This is a transcript from the September 13, 2020 sermon, so it contains the character of live, spoken communication.
Sometimes we come to the Bible and we are looking for answers, and fair enough there's a lot of answers. We come looking when we have questions about where do we find our hope? What do I do when I'm hurting? Where do I find courage? A little less so when we get to, when is the world going to end? Or what should I do with my job? Or whom am I supposed to marry? Those get a little shakier, but we get it because we come looking for answers. The Bible indeed has answers. Probably not always the ones we want, but before the Bible is a book of answers, it is a book of profound questions. That's where I want to start today.
I want to start with one of the most profound, it's the very first articulated questions of the Bible, and it is this, it is, "Where are you?" Where are you old mortal, Adam, Eve, man, woman? Where are you in the cool of the day says, God, "When I come to be with you. Where are you?"
It's a powerful question. Before we get to that, even though that's the first articulated question, who are you? Who are you, this one who's hiding in the bushes and who's afraid who's covering up with fig leaves, doing their best to somehow hold it all together? Who are you?
That's really what the creation is and the stories of origin are about in any religion, and maybe you had the same experience that I did at one point. I think it was my very first Bible as literature class. I was getting a lecture about how that the stories of creation in the Bible aren't all that special. They use a lot of the same language and a lot of the same terms, a lot of the same imagery, or even a lot of the same cadence. What's in the scriptures of our Old Testament has really been more kind of minor knockoffs of what the dominant cultures of Egypt and Babylon were positing this day. It was a way of claiming it for themselves. While there are a lot of similarities to those things, I think that's a very narrow understanding of these incredible texts and what they're trying to say and what they're not trying to say.
In order to do this, let me give an example. I'm just going to have to trust that you are going to trust the spirit in which this is being offered. A couple of weeks ago, two speeches were given. One was an interview by our president who uses this phrase to talk about the current situation. He says, "It is what it is." Within a few days at a convention the former first lady used the exact same phrase, but she used it to mean something completely different. Now, regardless of your politics, and this isn't about politics, regardless though, you would understand that how it's being used in one context was riffing off of the other to make a completely different point.
Now, if you were to come and look at the transcripts of those two conversations a thousand years from now, and you saw those phrases, you would say, "Oh, this one has borrowed from, or is just copying from, or maybe they're even the same, trying to say the same thing, the same words," if you didn't have the context, because what's happening is not being borrowed. It is riffing. It is taking and doing a little bit of verbal jujitsu, taking a phrase that meant one thing using it and then flipping it over so that now it's meant to connote something completely different.
I tell you that because that is what I believe is going on and a lot of scholars believe what's going on with the Hebrew texts of origin. That they are using the same language, cadence, they're using some of the same phrases to mean something that is completely different. Here's what I mean. In the Egyptian culture from which the Jewish nation emerged out of Egypt to become who they are, there was the idea of the great divinities or the divinities of the sun and the moon. It makes great sense in an agricultural society.
In the Hebrew creation stories of origin, they talk about the sun and the moon, but they do it in a very sly way. Even though they talk about it in some of the same rhythms and phrases, it is as if saying, "Oh yes, the sun and the moon. Sure, we've got those too. Our God made your sun and moon that you think are so important," and, "Oh, by the way, didn't really even get around to that, to about the third or fourth day, but they're really important."
It's a very sly way of undercutting and sabotaging and critiquing a whole culture in their faith, but even more so the Babylonian stories of origin and that's where there's so many similarities and so many places where people think, "Well, they're just borrowing from anything but, anything but." Yes, there are phrases about the light and dark and out of the chaos and the waters and creation, but, boy, do they differ in some very key ways because in the midst of this, they go down the same path.
Then in the Babylonian origin stories, what happens is humanity comes along, but humanity comes along, not just as an afterthought, but as almost something of disgusting. It is out of the carcass of a God and the excrement thereof, the rotting, almost like cockroaches emerging out of a cockroach out of a carcass, that's humanity. Not a very high view of what it means to be human.
Whereas using some of the same phrases that gets up to the same cadence, the same images, the same words, and then we get to this passage of ours today, where God, rather than being fighting, and not thinking and not caring about what's going on in earth, gets hands into the soil, the topsoil and shapes and crafts, and then breathes in. Now, we have a living being, where we get the word soul means the living being, the breathing being.
It is that which now carries not just the image of God, but is beloved of God. It is the handiwork of God, not an afterthought. This is what carries the very essence, the breadth of God. This fragile container, this thing that is part of creation and extension of creation, fragile, and yet its dignity is that it has been given the very essence of life through God.
