June 4, 2023 Sermon: What’s In a Story?
Rev. Janine Zabriskie
First & Franklin Presbyterian Church
June 4, 2023
The creation story. If you spent any time at all in Sunday school as a child, you’ve heard it. The creation story, Noah’s ark, Moses and the Ten Commandments, and the birth of Jesus. There are others, of course, but those are the ones we make sure all little kids know just as soon as possible. The story itself doesn’t really change much from translation to translation; whether you’re reading King James or the Good News Bible, the plot of the story remains. Eugene Peterson’s “Message” doesn’t have the animals appearing on day two, or separating sea and sky at the very end. The book of Genesis comes to us, of course, from the Jewish Torah, and while the Quran doesn’t tell the full creation story, it makes reference to it, so it’s an idea shared even amongst our friends and neighbors of other faiths. It’s a foundational story – by the time we reach adulthood, even young adulthood, it’s ingrained into who we are as people of faith.
We feel like we know it without having to read it, even if we can’t put all the days in the right order. We believe the story has been told so much, for so long, that we know every detail, that there is not really much left to be gleaned from it. In some faith traditions, people even go so far as to believe the creation story is the ONLY story, that this planet is only about six thousand years old, that dinosaur fossils were surreptitiously planted as a deceptive scheme to make us believe in “science,” and that a conversation can be closed off, completely shut down with the phrase, “God doesn’t make mistakes.”
While I would argue strongly against most of that, I would certainly agree that God does not make mistakes. I don’t share the perspective that that closes off possibilities, however. The interactions of plants and animals, the sequence of dust, rain, and rainbow, the cycle of life and death are all part of a divinely inspired plan beyond our full comprehension. But in this plan, God has also left room for change, for growth, for imagination and new discoveries. In my work as a pediatric chaplain, I had the opportunity to use Godly Play stories as a medium to help children discover their sense of spirituality. For those who are unfamiliar, Godly Play is a method of telling the familiar Bible stories and parables with children that encourages them not only to listen and learn, but to place themselves inside the story through their creativity and imagination. At the end of every story are The Questions. The questions differ slightly from story to story, but they always begin with, “I wonder.”
“I wonder what your favorite part of this story is.”
“I wonder if there’s a part of this story you think we could leave out.” “I wonder which day in this story is most like you.”
Friends, I have heard deep, profound, truly spiritual responses to these questions from children of all ages, even as young as four and five. Many of them already knew the creation story, of course. But because it had yet to become so entrenched in their faith and their own innate sense of spirituality, the children
were not overly committed to an idea of what the story does or doesn’t say, and they felt free enough to imagine creation in different ways, and to ultimately understand that they too are a part of this wonder which God has made.
Now, it’s possible, since all of us here are adults, that perhaps we no longer have so much of our childhood innocence and imagination, that we have become more entrenched in our thinking, that after years of repeated – though often conflicting – messages about what it means to be a “good Christian,” we may have adopted a sort of “give in to get along” philosophy. Hey, peace is important, I’m not judging or advocating against that at all. But this morning, I’d like to take a closer look at the creation story with you. Taking a cue from Godly Play, I invite you to wonder with me.
First, we need to agree on something right from the opening lines of Genesis chapter 1. In the dark and formless void, God began creating. There is no mention here of Nigel the faithful assistant, standing at God’s side with pen and paper, documenting all the Lord created. Probably because humans were still six days away, let alone pen and paper which came much later. But in any case, this is not an eyewitness account, and unlike the anti-dinosaur crowd, we recognize a certain degree of inexactness has to be a presumption from the very start. This is not God’s mistake, it’s a human one. I would have loved to have been God’s note-taker,
though. Since my own childhood, I’ve often wondered what a formless void, a literal black hole of nothingness, could possibly look like.
The folks who do want to interpret Genesis 1 as an eyewitness account are often referred to as literalists, and Day Two is where they begin to run into trouble. On this day, the story has God thinking meteorologically, separating water on the earth from water in the sky. I wonder if these early writers were able to connect the clouds they saw in the sky with the rain that fell on their homes and villages. I wonder about the idea that at that time, what we now call the Middle East was lush and green and the Gardens of Babylon, rather than the sandy yellows and browns that we think of today. I wonder if rain was a common sight, or something infrequent and uncertain. And I wonder how the literalists deal with no mention of any other precipitation, such as sleet, snow, and freezing rain. They aren’t listed, but surely God created both the rain and the snow.
