Friday, September 8, 2017

“Where Do You Come From?” - September 10, 2017

Text: Genesis 1:1-2:4a

Where do you come from?  This time of year especially, with new students and lots of new faces, that question gets asked a lot.  What’s your major?  Did you go to the game?  Where do you live?  Where are you from?  It is asked enough that I’m sure students get tired of it.

But it is an important question.  And around here, the answer could be literally anywhere.  The vast majority of folks in our church did not grow up in Ames, so most of us are from somewhere else.  On a given Sunday you can find folks who are from Texas or Minnesota or Illinois, or Brazil or Korea or Ghana or Laos, but those who actually grew up in Ames are a fairly small group.

So the question gets asked: “Where are you from?  Where did you come from?”

I dabble in genealogy.  Find it fascinating.  At the root of it all is a question about history and identity.  The past is filled with mystery, with question marks, and the big question is, “Where did we come from?”  I decided to do the DNA test that will tell you where your ancestors are from.  You order it online and they send you a package with a little tube to spit in.  (This is just an aside, but it is surprising how much spit they require.)  You seal the tube, ship it off, and in 6-8 weeks they send you the results with information about where your ancestors lived from a few hundred to a couple thousand years ago, along with some other information.  So I did this and waited.  In the meantime, they sent a couple of email updates.  “Your sample has arrived at our facility.”  “Your sample is now being processed.”  “We’re busy running your DNA through the lab.  We’ll send you an email when your results are ready.” 

It was nice of them to think of me, but while they sent these messages every week or two to let me know that the process was moving along well, and I’m sure to heighten anticipation about the final results, things were obviously not going well, because eventually I received an email that read, “Unfortunately, after multiple attempts, we were unable to use the sample you sent.”  Are you kidding me?  I sent perfectly good spit, and now they are saying that they can’t use it?

They asked if I wanted them to send another kit.  So we went through the whole thing again, and finally, about a week and a half ago, I happened to check my email and there it was.  “Your DNA test results are now available.”

I eagerly clicked the link to see the results, but they were really not much of a surprise.  The family tree that I knew about, along with my light skin and red hair - well, at one time red hair - suggested a certain profile, and my DNA test results definitely fit that profile.  My ancestry is heavy on Great Britain and Ireland, with some Western Europe and Scandinavia thrown in.  The Scandinavian part was a mild surprise, but then the Vikings overran Normandy and parts of Great Britain, not to mention founding Dublin, so perhaps that’s where my Scandinavian ancestors entered the picture.

Where do you come from?  It can be a big question, because it can have to do with a lot more than simply a street address or matters of geography. 

Where we are from is not just an ice-breaker question when we meet a new person.   The place we are from has meaning to us personally – it can serve to ground us and give us a sense of who we are.

At the Farmers Market a couple of weeks ago, I bought some corn and tomatoes and radishes from a particular vendor in part because the guy was wearing an Indiana t-shirt.  I asked him if he went to school at IU or if he was from Indiana.  I imagined having something in common to talk about but.  The place we are from can create those shared connections.  But he said that no, it was just a shirt he got at Goodwill.

I walk the dog every morning and when it is cool, I often wear my Evansville sweatshirt.  I graduated from college more than 30 years ago, but somehow there is still this connection.  The place we are from, or maybe the places we are from, can matter to us.  This past week it has certainly been obvious that the school we went to can create a strong allegiance – it can be part of our identity.

“Where are you from?” “Where is home?”  “Who are your people?”  We share our stories to identify our origins – and at least in part, to define who we are.

Today’s scripture from Genesis is a story that tells us who we are and where we are from.  The opening chapters of Genesis are some of the best known chapters of scripture.  They contain foundational stories, but they are neither history nor science as we understand those disciplines today.  The first chapters of Genesis are more in the category of poetry – they are important stories that help us to understand life and God and the world and our place in it.  This is truth with a capital T.

In some circles, reading this account of creation raises questions about when the earth was created or whether dinosaurs and people were on this planet at the same time.  For some, it is a rebuke and proof that evolution is false and that science can’t really be trusted.

To reduce these powerful and moving words to a scientific argument – or to be more precise, an anti-scientific argument – is to miss the point entirely and really to do damage to the Biblical message. 

The creation narratives tells us who we truly are and where we really come from.  It affirms the reality of a good God, a good world, and a beloved humanity.  It tells us about a God who loves all of creation.

In other words, Genesis is not trying to be an alternative to carbon dating, and understanding it in that way completely misses the point of the scripture – it misses the power and beauty and inspiration and the spirit behind the written word.  The story of creation tells us something much more powerful.

Where do we come from? We owe our existence to a loving God who delights in us and in all of creation.

Some have suggested that the first chapter of Genesis was a hymn, or at least a hymn-like liturgy, because it contains these repetitive phrases.  Again and again, we read, “And God saw that it was good.”

