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Out of Chaos, Hope

January 8, 2012

A sermon delivered at the White Plains Presbyterian Church

on the First Sunday after Epiphany, the Baptism of Jesus, January 8, 2012

Genesis 1: 1-5          Mark 1: 4-11

We have a tradition in our home: when we set up our manger scene on the first Sunday of Advent, the baby Jesus is hidden until Christmas morning, and the three kings are placed somewhere upstairs; this year they were in the bathroom window, looking in from the East. On Christmas morning August gets to play angel, announcing “Good News! Good News!” as he carries baby Jesus to the scene and places him in the manger. But before we go to bed on Christmas Day, we take the kings from their place in the East and set them on the first step at the top of the stairs. And then each day, after breakfast and before brushing our teeth, the kings descend another step – one a day throughout the twelve days of Christmas – until their arrival on January 6th. After celebrating Epiphany, we take down our tree, pack away the decorations, and try to clean the house.

Earlier this week I posted a poem on facebook by Howard Thurman, theologian, pastor, civil rights leader and mystic.  I received instant comments from friends and colleagues for whom it is a favorite, one of whom had heard the poem as a benediction last Sunday. Another even thought it was a song, which perhaps it should be. The poem is, I am sure, familiar to some of you. It is called “The Work of Christmas Begins.”

When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with the flocks,
then the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken in spirit,
to feed the hungry,
to release the oppressed,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among all peoples,
to make a little music with the heart.

Rev. Peggy Howland particularly liked the line about making a little music with the heart. I particularly appreciated the friend who composed a new line which I have now penned into my copy of Thurman’s writings: “to bring hope to every task you do.”[1]

The work of Christmas begins. Without doubt, folks, we have work to do. But these two stories, of creation and baptism, which are our first scriptures in this new year, may serve to remind us who and whose we are, and the nature of our work before us.

In the beginning when God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth was formless and void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while the spirit of God swept over the face of the waters.

In the beginning, simply God. Then God begins to create. The earth was “formless and void.” One translation says it was “without shape or form,” but this fails to capture the sense of chaos in the Hebrew. The words are tohu wabohu, the former (tohu) meaning emptiness and futility, the second term appears to be made up simply to reinforce the first. Tohu wabohu. My favorite translation is “the earth then was welter and waste”, which captures the Hebrew alliteration.[2] But you begin to get the idea: futile, formless, empty, a wasteland.

But then order begins to emerge out of the chaos. God’s ruach, God’s spirit-breath-wind hovers over and moves upon the face of the waters. There is a face, a deep face, which God moves upon, a face only God recognizes, and what emerges when God moves is light and darkness. What emerges is land and sea, and the heavens above. What emerges is life, rich eco-systems of soil, seed and stalk; of swimming, creeping, running, flying things. What emerges is good. And when on the seventh day, on the Sabbath, human beings join all of creation is praising God by simply being what God made to be, it is very good.

All this emerges, order out of chaos, but chaos continues. Ancient Israel always believed that God’s creation exists just this side of chaos, that God continually holds back the forces of chaos, and that the ultimate threat to God’s work is that creation will turn from God and return to, slip back into, chaos.

In fact, Israel’s primary role as God’s chosen people is to witness to God’s work of creating order out of chaos by singing God’s praise and living as God intended. Doxology and the obedience to the communal demands of the covenant are Israel’s response to God’s ongoing creative action.

When Israel failed, when it offered empty words rather than genuine praise, when it sought security in weapons and strategic alliances rather than in the practice of covenant justice and peace, it fell. The city of Jerusalem was sacked and destroyed by armies of Babylon and the leaders of the people carried off into long exile. The prophet Jeremiah, as a witness, could only weep and say, “I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no [more] light.” The prophet literally imagines the unmaking of God’s ordered and good creation. All has returned to welter and waste, it has again become futile, formless, empty, a wasteland. Tohu Wabohu.”

Do you ever feel that you are living just this side of chaos? That the darkness threatens and the light appears to have gone out? I do.

You and I have been together almost a year, but we have witness much chaos in the last twelve months. This past year we saw the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, floods in the Midwest, in the Philippines, and in Columbia; Tropical storm Irene shut down New York City, destroyed entire towns upstate, damaged trees in our city and left many of you without power for weeks. We had a blizzard in October!

One year ago today Senator Gabrielle Giffords was shot outside a super market in Tucson, AZ; six others were killed and thirteen injured. In July a Christian fundamentalist who shot 91 youth at a summer camp in Norway. Both events were motivated by right wing politics, and complicated by mental illness. Our world was changed with peaceful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, and then witnessed violent repression of peaceful revolution in Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. And in our own country the Occupy movement compelled a change in national discourse and made visible the 99% but ultimately were evicted by police from most sites. I am more depressed about peace in Israel-Palestine than I have been in years, there is fear of Egypt being drawn into violence, and we are saber rattling with Iran, again.

