Text: Genesis 1:1-3
(Gary W. Charles at Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 6-11-2017)
The year was 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee. The occasion was the trial of a biology teacher, John Scopes. The charge was illegally teaching the theory of evolution. The prosecutor was the three-time Democratic candidate for President, William Jennings Bryan. Using his considerable rhetorical skills, Brian fought fiercely to uphold a recent Tennessee law that made it unlawful [quote] “to teach any theory that denies the story of divine creation as taught by the Bible.”
The year was 580 B.C.E. in ancient Babylon. The occasion was the trial of God. The charge was dereliction of duty, having allowed the troops from Babylon to destroy Jerusalem, all in the name of the Babylonian gods. The prosecutors were bereaved former citizens of Jerusalem, who were now being held hostage on foreign soil, living with nightmarish memories of a scorched earth, of screaming children ripped away from their nursing mothers, of enemy soldiers who set their homes and their temple aflame, of the rape of women, and of the beatings of elderly men.
In 1925, the Scopes trial tried to turn Genesis 1 into a scientific treatise. Try as might, though, you can never turn poetry into prose. It is quite likely that the 580 B.C.E. Babylonian trial resulted in the writing of Genesis 1, this first story in the first book of the Bible. The first creation story is written to comfort those whose life has turned into utter chaos as they are force marched from their land to the alien kingdom of Babylon. The first creation story claims that from the beginning God has fought chaos to establish the cosmos and God will not stop working God’s creative purpose out even amid the chaos of exilic life in Babylon.
My late brother, Dale, was a scientist who could never reconcile the claims of Judaism and Christianity with those of science. He would often cite the first creation story in Genesis 1 as an example of the primitive, silly, unscientific thinking that he rejected. On the other side of the philosophical divide, I had a college roommate who spent untold hours defending Genesis 1 as a miraculous and exact account of how God created the world in seven days, even taking the last day off.
I loved my brother and tried to love my roommate, but they both badly misunderstood the first story in the Bible, and they are in good company. This story is not about asteroids and amino acids, fossils and rock fragments. It is not a scientific treatise at all. It is theological treatise; it is all about God. It is not scientific prose. It is theological poetry.
When scientists, like my brother, read Genesis 1 and insist that it is not good science, they are right. It is not nor was it ever intended to be good pre-modern or post-modern science. And, when fundamentalist Christians read Genesis 1 and insist that this is a story that describes how God scientifically created the world in seven, twenty-four hour, days, they are just as wrong.
Let me suggest an imperfect analogy to make this point. Picture a cluster of Hurricane victims, all who have lost their homes and now huddle together in a temporary, makeshift shelter. They are wearing borrowed clothes, sleeping on borrowed mattresses, and eating borrowed food.
When the mail arrives, they receive a manila envelope containing pictures of a large body of water where their homes once stood on solid ground. They are exiles from all they know as home. Lost and distressed, these exiles from home are not interested in the meteorological nuances of hurricanes or the intricate mechanization of meteorology.
The questions that these Hurricane victims are asking are not scientific in nature; they are existential and theological. Like the ancient hostages living in Babylon, they want to know how God has allowed such devastation to occur and if God is even capable of stopping it. They want to know where God is in the midst of their misery, if God hears their cries, and even if there is a God. This is the human situation to which Genesis 1 speaks. It is a poetic statement of faith declaring that even in the chaos, God; even in the darkness, God; in all real beginnings, God.
The great African American poet, James Weldon Johnson, captures the creation poetry in Genesis with this language:
Then he stopped and looked and saw
That the earth was hot and barren.
So God stepped over to the edge of the world
And he spat out the seven seas—
He batted his eyes, and the lightnings flashed—
He clapped his hands, and the thunders rolled—
And the waters above the earth came down,
The cooling waters came down.
Then the green grass sprouted,
And the little red flowers blossomed,
The pine tree pointed his finger to the sky,
And the oak spread out his arms,
The lakes cuddled down in the hollows of the ground,
And the rivers ran down to the sea;
And God smiled again,
And the rainbow appeared,
And curled itself around his shoulder. (The Creation)
On this first Sunday after Pentecost, the most fascinating word in this Hebrew poem is ruah, God’s breath-wind-spirit. At the end of his poem, James Weldon Johnson uses these images to capture ruah:
This great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till he shaped it in is his own image;
Then into it he blew the breath of life,
The Genesis preacher uses the imagery of God’s ruah hovering over the futile, dark, chaotic world like a mother eagle fluttering over its young, breathing into its young the breath of life. Wherever chaos rules and life is threatened or diminished, says Genesis 1, God’s breath-wind-spirit-ruach blows.
When you and I soar above all those voices telling us to “mind your own business” and “do not cause a stir,” and instead, commit our minds and hearts to stir up justice, especially for those most often ignored, for those most likely with meager means, God’s ruah is blowing. When you and I love our enemies even though they give us every possible reason to hate them, God’s ruah is blowing. When you and I regulate our use of resources, recycle and compost while insisting on energy that is sustainable for all sisters and brothers walking this earth, God’s ruach is blowing.
When you and I give extravagantly to provide for the needs of others even when our personal economy is in the dumps, God’s ruah is blowing. When you and I pledge our lives to make sure that every child baptized at this font knows the love of Christ in us, God’s ruah is blowing. When you and I make time to read and learn and think critically about matters before we speak, God’s ruah is blowing.
The year is 2017 in Covesville, Virginia. The occasion is the trial of Genesis 1.Will we continue to diminish the first story in Scripture and turn it into a biblical cartoon by reading it literally, either as unbelieving scientists or believing fundamentalists or will we reclaim this statement of faith in all its poetic glory?
The verdict, I pray that will be rendered is that we will find this story not guilty of scientific or theological small-minded prejudice, so we can gladly join in the great Pentecost prayer: “Blow, Holy Spirit, blow.”