Monday, September 14, 2015

Putting a Name to a Face--a sermon on Genesis 2

Rev. Teri Peterson
Putting a Name to a Face
Genesis 2.4b-25
13 September 2015, Harvest 1-1, NL2-1

In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
 A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches. The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. The name of the second river is Gihon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Cush. The name of the third river is Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.
 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’
 Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.’ So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,
‘This at last is bone of my bones
   and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called Woman,
   for out of Man this one was taken.’
Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.

Here we are again—in the beginning. A couple of years ago, when we read the creation story in worship, we then created it—the mosaics that form the front of the balcony remind us of the great liturgy of In The Beginning: God speaks, and the world comes into being, day by day.

Today we begin with the second creation story—a separate account, giving us a different glimpse of how God works. In the first story, God says something, and it is so, and God says it is good. Repeat for each day, from light and dark, through water and land, sun and moon, plants, sea creatures, land animals, humanity, rest.

In this second version of the story, God is much more hands-on. The first story was the tell, and this is the show. God sits down in the dirt and builds things—a person, a garden, rivers, animals. God forms the dust, and with a breath makes it beautiful. This is up close, down-and-dirty creation. Right from the start, God is close enough for us to feel holy breath on our cheeks, molding and sculpting the stuff of life by hand.

It seems so different from the first story—so intimate where the other was so grand and philosophical.

It’s not too far into the story when something sounds familiar, though. God realizes that it is not good for the man to be alone. So God gets to work again, playing in the dirt and making all kinds of things, and bringing each one to the man “to see what he would call them.”

God hands over the power of creating with words to this brand new mud-man. And whatever he called an animal, that was its name.

I think too often we gloss over this part of the story, thinking it’s cute but not the point. We want to get to the part where the man and the woman mess up, because our culture has, for centuries, been built on the idea that we are flawed, and we want to get to the root of that.

But first, deeper in our history, planted deeply at the heart of humanity, is this: God entrusted us with the gift of words—words that, much like God’s, create reality. Just as in the first telling of the story, God creates with a word, so now we are offered the possibility of creating with a word. Or, as we know too well, the possibility of destroying with a word. But here, in this moment in the garden, God looks at Adam and trusts humanity enough to give us incredible power: to create alongside God. Where the first story simply says that God created humankind in God’s image, this story shows God bringing all the animals to see what Adam would call them, and that is what they were, because such is the power of words.

It took me a week to figure out the name of my cat. Can you imagine the responsibility of naming the cow, the platypus, the aardvark, the swan, the cricket? With a word, Adam made it so. And God saw that it was good. Each name made something new. Each name mattered. Each name was said out loud, and there is power in saying a name. We know it when we carefully choose names for children, for communities, even for pets. We know the power of a name when we remember our families, when we pray for friends, when we unroll the big family tree to tell their stories. To put a name to a face may have been Adam’s greatest task, and that power of words is still ours today. We so easily name things and they become reality: beautiful and ugly…safe and dangerous…high achieving and at-risk… We also so easily erase people and their stories by refusing to say their names, or to learn to say or spell them correctly. The words we use create our reality—and when we take names away rather than putting the name to the face, we use this power to tear down rather than to build up. This is why it matters so much that we say the names of those killed in the twin towers, or at Mother Emanuel church, or in the streets of our cities. This is why we encourage people to say the names of their children who die by suicide, or who never made it out of the womb. This is why the Vietnam Wall is one of the most powerful memorials in Washington DC. This is why names carry on through generations. Because God has trusted us with the power to create with a word—and when we put a name to a face, we make it real and give it meaning.

How we use that gift of power is, of course, up to us. Throughout history we have used our words wisely and poorly, to create and to destroy. We have torn down at least as much as we have built up. With this power comes responsibility—and it’s responsibility that God has shown us how to use.

Right here, in the beginning, God shows us what it means to be in this partnership: to care for the garden the same way God does, to tend and keep, stewarding the earth toward fruitfulness and beauty, ensuring justice and care. To keep our hands in the dirt, up close and personal with the creation God placed us in. To love each leaf, each whisker, each face, each body, the way God does.

God even gives us a physical lesson in what it means to be partners. When the animals have all been named, it is clear that they may be helpers, but they are not partners. There is an imbalance in the relationship. While we have often misused this story to suggest that Adam needed a subservient helper, the reality of the word ezer is that it is usually used to describe God: our helper. When we look at this kind of helping partnership, as it is described by the psalmist and the prophets, it becomes clear why it demanded so much of Adam. No true partner could be found among the creatures he had power over. Only when he gave something of himself, something real and costly and messy, could there be a partner. Real relationship requires something of us.

And isn’t this the whole story of scripture, really? Throughout the history of God’s people, God has trusted us to follow the example: to get down and dirty, to stay close, to share the holy breath of life, to use our words and our work to create alongside God. And throughout the story, God has given us God’s own self—offering us the very essence of partnership with the divine. Even when we have betrayed that trust and disregarded the gift, God has kept on offering, and trusting, and calling. Jesus gets God’s hands dirty again, touching the sick and reaching out to the outcast and mixing up mud that brings new life, breathing and teaching and walking and praying and giving…all the way to giving everything—even his own life—to bring us in as partners in this great cosmic and yet intimate enterprise of creating the world. It’s a messy thing, to grow a world. Even messier when you add the difficulties of real relationship and authentic community. But God stays with it, speaking and sculpting and trusting, all the way from in the beginning until the last breath. And we are made in God’s image, called to create and care, together.

May it be so. Amen.

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