That one phrase, which we hear over and over, tells us a couple of important things.  First, we come from a God who sees.  Seven times in this story, God pauses to reflect on God’s handiwork.  Again and again, “God saw.”  Well before the work is done, God steps back to behold all that is taking shape.  Like a musician who thrills at a moving harmony, like a poet who is inspired by a beautiful turn of phrase, like an artist who considers every brush stroke, like  a woodworker who attends to every detail, this is a God who lingers over creation — every leaf, every stream, every creature, every child.  God is not in a hurry, and God’s interest in the world is much more than simply utilitarian.  It’s not just about making the big picture work.  God observes.  God reflects.  God notices.  God cares.    We come from a God who pays delighted attention.

Christopher Chabris and Dan Simons did a research experiment.  Volunteers were asked to watch a video of students passing a basketball and count the number of times the ball is passed.  During the video, a gorilla walks through the action and is visible on screen for nine seconds.  The interesting thing is that about half of people watching the video did not notice the gorilla at all – like it wasn’t even there.  This was called the invisible gorilla experiment.  The gorilla wasn’t really invisible, but it seems that way because people often don’t see it.

Well guess what: God notices the gorilla.  God also notices the butterfly and the dandelion and the child that nobody seems to notice.  We are created by and made in the image of a God who sees, a God who notices.

God saw – God noticed.  And God saw that it was good.  We come from and we are part of a world that is good.  Before there was evil, there was goodness.  Before there was Sin, there was Blessing.  Before there was acrimony and fighting, there was harmony and cooperation.  We can be in such a rush to insist on human sinfulness and get to the idea of Total Depravity that we forget that the beginning is just brimming with goodness and blessing.  After each day of creation, God says, “It is good” and after creating humankind, God looks over the creation and says, “It is very good.”   God looks over all that God has created and says, “It’s all good.  It is very good.”

I admit that it sounds a little foolish, or at least a little contrarian, to think about the goodness of the world just now.  Fires, hurricanes, flooding, earthquakes.  Not to mention the pain that God’s children can inflict on one another, including racism, terrorism and the threat of nuclear war.  It is a troubled time.

How do you get through such difficult times?  Part of the answer is to remember God’s care, to notice and reflect on the goodness of this world, and to do our part to spread the goodness around – not to ignore the pain around us, but not to let that pain define us, either.  Because goodness and the ability to notice - to see goodness - is part of who we are.

What would it mean if we really believed – even in such a troubled world – that at the heart of it, God’s creation is good?  What if we really believed that the default setting of our world – and of our own hearts – is not tainted with evil, but filled with goodness?  What would it be like to bless God’s world without reservation or stinginess or fear?  What would it be like to truly live out the goodness that is our heritage? “God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.”  This is our foundation, this is our beginning, our roots - this is our where we come from. 

Where do we come from?  We come from a God who is in the business of creativity.  According to Genesis, God created something new each day.  God was an innovator at the world’s beginning, calling forth beautiful things that did not exist until God called them into being.  The question is: is God still at it?  Do we believe in a God who is dynamic and vibrant, or who is static and stagnant?  Is God’s creative work finished, or is God still in the business of creating, or making things new and of making new things?

Frederick Buechner writes,

Using the same old materials of earth, air, fire, and water, every twenty-four hours God creates something new out of them.  If you think you’re seeing the same show all over again seven times a week, you’re crazy.  Every morning you wake up to something that in all eternity never was before and never will be again.  And the you that wakes up was never the same before and will never be the same again, either.
We come from a God who is constantly creative and is still making things new.

Where do we come from?  We come from the morning and the evening, the light and the darkness.  Now, some forms of religious faith are filled with dualisms: the spirit is good and the body is bad.  Light comes from God and darkness comes from the devil.  But you will not find that in Genesis.  The God who is spirit blesses the body and calls it good.  The God who creates light calls the evening “good.”  The God who brings order also hovers over the chaos of the deep.

In her book on spirituality and darkness, Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “The way most people talk about darkness, you would think that it came from a whole different deity, but no.  To be human is to live by sunlight and moonlight, with anxiety and delight, admitting limits and transcending them, falling down and rising up.  To want a life with only half of these things in it is to want half a life.”  We come from a God who blesses and who is found in all of life.

Where do we come from?  We come from the likeness of God.  We are created in God’s image.  God’s mark is imprinted on our very being.  We might ignore it or deny it or distort it, but whether we acknowledge it or not, we reflect something of God’s joy, God’s hope, God’s love, God’s beauty just by virtue of existing.  Just by being us.  It is an awesome thought, but the testimony of scripture is that we reflect God’s image.

Awhile back I found my grandfather’s obituary.  He died in 1943.  He was 40 years old.  My mother was 7 years old and Uncle Marvin was 5.  Reading that obituary was very sad.  They lived out in the country in southern Illinois, and today Interstate 64 is about ¼ mile from where their house was.  Sometimes I stop at a gas station a couple hundred yards from where my mother lived as a child.  That is a part of where I come from. 

What is interesting is that if you go back far enough, our family trees will intersect.  It was pretty funny when it came out a few years back that President Obama and Vice-President Cheney are distant cousins.  The thing is, if you go back far enough, we are all connected.  We are all family, we are all brothers and sisters, we are all children of God, we are all of us created by a God who loves us and calls all of creation good.

Where do you come from?  The Good News is that we come from the best of beginnings.  We come from a glorious Creator.  We come from the loving heart of God.  We are all God’s beloved children.  The challenge for us it to live like it.  Amen.