Questions also come to mind with the creation of “plants yielding seed and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it.” Oh, I have lots to wonder about here. First of all, if no trees ever existed before this moment, and God was creating ex nihilo, out of nothing… who exactly determined what “every kind” of plant and tree was? When did God know we had enough, and it was time to stop? Was there a list? And why the preferential treatment for fruit with seeds on the inside? I love strawberries, don’t you? But their seeds are on the outside, did God
make a mistake there? Noo… How about fruits with no seeds at all, the beloved navel orange? We know the navel orange definitely was not part of the creation story, as it came much later, after some humans had learned about grafting. I wonder if the literalists believe in strawberries and navel oranges. I wonder in a similar way about trees. Sure, pine trees have pine cones, oak trees have acorns, maple trees have those helicopter seeds we used to stick on our noses as kids. What about a bonsai tree, a cactus, one of those rare Amazonian flowers that only blooms once a century, or one of those ubiquitous snake plants that seems to do nothing but grow straight upwards at a rate of half an inch per year? Even though the story doesn’t say it, we include them all as part of God’s wondrous creation, right?
On a personal note, I myself probably wonder the most about the sun, moon, and stars. Venus might have been viewed as a star, but the other planets, of course, couldn’t really be seen, or probably even imagined at the time the creation story was written. I wonder about them all the time. How much more is out there which we haven’t discovered yet. How far out does the universe span? How many more universes are there? And how amazing is it that, as big as we might imagine the universe to be, God is even bigger.
And that brings us to Day Six. God did a lot of work on Day Six. As if all the plants and trees on Day Three weren’t complicated enough. “Sea monsters” and
“swarms of creatures.” Birds in the sky. “Cattle and creeping things and wild animals.” Wings and gills. Exoskeletons and antlers. Again, lots to wonder about here. I wonder if the platypus is a sea monster. I wonder where turtles and frogs really belong, in the water or on the land. I wonder why God made some birds that don’t fly, like penguins and turkeys. And why, oh why, was there any reason for God to make scorpions and red ants? I wonder if the Venus Flytrap is a plant or an animal. And I wonder how people who read Genesis as the one true history of the world account for these omissions and contradictions.
God did a lot of work on the sixth day – bugs, fish, birds, creepy crawlies and cattle. God also formed us on that day. Each of us in our remarkable conformity, as well as our glorious individuality; our blueprint comes from that day. I truly wonder how God came up with so many variations on a theme, to create so many millions of us. Here in my hospital room, just the other day, I heard a television preacher on my roommate’s tv say that it was silly to think that God created different races in Genesis 9 as the Curse of Ham, because “obviously, the different races were created in Genesis 1, when God was creating everything else.” Since there is only Adam and Eve in that first chapter, I wonder how two people account for the multitude of skin tones that cover our planet, but I’m always willing to appreciate a viewpoint that doesn’t invent ridiculous and denigrating reasons for the existence of our kin of deeper hues.
My friends, I hope I have made clear here that while some of these musings can be taken with tongue placed firmly in cheek, there are also underlying concerns which in today’s fractured world can have dangerous and harmful implications. With that in mind, I offer one last question. If we can understand that rain and snow are the same thing, if we can believe in strawberries, navel oranges, and snake plants, if we can accept and include the platypus, and the penguin, and the Venus flytrap… why would we ever, and I do mean EVER, think that God would be so limited as to only create male and female? Where did we get the idea that heterosexuality is the only choice God offers? And how are we possibly supposed to believe that those who are trans, or non-binary, queer, gay or lesbian are somehow exempted from the Great Commandment of “love one another as I have loved you?” I can only wonder.
ABOUT JANINE: A fourth-generation theologian, Rev. Janine Zabriskie was born in New Jersey, grew up in the Hudson Valley region of New York, and as an adult has lived in Chicago four times, Austin TX twice, New Hampshire, Columbus OH, and Dallas. She came to Baltimore in 2019 when she accepted a job as a Staff Chaplain at the University of Maryland Medical Center. She holds an M.Ed from the University of Texas, as well as an M.Div from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Her favorite things include hockey, cooking, reading, and British television.