In the Beginning

A sermon preached at Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, California

September 12, 2021

Gen 1 to 2:4a

Today we are beginning a year of scripture readings from the Narrative Lectionary. I have historically preached from the 3 year Revised Common Lectionary readings, which were put together in 1992 by a number of different Christian denominations. I like preaching the lectionary because it keeps me from using scripture to make whatever point I want to make.

Some people can do sermon series well, but I think if I were to try to come up with a topic and then seek scripture passages to support the topic, it wouldn’t end well. You’d get a lot of my opinions.

I like the discipline of sitting down each week to the assigned texts and seeing the way God speaks through them to enlighten our current situation.

The downside of the Revised Common Lectionary is that it includes only  6% of the Old Testament, not including the psalms, and 41% of the New Testament.

The Narrative Lectionary is a four year cycle of readings that cover the breadth of the story of scripture. The story of scripture will be emphasized, helping us connect our lives to the broad sweep of the biblical narrative.

Some of these stories may be new to you. Some will feel very familiar. I invite you to listen to each story as if you were hearing it for the first time. Don’t let what you thought you knew about it keep you from hearing what God may be saying to you today.

The Book of Genesis was not written to be an eye witness account or a historical reporting of the first day of creation. We heard the first of Genesis’ creation stories this morning. Chapter 2 has a different account of creation.  The creation stories are not to help us understand molecular biology or physics. They are to help us understand our place in the world and our reason for being in the world.  Walter Brueggeman, one of my seminary professors, says it is about human’s destiny as God’s creations, to live in God’s creation, with God’s other creatures, on God’s terms.

The creation stories are also not opposed to our understandings of biology or physics. Sir William Bragg, who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1915 said, “Christianity and science are opposed, but only in the same sense as that which my thumb and forefinger are opposed. And between them, I can grasp everything.”

And so tonight, we start at the very beginning, a very good place to start, as Julie Andrews taught us.

In the beginning.

The Book of Genesis begins with a “once upon a time” kind of story, back when the universe was primordial ooze and was without form or substance. God breathed her Spirit over the face of the chaos and brought order. And it was good.

Where do you begin the telling of your story? What is the “In the beginning” for your life, for how you tell the story of when your family began? In truth, we have a lot of “in the beginnings”.

When great grandparents emigrated here for a chance at a better life. When grandpa lost it all in the crash.
When your parents got married after the war.
On the day you were born.
When you’re the the first person in your family to go to college.
When the person you love the most died in a car accident.
When you get your dream job and move to San Francisco in the middle of the pandemic.

We begin again all the time. We begin from good moments and from painful ones.

Our country could say it began with the pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock, or with the Revolution and the writing of the Constitution, or with the removal of indigenous people from their lands, or with the enslavement of Africans, captured and brought here to build our nation and build wealth for others. All of those ‘in the beginnings’ must be held together, in truth. We must tell all of those beginnings so we know how we got to where we are and so we can choose how we want to continue.

This weekend, we are marking the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and the withdrawal of our troops from Afghanistan, which we invaded shortly after 9/11. I will leave it to wiser minds than mine to do the post-mortem on a military action that four presidential administrations couldn’t figure out. But what began for us on that day?  I mourn the lives lost. I mourn the way national pride was co-opted for photo ops. I mourn the ways we divided instead of joining together. The stories this weekend have been poignant, taking us back to a moment when we were one in our collective grief, shock, and sadness.

We begin again all the time. How do we want to think about 9/11 another twenty years down the road? Can this become the ‘in the beginning’ we need? “In the beginning, as people remembered the fears and sadness and anger of those days, while the dust still hovered over Manhattan, they remembered that life is a gift, community is essential, people will step into danger to help strangers, and what divides us is not as important as what could unite us.” Let’s tell and live out that story.

I’m reading a book right now about the early days of San Francisco, and it is interesting to think about how Calvary was founded only 5 years after the gold rush began. The protestants collaborated with each other rather than compete because “godlessness was unlimited”. When Dr. William Anderson Scott was hired to be our first pastor, there were far more gambling houses in the city than there were churches.  And he made an unpopular stand against the “vigilance movement” which argued that society needed laws, but if the laws were not fully enforced, then common citizens had the right to take the law into their own hands.  Men from the vigilance movement hung an effigy of Dr Scott on the church steps for standing against their form of justice.

I confess I don’t really want to be hung in effigy for any reason, but I appreciate the reminder that Calvary’s ‘in the beginning’ was in a tumultuous time in our city, and that we have continued to make sometimes unpopular stands in defense of the Gospel.

