Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
In the beginning when God created* the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God* swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
And God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.’ So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.
And God said, ‘Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.’ And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. Then God said, ‘Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.’ And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.
And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.’ And it was so. God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth,to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.
And God said, ‘Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.’ So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.’ And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.
And God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.’ And it was so. God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good.
Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind* in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth,* and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’
So God created humankind* in his image,
in the image of God he created them;*
male and female he created them.
God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’ God said, ‘See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.’ And it was so. God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude.And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.
These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.
Genesis 1:1-2:4- And It Was Good
I find it a little tricky to preach the creation stories from Genesis. Not because I find them to be particularly difficult passages to interpret or because I find these stories particularly troublesome on their own. No, I find them a little tricky to preach about because the these two stories, Genesis 1 and Genesis 2-4, are often at the center of some very contentious arguments about religion, Christianity in particular, and science, and their relationship in the American context. So often, in our broader context, when we hear anything about ancient creation stories, we are asked to make a choice between two positions: believing the stories literally, thereby proving ourselves to be faithful, or trusting the work of the scientists who offer up different data describing the creation of the universe and then dismissing the ancient stories as foolish tales of the uneducated.
While there are many other options for navigating the relationship between scientific ways of knowing and religious ways of knowing, the mainstream conversation rarely varies from these two poles, literal religion/ignorance of science or all science/no respect for religion. Too often, the opinions expressed in pulpits fall into the literal religion/ignorance of science camp... a camp that leads us into ignoring immanent climate catastrophes and lack of empathy for people who do not share our belief structures. My hope today is to offer up another option for reading these stories, an option that doesn't ask the reader ignore knowledge gained since these stories were first written down 5,000 years ago or ignore the value of a religious reading of creation. There is a way forward that goes somewhere through the middle of these poles, a way that leads towards complex beauty, truth, and purpose. It is not the only way to read these stories in light of two traditions, but it is one way.
One of the virtues to being married to a scientist is that you get to learn more about how science works. Here's something about science that Tasha has helped me realize. Science is intentionally and indelibly quantifiable. It is rooted in numbers and tests and proofs. The goal, in much of science anyway, it to be able to describe an idea, test that idea to see if its true, and have others be able to repeat your process of testing for themselves, getting the same results you did, thereby proving the idea's truth. While I have learned that there are certainly aspects of some scientific disciplines that are less experimental and linear than the process I just described, in general, this is a general description of how the scientific method works.
I've also learned that science is a collaborative effort where multiple scientists work for many years to repeat and refine their information. And, controversial ideas, like evolution and climate change, are the ideas that get tested the most. There is a continual push for more concrete evidence and more clear description of process. New information is taken in, added to the process, and tested to see how it changes what they know. The strongest ideas that survive the most scrutiny become scientific theory. When an idea has earned the designation of theory, it has been rigorously and repeatedly tested, and supported by the strongest, most quantifiable evidence. Evolution and human-cause climate change are two ideas that have earned the designation of theory.
This process of doing science gets us safe medicine and safe food. It gets us cars that work properly and buildings that withstand storms. It helps us describe the world around us in both intimate, anatomical, and subatomic detail and in large, complex, interconnected systems. I find this way of knowing to be awe-inspiring and often beautiful. But, this is not the only way of knowing. There are other, still very true ways to describe creation beyond the numbers of bones in our bodies, species in oceans, or stars in universe. Our religious faith, our scriptures and rituals, our testimonies and songs, are part of another other way of knowing.
If we demand a way to understand the world that is solely empirical, as science seeks to be, religion (not just ours, but most of them) will fall short. Religion was never intended to be quantifiable the way science is. Religion functions according to a different standard. Where science is mathematical, religion is metaphorical. And, metaphors are tools for connection. Metaphors are inherently relational attempts to communicate what we don’t know by comparing it to what we do know. Take the words of William Shakespeare in Sonnet 18: "Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?/ Thou art more lovely and more temperate." Shakespeare used a metaphor to communicate something about an emotion and connection he was creating. We may not know the woman he is describing, but we have likely experiences a summer day. Now, if you heard that poem and began making an empirical list comparing a human to a 24 hour span of time (Human temperature- 98.6 degrees, summer day: 70 degrees. Human- has limbs, day- is a period of time and therefore has no limbs. Human: eats lunch, day- is a period of time, does not ingest food), you would be fundamentally misunderstanding what Shakespeare was trying to communicate. You'd be misunderstanding a metaphor.
