In the Beginning….this is a phrase we hear so often when we read the scriptures. In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. In the beginning was the word and the word was with god and the word was god. It seems especially appropriate to uplift the very beginning of our canonized scripture-Genesis 1:1, at the beginning of a New Year. We are a society of resolution, of movement, of goal-setting. At the beginning of each new year we resolve to lose weight, watch less TV, be more productive, and take on various tasks and endeavors that are often forgotten by the early snows of February. This year, I was so over-zealous that I wrote in my journal 12 different resolutions I wanted to accomplish, and then divvied them up and assigned them separate months-like 12 little Lenten projects throughout my year. This urge to be productive, planned, and off and running this time of year runs deep in our bones. In many ways the rush of things, the ebb and flow of the tides of our lives are inescapable and unending. Even in the cyclical endlessness of life, we still have this deep yearning for beginnings. We find the need to begin each year anew-but our beginnings are often hurried, rushed, hustling-and bustling us to newer things, better selves.
So it is important for us to consider what happened in THE BEGINNING? Genesis 1 reads “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep while a wind of God swept over the face of the waters.”The translation of this passage, historically and due to the elegant language of the King James Version has often been understood as “In the Beginning, God created the heavens and earth”-giving the impression that God created something out of nothing, a common latin phrase for this creatio ex nihilo. This would mean that there was nothing before God first created the heavens and the earth. But many Hebrew and old testament scholars see the Hebrew as perhaps being more grammatically accurate to say ‘God began creating the heavens and the earth’, in this reading of the text the passage would hold the notion of God creating out of chaos-the latin term for which is ordo ab chao. This translation would imply that the universe already existed, and God creates purpose, order, and light within it. Creation, then, is in fact, a re-ordering of an already chaotic universe. It is this ordo ab chao reading that I want us to spend some time with today.
In Genesis, this universe is a formless void, a watery deep swirling and teeming with disorder, chaos, with no purpose and no life. The earth is wild, it is unknown, it is a dark and watery abyss. And yet, there is this moment in between ‘the beginning’ and God saying ‘Let there be light’. There is a quiet moment between the chaos of that world below and the creation yet to come. In that space, in those moments the wind, which in Hebrew is the same word for the spirit, ruah, is hovering, brooding just above the earth, sweeping across the water. I love this image- like a hen protecting her eggs, the holy spirit, broods, clutches, hovers above the abyss. The divine spirit encompasses a chaotic earth, waiting for that moment of birth, that moment of beautiful creation. IN our world today, when we experience chaos we crave creation-we feel rushed and urged to manage, order, begin again, start anew, dissolve and resolve and move forward from the chaos in our lives with immediacy. But in the same way there is a breath between 11:59 on New Years Eve and 12:00 a.m. on New years day, there is a space in between. There is this one beautiful moment between chaos and creation where the spirit of God is so near to us, hovering over us, urging us to give into the beauty ahead of us.
Every year, we observe merrily as Christ is born in a manger on a chilly night amidst the hay bales and the donkeys (and if you have ever seen the film Love Actually-you know there were at least a couple of lobsters present at the birth of Jesus), we follow the star with the Magi and bestow gifts and grace upon our gentle Jesus. And suddenly, out of nowhere, liturgically it is Christ’s baptism Sunday. Last week, the Magi were bringing frankincense, myrrh, gold on a young toddler, and this week we see a fully grown, adult, Jesus going into the wilderness to seek out John the Baptist and begin his ministry. Before Jesus’ extraordinary life and teachings can begin, we find this separate moment that is neither here nor there, neither childhood, nor grown Rabbi-but a space in between. A quiet moment at the river, A chance for renewal, a baptism. John the Baptist is emanating the prophet Elijah by wearing camel’s hair and baptizing people in the wilderness. This image of wilderness is supposed to remind us of the 40 years the Israelites spent in the wilderness after the exodus. Wandering, lost, and barely surviving in desert heat, the wilderness for us is an image of chaos.
And yet Jesus seeks out John in that dry wilderness, in that chaos, to be baptized by him. In the Jewish tradition at this time, baptism was a source of renewal into the covenant of Israel-a repentance of sins so that one could be washed clean to join once again the people of God. Also at this time, the Jewish tradition of baptism was widely self-service. People would go to the water and baptize themselves, by dipping their head under water, or sprinkling themselves with water from head to foot. They simply needed to be baptized in the presence of a prophet, like John the Baptist. But when Jesus approaches, he asks John to baptize him, the physicality and vulnerability of this gesture cannot be overstated. In the space between the chaos of the wilderness and the creation of Jesus’ life as Rabbi-as minister, in that quiet moment, in that space-Jesus is held in the arms of his fellow human and washed clean. In that in-between moment, the same God that calls forth life from the primordial deep and dark waters in Genesis 1, calls Jesus to new birth out of to the waters of baptism.
