|Today’s scripture reading: Genesis 1:1-2:4a||Sermon audio:|
After an oxygen tank exploded aboard the Apollo 13 spaceship in 1970, three astronauts were stranded in a small lunar module only meant for one. All of those astronauts breathing the same air for days would lead to a deadly buildup of carbon dioxide that would kill them. The air filters they had available from the spaceship were the wrong shape, so they had to figure out how to put a square filter into a round hole. The movie version of these events suggests that, down on Earth at Mission Control, a team of engineers dumped out on a conference table a jumble of cardboard boxes overflowing with everything that the astronauts had available to them in space. From the chaotic pile of hoses, wires, curtains, cables, screws, spacesuits, plastic bags, and duct tape, they would need to pull together something to filter the air and save the lives of the crew.
That conference table, with all the piles of disorganized stuff on it, is what comes to mind when I read in Genesis 1 of when God began to create. Although Christian theology has proposed a doctrine of God creating from nothing at all, the Hebrew phrase here is “tohu vavohu”, which suggests that there’s stuff in existence but it’s in a state of disordered-ness, and so the translation we’ve just heard is “chaos and emptiness”—tohu vavohu. One commentary notes that “the closest English rendering of the Hebrew might be ‘topsy-turvy’… every other time the phrase is used in the Bible, it describes a scene of ruination and desolation.”
Tohu vavohu, the upside-downness, the topsy-turvy nature of the world. I can’t think of a better description of where we find ourselves now, in middle America on September 12th of the year 2021. We just marked yesterday the twentieth anniversary of terror striking from the sky, a day “when the world stopped turning”, in the verses of Alan Jackson. We’re living in a worsening pandemic despite widespread and effective vaccines, further community and family splintering due to tribalism and disinformation. We’ve seen a chaotic end to war in Afghanistan, millions of Americans are now liable to be evicted from their homes, and amid hurricanes, droughts, floods and wildfires, “nearly 1 in 3 Americans live in a county hit by a weather disaster in the past three months”, according to the Washington Post. As if to underscore the bizarre world we’re living in, for days there have been confirmed reports of zebras on the loose in Prince Georges County, Maryland, just outside of Washington DC. We even got news this week that the Rochester CineMagic movie theater is running out of candy and popcorn. Nothing makes sense anymore; the world is topsy-turvy, tohu vavohu.
But God has experience shaping order out of chaos, Genesis tells us. In the poetic arrangement of creation described as the Bible begins, God takes the discordant jumble of existence and steadily—one day at a time—puts the pieces together like those engineers would later do at Mission Control, arranging things in creative ways to be hospitable to life. Here light, and there dark. Some water, some land, and creatures to fill each place with abundance. Sun, moon, and stars find their order and mark the days from nights. What starts out like the discordant sounds of a dropped piano becomes a lush, complex and elegant symphony through God’s creation. God pauses to evaluate, and we hear repeatedly that all of this is “good, very good”.
Then into the midst of it all, God creates humanity in God’s own image. The Creator created other creators, all of us together in our genders, personalities, appearances, skills, and ideas bearing the image of the God who is never done creating something new. Immediately as humanity is called into existence, we are commissioned as stewards and caretakers of creation. We are responsible for it, Genesis says, watching over “the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things on the earth”. A core part of the human vocation—all of us made in the image of God—is taking care of life, and to continue creating alongside the original Creator. The Benedictine nun Joan Chidester describes our role this way: “work is what we do to continue what God wanted done. …We work because the world is unfinished and it is ours to develop. We work with a vision in mind …Work is a commitment to God’s service.” Despite all the ways that humanity breaks this calling and contributes to further chaos through climate change, pollution, and other sinful behavior, our original blessing is to live in harmony and stewardship with all of creation.
How then do we fulfill this calling, to be creatives alongside God, working to order chaos? Debra Dean Murphy names that our role is to rediscover the beauty in creation present when God called all things “good, very good”. She points to at least three gifts of human stewardship in creation:
There is, no doubt, the gift of activism and advocacy for vulnerable humans and nonhuman creatures, for rivers, mountains, seas, cities, and whole ecosystems. There is the gift of “announcing our place in the family of things,” as Mary Oliver writes: refusing to think and act as if “the environment” is something that somehow excludes us. And there is the gift of cultivating the virtues necessary…for living life well: courage, humility, justice, and compassion.Debra Dean Murphy, “Reading the creation story in a dying world”, Christian Century, October 16, 2019.
In the end, such a biblical interpretation recognizes our kinship, our relatedness, with creation as well as the Creator. Here we might hold alongside tohu vavohu, another phrase, “Mitakuye Oyasin”, which comes to us from the Lakota people and means “All Our Relations”. Describing the meaning of this vast relatedness, Chief Arvol Looking Horse writes that
the word Mitakuye means relations and Oyasin means more than family, more than a Nation, more than all of humankind, everything that has a spirit. The Earth herself…is our relation, and so is the sky, Grandfather Sky, and so is the Buffalo and so are each of the two-leggeds, the four-leggeds, those that swim, those that fly, the root nation and the crawling beings who share the world with us. Mitakuye Oyasin refers to the interconnectedness of all beings and all things. We are all interconnected. We are all One.Chief Arvol Looking Horse, from his book White Buffalo Teachings (Dreamkeepers Press, 2001). Related by Sara Thomsen.
This is what Genesis means, with humanity as creatures like the rest of creation, and as creatives like our original Creator. We have the opportunity, like those NASA engineers of long ago, to take a look at the chaos within which we find ourselves, and set to work with one another and with Mitakuye Oyasin, with all our relations. We are called to create and to re-create a world hospitable to all life, a world renewed in the image of God. Indeed, our own spaceship, keeping life alive. May God lead us to the original and existing blessings of creation now, so that we may continue expanding those blessings—and not curses—for all who live alongside us or who come after. Amen.
 Priests for Equality, The Inclusive Bible (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.: Lanham, Maryland), 2007, pg. 5.