Beginnings

by the Rev. Mieke Vandersall
Preached Sept. 11, 2017
Genesis 1:1
John 1:1

Tonight is the beginning of a new phase of our focus. Every bit of time we set a new theme. We have focused on women in the Bible. We have focused on Reclaiming Scripture. The past year and a half, give or take, we spent Finding Our Voices, and through that finding the Voice of the Sacred.

Tonight begins our exploration of our identity, and God’s identity with us.  As we have been through some challenging times these months, and have had the opportunity to go out on our own, we have had the need more and more to clearly state who we are, why we exist, why we think God wants us to continue as a community. And this has raised up the need to give clarity to ourselves and the outside world. We are clarifying who we were in the beginning and who God was, and who we have evolved to become.

I want to dig into the “why” of this theme a little more, cause I think that it is important not only for us as a community but for us individually. I have been to more than a few churches who have gone on in their lives for a few hundred years and who continue to maintain traditions for the sake of tradition. Yes, some of these traditions might be powerful and a way to connect to the Sacred, but some of the things that churches, and honestly all institutions out there do, the ways that we do them, become at some point totally unconscious. And we argue over the little things and lose sight of the big picture. The intentionality gets lost. And then the ability to be flexible, and creative gets lost too.

And then we begin saying things and believing things that aren’t true.

Like: all are welcome here! When it isn’t true. Matt Beams and I went to a conference a few months ago due to a grant we received. A woman named Barbara who works to help congregations create truly welcoming spaces gave a talk where she pointed out that people are welcome often at churches, as long as they don’t have particular needs that are outside of what the dominant culture deems as normal. If one cannot climb stairs, they literally can’t get in the church. They aren’t welcome! If one is trans, and has to pee, they can’t go without fear. They aren’t welcome! If one has an allergy or sensitivity to scent, then sorry, we can’t guarantee you won’t have an allergy attack. They aren’t welcome! If one has celiac disease, no communion bread for you. Sorry! If one cannot keep quiet, for a variety of reasons, you are gonna get lots of dirty looks. Yes, we have thought through the intentionality of a bunch of these things, but there are all sorts of other ways that we communicate welcome, and don’t communicate welcome. And these things I mention here are only surface issues, reflecting a deeper reality, yes, but surface nonetheless.

And thus, who we are as a community, the traditions we set, the ways we welcome, can also apply to us as individuals. How we communicate through our words and bodies and actions -- it matters. Jake says that every musical decision we make has its trade-offs. And the same can be true as we explore more our identity and how we express that, and who and how we welcome in.

Once a therapist told me, as I was in a period of heavy dating, shall we call it, that the things that I find endearing about a potential partner on the first date will be the things that would keep me in love after 50 years of marriage, and the things that annoy me would only amplify and become more and more annoying. And as I kept choosing poorly, the things I wanted to pretend don’t exist but I saw as a flag, if I were being honest, would be the things that would be the end of us...at the end. Time after time again.

The beginnings and the endings are intricately connected. How we begin is vitally important, what we bring to our beginnings.

So I have gone back to beginning sermons I preached, worship services where we had no idea what we were doing, where we were just experimenting. Paul Vasile was there, and Matt Beams, and Cybele as well. Emily Scott was there, as she was the one who picked up my head over brunch one weekend and told me I had to do this, the idea wasn’t going away, it was haunting me and I had to start Not So Churchy.

There are so many beginning stories I can tell, we can tell, we did begin to tell at our retreat a few months ago.

In our beginning. Our individual beginnings creating new beginnings each time one of us comes to join. The future of the community potentially changing in ways we can’t imagine because a new beginning came into our midst. Those new beginnings.

The thing is there are beautiful stories about how we began, that set the stage for our identity. The story of how this community gave me a place to be a pastor, albeit a far from perfect one, when multiple and many established congregations wouldn’t let me be their pastor for no reason other than whom I loved. The story of a group of people who got tired of asking for permission to be, and just decided that being was more important. The story of so much music being created, and the difference between sacred music and secular falling by the wayside. The story of the Sacred transforming us, month after month.  

