the God of our story remains engaged, desiring to be in relationship with that which had been created.
And how God creates is worth noting, too. Genesis doesn’t speak of things coming from nothing. No, in our story, creation happens by bringing order to chaos – the “formless void” and “dark murky deep.” What that is, is less important than what it is telling us. Creation comes from God taking that chaotic, disorderly, violent mess and giving it order and purpose and meaning. Much like my niece tackling a pile of magnet tiles scattered in a mess all over the table and making something beautiful out of it. Waters separated and put in their places. Darkness and light given rhythm and cadence. Creation is literally God making sense of the madness.
And what lies at the heart of this creation? What holds it all together, what’s the equivalent of the magnets in Riley’s plastic tiles? It is love. The foundation of God’s very creation is love! Love is what stirred God to action in the first place; love is what served as the inspiration in the divine mind to make sense of the madness and bring order to the mess. Our universe, our world is literally built on love.
And here’s the most important thing for us – you and I are called to engage with God in this creative activity. That’s why this story was written in the first place – to let us know that we are here to make sense of the madness, to bring order to the chaos. We have it in our very DNA to love. . It’s what we were created to do. And to deny that part of our created nature – or worse, to actively work against it – is to deny the image of God in us and in everyone else. We were made to take part in God’s ongoing creative act.
See, that was supposed to be the extent of the sermon this week. That was meant to be the conclusion of this homiletical creation, much the same way my niece just knows when a magnet tile contraption of hers is done. But as I mentioned earlier, sometimes the world does its thing and requires a different word. As Rebecca and I wrote in our letter to you on Thursday, we are all horrified and shocked with what happened in our nation’s capital this week. And yet in another sense, we are not at all surprised. We all saw this coming. Given the fissures that have been building for a while, given the escalating rhetoric and what we’ve already seen transpire, it isn’t like this came out of nowhere.
Now many commentators and political pundits have offered their perspectives, and this pulpit is not a place to give those voice. But our faith does have something to say, because what we witnessed on Wednesday and what we have seen time and time again is not just a political matter or a societal matter. It is a spiritual matter. I am as convinced of this as I’ve ever been. And as I’ve said before, the preacher’s job is not to tell people what to think but what to think about, and to look at things like what happened this past week through a theological and biblical lens.
And so I’ve been thinking about a number of things. I’ve been thinking about the fact that this happened on Epiphany – a church observance marking the Magi finding baby Jesus and worshipping him; and how part of that narrative also includes Herod engaging in mass genocide in a futile attempt to protect his power. The Magi were later instructed in a dream to avoid Herod and “go home by another way.” As we said in our letter, sometimes the Christian’s most essential work is avoiding the dangers and pitfalls of aligning ourselves too closely with power, what’s called “Christian Nationalism” – as tempting as that power might be, as much as we think we can control that power for good. Sometimes “going home by another way” is the way to engage in the subversive work of Jesus and the building up of God’s kingdom on earth.
I’ve also been thinking about our creation passage and a sermon that didn’t feel quite finished mid-week. I’ve been thinking about the created order and how everything came to be because God brought order to chaos, God made sense of the madness, God made us in God’s image and did it all in love; and how the burden falls on us to be ongoing partners with God in that continuing work of creation.
And so when we see what happened in DC this past week and wonder how in the world something like this could happen, we could, as have many, lay the blame exclusively on a particular political party – but that would overlook the fact that similar atrocities in our nation’s history have occurred with full support of the other side of the aisle. We could point the finger at a particular individual – and for sure, those who willfully stoked the flames of an attempted coup on our nation’s government must be held accountable. But if we think things will suddenly fix themselves in ten days or because a Twitter account has been deleted, we are kidding ourselves. What happened on Wednesday, and what’s been happening time and time again in our country, goes far beyond party divides or individual personalities. These are the symptoms, not the cause, of what ails our nation.
What ails our nation, as we look at things through that biblical and theological lens, is what I call “un-creation.” Un-creation. More destructive than vandalism and looting, more harmful than an attack on the principles of a democracy, this “un-creation” is a blatant rejection of God’s creative spirit and design. It is, at its heart, the inverse of God’s good work. It seeks to make chaos out of order, make madness out of sense; take that foundation of love that everything is built on and turn it on its head in the name of hatred and fear. It is the denying of the image of God in us all.
