Remember Who You Are

{Sermon delivered at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, Woodburn, Oregon, 1.10.21; Lectionary text: Genesis 1:1-5 (below).}

From the short few verses of Genesis 1 we read this morning, the passage or chapter goes on to poetically, vividly narrate a tale of creation that culminates in a day of rest. All along the way, we are told—as a kind of refrain—that the created world is good, including humans, made “according to God’s likeness.”

As I re-read Genesis 1 this week, I was reminded of a favorite story. So let me begin today by sharing the story. It comes from Rabbi Lawrence Kushner—a fabulous writer and teacher. One day Rabbi Kushner was giving a tour of his synagogue to a group of visiting preschoolers. Now Kushner had planned for the tour to culminate in a sort of grand finale; but for some reason, the tour was cut short just before his big reveal. The rabbi had planned to show the youngsters behind a huge curtain on the prayer stage—an especially sacred part of the synagogue. Behind that curtain is kept an ark, or a sacred container, holding the scrolls of the Torah. But like I said, Rabbi Kushner ran out of time that day and didn’t get to reveal to the children what was behind the great curtain. However, later that afternoon, back in their classroom, the kids were overheard by their teacher having a deep conversation with one another about what was behind that imposing shroud. According to their teacher, one child, destined to become a professor of nihilistic philosophy according to Kushner, said behind the curtain is “absolutely nothing.” Another less creative child remarked that the curtain must hide “a Jewish holy thing.” A third child guessed that behind the curtain was “a brand new car”! But then a fourth child spoke up. It was this child who said: No, no, you are all wrong. Behind that curtain you will find “a giant mirror.” Kushner notes that somehow, that little child spoke what the great spiritual traditions are trying to tell us. What the great spiritual traditions do is allow us to encounter ourselves in a new, more clear-eyed way. Or as I like to say, “our traditions show us who we are.” Behind that curtain is a giant mirror.

I love this Lawrence Kushner story for a couple of reasons. First, because of the insights of this boy—his words that stretched far beyond what he could have known he was saying. Spirit works and speaks through us whether we are a four-year old or a priest answering their fourth call to a parish. This is because we are full of the goodness of God, as Genesis tells us. The second thing I glean from Rabbi Kushner’s story is that there is nothing standing between the holy mysteries and ourselves. Behind the curtain is a giant mirror. We carry the holiness within us. We are a piece of God in this world.

Our passage from Genesis tells poetically and vividly of the very beginnings of creation … until finally, humans are created, and then God rests—the Sabbath being the finale or culmination of creation. Though the origin story we read in Genesis was passed around orally—as storytelling—for centuries, it wasn’t written down until the Israelites were stuck in Babylon as exiles and servants, in the fifth-century BC. This is important, because surely there was a reason they decided to record this and so many of their stories at this time. Now, the Babylonian creation story could not be more different than the story in Genesis 1. I won’t go into detail, but essentially, the Babylonian creation story is one of violence and war-making and fear. Perhaps this is why the exiled Israelites so wanted to record their own story—to preserve it and the contrast it represented; to pass along their worldview, because knowing where we come from makes all the difference. Knowing who we are makes all the difference. Remember, behind the curtain is a giant mirror!

And in the first creation story in the Hebrew bible, we don’t encounter a violent, vengeful God, or a world brought about from the spoils of war, as in the Babylonian creation narrative. We find the opposite. The Hebrew creation story emphasizes creation’s goodness, and the world is brought about in beauty and love. These are the first words of our scriptural tradition, and the whole biblical narrative is a kind of journey-narrative, the arc of which is finding our way back to our essential union with God, or our essence. Genesis 1 says we have in us the divine DNA. God made a creation that keeps on making, a creation that keeps on creating, a process—and we are co-creators in that process.

The challenge is coming to know who we are, because the human-ego part of us that sees itself as separate and finite and fallen does not always recognize our divine indwelling. Do we really believe that we are temples of God? If not, why not?

The Episcopal tradition teaches that access to God does not have to be mediated to us through a professional class of ministers or holy people. We each encounter the holy mystery directly and in our own way, and we are all ministers. We are the only ones who can bear that holy mystery into our own small corners of the world. Our Judeo-Christian origin story, or creation story, tells us this; and tells us that we are good. No one else will bear our little piece of the God mystery for us. Only we can do that. 

With all that is happening in our country at this time—the fractiousness and violence and autocracy and racism, your piece of the God mystery is desperately needed in your small corner of the world, of this country. So remember who you are.

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Genesis 1:1-5

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

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