God Fathers-Forth (June 15, 2014)

Gamma-ray burst photo
Gamma-ray burst 1404191 was spotted at 11 p.m. April 19 by SMU’s robotic ROTSE-IIIb telescope at McDonald Observatory, Fort Davis, Texas.


A sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon

First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, June 15, 2014

Text: Genesis 1:1-2:4

One of the biggest and hottest explosions in the universe –a rare event known as a gamma-ray burst (GRB) –has been spotted on camera. [The] event . . . occurred shortly after the Big Bang about 12.1 billion years ago.

(Quoted from: O’Callaghan, Jonathan. “Huge 12 billion-year-old explosion in space spotted from Earth.” The London Daily Mail. June 5, 2014.)

My friend, Harold Knight, who recently retired from teaching writing at SMU, posted this photo the other day on Facebook. It was attached to a blog he had written that begins, “The headline on SMU’s website reads, ‘Huge 12 billion-year-old explosion in space spotted from Earth.’” The blog was written in response to this photograph that purports to be an image of something that happened 12.1 billion years ago, shortly after the Big Bang. Harold wonders how the scientists know this and so do I. It’s not that we disbelieve; it is that we are lost in wonder at something that is beyond our comprehension.

Though I took an astronomy class in college, I don’t begin to understand all the implications of the Big Bang Theory or how we can make a photo of something that occurred so long ago. I don’t even know how to get the photo off my cell phone that I took yesterday. But that’s a different story.

What I do remember from “poet’s astronomy” (as it was affectionately known) is the awe of looking at the rings of Saturn from the Columbia observatory’s telescope on a cold, clear November night, a rare occurrence in that urban setting. It was breath-taking, awe-inspiring. I suppose my impulse was to sing a song or write a poem, rather than to be caught up in the math or physics or even the cosmology of the occasion. “How Great Thou Art” was the standard response to the spectacle of stars seen on summer nights in the unsullied atmosphere of Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains, when we sat around the campfire at Cathedral Pines, the Baptist camp.

There are scientific wonders that are beyond my comprehension and I suspect some of you may wrestle with a similar syndrome. Some of those wonders involve the vastness of the universe and some the tiniest of cells or atoms. We live in a world of wonder and sometimes we find ourselves lost in that very wonder. In light of modern science, there are those who find it difficult, if not impossible to hold a faith position, to believe in a God who creates, a Christ who redeems, a Spirit who empowers. Part of that pattern of disbelief is attributable to the insistence of some in the Christian tradition that we understand the Ancient Word that Paul read for us as science or history.

Some of our fellow Christians insist that this ancient story be taught in science and history classrooms. They seem to fear that the modern manifestations of these disciplines are challenging religious tradition and undermining the faith of their children. In fact, there is a Museum of Creation, now open to the public, near Cincinnati, Ohio, that was met with incredulity by many of us when first announced 10 years ago. Karl Giberson, who teaches science and religion, writes that “The Creation Museum in Kentucky contains, among its many exhibits, beautiful dioramas of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, with dinosaurs looking over their shoulders—an impossible scene [because science has established that dinosaurs were extinct long before humans came around]…” Still, “Millions of Americans love the strange story told in the Creation Museum—young earth creationism. Polls show that about half of all Americans—and most evangelicals—accept these ideas. However,” he concludes, “young people raised to believe this story are leaving the church in droves, according to a recent Barna survey, when they discover, usually in college, just how untenable these views really are.”

I am particularly grateful for a father, who though an evangelical and biblical scholar, was neither fundamentalist nor anti-intellectual. Long ago he gave me the gift of his belief that it was no less wonderful to imagine a God who creates through an evolutionary process over aeons of time than a God who created in seven days. In, fact, he thought the intricacies of evolution might be even more wonderful.

However, instead of spreading my scientific ignorance in a seemingly unwinnable debate, I want to cast my lot today with Barbara Kingsolver, who penned this morning’s Words of Preparation. “I’m a scientist,” she says, “who thinks it wise to enter the doors of creation not with a lion-tamer’s whip and chair, but with the reverence humankind has traditionally summoned for entering a place of worship: a temple, a mosque, or a cathedral. A sacred grove, as ancient as time.” I think that is the point of this ancient tale from Genesis – to approach the phenomena of creation with reverence and with awe. Perhaps this is a gift that religion offers science. Science no more completely answers our questions about life than does religious tradition. We need both in respectful conversation if we are to have a dominion over creation that is grounded truly in love and care.