The goal of metaphors, religious and otherwise, is to strengthen our relationships with the world around us by helping us understand something more about one another's experience in this world. These relationships can't be built solely on quantifiable data. Emotion, intuition, and our lived experiences are hard to quantify but are utterly necessary when building community. Our relationships help us create value systems that, in turn, come back and shape our interactions with one another. I once heard it put this way by a pastor named Ellen Cooper-Davis: “Religion, at its heart, is an exploration and a practice of encountering the unseen. It is a realm of poetry, metaphor, music, art, silence, connection. How would one gauge such things objectively and empirically?” No, our faith is solidly the realm of the subjective and the experiential. It may be measurable, but only by stirring in the heart and turnings in our stomach. And that it where we find the truth of our faith.
There are these posters I've seen that say, "Science can tell you how to clone a tyrannosaurus rex. Humanities can tell you why this might be a bad idea." I think we might apply a similar process of thinking to the creation stories of Genesis. Science will tell us the nuts and bolts of creation. The stories of our faith will give us insight into the purpose of creation. Let's return to the reading in Genesis, not as a math problem to be solved, but as a poem that teaches us something about how we are connected to all of creation. Can you imagine a picture of creation that is more deeply and beautifully connected that this ancient story? We have a description of God, surrounded by beautiful, deep, dark, unformed potential, something like the rich black loam we all fold into our gardens in hopes of improving our harvest. God looks at the depth that is all around and says, I can make something with this.
After brooding over the deep, like a hen hatching eggs, creation breaks out all over the place. First, light and darkness solidify. Then a space is made for the earth, and water and land crash and splash up from the depths. Trees and bushes and flowers and weeds of all kind push up through the soil, their brightness amplified by the stars, moon, and sun that have emerged in the sky. All manner of creature begins to wiggle, waddle, sliver, prance, and fly their way through the air and water and across the now solid land. These creatures begin to connect and multiply and fill all of creation. And, God said "Let's make one more kind, a two-legged kind, that will be in our image... will be creative and powerful like us, and let's give it a job, to watch over all the rest that has been made. We'll call them humans. They can watch over the world with us." And, God makes the humans and tells them to take care of the place. It's pretty special. Then God rested.
At every step long the way, God delights in God's work, exclaiming, "It is good." Maybe your recognize that impulse. I bet you know what it's like to look at your handiwork and say, "It is good." You know when you've knitted a fine sweater. There are no skips in the stitches or holes in the pattern. The cables all line up and the sleeves are the same length. Maybe this impulse to declare our creation to be good is a little part of the image of God that still resides in us, helping us to remember the beauty in hard work well done. I think that maybe this is the purpose of this scriptural account of creation, to remind us to look at the goodness in creation and see ourselves working to maintain it.
We need to be reminded that this whole world is connected and created, all called good and hatched by the same brooding God. We were made to be creative and protective, just like God was. We need to use that inheritance to watch over the rest of creation, and tend to it as we think God must have once tended to it. It's like we've inherited a garden, and it's our turn to take up the watering can and pruning fork to make sure it stays as good and beautiful and beloved as it started. We can rest sometimes like God did, but, we shouldn't forget that we are here for a purpose. Our ancestors left us this story to remind us of that purpose. And, I pray we don't forget it.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following words when writing this sermon:
Walter Bouzard: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3300
Kathryn Schifferdecker: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2328
The text of Sonnet 18: https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/shall-i-compare-thee-summers-day-sonnet-18
Ellen Cooper-Davis: https://rachelheldevans.com/blog/ask-a-unitarian-universalist-response
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.