In the beginning
If you’re not in a comfortable position, take a moment to get comfortable. Settle in with me. Let your body be at ease so your mind and mine can walk together.
What I want to talk about you today is imagination, the serious kind. Not daydreams, but imagination that sends light through the gaps and around the edges of the permanent-seeming world we inhabit and tells us, if we are willing to listen, that we could live in another one.
Listen to this story, the first story we are given, the first glimpse of God and the beginning of the world, the starting place of everything. In the beginning when God made the heavens and the earth, the earth was formless nothing, and darkness was over the deep sea, and God’s Spirit hovered over the waters. We say this first sentence a lot of ways, trying to understand what happened in the beginning. In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. That’s what I grew up with. In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. That’s what my grandparents grew up with. When God began to create the heavens and the earth— the earth was without shape or form, it was dark over the deep sea, and God’s wind swept over the waters—that’s the Common English Bible, what children today might grow up with.
Two or three thousand years ago, in Babylon, children might have grown up with the Enuma Elish and the story of Marduk, a god who rode a chariot of storm into battle, armed with lightning and fire and wind, against Tiamat, the great, chaotic saltwater that filled everything, until Marduk slew her and cut her in half and made one half the earth and one part the sky.
The parallels between Genesis 1 and the Enuma Elish—the watery chaos, the two halves of water being separated to make the world we understand—have been much written about; the Babylonian empire was huge and influential (its capital city Babylon was the largest city in the world twice), and 2,600 years ago it conquered Jerusalem and took the inhabitants of Judah captive. Warriors conquered and the strong consumed the weak: That’s how the world was, everyone knew it. Why, the world itself came into being because a warrior god vanquished a chaos goddess and used the body to make things. Such is the natural order.
Begin there, and look carefully, and you can see the cracks where light comes in, the sanctified imagination that took this “natural order” up alongside the God the Israelites knew. In Genesis, it is not violence, not vanquishing, that marks creation, but speech and cherishing. The word that the many first lines of Genesis call moved upon or swept over, that word is a thing that birds do over their nests, brooding, hovering, protecting, raising up. The word that the many first lines call a wind or the Spirit is both. The Spirit of God, which is also God’s breath later to be breathed into humankind, also a wind, leans close to the deep waters, the dark chaos, hovers there. And then God speaks: “let light be.” And sees that the light is good. And divides waters from waters not with a sword but with, if anything, a shield, like metal hammered very thin, just enough to make the space that needs making. Divides them not with violent strength but with a word: “Let a dome be,” “let the vault of heaven be,” “let a firmament be.” Sees that it is good. Makes plants, living creatures, human beings; enlivens human beings with something divine. But where the Babylonian story has the blood of a slain god mixed with dirt to make humans to serve the gods, we have God fashioning the dust into a person and breathing into it, not to serve, but to be, to steward, to rule over the good things God has made. Genesis 1 says, Yes, everything was made by a divine hand: but not by armies, not by killing, not for slavery: by one God, by ultimate creativity, by speaking, for good and for life. Can you see it? Can you see how the light pushes through, changes the outline of what must have seemed so fixed, so unquestionable?
In Genesis 1 God makes humankind “in Our image, according to Our likeness.” God makes humankind “male and female,” which is a pair outlining the “edges,” if you will, of all the kinds of people that might be, just as “evening and morning” outlines all the times of night and day that might be as the light of the sun circles the globe. God makes us in a way that offers more questions than answers. “What is the divine image and likeness?” “What does it mean that we were created in these different ways?” “What does it mean for us to rule?” But this is just to say that God makes us in such a way that imagination is part of the making, that what is fixed and natural is our having been made and the stamp of God upon us, and everything else about us we have to discover, holding that madeness and that divine image tightly in each hand. Everything else made is good, but nothing is made just like us, and we do not yet know, as the letter from John says, what we will be. More Light.
Indeed, the whole making story in Genesis has these questions in it: God created and the Spirit of God was over the waters; the word for God, our God, is very often a three-or-more plural; the Image in which we’re made is “Our image.” None of these things are explained; they only are, saying that God is more than we assume, more than one warrior in a chariot, more than one wielder of a sword, that God is always Not Alone. We Christians have spoken of God as the Trinity for nearly two thousand years, a Father, a Son, a Spirit, one God. A begettor, a begotten, proceeding itself. A lover, a beloved, love itself. The Author, the Word, the Inspiration itself. It is hard to explain the three Persons of God without talking about three gods—a mistake—or one God with three hats—also a mistake; but as understandable as reading “male and female God created them” to mean, not evening and morning, but that male and female are the only kinds of people there are.
