Where do we begin?
Today, the news is heartbreaking. Violence has erupted in our streets. This is the worst civil unrest our country has known since the summer of 1968. Very quickly, our nation has retreated into its rival tribes. We either support black lives or blue lives; we either are conservative or liberal, we either see systemic racism or systemic lawlessness.
Of course we know this isn’t good. And perhaps some of us have resisted retreating into a tribe. But resistance to being pigeon-holed to a tribe isn’t a solution, it doesn’t address the question of what can we do, if we can do anything at all?
In the midst of violence, vitriolic politics, and heartbreaking news coverage, as a people of faith, where do we begin?
Today, we embark on a sermon series called Beginnings, working our way through the book of Genesis. We begin with the very first words of scripture, the beginning of the Bible, found in chapter 1, verses 1 through 5.
Where do we begin?
The Israelites considered themselves to be God’s special people; God’s chosen people. God had told them as much! And, of course, they believed that their God was the true God. They were special in part because they only believed in one God and that God was the ruler of all other gods, if those gods even existed. All of this they declared in their sacred scripture, what we call the Old Testament.
Around them were other cultures, other peoples, who had their own gods. They, too, had their beliefs written down in sacred scriptures. And like the Israelites, they had stories that told of their beginnings. These other cultures around the Israelites knew how to answer the question, where do we begin?
They began in violence. Often the world, according to their sacred stories, was born out of a conflict between two or more gods. They also began with gods creating their specific people, their specific nation. They additionally began life on this planet with their gods angry with them, and they spent all their time trying to keep their gods happy so that they could prosper. They had to because these gods belonged to them. These were their tribal gods; not tribal in the sense of uncivilized, but tribal in belonging and mattering only to their nation.
They began, in sum, with violent tribal gods who cared only about how that tribe could serve them.
Notice how different the story of creation is in the Old Testament.
God creates not the Israelites but all things and all people. Adam and Eve were not the first Israelites; they were the first humans. That might not seem significant, and until I was researching I hadn’t noticed just how significant this is. The Israelites as a nation begin with Abraham, many generations after Adam. If the Israelites had written scripture the way their neighbors did, their story, our Old Testament, would have begun twelve chapters into Genesis with the story of Abraham.
Additionally, Adam we’ve taken as a name but it’s actually the Hebrew word for human. So when God creates Adam, what scripture is saying is God created a human, not a human named Adam. Adam is a noun in Hebrew, the same as our own for human, not a name. Genesis for the next 15 chapters is careful to trace the different lineages that flow from Adam, through Cain, Abel, and Seth, into tribes that scatter around the world. After the flood, Noah’s sons repopulate the earth, leading to many tribes around the world. This means Genesis tracks the beginning of all people, regardless of whether or not they became Israelites, ancestors of Abraham.
And Genesis goes further, to say that God has a claim on all these people, not just the Israelites. All people belong to God, not just the Israelites, and God loves all people, and all of creation for God called all of creation good, not just the particular tribe of the Israelites that he favors.
God, according to Genesis, is not tribal.
Then, God creates the world in an orderly fashion. Genesis 1:1 through 2:4a chronicle this orderly development. It follows the pattern we read in these first five verses: God sees a need, God creates to fill the need, God calls it good. We’re all very familiar with the six days of creation and God’s rest on the seventh, creating sabbath. All of it is not birthed from violence, not birthed from conflict, not birthed like any of the other stories from their neighbors, but from God’s love, God’s creative power, and God’s sense of order and justice.
God, according to Genesis, begins the world in order, not violence.
This story, this beginning, is very different from the Israelites’ neighbors. God creates in order and reveals that God is for everyone. God is sometimes violent in the Old Testament, and God is indeed sometimes violent in the New Testament, too, but God does not begin in violence.
Where do the neighbors of the Israelites begin? With violent tribal gods who cared only about how that tribe could serve them.
Where do the Israelites begin? In order, in peace, and in God’s universal claim on all people.
Where do we begin?
Their story is our story and we, our faith, should begin in the conviction that God is of order, of peace, and has a universal and equal claim on all lives.
The great pioneer of monastic living, one of the first monks, St. Benedict, remarked, “Always, we begin again.” It’s a beautiful notion that describes life as we should live it. We should have such humility that we are always willing to approach things afresh and anew. We should have such humility to know that, even if we think we have encountered something before and we know it, there’s still something new to learn.
I see that in the creation account. God created everything we know. And there’s always more to discover for the fullness of creation is only God’s to know. We can easily think of that through a scientific lens, but I want to think through a social lens today.
Because coming to Eastman was, for me, an example of how always, we begin again.
I came here having been pulled to the left by my education and experience. In my time here, I have shifted somewhat toward the right. That’s not because conservatives are right or hold more truth. It’s not because I suddenly discovered the left or liberals are bankrupt.
No, I didn’t come here a democrat and I’m not leaving a republican. I came here a Christian whose duty it is to be humble enough to always reconsider what I believe.
