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After the Ending: Before the Beginning.

Trinity Sunday, Common Lectionary Year A

Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a

©2020 Rev. Dr. Elisabeth R. Jones

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Sermon video

Rachel Held Evans was a treasure.
A Georgia girl raised in the Bible belt,
whose faith outgrew its childhood shell.
Instead of abandoning God and faith, like so many,
she turned it, and turned it
until she wrestled a new, fluid, resilient, abundant, faith,
and with the panache of a gifted writer she began to share it with the world,
before a freak illness took her life last year, at the age of 34.
I miss her, and we will miss the wisdom that would have flowed
into her writing if she’d lived.

In her last book Inspired [1],
she midrashes this text [2]. She tells a story about the story.
She minds the gap right here, on the first page…. the gap before it all begins.
She wonders,
“Why does the Bible start here, with this story,
not any other story,?

When you notice a gap like that, you gotta do some digging!
She wasn’t an academic theologian,
she was the mother of two tiny children,
so she went at the task with all the focus of a woman short on time.
Who wrote it? When? Why?

And yeah, this is important.

What she discovered
(and what lots of theologians have known for years,
but never really bothered to make a big deal about it),
is that even though the story is placed here, at the very beginning of the book,
it’s actually written down very late in Israel’s history [3], probably in the 500s BCE,
so, long, long, long after the beginning it describes!!

So that’s the when; what about the Why?

Why does anyone, or any group tell stories about their origins?

I remember my father being involved in a fascinating research project
where they interviewed mostly very old women, who had
“been in service” decades before.
(Downton Abbey lovers know that this refers to
the housemaids, butlers, footmen, scullery maids
who lived in the grand houses,
making them work,behind the scenes,
most often unnoticed).
The entire lifestyle/practice waned rapidly after the WWI.
And by the early 1970s there were very few of them still alive,
and their stories threatened to go with them to the grave
unless someone listened, and recorded, wrote it down.

We tell these origin stories,
these ‘way back when’ stories
when there’s a good chance we’ll run out of time.
We tell them and write them down
when something threatens the present,
or the future.
When some great crisis or upheaval threatens our existence.
We tell them when the present we thought would last forever is ended.
We look back in order to make sense of the present,
in order to recall there was once a future, a hope which shaped us.

Well, what Rachel discovered is that this Creation story,
this ultimate origin story,
was told, and recorded and written down to be passed on,
at just such a time in Israel’s history.
When everything was over. Ended.

There was no longer any place called “Israel” on the map.
Israel, whose identity was forged in the belief that
a God called Yahweh had a special place for them in creation
and among the nations,
was no more.

Its people, those who survived the earlier Assyrian invasions,
had now been scattered, or worse, carted off in chains
by the mighty Nebuchadnezzar,
to become slaves again in Babylon..
“By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat and wept when we remembered Zion…
and when our captors told us to sing,
“how can we sing the Lord’s songs in a foreign land?”

How indeed?
This is a crisis of identity and of faith of epic proportions.
And to compound it, what’s left of Israel,
huddled in ghettos, townships, reservations on the wrong side of the Euphrates
is bombarded with competing theologies, religions.
It’s not surprising that they wondered if their God had abandoned them,
or was punishing them?
Or was Yhwh, God, capable of protecting them against seemingly more potent deities of their conquerors and masters?

To these questions, or perhaps around these questions,
woven like silken threads,
the wise ones, the spirit-breathed ones, the elders, the mystics
wove words of wonder,
“Israel, Judah, America, Canada, Cedar Park,
Remember… Remember how in the beginning
God breathed, brooded over a chaos more primordial
than even our troubled times,
and created order, beauty, goodness
from the mish-mash and mess?
Remember, God,
whose very name is beyond naming,
who spun stars, suns, moons, planets out of nothing
more tangible than a dream,
made us.. made us… made every human creature,
of every colour, race, gender, age, ability, size,
with wit and will and wisdom enough to remember,
that we are part,
a beloved and loving part
of a story so much grander, larger, by billions of years,
than whatever present catastrophe we find ourselves in?

And so the remembering of the beginning after the ending begins.
They – whoever they were, the survivors of that Babylonian hell,
about 500 years before our brother Jesus was born to Mary,
put this story first, so that all in every generation since
who manage to actually open the book they’re holding,
might remember,
that it all begins with the living, loving, longing, creative,
redemptive breath of God.

When we begin there, the stories, Israel’s stories,
the prophets’ stories,
Jesus’ stories, Paul’s stories,
your stories, all our stories can fall into their proper place,
of beginnings after endings, of forgiveness after sin,
of life after death, of healing after sickness,
of reconciliation after systemic domination.

The question that remains though,
is whether we will let the power of this story
shape and reshape us,
challenge and change us,
create and recreate us
again and again as often as it takes,
one human race, created in the image of God,
to care and tend this one blessed creation.

I hope you’ll agree that the answer for us could be “Yes.”

[1] Rachel Held Evans, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water and Loving the Bible Again. (Thomas Nelson, 2018).
[2] One definition (from Sandy Sasso) of Midrashim is that they are stories told about stories in the Bible.
[3] Considered to be a priestly writing, i.e. post-exilic period, c. 515-332 BCE.

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