It is hard for us, for people, to understand the great mystery in ourselves, though our Scriptures talk of it in so many ways: Our creation by God in God’s image; the wisdom of God in the simple to confound the wise; the forever movement between iniquity and cleanness, sin and justification; weakness in us but power in Christ—it is difficult because we desire clean and fixed categories, and when neither God nor God’s world will provide them for us, we make them. So we make them about ourselves: Men are this, women are that; men love women, women love men; men are strong, women are weak; and we say this is always true instead of sometimes we see this, and so we work to fashion ourselves in our own mind’s image instead of in God’s, though the divine image will out, we cannot always hold ourselves in the confines we build. And so it is hard for us to understand the great mystery in God, and we work to reduce the Trinity to a simple metaphor, to make God in the image of things on earth we can see and grasp, as though God could be reduced to an example of things God made to begin with or act in ways we can know and predict; but the truth of God will out.
The great mystery of God and the great creative power within God, the love of Father for Son and Son for Father, the dwelling of the Son in the Father and the Father in the Son, the Spirit in and from the Son and the Father, cannot be reduced without reducing ourselves, made in this image. And we cannot reduce ourselves without reducing God, who made us as we are. We have known since the earliest Christian writings that we name “Father” and “Son” and “Holy Spirit” based on scripture as an attempt to describe something not capturable, something about generation, about likeness, about being irreducible, and yet we use these words sometimes to reduce God. And when we reject these words as reductive and offer new ones, in the same way we are reaching for generation and mystery and irreducibility, and yet the newer words we offer will reduce in the same way, reduce both God and us. There will be no perfect words, there will be no perfect understanding; but there will always be the Reality in whose image we were created, a mystery from a mystery.
On More Light Sunday the Presbyterian Church USA celebrates the push against one kind of reduction of human beings in the midst of a national convulsion that is the result of another kind of reduction of human beings. White people have declared that we are the ones made in the divine image and that brown and especially Black people were not, not in the same way, not like us with our intellect and our potential and our creativity. We say this, though it is a lie and a blasphemy. We have told this lie for centuries, we built systems of trade and forced labor, of the lethal and cruel domination of white over black, that undergird every institution we believe to be good and true, including the founding of this nation and reaching still into the neighborhoods where we live, the schools we send our children to, the safety we offer, when we put a hand to our purse or wallet and cross the street. We said in our complacency, we have plumbed the depths of human mystery and this is what we found there: White supremacy, the violent power exercised by a group defined by little but a perceived superiority protected with violence, the crushing of Black life to support our own. We say this is what God created, though it is a lie and a blasphemy. We have carved, gilded, adorned the logs in our eyes, called them “natural,” called them “nature,” called them “civilization,” called them “the economy,” called them “national security,” called them “curfew,” called them “law and order,” we have loved and worshiped them even as they have kept us from seeing the truth of ourselves, of our human family, and of Almighty God. Around these logs we look at the crowds in the streets shouting for justice, the flames covering the property that power uses to crush dissent, broken glass, anger, solidarity, courage, and we say things like “they shouldn’t do that,” “they should be peaceful in the way I understand peace,” “the police must be so afraid,” because through these logs we love we cannot see the judgment of God on the world we build from sin and evil, we cannot see God’s unfathomable creative power pouring like light around the edges.
We may hear the Enuma Elish’s creation story and shrink from its violence, but we have build a world that takes violence just as for granted, though it is now more sanitized—guns, not swords; state actors and police forces, not individual warriors—and we, too, believe that violence will keep us safe, that it is the price to pay for order. But have you let your imagination follow all of this? Can you see that this world we have built, to our shame, is not permanent, not natural, not fixed, that the Light will push through, that we can see another one, we can return to the image of God in us and build again from there?
As Christians we have already been baptized into something we do not and cannot fully know. Jesus tells his disciples to baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, with no explanation. It is always a leap into the mystery that is our birthright from creation, the unknown, the possible. Imagination is our birthright, and a new world is possible: We were brought into it when the water touched our forehead and the Holy Trinity was spoken over us. Let the light in. Amen.