June 11, 2017 / CREATION STORY / Katy McCallum Sachse / Genesis 1:1-2:4a
If this summer we are going to learn to love the stories the bible tells us, then it makes sense to read the very first story scripture ever tells, the story about beginnings. ‘In beginning to create the heavens and the earth.’
But before we tell that story, I want to tell you another one. No one can know for sure, but biblical scholars believe that this first chapter of Genesis was written during a particularly awful time for the people of ancient Israel; that is, during the time they were in exile in the land of Babylon. In about the year 587 BCE, nearly 600 years before Jesus was born, the city of Jerusalem and its surrounding country were conquered by the Babylonian empire. As was the practice at the time, the conquerors found the high achievers among their new subjects – the scientists, the artists, the powerful and educated, the wealthy and influential – and dragged them off to the victorious capital. There they lived in exile, and some of them probably married into Babylonian families and were never heard from again. Others hoped that someday they would return home. And those who were left behind had little to work with, hoping too, that someday their people would be reunited. Exile was cruel, but effective. As humans can be.
During the fifty or so years that those Israelites remained in exile in Babylon, they came to know their new home well. They learned about the religion and practices of this culture, the food and the clothing and the morals and expectations. They also learned the stories. And one of the stories they heard would have been the Babylonian story of creation, called the ‘Enuma Elish,” the first two words of that story. It’s long and complicated and I’m not going to tell you the whole thing now, but I’ll give you a few highlights. The story begins with the creation not of earth or skies or animals or humans, but of the gods. Generation after generation of gods come to be, and among them, there develops immediate and significant conflict. The younger generations of gods are accused of partying too much and keeping the older gods awake all night (I am not making this up). And so they begin to murder each other. A grandson kills his grandfather; a mother raises up an army to kill her son; and finally, the god Marduk kills the matriarchal god Tiamat, and fashions the earth from the various pieces of her body. After his victory, Marduk creates humans as slaves of the gods, for the gods have no interest in doing any work, and they need some beings to take care of this for them. And thus endeth the story.
The Israelite exiles would have heard this story. It’s a story about power and control. A story in which the earth is born out of violence and struggle and death, in which humans are nothing but the playthings of argumentative, destructive gods. How would you understand yourself if this is the creation story you heard? How would you think of the earth, or your neighbor; what would your hopes and dreams be? If you must have a carcass to create a cosmos; if the world around you is steeped in conflict and murder; if the story tells you in no uncertain terms that you were built to be enslaved and that rebellion against power will cost you everything – who would you be? What kind of world can you hope for?
The ancient, exiled Israelites, hearing that story, began to sense in their hearts and minds another. They remembered the most ancient words about their own God – words about a God who is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, ready to forgive, a God who sent them away into exile not because they were weak, but because they chose to ignore the widow, the orphan, and the immigrant among them. Slowly and carefully they begin to weave a different story. Perhaps they whispered it to each other when they passed in the streets or sang it to their children at night. ‘In beginning to create the heavens and the earth,’ they said, ‘there was chaos, and messiness, things separated from each other, and God looked at all of this brokenness and called it possibility.’ They told of a God who created not by violence but by words. Who brought order into chaos and placed things where they needed to be. Who looked at creation with joy and called it good. A God who treated the earth like a companion: earth, make animals! Seas, make fish! Sky, make lights! And it was. A God who finally, near the culmination of it all, created human beings not as slaves or puppets but as partners. ‘Here you go,’ said God. ‘Now your job is to take care of all of this. Keep it going! Make more! For in you the world will see my image.’ Finally, this God created the gift of rest. Rest for everything, even the plants and the seas and the light and the sky. ‘This is holy,’ said God. ‘This is all very good.’
How would you understand your life, yourself, if that’s the story you heard? Would it be different than your Babylonian neighbors? How could it not be?
We have spent – or, let me just be clear, wasted – a lot of time arguing about how scientific this Genesis story is, about how to define seven days, or exactly how to cram an ancient story into a modern context, but when we do that, we are missing what is at the heart of this story. Because the deepest truth of this creation story is not found in explaining what happened a long time ago. The deepest truth this story wants to tell us is the same truth those ancient Israelites were struggling to understand about themselves – that is, who they were, and who they were called to be.
There is very little we share in common with the ancient world, but there is this: that we, too, are caught between competing stories about who we are and who we are called to be. Are we consumers, built to buy and make and discard and buy more; people who use up everything we can and cross our fingers that there will be enough later on? Are we achievers, driven to find our place ever higher on the ladder, determining our worth by looking down on the people we passed by? Are we conquerors, forever trying to prove how right we are, how good we are, how inside we are, finding our identity against others, insisting that we must win no matter the cost? Are we survivors, meant only to scratch out a living for ourselves and our own families, each of us on our own in some kind of Darwinian contest to be the fittest and at last the strongest? Are we nothing, as perhaps unhealthy people or even our own families might have told us; is there something so wrong or bad about us that we don’t even deserve to be around? Oh, those stories we hear from a young age can shape us in beautiful but also in awful ways. They can leave us with deep scars.
The stories we tell about where things comes from and why things are the way they are; those stories absolutely matter every single moment of every single day, because they shape who we are, who we become, and how we understand our relationships to one another and to the earth. This isn’t just about a dusty old story that some ancient Hebrews told thousands of years ago. It’s about us, about who we are together, and who we are as individuals, and how we live in the world. Genesis is gospel in the truest sense of that word – it’s good news, which is all the word ‘gospel’ means, because it tells us about a God who creates not out of conflict, but love; not out of violence, but freedom; not to conquer, but to share; not to enslave, but to empower. Getting ourselves sucked into an argument about how many days that took is, let me be clear, the dumbest thing we can do with this story. This isn’t a story about a long time ago. It’s a story about now.
Someone once wrote that this story of creation, telling this particular story in the midst of the Babylonian empire, was humanity’s very first act of non-violent protest. For this quiet, poetic story was told by a small group of seemingly powerless people, caught in a system beyond their control, who yet had the strength to begin telling about a different hope, a different vision, of the world and of each other. And for that very same reason this story still matters, because we are called today to do exactly the same thing. To tell a different story. To listen for a different story. To see our neighbors as partners, not competitors; to see the earth as the object of our care, not our abuse; to look for how God has infused this world with good, with joy, with generosity; not with fear, scarcity, and falsehood. Those are the values we hold dear at Salt House and I want you to keep those values in mind. Because when this story of abundance, creativity, divinity and joy is the song we hear in our heads, then we cannot help but live differently, act differently, treat this world differently.
So get that brick back out again. Look at the word you wrote earlier; the word that says something about your own hopes, dreams, and prayers. Those hopes and dreams and prayers come from your beginnings, from who you are. They come from the broken things that God can fashion into something new; they come from the joy you have experienced along the way; they may reflect that this is a time of chaos and messiness for you and you are still waiting for the Holy Spirit to brood over all of that and begin to create new life from it. Now, I invite you to turn to another side of the brick and find another word. Listen for a word that expresses your hopes, dreams, and prayers for this community of Salt House. As you hear the music, pray and listen and write that word down when you’re ready. You can put the brick back down when you’re done, and trust that in a little bit, we will build something new together. Let’s begin with prayer. God of life, of water and wind and light and darkness, God who knows chaos and brokenness and moves among it all, form us. Shape us. Call us out of our fear, our anxiety, our clutching to things that only separate us from one another. Be again who you have always been: a God of freedom, joy, connection, and creation. Make us again in your image, and teach us to breathe in your Spirit of life. Amen.