“What Do We Do with God?”
A Sermon for University Congregational Church
Sunday, September 3, 2017
Rev. Paul E. Ellis Jackson
Create; Sustain; Reclaim and Re-create
“People were not intended to live alone but as members of society. We are a unit in the body of humanity, and that fact creates many duties for us with respect to our relationship with other people. Our life is not our own to do with as we please. Our conduct affects our neighbors as their conduct affects us.” Adapted from Everyman’s Talmud by Abraham Cohen
“Here is where our real selfhood is rooted, in the divine spark or seed, in the image of God imprinted on the human soul. The True Self is not our creation, but God’s. It is the self we are in our depths. It is our capacity for divinity and transcendence.” Sue Monk Kidd
We just finished a summer season of plumbing the depths of Jesus’ parables. We’ve re-imagined a world where God works with humans to create new ways of being in the world. Today I want to add my own thoughts to this and to also point us towards our upcoming work for this fall: “The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life”—using Thomas Moore’s book as our guide. I love parables because they are pithy and often mysterious in their intent—remember the Parable of the Empty Jar? By the way, one of my favorite memories of the morning I gave that sermon was how many of you came up to me afterward with your own interpretations of the parable. I love it when we do theology together. Speaking of parables…
There’s a great parable in the Talmud, the ancient book of Jewish law, that goes like this: Someone asked the teacher: “What if one person missed the mark—sins—what happens to the community?” And the teacher answered: “It is like a company of men on board a ship. One of them took a drill and began to bore a hole under him. The other passengers said to him, ’What are you doing?’ He replied: ‘What has that to do with you? Am I not making the hole under my seat?’ They retorted, ‘But the water will enter and drown us all!” Abraham Cohen, who translated the version of the Talmud I just read from, continues to remind us this “People were not intended to live alone but as members of society. We are a unit in the body of humanity, and that fact creates many duties for us with respect to our relationship with other people. Our life is not our own to do with as we please. Our conduct affects our neighbors as their conduct affects us.”
Our actions have consequences, often not just for us, but for those around us. Obviously, this parable is in the extreme, they often are, but it speaks to something important that we encounter when living in community together: Where is the line between your freedom to live as you wish– and my safety and security? Does your right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (whatever that may be to you) trump my right to the same? I think this is the core question of our lives together and I think we have some possible ways to approach this conundrum. I’m going to use some broad strokes this morning as we attempt to find a way to live in community without destroying each other.
Let’s go way back in time—come with me to the earliest words we have in the Hebrew Bible and let’s see what the ancient stories had to say about creation and how the world we co-create with God requires us to consider our neighbor in every single act of creation—positive, neutral and negative. Where do you think the idea of sin comes from? Most people, when asked what the first sin in the bible is, will tell me that it’s the sin of disobedience that Adam and Eve did towards God. But the Hebrew Bible doesn’t say that—it doesn’t use the word of sin—hamartia, or missing the mark—until Chapter 4 of Genesis when Cain and Abel had brought their gifts of offerings to Adonai and Adonai preferred Abel’s offering to Cain’s offering. Both boys brought their very best to offer in gratitude to God and, in this instance, God preferred Abel’s over Cain’s. And Cain did little to hide his disappointment from God–for Genesis Chapter 4 says this: “Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? 7 If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” Sin, the missing of the mark, is right there—ready and waiting to be part of your creation. But we must rule over it.
In the act of creating an offering to God, Cain was more concerned with besting his brother than he was with considering what he was creating. And because of that, his creation, his offering, missed the mark. Now, was Cain’s sin jealousy? He was envious that in this instance his offering to God was not as well-liked as Abel’s offering to God. So, perhaps—but I think the bad-seed that was lying in wait for Cain was discontent. Cain was not content with what he had created and therefore when God preferred Abel’s offering to his, it was just a short step to jealousy and anger…and as we all know it then led to violence, murder–Abel’s death by his brother’s hand.
So, we need to be careful in whatever we are creating because if we’re creating something negative in the world, it will have negative consequences—and God will be right there beside us, co-creating along with us. Be careful what you co-create with God because God will go along with it…it’s creation. It’s going out into the world and it will interact with others. Whether it’s a painting or poem, a family, a new career, an article for the church’s newsletter, or just a craft that you’ve been working on, you’ve made something that wasn’t there before and you’ve set it on a course into the world. Now, no one can say what reactions will occur as your creation careens around the universe, but when you’ve co-created with God, and you’ve done it for the right reasons, then your creation has a better chance of impacting the world in a positive, useful way. This is something that we do with God.
