Sabbath and Original Blessing | Lent 4 | March 11

Texts: Genesis 1:1-13; 1:26-2:3; John 3:14-21

Long, long ago, before you and me – before people – before animals, plants and bacteria, before the earth, and stars, before anything.  When the universe was just an unrehearsed verse in the mind of God, all was dark and unformed.  Only a breath from the Creator swept across the void.

The breath gathered into a shape, a word.  That word was “light,” and when it was spoken, there it was – light.  And the Creator saw that the light was good.  The light was separated from the darkness, and thus began the dance of night and day, evening and morning.

The generation of light was assigned to the stars, and with it the power of creating the full range of elements.   Stars were born and stars died, and in their death they seeded the expanding order with these elemental gifts out of which the rest of creation would be formed.

The Creator spoke again.  Rocks clustered and crashed and formed a planet, a dome with waters above and below, sky and seas, and dry land.  And the Creator saw that this was good.  To the land and sea was given the power to bring forth life.  Plants of all kinds grew and flourished.  To them was given the ability to catch the sun, to splice molecules and rearrange elements to create food for themselves and enrich the atmosphere.  Animals of all kinds grew and flourished, fed by the plants and air.  The land and the sea teamed with life.  The rhythm of evening and morning continued, as life improvised a melody.  And the Creator saw and heard that it was good.

The Creator spoke again, the most daring word yet.  “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them” have self-reflective consciousness to make their own decisions to direct the ongoing unfolding of creation.  And so it was.  God created humanity, in its full range of gender, in the likeness of the Creator.

The Creator blessed them:  Creatures to continue the creative process, in concert with the stars, the earth and waters, the plants and animals.  God saw everything that had been made, and indeed, it was very good.  And there was evening, and there was morning.

If all this could be condensed down to a week, we would have just finished day six.  Humanity is not the end of the story, not God’s final word on the matter.  They have been granted the powers to be co-creators with God, but there is something that happens first that’s even more important than more creating.

It’s a whole day, day seven, on which nothing of note happens.  For a whole day, nothing new is created.  On it, even God rests.  It’s a day that exists for itself, a day of pleasure and enjoyment, a day of ceasing from work.  A day of reveling in the goodness of creation and resting from whatever control and authority one might have over it.  It’s the first and only aspect of creation which God hallows – declares holy.  The seven day cyle forms a meta rhythm within which the daily rhythms of evening and morning take on their meaning.

This is, more or less, the Hebrew story of creation that begins our Bibles – with a bit of 21st century cosmology sprinkled in for good measure.

It’s a creation that gets a five star review with eight words in the comment section.  Good.  Good. Good. Good. Good. Good. Very Good.  That’s how many times that word shows up in Genesis 1.

In summary, it’s all good.  The light is good.  The dark is good.  The earth is good.  The stars are good.  Life is good.  It is lovely and loved.  A literal translation of John 3:16 is “For God so loved the kosmos.”

The cosmos, the world, is good.  Material reality is good.  Creatureliness is good.  Bodies are good.  Sexuality is good.  Skin and flowers and taste buds and supernovae are good.  Creation has a Divine blessing and it, we, all of this, is very good.

That’s how the story begins.  Goodness and blessing get the first word.

The story does continue, and, as you may be aware, it takes a turn toward the not-so-good.  The humans begin to use their tremendous power against each other and against the earth.  The earth is soon filled with violence.  Brother kills brother.  Tribe battles tribe, forgetting they are a part of the same extended family.  The Creator just about hits control-alt-delete on the whole project by sending a flood to clean the slate and do a system reboot.  It’s not a particularly effective strategy.  The survivors spread out over the earth.  They are complicated creatures.  They perform acts of great courage, love, devotion, and healing.  They commit acts of tremendous violence against neighbors and so called enemies.  At times they even harm themselves.  This cycles through the generations, with the sins of the parents often passed down to the children and grandchildren and so on up to today.  The goodness of creation is not lost, but is often forgotten, hard to see.

Christians have always believed that the person of Jesus plays a central role in this grand drama.

The third chapter of John’s gospel presents one of the ways Jesus understood the meaning of his own life and death.  It involves a serpent, although not the one from the Garden of Eden that gets much of the credit for steering humanity down the wrong path.  This  serpent comes from the wilderness, from the time of Moses and the Israelites.

This is what Jesus says: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have abundant life.”

It’s a reference to the story in Numbers 21, when the Israelites face an infestation of venomous snakes biting and killing them.  The people beg Moses to do something – to pray that the Lord will take the serpents away.  Moses prays and receives instructions that, at first glance, seem strange to the modern mind.  Rather than getting rid of the serpents, Moses creates another serpent, this one out of bronze.  This bonus serpent is then mounted up on a pole.  When the people get bit, they are to look up at the bronze serpent and in doing so, they will live.

