August 17, 2014

Church of Peace, United Church of Christ

Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield

Genesis 1:24-31, 2 Corinthians 5:11-20

From Power Over to Starting Over

I once took a music theory class in which the final project involved composing a short piece that incorporated the rules we had been learning about harmonic structure. It had to have a bass and a treble line, no parallel octaves or fifths; it had to show a sensible chord progression. I’m pretty sure it had to switch from major to minor or maybe the other way around.

For me, the challenge was not following the rules for writing a well-structured piece. See, I didn’t know how to begin. Once you have an inkling of an idea, just a phrase humming around in your head, you can take that and turn it into a piece. But where do you get that first impulse of creative inspiration? It’s like the starter dough in baking bread or like the pilot light in the stove.

When I went to ask my professor, he thought for a minute, furrowed his brow and nodded helpfully. He said something like, “That’s a good question… Maybe start with what you love?” Right, see what I’d love is to finish my final project. It turns out, he was right. Soon after I met with him, my roommate put a poem up on the wall of our dorm room, and there was a line in the poem that said precisely the truth I needed to hear. Over the next few days, I found myself singing this one line in my head, just a snippet of melody that gave me something to take back and follow the rules to craft a song.

Doesn’t matter whether it’s a casserole or a cocktail, a short story or the design of a highway system through the downtown of a city. The making of anything begins with a creative impulse that pops up out of the dark, like the line of a poem posted on your dorm room wall. And I have come to believe, this impulse comes from God. You start with what you love. In the beginning is love. What if our very potential as human beings comes imbued with the creativity of God…

Today we continue our summer series on the days of creation. This is the day God makes all the creeping things and the people too. God said, “Let us make humankind in our image. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the cattle and all the wild animals and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” God creates humankind, blesses the people and pronounces our dominion over creation. And God sees that it is very good.

And we human people see how this divine pronouncement triggers a sizzling debate in our time and place. What exactly is this power humans were given? The Bible says people hold dominion over and subdue creation. Indeed, it has been observed that we treat the oceans like our pantry and our toilet. Does this passage mean the earth is ours to use however we please? Or is all this talk about “dominion over” really an invitation to be good stewards of the earth? This point of contention pulls us toward two questions of our humanity: What are we allowed to do with our creative power? What are we required to do?

I know these are important questions for us to consider in this time and place. But in the context of the Hebrew Bible, the prevailing world view took for granted a cosmological hierarchy. Of course, human beings held dominion over animals. There is an order of things with a structure that follows the rules. You could make a chart. At the top is our God, God of gods, then the angels and the heavenly beings. Below that come the people, and below people are animals, below animals are plants, then the rocks are at the bottom.

We hear this hierarchy proclaimed in our call to worship from Psalm Eight. “God, when I look at the heavens, the work of your fingers… what are human beings that you are mindful of them? Yet you have made them a little lower than the angels, and crowned them with glory and honor?” And right there, the line from a poem found its way into music.

The Psalmist is reviewing the order of things so methodically, but then her praise gushes out the sides. God, how do you care about people? That’s not staying in your place up in heaven! So is it enough to know our place? Can we really put our faith in the well-established order of things made of well-learned rules and power over and over…

You don’t have to convince me, a well-ordered system can save the day. In times of crisis, there is value in having a chain of command so you know whose directions to follow. In times of calm, there is comfort in developing procedures for emergency response. Now if there is a disaster, your job is to go stand by this door. Know your part and your place, and maybe order will save the day. Or maybe our unauthorized singing will gush out the side, and God will get praised.

Our final scripture today comes from one of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. Now this is a church dealing with its own conflict, and it is in conflict with Paul. It is difficult to piece together exactly what happened when, but somewhere in this Paul was wronged by a member of the Corinthian church. He changed his plans to visit and wrote them a letter of tears. All of this is in the background to the portion of the letter we hear today. Later Paul writes, “We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians; our heart is wide open to you. There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours” (2 Corinthians 6:11-12). Ouch.

Today we hear Paul call upon the people to become ministers of reconciliation. But see there is an order to things. We human people don’t have to come up with reconciliation all on our own, thank God. Instead, God does the work of reconciling people to himself, and God does this through Jesus who died, so that those who live might no longer live for themselves. God does this through Jesus who rose from the dead, making this possible for all.

Now what’s going on here is not just the project of putting things back together again. In our world of violent conflict and broken relationship, it doesn’t usually work to put things back together again. A prison sentence doesn’t make up for a murder. An apology doesn’t make up for years of not speaking. A financial settlement does nothing to the heal the hurt of divorce. If only it were enough to restore order, to get people back in their places and the rules back to being followed, and of course we know. This isn’t enough. And I really believe, this isn’t our call.

Paul’s writing in this scripture reminds me of Psalm Eight. Here he is trying to lay out the procedure for reconciliation. God initiates the concern and reaches out to us in relationship through Jesus Christ. Now we are charged to share this reconciliation with others. It’s such a sensible procedure —you could make a chart. Except. In his writing, Paul’s praise gushes out the side. For him, reconciliation is not just a theory. It is how his life was saved on the road to Damascus. It is how he became a new creation, named Paul.[1]

What if reconciliation is not an apologetic compromise? A contrived arrangement to put two factions in the same room and make them say “Sorry” and shake hands. What if reconciliation is actually the work of creation? Specifically, the work of creating a new way to be in relationship. With a little less hierarchy, a little more compassion, where justice is made out of forgiveness and our God gets praised.

On the channel Animal Planet, there’s a salty and not uncontroversial reality show called Pit Bulls and Parolees.[2] The premise is simple. It features the work of Tia Maria Torres, the founder of Villalobos Rescue Center in New Orleans. This center rescues abused and neglected pit bulls then seeks to rehabilitate them and help them find adoptive families. You might guess from the title, the center is staffed by many individuals who have a criminal record. It is very hard for people who have been locked up to find employers who will hire them. It is very hard for pit bulls to find families who will adopt them. This center specializes in rescue all around, and it’s not always clear who’s saving whom.

In one episode, the crew goes to pick up a stray pit bull found wandering around by the highway. In case you happen to be thinking, how hard could that be —a van full of big men versus one starving dog? Turns out, you can’t just pick up a dog like this and stick him in a cage. So much for our human dominion over the animals. Instead, a traumatized dog has to learn how to trust people anew.

At one point, Torres explains that pit bulls never cease to amaze her by their willingness to forgive people. Imagine looking to pit bulls as role models for the work of forgiveness and reconciliation! Eventually, the guys had to come back to this spot on the highway several times, with a lot of patience, they used food to gently coax the dog toward them until they could slip a leash over its neck and save its life.

We human people consider our power and place in the order of things and ask: What are we allowed to do? What are we required to do? May I suggest a third question. God, how can we help you? There is more to life than hierarchy, there is reconciliation, and we know how to do it. We always have. It comes with the creativity imbued from the power of God who makes us out of love.

In the beginning is love. God makes the dogs who teach forgiveness to people and the babies who make the church new with their baptism. God makes the singer of songs and the writer of letters whose praise accidentally gushes out the side, and God takes a long look at all this creation and sees that it is very very good.

There is evening and there is morning, the sixth day.

[1] Kim, Seyoon. Paul and the New Perspective: Second Thoughts on the Origin of Pauls Gospel. Wm Eerdman’s, Grand Rapids, MI: 2002, pages 220-233.


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