I want to begin this morning by sharing with you a story. You see, I collect stories, I love to hear them, I love them well-told, I love when the synchronicities within them lead to greater truth, and comfort, and peace.
When I was in seminary each of the seniors in our small community would lead a chapel service throughout the year. And in my first year in the Bethany and Earlham School of Religion communities I heard one of the truest and clearest and simplest stories of grace I had ever heard. I confess now that I have no idea who preached the sermon. I can tell you with some degree of certainty that his first name was Dean, but wherever Dean went after seminary or where his life journey took him I have no idea. Dean began his sermon that morning telling a funny story about growing up in a conservative Lutheran church, one of those traditional churches where all the pews faced the front and the altar was raised and set apart. As a young boy Dean would sit in worship and stare at that ornate altar, complete with its gold candelabras and towering cross. He decided in the way of only the most creative of four-year-olds that God must live behind that altar, else why did everyone bow down to it, face it in worship, pray toward it? One Sunday, his four-year-old, curiosity got the better of him and after worship he untangled his hand from his mothers and snuck away from and made his way down that long aisle to take a gander behind that altar, to see this God to whom he had learned to pray. He went forward, full of trepidation and awe, and cautiously and as reverently as a four-year-old can he looked behind the altar, where he found, stored, no doubt in a convenient place, by some dear church custodian an upright vacuum cleaner. The puzzled four-year-old backed away with a great deal of certainty and clarity, and Dean shared, jokingly that throughout his preschool years he truly believed that God was a Hoover.
His story, of course, got a chuckle, for we all know silly stories of misunderstandings we had about the nature of the church in our younger years. But then this masterful preacher quickly changed the subject and shared a different story, one which wasn’t as whimsical and silly. With a tentative voice, Dean shared painfully of what a difficult semester it had been. As a young seminarian he was working as a chaplain for three months in an intensive Clinical Pastoral Education unit at a trauma hospital in Dayton. He struggled with issues of doubt, grappled with questions of suffering and loss and the nature of God. And felt as if he were losing his faith. The painful horrors that he had seen in the trauma bays of the emergency rooms had left impressions which were hard to shake. And his supervisors were critical of him and his ministry. He felt all hope was lost. After a particularly bloody trauma call which involved two gunshot wounds on an overnight shift he made his way to an out of the way hospital waiting room, and sat, his head in his hands and began to weep quiet tears. Questioning his vocation, questioning God’s existence, questioning the world we live in where brothers shoot brothers. In the midst of his tears quietly a cleaning woman had entered the room to straighten and tidy it for the next day, and with her she brought, of course, a Hoover vacuum cleaner, symbol of Dean’s young faith. And Dean said that as he sat there, inwardly smiling at God’s sense of humor in that hour, he raised his feet to allow the cleaning woman to clean around him, and this saint of a woman put her hands on his shoulder and said, “No, you’re good. You’re good right where you are.”
Dean reflected later that he probably frightened that instrument of God with his sobs as she touched his shoulder and shared her divine proclamation (even if she only referred to the placement of his feet). But this young minister was certain of the message from his God. He had been reminded by his quirky creator, the God who has a sense of humor, of the truth of the matter. He was good. He was good right there. And it was both confirmation and creation, for Dean began a new career in his ministry. And his story was told, and is told again.
Creation stories, the origins of how things came to be are always fascinating to me. Often when I worked at Hospice, and spent time with patients who were near the end of life, I found that the richest conversations happened when we talked about how things began, or when new things came to be. Where were you born? How did you come to live in Fort Wayne? How did you meet your spouse? What led you to start that project, that business, to travel that life path? As a parent, I’ve learned that our children love few stories more than the stories we tell them about their own beginnings--where each of them were born, how Brynn spent her first nine days of life in the NICU at Lutheran, how Grayson turned to look at his daddy’s face as he lay in that incubator only minutes old, how Robert introduced Tess to trees in the car on the way home from the hospital. Creation stories fascinate us, for we love how artfully they weave the stories of our lives, how they proclaim the wonder of how we got from there to here. How they give us hints about who we would become, or how we were led to this spot on the map of our lives.
The Ancient Israelites were no less entranced with stories of creation and origin, and they were mindful of how those stories should be told to their children. At the time that the book of Genesis was recorded, the Israelites were held captive by their Babylonian oppressors. The stories the Babylonians told themselves and others about the creation of the universe were filled with violence and blood, stories of domination and power. The Israelites had a different sense of the creation of the world and in an act of counter-cultural revolution they knew in their bones a different story, a creation story with a different twist. The tale woven around the fireside that was shared with each generation of Israelite children, and the story documented by our forebearers in the Judeo-Christian tradition is a different one. It is a story of blessing and grace, a story where humanity is created after the universe was put into motion, woman and man created in the image of their loving and adoring God who looks on them with tender eyes and sees them as good. All good. The Spirit of God hovered and brooded over deep water, hopeful and yearning, and brought forth the blessing of our created bodies. All blessing.
Don’t ask me how this began to get twisted, how the idea of original blessing became original sin. Some say it was the first taste of the fruit Adam bit, or that pesky snake, or Eve wanting to have a teeny tiny bit more knowledge. But no word is mentioned in these accounts of sin, and God seems less angry Dad and more disappointed and reluctant parent as the tale continues. And so I think that original sin stigma came even later and forever shaped the history that grew up around it. Augustine, who wrote in the fourth and fifth century was the one who really claimed that there was a fall, or a break from our relationship with God. And the idea of original sin was expounded on, then by other early church fathers intent on maintaining order and demanding that children of the church repent of the sins of Adam and Eve. Meanwhile, original sin is never mentioned in the Bible. Nowhere.
Which raises the question again? How did we drift so far afield from this idea that humanity was created “all good,” that our inherent nature, the spark of God within us is made with a default “good” switch? How did we stray so far away from our scriptural roots? And how do we find our way back to that idea of original blessing?
If we know we are created in the image of God, created good, then what is our responsibility now? How do we live into this goodness? How do we accept this unimaginable gift of being loved inherently, just as we are?
I think we can offer two responses. The first is this: Knowing we are loved, we are required to love. Plain and simple. Knowing that God chose each of us as a vehicle for the divine, so much so that God chose to become mortal and walk the earth as Jesus Christ, reminds us of our mission. We are created in love, and so we must love. Even when we are afraid, even when we have doubts, even when it is difficult. The poet Mary Oliver once wrote, “There are a hundred different paths through the world that are easier than loving. But who wants easier?” May this be our mantra. We don’t need easier. We need to love. And so this must be the first response we have to our original blessing: love.
And the second response is like it: we must recognize our place in creation. Frederick Buechner wrote in his book Wishful Thinking, “Using the same old materials of earth, air, fire, and water, every twenty-four hours God creates something new out of them. If you think you’re seeing the same show all over again seven times a week, you’re crazy. Every morning you wake up to something that in all eternity never was before and never will be again. And the you that wakes up was never the same before and will never be the same either.” (Buechner, Frederick. Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC, Harper San Francisco, 1973). As images of God, as original blessings, we must recognize that we are part of all creation, and that our role on this planet is not coincidental. We have a unique task to do here, and a God who whispers to us through all of creation, or through old upright vacuum cleaners, as assurance of our place here, and our goodness in it.
Make no mistake. Discipleship is difficult. Doubts and fears will impede us at times. But we are made all good, and our creator delights and hovers over us offering us gifts of grace at every turn. It’s all good, friends. May it be so.