Formed by Love

Formed by Love

June 11, 2017
Written by Kathryn Matthews

Sunday, June 11
Trinity Sunday

Focus Theme:
Formed by Love

Focus Prayer:
God, whose fingers sculpt sun and moon and curl the baby's ear; Spirit, brooding over chaos before the naming of day; Savior, sending us to earth's ends with water and words; startle us with the grace, love, and communion of your unity in diversity, that we may live to the praise of your majestic name. Amen.

Focus Reading:
Genesis 1:1-2:4a

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.

All readings for the week:
Genesis 1:1-2:4a
Psalm 8
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Matthew 28:16-20

Focus Questions:

1. What are your thoughts about the story of creation and the views of science?

2. Do you think of yourself as a "consumer"? What difference does it make, one way or the other?

3. What difference does it make that God pronounced creation "good"? Or do you believe creation is "neutral"?

4. Would God look upon our use of the earth today and pronounce it "very good"?

5. What story do we intend to tell our children, and what story will our great-grandchildren tell their descendants about us?

Reflection by Kate Matthews

It's only human to want to tell (and hear) the stories of who we are and where we came from, of what came before us that shapes who we are today and who we are becoming. These stories, handed down from generation to generation in every culture, are voices in themselves, voices of protest and consolation, voices of clarity and courage. They are influenced, at least in part, by the situation in which the storytellers find themselves.

In The Luminous Web, Barbara Brown Taylor movingly describes the shaping of the creation narrative of Genesis as a counter-cultural protest of the people of Israel against the creation story of their Babylonian captors. While their oppressors saw the origins of the universe as violent and bloody, the Israelites told their children a different story, a story rooted in goodness and blessing.

Light and order

Light was brought by God from the deepest night, they said, and order from chaos. The sun and the moon and the stars were set in the over-arching sky as signs of beauty and the changing of the seasons, providing light and direction and the keeping of time. God filled the earth with vegetation that was fruitful and nourishing, moved the waters back from the land and provided a home for the creatures that crawled across it, walked upon it, and flew over it.

In the midst of this loveliness, the garden of this earth, God tenderly placed human beings, blessing us and calling us to be caretakers and stewards of God's work. And then God looked upon all of this, and found it good--pronounced it good. Is there any more beautiful, more inspiring, more powerful poetry than this ancient story about who we are, what creation is, and most importantly, who God is?

Astounded at God's creation

In this week's psalm reading, the voice of the psalmist puts the praise and wonder of ancient Israel into the mouths of worshipers, looking up at the moon and the stars, who are astounded by God's amazing creative powers, God's splendid works, even as they appreciate the place of humans, just "a little lower than the angels," in the midst of God's plan for all of these things. Creation is God's love expressed and admired even by God Herself! If we had more of that same sense of wonder that our ancestors in faith expressed and lived by, perhaps our prayer-life would include more praise, along with the requests we so often make, and the thanks we try to remember to give when those prayers are answered.

Today our culture teems with a multitude of voices, coming at us from every side. As in ancient times, these voices tell very different, often conflicting, stories of our origins, of who we are and who we are becoming. Voices of science and religion--and let's face it, politics as well--carry on a lively, though not always amicable or coherent, conversation about our origins, and the debate over evolution seems to find new life in each new generation. Alas, when that debate takes on political-economic overtones and its conclusions produce financial benefits for some (and/or harm for many), it becomes more than simply an intellectual or spiritual exercise.

Created by a gracious Creator

For people of faith who are understandably perplexed by the "intensity" of these arguments, our anxiety misses the main point: we were created, by whatever process and whatever length it took, by a gracious Creator, in love and goodness, and we are called to care for this earth, this good creation, not to dominate or abuse it. We are responsible for its care. Of course, this may actually require a deep humility from humans who have come to think more and more highly of themselves (ourselves) because of the "progress" that elevates us not to "a little lower than the angels" but even above them, as minor gods in a massive universe beyond our comprehension.

A note: perhaps, as long as we distract ourselves with arguing about how we were created, we can ignore how we are treating that creation! Even that effort--to consider our treatment of God's creation--on the part of many has met with resistance, which explains why this "theological" conversation becomes political and feels bewilderingly contentious if one cares at all about our responsibility to our grandchildren, and our response to God's call.

