The attack on America came as a complete surprise-though in retrospect we might have expected it. The planes, flown by pilots prepared to commit suicide by flying their planes into their unsuspecting targets, came in two horrendously destructive waves hitting the first target at 7:53 a.m. and the second at 8:55. By 10 a.m. it was over. The date lives in infamy–December 7, 1941.
The attack on Pearl Harbor set into motion a chain of events we call WWII ending with the defeat of the attackers after the dropping of two atomic bombs. The United States emerged as a superpower, and a super target.
Sixty years later the planes came again, flown by pilots prepared to commit suicide by flying their planes into their unsuspecting targets. They came to New York in two horrendously destructive waves hitting the first target at 8:46 and the second at 9:03.
Two other planes were in the air, one would hit the Pentagon and the other would be taken down in a field in Pennsylvania.
The events of September 11 have set off a chain of events which keeps unfolding and the toll of death and destruction mounts daily.
The list of casualties includes lost religious faith. Many people report a loss of their earlier belief in God. The documentary film, Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero is a moving memorial to the loss of innocence, the confrontation with evil. “Where was God?” they asked.
What about you? What’s your notion of God? Where did it come from? Has it changed since September 11? What’s your understanding of the God as depicted in the Bible?
I’d like to invite you to look again at the Biblical God, the God described by and worshiped by Jews, Christians and Muslims, the so-called Abrahamic religions. What does that Biblical God look like to you?
The Biblical story begins with these words in the opening lines of the book of Genesis: “In the beginning God Created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. And God said ‘Let there be light. And God saw that it 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, one day.”
(This is why the Jewish day begins at sundown: ‘and there was evening,’ comes first. Shabbat begins on what we call ‘Friday night,’ but for Jews sundown on Friday is the beginning of Saturday, the Sabbath.)
The God of Genesis creates everything with a word. He simply says what he wants. Genesis explains: “And God said, ‘Let there be light.and God made the two great lights, the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night; he made the stars also.’ And God said, ‘Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures.’ And God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle.’ So God created man in his own image.”
After each day’s work God looks at what he accomplished that day, as any creator would. He assesses his work and the story says, “And God saw that it was good.” He does that for the first five days, but on the sixth day, after he creates humans, it doesn’t say ‘and God saw that it was good.’ The rabbis suggest that he said ‘it was good’ after each of the first five day’s work, meaning ‘it is finished.’ Or ‘it is complete.’ But after he created ‘man’ he didn’t say ‘it is good,’ because it was not yet ‘finished.’
Chapter two of Genesis reviews what God did in chapter one, the first six days. We’re told that God rested on the seventh day and hallowed that day ‘because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.’ He’s tired. He needs rest. That’s an interesting characterization of God; a very human character who gets tired.
Then an interesting thing happens in Chapter two. This is what it says, ” …and there was no man to till the ground. Then God formed man of dust and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.”
God had created man in his own image in Chapter one, but Chapter two says ‘there was no man to till the ground.’ How could that be?
In Chapter two God plants a fascinating garden in Eden. He brings the man into the garden and tells him how to take care of it. Then God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”
Later in the day-presumably the eighth day-the story says, “Then God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” That’s when God brings the birds and beasts to the man to ‘see what he would call them.’
The man, not yet named, gives names to every living creature. “But for the man there was not found a helper fit for him.” That’s when God puts the man to sleep and takes a rib and forms a woman, whom the man names Eve. Genesis says:
“And the man and his wife were both naked and they were not ashamed.”
Shame comes only after the loss of innocence, after they ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Notice: Eve wasn’t around when God told the man not to eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Right away the serpent arrives: “Now the serpent was more subtle than any other wild creature that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree of the garden?’ And the woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.'”
Genesis begins with a Creator who makes things simply by saying the word, and, bango, it’s done! “And God said let there be light, and there was light.” And so forth.
By the third chapter of Genesis, God changes significantly. This all-powerful God created the sun and the moon with a word, He created all the plants, fish and animals with a single word, then he creates humans who don’t do what he told them to do, and presumably expected them to do. This suggests a ‘changing’ or ‘evolving’ notion of God.
The humans he created disobeyed. Why? Because they were tempted. God didn’t know they would be filled them with temptation? He put the forbidden tree-the tree of the knowledge of good and evil–smack in the middle of the garden. In fact, it’s the only tree he points to: ‘see this tree with the nice big red apples? Don’t touch it!’ If you touch this tree you will die.’
Now let me say at this point that this is a wonderful, powerful piece of mythology; it’s a creative way of describing the reality of our existence. That’s what makes it a Truth story, as opposed to a true story. It’s not about what happened. It’s about what is happening. That’s good mythology.
My purpose in telling it again is to try to get you to notice how God changes, how God evolves in the Biblical story in Genesis, and continues to evolve in Exodus.
“So what?” you might ask. “I don’t believe in that God anyway,” you might say. But I’d like to get you to look again at the story and see how it fits into your own life, your own experience, your own thoughts. I want to assert that the evolution of God in the Bible stories is a like the changing, evolving concept of God each of us must go through.
Last year at this time-the first Sunday after the September 11 tragedy-we were in shock. “Why do they hate us?” Zoe asked.
We heard people say, “America lost its innocence that day.”
That, of course, is a Biblical reference: to lose your innocence is to eat from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Before Adam and Eve ate, the story says, ‘they were naked and they were not ashamed.’
