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Sunday, March 30, 2014

On Creation and Creationism

Presented by Rev. Diane Teichert and Jonathan Mawdsley, Worship Associate, and the Choir


On Creation

A sermon by the Reverend Diane Teichert

Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

March 30, 2014

 

READING:  Hebrew Scriptures, Genesis 1:1-2:4, read from Tanakh: A New Translation of the Holy Scriptures According to the Traditional Hebrew Text (Jewish Publication Society, 1985) but any translation you have will be fine.

Isn’t that [the Reading was the Creation Story in the first chapter of Genesis] a grand story? I love the rhythm of it and the imagery, the sweep of time, and the repeated declaration by God that all is “good.”

And it isn’t so far from what we have learned from our scientific research to date… except for the important fact that the accomplishments of a “day” in fact took  “eras” or “eons” or some such incredibly long period of time.

Still, when I read those opening words, “the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the face of the deep… “ I’m astounded that the description is really not so far off from what we now know about the time of the Big Bang. And, isn’t it amazing that it says that the living creatures came out of the water, just as the evidence so far shows, that life arose from the sea?

The ancient Israelites were keen observers of the world around them, plus they had a well-developed imagination and a strong intuition. Their sense of time was just a bit off!

Another, different, creation story follows that one in the Hebrew Scriptures. It starts in the very next verse, but scholars attribute it to a different and older source than the first. This second version is told more from the human point of view than from God’s point of view. In it man names the plants and animals, whereas in the first, God does the naming. It is less metaphorical, less grand, and has fewer parallels to what we now know through scientific discovery than the first.

In the second version, the earth is barren when God forms “man” from the dust of the ground. The vegetation and animal life appear next. Then, God created “woman” as a partner so that “man” would not be alone. They are named Adam (which is Hebrew for “human”) and later Eve (which is Hebrew for “life”)… and of course the Tree of Life, the serpent, the apple, the judgment and the punishments…

The punishments God metes out to the serpent includes “enmity between you and the woman…” (isn’t that interesting that women were scared of snakes even back in Biblical times?) and between your offspring and hers; [such that] he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.”

To woman, the punishments are a “great increase in the pain of childbirth, yet your desire shall be for your husband and he shall rule over you.” And to the man, he shall have to toil in order to eat, and to dust he shall return.

Both Biblical creation stories give humans use of the earth’s resources. The first version even gives us “rule” over it all.  The second says “God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and tend it.” Some say “tend it” means “preserve it,” but I imagine it refer to other gardening chores like hoeing and weeding.

So, unfortunately, the scriptures seem to have left it up to us to figure out that we have to balance our use of the earth’s resources with their preservation, or we will use them up and cause our own demise. The ancient Israelites may have had imagination and intuition sufficient to grasp something akin to the origins of the cosmos and of the species, but they didn’t have the ability to conjure the depletion and defilement of the earth’s natural resources that we see today.

In preparation for this sermon, I noticed in the first Genesis creation story, the one that I find appealing, a reference to vegetarianism, even veganism, which I’d not noted before. Remember? In that same paragraph in which we are given rule over the fish, the birds and over every living thing that moves upon the earth, it goes on to say that we are given every plant yielding seed and every tree with seed in its fruit to “have for food,” which is not mentioned in reference to animals. It is unclear what “rule” means – other translations say “dominion” - but apparently it doesn’t include consumption.

And next it says, God gave “all the green plants for food” to the fish, the birds and everything in which there is breath of life. No reference is made to humans eating green plants, the fish, birds, or other living things that move. Killing in order to eat is not prohibited explicitly, but Genesis is clear that we are given grains and fruits, and other animals are given green plants. Surely the Israelites had noticed birds eating seeds, cattle eating grass, and hawks of the air killing and eating rodents of the field and other examples of carnivore behavior in the natural world.

But vegans shouldn’t get excited. It was after the great flood, as the story is told in Genesis Chapter 9, when the waters had receded and God told Noah to go out of the ark onto dry land with his wife and sons and their wives, and Noah built an altar there and burned offerings of animals, that God blessed Noah and his sons and told them, “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything.” Except that humans shall not murder each other, eating animals was then explicitly allowed.  

Forgive me this digression about preserving the earth’s resources through sustainable living, because it was my true intention today to proclaim the wonders of the earth, to sing the praises of the universe, and to affirm the ongoing learning that proves that humans today, like the Israelites of old, are keen observers of the world around us, with well-developed imaginations and a strong sense of intuition.

Remember the discovery announced earlier this month? As a leading physicist, Yale professor Meg Urry, said about it, “Humans have wondered about the origin of the universe for millennia, and last week's news brought us a little closer to an answer. What this development means, basically, is that for the first time, we may be seeing what happened in the first billionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second of the universe. Assuming this discovery is verified by other similar experiments, it means the very birth of the universe can be studied.” (from “How the Big Bang Theory Came About” by Meg Urry, CNN Opinion, March 29, 2014. http://www.cnn.com/2014/03/29/opinion/urry-big-bang-findings/

Evidence of gravitational waves was found, waves that were predicted decades ago in the theory of General Relativity by Albert Einstein– talk about a keen observer with imagination and intuition!

Even if we don’t understand it all – I certainly don’t - we can still feel awe and wonder at the creation, and we can marvel at how with every discovery that answers a question, a new question arises. And, meanwhile, our creation story extends back further and further, into unfathomable time.

At its forming edges, it is a story or myth, not unlike the Genesis stories or the creation stories in any culture or religion. People take their observations, apply their imaginations and intuitions, and come up with explanations for how it all, or some part of it all, came to be. These stories aren’t meant to, and cannot, represent all the facts there are to know, because humans will always inquire further.

While fear may cause some people, like the so-called creationists today, to want to hold onto a particular explanation as a forever-fact, it’s impossible:  life is change. If we want to be in dialogue with them, we need to connect with them at the level of awe:  about what do they – and we – feel wonder? what causes them – and us – to be enthralled, amazed, profoundly moved? The causes may be different, but a sense of wonder is possible for all.

As you may know, this sermon begins a new emphasis or “arc” (with a “c” not a “k”) in our liturgical year. In the fall, we began by exploring various aspects of identity – as Unitarian Universalists, in terms of gender identity, and in regard to cultural diversity. In the winter, the theme was “compassion and justice.” And for the spring, it’s the earth, our environment. While we haven’t been rigid about it, and congregational needs and public events sometimes enter in to determine other themes for our worship, these arcs have given a shape to our services this year.

So, today, let us indeed celebrate the creation of our universe and the cosmos, and life on our planet Earth. This is her season of steady rebirth, especially long-awaited this year, but now imminent. The early crocuses have already faded away, the daffodils are starting to bloom, the buds on the forsythia, cherry and pear are swelling! We are in the “time of silver rain,” as Langston Hughes called it, when “the earth puts forth new life again.”

 As we heard in the Call to Worship this morning, quoting UU minister Jane Rzepka, “We awaken to the power so abundant, so holy, that returns each year through earth and sky… we WILL find our hearts again, and our good spirits…. The flow of life moves ever onward through one faithful spring, and another” and, now, into this one! May we be ever grateful!

Song leader to announce: HYMN #309  Earth Is Our Homeland

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