But there are other parts of our beginnings, underbellies. The more I read and think and talk and pray the more I realize how the church that raised me, the church that ordained me, the church that I have fought against, well it is lucky that God continues to be present in it. For you see we have our roots in the proliferation of white supremacist culture, the culture that is considered to be normal, the culture that creates our norms of engagement. At a gathering I was at just a few weeks ago we were there to think through if and how we might transform the church that we find so painfully...damaging...out of touch with its radical roots...carrying on without the urgency of all that what we find the Bible to tell us...this was a really challenging meeting, many of us without any hope at all for the institutional church, and yet all of us tied to it. We came back again and again to the “thing” that we were all struggling against being the core attachment to white supremacist culture.

One article says: “Culture is powerful precisely because it is so present and at the same time so very difficult to name or identify. The characteristics … are damaging because they are used as norms and standards without being pro-actively named or chosen by the group. They are damaging because they promote white supremacy thinking. They are damaging to both people of color and to white people...

The characteristics [of white supremacy culture] are:

  • Perfectionism
  • Sense of Urgency
  • Defensiveness
  • Quantity over Quality
  • Worship of the Written Word
  • Paternalism
  • Either/Or Thinking
  • Power Hoarding
  • Fear of Open Conflict
  • Individualism
  • Progress is Bigger, More
  • Objectivity
  • Right to Comfort

One of the purposes of listing characteristics of white supremacy culture is to point out how organizations which unconsciously use these characteristics as their norms and standards make it difficult, if not impossible, to open the door to other cultural norms and standards. As a result, many of our organizations, while saying we want to be multicultural, really only allow other people and cultures to come in if they adapt or conform to already existing cultural norms. Being able to identify and name the cultural norms and standards you want is a first step to making room for a truly multi-cultural organization.”

So you see, we have some things to unpack, to bring to consciousness, as we explore our identity, starting from our root beginnings, we have cultural norms to understand, which bring us far deeper than identifying adjectives like “musical,” or “warm.”

As we go back to the beginnings of the Christian tradition that has so deeply shaped the course of the world, today we go back to the very first book of the Bible, in Genesis. In the beginning. Many of us might be used to the translation as “in the beginning, when God created the heavens and earth” but there are a few other ways to translate it. In my Tanakh, which is a Jewish biblical translation, it is rendered as “When God began to create heaven and earth.” And I have heard scholars say that a better translation would be “In a beginning, when God created the heavens and earth.” In the beginning, When God began, in a beginning. Just imagine the ramifications of these three different translations on how we think about beginnings, and what we bring to them, and how our identity is formed.

And not only is there this interesting tidbit but also, “the word beginning probably does not refer to the absolute beginning of all things, but to the beginning of the ordered creation, including the temporal order…God’s creative work in this chapter begins with something already there...” (New Interpreter's Bible Commentary)

So this is the thing. We all begin from somewhere, even God does. And in exploring those beginnings, the parts that fuel us, and those we would rather hide under rocks, the multitude and complexity of them, that maybe is where we find creation, and freedom.

We go from the very beginning, or what the Christian tradition at least claims as its beginning, to the beginning of John, all the way into the New Testament, thousands upon thousands of years later. And we find an improvisation on “in the beginning” of Genesis with John’s beginning…”In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”

But what in this improvisation is the Word?

Word is Greek for logos, which was a philosophical term of the day. One commentator discusses Logos within “Judaism as a way of speaking about the creative plan of God that governs the world.” Logos, in a secular context, wasn’t necessarily speaking about Jesus, or God for that matter, not at least until John made that leap. John says that Jesus, or the new Logos is God and God is Logos. Jesus is Word and God and Jesus are both intermingled and separate. Jesus, the creative plan is God and and is with God. Jesus, a creative plan, encompasses our word and deed, word and deed creatively sparked by God. Jesus, a human manifestation of God, as creativity, and as an instigator of creativity within us that we must respond to.

God’s speaking does not stand separate from God’s making. The divine speaking often involves a speaking with whatever is already created, with the pain of the moments that have brought us into creative inspiration, with the resilience that has brought us to try things new for us, with the desire to touch the Sacred in ways that we can only do together, and even with the culture of white supremacy that we are called to disrupt. The divine speaking often involves us in such a way that the receiver of the Word also helps to shape the result, the many beginnings and intentions and desires of the receiver are part of a holy interaction of creativity. While God’s beginnings before our beginnings creates the potential for this interactive response, it is creation from within the creation, not from outside of it where it happens.

And so. All of our beginnings and those that created them are here as we begin again. And over the next bit of time we will learn more about these. And who knows then, what beginnings these learnings will bring us to.

Before the beginning God was.
In the beginning God was.
In our beginnings God is.