“It Is Good” by Pastor Rosanna McFadden
Good morning! I have so much I want to share with you today — our theme is Creation and the Creation story from Genesis, and there’s a lot of territory to cover. I had Lodema read the opening of Genesis Chapter 2, which is the summary statement. The detail of the account we’re going to consider is found in Genesis chapter 1, but reading that entire chapter seemed like a little too much to include in the service today. However, if you have your Bibles and want to follow along, or if you want to go back and read Genesis Chapter 1 on your own, that would be great.
But before we jump into this text and the illumination from the St. John’s Bible which goes with it, we need to ask, “Why does this matter?” Whatever calculation you use for when the time when the world began (and I’m not going to debate those specifics today), it was a long time ago. The very nature of this story is that it happened at the beginning of time itself. Why even concern ourselves about it? The past is way behind us, right? Maybe not. American novelist William Faulkner said, “The past isn’t dead. It’s not even past.” I’d invite you to think about your own personal or family history: you may think that the future is the most important thing; or that the present is really what matters. The present, of course, is a very small amount of time ***, always flowing past us. And I don’t think we can understand the present as an isolated instance: without knowing or understanding what happened in the past. If we have an image of the past which is distorted — by ignorance, by shame, by nostalgia, whatever — we have a flawed understanding of who we are and where are today. That is the Really Big Question I want to tackle, and I’m going to use this image to help me.
[Slide] I sent this image by email earlier this week, but it’s fine if this is the first time you’ve seen it. It is the first page of the St John’s Bible: the left hand page which faces Genesis 1:1 and the opening words, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was formless and void and darkness covered the face of the deep.” The St John’s Bible is a completely hand-lettered and decorated Bible which was finished in 2011. This illumination was created by the lead artist, Donald Jackson. Thanks to St John’s Bible project director Tim Ternes for permission to show you this illumination, and to Lisa Vardaman for creating the detail slides which will help us focus in on certain parts of it. Genesis 1 recounts seven days of creation — six days of the Creator’s work, and a seventh day on which the Creator rested. Do you see anything here which suggests that sequence. [Seven panels, gold squares in each panel, etc.]
There are creation stories in many cultures and faith traditions. This one is shared by Judaism, Christianity and Islam, who are all People of the Book — this book. Unlike other creation stories, this one does not depict Creation as an act of war, or with pre-existing animals or characters who formed the foundation of the world. Only God — God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit — exists in this formless void and darkness. [Slide 2] Did you notice this lettering? It is Hebrew, the language of the Jewish Bible. Can you guess what it says? (Remember, you have to read from right to left) It says “tohu wabohu” which means chaos. It is God who brings order and structure to this chaos. And how does God accomplish this? By speaking — with the word of God. And those first words are . . . Let there be light. God created light itself. Let me be clear. If I walk into a dark room and say, “Hey, could someone turn on the light?” depending on whom or how nicely I ask, the room will become light. Flipping a switch is not creating light. God is making things where those things did not exist before, and this is by the power of God’s word.
[Slide 3] This is from panel 3, which describes verse 9, where God says, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” This comes from satellite images of the Nile River delta, the land of Egypt; an important place in Jewish and Christian history.
What gets created on Day 6, the final day of God’s work? Human beings. [Slide 4] In Genesis 1:25, God says, “Let us make humankind in our own image, according to our likeness.” These are not very detailed or specific images of human beings, but they are based on some of the oldest painting we have which human beings have made of themselves. They are from rock paintings made by ancient people in Australia and Africa. And what do you see at the bottom of that image? A portion of a snake. It is a coral snake, painted by nature artist Christ Tomlin. Coral snakes are highly venomous, more deadly than rattlesnakes. This snake appears just a few pages later in illumination of the Garden of Eden, and again in the book of Revelation, the final book of the Christian Bible, where it is defeated forever. I think this is awesome, and a wonderful way to consider the nature of evil, and how it got into Creation. I don’t have a definitive answer for that, by the way.