In this story, the source of healing is found within the source of harm.  The serpents are not hidden or banished, or defeated, they are elevated for all to see.  And it is in seeing clearly, in gazing upon, that which is destroying the community, that the community is preserved.

This is how Jesus interprets his own death.  He too will be lifted up.  For him it will be on a Roman instrument of torture.  The cross embodies all that is abusive and violent about humanity’s misuse of power.  The violence of the cross is what has been destroying the community throughout history, like a venomous snake that keeps biting and biting.  And now, the path back to life, the way to defeat the serpents and live into the goodness of creation, must involve gazing on the very violence on which humanity has come to depend to hold up the whole apparatus that we think keeps us secure and moving forward in history.  In gazing on the cross, we discover our own complicity in the violence, and thus are presented a way out.

Mennonite pastor Horace McMillon recently wrote an essay about how his understanding of the bronze serpent and the cross of Jesus has been deepened through the story of the murder of Emmett Till.  Emmett Till was born and raised in Chicago.  In 1955, when he was 14, his mother, Mamie Till Bradley, sent him down to Mississippi to visit family.  While there, Emmett entered a store and got into a conversation with Carolyn Bryant.  She was 21, married to the store owner, and white.  Emmett Till was black and had unknowingly violated the color codes of the Jim Crow South.  Emmett was accused of making sexual advances toward Mrs. Bryant.  Her husband and his brother abducted Emmett from the home where he was staying, beat him, shot him, mutilated his body, and threw him in the Tallehatchie River.

When his body was recovered, Mamie Till Bradley made the decision that her son would not only have a public funeral, but that it would be an open casket.  In gazing on the brutalized body of Emmett Till, the world was forced to confront the violence of racism and the sin of white supremacy festering in society.  The death of Emmitt Till, his body lifted up for all to see, like the bronze serpent in the wilderness, like Jesus on the cross, like Michael Brown on the street of Fergusson, Missouri….Emmit Till became one of the galvanizing moments for the beginning of the Civil Rights movement.

Exposing and thus overcoming violence is one of the ways Jesus interprets his own death within a good creation that has lost its way.

But looking at a cross is hard work.  Especially when it keeps showing up in the headlines every day in the form of murdered school children, refugees fleeing war, mass incarceration and deportation, you fill out your own list.  We are in one sense saved from our complacency in being willing to gaze on these sins of humanity.  We are pointed toward the grace of God. In another sense, we can quickly succumb to cross-gazing fatigue, outrage fatigue, compassion fatigue, fatigue fatigue.

We need another part of the story to sustain us.  We need a story that leads us back to the goodness of creation, to life as a blessing and a gift to be enjoyed.

Back in the 1980’s Matthew Fox wrote a book called Original Blessing.  It was his way of offering a corrective to the church’s longtime emphasis on original sin.  One of his key points was that even deeper than violence and sin is the reality of blessing and goodness.  Genesis 1 comes before, Genesis 2 and 3, and so, he reminds us, we are, at our deepest core, in our truest self, blessed and beloved of God.

Gazing at the cross, in all its many forms and faces, is six day a week work.  It’s painful work, and one of the ways we journey with Jesus through life.  It is a constant reminder of the power of our collective sin to destroy and harm life.

But Sabbath can be our way back to original blessing.

Sabbath invites us to cease even from struggling to do good, and to simply receive the goodness already given, which is from God, which has been from the beginning.

Original blessing, like Genesis 1, is the language of faith.  It’s the language of myth, in the best sense of the world.  There is no actual point in history in which everything was perfect and good.  There is no point to return to in order to “Make creation great again.”

It is the language of faith that offers us original blessing.  It’s a container that holds everything else.  And it makes a profound difference to operate out of a mode of original blessing.  Original blessing impacts how we understand our bodies, and bodies that are different than ours, because they too are blessed.  Original blessing is a container able to hold all the sorrow, and all the joy in the world.  Original blessing can hold the Christ of the cross, and the Christ of the incarnation which participates in the material world not to solve any problems, but simply because of its goodness.  Because God so loves the kosmos.

Original blessing may not be a historical point in time to return to, but Sabbath is.  Sabbath is a recurring point in time, it is embodied history, and it comes around on a seven day cycle.  Sabbath practice is a way of living out the blessedness of creation within history.  To practice Sabbath is to enter into the rest of God’s goodness, to relish in that goodness all around us, to approach the world and people not as a set of problems to be solved, but as a gift to be enjoyed for its own sake.

Throughout Scripture the word remember is frequently attached to the Sabbath.  Remember the Sabbath.  Remember.  It provokes the question of what is it we forget when we forget to Sabbath?  What of blessing, what of goodness, what of life abundant, what of Christ do we forget?

Remember that you are blessed.  Remember that you are beloved.  Remember that you are created in the image of God in order to create this world with God, and in order to sabbath with God and enjoy the goodness that is ours.