Rev. Sheridan Irick
January 10, 2021
A Prayer for Remembering Who God Is
This week, we watched in horror as a mob stormed the US Capitol building. Lives were lost. The institution of our democratic republic seemed shaken. The peaceful transfer of power appeared threatened.
As citizens of the United States, we cannot help but be affected by these events. But as citizens of your kingdom, we put our trust and hope in you, our creator and provider. We pray knowing that it is okay if sometimes our words are not clever. We prayer knowing that you already know what we will say. We pray, hoping that our will and your will might fall a little closer in line. We pray, remembering who you are.
You are God who raises up the lowly, and so we pray for the most vulnerable. We pray for those who lack adequate food, shelter, or employment. We pray for those who live on the margins and who skate by on social security and who know which bills to pay in what order so that nothing bounces. God of mercy, hear our prayer.
You are God who frees the captive, and so we pray for all those who are oppressed. We pray for those trapped by abuse or violence and those shackled by addiction. Inspire us to also break chains. We pray for those who are literally prisoners, that they may find freedom from their pasts. God of mercy, hear our prayer.
You are God of healing, and so we pray for all those who sick. We pray for those in hospital beds, and for their loved ones who cannot see them. We pray for those afflicted by Covid-19 or cancer or any of the other myriad illnesses and injuries that challenge our fragile bodies. Give them strength; give their doctors wisdom. God of mercy, hear our prayer.
You are the King of kings and Lord of lords, and so we pray for those in authority, especially those elected to leadership in our government. Give them wisdom, discernment, and compassion. Guide them to make decisions that are in the best interest of all our neighbors. God of mercy, hear our prayer.
You are God of reconciliation, and so we pray for the places of division. We have seen the damage caused when trust is broken and communities are divided. Help us to hear the pain of our neighbors; guide us toward the truth; heal the brokenness among us. God of mercy, hear our prayer.
All these things we ask, knowing that you are our God who hears us. Amen.
The First Day
Genesis 1:1-5 [translation by Robert Alter]
“When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God’s breath hovering over the waters, God said, ‘Let there be light.” And there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good, and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And it was evening and it was morning, first day.”
Creation begins with chaos. We tend to imagine God starting with a clean slate in the empty vacuum of space, but that isn’t what is described here in Genesis. The earth is there, in a sort of soupy, primordial kind of way. What will be isn’t yet, and what is there is all sort of mixed up and watery, and nothing is properly sorted.
If we were telling it, we might tell it like this… In the time before mornings, God got up to bake the world and wandered into the kitchen, and it was a mess: dishes on the counter, salt mixed in with the sugar, flour everywhere, and the sink had been left running. So God rummaged in an overstuffed drawer for an apron, and tied the knot tight, and got ready to work. “First things first,” God said, “we’re going to need some light.” And there was light.
Or maybe we would tell it a little like this… God opened the front door of the world with a creak and stepped into the darkness. Mysterious lumps of furniture molded under dusty sheets and in one corner the flooring was soft and warped where rain had come in through a hole in the ceiling. If there had been mice then, they would certainly have been nesting in the walls. And God said, “This place has good bones. We could make it beautiful.” And the first thing God did was pull down the curtains and let the light come streaming in. And it was good.
In Hebrew, the earth is described here in verse 2 as tohu wabohu. It usually gets translated as something like “formless and void.” In the version I read today, Alter chooses the translation “welter and waste,” using alliteration to try to capture a little of the Hebrew wordplay. Tohu means emptiness or futility, and wabohu doesn’t mean anything, really. It’s what linguists call a nonce word, a word made up for a single occasion. A more accurate translation of the phrase might be, “the earth was wasteland-schmasteland.” Tohu
And in the midst of all that—the formless, trackless places, the chaos of the murky depths, God’s spirit hovers over the water. In Hebrew, spirit and breath are described by the same word: ruah. And God’s ruah hovers over the waters. In other places in scripture, similar wording is used to describe an eagle hovering over her young. God’s spirit hovers over the deep, watery abyss as a mother bird hovers over a nest. Waiting. Creating. Protecting. Nurturing.
Sometimes Genesis gets treated like a science lesson, but this isn’t a textbook, it’s a sacred story. If we get too caught up in whether we’re supposed to take it literally, we miss the point. We miss what this story (even just these five verses) might have to tell us about who God is and how God works in the world.
