A new church started in a downtown area. They wanted to impress others with their fancy building so they spent a lot of money on a grand building. But then immigrants began to move in. They were low class—not the church’s kind of people. So the church moved further south and built a new, fancier building. Except new, different immigrants moved in and they were so low class—not desirable members at all. So, they moved again…and wouldn’t you know, more immigrants moved into this new neighborhood. This time rather than move and build a new church, some folks left and went to newer, fancier churches further south, while others moved to better neighborhoods but continued to attend this church.
Genesis is my favorite book of the Bible. The stories are so rich: people try to figure out how to get along with each other, how to understand God, how to make sense of theodicy (i.e., why do bad things happen to good people.) For Year A of the lectionary, excerpts from the book of Genesis are the Old Testament readings. I invite you to read the whole book because if all you know about this book are the stories you read in Sunday School you are missing out big time. The R- and X-rated stories were either not shared, or they were edited to a G-rated version when we were kids. The adult versions are so much richer. The relationships are much more complex and intriguing than most of us know. Looking for a good summer read? Try Genesis.
As you may know, there were different authors of the Bible, including of Genesis. The Old Testament stories have been attributed to a few writers: the J, E, and P writers. Each wrote at a different time. The Yahwist and the Elohist lived around the time of King David, and the second story of creation was written by the Yawhist writer around 1,000 BCE. The Priestly writer who wrote today’s text did so during and after the return of the Israelites from Babylonian captivity around 530 BCE. They had been unwelcome prisoners in another land and then forced back home, where their welcome was sometimes tenuous and they had to figure out how to be people of their own land again. It was complicated because not everyone had been captured and taken away. Some had stayed and developed their own rules and their own rulers, so the returning people weren’t exactly welcome. And the returnees were expecting the same conditions as when they left. In addition, those who had stayed had married local people—something that was heavily frowned upon by these Priestly writers. Not the best of circumstances. Though the returness did rebuild the land, including a new temple and new walls, they forbade marrying out of the Hebrew faith. They even broke up families to ensure this.
The writers of Genesis had their own agendas and points of view, and they used stories from the past to make their points during their time—just as the televisions series, M*A*S*H, about the Korean War, was written against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. And today’s text, the story of creation can remind those working for a strong Jerusalem to remember that God created everything, and said, “It was good.” It was very good. Their role was to take care of this place—to take care of their home. To treat it and everything in it right. So, this Genesis reading is one of two stories of creation; no Adam and Eve, no Garden of Eden. It is a litany that celebrates creation, in which God declares after each day’s creation that it was good—it was very good.
I have read this story in confirmation classes asking the confirmands to draw what I am reading. Big dome or sky with stars and a moon; water, earth, and vegetation; great sea monsters (I always like the sea monsters); birds, cattle, creeping things and wild animals. Male and female created in God’s image, no rib involved. It creates quite a picture.
Now, you may be wondering about the strange story I told at the beginning of this sermon. I’ll get to it in just a minute. First, my questions for today: If God said this was all so amazing, so wonderful, so good—what have we done with it, with this creation?
The climate, the environment. There are those who believe “dominion over” means we can do whatever we want to it. So, some have mined the ground in ways that destroy the environment, clogged the airways making it difficult to breath, hunted and destroyed animals to their extinction, are unable to come to agreement on climate control—and then pulling out of international climate agreements—dumped garbage and sewage anywhere until it dirties our water so it can’t be drunk.
And as for we humans, after several thousand years we haven’t yet figured out how to treat each other right. Some try really hard. But greed, fear, and abuse of power gets in our way. \So, children are way too often hurt or killed in wars. Schools, hospitals, and homes are destroyed in bombings. People live in terrible poverty because of wars, because of unfair labor practices, because education isn’t good enough, because it becomes a way of life—generational poverty. The list goes on and on.
But let’s go back to the story I told you at the beginning—the church that moved several times because of the awful immigrants who kept moving in. Sounds familiar, like it could be any place or any time. It could be now. The time was the 1860s, and the city was Minneapolis. The church was Second Congregational Church and the immigrants were Swedes and Norwegians. By the time of the church’s last move they were heavily in debt, selling the previous building for an amount that wouldn’t cover their mortgages or other debts just to get away from the horrible immigrants. And yet, so wanting to impress others with their fancy building that they went further into debt. The last church building is still there at the corner of Park and Franklin Avenues. But they eventually had to sell because they couldn’t afford it any more. It is now called the Straitgate Church. The banner on their web page reads, “Unashamed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
What if, throughout all time, the world was different—actually good, very good? Can you imagine that world? Clyde Steckel and I were talking at the conference annual meeting. If I remember correctly, it had something to do with a childhood friend who didn’t stand a chance—no money for school, etc. I hadn’t thought about it before, but what if in every place—country, city, county—the highest priority was that every child receive an education suited to that child. An education that would take them to their highest capabilities, their highest potential. Not just what they could afford. But from preschool on, a program geared to helping every child throughout the world reach their highest potential. What diseases may have been cured? What means of production, of surgery, of transportation? What art would have been created, what books, plays, music written? Where would we be today if that was our priority? What if our priority was to keep all the children in the world safe? Safe from hunger, cold, wars, want and more.
The idea sounds great, but the reality seems pretty bleak. Well, we’re still here; God hasn’t given up on us yet. At the conference annual meeting I was reminded of this by a really fine clergyman from the south side of Chicago who rapped (others, including folks from First Church joined in). He reminded me that at the bottom of Pandora’s box—when everything else had escaped—was hope. He told us that his community on the south side of Chicago has the highest number of gun shootings in the area. A trauma center could make the difference between life and death—and yet in that area there is no trauma center in that neighborhood. The community started to campaign for one and his church joined the effort. This fall, after years of petitioning and fighting, his community will have a trauma center that will safe lives. Keeping all the children safe.
God created, and said it was good. In order for it to continue to be good, to be even better, we must act in so many ways. And we have been. But as we know there’s always more to do. What if the Second Congregationalists had reached out to their neighbors, which I believe God would have wanted them to do? The Bible is full of stories about immigrants and God’s people taking them in and being the immigrants themselves, and reminding each other of the importance of caring for the resident alien. If the Second Congregationalists had done that I wonder if they would still be around today. First Church was first, Plymouth was second and Second was third as far as congregational churches in Minneapolis. First Church and Plymouth are still around. First Church reached out to others and put its emphasis on the University. I’m told they were involved in the abolitionist movement. Plymouth reached out to others through the abolitionist movements and settlement houses to help immigrants. As I was searching for information on your involvement in the abolitionist movement I came across an article, a study on how churches responded to needs in the community and what it meant to the church. Those that reached out to the community and cared for the least among us, the most vulnerable, were the ones that are still doing ministry today. The ones that are still making a difference after 150 years.
God created the world and said it was good—very good. We worship God by giving God thanks, by being faithful, by seeking God’s wisdom, by caring for the earth—all of it, all the people. We worship God by speaking truth to power, by reaching out to the most vulnerable, by seeking justice and, in the process, changing the world, by sharing the hope—the hope found in knowing our God loves all of creation and wants it to be better. And we worship God by enjoying the world, its people from different cultures and religions, its natural wonders, its surprises, its challenges, our families and friends, our community of faith. In the midst of our crazy world, let us, like those returning Babylonians, join with God i