Thursday, July 26, 2007

Sermon from Sunday, July 22

On Genesis 1:1-2:3 and the Lauryn Hill song "To Zion."

Read the Scripture here: and the song lyrics here:

I’ve been touched by this song since the very first time I heard it. Lauryn Hill is not singing about just anyone, but singing about her very own son, who was born in 1997. She named him Zion.

Likely most of you don’t know the full story of Lauryn’s career, but in late 1996, she was on top of her game. She and her group had just recorded a huge album, one of the best-selling albums of the year; Lauryn was a presence! The world was waiting to see what would happen next, what the next step would be for this woman who had the perfect combination of toughness, wit, insight and elegance to do the kind of music she did.

And then she got pregnant. It was a surprise, like many babies are. And I don’t know exactly what it’s like to be pregnant (thank heaven that’s still the stuff of science fiction!) but I do know that being pregnant and being a rap star do not go hand in hand. Something just doesn’t fit there. And so this pregnancy came at a very inconvenient time; her career was at a turning point, and she and her group had a chance to parlay the success of their album into becoming major, major stars in the music industry. Now, a pregnancy was the last thing she needed.

And her career advisers wasted no time in telling her this, and they advised her to have an abortion, terminating the pregnancy. You heard it in the song: "Think of your career, they said/Lauryn, baby, use your head." Use your head! Think of how much you have to lose! You’ve got the chance to make millions–millions! –of dollars here, and you can’t just throw it away to have a baby. In fact, it’s not only you who stands to make millions of dollars–it’s those around you, your agents, your advisers, your family. You are about to hit it big, Lauryn, and you will have plenty of chances to have a baby some other time; just not now.

But she used her power of choice to choose differently; "Instead," she said, "I chose to use my heart." I chose not to do the prudent thing, not to do the "wise" thing, but to follow a path most loving and most sacrificial. I chose to bring this life into the world, to have the baby.
No matter what your political position is on whether or not abortion ought to be legal, there is something in each of us that simply melts at this. Our hearts cry out with joy. There is something in each of us that is grateful that Lauryn’s head triumphed over her heart.

Why do you suppose this is our human response? Why do we feel joy when we hear this simple story? Here’s why I think we do. I remember once I was homesick when I was at college; it was the late fall and the first snow was coming in, and the Eagles were having one of those years where they were just on the brink of making the playoffs. They had a game with the Arizona Cardinals one Sunday afternoon that I really wanted to see, but there was no place to see the game. It wouldn’t be on the Buffalo stations; you couldn’t see the game without a satellite, and there weren’t really any restaurants or bars to speak of that would carry anything but the Buffalo Bills game. So it seemed I was out of luck. But this was around the time that the Internet was just rounding into form, just beginning to be popular and so I went online and I found a group of Eagles fans in Buffalo who had a satellite and watched every game together. So I went to one of their homes, drove to Buffalo by myself to meet people I met online. (Note: not a good idea, but I was young and naive.) When I got to their house, there were these two guys–kinda strange guys, really–dressed in their Eagles garb. They welcomed me in, I watched the game, the Eagles lost in one of those games that make you say, "Only the Eagles lose games in this unique way." We talked about Philly, what brought us to Western New York, etc. We ate snacks and watched the Eagles game.

And can I tell you that sitting around with these two strange guys eating and watching Eagles football felt like the faintest echo of home? No, they were not family, they were not even my real friends, I don’t even remember their names today; but they were wearing green hats and Eagles sweatshirts and talking about cheesesteaks instead of buffalo wings, so in that moment, it was the faintest echo of home. And I felt so good just to hear and see home, even just an echo.
I think songs like "To Zion" make our hearts melt, make us rejoice and be glad, because there is an ancient and deep truth about God and people and this song is just the faintest echo of it.

When you hear this ancient story of creation, people tend to get bogged down in the details. People wonder if it is a literal story: did God create the world in 6 days literally? Or did he create the world using some evolutionary process? Is this a sort of science textbook, telling us exactly what happened on the first six days that the world was in existence? Or is it a poetic sort of rendering of what God did at the beginning of the world to make the world?

Well, these are all very interesting questions; they are questions everybody seems to have some sort of opinion on; indeed, even I have an opinion on these questions, which I’ll be glad to talk to you about sometime if you want to chat with me about it. Those questions are even important in many ways, so I’m not meaning to diminish them.

But when people debate these questions about the "how" of creation, they tend to overlook the bigger issues: the story of creation has one big point and raises one big question, and we miss these when we debate the small stuff. The big point of the creation story, of course, is that God did it; that all of this we see around us is not the product of random chance, but the design of a loving God who desired to create. In fact, this same God loves to create so much that he desires to re-create us today. Further, God gave this earth to people in a special way, to have dominion over the rest of creation, to rule over it and be its caretaker. Human life is precious in a way that the rest of life is not; because we are created in the image of God, we are different than the rest of creation. The fact that God created the world and gave it to people is the big point of the creation story.

The big question of the creation story, and one that is not so easily answered, is "Why?" So many people ask "How was the world created?" and so few people ask "Why was the world created?" It’s a shame that so few people ask it, because it’s the really important question. Why did God create the world?

It is a question that’s impossible to answer. After all, Oprah can’t invite God onto her set to ask him the really tough questions about why He did all of this. This side of heaven we won’t get an exact answer to the question of why God created anything, of why God created people in specific.