OK—so now what? We’ve created something, hopefully something positive, and we’ve put it out there in the world. But how to maintain it, sustain it? I know this guy, he’s a farmer and he works really, really hard. He also sits on his town’s city committee, working side by side with other’s in his community to ensure that everyone gets what they need to have happy, healthy lives. His day usually begins at sunrise and he’s out in his fields and he never knows when the phone will ring and he’ll have to head off to the community building to help with some pressing issue. I hope you have in mind one of Kansas’ multitude of farmers, who have tractors and combines and all manner of help to assist them in their sacred task of caring for their crops and livestock. But the gentlemen I’m talking about is named Juan Enrique and he’s the chairman of the Comite’ of Chacraseca, Nicaragua. And when I said he was out in the fields, tending his crops, he is literally on foot, with a machete, chopping yucca to be collected later that day and sold in nearby Leon. Some of us were fortunate enough to spend some time with him out in one of his dusty fields as he proudly showed us what he spends his days doing. He showed us his cell phone, that will ring at any time, and require him to find a way to the Peace House, which is almost ten miles from his farm—Juan Enrique lives on the farthest edge of the community of Chacraseca. Sometimes he can get a ride with someone in their pick-up or on their motorcycles, but more often than not he has to walk all the way to the Peace House—and then home again, after he’s put out what ever fire they called him about. Oh, and one other thing: Juan Enrique is tasked with caring for the community’s water supply. Yep—not only does he work his fields from sun-up to sun-down and serve as the de-facto leader of his community of 9,000 souls, he’s also responsible for ensuring that the pumps that pull up the barely potable water remain in service. The day after we had seen him in his fields, we got to spend some time with him at the pumping station where he was showing us the difficulties in maintaining Chacraseca’s water system. You see, ten years ago, the community didn’t have a centralized water system. But a company from Europe sponsored them and helped them build a water system that guaranteed each household would have a pipe of water running to it. It’s a complex system and very difficult to maintain, but Juan Enrique does it because, as he told us, if he didn’t who would? And it’s important to him to sleep each night knowing his community has water running to their homes. Never mind that since the wells were dug, the highly volcanic nature of the surrounding landscaped has caused this water to become brackish and not drinkable. You can use it for your household needs, cleaning and watering plants, but it tastes and smells so foul that you could never drink it. So, the residents still must figure out, each day, how to get their drinking water barrels to a nearby tank of potable water and then back home again. Juan Enrique oversees this task as well. Those of us lucky enough to know Juan Enrique were amazed at his capacity for sustaining his community. He works tirelessly to do those tasks that keep his entire community in water, both fresh and not so fresh, and also works as their mayor AND tends his own fields. Juan Enrique sustains all of this, because he has a deep and abiding faith, not only in his own abilities, but he has a deep and abiding faith in God. And he told us it was this faith that gives him the strength to do those things that need to be done each day to ensure his people not just survive, but thrive. I hope some of you will consider going with us this coming January when we will travel again to Nicaragua and continue to sustain our relationship with this community that has so much to teach us. At least something to teach me about how we sustain our lives in conjunction with the God of Creation.
Okay—so we have our creation and then we’ve figured out how to sustain it—how to keep it going. But what about when the time comes to realize that it, whatever it is, can no longer be sustained? Inevitably, everything ends. Careers, relationships, families, our very lives—it’s just the way of the world. Everything eventually comes to an end. Even great works of art will eventually end. But what can we do to reclaim something that has ended? How do we take the good, loving, life-filled parts of something that has ended and turn it into something else? Re-cycle, re-use, reclaim. Even Juan Enrique realizes that they will soon have to dig new wells, further from the volcanoes, and reclaim some of the pipes and equipment from their current water system and turn it into something new…
The Bible has lots to tell us about the end of things. And I’ll admit, I have still have great difficulty in accepting some endings—because I am an eternal optimist and I always think I can use my creativity to figure out how to save something—how to salvage a relationship—or a piece of art—or a project–because I have great trouble with the finality of endings. But sometimes there is wisdom in ending something. Sometimes things need to die.
