Academy of Homiletics
November 15, 2012
**Genesis 1-2: 3; John 1: 1-16
Holy God, always creating, we pray your presence in this creation. Amen.
You know when you're in the presence of a great teacher. The earth shifts and reforms underneath your feet. The words and concepts you're hearing start to build a new world in your head.
Order begins to emerge from chaos.
That's exactly the experience I had in 1992 when I studied with the fiction writer Robert Olen Butler at the University of Iowa. I had published maybe half a dozen short stories by then, was a couple of years into a good job at Baylor teaching creative writing, but what I heard from him that summer turned me into a different writer-and helped me truly understand my vocation as a creator of worlds for the first time.
That summer in our class on novel writing, Bob Butler talked about truth and beauty. He talked about how we bring worlds of words into being. And in what he may have thought of as a parenthetical aside, he said something I have never forgotten.
"If you're going to be a God," he said, "be a merciful God."
I was not much into talk about God in those days, and his words struck me as odd ones to come from a writer who had walked away from his Catholic faith-if in fact you can ever do that.
But I thought I had a pretty good idea of what he meant: If you're going to play God, there might be something we can learn from those stories about a God who created order out of chaos, a loving God who wants our stories to end happily even if we choose otherwise, a God who cherishes light and conquers darkness.
That summer in Iowa, I didn't expect to learn about my craft as a writer by thinking about God, any more than I expected to learn about God through my craft as a writer. But I did. Bob Butler is a fiction writer, not a theologian, and he did not employ the theological word "sub-creation" with us that summer.
But sub-creation is precisely what I am here to preach this evening, the idea that we are most fully human and participate most fully in God's design when we too are loving, creating, and designing until we find it good-and that the job of preaching and teaching others to preach is thus an essential and holy enterprise.
Bob Butler might not be a theologian, but The Inklings, that Twentieth Century Oxford group of writers and professors that included C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Dorothy Sayers, thought a great deal about the relationship between the words they wrote and the faith they lived, about the importance of sending those imagined words into a world devoted to empirical fact and yet somehow devoid of meaning. In a poem dedicated to Lewis, we find Tolkien writing about the degraded state of modern understanding:
You look at trees and label them, just so,
(for trees are 'trees,' and growing is 'to grow');
you walk the earth and tread with solemn pace
one of the many minor globes of Space;
a star's a star, some matter in a ball
compelled to courses mathematical
amid the regimented, cold, inane,
where destined atoms are each moment slain.
This cold empirical focus on what we can see, hear, and touch, was not enough for Tolkien. He and the other Inklings understood that while we perceive reality through both analytical and creative means, our truest understanding comes only through the process of imaginative remaking. The Jewish poet Rodger Kamenetz said as much one night in New Orleans when the two of us were the religious writers on a panel on religion and writing. Our very words have become debased, Rodger said. It might take me an entire poem-Greg an entire novel-to redeem the word "love," or "grace," or "forgiveness."
The world values facts, but facts are not enough. The world is filled with words, but words are not enough. Contemporary British playwright Nigel Ford may have said it best: "True understanding, as opposed to mere knowledge, is a work of the imagination, and we neglect it at our peril." Facts have to be re-ordered, words carefully chosen, if any real meaning is to emerge.
For me as a writer and preacher, for you members of the Academy as preachers and teachers of preaching, there is much in this prefatory matter on creativity that matters, and what matters is affirmed by the creation stories we heard tonight. Gerhard Von Rad describes the first, the Priestly account of creation from Genesis as "the result of intensive, theologically ordering thought," ordered so that nothing is included by chance and every word has been chosen carefully, deliberately, and precisely. Of the second, the Johannine hymn of creation, my friend Cynthia Kittredge writes that the passage is the entire gospel in artful miniature, and she concludes that what is most important is that the gospel begins not by leaping into Jesus' biography but with a song, a poem. In both of these creation stories, human artfulness gives us a truer understanding of God's artfulness.
In these stories, we are introduced to a God who encounters a formless void, a blank page, an experience with which I'm sure many of us can relate. Step by step (or "bird by bird," as Annie Lamott reminds us all good big things get created) God makes and separates, orders and organizes. At last, out of the formless void, order emerges. Where before there was a blank slate, now there is life and love, beauty and movement, the day and the night, all the rich tapestry of creation.