These first verses of Genesis are not science or history. They were never meant to be. They are poetry. Walter Brueggemann argues that they were not even meant to be explanatory myth. They constitute a poem, a call, a story. The story is really not about creation per se. That is, those who told it over and over and who eventually wrote it down were not present at the creation. They were not possessors of videotape or even 12 billion year old photographs. They were a people who had known slavery and oppression, uprooting and exile. They told the story to help them remember who they were and whose they were. These ancient words are the hopeful affirmation of a people under duress, reaching to the God who made them, blessed them and traveled with them – even in Egypt, even in the Wilderness, even in Babylon.

“O God, our God, how glorious is your name in all the earth!

            When I look at the heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars you have set in their places,
what are we mortals that you should be mindful of us,
mere human beings that you should care for us?
You have made us a little less than divine,
and crowned us with glory and honor.
You have made us rulers over all your creation…
O God, our God, how glorious is your name in all the earth!” (Psalm 8)

Somehow they were able to remember this story and sing this song in the midst of turmoil, from the depths of doubt, caught up in chaos. What did these texts teach the ancients and what do they say to us today? We have our own troubles, doubts and insecurities. Is there comfort, re-assurance, hope in this creation story for us?

In the beginning, the tale tells us there was a creative and loving Presence. God hovered over, in and around the chaos, the formless yet fecund void and darkness. Maybe it was something like digging in dirt that has never known cultivation, not hand or shovel or plow, soil rich, fertile, mysterious, unknown. There will always be this ”stuff of life” that we neither fully understand nor control. Out of that stuff, God brings forth light and all manner of geology, geography, oceanography and critters to swim and fly, crawl and walk. God gives it all shape and substance, then infuses it with the breath of life. God fathers-forth all that is.

Debbie Thomas draws a set of helpful affirmations from this story for her current situation and, perhaps, for ours. She writes that “Neither history nor science as today’s scholars understand those disciplines, the first chapter of Genesis is poetry, hymn, doxology, and myth. If we in the postmodern world struggle to see truth in those art forms, it is not because Scripture is lying. It is because our post-Enlightenment imaginations are impoverished. To call the creation story true is not to quibble with science; it is to probe deeper than any scientific endeavor can take us. It is to acknowledge who we truly are and where we really come from. It is to affirm, by faith, the reality of a good God, a good world, and a beloved humanity.

She then asks “Where do I come from?” and responds “Here’s what I’ve discovered so far:

I come from a God who sees…
I come from a world that is good…
I come from a God who makes new things…
I come from the morning and the evening, the light and the darkness…
I come from the likeness of God…
I come from a God who rests…”

Following her list, can we make similar affirmations?

A God who sees what has been created. Who pays attention. Who gives things a good, long, loving look. Who sees and knows and understands. We are not left to fend for ourselves. We are attended by a God who knows us and loves us and cares what happens to us.

A world that God has seen and has called “good” and “very good.” A world in which God delights. A world to be enjoyed, loved, cared for. A world that God blesses more than once. A world that God continues to bless today, when we allow and accept it.

A God who makes new things. An inventive, creative, even playful God. In Bible study Tuesday, Alan suggested God as a tinkerer. A God who always has a project going out in the garage. Part of the amazement at being given dominion over creation is the realization that we are invited to join in the creative process. Not only does God make us new, we are invited to work with God to make all things new. It is in the very nature of God to re-new.

There is a rhythm to life. We are not promised endless sunshine or a road that doesn’t wind. We will know peaks and valleys, good times and hard times, life and death. Through it all, we walk with a God who shines in the morning, at noon, in the evening and at midnight, a God who accompanies us all the way.

We are made in the image and likeness of God. We can no more account for this than we can explain the mysteries of the universe. Yet the story affirms it. We are given a certain intelligence and freedom, a certain capacity for relationship. We are made in such a way as to live in mystic, sweet communion with our Creator.

Whether days or millennia, the story assures us that 1/7 of our lives should be given over to Sabbath. This means rest, yes, but not just that. Sabbath is a time for changing pace, stepping back, taking stock and centering ourselves in the Creator and all the ways God blesses us and cares for us, to share with God sheer delight in one another and in creation.

We praise God for the infinite variety in creation, for its diversity and its union in the Creator, for its hopes and promises of new life, for its challenges and its blessings.

Glory be to God for dappled things…
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

(From Pied Beauty, Gerard Manley Hopkins)