Think of this, think of the scriptures, and what the Hebrew texts are doing as offering a minority opinion about who we are and why we're here? The powers that be, one way or another, are always top of humanity as an afterthought. Humanity is not very important. Humanity only has its dignity. It only has its value as the culture around it gives it. It always gives it around its position and its proximity to power and privilege. You are who you are because of the value we have given you because of what you have accomplished, what you have accumulated, what you're able to hold onto.
The minority report comes alongside using some of the exact same language to flip it over and say, "Oh no." The real dignity of humanity has nothing to do with what the culture gives it, how the culture values. The real dignity of humanity is that it is God-breathed. It is inherent in creation and that every living being, it does not matter how close you are to power and to privilege or how much you have accumulated, by the fact that you were alive, you bear the image of God. You are beloved.
There were, in the ancient world, two competing opinions, the one, the majority report about what humanity was about and what its value was and who was important and who was not. Then now, there's this minority report that comes alongside. Two very different views of humanity. I contend there still are. I contend there still are, and that too many times we have still opted for the majority report, of what most people seem to think that the really important people have the most, or have the most privilege or the most power, they're the most valuable people. It's easy to discriminate against and push down those who don't have those things.
Then there's the one still the minority report that comes in and says, "Yes, but by the very fact that God is involved, all people have value." I want you to imagine what difference history would have been, if the minority report had been more prevalent? What kind of wars would not have been fought over land privilege, divine right, religion? How would people have treated each other differently if it didn't matter who you were, the haves and the have nots, the rich and the poor, the great, and the small men, women, children, people of color, people of different races? If we had approached that, not in the majority report of you are who you are by your proximity to power and prestige, but you are who you are because you bear the very image and breath of God.
The worst chapters of the church have been written and that have involved the church has adopted the majority report. Jesus came to restore who we are as humans, and is able to say, "Whenever you have cared for or not, fed or not, clothed or not, visited or not, the very least you're doing it to me." It's Jesus' way of trying to get the minority report back on the stories of origin saying, "You have to know who you are and you are beloved. Everyone you are ever going to encounter is beloved too."
Or you're thinking about that in the implications of how that might change your life and your week that's ahead. I'm going to invite you to pause for a moment, Joy has put together a lovely piece using James Finley and some of his thoughts about what does it mean to be beloved? In this time of contemplation of just being stil, let's listen and begin to imagine what does it mean to be and to claim what it means to be beloved?
Speaker 1: Grace is the pure gift of abiding in holy, infinite love. When we are fully convinced that we are begot and beloved of God, every breath is infused with grace to sustain us.
Alana Levandoski: Every breath is grace. Every breath is grace. Every breath is grace. Every breath is grace.
James Finley: To be a seeker is to be someone for whom grace has engendered a riddle. The riddle is, "I know not what to make of it," and the grace is what floods over me in the midst of what I don't know what to make of. Every breath is grace. From whence does it arise? It arises as a pure gift of love. In a way, the breath becomes homebase. When you panic or get scared, just take a deep breath, and get re-grounded in, "I am being sustained by love right here as I inhale. God's breathing into me. God's very life is my own life and fear has no foundations."
Alana Levandoski: Every breath is grace. Every breath is grace. Every breath is grace.
James Finley: There's that in me that sees it, and there's that in me that doesn't see it yet. That willingness to be tender-hearted with what doesn't see it yet becomes the next wave of experiential salvation. I'm always circling back.
Alana Levandoski: Every breath is grace. Every breath is grace. Every breath is grace. Every breath is grace.
Pastor Russ: Now that we have established the prior question about who we are, we come back to that very important question of, "Where are you? Where are you when I come to be with you, my beloved. The ones that I have shaped and formed, the ones who I come to walk with and be in the cool of the day in fellowship, where are you?" Of course the answer comes in our passages as Adam and Eve are hiding, "Because we're afraid," they say. "Why are you afraid? "Because we're naked." This back and forth starts to happen in this rather humorous and yet poignant story, we begin to see that the condition of humanity is being outlined here.
It might help to know first and foremost, of course, that the tree that they ate from, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, that is not a moral sense of responsibility at that point. It's an ancient idiom, which means the knowledge of everything. It's like saying the knowledge of A to Z, from beginning to end, from soup to nuts, everything that you need to know. The knowledge of good and evil. All the stuff. The secret vaults that belong to the divine.
Now you have taken that, but you have done it in a way that separated from the giver, the source of it, and like any gift, separated from the source, now it becomes dangerous and becomes weaponized. Now the knowledge of who I am, the fragileness of who I am terrifies me, and I become very aware of my mortality and my insignificance by myself apart from the love and the will of God, and so I hide.
