|Today’s scripture reading:
When was the last time you cut open a ripe watermelon? Not the pale pre-cut cubes you get in plastic at the grocery store. I mean a whole huge melon, dark-green from the late summer sun and heavy with juice? Sliding a sharp stainless steel knife into a perfect round melon, you are Galileo, discovering otherworldly beauty. As the sides of a fresh watermelon fall open on the cutting board, the dark pink inside turns itself out for all the earth to marvel at. An aroma of sweet summer rises from the cut, hundreds of black seeds lie hidden in orderly rows, the ripe sugars are already almost in crystal form, and an ample rind provides green armor for the treasure within.
What a marvelous thing is a watermelon! Have you ever stopped to consider it? How many hours of sunlight did it take, falling for weeks on broad leaves, to grow twenty pounds of pure perfection? By what wisdom do roots grow in such a way that they catch rain from a dozen thunderstorms and pass it on, to be encapsulated in the time machine on your kitchen counter? How did the rain get up there in the first place, and where did the soil come from? How does it know to hold the roots and the water and the nutrients out of which watermelons are made? How in the world does anything so good come from plain old dirt?? Look deep into a watermelon or any little part of creation, and you can get lost in the mystery found there.
There are scientific answers for how the juice and the sweet get into watermelons. There are theories about rain, and soil, and the sun. There’s a great story told by science about where it all came from, and how it might have been in the beginning of what we can imagine. I believe many of these theories are true, in a sense that they correctly describe how things work here and now. But science cannot answer why things are this way and not that. The limits of science are found when we stop asking “how”, and start asking other questions. Who am I, to be so blessed by this incredible meal? Why do I feel this gratitude welling up in me as the juice runs down my chin? For whom is this other half of melon on the counter, and in what ways shall I share it? For such questions of identity, meaning, and purpose, we look to the Bible and the God to which it testifies.
In the very beginning, even before the Big Bang, there was always God. All that exists came into being because of God. This holiest of beings chose to create that which was not God, which was everything else—creation. “Let there be”, God says, again and again. God creates distinctions: light and darkness, sky, earth and seas. Then within each space, something to fill it: sun, moon, stars, plants—and swimming, swarming, winging, creeping creatures. There are abundant rivers and fertile ground, a global jungle of every type of plant, birds of the air and fish in the sea, minerals in abundance—and watermelons too. Science can tell us how; the Bible here is content to say that God commanded and it was so.
The human story begins here with the rest of creation, but we reveal a special source. God says “Let us make humankind in our image”—and it has taken every person who ever existed to show what that means. Each person, no matter their shape, size, color, language, skills, age, or mental abilities, bears the image of this male, female, transgender, beyond gender God. If you want to know what God looks like, turn around, or look in the mirror! You are how God appears with skin on. And so is your neighbor, child, grandmother, enemy—all made in the image of God that’s been there from the very beginning. Out of sheer artistic desire to “let there be”, God creates the entire teeming cosmos, then with incredible generosity places us in the world, and calls it all good.
Oh, but God! What about the pristine watermelon patches in the productive heat of late summer torn to shreds in Texas by the gales of Hurricane Harvey? What about the creatures great and small who drowned in unimaginable torrents of rain there? What about Hurricane Irma, which even now in Miami is spinning construction cranes like tops? And a third hurricane—Jose—lining up to strike again those poor Caribbean islands that Irma has already ravaged? What about the earthquakes that topple buildings and unleash tsunamis? What about great raging wildfires that consume verdant forests and all who live therein? This week there has been no ignoring the destructive chaos of God’s creation. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. Less visible from space but just as calamitous to individual lives are cancerous mutations, genetic disorders, memory loss, viral epidemics and insect-borne pestilence. If we sing hymns of praise for the goodness of creation but ignore all the ways that nature destroys life as well, we bury our heads in the water-logged sand.
It’s been instructive for me to remember one thing this week about the Bible’s first creation story. In all that which is brought into existence, God never promises that creation will be perfect. We hear again and again that it is good, but not perfect. It’s as though God also recognizes the possibility that when something not-God is created, such a creation will meander, drift and decay. We are not in a pristine, fantasy, snow-globe world, but rather one which lives, breathes, moves and changes, thereby exposing us to destructive as well as creative chaos. Such dynamic movement is the common characteristic of ocean waters, weather patterns, celestial nebulae, and even the bedrock underfoot. This is what causes such death, even as it makes possible so much life. Therefore, though creation is never called perfect, God still calls it good.
Finally, what is our place in the cosmos—we who bear the image of this creative God? For centuries, humans have listened to this whole story and yet heard only one word: “dominion”. Dominion is an uncommon word anymore, but it’s been taken to mean that we have an unfettered right to have our own way with every part of creation. We have used rivers and oceans as sewers, harvested every tree from the landscape, removed mountaintops and dumped the toxic rubble in valleys nearby, built great sea walls in a vain attempt to keep out the water, churned hydrocarbons into the atmosphere at an unsustainable rate, and even sought to improve the watermelon through genetic enhancements. Yet in the very next chapter of Genesis, we read more what God intends for human beings. The word in Hebrew there is shamar, to “guard, keep, watch over, protect and care for.” Our first vocation, our first reason for existing in the world, is that of shamar, taking care of the earth on God’s behalf. Genesis tells us that we do not have free reign to do whatever we please. Our freedom reaches its limit when we cease to shamar and begin to exploit creation for our own purposes alone. Humanity must care for creation as God cares for us—with compassion, tenderness, and generosity.
On this day when we celebrate a new start for the church year, the Bible reminds us what truly matters from the very beginning. The God who creates all things and calls it good is creating still, and calls those made in the divine image to exercise healing, nurturing, life-giving care in the same manner. Creation is not perfect, and so we are called to serve and mend. That’s why in the midst of all this, God calls the world, its creatures, and us alongside them, very good indeed. May it be so! Amen.