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 The God of Nature and the Nature of God

Sermon - 2/10/13
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Genesis 1:1-2

The sermon text this morning is a very familiar story, the creation story from the first chapter of Genesis:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the 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.

You can follow along in your Bible, but I'm not going to read it :) Instead, I thought I would just re-tell the story in the words of James Weldon Johnson's famous creation poem:


by: James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938)

      ND God stepped out on space,
      And He looked around and said,
      "I'm lonely --
      I'll make me a world."
      And far as the eye of God could see
      Darkness covered everything,
      Blacker than a hundred midnights
      Down in a cypress swamp.
      Then God smiled,
      And the light broke,
      And the darkness rolled up on one side,
      And the light stood shining on the other,
      And God said, "That's good!"
      Then God reached out and took the light in His hands,
      And God rolled the light around in His hands
      Until He made the sun;
      And He set that sun a-blazing in the heavens.
      And the light that was left from making the sun
      God gathered it up in a shining ball
      And flung it against the darkness,
      Spangling the night with the moon and stars.
      Then down between
      The darkness and the light
      He hurled the world;
      And God said, "That's good!"
      Then God himself stepped down --
      And the sun was on His right hand,
      And the moon was on His left;
      The stars were clustered about His head,
      And the earth was under His feet.
      And God walked, and where He trod
      His footsteps hollowed the valleys out
      And bulged the mountains up.
      Then He stopped and looked and saw
      That the earth was hot and barren.
      So God stepped over to the edge of the world
      And He spat out the seven seas;
      He batted His eyes, and the lightnings flashed;
      He clapped His hands, and the thunders rolled;
      And the waters above the earth came down,
      The cooling waters came down.
      Then the green grass sprouted,
      And the little red flowers blossomed,
      The pine tree pointed his finger to the sky,
      And the oak spread out his arms,
      The lakes cuddled down in the hollows of the ground,
      And the rivers ran down to the sea;
      And God smiled again,
      And the rainbow appeared,
      And curled itself around His shoulder.
      Then God raised His arm and He waved His hand
      Over the sea and over the land,
      And He said, "Bring forth! Bring forth!"
      And quicker than God could drop His hand.
      Fishes and fowls
      And beasts and birds
      Swam the rivers and the seas,
      Roamed the forests and the woods,
      And split the air with their wings.
      And God said, "That's good!"
      Then God walked around,
      And God looked around
      On all that He had made.
      He looked at His sun,
      And He looked at His moon,
      And He looked at His little stars;
      He looked on His world
      With all its living things,
      And God said, "I'm lonely still."
      Then God sat down
      On the side of a hill where He could think;
      By a deep, wide river He sat down;
      With His head in His hands,
      God thought and thought,
      Till He thought, "I'll make me a man!"
      Up from the bed of the river
      God scooped the clay;
      And by the bank of the river
      He kneeled Him down;
      And there the great God Almighty
      Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,
      Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,
      Who rounded the earth in the middle of His hand;
      This Great God,
      Like a mammy bending over her baby,
      Kneeled down in the dust
      Toiling over a lump of clay
      Till He shaped it in His own image;
      Then into it He blew the breath of life,
      And man became a living soul.
      Amen. Amen.

I love that story, because I first heard it when my Dad did it in church, when I was in 7th or 8th grade. I committed it to memory when I was a senior in high-school to use for a speech contest, about 40 (no, 30!) years ago. And it stuck with me ever since. I've come to believe that that poem is as good of a commentary as you will ever find on the creation story. You see, because it has that poetic power that captures not just the meaning of the Genesis story, but also the form. The drama of the story that is there in Genesis is conveyed through the poem. And it captures our imagination and it speaks to our souls. Of our origins in God (which includes the sexist language of a bygone era of Johnson's).

So let me tell you another story of creation. A story just as holy and sacred as the Biblical story, and old as time itself. Even though we are just beginning to learn it. Billions and billions of years ago, long before the creation of earth itself, there was a star born in what has been called the Pillars of Creation (captured here by the Hubble telescope):

And in these giant massive clouds of hydrogen, miles wide, the gravity created that star. And this particular star, whose name we do not know, burned bright for billions of years until most of its fuel was consumed. And then something mystical happened -- hydrogen fused into helium, and helium into carbon, and carbon into neon, and neon into oxygen, and oxygen into silicon and calcium and magnesium, and eventually iron. And the weight of the star itself caused it to collapse in on itself, before exploding into one giant supernova, creating in the process heavier elements of cobalt and nickel and uranium and copper, tin and gold. And all those elements were then spit into the cosmos in this massive explosion of stardust.

And some of that stardust was captured by another star, a new star, in it's gravitational forces, and formed planets. That star, of course, was our Sun. And the elements of the stardust then coalesced into planets. Just under 4 billion years ago, some of that very same silicone and carbon from that star joined together with molecules of hydrogen and oxygen on earth with the sun to form the first molecules of life. And then about 2 billion years ago, the first DNA of animal life appeared. And then 130 million years ago we see the first mammals. And 10 million years ago, 90% of the DNA that makes up human beings was formed. And 250,000 years ago, our modern ancestors (Adam and Eve) were born. And 10,000 years ago, your ancestors were born. And 39 years ago, or 80 years ago, or 50 years ago, you were born :) Created with some of that same DNA from 500 million years ago. Some of that same hydrogen and carbon from 5 billion years ago. Indeed, some of the very same atoms of that star.

