by David Baer, September 13, 2015
Text: Genesis 2:4b-25
Today is a day for new beginnings! It’s our fall kickoff, as we look forward to a year of church school and activities. But that’s a new beginning that happens every year. Today is a special day, because we’re back in a sanctuary that’s got a fresh look, offering new possibilities for worshiping God. It’s also a special day because it’s the anniversary of a half-century of our congregation worshiping in this space. Fifty years ago yesterday the group that eventually became known as Highlands Presbyterian Church held its first worship service in this sanctuary. An anniversary like this is a chance to look back and give thanks for the life we’ve enjoyed together, but it’s also a chance to look forward with hope to the future. So let’s call this, if we can, the beginning of the second half-century of worshiping and serving God here. We’re already halfway to a hundred!
Maria Von Trapp, in the film The Sound of Music teaches the children in her care about music by singing, “Let’s begin at the very beginning, a very good place to start.” As we embark on our new beginnings, we begin with the words we heard from the book of Genesis, the beginning of God’s creation and God’s story with us human beings. There are actually two creation stories in the book of Genesis. If you begin reading in chapter 1, you hear all about the six days of creation, and how God makes a little more progress every day, until by the end of the week the creation is fully formed, including plants and animals and humans, and God takes a little rest.
And then, in the passage that we just heard, in chapter 2, we get a slightly different version of the story. It’s a story where creation takes place in one day, not six. And in this version, human beings aren’t created last, but first. “In the day”—one day—“that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the LORD God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground…” Did you catch that? Did you catch the reason why there were no plants at the beginning? Two things are needed for plants to grow. God has to send rain on the earth, and someone has to till the ground. This story sees creation as a partnership. It’s a shared enterprise, a joint venture begun and directed by God, but where human beings play an indispensable part. Human beings cultivate the ground, and God provides the water to nourish the seeds and plants. We work together with God to bring life out of the earth.
So before things can go any further, God needs to form a human being—in Hebrew, the word is adam, like “Adam”—out of the dust of the ground—which in Hebrew is adamah. One way to read this story is to say that this first human being is male, that God makes a male human first. I’m not so sure that’s accurate. The first human contains all the flesh and bone that will become both male and female. Both man and woman are present in this first human. It doesn’t make sense to think of this first human person as having a distinct gender. But in any case, God breathes life into this human shape, and it becomes a living soul. Then God handles God’s part of the job of cultivating plant life. God provides the irrigation system for the world, consisting of four great rivers, and God plants a garden. And God puts this newly formed human being in the garden and provides a job—tilling and keeping the garden—and food to eat. There are also boundaries set for the human being. There’s plenty of food to eat, but the tree of life and the tree of knowledge are off limits.
From the beginning, we have had a purpose. We human beings are meant to take care of the world God makes, and to work with God in shaping our world to be good and beautiful and fruitful. Elsewhere in the Bible, when people have tried to understand how it was they were being called to work with God, they remembered this story about how we were meant to be God’s gardeners. The apostle Paul talked about his work of sharing the good news about Jesus as planting seed, remembering that it is God who makes it grow. When Jesus’ disciple Mary met the risen Jesus on the first Easter Sunday, on the first day of the week—another new beginning—she didn’t recognize him because to her he looked like… a gardener. When you do someone a kindness or in any way help them experience God’s unconditional love, you’re tilling the ground, you’re sowing seeds, and you can’t possibly control or even predict what will happen to them. We are meant to be at work with God, helping to create and grow good things.
But God doesn’t just give us a job. God also gives us each other. It is not good, God says, for the human being to be alone. It is not good for a person to live a life set apart. In the movie Cast Away, Tom Hanks’s character, Chuck Noland, creates Wilson, drawing a face on a volleyball, so that he’ll have someone to talk to. As he escapes the island, Wilson slips away, and Chuck is genuinely grieved at losing his imaginary friend. Something in us does not want to be alone, and as we hear today’s text, we learn that God, too, wants us to be in relationship with someone else.
There’s a process of trial and error as God searches for a suitable companion for the human being God made. God keeps creating new animals and bringing them over, and saying, “How about this one? What do you want to call it?” And the human says, “We’ll call that one a… wildebeest!” And God says, “How about it? Are you prepared to embark on your life’s journey accompanied by this ‘wildebeest,’ as you call it?” And the human takes a look at it and says, “Not really. What else you got?”
It’s only when God reaches into that first human being, separates the flesh and bone, and shapes two newly split human creatures, a man and a woman, that they recognize each other as familiar strangers, “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh,” as the man puts it. There are some people who are like this for us, aren’t there? Sometimes you’re with someone who can finish your sentences, someone you know so well you can predict how they’re going to react to something you tell them. A good friend, a partner, is almost like a missing part of you that you’d never known you’d lost until you found them.
This is a text that you sometimes hear at weddings, particularly because it gives the example of a husband and wife joining together what was previously separated. But the Bible has plenty of stories of flesh-and-bone deep friendships, like David and Jonathan, or Ruth who “clings” to Naomi and won’t let go of her. In friendship with others, we recognize separated parts of ourselves, and we’re more fully complete, more fully human when we’re together.
And so the story of the beginning is a story about purpose and partnership. We are set in this world to be co-creators with God. God wants our help in tending and nurturing the world God is making. And God shows us that it is good to be together, to live out our calling in relationship with others. And that, in the beginning of the beginning, is church. When this congregation began meeting here 50 years ago, and ever since, it has been about connecting searching people with service to God and deep and lasting relationships with one another. And by God’s grace, we hope to go on doing that for the next 50 years. Part of why you’re here, I hope, is that a piece of you believes that you really do have a share in shaping the world the way God wants it to be. And part of why you’re here, I hope, is that you want to discover your role and live it out in the company of others.
Now, there’s much more to the story. There’s hurt and heartbreak when this first man and woman cross the boundaries God has set for them and eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. That choice ruptures relationships and brings every kind of suffering into the human story. We can’t talk about our purpose and our relationships with each other without acknowledging the effects of brokenness and sin. The rest of God’s story with us, a story that will be unfolding for us as we read the scriptures in worship throughout this coming year, is a story of a God who loves us in spite of our failures, in the face of disappointment and betrayal, who rescues us and brings a new beginning—freedom, forgiveness, redemption, resurrection.
But when we begin at the beginning, before all of that, we encounter a God who is with us, inviting our participation in God’s work of shaping and naming the world; and who is for us, providing for the needs of our bodies with good food to eat, and for the needs of our spirits with companionship. And although we may change, this good and loving creator does not. God continues to be with us and for us, most powerfully in the person of Jesus, who does the impossible thing we cannot do, bringing love and forgiveness into bloom out of the ugly seeds of human violence and injustice. From the very beginning to the very end, we are graced with purpose and never alone. Thanks be to God. Amen.