Monday, August 10, 2015

Created for Good

A Sermon Given to St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church
By Stephanie Little Coyne
August 9, 2015

   For several weeks this summer, I traveled just a few blocks down the Avenue to St. Charles Avenue Presbyterian Church, where I taught youth groups participating in Camp RHINO, a ministry of St. Charles Pres that is involved in restoration efforts throughout the city.
Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evenings, we ate a little, played a little, sang a little, and discussed topics lured from Genesis, chapter 1.
   The youth groups traveled from all over the U.S.—Texas, Colorado, Indiana, Oregon, and Alabama, and I looked forward each night to meeting them and hearing from them.  I am appreciative of the opportunity to share some of our lessons with you this morning in what I am deeming a “teaching sermon.”
   To Genesis, chapter 1: (a paraphrase)
          In the beginning, God created:
“Let there be light and darkness.  Let there be waters and earth and skies.  Let there be green plants and fruits, trees and vegetation.  Let there be fish and birds and creeping creatures and wild animals.”
And God paused.
“Let there be humans—male and female.  Take care of the waters and the earth and the skies!  Take care of the green plants and fruits, the trees and vegetation.  Take care of the fish and birds and the creeping creatures and wild animals.  Take care of all these things and enjoy them, delight in them as I delight in you!  Take care of each other.”
And it happened, just as God said it would happen.  And God believed it all to be beautiful and good.
Lesson 1
   Out of nothing, God created; this was the beginning of everything.  I usually think about there being absolutely nothing right before I try to go to sleep at night.  Perhaps you have an active night-mind too—when “nowhere” conversations begin.  What was the beginning?  What will be the end?  It is those kinds of conversations that bring on feelings of nausea well before they bring on thoughts of sleep.
   Just as I do not understand the “beginning” or the “end,” it is likewise hard for me to understand a God who is everywhere, in control of everything, who knows everything and who is in everything.  But, I do believe that the God in whom I put my trust is, above all else, a God of love.  And I believe that out of that great love, God created.  Somehow, in some amount of time, God put thought and energy and affection into the creation of the heights and the depths.
   Rabbi Arthur Waskow, born in 1933, is the founder and director of The Shalom Center and a public advocate for peace and equality.  He is the author of the poem, “On Deciding Whether To...”.  The first part of this poem:[1]
B’reshit/in the beginning
God was lonely, suffering
though everything in the universe was held within.
Unfulfilled, overpowered by chesed-(benevolent) energy
God breathed out, kissed out, sent it all out,
Every possibility that ever was and would be.
I imagine God was frightened.
What a terribly momentous step,
even with overflowing love as catalyst and reference point.
What if something went wrong
if the universe made its own choices at breakneck speed
if there was no breathing any of it back in again.
Once it began, this process more powerful than its Creator
with beginning middle end all at once, all possible—
how could there not have been Divine panic?
So in the split second eon after that first out breath kiss
a proclamation “Let there be light!” and there was
a moment when sight would be unhampered
a snapshot flash of eternity in which to see
before darkness was once again welcomed
the realm of comfort from all the see-ing.

   This poem offers to us the idea that God took a chance—that God could not be sure whether or not this creation-thing would work.  So in this, God’s Great Chance, Creation was full of possibilities.  With each day, with each step into its development, God declared that It was good.
   In short, God was full of an energy that was love, God therefore created something to love, but God did not create a world that was a stuffed teddy bear—incapable of thought or process.  God created a world and let that good world flourish in possibility.
   What would God say of this world today?
   When we curiously rake our fingers through sandy beaches or dig through tough Georgia clay, when we marvel at the long-necks, the short-beaks, the softly furred, and the quick-footed, when we wade in shallow tides or sail on steady currents do we find that we are still enchanted with nature?  In such an enchanted state—in awesome wonder—is there not some element of joy?  Surely God delights in our enjoyment!  Even amid over-use and injury, misinterpreted dominion, and casual interpretation, this world still exists as God’s rolling creation and It is still good.
Lesson 2
Genesis 1:26-28:  Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.  And God blessed them.
   In the very first chapter of the very first book of the Bible, life is given to humanity.  But humans are not created as the skies, the waters, or other creatures; humans are not created out of nothing.  There is a pre-beginning; humans are created in the likeness or image of God.
This congregation has talked before about the imago dei that is in us, but we, like many or most congregations, do not talk too much about the image we have of ourselves—our body image, our self-image, our self-esteem.
   As a 20-something-year-old seminary student, I sat in Dr. John Claypool’s class, “Preaching Genesis,” and something in the way he taught these few verses to the class struck me.  Something about being made in God’s image struck the girl whose friends and family members struggled with addiction and anorexia; something struck the girl who herself struggled with depression and body image.
   We are, I am, made in God’s image.  What of that fact?
   Catherine of Siena, a Catholic mystic born in 1347, was an advocate for the poor and sick, a mediator of the Great Western Schism in the Catholic church, a public advocate for unity, and an author of many letters wrote these words:[2]
What is it
You want to change?
Your hair, your face, your body?
For God is
in love with all those things
and might weep
when they are
   A woman in the year 1347 thought and wrote down words that are amazingly poignant for us in the year 2015.  The idea that God weeps when I am dismayed about my appearance makes me pause.
   I put thought into you, my child.  From my own being, I created you.  I know every hair on your head.  Why are you trying to present yourself as another?  You are unique and with purpose, you are you, just as I intended for you to be.
   I gave the youth groups this summer several questions to ask themselves as they sat in small groups of their closest friends.  I asked them to consider their overall body and self-image, to talk about what they would change, to “call-out” the people that wanted them to change their appearances.  To my delight, they talked to each other.  They listened to each other.  I watched their faces as their minds wrestled with thought.  I heard them name negative sources in their lives, including parents, coaches, friends, and various media sources. 
   Even in the midst of more positive ad campaigns, there is still an enormous amount of pressure on all of us to conform and to change.  With the youth, as is probably true with all of us, they reported more often than not, that they were worst enemy, their biggest critic.
As we assembled back into the larger group, I asked for the students to call out ways in which they thought God was proud of them.  One or two might answer, but for the most part, I was met with silence. 
   I changed my question to, “of your friends here, who is God proud of and why,” and answers came quickly and freely.  This generation who we often label as “entitled” and “self-absorbed” could not publically profess positive statements about themselves, but they were able to identify positive traits and skills of their friends openly. 
How is God proud of you?  Are you able to answer that question?  Can you answer it on behalf of others?  Why do we struggle with naming the good in ourselves?
   Let’s return to more of the Rabbi’s poem:
So, too, in the beginning
the universe breathed its kiss into me
and with that kiss, possibilities
thousands of them
limited only by the chance of time and place.