So here's the great mystery, the great story of our existence that we are just beginning to comprehend. In invite you to hold up your hand, take a look at your hand. Take a look at the intricacies of those knuckles. Touch, feel your skin. Feel the texture of that skin, and the warmth of the blood underneath. And know this: the very atoms from that star, billions and billions of years ago, you are now touching. We literally are, as Joni Mitchell sang at Woodstock, "we are stardust, we are golden".

Cosmologist and Catholic priest Thomas Berry calls this the great story. The sacred story of everything, and everyone. United Church of Christ pastor Michael Dodd has committed his life to telling this story as a traveling evangelist for evolution. Dodd didn't begin that way. He tells tells the story in his book "Thank God for Evolution", wonderful book. He began as a Roman Catholic, lost his faith in his teenage years, found it again in a Pentecostal church in this very dramatic born-again moment. Went to an Assemblies of God school, was shocked to discover they actually taught evolution as part of their curriculum (which he had learned was evil, that Darwin was the devil himself). Then went through a Baptist Seminary, went through a course called "The New Mysticism of Catholicism" in which he heard this sacred story for the first time, told in such a way it literally made him weep. That's when he decided to commit his life to it, and became this traveling evangelist.

Biologist Edward O. Wilson, known as the world's leading authority on ants (of all things :) -- you can learn a lot about society from the study of ants), says the evolution epic is probably the best myth we will ever have. Deniers of evolution also like to call it a myth, but of course what they mean by myth--a fictional story--and what Wilson means by myth (a story that contains fundamental truth), are two different things. And the irony is, that those who use myth derisively to deny evolution are the ones who deny one of the greatest truths science has revealed to us in the last 200 years, and therefore cause much of that rift between science religion, which is totally unnecessary and has had even tragic consequences for the way both science and religion are sometimes taught as opposing forces. And that need not be.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said a religion that is afraid of science dishonors God. And the more we discover about our universe, the more we understand how incredible are mere existence is. Albert Einstein, of course one of the greatest minds of the last century, said that the most beautiful and most profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the source of all true science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead. That deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior, reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, warms my idea of God.

You see, evolution does not just teach that life came into being, it teaches us how God works in the world. Not as this supernatural guide of the natural world over the forces of nature, but rather as a natural guide from within. Using what mathematician-turned-theologian Alfred North Whitehead called "The lure of God's primordial nature toward an ever-increasing harmony, complexity, and beauty". In human terms, we call that the persuasion of love.

To use supernatural explanations for that which we otherwise cannot comprehend, creating a 'God of the gaps' who fills in the spaces with a supernatural trick or two, is simply intellectual laziness. We can, and we must, do better.

So, they're all excited in England about the discovery of Richard III, from 500 years ago. Discovered his bones left in a battlefield, now underneath a parking lot. Well, the perennial critic of all things religious, Sam Harris, postulates that if we could revive someone like Richard from that time, years ago, his beliefs about astronomy, geography, medicine, would embarrass a fourth-grader today. And yet, he could tell us pretty much everything we know about God. And given all the knowledge we have acquired over the last six centuries, how can it be, Harris asks, that Christian doctrine remains unchanged?

"If religion addresses a genuine sphere of understanding and human necessity", he writes, "then it should be susceptible to progress. Its doctrines should become more useful rather than less. Progress in religion, as in other fields, would have to be a matter of present inquiry, not the mere reiteration of past doctrines".

And yeah, I say "Amen!", because I agree absolutely. The problem is that Harris is not engaging the kind of Christian thinkers like Whitehead, and Michael Dowd, and John Cobb, and Marcus Borg, and John Dominic Crossan and and so many other names you hear here. The truth is, you see, our faith is evolving -- who believes the same thing they did when they were 10? Or 20? Or as in my case, like last year when I was 39, right? :)

Paul writes to the Corinthians "When I was a child, I spoke, I reasoned, I thought like a child. When I became an adult, I put an end to my childish ways". Our faith matures. And the same is true of our faith tradition. And we see this in the Biblical story-- the experience of the Exodus. The establishment on the monarchy under David. The Exile into Babylon. All had profound impacts on the thinking and the faith of the Hebrew people.

Jesus repeats, several times, in the Sermon on the Mount: "You have heard it said, but I say to you. . . .". Changing our understanding of some of those scriptures. The growth of Christian faith did not stop, even, with the writing of the last book of the Bible. That's why I love the slogan of the United Church of Christ, same as our own: "God is still speaking, ". And it ends with a comma.

We have so much to learn, not only about our world but also about God from the great story of the epic of evolution. And perhaps more than anything else, we have to learn from it the awe, the wonder of this marvelous world. Unique. And yet our own, among the billions of yet undiscovered worlds.

Well, I began with a poem, so I want to end with a song that captures the sacredness this created world:




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