Sunday, January 10, 2021

Sermon: "No, And...", Genesis 1:1-5/Mark 1:9-11 (January 10, 2021)

The first creation account is one of the strangest yet most beautiful passages of scripture that we’ve inherited through our tradition. Although we often talk about God having “a divine plan”, creation is presented here almost as a spontaneous act, one where God, whether out of boredom or sudden inspiration, starts speaking the universe we know into existence. It’s like God’s decided to take up improv, and just starts throwing things out there: “Let there be light! And a dome to separate the waters! Oh, and dry land! Ooo, seasons, too! This is good stuff. Let’s add some living things…”

Although the act of creation reads like a spontaneous burst of divine imagination, the text itself is anything but random. It’s difficult to tell from the English translation, but the creation story in Genesis 1 is actually a sophisticated work of poetry. You can hear it a little bit in the cadence and repetition of the story, but it really loses something outside of the original Hebrew. The one part of rhetoric that DOES translate is the dichotomous language in the first few verses. It sets up the creation narrative in things that contrast with one another: the light is separated from the dark, the day is separated from the night, the land is separated from the waters, etc. In fact, the very first thing this poem says is, “When God began to create the heavens and the earth…” it seems to me like this is the ultimate dichotomy: if you call the “place” where God existed before creation “the heavens”, then this new entity named “the earth” could be described as “the not-heavens”—the place that is something “other than”.

Now, God could have left creation as a collection of entities defined in opposition to one another (“let there be heavens and not-heavens”; “let there be light and not-light”, “let there be land and not-land”, and so on), But God does something interesting here. God gives each of the “not-entities” their own identity. The “not-land” becomes the seas, the “not-light” becomes “the dark”, the “not-heavens” becomes the earth. And because of this divine act of naming, the dark isn’t “less than” the light; the sea isn’t “less than” the land; God declares ALL of it “good”.

This is a big deal. In choosing to give each entity its own identity and calling each “good”, God has declared that each part of creation “matters” on its own. “Not-light” isn’t only important as the antithesis of light; “darkness” is important in its own right as a space for resting our bodies and minds, for growth, for cooling the earth, and for providing sanctuary to those needing respite. The earth is more than just “not-heaven”; it’s a home for creation, particularly (according to Genesis 1) for humanity. God doesn’t leave the earth defined as what it’s not, but gives it its own definition alongside its heavenly counterpart. It’s still in relationship with the heavens, but as something separate and distinct, not merely its opposite.

If the act of creation in Genesis 1 is like improv, then God made up God’s own rules. Anyone who’s ever tried their hand at improvisation knows that the rule is “Yes, and…” In other words, once an idea is out in the open, it doesn’t get thrown away, just built upon. Everything spoken aloud becomes a part of the story; nothing is rejected or contradicted. But it seems to me that (as is God’s prerogative) God applies God’s own rules to the improvisation of creation. Instead of “Yes, and…” God’s model is “No, and…” God separates the light and the absence of light, saying “this is NOT that.” But God keeps going: “This is not that…but it IS something else.” No, it’s not light…AND it is darkness.

Now, this is all very interesting in an abstract, intellectual kind of way, but it becomes personal when we consider our own creation. Being created in God’s image, you could say that humanity is creation’s equivalent of “not-God”. We are the entity that is the flip side of the divine. But God has chosen not to leave us defined AGAINST Godself, but as our own entity in the CONTEXT of Godself. We aren’t an absence of divinity; we’re a “not-God” that reflects God, that has a personality, a soul, a unique identity.

And of course, humanity was improv’d into being the same way as the rest of creation: “The human spirit is that which is not God…AND it is a beloved creation on its own. The “Not-God” is sacred in its own right, in its own way, because God has given it its own sacred identity: child of the divine. Like the rest of the universe, we were created out of the waters of creation with the divine word of “No, and...” Our baptism is the sacrament that both echoes and honors our creation as “No, and…” Just as happened at the beginning of time, God’s spirit moves over water, a voice speaks, and a new reality is revealed. We aren’t just “Not-God”; we are God’s children, the beloved; with us, God is well pleased.

