Sermon Seeds: This is Good/Expressed Love

Trinity Sunday Year A
First Sunday after Pentecost

Lectionary citations
Genesis 1:1-2:4a
Psalm 8
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Matthew 28:16-20

Sermon Seeds

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

Weekly Theme:
This is Good/Expressed Love

by Kathryn Matthews Huey 

It’s only human to want to tell 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 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 came 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, humankind was tenderly placed and blessed and called to be caretakers and stewards. And God looked upon all this, and found it good. 

In today’s psalm reading, the voice of the psalmist puts the praise and wonder of ancient Israel into the mouths of worshipers 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 their same sense of wonder, perhaps our prayer-life would include more praise, along with the requests we so often make and the thanks when those prayers are answered.

Today our culture teems with a multitude of voices, coming at us from every side. Some voices tell very different stories of our origins, of who we are and who we are becoming. Voices of science and religion carry on a lively (and not always amicable) conversation about our origins, and the debate over evolution turns political for those whose 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. (Perhaps, as long as we distract ourselves with arguing about how we were created, we can ignore how we are treating that creation!)

Barbara Brown Taylor weaves the language and limits of science with theological 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'” (The Luminous Web: Essays on Science and Religion).

Yes, gratitude and praise for the beauty of this creation, but this gift is a trust, and the story of who we are includes our call to be stewards and caretakers 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 heard from “authorities” in those days, I didn’t think of questioning it, until years later when I read a beautiful reflection by Madeline L’Engle who took issue with such a worldview. Who made the decision, I wonder, to give us that new name? It certainly has not turned out to be, in Martha Stewart’s words, “a good thing.”

This reading from the very beginning of Genesis, from the very beginning of the Bible, provides an excellent opportunity, here in the loveliest days of summer (in the northern hemisphere, at least), to reflect on the astonishingly beautiful gift of creation. 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). 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 difference between caretaking and consuming, a neglect that is lamentably part of the very life of the church as well. (Is everything, including worship itself, supposed to be “for me” – more than the community, more than the world? Is it what I need and want that counts most, or is there a larger question I should be asking?) 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 rise of weatlh 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.

In recent years, before the collapse of the housing market and the foreclosure crisis, 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 even ownership can set us against one another and even against the earth itself. This story of origin in Genesis 1 and Psalm 8 calls 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.

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.)

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 Environmental Justice.)

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 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.

A faithful and frequent reading of this text could deepen 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 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?

Lectionary texts

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.

Psalm 8

O Lord, our Sovereign,
   how majestic is your name in all the earth!

You have set your glory above the heavens.
   Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
   to silence the enemy and the avenger.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
   the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
   mortals that you care for them?

Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
   and crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
   you have put all things under their feet,

all sheep and oxen,
   and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
   whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

O Lord, our Sovereign,
   how majestic is your name in all the earth!

2 Corinthians 13:11-13

Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

Matthew 28:16-20

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Liturgical notes on the Readings

In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:

First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel

The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.

The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.

A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.

During Ordinary Time (seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost) two alternative sets of OT readings with responsorial psalms are provided. The first option is a semi-continuous reading through a book of Hebrew Scripture; the second is thematically related to the other readings.