In the Beginning
A new pastor serving a church in Colorado spoke briefly at our Rocky Mountain Conference meeting on Friday. He was asked to preach on a text from Colossians, but also he touched on the creation story in Genesis. He caught my attention when he said that the elements coming together in the beginning were “humming.” I immediately heard in my mind the hum of radio waves trying to find their frequency, getting louder and more urgent as a vast empty void was about to erupt in blinding light.
Or maybe the humming was just God rehearsing a favorite and ancient tune that would finally bring to life all that we love in the created world: puddles and palm trees, pumas and Pyrenees. All waiting for God’s OK to bring them into being.
People are often surprised to hear that there are two very distinct stories of creation in the book of Genesis. One details God’s busy-work on days one through six. The other is less orderly and gives more attention to the creation of human beings and their unfortunate choices and banishment from Eden. There are also some differences that make it difficult to harmonize the two accounts entirely. That is a problem if you choose to view the Bible as a science text rather than the beautiful and ancient collection of stories that I belive it intends itself to be.
Several years ago, a member of the congregation I served in New York brought me back a tie from the Creation Museum in northern Kentucky. I tend not to wear ties with dinosaurs and big wooden boats on them, even when given by a church member (you might want to know that.) I think it was given to me as a joke, but I wasn’t entirely sure. I tried to dig it out of my closet this week and suspect that it didn’t survive the latest purging of ugly and unworn ties. The Creation Museum opened in 2001 to give a public face to Young Earth Creationism. Those who hold to that belief system insist that if the universe and our planet and everything that lives on it wasn’t made in seven literal twenty-four hour days, then the Bible cannot be trusted and God is a liar.
I’m not sure where people got the idea that the Bible needs to be defended or everything within it needs to be trustworthy in a literal sense. That seems at odds with the spirit and intent of its writers. I’m guessing that those who wrote down the ancient stories of creation after many generations of telling would scratch their heads at the assertions of literalists. While the Creation Museum depicts dinosaurs and human traveling together on Noah’s ark, scientist and most fifth graders would assert no one alive at the time Genesis was written had ever seen or heard of dinosaurs. While scientists debate how many billions of years the earth has existed, Young Earth Creationists are so named because they believe the earth is between five and ten thousand years old. That chronology is derived from counting the generations of biblical characters whose genealogies appear in the Old and New Testaments.
When I was a teenager, I was very intent on being the kind of Christian I thought God wanted me to be. I carried a big black Bible to school and endured the ridicule of classmates and rejoiced that I was being “persecuted for righteousness sake,” like Jesus said. I had been convinced by reading a book from my church that evolution was a big hoax. When a teacher gave the class an assignment that involved making a comic book on a favorite topic, I used the opportunity to write and illustrate the differences between creationism and evolution. I demonstrated how evolution could not have happened. I got an “A,” and the teacher asked if she could keep my project. I smugly and I’m sure wrongly believed that I had persuaded her with my cartoons. Two years later, my chemistry teacher, who was part of the same fundamentalist church group, held an optional class where he attempted to prove to students that the big bang theory was unscientific and that the Bible’s creation stories were literally true. Looking back at that time, I think I felt like I was part of a special group of students and even teachers who had exceptional insight and who God loved the most and who would be saved from eternal suffering when Jesus returned, which would likely happen by the end of next week.
Insisting that the Bible is true in the most literal sense means that science takes a secondary place in determining what is real. Today, those who hold faith propositions above scientific evidence pose a real threat to our earth and its atmosphere. There is increasing fear among those that I talk to that anti-science postures are becoming the default that shapes public policy; not because they are necessarily believed to be true, but because they are economically expedient, at least for some. The determination to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement creates an enormous concern for our nation’s place in the global community, and it also undermines the future of our planet.
Long before the words of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 were recorded, the Hebrew people passed those stories along from generation to generation. That may sound like the game of telephone that many of us played as children, where the story changes each time it is told. Actually, storytelling in the ancient world was taken very seriously and placed great emphasis on memorization and accuracy. Nevertheless, it was likely understood that what was being shared were stories, not necessarily historical fact. Most stories were rooted in the most existential questions of life itself. Like “Why are there stars in the sky?” and “Where do people come from?”
We place a great emphasis on creation care in our church. It’s a deep and core value for our congregation and is expressed through activism and simple acts that honor the earth and recognize our place within it. Our commitment is rooted in the stories of creation that are shared by three great religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Considering the number of people who adhere to one of those three, it’s remarkable that the stewardship of the earth isn’t a high priority for everyone. On the other hand, perhaps that helps to explain why nearly every nation on earth, with very few exceptions, signed on to the Paris Agreement. Deep inside us, we know that the earth is sacred and that its protection is a spiritual act as well as the highest priority for our self-preservation. The Native American prayer that was read earlier starts with a profound and simple plea: Honor the earth. Honor the earth, your mother. Our mothers gave us life. The earth not only gave us life, but we are dependent on it for as long as we live.
Poet and activist Wendell Berry wrote, “The atmosphere, the earth, the water and the water cycle - those things are good gifts. The ecosystems, the ecosphere, those are good gifts. We have to regard them as gifts because we couldn't make them. We have to regard them as good gifts because we couldn't live without them.
The Rocky Mountain Conference Annual Meeting of the UCC was held in Cheyenne, Wyoming this weekend. It’s wrapping up this morning, and our pastoral associate, Julie, and some of other members are still there. At the conclusion, Conference folk will march together under the banner of the United Church of Christ in the first gay pride parade to be held in the state of Wyoming – ever. On my way home from Cheyenne yesterday afternoon, I stopped at a farm near Greeley that is the family home of a friend from Buffalo. The farm is on the historic register and is often visited by school groups learning about early twentieth century agriculture. The farm celebrated its one hundredth birthday this weekend with hayrides and tractor pulls and such. When Leroy and I first visited the farm, we noticed all of the wells pumping oil. During dinner, Leroy, in an attempt to make conversation about farm life, about which he knows nothing, asked, “You’re not fracking are you?” I kicked him under the table, and then we heard a very long explanation about fracking and why the owners of the farm believe it is a responsible way to extract oil from the ground. And how it is the only way they can retain the farmland instead of selling it off to developers whose creeping housing developments are already within sight. Others will look at those wells and come to very different conclusions about whether they are responsible or necessary. Our earth is fragile and asking questions and being informed and making good decisions is required of all of us.
A difficult and disturbing aspect of Genesis 1 is the repeated assertion that God created human beings to subdue the earth and have dominion over all of creation. Those verses are received like a blank check by those who are eager to exploit any opportunity to cash in on our limited resources. It would be nice to be able to parse the original Hebrew words and say that subduing and dominating didn’t mean the same back then as they do now. The truth is that the writers of the text and those who occupied our world at the time had a very different perspective. It’s not that they didn’t love the earth and its creatures; it’s just that they had not yet seen the consequences of unbridled consumption. Coal factories were not belching smoke into the air back then. The population hadn’t increased enough yet to seriously pollute the water. Environmental disaster just wasn’t on their radar, nor had they given a lot of thought to the humane treatment or animals or the possibility that species could be lost forever.
Our place as human being in the created world
can never be about dominion or entitlement or privilege. Instead, a reading of Genesis in light of what we know now inspires gratitude and awe and wonder. As the Psalmist wrote, “When I look at the heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the starts that you have established, what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals, that you care for them?” And yet God does. And gives us one of the greatest responsibilities of all: caring for this world that still hums with life.
Creation feeds us. It is our tangible connection to the One who made and sustains all. Thanks be to God for such great gifts. Amen.