And we have witnessed this un-creation throughout the history of our beautiful and complicated nation. You have heard me speak before of “white supremacy culture” from this pulpit. I want to be clear what I mean when I say that. I am not speaking of organizations like the KKK or Proud Boys. I’m not talking about hate speech or the kinds of things we see captured on cell phone videos of white people doing and saying awful racist things.
What I mean when I say “white supremacy culture” is a uniquely American reality that was birthed when the very first Native American was forcefully removed from their land by the new arrivals who assumed that land was theirs for the taking; and continued when the very first African foot, bound in chains, stepped off the slave ship onto American soil. What I’m speaking of is the tainting of our nation’s soul that came from that, and the legacy it has burdened us with since; where some are fundamentally understood as less, others are viewed as more; and in the greatest travesty of all, it is seen not just as the way things are but as the very will of God.
This culture has manifested itself over and over and over again in the 400 years since. Most of the time it is more subtle, harder for us immersed in it to recognize. Other times it is in full-on display, as this past week. And while personalities have come and gone, and even laws passed and some progress made, it still keeps happening. This denial of God’s image in us, this lure of chaos over order, this un-creation, continues to be part of the very fabric of our society.
And it should come as no surprise this is our legacy. Listen to these words from a noted authority on the matter:
The alternate domination of one faction over another….leads to a more permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of people to seek repose in absolute power. It serves always to distract public councils and enfeeble public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another. This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, and is truly our worst enemy.
Those words written by the first president of our country, George Washington, on the occasion of his farewell address, 224 years ago.
Friends, this culture, this white supremacy culture, is a culture where people feel it’s their God-given right to storm a government building, just walk right in, take selfies of themselves in the Senate chamber and carry zip-ties in the hopes of handcuffing elected representatives – and to have no fear that they might be held accountable for their actions. A culture where those people know, as we all do, that if it had been a different march composed of different-looking people, it would’ve ended very, very differently.
White supremacy culture is un-creation. It is a perversion of God’s created order. It is an affront to Jesus Christ. And it must end.
And so, beloved, I long for us to look beyond the surface of things, get over the partisan hurdles that shield us from seeing what we need to see, the spiritual brokenness of this culture:
That when we willingly construct, and even subscribe to, narratives that are not grounded in fact or reality, we participate in the un-creation of God’s order. When we stoke underlying tensions for personal gain, when we empower white supremacy culture either directly or through our complacency, we take part in un-creation. When we operate out of a sense of entitlement and assume something is ours for the taking simply because we can take it, we deny the image of God in us all.
This is where we are, friends. That is the hard truth. So the question is, where do we go from here? What do we do?
I’ve been thinking this week about how I have no clue what the answer to that question is. But one thing I do know, beyond a shadow of doubt, is that the calling of the church in this time is to align ourselves, all-in, with the power of God’s creative work. We must call out and work against anything that seeks to un-create. We must name white supremacy culture for what it is and recognize our part in it, hard as that is to do. I’ve heard more than one person say in the past few days, “This is not who we are.” Friends, the hard work we have before us as the family of faith begins with acknowledging that this is exactly who we are, who we’ve been for a long, long time; and to start saying instead, “This is who we diligently need to work not to be anymore.”
And I, for one, have faith that we can do that, if we are brave enough. Because that image of God, it is still there. No attempts to deny it will ever take it away. It is there, and it is waiting to be let loose; waiting to engage the creative spirit all over again. Longing to bring order to chaos. Longing to make sense of the madness. Longing to put love back where it belongs.
It is going to require a lot of us, undoing the un-creation. But beloved people of God, we are more than up to the task. Our God created this world once. And God can do it again, through us and in us. In a way, we just need to follow Riley’s lead: pick up the pieces and, one by one, start creating again. It is all that easy. It is all that hard. It is what we must do.
In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
Featured image of Riley, world’s best niece, playing with her magnet tiles.