Innocence was lost that day. For many, their old religious faith came tumbling down with the towers; their sense of security went up in flames with the pentagon, the ultimate symbol of military power.
Then there was the notion that the terrorists were on a religious mission: they believed that they were doing the will of God, and the God in whom they put their faith was this one-this God whose picture is painted in Genesis.
For many, this was a double whammy: first, their God allowed this to happen; to add insult to injury, the perpetrators believed that God-this same God whose picture is painted in Genesis-was going to carry them into heaven, a paradise where virgins were waiting form them and would welcome them as conquering heroes rather than the horrible criminals they were.
Let’s return to the story: The serpent convinces Eve to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which she does. Then she convinces Adam to eat. They don’t die, but an amazing thing happens: they are ashamed of their nakedness, and they hide from God.
The story says that God is walking in the Garden of Eden, and the man and woman hear his footsteps and they hide from him.
Here is a decidedly anthropomorphic God-he’s walking in his garden. They can hear his footsteps! God says, “Where are you?”
How could it be that this omniscient, omnipotent God doesn’t know where they are? Hello! “Oh, God, it’s chapter three, do you know where your children are?”
A week before this God could create everything with a word. He got an idea for world, He says the word, and bango, everything is created.
By the second week, look at the change God has gone through. Now He’s not able to get obedience from the man and a woman. This story must have been written by the parent of a teenager!
God, the all-powerful creator and absolute ruler, loses it. He goes into a rage. He doesn’t stop to think about it. He doesn’t consider the consequences. He overreacts. He punishes the man and woman by evicting them from Paradise; he tells the man to find a job.
Genesis puts it this way: “…in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life…in the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken, you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Death is a punishement.
There’s no mention of the word ‘sin’ in the Genesis story. The first human decision is an act of disobedience. Human independence is a punishment; human freedom is the beginning of human history.
But let’s get back to the story of the evolution of God in the Bible:
You remember Noah. God sees that he goofed-that the humans he created are wicked, what with Cain killing Abel and all. So he decides to destroy his creation and start over. But he doesn’t do it with a word, he does it with forty days and nights of rain.
God tells Noah, whom he calls ‘a righteous man in his generation.’ He tells Noah to build an ark: “Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and his mate; and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and his mate.” The clean animals are for food for Noah and his family to eat. Noah doesn’t question God. He doesn’t ask why? He simply obeys. God likes that. All authority figures do, of course. Parents reward obedient children. Right?
At the end of the great flood Noah offers burnt offerings to God. God smells the cooking flesh and is pleased. Then God does an amazing thing: he repents! He promises Noah that he will never go to such drastic and destructive lengths again, and puts a rainbow in the sky as a reminder of his promise. He ties a string around his celestial finger so he will be reminded of his promise. Isn’t that interesting? God doesn’t trust his own memory!
The text in Genesis has God say, in part, “I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall (I)…destroy the earth.”
We’re looking at the evolution of the concept of God as described in Genesis as a way of taking another look at our own ideas about God, no matter what we think or believe.
God establishes a covenant with Noah-a partnership with humans. The idea of making a covenant is a major step in the Biblical evolution of God. Erich Fromm, in his wonderful book ‘You Shall Be As Gods,’ says, “The idea of the covenant constitutes one of the most decisive steps in the religious development of Judaism, a step which prepares the way to the concept of the complete freedom of man, even freedom from God.”
So God decides to give up the job of absolute ruler; the idea of covenant creates a partnership between God and humankind. We say, ‘this is our great covenant: to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love and to help one another.’ A covenant is a special or sacred agreement; a partnership; a commitment. The idea of making a covenant, an agreement between people, is the source of human dignity, integrity.
God promises to have respect for all life. There are no Jewish people on the planet, yet. There are no Christian or Muslim or Hindu people on the planet, yet. This is important to note: the first covenant God makes in this mythological explanation of Life applies to all of humankind, indeed to all life on the planet. Our Universalist forebears referenced this.
One of our great Unitarian forebears, Albert Schweitzer, said that his religion could be summarized in the phrase ‘reverence for life.’
In part II of this sermon we’ll look at God’s relationship with Abraham and see how God and humans evolve.
In conclusion to this introduction I want to go back to the original question: what’s your idea of God? I posed this question to the staff on Thursday. I wish you had been there as Ed, Barbara, Jamie, Janet, Jan and I said something about our own beliefs, thoughts or ideas about the concept we call God. I got their permission to summarize it:
Jamie said, “God is the energy in me that makes me want to be a better person…that makes me want to do good.”
Ed said, “God is the Life Force-doesn’t have an easy word description. It’s an intuitive perception of that Life Force; with meditation, stillness, I’m in touch with it and it brings me into balance and helps me feel a sense of wholeness.”
Barbara said, “Ministry has put me into that river with the Life Force, calling me to be there with other people, with unconditional regard…to be there with them.”
Jan said, “When I’m still, when I’m able to be still, I feel strong; positive and feel the potential to do good. Color and light helps me to feel it when I’m in the sanctuary.”
Janet said, “As a lifelong Unitarian I never had to reject a former religion. I never had a negative reaction to the concept of God; it’s the universal energy. It’s not about knowing or believing, it’s about feeling connected to that Energy.”
We went on with our meeting and someone said, “You didn’t tell us what you think.”
So, next time, in part II, on September 28, I’ll tell you.