Yet if you take a little bit of time to turn that question over in your head, you will come up with one unavoidable thought: God is love. Why would God go to the time and trouble of creating people? Whether it was this process on the sixth day of putting dust together and bending down and breathing his breath into the dust and making it a living being; or whether it was this painstakingly tedious process of millions of years of evolution, why? Why? It wasn’t like God needed help in the world, it wasn’t like God needed a world in the first place. Things were fine in heaven; Father, Son, Holy Ghost, all together, all fine, all satisfied, all complete in its Three-in-Oneness. Why create a world which has turned out to reflect brokenness? Why create people who stubbornly choose their own way instead of God’s way? There was no personal necessity for God to create; it was a pure, simple act of love. It was an act of love for God to create a world and give life to its inhabitants, and it was a special, almost unthinkable act of love for God to create humans, give us control of this world, and use this life to fit us for the next if we are so willing. God is love.

One of the great theologians of the Protestant Reformation was John Calvin; folks give Calvin a bad name, but I’ve taken to him somewhat in the last six or seven years. And one of the biggest points of his theology was that God’s ultimate desire is to have a large family, a home with many, many children, and to provide for that family forever. This is what it means that God is a Father, that God is a parent: that God longs to create new life, to create human beings with special dignity and important tasks, and is willing to deal with all the difficulty that comes with it simply because He is love. And the most beautiful part of it is that it is that image–God the Father–that shapes everything he does. Everything he does is first and foremost for his children. It is because he loves us, his children, that he instituted the church, to be the vehicle of his Spirit in the world. It is because he loves us, his children, that he gave us a new heart and new spirit. It is because he loves us, his children, that he left us the Bible as a record of his dealings with people. It is because he loves us, his children, that he makes himself available to us anytime in prayer. It is because he loves us, his children, that he shows up when we meet together, ready to encounter us if we are willing. It is because he loves us, his children, that he shed us blood on a hill called Calvary, his blood yielding to us new life.

As a Father, God loves to bring new life into the world and care for it, grow it; this is what shapes his very life. This is why He created this marvelous world when there was no earthly reason to create, when there was no earth period. This is why He created us, divine breath and human dust, when there was no good reason to do so. This is who He is–he is love, and he is a loving Father.

Our world forgets this so easily. We forget this, and we think that God is a policeman enforcing rules, when he is not a policeman who throws the book at us, he is a father who deals with us lovingly. We think that God is a grandfather, never finding fault with us, telling us everything we do is OK, when God is not a grandfather who spoils us, he is a Father who wants to help us grow up into what we could be. We think that God is a cosmic, impersonal force when God is not far away at all, but he is a father who invites us up to sit on his lap and listen to stories and wisdom. We are proud of our sophisticated religion, and we think that God is OK with being just a part of our life, not like those wacky Christians who talk about him all the time, when in fact God grieves when we put him in the margins of our lives and wants to be on every page, just like a Father would. We forget so easily and try to make God into something he’s not, when the reality is so beautiful if we would just remember.

And so along comes a song like "To Zion" and we melt. Because it is a faint picture of what God did and does for us. It reminds us of something primal, something we know deep in our spirits, but gets drowned out in the world: it is a picture of the love of God. Lauryn Hill had no reason to bring baby Zion into the world; she had nothing to gain and millions and millions to lose. She risked her professional reputation, her contacts in the business, and she risked the cruel words that go on behind closed doors when people refuse to do what the world says is smart. And yet she risked it for little Zion. And when we hear that, it is that faint echo of that story that means so much to us, about God risking to create us, about God laying aside what was prudent and smart because his love was so great he had to give birth to us, had to give us new life.

You know what I love even more about this song? The second verse. Once she has made this choice, once she has chosen life for her little baby, she is so happy with her choice. "How beautiful if nothing more than to wait at Zion’s door." I know the feeling. "I thank you for choosing me to come through unto life, to be a beautiful reflection of His grace. See I know that a gift so great is one only God could create...Now, the joy of my world is in Zion."

This is not a woman who regrets her choice. She had a choice between millions of dollars and easy fame, and a little baby. She recognizes that all of that stuff can come and go, but this life is a beautiful reflection of God. He is created in God’s image, with unique dignity, with unique purpose. To be part of that is something money and convenience can never replace. She finds that being a parent–creating and sustaining new life–trumps being a rapper, trumps being a singer, trumps being famous. The joy of her world is no longer the crowds, the money, the fame, the friends...the joy of her world is in Zion.

And so it is also with God. When God had to choose whether or not to create and sustain new life, he did. He didn’t have to. He could have created a world like an ant farm, letting the little people work on it, and then just shaking it up for fun. He could have created a world like a rigged boxing match, where he got rich while everyone beat each other up for sport. He could have created a world like a horror movie, where people were terrified for his amusement. But he is not revealed to us in any of those ways; he is revealed to us as Father. He is revealed to us as one who loves to create and loves his creation.

And–here is the kicker and I still have trouble believing it–he takes joy in you and me just like Lauryn takes joy in little Zion. The joy of his world is not in the majestic Niagara Falls, not in the great mansions built by rich people, not in the massive Canadian Rockies, not in the great depths of the ocean; the joy of his world is in us, the capstone of his creation, the one given dominion over the rest of it. He takes more joy in our happy songs of worship than in all of those things. He takes more joy in our living life the way he created us to, becoming the people he made us to be, than he does in any of his other creation. This is what it means to be human: to be the joy of God’s world, if only we will allow ourselves to be instead of insisting that we are captains of our own fate, masters of our own destiny, proudly exalting our own choices.

May we never forget that this is who we are. May we never forget that God once had a choice and has created us, his children, to be his joy forever. May you never forget that, when you are tempted to think yourself unlovely, unlovable, or when you are tempted to do something unlovely to someone else, may you know that you are God’s joy, created to be the joy of his world forever. And may we recognize this in each other–here in this church and in all human life–that the person we are looking at is in the image of God and is God’s joy.