Charles Spurgeon was a nineteenth century British preacher, referred to as the Prince of Preachers, which is a new life goal for me

He once said, “Begin as you mean to go on, and go on as you began, and let the Lord be all in all to you.”

And as we think about the stories of our life, and the way we tell them, I invite us to notice how we begin. Is it the way we want to continue? I’m not saying we should only tell the happy or successful stories of our lives, but I am saying that as we tell all of our story, do we tell of resilience, and goodness, and grace where it was found, and kindness we received, and connections we made?

During the Depression, my grandfather was unemployed. He and his brother had lost their business in the crash, and also maybe because my grandfather had a drinking problem. Family stories are sort of hard to pin down sometimes. It was a tough beginning for their young family, married in 1928, my dad born in 1934. My grandfather was unemployed, as were many people during the Depression, and my grandmother would collect watercress from the riverbanks and try to sell what they didn’t eat to restaurants.

my grandma, dad, and grandpa

My grandfather’s sister had caused a scandal by marrying the chauffeur, but he turned out to be the best of men. And during those lean years, he would leave a bag of food on the back porch steps, knowing my grandfather was too proud to accept charity from the chauffeur. My grandmother took in foster children, partly because she was having trouble having more kids after the birth of my father, but also because she knew there were people who were having more troubles than she was. My grandfather worked through his drinking problem and eventually found success in his career.

By the time I was on the scene, there wasn’t any indication of the difficulties they had faced, of how hard things had begun for them. They lived in a nice home, which was often full of people because my grandmother fed people as her spiritual practice. As she had been cared for when she was hungry, she was going to care for others.

I learned hospitality from my grandmother. What I saw and learned in good times had begun, and been learned first, in difficult times.

“Begin as you mean to go on, and go on as you began, and let the Lord be all in all to you.”

The hospitality I practice sometimes looks the way hers did. I love a good potluck, and I have some of her dishes with which to entertain. But my hospitality is often more about making sure people feel welcome in God’s house, or feel safe to bring their whole story with them as they journey.

‘Begin as you mean to go on’ doesn’t mean things won’t change. Life is full of change. But it means that we can keep the threads of goodness and grace alive as we begin again, as our stories change.

What is the thread that weaves through your family’s stories?

What is the thread that weaves through God’s story?

First, God’s work is largely creative and not destructive. It is about taking chaos and making beauty. There have been gods throughout history who were largely capricious and destructive. People worship those gods in fear and in hopes of not making them angry. You can see that even today—people convinced God would send them to hell just for kicks, or because they managed not to check off the boxes required to be loved by God.

In Genesis 1, however, we see God creating in joy and love, taking what was once formless void and creating light, sky, land, sun, moon, creepy crawly things, birds, cows, and even people.

The fact that the hedgehog and the platypus and the penguin exist show  me that God finds joy and delight in the creative process.

On Twitter a number of years ago, people imagined God’s conversations as they created animals.

“God creating snakes: How about a sock that’s angry all the time”.

“God creating horses: Take a donkey, and make it sexy”.

God creating parrots: “How about a tie dye chicken that screams actual words at you?”

God creating dogs: “Oh, these turned out great. I’m gonna want all these back at some point”.

I’m not sure that’s a verbatim transcription of the 5th and 6th day of creation, but I’m sure it’s at least partly right. God’s work in the creation story is imaginative, delightful, and collaborative.

And think of how humanity has continued on as God began, creating art, music, literature, antibiotics, vaccines, pizza, and the comedy of Monty Python.

Our creative work is not the same as God’s of course, and sometimes we forget our place as creation, pretending we created the universe ourselves. But when we create to make the world better, to bring beauty and joy to the world, we continue as God began. And God declares that good.

After 18 months of this pandemic, it likely feels more that we are stuck in Groundhog Day, but I think we are in the early stages of a new ‘in the beginning’. We still don’t have a clear sense of what has ended, nor do we fully know where this new beginning will take us. And I hope you’re able to give yourselves some grace if all of this between time is causing you more anxiety, stress, and sleeplessness than you’d prefer to be facing. It is okay to not be okay right now.

I think we’re in the In the first day part of creation, where things feel like a formless void and darkness is covering the face of the future. But remember how that first day continued. “…..a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night.”

I invite you to look for where God is creating light right now. Where is God’s breath breathing new life across the waters of chaos in our world?

The thread of God’s story, which we’ll be reading this year, is that we are a part of creation and were created in love by God and declared good. Humanity doesn’t always remember the goodness of God, and we don’t always remember that we are just one part of God’s creation, but it is true.  It is how God began in the beginning, and it is how God continued in the person of Jesus. For God so loved the world that God gave the only son…. It is how God continues today, creating light out of the chaos of our world.

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