A miracle in any case

Barbara Brown Taylor weaves the language and limits of science with reflection by reminding us that we really can't explain, using scientific methods, where we all came from, but she wonders even more at our capacity to recognize God beneath and within it all: "I spoke earlier of how much time is required for an eyeball to look back at a light sensitive cell. How much more time does it take for quantum particles to mature to the point where they may compose hymns of praise? Whether your answer is seven days or fifteen billion years, it remains a miracle that we are here at all, and able to praise our maker. God may well prefer the sound of spring peepers, but I have to believe there was joy in heaven when the first human being looked at the sky and said, 'Thank you for this.'"

Just those few sentences supply a meaningful morning devotion for us on these lovely, late-spring mornings, do they not?

A gift held in trust

Yes, gratitude and praise for the beauty of this creation are in order, but this gift is held in trust, and the story of who we are includes our call to be stewards of God's good creation. Today's culture tells us, the children of Adam and Eve, a very different story, of course: instead of caretakers, we are "consumers." I remember, years ago, hearing a news commentator report that this was to be our new identity and role, at least in the eyes of economists and secular thinkers, presumably as the engine that would drive a robust economy.

Like so many other things I was told by "authorities" in those days, I simply incorporated that label into my worldview as fact, as reasonable, acceptable and even necessary, until years later when I was learning to question many such authorities. When I read a beautiful reflection by Madeline L'Engle, who took issue with such a worldview, I wondered: Who made the decision to give us that new name? It certainly has not turned out to be, in Martha Stewart's words, "a good thing."

Is it all about us?

This week's reading from the very beginning of Genesis, from the very beginning of the Bible, provides an excellent opportunity, here in the gentlest days of summer (in the northern hemisphere, at least; I'm aware that my grandchildren in Australia are heading into winter, though not into snow), to reflect on the astonishingly beautiful gift of creation. (I'm hearing the birds chirp outside my study window even now.) But it also challenges us to reflect more deeply on who we say that we are, both explicitly, with our words, and implicitly, by the way we live our lives. (See last week's reflection for a description of my seminary project on the life of the congregation in this regard.)

We reflect on this question in the midst of a world that pounds us with cultural values of consumption, materialism, and consumerism. We rarely seem to consider the differences between caretaking and consuming, a neglect that is lamentably part of the very life of the church as well. For example, is everything, including worship itself, supposed to be "for me"--more than the community, more than the world, more than my neighbor? Is it what I need and want that counts most, or is there a larger question I should be asking? I wonder about that, often. Last year, I met a person who, upon hearing that I was a retired pastor, offered me a series of reviews of the various congregations in our city that he had visited, letting me know in what ways they had failed to measure up to his standards and needs. (I was at a wedding reception, so this was an especially festive note.)

What is really good for us?

Ironically, we've even bought into the notion that it's good that we consume: good for the economy, that is, which (we're told) is good for everyone, until we see the increase in poverty and the alarming movement of wealth to a tiny percentage at the top, and we feel trapped by a system larger than ourselves, even as we witness the damage all of this is doing to our earth and to our spiritual health as well.

And then there's the sense of entitlement that comes with such a mindset, and makes it easy to forget that generation upon generation after us will not only need what we will have consumed, but will also reap the terrible harvest we have sown, ecologically. Almost every night, the evening news seems to contain more bad news about drastic weather events in the United States alone: floods, tornadoes, snowstorms, droughts (and the wildfires they ignite), all linked more and more to global warming and our seeming indifference to our role as ancestors who will leave a damaged earth to our heirs.

Who "owns" the earth and its goods?

In the first years of this new century, which feel so long ago now, before the collapse of the housing market, the foreclosure crisis, and the increasing erosion of the middle class, there was an emphasis on "an ownership society," which also says something about our role as stewards and our call to share with all of God's children. Who, after all, really "owns" the earth?

An over-emphasis on consuming and ownership can set us against one another and even against the earth itself. [On the other hand, to be fair, I just read Janesville: An American Story, Amy Goldstein's study of a city that loses its biggest employer, a General Motors plant. The cascading effects fall hardest on the workers who have owned their homes and cars, and educated their children and built solid lives. In their case, one can believe that "ownership," and the stablity it brings, are a good thing.]

This story of origin in Genesis 1 and the song of praise in Psalm 8 call us to reflect on those particular cultural values, and to ask if we have forgotten where we came from. Is it possible that a humble gratitude for God's gifts would enhance our sense of shared, communal values and even shared, communal "property"? Perhaps we would be more willing to care for the earth, as well as to strengthen and invest in the public good, in great institutions, and in a wonderful legacy to our heirs, just as our ancestors did before us. (I can still hear my parents' voices, teaching their nine children to "share" with one another. Do we teach our children that lesson today?)