And I have discovered here that what I thought I knew about rural America was often wrong. What I thought I knew about South Georgia was often wrong. I discovered that through entering into trusting, meaningful, relationships with you. I have been molded and shaped by those relationships that I have with you, and indeed I value those very highly. And I suspect the feeling is mutual. I’m grateful for that.
Because I know, deep in my soul, that God created how the world operates. That includes how the world operates socially. And so what I believe is right socially, what I hold as political convictions, are not 100% correct. Nor will they ever be. They will be shaped by my experience and informed by scripture and church tradition. None of us hold the exact same beliefs and convictions that we did decades ago. We have been molded and shaped by our lived experience and our faith.
God created all that we know. God knows our society and our social constructs better than we could ever know them. None of us is right, none of us is wrong; we are all sojourners on the path to discovering truth as God reveals it. At least, hopefully we are; for we can choose the path of self-righteousness, sitting down on the path, declaring ourselves to be 100% right, declaring that we already know the truth and it’s everyone else’s job to come up to us so we can inform them on what the truth is. We thus refuse to be changed and in doing so we block others on their path toward the truth.
If God created, and if God is the source of all we know, we must be humble enough to reconsider our beliefs, always asking ourselves if our beliefs are a part of God’s order, peace, and claim on all people. We must always be willing to begin again. That’s what I have practiced here. That’s what I have seen many of you practicing.
And we must be even more vigilant to practice that now, in light of these protests and violence. For the only way to get past the stereotypes that are portrayed through whatever news we might consume, the only way to get past the ways we might immediately react to what we see on the news, is to be humble enough to reconsider what we think in light of these new experiences. Going to scripture and going to our prayer life to check on those experiences and check on that truth.
We must be willing to begin, again, in our understandings.
We must be willing to begin, again, in our feelings toward those who are different.
We must be willing to begin, again, to reconsider how we perceive the world.
So where do we begin again?
Let’s begin again in Genesis. If God created all that we know, then we should not be so married to our opinions, our social and political convictions, that we cannot be changed by our experiences nor by scripture or the church. We must hold our beliefs loosely, ready to reexamine and change them if necessary, rather than rigidly declaring our beliefs to be right.
Another way to say that is this: we must not be tribal; we must think more broadly, because there’s always something more to learn, some new truth to discover, some new way God is revealing himself through creation. If we look at the other side of our convictions and say, “they just need to get over it,” it’s time to re-evaluate, to ask ourselves how do they perceive the world, how do they think of the world, what is it that’s driving their convictions, to listen with empathy and allow ourselves to be molded and shaped by that experience.
Let’s begin again in Genesis. If God is not tribal; if God has a universal claim on all people, then black and blue lives belong to God. Liberals and conservatives belong to God. Antifa and white nationalists belong to God. All of us are descendants of Adam, sharing a common human bond, sharing the image of God, sharing God’s love because in love God created. When we see someone who is different from us, do we see the differences, or do we see an adam, a human, just like us?
One of the most radical ways I have found to check myself on that is to remind myself that most of the pictures I grew up with portraying the disciples and Jesus were wrong. Jesus and his disciples were almost certainly brown-skinned. The earliest church fathers were, too. The Israelites were, too. The classic, traditional, location of Eden is Africa, meaning that if Adam and Eve had a race, it was black. When I picture Jesus, if I see a brown-skinned Jesus in my mind, it changes my perspective on how I see my fellow humans who are not white-skinned.
Let’s begin again in Genesis. If God created in order and peace, then violence is never justified. I’ve preached on this before: God is sometimes violent but it’s God’s prerogative to utilize violence, not ours. News reports suggesting that violence by rioters is somewhat or fully justified because of the anger over systemic racism are false. The anger is real. The anger is justified. Rioting is not. At least, from a Christian perspective, for violence by humans is never justified from our religious perspective.
But let us note that systemic racism is real, and thus the rage is real. We all play a role in it even unwittingly. I confess to you this morning that I am a racist. I am because my culture, the one that raised me, the one that raised us all, is inherently racist. For me, it’s not charts and news articles that convince me as such. It’s the lived experience of too many of my friends and colleagues. It’s the stories shared when those who are not white are willing to risk vulnerability to discuss how they experience our society. Too often, it’s a far cry from my experience, the opportunities I have had, the safety that I feel, because I am white.
No one, for example, has ever asked a church if they’d be willing to accept a black pastor when considering me for that church. But they ask that about my colleagues. And that’s an example of how racism pervades our systems such that it hinders opportunity for very talented people who could do just as good of a job at a church as I do. And this is a milder form of the oppression that leads to acts of violence and fear that too many of my friends and colleagues have known because of the color of their skin.
Listening and empathy have taught me and I continue to learn, as I lead myself and others toward our common humanity as adams, humans, beloved of God.
Violence by authorities is also not justified by God. By violence, I don’t mean physical force alone. What I mean by violence is deeper, more nuanced. An act becomes violent when the person with authority forgets that the other person or people set against them are humans, too; that they share a common bond as humans.