[Slide 5] You probably noticed this figure in the middle of the illumination. What is that doing there? It is the figure of a bird, perhaps that wind from God which swept over the face of the waters. The Hebrew word is ruach, which can be translated either wind or spirit. Before I read the commentary about this, I thought of it as the shadow of God’s Spirit, that the Spirit was somehow not captured on this two-dimensional page, and we see only the shadow of the Spirit’s presence. I still think that’s kind of a profound reading, but here’s the official version: birds, in ancient cultures, including Judaism, serve as messengers between heaven and earth. The prophet Elijah is fed by ravens when he is in hiding from Queen Jezebel, and St. Benedict — remember, this was commissioned by a Benedictine community — shared his bread with a raven who would bring him messages, and who saved Benedict from eating bread which was poisoned. Ravens and crows are some of the Creator’s most intelligent birds, and may be messengers of God.
[Slide 6] You may have noticed these gold squares which pile up across the seven panels. There’s one on the first, two on the second, three on the third, and so on. They have a numerical function, but a theological one, as well. The squares are covered in gold leaf — and in the StJB, gold is a symbol of the Divine Presence. Gold does not tarnish or change. But it has another property, as well, which you can’t tell as well from a photograph. Can you guess what it is? Gold is reflective. If I look closely at one of those gold squares, I will see . . . myself. Fractured and distorted, or course, but I will see myself in that sign of the Divine presence. If I’m looking at this along with my best friend, they will be there, too. And if I’m unfortunate enough to have my enemy is peering over my shoulder, guess what? That person will be there, too, reflected in the image of God.
[Slide 7] I asked you about 10 minutes ago, why Creation matters. I only have a little time left today to tell you why I think it matters, but my understanding of Creation is foundational to nearly every sermon I preach, and what I believe to be true about Christianity. Matter matters. Creation was made of stuff, stuff which God had the power to shape into light and darkness and sun and moon and water and dry land and plants and animals and people. We are made of matter: we were formed from dust which was given life by the breath/wind/Spirit of God. And that stuff is good. How do I know this? Because God said so — repeatedly — in Genesis chapter 1. In fact, the stuff of Creation was so good, that God’s Son, Jesus Christ became a part of it. Grew within and was born from a human mother, was an infant just like each one of us, and grew to maturity. And here’s where we need to be careful, and where Celtic Christianity and Roman Christianity came into conflict: Celtic Christianity claimed that we were born good; evil sets in quickly, just as it did for the first man and woman in the first garden of creation. But for Celtic Christianity, our deepest identity is being created in the goodness of God’s image. Are you with me? For Roman Christianity, particularly after the 5th century when church and state became the same organization, babies were baptized immediately to become members of the church and citizens of the Roman Empire. And the question was asked, “If baptism is for the forgiveness of sin, what sin have these babies committed?” And the answer which evolved was this: their sin was being conceived. Being conceived through sexual intercourse is sinful, and none of us can avoid that, so we are all born sinners. That is the doctrine of original sin. I don’t want to get too deep in doctrinal questions here, but you might be able to imagine how significant it is whether you believe that your fundamental identity is the image of God — which is good, or your fundamental identity is sinful — which is . . . not good. The end result may look the same–we have all sinned and are in need of the grace of Jesus Christ — but the backstory matters. The grace of Christ returns us to who we were created to be; it doesn’t change us into someone else. This is why I think we need to understand the Creation story and what it reveals about our Creator, and how we understand God’s self-giving love in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. Whew! I hope I have given you something to think about, and maybe discuss with folks at Creekside or people in your family. If you already had this all figured out, God bless you. You can preach next week. This has taken me decades to research and formulate for myself, and it has had a profound impact on my ability to accept who I am, and my own gifts and limitations. If I could leave you with a single message for today, or any Sunday, really, it would be this: God has made you, Christ has saved you, live into who you God created you to be. Amen.