I can only comfort myself with the thought
that even God didn’t know if the plan would work,
but moved forward into the darkness on faith.

   Just as with the rest of creation, so too are we blessed with possibility and in the possibility, we have opportunity for growth, to be healthier, to let our souls shine through our outward appearance—to be created anew.  And as we mediate the dialogical battle in our minds, we can be assured that there is newness and possibility in each day.  Just as the chrysalis, we are in process. 
   God has seen you and you are good.
Lesson 3
   We’ve talked about our relationship to creation, the relationship we have with ourselves, but what of our relationship with other people? 
   Who are the isolated people in your lives?  Who are the lonely, the different, the bullied?  Are we able to see the image of God in those who are so very different from us?
   A life-long mediator, I hold fast to the goal of two people finding common ground in order to establish or re-establish relationship, but surely the greater feat is supping with someone with whom common ground is only the size of a pebble. 
   We know that Jesus taught us to love one another and to love our neighbor, but he specifically taught us to love people who are different than us. 
   Clarence Jordan, born in 1912, Greek and New Testament Scholar, founder of Koinonia Farm, and public advocate for civil and economic rights for all, translates in his Cotton Patch version of Matthew and Luke, “Listen here, if you love only those who love you, what’s your advantage?  Don’t even scalawags do that much?” (Matthew 5:46) “You all, love your enemies, and be kind, and lend, expecting nothing.  And you’ll get plenty of ‘pay’; you’ll be the spittin’ image of the Almighty, who himself is friendly towards the unlovely and the mean.
   As we journey on the road towards love, there is often a corresponding path that leads to advocacy—a designation that comes when we pour our lives into another, when we plea on behalf of another.  I’ve mentioned three advocates in these lessons: Rabbi Waskow, Catherine of Siena, and Clarence Jordan.  All bravely spoke up for those whose voices could not speak loudly enough on their own.  James Dunn, who passed away last month, was former executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee and who was another advocate for the public is quoted as saying, “Churches faithful to the Gospel cannot remain silent in the face of injustice.  Silence is sin.”[3]
   There are those among us who are bullied.  If you imagine a person’s life to be one of misery because of his or her interactions with others, or if you would hate to trade places with that person because you would hate to feel what they feel and carry what they carry, then know that that person needs an advocate and perhaps needs you to be their advocate. 
At school, at parties, at church, and at home, kids have always been vulnerable to bullies.  But there is a new element of invasion in town—the internet gives bullies access to the wounded 24 hours a day.  Kids are not alone in absorbing this invasion into their lives—we are all exposed—but it is up to all of us to create safe spaces and be active listeners and responders.
   To deny that bullying occurs is both na├»ve and dishonest.  Every week this summer, I asked the youth to think of those kids around them who were isolated or bullied and to take the first step towards being their advocate by calling out those individual’s initials.  Week after week, I filled up page after page of letters, scanning back and forth through the alphabet many times over.
   Students, as you begin this school year, know these things: It is never okay for you to cause someone else to be miserable and sad.  It is never okay for you to put your hands on someone else in a harmful way.  It is never okay for you to tell someone else that their life is worth nothing. 
   And.  It is never okay for someone to make you miserable and sad.  It is never okay for someone to put their hands on you in a harmful way.  It is never okay for someone to tell you that your life is worth nothing.
   We are all created in the image of God and we are all good.

   There’s a circle on your page...for the doodlers among us...
   We see circle illustrations across differing cultures of religions, time, and thought.  Labyrinths, dream catchers, micro-worlds—circles are everywhere.  Circle pictures hold possibilities; circles have no definition of beginning or end.  Circles group things into relationship and there is relationship between us and each other and the world. 
   In one of the last weeks of camp, a group traveled into New Orleans from Birmingham, Alabama.  I noticed the church name immediately—St. Luke’s Episcopal, the last church where Dr. Claypool served as rector before coming to Atlanta to teach at McAfee, School of Theology.  John Claypool, public advocate for race reconciliation and voice for the mourner who somehow elevated Genesis 1 into more than beautiful mythology...his beautiful soul was present in my picture this summer.

Let us pray.
   Oh God, open our eyes that we may see the goodness in this world, the goodness in ourselves, and the goodness in the people around us.  Today, we ponder our paths, our dreams, and our lives and we consider also the chance you took in creating us—as part of the whole of creation and as individuals.  Thank you for taking a chance on us.  We do enjoy this world.  And perhaps the seal you placed upon us is one that marks us as courageous.  May we be so brave as to consider our role in the preservation of the Good.  May we be so brave as to be better caretakers of all that is in this Earth.  In your name we pray, Amen.