Violence is never justified because, in order to be violent, we must forget that the other person is human and belongs to God just as much as we belong to God.
Let’s begin again in Genesis, beginning not with God’s claim on us who already believe, but God’s claim on all people. That’s the power of the witness of the ancient Israelites. They could have begun their story, their sacred scripture, with the story of how they became the special people of God. They could have skipped ahead to 11:27, where Abraham is first introduced as Abram. They could have begun there, but they didn’t.
And when Jesus came, he came for all people, everywhere. He embraced relationship with those who were different from him and were ostracized by society. He especially loved those people, suffering under various forms of societal oppression. He didn’t let social customs and standards block him. He didn’t just associate with people who agreed with him. And in fact, when the money changers in the temple were oppressing people with their tactics, he got righteously angry, and justifiably so.
So let us do the same as Jesus. I have rarely, in my life, been in a community where I simply agreed with everything. Being here has challenged many of my beliefs but going to a liberal seminary was also very challenging for the same reason. We are more humble when we are faced with those challenges, and rise to the occasion, choosing what’s best in ourselves over our baser instincts, ready to change, ready to reexamine, out of understanding that we do not know truth, we only know God who gradually reveals truth to us.
And the other reality here is this: it’s hard to hate people when you know them. I know police officers. I also know protesters. I have friends on social media posting from both sides. When I see police on the news, I think of the people I know who serve in law enforcement. And when I see protesters, I think of the people I know who are protesting right now.
It’s hard to hate when you know people. It’s hard to hate when you have relationships that bridge divides and cross gaps.
Instead, it’s easier to see everyone, no matter how different, with the eyes of love, mindful that, as we learn from creation, God desires order, peace, and justice, for all.
So where do we begin?
Change starts at home.
When we are confronted with a crisis like we know now as a nation, do we begin from the standpoint of our tribe? That’s the easy place to begin, to see the world through the lens of republicans or democrats, liberals or conservatives, Trump-supporters and those against Trump.
Our faith begins here, in Genesis, seeing all of us as adams, humans, equally belonging to God.
When you see the protesters on your phone or TV, do you see lawless criminals or do you see humans, adams?
When you see police on your phone or TV, do you see violent authoritarians or do you see humans, adams?
If we begin by seeing those who are very different from us, those who do not belong to our tribe, as humans, too, we react not with anger, righteous indignation, or dismissive rejections, but instead we react with compassion, longing for justice to prevail for all who belong to God, which is everyone of the almost eight billion of us. We react the way Jesus reacted to all who suffered around him, especially those who were very different from himself: with love, compassion, and justice.
And if we are brave, let us confront our stereotypes and poor opinions of others. Change begins at home. That includes at home in the heart, where if we find we have anything but love for some group of people, we must confess our sin for not loving and ask God to reform our hearts. We must learn to love those who are different; change begins in the heart.
A powerful way to do that is to form relationships across barriers. Get to know people very different from you. That’s never been easier than with social media. When you see someone post something that is markedly different from what you believe, private message them and engage them in conversation. If you do so civilly, most people respond graciously. Approach those conversations not to prove yourself right but, rather, humbly willing to be changed and prayerful that the other person has the same attitude.
Or I imagine you have people in your life who do think differently than you. Engage them in dialogue. Not to convince them that you are right but to hear why they think they are right, to learn from each other, to listen with empathy.
Let your social media posting and your news consuming be marked by graciousness and love. Read across the spectrum, get to know how people different from you think. You may walk away still disagreeing, I certainly do very often, but it’s easier to approach those who are different with grace when we have learned how they think, for in seeing how they think, we see how they are human, just like us.
And it’s possible, and I hope my example proves this for I believe my life proves this, it’s possible to have a whole host of people who believe very different things still call you friend. That is how I live my life and I hope it’s the example that I set.
Then, take what you learn, take all your experiences, to God in prayer. Read the scriptures, carefully, and see how they correspond with what you believe and what you’re learning. I am always surprised and often challenged by that experience and I’m sure you will be, too. Everything we believe, everything we understand, comes through our experience and should be compared against scripture and church tradition and taken to God in prayer. That’s how change begins at home, and when we approach God with hearts and minds willing to be changed, hearts and minds that are willing to be molded, not hardened believing that we already have most of it or all of it figured out, we become more like Jesus, better able to live out God’s love into the world, better able to act for justice, promote order, and be a blessed peacemaker.
Change begins at home. We can change ourselves and the world around us by beginning here, in Genesis. And when we do, we become promoters of God’s will for order, peace, and love.
That’s because, when we start here, moving out of our tribes and into God’s universal embrace of humanity, our conversations change, our social media posting changes, our attitudes change, our hearts change. Our response as Christians to what we see on the news should be broken hearts at the brokenness of the world. Our response as human beings to what we see on the news should be to see ourselves on both sides, to see our common humanity, and to know that there is hope that comes from knowing that God creates still, moving to establish order and justice.
Where do we begin?
Better yet, where do you begin?
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.