The first thing our scriptures tell us about God is that God is a creator. Often our English translations treat creation like it’s a one-time event that is already over. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Full stop. But the Alter translation is arguably closer to the Hebrew: “When God began creating the heavens and the earth…” In other words, Genesis 1 isn’t the end of creation, it’s the beginning of creation. Maybe there is no end to creation.
I hope and believe that God began creating the heavens and the earth, and then God never stopped. I hope and believe that the Spirit of God is still hovering over the murky depths, still shaping order out of chaos, still speaking light into dark places. I need this to be true because sometimes it still seems like the earth is a little tohu wabohu.
Certainly, in our own lives, we never seem to start with clean slates. We want them. It’s why we love snowy mornings and blank pages and new calendars and midnight countdowns and the smell of babies and puppies. But the truth is, we never really start fresh. We have habits that creep in and personality quirks that we never quite overcome and wounds that leave scars. We inherit our family histories. We come with baggage. Even when we do the hard work of healing or growing or even making drastic changes, our pasts are still part of our story.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once offered the advice, “Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.” I used to have it pinned on the bulletin board in my old office. I love it because it’s a nice goal, but I’m not sure any of us actually achieve it. Our old nonsense has a way of slipping back in. The things we’ve done and the things we’ve left undone tend to churn in us, like the deep waters of Genesis 1.
And the world around us, despite being God’s good creation, is even more chaotic. We witnessed it this week, when bombs were planted by our own citizens and a mob stormed the Capitol. Many of us found ourselves caught up in the news cycle, but in the barrage of images that came out from that day, one, in particular, stood out to me. It was taken after midnight in the rotunda of the Capitol. And in it, a single man, Representative Andy Kim from New Jersey, knelt on the marble floor in his suit and tie with a garbage bag in hand and picked up the rubbish that had been left behind: water bottles, broken furniture, tattered flags and pieces of clothing. He cleaned for an hour and a half and filled half a dozen trash bags. When he was through in the rotunda, he moved on to adjacent rooms, including the National Statuary Hall and the Capitol crypt downstairs.
“I was just overwhelmed with emotion,” he said. “It’s a room that I love so much — it’s the heart of the Capitol, literally the heart of this country. It pained me so much to see it in this kind of condition.” Garbage collector, after all, is not his job description, but he couldn’t help but go to work.
In a week when I was thinking and writing about the way that God shapes a world that is tov (good) out of a world that is tohu (empty and futile), Kim was a tangible reminder of what it looks like to hover over the chaos with love. How does the Creator work in the world? Out of love, not obligation. The story of Genesis 1 paints a portrait for us of a God who creates because it delights God to create.
I’ve heard many people asking recently how we possibly heal from all this. How do we heal from murder attempts? How do we heal from deadly assault? How do we heal from divisions this deep? How do we heal when we can’t even agree on the truth?
Honestly, I don’t know. Sometimes it feels like it might be impossible. But if it is possible, I think it begins with love, even with delight. If it feels like we are walking in the dark and caught in the depths, remember that the day has just begun. As Genesis tells us, “it was evening and it was morning, first day.” This is why in the Jewish tradition, the day begins at sundown. The night starts the day. If it seems dark, perhaps that’s only because we are about to start a new day.
The theologian Valerie Bridgeman reminds us of the importance of this text coming up in the lectionary on the Baptism of our Lord Sunday, in Epiphany. “[C]reation began in the watery chaos,” she writes, “and so does our journey in our faith. We are baptized into chaos then God orders our lives with the dance of the Spirit. Sometimes that ordering happens in darkness, but God smiles and darkness rolls aside. We often can’t experience the ‘order’ of what God is doing, but mud-people that we are, we are loved.”
We go down into the murkiness, into the chaos, and then we come out of it. And if God can do that in our own lives, surely God can do it in the world too. The Spirit is still hovering over the deep places, and we are called—not to find a boat where we can stay safe and dry and unchanged, but instead to jump in. We let the water wash over us, and we feel the breath of God on our necks, and we experience re-creation. Perhaps we cannot start with a clean slate, but it is never too late for us to be changed people.
What will be isn’t yet, and what is there is all sort of mixed up and watery, and nothing is properly sorted. So let’s tie our aprons tight and pick up our garbage bags and go to work, even if it seems futile. Let’s pull down the curtains and let the light come streaming in, even if what it illuminates looks like chaos. After all, this place has good bones. We could make it beautiful.