Today we will talk about the fig leaves, of course, in different ways. We would talk about the mask, the personas that we put on. Brene Brown talks about armoring up, really the same thing. It's those things that we put out there to give an impression of ourselves to others. It's our accomplishments. It's our opinions. It's our attitudes. It's our education. It's the way we express ourselves. It's our perfect Facebook page. It's our education. It's our degrees. It's the symbols of our status, our status symbols. The cars that we drive, the houses that we live in, the neighborhoods that we reside in, the teams that we root for. All of those are ways of putting up this front, this armor, if you will, these fig leaves. It's not that they by themselves are bad, it's just that they aren't really us.
A contemplative called this the false self, not the bad self. This isn't really who we are, because we are way too afraid to show God, and we are afraid God's going to see and show one another the true self, because we're afraid or ashamed, and we don't know what to do with it. It is the human condition, written large in this little story.
This last week I was reading Thomas Friedman. Thomas Friedman is an author, columnist for The New York Times, bestselling author, and he goes on to say, "About four years ago, I changed my title. I didn't ask anybody, didn't ask for permission, I just quietly started introducing myself differently. I used to be known as The New York Times foreign affairs columnist." Which as he described, "It's the best job in the world, because you get to go anywhere you want, ask anybody any question you want, think about whatever you want, write about whatever is interesting. It's good work if you can get it."
He said that, "I changed my title from that to something different." He says, "I started calling myself The New York Times humiliation and dignity columnist." He says, "I even changed the name of my business card." If that caught you off the way it caught me, then his explanation might be helpful. Because he said, "It became so obvious to me that since I had become a journalist in 1978, that as I was reporting or pining about people, leaders, refugees, terrorists, nation states, that all of these were acting out of feelings of humiliation, or they were questing for dignity, because these are the two most powerful emotions in the world."
Maybe it's because I knew I was thinking about this passage, but a light went on for me, and I said, "There it is, right there. There it is. The two most powerful emotions. The quest for dignity, responding to and acting out on a sense in the feelings of humiliation. The two most powerful emotions and they're right there in the garden." This passage that is so easily dismissed and quaint, is getting to, in just such an elegant way, with a simple but profound story of making that exact same point.
That here we are trying to find our dignity, trying to get it and trying to earn it as if we can do it separate from God and the way God had created us. We sense that we are separate from God, but that's the original and the great lie to begin with, is that somehow we are separate from God, or that we have to separate ourselves from God to find that, and in so doing then we've just become more fearful, more vulnerable and now it becomes a zero sum game, we have to get it at the expense of others. What we really are longing for as we are hiding from one another is that we might be found, that we might discover again what it means to be beloved.
I'm starting a theme, this week and throughout the year. It's called the Path of the Beloved. It's taken from a passage from Henri Nouwen. Henri Nouwen writes about what it means to be beloved and I find these words to be powerful. I want to share them with you. It says, "Being the beloved is the origin and the fulfillment of the life of the spirit." Being the beloved is the origin and the fulfillment of the life of the spirit. It is who we are from our birth. It is who we are inherent and it is also the great quest of who we are still becoming. We're going to grow into what that really means.
From the moment we claim the truth of being beloved, we are faced with the call to become who we are. Becoming the beloved is the great spiritual journey we have to make. It is Adam and Eve now on the outside. There is no going back. There is the loss of innocence. They know too much and the only way forward is forward. They believe that they're alone, they believe that they're bereft but the story says something completely different.
It is God who is already fashioning and forming and changing and working and suffering with on behalf of and for who they are and what's to become of them. It is our journey as well. It is our journey to take together as we go from here to claim, first and foremost, that indeed from the very beginning, in the origin of who we are, we are beloved. You are beloved and we follow that path together. Because it is not just out of convenience but out of necessity.
It is as I discover what it means for me to be beloved, I find I do so as I help you to understand that you are beloved. The great gift is to help each other. Know that you're not my enemy, you're not the competition, you're not what's wrong with my life, you're not who I have to throw under the bus or worry about being thrown under the bus by you. You are, we are together understanding ourselves as beloved.
This week, as we go from here, as we start this journey, as we step into this new week, into this crazy season, may you know and may you hear the voice that whispers into your soul, "You are beloved." May that be the great gift to you and may the great gift from you be this week that as others see themselves being seen by you, that in our eyes they see someone who sees them as beloved and the healing will begin.
We will take that spiritual journey from who we have been from the beginning to who we are yet to be, to claim that for ourselves. Then we will be doing the great work of going and loving God with everything we've got. Then we will be doing the great work of loving our neighbor as ourselves and as we do, we will begin to know truly what it means to have the peace of Christ. This week, may the peace of Christ be with you. Amen.