In 66 CE the Jewish population living in Jerusalem and the Levant was bubbling with fervent energy and the whispers of revolt. It was just a few decades since the brutal crucifixion of Jesus and the Jewish followers of the Jesus Movement were gaining adherants and pushing against not only their Roman occupiers, but the traditional Jewish authorities, who felt that this new offshoot of Judaism was heretical. It was a tense time in Palestine. It seems it’s always a tense time in Palestine, no? Anyway, in 66 CE a war began outright. The Great Revolt had its genesis in many possible places, but I’m convinced that the occupying Romans had determined that the Jewish population of Jerusalem had not paid their fair share of taxes, and because of this the Romans increased their persecution of the Jews. The Romans also knew there was plenty of money inside the Great Temple, so eventually the Roman Governor, Gessius Florus responded by raiding the temple. As you can imagine, this fanned the flames of revolt and for the next year there was a massive war within and around Jerusalem. Eventually there was a lull in military operations and by 70 CE things had settled into a semi-permanent cease-fire. But it was during this seeming calm before the storm that had the Roman generals maneuver to end the political blockade that prevented an all-out attack on Jerusalem. In early 70 the Roman Army descended on Jerusalem form the North and laid siege for 7 months. Finally, in the summer of the year 70 CE, the Romans had so weakened the city’s defenses and the in-fighting among the Jewish authorities—the Pharisees and the Zealots—that the city fell to the Romans and they sacked and looted Jerusalem. They took special care to ensure the near-complete destruction of the Temple.
I’ve chosen this problematic illustration of the destruction of the second temple to align with my discussion on the reclamation of things to show a point—Christianity would probably never have been able to take such a strong foothold in the world without this cataclysmic event. The Gospels were written shortly after the destruction of the Temple and we see an immediate upswing in the number of adherents to the new form of Judaism. I call this problematic, because it took the terrible suffering of one faith, Judaism, to open a path for another one, Christianity, to blossom. This is but one way of looking at what happened in the early days of Christianity, but I use it to illustrate what re-claiming with God might accomplish—regardless of the intentions of those early leaders.
Was there a third way? Is there another way beyond the end of things? I don’t know—and this is one of the great mysteries that keeps me coming back to this place week after week—hoping to find an insight into the great contradiction of the necessity of endings and the possibility of beginnings—and sacred tension between the two.
One other possible option available to us in this co-creating act with God is re-creation. Or recreation. That regular realization that not only do we create and sustain and reclaim, but we also must re-create—re-create with God. The novelist Sue Monk Kidd reminds us of something important in this task when she writes: “Here is where our real selfhood is rooted, in the divine spark or seed, in the image of God imprinted on the human soul. The True Self is not our creation, but God’s. It is the self we are in our depths. It is our capacity for divinity and transcendence.”
For me, Sunday mornings are all about re-creation. We gather together, we talk and plan and dream, we sing, we listen, we learn, we love. I gather great energy and strength for the coming week from this place and this time together—I hope we all do. For the past 22 years I’ve been getting my weekly dose of re-creation in this place and I hope I can do so for the coming 22 years. Because it is here where my God-spark, deep within me, gets rekindled just a bit. I get recharged and re-focused and ready for the coming week. To me, this is what we do with God. We create—we sustain—we reclaim—and then we-recreate. We’re always somewhere in this great cycle of life.
I believe when we realize this about our connection to God—or the Great Spirit, or whatever term you use for the divine, then the ability to “re-create” with God becomes that much more urgent—that much more necessary—and, in my experience, that much more effortless. We relax into our connection with the divine and we recognize the spark within us—the spark of creation—that is always there—always ready to be re-kindled into the flame of life that is our inner light. It never goes out—in fact, even though I spoke of endings, I believe that when we die—whatever that spark is—deep within us—that spark never ends—I believe that spark returns to God. That’s where it came from, long ago—we come from God—and I believe upon our deaths we return to God. What a powerful image to keep before us as we turn the daily wheels of our lives through the cycles of creation, sustainment, reclamation and re-creation—the God-spark that is our souls, yearns to burn bright and to show the world what living in love—and in a loving community—is all about. Let your spark shine so bright that others are drawn to you—to your warmth—to your brilliance—to your love. May your light burn ever so bright for as long as you may keep it so kindled. Amen
Abraham Cohen, Everyman’s Talmud: The Major Teachings of the Rabbinic Sages”, (New York: Schocken Books, 1949), 184
Cohen, Everyman’s Talmud, 185