Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Creation and Responsibility

I don't typically do this, but I'm posting the manuscript form of the sermon I preached Sunday, June 15. I've been thinking a lot about creation and evolution and our response to whatever debate occurs in the evangelical world. I have my own opinions on how things have gone down and why it makes sense to me, but you can find that elsewhere on the blog. Besides, I've been really slacking on posts lately and this is an easy way to do it:

Long ago, when the earth was formless and void, chaos reigned. Tiamat, goddess of chaos, a great sea monster was challenged by Marduk, god of the sun and all light. They wrestled for control and allegiance of all the lesser gods; they fought for power. In the end, Marduk killed Tiamat with an arrow through the heart. He took her corpse and split it in two. With one half he made the earth and with the other, the sky – to separate the waters from the waters.

Marduk then took his place, ruling from on high – shining down on the whole world. He ruled with his supporting gods – the planets, moon, and stars – together they marked times: days, seasons, and years. Finally, Marduk created rain and gave life to the world. But his fellow gods began to complain – ruling the world was too much work, maintaining all these plants and animals was no fun. So Marduk created humans – savages, he called them – charged with service to the gods the gods may be at ease. Humans serve at the beck and call of the gods, bowing to their every whims, forever slaves, constantly trying to remain on Marduk’s good side.

This is the creation story as everyone in Mesopotamia would have known it before the time of Israel. Marduk was the patron god of Babylon; the name would have differed if the story was told in Sumer or Assyria or Canaan, but the story itself remained the same.

It tells a sad story of creation. A world created from violence and selfishness; humans created as reviled slaves of the gods. I don’t doubt that’s how the world seemed to many people. Floods and famines were commonplace; it was difficult to grow crops, build cities, or find grazing land without a fight. The creation story was crafted to reflect their underlying beliefs about the world.

Israel, God’s people, had a different set of beliefs about creation. They used the Marduk story, the language of it anyway, and changed the details around to reflect these different beliefs about God and the world. It’s sort of like the missionary, Don Richardson – you may have heard this story – who was working among the Sawi people in New Guinea. The tribes there often fought, but they had a unique ritual for making peace – the leader of one tribe would give his son to the leader of the enemy tribe as a sign of peace and good faith. Richardson used this analogy to introduce Jesus, the peace child, and explain the gospel in a context the Sawi could understand.

So too, Israel. They took the language of the day – the only creation language anyone knew and transformed it to reflect the truth of God’s work in the world. You notice the beginning of our passage is still a story about the conquering of chaos – but it is non-violent. Chaos is not another god or another person, but an enemy force, like hunger, pain, or death. Creation is the ordering of chaos. You see the same phrases used “formless and void,” “separating the waters from the waters,” but in this story there is no battle, God just does it: creation out of nothing.

In the ancient world, the words for sun, moon, stars, light, etc were also the names of the various gods they represented in culture. Through the Genesis creation story they are depersonalized and domesticated; they are all created things, subject to god. So, too, in verse 21, the odd reference to God creating sea monsters makes more sense when you know about Tiamat – the sea monster goddess of chaos. In Genesis, she has no power, no identity other than as God’s creation.

It can be dangerous to preach on creation these days. Many Christians like to fight tooth and nail over how creation happened – but ‘how’ is not the question any of these creation stories were designed to tell. The ‘how’ is only in service to the ‘why’ and the ‘what.’ Why would God create the world and what does the kind of world God created say about God?

Jesus was never a peace child on the island of New Guinea, but presenting the story that way communicates the truth about God and God’s love and salvation in ways the Sawi people would understand. For Israel, using the language of the time and place in which they lived was the best way to communicate the truth about God and creation to the people who needed to hear it.

Ultimately, the ‘how’ didn’t matter at all to the Israelites or the Babylonians for that matter. They assumed it was impossible to know how the world was created – no one was there to see it. What’s more, I suspect they thought it was impossible to ever know anything about how creation happened. The very fact that today we can look back and even begin to examine the past in such ways would blow their minds. The ‘how’ may be important and interesting to us, but it is not at all a concern of this passage. Our creation statement in the Church of the Nazarene says: “we oppose any Godless interpretations of creation,” which means so long as you believe God did it and it’s consistent with the rest of scripture, you can tell the creation story any way you want.

For us, for the Babylonians, and for the Israelites, the ‘how’ is just not the main question. The real meat of Genesis 1 is the ‘why’ – and especially what the differences between the Babylonian story and the Israelite story say about God.

The first big difference is that God created out of love and with intentionality. Marduk almost seems create the world accidently. He didn’t need the world. Those gods were floating around in space and doing just fine on their own. Creation is an afterthought for him – and what’s more, creation is the result of a violent, bloody war. There is no love in that creation, only hate.

The Israelite creation is an act of care, generosity, and love. We like to say God is love and God is so much love that this love can’t be contained even within God, that love was so overflowing, so bursting forth, that God chose to create the whole universe as a repository for that love. And it wasn’t an accident. Genesis talks of God’s careful crafting of the world – whether that was done in an instant or over billions of years is irrelevant to the main point: God created out love and with intention. In fact, God cares so much about the world that creation itself is given a part to play in its own ongoing development. You see, over and over again: be fruitful and multiply – that’s God letting the world be co-creators; we get to bring forth life.

It’s not in the passage we read today, but God lets the first human being name all the animals – and scripture is careful to point out that whatever the Adam named them was their name. God gave up the right for final say over something pretty important. That’s an example of great love.