But baptism isn’t just about what God does. After all, a sacrament is simply “an outward sign of an inward grace” already given to us in Christ. Baptism is as much about our self-identification with God’s “No, and…” as it is about God’s claim on us. The choice to be baptized is the choice to say, “I am Not-God; I rely on God for all that I am. And yet, I’m also more than that. I’m a child of the Lord; a follower of Christ; a disciple of Truth. I am beloved, and it matters that I’m here in this world.”

Although both God and Not-God both dwelt together in Jesus’ body, he, too, chose this same identity is his baptism. And the voice from heaven made the “And” in “No, and…” perfectly clear to everyone: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.” As in creation, all it takes is water and a word to seal it this identity. Every time we reaffirm our baptism in this sacrament modeled for us by Jesus himself, we choose to embrace our identity all over again.
But friends, although this has been our God-given identity since the beginning of time, and although it’s simple to claim this identity for ourselves, there are weighty implications to who we’ve chosen to be. When Jesus rose out of the waters of the Jordan, he immediately entered the wilderness, where he was tempted for forty days. His choice to be one who pleases God was immediately put to the test. Every day, the vows that we make in our baptism—to renounce sin and evil, to trust in Jesus’ grace and love, and to obey Christ’s Word—are challenged. No matter how many times we reaffirm our baptism, the choices we make from day to day speak louder than the vows we repeat annually at the font. God has created us to be more than “Not-God”…but are we choosing to live that way?

On Wednesday afternoon, the nation (and indeed, the world) watched what can only be described as a large mob of domestic terrorists break off from protestors and breach the Capitol Building, driving congress into hiding as they caused chaos, damage, and confusion. Even as some were heard making explicit threats on the lives of certain legislators,[1] others of them bore signs claiming Jesus Christ as their savior and declaring that they were acting in God’s name.[2] The empathetic side of me knows that they somehow really did believe that they were acting faithfully and seeking justice for themselves. But the disciple in me can’t understand how they could possibly think that this was the way of Christ, that breaking windows, threatening law-enforcement officers, rooting through legislators’ personal belongings, and threatening lives were actions befitting those who claim in their baptism to be more than just “Not-God”.

Even though God has created us to be more, the part of us that’s “Not-God” is still with us. “Not-God” seeks power through coercion. “Not-God” chooses its own interests over the greater good. “Not-God” equivocates and remains silent in the face of sin and injustice. “Not-God” refuses to admit its complicity in a society that privileges some voices over others, that solves its disagreements with violence, that can’t recognize sin for what it is because “everyone’s entitled to their opinion.”

We can’t force those who choose to embrace their “Not-God”-ness to change. But we can choose to be better than that ourselves, to be more than that in our own lives and to uphold THAT as the expected standard. Unlike those who settle for “Not-God,” we can stand upon the vows we made in our baptism and be more, as God has always intended for us. We can reject the temptation of self-serving sin and renounce that which we see in others, calling THEM to live as more than “Not-God”, too. Instead of living in a way that pleases ourselves, we can hold one another accountable, lovingly but uncompromisingly, to living in a way that will be pleasing to our creator.

As we remember our baptisms today, remember what it means to have been created as a “No, and…” Remember that in the first days of creation, God created humanity and said, “You are far more than what you are not.” Remember that when you were baptized, you promised to make your life an offering of all that you are to honor the God that you are not. You won’t always succeed—after all, that’s part of being “Not-God”—but as long as you always repent of your mistakes, renouncing sin, trusting in God’s grace, and obeying Christ’s word of love and justice, you’ll always be living into your true identity of “No, and…” Don’t just define yourself as what you’re not; define yourself as what you are and what you could be. That’s the way God sees you. When we do, even “Not-Heaven” can transform into more than what it’s not: earth can become God’s very Kingdom, right here, right now, just as God has always intended it to be. Amen.




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