God Saw It Was Good

Genesis 1                                                                    July 23, 2023

God saw that it was good. Each day of creation in Genesis has a poetic rhythm. God speaks an intention for what will happen next. “Let there be light…Let the earth put forth vegetation…Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures.” After each declaration, the narrator tells us, “It was so.” At the end of each day, God stops to evaluate what has been created and decides it is good. I wonder what God noticed to think this world is good. Was it a sunset over the waters or a full moon? A koala bear or a lobster? What was so good? The Hebrew word for “good” is “tov,” meaning beautiful, beneficial, harmonious, or moral goodness. The daily repetition of “God saw it was good” says creation is beautiful, intentional, and purposeful. Genesis does not see the universe as a random accident; cold, empty space; or a threatening environment all red in tooth and claw, not a dog-eat-dog world. Creation is where chaos is moved to goodness, beauty breaks forth, and God’s purposes are made so.

But what about black flies? During Bible study, we wondered what the purpose of biting flies could be since they do not feel beautiful, good, or purposeful. These questions are partly funny but serious too.   Is creation truly good or not?   So, I researched black flies to find their potential purpose. Flies help the ecosystem. As larvae, black flies filter-feed on organic matter and algae, contributing to the decomposition and recycling of nutrients back into water. Mature flies are part of the food web for swallows, warblers, ducks, and trout. Studying flies has led to advances in aerodynamic wing designs. The field of biomimetics draws inspiration from flies to develop miniature robots. The compound eyes of flies seeing through multiple lenses have influenced motion detection equipment. When female flies bite you, they collect extra protein and calcium from your blood to strengthen their larvae. Remember, they are just trying to be good moms. Indeed, we can all sacrifice a little blood and itching discomfort for advancing science and a snack for warblers.

We could do the same exercise for scorpions, wolves, mosquitoes, and rattlesnakes and probably find ways each species fits into the goodness of God’s creation. All life belongs and contributes to the good, when in balance

I noticed something new reading Genesis 1 several times this week. Listen to these lines and note what God declares. “Let the earth put forth vegetation…Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures.” Think about the word “let.” It can be an imperative mood, where you make a request or a suggestion. For example, “Let’s go for a walk” or “Let us pray.” Obedience is not required in these statements. If God says, “Let my people go,” that sounds more commanding. But let the earth and sea bring forth living creatures grants some agency to the created thing. The text does not say on the fourth day, God set made of the taxonomy of plants, gave the maple trees big leaves, and decided there would be 380,000 species of plants, 260,000 of which would bare seeds. We don’t read that God determined the ocean needed both sharks and dolphins, but says, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures.” Land and sea receive an imperative to thrive with life. God supplies purpose, energy, and direction, but life forces have some agency to experiment. God says, “Go forth and multiply,” not just to humans but all living things. We have a divine imperative to thrive. I’m careful not to try to make the Bible into science, but Genesis 1 sounds compatible with Darwin and the “Origen of Species.”

Discoveries about creation reshape how we understand God. Unfortunately, the church has reacted to new science with anger and resistance rather than wonder and curiosity. Theologians thought science was displacing God rather than wondering if perhaps it was our view of God that needed to change. The more I learn about nature and the cosmos, the more real God becomes to me, not vice versa.

The main reason I am doing this sermon series is to pull our spirituality closer to creation. Living here in Midcoast Maine is reshaping my spirituality as I learn to sail and watch high and low tides come and go, or take my own garbage to the dump. I’m reading as many books about nature as I am about theology. Some theologians think that is a good thing. Augustine of Hippo said, “The world is a great book, of which they who never stir from home read only a page.” Modern theologians like John Philip Newell, who led the Iona Community of Scotland for many years, invite us to find God in nature. He shares this gem from 9th-century Celtic scholar John Scotus Eruigena:

“There are two books through which God is speaking. The first is the small book, physically little, the book of scripture. The second is the big book, the living text of the universe, which includes the great luminaries of the heavens, the sun, moon, and stars; the earth, sea, and sky, the creatures of all these realms; and the multiplicity of life-forms that grow from the ground. We need to read both books. If we read only the little book (of the Bible), we will miss the vastness and wildness of the utterance, everything vibrating with the sound of the divine. If we read only the big book (of nature), we are in danger of missing the intimacy of the voice, for the book of scripture calls us to faithfulness in relationship, including faithfulness to strangers, widows, orphans and the poorest among us.”

(Sacred Earth, Sacred Soul by John Phillip Newell.  p. 88)

I learned in preaching class that we were to hold the Bible in one hand and the New York Times in the other, as Karl Barth said. But now I realize that nature doesn’t often make the newspaper unless it burns down our house or drowns Montpelier, Vermont. It is so hot in Texas that a woman baked a loaf of bread in her mailbox.  Even as the world bakes, burns and floods, we still know more about who is ahead in the poll for the 2024 presidential race than about the dynamics of our ecosystem. Creation is fighting to be heard, and we are still tone-deaf.

Our relationship with nature needs to change if we want to survive. We have treated the earth like our storehouse, a big department store where we can shop at a bargain. We have seen our trees as lumber and forgotten they are the lungs of the earth that give us oxygen. We grow our crops and lawns with little understanding of how fertilizers and chemicals affect the rest of the food chain. We build houses in the dumbest places, like flood zones, because we like the view. Now, insurance companies have had enough and are abandoning Florida and California.

Even some of our good intentions need to be reassessed. I wholeheartedly support new green technologies, but better gadgets alone won’t solve the problem. If your marriage is in trouble, you aren’t going to solve it by getting a better car or a better toothpaste. Upgrading your Wi-Fi or getting an air fryer might make you both slightly happier for a little while. But we all know that relationships require better understanding, communication, and appreciation. My point is that we need a better relationship with nature. Stopping pollution or dumping carbon into the air is a good start, but the greater change is understanding our relatedness and interdependence with all living things.  This work is spiritual

Folk singer Pete Seeger understood this connection. The Hudson River was a polluted industrial river. You couldn’t eat the fish; no one wanted to be near it. Seeger knew there was not enough political will to force the investment to clean the river. He needed people to interact with the river in a new way. So, he built the Clearwater, a sailing sloop that became an education ship. Seeger traveled the river with his banjo, stopped in towns, and gave out free pumpkins and concerts. He offered educational tours to every fifth-grade class on the riverbanks. Kids would crew the ship, learn about sailing, and take water samples to see what made the river so disgusting. Over time, Seeger built a movement to clean the Hudson because people now had a relationship to the river. New York has come a long way from seeing the river as a convenient place to dump waste to a place of beauty and joy.

Here in midcoast Maine, I think we have a similar opportunity. Thousands visit our shores to sail, kayak, and experience natural beauty. How can we move beyond seeing Maine’s beauty as “Vacationland” to a place where people renew a connection with nature that informs life back in the cities and suburbs? We already have the beauty, and great organizations like Bigelow Labs and the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens. How might we bring the spiritual equivalent of the Botanical Gardens to the life of the church? How can the church’s mission become like a pilgrimage where people come and imagine a new way of life through a deeper connection with creation? My hope for this sermon series, Be Awe-some, is to explore and brainstorm. How can our sense of awe about where we live create more profound faith? And how can a more eco-spirituality make God more present and real in peoples’ lives?  How can the “little book” of scripture” and the “big book” of nature inform our spiritual work?  Join me next week when we talk about what it means that we are made in the image and likeness of God.  I will draw attention to that tricky word “dominion” over the earth and make the case it should read “stewardship.”

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