Sometimes, creating that space between chaos and creation is not always easy for us, sometimes we need someone to help us center down. We fill our lives up with meaningful work, deep relationships, and required daily tasks and often, even at the beginning of a New Year, don’t give ourselves a chance to reflect, to really linger in reflect. Howard Thurman, who was once Dean of this Chapel and preached from this pulpit for many years, was a mystic man of faith, a compassionate mentor to many, and a slow searching man. I read earlier this week a story in Dr. Walter Fluker’s book “Ethical Leadership” about Howard Thurman and his relationship to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Thurman writes in his autobiography that he often had gentle premonitions, deep soul-callings, to engage with people who were in a time of trouble. When he was 29 years old, just a young, fervent, and fiery preacher talking about justice, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was stabbed in Harlem at a book signing. Thurman felt a deep spiritual need to go to him, to visit with King in the hospital. During his visit Howard Thurman urged Martin Luther King to take even more rest than the doctor’s prescribed, he urged him to take 4 more weeks to be exact to reassess his purpose, try to understand his cause, to rest his body spirit and mind, and to find healing. King did heed his advice, and unique to the rest of his life, adopted a brief time of quietitude, meditation, and stillness. He delivered no speeches, went to no meetings, and did not take up agenda items for the civil rights movement at that time. After the time had passed, he was re-invigorated towards the cause of the civil rights movement with clear and determined understanding of his purpose and mission within the organization. And the rest as we know, is history. The moment between chaos and creation offered Dr. King a chance to find his own renewal, his own sense of presence in the Spirit.
When one of my students found out that I was preaching a couple of weeks ago they asked , “you are going to use Rilke again, aren’t you?” (I couldn’t tell if she was exacerbated or excited-but I mostly was thrilled she remembered one thing from my previous sermons), so as I have finished up my year-long journey with Rilke as a spiritual guide, I will include him again. Rainer Maria Rilke wrote of the human nature to rush and press on despite the need for stillness, despite the need for a space in between, Rilke wrote-
We set the pace.
But this press of time –
take it as a little thing
next to what endures.
All this hurrying
soon will be over.
Only when we tarry
do we touch the holy.
Young ones, don’t waste your courage
racing so fast,
flying so high.
See how all things are at rest –
darkness and morning light,
blossom and book.
I find that our world is plagued with moments of voidless dark, watery abyss, dry wilderness. In the face of an ever-present cultural racism, mass incarceration, Ebola, The recent attacks on a newspaper in Paris, France, and the numerous other tragedies on our screens, in our newspapers, and on our hearts, -how could we deny the deep and foreboding presence of chaos in our world? Rilke reminds us that we need these moments between chaos and creation, where the Spirit hovers over us, waiting to be pulled in, touched, embraced, and intertwined with our spirits. When we forget to create this sacred space and time, we can get overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by the chaos or overwhelmed by creation. I remember when I first read in the news about the tragic and terrible school shooting in Peshawar Pakistan, where just a few weeks ago, over 140 school children were murdered in an act of terrorism. I saw this picture in a news article of a pair of empty shoes laying on a bloodstained school auditorium floor and I became completely overwhelmed with grief in the chaos of that terrible act. I cried, and thought of all the mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers, and of the parent who must have helped to tie those shoes in the morning. I truly felt that I was grieving, and at a loss for our world. I saw the darkness and the voids of abyss and felt overwhelmed.
When I got into my office the next day I had a phone call from a thoughtful and courageous Boston University student, who was from Pakistan and she wanted to organize a vigil, a time for prayer, silence, and presence amidst such atrocity. The student said that in the face of not knowing at all how to cope with this, a vigil seemed ‘just the right thing to do right now.’ So the next night, in the middle of exam week, I gathered with over 50 students-most of which were from Pakistan or had family from Pakistan-and we created that in-between space. A space between the chaos of violence and the creation of hope-it was simple, it was quiet, it was a lit candle, and a tearful prayer, and a lesson on peace from the Q’uran. I felt so full of the spirit in those moments, so close the brooding bosom of God. I am so grateful to those student leaders who called together for this moment of vigil prayer. I knew that the time for creation would come-the time when I would want to find hope and purpose and ways to help create a sustainable solution for the terror that often plagues our world and our children, but just then-that cold December night just before Christmas-I needed to abandon the chaos, and delay the creation, to exist in the in-between moment of stillness, peace, quiet, solidarity, and prayer to be reminded of how close the Spirit is to us, and how much we can rest in the Divine when we are in need.
This moment in between chaos and creation is not a passive moment, or meant to be seen as a privileged moment of removing yourself from the situation and ignoring the reality of a broken and bleeding world. Rilke’s poem says “only when we tarry do we touch the holy.” The word tarry is not a passive word – but an active verb. It is synonymous with the word Sojourn-to live temporarily. These in-between moments are not places we can stay, but still places where we should actively live. Furthermore, this is not an easy action – holding yourself in this temporary stillness is sometimes more difficult than jumping from chaos to make order. In this action between the moment of chaos and creation we have the opportunity to be opened up in transformative ways. To tarry in the in-between is not doing nothing, it is doing something. Let the noise subside and in the silence and the stillness be ready for the sound of God, be ready to be found, be ready to be made new, re-created in the truest way. Only from the silence a word is spoken, only from the stillness, is a movement created.
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