It’s also a great introduction to the second major difference between the Babylonian account and the Genesis account: God created with a purpose. That purpose is to reflect God – a God who is entirely selflessness, radically self-giving. Nothing God creates exists for itself. The land is created for the plants, the sea for the fish, the sky for the birds. The plants are created to feed the animals and the humans are created to take care of the whole thing – to make sure God’s creation continues to work in the way God intends. If you look into chapter two a bit you see we were created to serve the Earth, not the other way around.

It’s all about self-giving. God exists only to love and created, not just us, but the whole world to reflect that same purpose. In the Babylonian story the humans are slaves; they are created to serve the gods, so the gods can lounge around by the pool and take it easy. The Genesis story is the opposite of that. God didn’t need creation – in fact, things probably would have been a whole lot easier for God without creation.

It’s sort of like having kids. If you have kids selfishly, to fulfill something missing in you or to make your life better, the whole process will be horrible – they’ll get on your nerves and they’ll constantly be bothering you and you’ll grow to see them as a pain in the neck – the way Marduk viewed the people he made. But if you have children as a means of extending your love, of giving yourself to another, well, they will still get on your nerves and bother you and be a pain in the neck – but it’s worth it because you love them and we’re designed to find fulfillment by giving ourselves away, by loving others with no expectation of return.

God has poured all of who God is into this creation. The universe was made out of deep love and with a purpose. That purpose extends not just to people, but to every last atom of the universe – each and every molecule contributing something for the good of the whole. We humans do have a special assignment, though; we’re specifically tasked with keeping the world on track, making sure each part of God’s creation is free to do what God created it to do. It’s a big responsibility and quite frankly we’ve been horrible at it.

We take the mandate in verse 28 to subdue the earth and rule over it and we interpret it through our own history. When we think of subduing, ruling, we think of kings – of King Tut and Julius Caesar, and Richard the Lionhearted – all strong men who ruled under the threat of violence. You did what they said or you paid the price. We think about ruling in terms of power. When we do that, we miss the whole point of the creation story. Ruling by power is what the Babylonian story teaches us to do. In Genesis, we rule by giving of ourselves, by sacrificing for each other and for creation. We’re not supposed to use our historical, human kings as a model; our example should be the rule of God – a rule expressed most fully in Jesus Christ, who humbled himself to be like us, served selflessly, and died innocently and tragically.

That is the kind of ruling we were created to do. Human beings are tasked with keeping everything in line. When the forest gets too thick or the deer too numerous, we cut them back. Often we’ve taken that responsibility for granted – we use creation to make our lives easier, like Marduk and his friends – rather than sacrificing our desires, our ease, for the good of the whole.

The creation account in Genesis is not about how the world was created; it’s about why the world was created – and what our responsibility is in light of those reasons.

Some of you may know, our family is, for the most part, vegetarian. I came to a real conviction about the way we were eating during a class focusing on this very passage. I was really challenged by our responsibility as God’s superintendents of the world. I did some research into how we treat the animals we eat and I found they’re not often treated like animals, but like products, commodities. We use them, rather than care for them, keeping them in cages and artificially fattening them up. They lack the freedom to roam and do what God created them to do. Cows are meant to be nature’s lawnmower; pigs are the composters. When we rob them of the chance to be what God created them to be, we’re neglecting our responsibility. I’ve come to believe that ease and efficiency are not good enough reasons to act this way.

Now, I’m not saying you all need to stop eating meat (and if we could afford the good, grass-fed, free-range stuff or had access to wild game, we’d probably eat it). I’m also not saying you have to read this passage and come to the same conclusions we have. I am saying we all have to take this chapter seriously. We need to wrestle with the question of what our actions say about the God we serve and the world our God created. The world wasn’t created for us to use as we please; that lie has been going around for far too long and it’s time to put it to rest. We were put here with a purpose – and that purpose is to serve the world, because that’s how we serve God.

This isn’t just an ecology lesson, though. Genesis 1 focuses on non-human creation and so the sermon has too, but the principles here are not just about environmentalism. The way we interact with each other, our fellow human beings, is just as big a part of our purpose in the world. It’s just that most every other sermon we ever hear deals with that stuff, so perhaps just this one time the rest of creation can get its due.

In the end, it’s not about who or what we interact with, but the attitude and perspective from which we act. Are we using our relationships, our abilities, our politics, to make our own lives better or are we sacrificing the pleasures we have and the ease we enjoy in service of others? Sometimes people call this utopian ideal unrealistic, it’s a pipe dream, it’s socialism. I call it a picture of heaven; I call it the Kingdom of God. Guess what? The Kingdom of God takes work.

We chose, each and every day, which creation story we’re living out: the story of Babylon or the story of Genesis. We choose whether to be slaves to our own happiness, our own desire, or to be the superintendents of the world as God created us to be. We are not called to find our own place in the world, but to work – tirelessly, sacrificially, lovingly – so that every part of God’s creation, every person, every thing, can fulfill their purpose and be what God created them to be.

We’re going to close with an old hymn - #77, All Creatures of Our God and King. The lyrics were originally written by Francis of Assisi in 1225. St. Francis is sometimes called the first environmentalist, because he recognized the call of God in this passage and he lived it out – sharing his food with birds and beggars alike. The opening line of the last verse says, “Let all things their Creator bless, and worship him in humbleness.” I hope we’ll pay special attention to those lines today. We are incredibly fortunate to have a God worth blessing, worth worshipping – a God who loves us and gives us purpose, a God who cares not only for the mighty and powerful, but also the lowly and forgotten.

Let us be who we were created to be: people who reflect the image of that loving, awesome God!


Jessica Wolst said...

Did you preach this sermon in Ctown, or somewhere else?

Ryan said...

It was at Chestertown. I'm getting brave, huh?