Throughout this story, God judges what has been completed and at last, God pronounces it good. The Priestly story records that seven times-that holy number Augustine believed "represented the entire universe" and "embraced all created things"- God calls that action "good." I'm reminded that for the early Church Fathers, reading the Hebrew Testament in the Greek Septuagint, that word we translate as "good" would have meant not just good, but fitting, right, beautiful. What is rightly created is not just good, but beautiful, and we understand that God is the true source of all things True and Beautiful-including, by the way, the things that we rightly create.
At last, as Dorothy Sayers noted, at the end of this story of the God who creates, we are told we are created in God's image. We are given stewardship over the world, given an ordering and making task that continues God's, for only when we have named things does creation achieve its meaning.
I read to you from Tolkien's poem "Mythopoeia" earlier. It's important to note that it doesn't end with the void. The poem goes on to acknowledge God as the creator of all things, of rocks and trees, earth and stars, but suggests that "trees are not 'trees,' until so named and seen," and to assert that
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet he is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned
his world dominion by creative act.
We name, we order, and we act as subcreators, for we are created to do just that.
The Johannine creation hymn offers a Christian addendum to the Genesis creation stories in which it explains that the Logos, which has been with God from the beginning, is the creating word that brought all things into being, the Word full of grace and truth, bringing grace upon grace. Like the Genesis story, the writer of John gives us a story of new beginnings and a new humanity, of how the Children of God came to be Children of God, and so it is also about who we are and whose we are.
The other night my beloved Jeanie and I were celebrating my birthday in our favorite downtown Austin haunts. We had drinks at the Driskill Hotel, that grand bastion of Texas political power where we had our first date. We went to Chez Nous, the little French Bistro off 6th Street where we celebrate our biggest occasions. And all night long we talked about creation, retold our origin story, remembered again that relationship which is central to us now: how out of nothing, something was created; how out of chaos, we discovered pattern, love, meaning.
The need for stories of genesis is true for more than two lovers marveling at a singular creation. Our kids want to know how they got here. Our grandkids want to hear the stories of family that explain who they are. In fact, these creation myths are among the most pervasive stories humans tell. Last weekend, I joined millions of others in seeing Skyfall, a new film that fills in missing gaps in the childhood of James Bond. We return with J. J. Abrams to the world of Star Trek for a look at how Uhura and Kirk, Bones and Spock came to be. We return with Damon Lindelof to the world of Ridley Scott's orginal Alien in this year's Prometheus to ask where we come from and who made us-and incidentally, Lindelof told me at the Driskill Hotel a couple of weeks ago that these were the very questions he wanted to explore in his screenplay.
Toward the end of this sermon on creation and sub-creation, maybe it's appropriate that a popular writer reminds us that when we encounter stories of creation, we are addressing the essential questions we try to answer when we preach. How did we get here? How did this relationship begin? What are we doing? Where are we bound?
In every sermon we are recreating the story of why we're here, how God made us, how God loves us, and how we should respond to that love. But it seems especially true in connection with the creation scriptures, because creation is in our DNA. Creation tells us a story of our past, but also tells us about our present and our future. In fact, creation is happening right now as I preach on creation; it happens every time we look at the world and order what we see. Creation is a work in progress, and it takes the preacher, the artist, the poet to bring it to fruition.
So it takes Mary Oliver to write that:
Under the orange
sticks of the sun
ashes of the night
turn into leaves again. . . .
each pond with its blazing lilies
is a prayer heard and answered
Every morning the world is created. But it takes an artist's eye to see it, a poet's ability with language to note it, a creation marked by grace and purpose and faith to align the reader or hearer so skillfully with creation.
Tonight, I wear this preaching tippet as a sign of our shared calling, the vocation we have been given to write and teach and preach. This device symbolizes that I have been granted my bishop's authority to proclaim the great and good news, to interpret the scripture on behalf of a community, to order and divide and create. Each of you bears-and eventually your students will bear-some similar authority on behalf of a community. But we all know that it is our carefully-chosen thoughts and words that nudge our hearers toward meaning, not the authority we are granted by human beings.
What is required is a woman or man who is willing and able to help others see trees as trees, that the pond with its blazing lilies is a prayer heard and answered, that the light is shining in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.
What is required is simply to be made in the image of the Creator who loves.
So this is my prayer: May God give us eyes to see and ears to hear, and may God lend our words grace, beauty, and truth, that all may know their source. Amen.