Freedom, but with responsibility

We have too easily, it seems, fallen into thinking of ourselves as being in charge of creation, as if it had been given to us to use up rather than to care for it. We come to that conclusion because we believe that God has given us "dominion" over creation, and yet someone has perceptively observed that "dominion" means "to have responsibility for the care of" something. That understanding, of course, puts a completely different spin on things.

We have often acted out of that sense of entitlement rather than one of responsibility, especially to God and to our great-great-great grandchildren, but we have also neglected those who are poor and marginalized, who often suffer the effects right here and now of our pollution and over-consumption. (Here, the words "freedom with responsibility" bear repeating. We usually prefer just freedom, and not too much emphasis on the responsibility.)

Who feels the effects of our failure to share?

The United Church of Christ has been an early and persistent voice on behalf of those who suffer the effects of environmental racism, where toxic materials, for example, are stored in areas where the poor (often people of color) live and raise their children. What is our responsibility in that situation? Do we consider the forces at work too big and overwhelming for us to address, or do we find in the church a way to speak out, and a community in which to act in new ways in order to make a difference? (For more information, go to http://www.ucc.org/environmental-ministries.)

A call to reflection about the meaning of "ownership" is timely whether it's stewardship season or not: do things belong to us, or do we belong to them? Better, does creation belong to us, or do we belong to creation, and what difference would that way of seeing things make in the way we live, individually and communally? Speaking of differences, there is a difference between "abundance" and "excess," and learning to discern that difference requires a deeper spirituality than is evidenced by our present patterns of consumption. Perhaps mystics like Thomas Merton and Madeline L'Engle could help to lead us toward reflection and transformation in our relationship with material goods, and with our sense of ourselves as owners of possessions that include the earth itself.

Every season is stewardship season

A faithful and frequent reading of this text deepens our sense of gratitude and generosity in many ways, including a transformation of our giving to the church, our sharing with one another beyond the church, and in our public life as well. (These texts would be interesting and powerful choices for a stewardship sermon.) In our present political climate, it requires courage for a preacher in the mainline church to bring up the subject of taxes, which fund public institutions and programs, including services and resources for the poor, despite Jesus' clear instructions to care for "the least of these."

Do we dare speak about the need, the responsibility, to share the goods of creation in our public life, however we have shaped them into goods, or community works and institutions and policies? Can we initiate a conversation about the best ways to share God's goodness and generous gifts with all of God's children, not just a privileged few?

Would God look at what we have made from the raw materials of this beautiful creation, and pronounce our own work "good"? What story do we intend to tell our children, and can we imagine the story that our grandchildren will tell their descendants about us? How will they see us as contributing to who they will be: people of faith, of justice, of strength and courage and beauty?

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) and an additional reflection are both at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (matthewsk@ucc.org) is the retired dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).

You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

For further reflection:

Karl Barth, 20th century
"The miracle is not that there is a God. The miracle is that there is a world."

Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
"In nature, improbabilities are the one stock in trade. The whole creation is one lunatic fringe. If creation had been left up to me, I'm sure I wouldn't have had the imagination or courage to do more than shape a single, reasonably sized atom, smooth as a snowball, and let it go at that."

William Brown, 21st century
"We should be 'lost in wonder,' as the hymn says, not losing wonder."

Stephen Hawking, 21st century
"I think computer viruses should count as life...I think it says something about human nature that the only form of life we have created so far is purely destructive. We've created life in our own image."

George MacDonald, 19th century
"I would rather be what God chose to make me than the most glorious creature that I could think of; for to have been thought about, born in God's thought, and then made by God, is the dearest, grandest and most precious thing in all thinking."

Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays, 21st century
"I don't think it is enough appreciated how much an outdoor book the Bible is. It is a 'hypaethral book,' such as Thoreau talked about--a book open to the sky. It is best read and understood outdoors, and the farther outdoors the better. Or that has been my experience of it. Passages that within walls seem improbable or incredible, outdoors seem merely natural. This is because outdoors we are confronted everywhere with wonders; we see that the miraculous is not extraordinary but the common mode of existence. It is our daily bread."

Rachel Carson, 20th century
"If I had the influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children I should ask that her gift to each child in the world would be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength."

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