Only July 9, 2011, the brand new nation of South Sudan gained independence, emerging from decades of civil war, genocide and famine. Last weekend, 6,000 armed youth from the Lou Nuer community, near the border of Ethiopia, attacked the town of Pibor, Jonglei Province, home to the rival Murle group. It was the latest of a series of reprisal attacks over cattle raids. Tens of thousands have fled, and are now without access to water, food or health care” in the region. On Friday, the United Nations expressed concerned about a similar problem developing in Kenya. 

I think of the middle line from Constance Cherry’s hymn


Floods and earthquakes, drought and famine

Plague the world with awesome ill,

But far greater is war’s horror caused by human, stubborn will.

Blest are those who, working, praying,

Purpose in their hearts to be

Instruments of peace, committed

To the nation’s harmony.[3]

And this is not yet to mention the personal chaos we all experience, in our relationships and families, through job loss, illness, financial trouble, confusion and doubt, the fatigue of caregiving, and death. One member of the congregation told me this week that he knows of two families who experienced the tragic death of daughters on January first. What a terrible way to begin a new year. The natural chaos and political chaos and personal chaos, at times, seems ready to overwhelm us.

Set in context, literarily, historically, and liturgically, the story of creation in the first chapter of Genesis is intended to be heard

as the first in a long series of stories about God creating order our of chaos: at the beginning of ordered time, through the waters of the Red Sea, in the muddy waters of the river Jordan, and down to the chaotic situations of God’s people today. Now we can hear these verses as a prequel to a story whose sequel is still being spoken and enacted today.[4]

For our Creator creates creation[5] – every day. As Fred Buechner has written,

Using the same old materials of earth, air, fire, and water, every twenty-four hours God creates something new out of them. If you think you’re seeing the same show all over again seven times a week, you’re crazy. Every morning you wake up to something that in all eternity never was before and never will be again. And the you that wakes up was never the same and will never be the same either.[6]

When Jesus stepped out of the waters of Jordan, he was not the same. The heavens opened up, the Spirit of God came down to earth as a dove, and there was a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”

Jesus’ baptism is a model of what happens to all of us in our baptism – God’s spirit hovers over the water and we come to life. We are called and named and claimed as God’s children. And we are made participants in God’s work of

finding the lost,
healing the broken in spirit,
feeding the hungry,
releasing the oppressed,
rebuilding the nations,
bringing peace among all peoples,
and making a little music with the heart.

Let me be clear. This work must be done. It is what Thurman called ‘the work of Christmas.’ But it is not our work, nor is it all up to us. If it were, it might feel like a laundry list of exhausting and seemingly futile activity. Rather it is God’s work, which we are called to participate in. Understood in this way, the creation story is a gift to us because it

is a way of holding onto hope when all signs of order in our lives have been destroyed and we must look out for signs of the creative work of God beyond our control. If God is still creating order out of chaos in the succession of day and night, maybe God will one day create order once more out of chaos in the lives of God’s people. Hold on, and do not lose hope.[7]

On Friday, many of us received an email from Norma Smikle, who read for the children just a little bit ago. She wrote:

I was getting ready to run some errands when the phone rang.  It was my friend ANGIE for whom we all have been praying.  TERRIFIC NEWS!!!  THE cancer IS IN REMISSION!!!!  Just could not wait to tell you all on Sunday.  God be praised.!!!!!

          Signed, A very joyful Norma

We have work to do. It is nothing less than the mission of the church. But to paraphrase Oscar Romero, we are workers, not master builders;  And we work for the Creator. So, as my friend Barbara Blodgett wrote on facebook this week, adding a verse to Howard Thurman’s poem, “bring [that] hope to every task you do.”

[1] My thanks to Barbara Blodgett, author of Becoming the Pastor You Hope to Be: Four Practices for Improving Ministry, and Lives Entrusted: An Ethics of Trust for Ministry, for this new line. I hope it is shared widely.

[2] Robert Alter, Genesis: A Translation and Commentary.

[3] “When Will People Cease Their Fighting.” Words by Constance Cherry, 1986. Music by C. Hubert H. Parry, 1897. It is number 401 in the Presbyterian Hymnal.

[4] Richard Boyce, Feasting on the Word. It should be noted here that “Out of Chaos, Hope” is the motto of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.

[5] This phrase is Walter Brueggemann’s.

[6] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: Theological ABC’s.

[7] Richard Boyce, Feasting on the Word.

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