Delivered at Ames UCC on September 10, 2017
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
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In the beginning there was substance, the deep, the tehom. God blew on the tehom, just as God would across every living thing, to invite a cooperative life.
First, there was day and night. And it was good. Then sky, and it was good. Next land and plants. Ever so good. Stars, sun, and moon were given their places and schedules. And it was good. Swarms of fish and sharks, pterodactyls and sparrows began their generations. They were all good. Cattle and worms took up their places above and below ground. And it was good.
Lastly God made a human creature. Then God divided that human creature into different shapes, a sacred variety all reflecting God. God told humanity to take good care of this holy creation. And it was very good.
Genesis is not, of course, a scientific account of creation. It does not presume to contradict or supplant the big bang theory or astrophysics in general. We preserve it as a theological account of the planet and our place on it. Genesis 1 is a story to remind us that everything God touches is good. Everything God wills is good. Everything of God, is God, and is good.
It also clearly argues that though we are not number one on God’s list, our place at number six comes with responsibility for all who came before us.
MARY AND JULIAN
I’ve been doing a lot of study the last couple of weeks, about some of those who came before us, our faith ancestors. I’m preparing for our Wednesday morning and evening study of gospels that did not make it into the Bible, like that of Mary Magdalene. I’m also looking ahead to our Lenten study of Julian of Norwich, a 14th century mystic, who was the first woman to compose a book in English.1
In the beginning of the fragment of Mary’s gospel that remains, she quotes Jesus as saying, “Every nature…every creature, exists in and with each other.”2 She goes on to share further revelations from Christ resurrected that oppose church and gender hierarchies. All that matters is the soul that transcends the body and resisting any assertions of power over people. I think we know why she didn’t survive the Biblical vetting process.
For Julian, her thirty years of meditation on visions of God in Christ made strong her belief that God is in us and we are in God and there can be no evil or pain or judgment from God to us. Her most famous theological statement is “All will be well and all will be well and every kind of thing shall be well.” Julian isn’t saying that life will be easy—how could she after witnessing two rounds of the plague—but that suffering is never God’s will.
Both of these women are reiterating, in their own way, that same sense of God’s goodness from Genesis 1. Even a thousand years apart, even with an empire and a church working to silence them, the goodness of God found voice.
So what keeps going wrong?
WHAT GOES WRONG
Why is it, with a foundational story like Genesis 1, that we keep losing sight of goodness? Why do we keep making ourselves more important than creation, rather than remembering that creation is our most important charge? And why do we forget that, under the differences of sex and race, the variety of forms of our bodies, we share the same godspark?
That’s what the rest of the Bible is about.
As we progress over the coming weeks through Genesis, Exodus, Amos, Daniel—all the way through the gospel of John next Easter and the Acts of the Apostles beyond—we will be learning from those who came before us why goodness is so easy to forget.
So, I’ve also been doing some study about badness.
Since our denomination has such a long tradition of direct engagement with the pains of each generation, we need to learn from those who came before us in that work, too.
I’ve been reading Charles Payne’s I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, about the decades of organizing and work done in Mississippi well before the Civil Rights movement as white America has come to know it. I’ve been reading Walter Brueggeman’s Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks. In that, our preeminent UCC theologian describes the necessary work of a “faithful, courageous, and emancipated church.”3
And I’ve just picked up a brief work by Yale historian Timothy Snyder called On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. As a scholar of European history with a special focus on fascism and the Nazis, Synder names twenty things we can be aware of or do in order to learn from the past, to stay in the good, rather than repeat the bad of the recent past.
One of the twenty speaks to Genesis just as Mary Magdalen and Julian do: Practice corporeal politics.
“Practice corporeal politics,” Dr. Snyder writes. He continues, “Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them.”4
In addition to reminding us of goodness, the opening of Genesis also reminds us that faith is relational, faith is corporeal. Each layer of life is contingent on others, affected by others. Our humanity is born of each other, so we are inextricably bound to each other. Our first sanctuary was out among trees and bees. When we forget all of that, the outcome, as we have seen these last two weeks, is devastating.
So there can be no private faith. There can be no cordoning off of the study of the work of God from the world in need of action on behalf of the goodness of God.
It is an act of faith to stop giving our time to the life artificial that we tote around in our pockets and stare at from our sofas. It is an act of faith to be out among the life actual that is drowning, burning, and crying all around us, even when the water, fire, and injustice do not touch our own bodies directly. Maybe especially so.
Some of you may have noticed that in my restatement of the days of creation I skipped the last one:
And on the seventh day God finished the work, and rested on the seventh day from all the work. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work done in creation.
Normally this would lead to a conclusion about taking care of yourselves. Our bodies are the first part of creation that we are accountable for. And we aren’t good to anyone if we are not good to ourselves. But in an economy where fewer and fewer people can afford to have only one job, where fewer and fewer people get a scheduled weekend, it feels a bit elitist to speak of a regular day off.
The current tensions between goodness and badness have me thinking about Sabbath in a different way. Sabbath is taking a break, yes. But not necessarily from work.
As we will see in all of our studies and our scripture this year, and in daily life itself, when people—from Moses to Julian to you—insist on living a corporeal faith, one that honors the obligations of being number six in Genesis, badness finds its end.
In a corporeal faith, Sabbath is the moments when we take a break from powers that numb and those that hate. In a corporeal faith, Sabbath is breaking apart isolation and bitterness and greed, the antitheses of God’s life-giving invitation to cooperation.
Sabbath is not a day, it is this hour. It is this hour when we come bodily among people known and unknown to pay attention to our souls rather than our screens. Sabbath is in the evenings when we leave our homes to listen to each other then give public voice for those who cannot. Sabbath is every instance when we say no to the lies that divide and yes to truth that unites.
So hear that truth again: God is in us. We are in God. And everything of God is good. Let us rest together, for now, for this hour, in that truth. Then let us work, together, as we have been charged from the very beginning, to make it true for everyone.
1Frykholm, Amy. Julian of Norwich. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2010, p. ix.
2Papyrus Berolinensis 8502,1:2
3Brueggemann, Walter. Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2014, p. 3.
4Snyder, Timothy. On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2017, p. 83.