For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. - Romans 8:38-39
After two thousand years and more, one might reasonably assume that we have learned all there is to know about the Bible. But it is the story about God so there will always be more to understand. Over the next several weeks we shall distill this book into one theme and hopefully by the end of this series you will have a grasp of that plot line – God’s Salvation of humankind. It is complex so most of it is written as story, humankind’s way of making meaning out of diverse events and finding purpose.
I used to be concerned with finding meaning from scripture by determining which events I thought were true and which were just stories. But a medical doctor turned preacher convinced me I was on the wrong path when he said, “I no longer try to turn it into a completely explained rational phenomenon… I wanted everything explained as medical student, but the further I went along… the mystery came back in; science does not explain everything… The further I got down the path of faith, the less important explaining it all seemed to be; I am happy with mystery but want to keep exploring it.”
Story and art have that same power to become something greater than the sum of its parts. True art is more than the sum of its colors and shadows of light and dark; true art comes to us in the form of a lightning rod attached to your soul. When I first saw Van Gogh’s Starry NightI felt as If I was transported to this magical, mysterious place.
I feel that lightning rod, that mystery, that meteor on my soul when I hear the first chapters of Genesis. And for me whether or not Adam and Eve are real people is beside the point; either way I most powerfully and passionately, perhaps more than anything, believe in the story of Genesis 1 and 2 and the whole story of God’s love found in the Bible.
And it is an incredible story. The greatest story ever told.
There are heroes, and villains,
epic battles of good versus evil,
human frailty along with historic courage,
poetry and poignancy,
tales of romance and treachery,
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Our story, this story starts at the very beginning. No,not like fairy tales, or action movies. The actual beginning of EVERYTHING!
We find ourselves in paradise, the Garden of Eden where there is perfect harmony between God and us, between people and the planet. All that is needed is there. It is a vision of shalom, a wholeness, a unity of all things. And God has fashioned all of it out of overflowing love.
I have felt this universal harmony while standing atop the Grand Tetons in Wyoming and gazing at the Snake River below, the majesty and grandeur, the beauty is mesmerizing. Perfect.
And in our story today there is true humanity found, uttered by Adam as he seeks to find a partner to dwell in paradise, apparently even paradise isn’t perfect until you find someone you love; when Eve finally comes you can almost feel his heart mend and soar, “At last bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh!” Now it truly is perfect. Now it is complete.
There are no clothes, because there is no shame. It almost cannot be imagined. A world without shame, without guilt, without fear. This is the world God created for us. This is how we were meant to live and be with one another. The whole rest of the Bible is about getting us back to this place… But in truth to something even better, BETTER THAN PARADISE!
These chapters of Genesis were written during the time Israel emerged into the Promised Land and while they were living amongst their enemies in Babylon. This story was written with a purpose; to combat the false narratives these other cultures were telling. There were popular tales from other religions and cultures, such as the Epic of Enuma Elish and the Epic of Atrahasis they told of ancient battles amongst the gods fighting for supremacy. Stories of evil, gods slain, whose carcass created the heavens and the earth. Stories about the nature of humanity not made out of love, but rather made to be slaves of the gods out of the blood droppings of a despotic tyrannical and nasty jealous god!
In contrast, what does this beautiful story of Genesis teach us… But the heavens and the earth are created by the will of God, and that they are beautiful, and that they are good, and that they are very, very, very good, and that humanity far from being created to be slaves out of something evil, that we were created out of love to offer joy and praise.
But it is not only authors, ancient or modern, that weave stories, but each one of us!
The stories we tell of ourselves in our family are the ones that shape who we are today.
My story is that of being born in the jungles of Brazil. It is not simply a fact, but it creates a certain solidarity with people from that place, and for the poor and the oppressed since this is why my parents were there. It is a soul place for me and Portuguese – though I cannot speak it –ignites a part of my brain that centers me in a sublime rapturous peace. The same peace I knew as a child with my brothers and my parents. When all was good and we were all together. But just like paradise it didn’t last but that is a story for another time.
You have a story that has a beginning that has shaped and molded you as well. You have the Adam – like place in which you feel, “At last, at last, at last, at last….”
This soul longing of people or places was grafted by God into the human spirit that can make you experience the womb-like safety of being enveloped in love. It is your beginning, and you would do well to understand it.
Brick Church has a story thanks to Deanne Turner, Margaret Stocker and others.
We know the story of past pastors, and we continue to tell the story of grand elders like Ellsworth Stanton. They capture something of the core of this place, and as we weave the stories today they shape who we will be tomorrow.
Brick Church has this beginning. In its January 4, 1768, issue the New York Mercury reported:
On Friday last, being the first day of this year, the Presbyterians of the city, in communion with the established Church of Scotland, opened their Brick Church, lately erected on the green. The Reverend Mr. Rodgers conducted the worship and preached from these words of the Prophet Haggai: ‘I will fill this House with my Glory, saith the Lord of Hosts.’ There was a very crowded audience and by the solemnity of the occasion and the address of the Preacher, the whole assembly seemed to be impressed with a mixture of Seriousness, Gratitude and Joy, more easily conceived than expressed, and highly becoming the dedication of a House to the worship of Almighty God.
That was 255 years ago!
This place, this church was founded to fill the earth with praise to our maker. In fact, it is thought the first chapter of Genesis was used in worship for this same purpose: to praise our Creator!
In fact, all creation was made for this purpose. As the Westminster catechism tells us. “What is the chief end of humankind? ‘To glorify God and enjoy God forever’!” And Brick has been pursuing that purpose all these years, and who knows how the story unfolds for the next quarter millennia… What we do here, in our time will write the next chapter. It has been an historic story both for this country and this denomination.
During the Revolutionary War the British occupied Brick Church and frankly made a mess of it, but after the war our first pastor, John Rogers, in a supremely Christian act welcomed back the loyalists to the church. As a sign of thanksgiving none less than George Washington wrote Rogers a letter (which hangs in my study) of thanks for Rogers’ effort to heal the nation. John Rogers was also the denomination’s first moderator!
The Day School too has its beginnings, some 80 years ago and because of that vision not only have we nurtured good Presbyterians, but we have shaped generations of leaders within this city and around the world. There is a story of etiquette classes in the mid-1900s. A concept that sounds archaic to us and yet it was just last year a woman from East Harlem who attended those some 50 years ago was expressing her thanks and joy of having had that opportunity.
A favorite hymn of mine was written by our most famous pastor, Henry Van Dyke in the late 1800s, Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy!”
Mortals, join the mighty chorus,
Which the morning stars began;
God's own love is reigning o’er us,
Joining people hand in hand.
Ever singing, march we onward,
Victors in the midst of strife;
Joyful music leads us sunward
In the triumph song of life.
That’s God’s promise. That God will triumph and restore us. This text discloses the reason for the story of Adam and Eve and of us all, thanksgiving, joyous rapturous thanksgiving for this incredible God, the gift of life and of this world. Next week our story takes us to the Fall of Humanity. Despite the tragedies this creates we will find that God’s power of goodness is more than a match for the frailty of the human heart. Amen.