“beginning,” September 13, 2015

Responsive Call to Worship
In the beginning,
the spirit of God—
the breath of God—
the breathing of God
stirred the surface of the deep.
And within the darkness and amidst the formless,
God said, “Let there be … creation.”
And there was, and it was good.
And still today,
within a story whose center does not appear to hold—
amidst the chaos,
the people of God say, “Let there be …
let there be enough order to live and love—
to offer each other the grace we can—
to name the beauty and the wonder so very good—
to face the horrors,
and to believe
the story still has a center.

Witness of the Closed Canon, i.
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.

Witness of the Living Word, ii.
We find ourselves here at the beginning of the school year
at what I would suggest is the real beginning of the year—
even if it is smack dab in the middle of the calendar year.
And thinking about beginnings, it’s interesting,
our sacred texts tell a story from the beginning
through a host of other beginnings—
the beginning of a family and a people—
the beginning of a country—
of a monarchy—a new hope.

But while this chronology—this time line—this story unfolding—
begins with chaos and moves to order in creation—
or moves in order to creation,
it is an order consistently messed up.
Because the story unfolds in a multitude of stories
all unfolding themselves, never neatly,
yet always into promise and promise fulfilled—
into assurance.

And we just don’t live that chronology.
Most of us don’t. It’s not that neat—
even for stories that are not neat.
Because they’re whole—they’re complete.
As written stories, they have a beginning, a middle, and an end,
while we live in the middle of our stories.
And so there’s a level at which
that incompatibility—between what’s completed and what’s incomplete—
what’s written and what’s lived—that incompatibility makes a mockery
of either the story we live or the story we proclaim,
and it makes of worship ,
in the very way we structure it,
a struggle for coherence.
For the faith story we proclaim in and as worship
is that progression into order,
and the life stories from which we come into and from which we leave worship,
oft too much ones of chaos.

I am in regular correspondence with some of the best ministers I know,
and that struggle for coherence can be the grist for …
meaningful worship—relevant preaching—Bible study with integrity—
honesty—vulnerability—with respect for both the lives lived and the story told,
but it is an odd thought
that worship begins in some significant ways with incoherence—
incongruence—inconsistency.

So in the chaoses we know—in which we live,
do we believe God’s spirit hovers?
Do we believe God speaks words of order?
If so, do we speak of our assurance with assurance?
Do our lives reflect that hope and assurance? If so, how?
Because that’s our calling.
That’s what those on the way with us need.
That’s what the world needs,
and why would anyone pay us any mind if that’s not what we have to offer?

And it was, after all—this story of the beginning—a story first written down
in the middle of times of chaos—in exile—
far from home—removed from hope,
when people needed to believe what God was doing—
not what God once did.
And so a story of beginning was told,
not just confront the Babylonian creation myth and its violence,
but also the entire Babylonian way of Empire.
So too, we need to confront not just the American myth
of rugged individualism and redemptive violence,
but also the way of Empire that still undermines the way of God.
Contrary to the loud insistence of many,
our faith is justified and fulfilled
not in dogged defense of the details of what God did,
but in the assurance of hope
that allows us to still live into the story of love and grace.

Certainly part of the problem is the either/or mentality
that permeates too much of our discourse.
Because it’s not the affirmation of either chaos or order—
such that chaos undermines order and order denies chaos.
It is more accurately, we believe—we proclaim—a consistent—
a persistent ordering within chaos—an ongoing creation story
(see Jon D. Levenson’s marvelous book,
Creation and the Persistence of Evil:
The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence
[Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988]).

Now is there also a more subtle question, amidst ever new beginnings,
is there any progress?
Where’s the hope in never getting to an ending—
in always starting over?

For even if we believe there is some progress—
some long arcing of the moral universe toward justice—if ever so slowly,
Jesus still came to the same truth into which God first created—
darkness, formlessness, chaos.
So the story of Jesus is the same as the story of creation—
a story of beginning in the middle—to offer assurance now.
Yet amidst the beginnings and beginning agains,
we do look to development:
some deepening revelation and awareness of truth.
And even the eye for an eye tooth for a tooth mentality,
used to justify tit for tat today,
was originally offered to more gracefully limit disproportionate responses,
and Jesus’ teaching then take us even further into grace.

I believe—I have believed
that’s what all the Bible stories are about—
why they’re so important—guiding us into truth and grace,
but I have come to question—
not the truth—the value—the beauty of the stories,
but the value of repeating stories—studying stories—preaching stories
(however significant/relevant/beautiful/wonderful/important they are)—
I have come to question
the value of repeating and studying (and preaching) stories
that fewer and fewer people know
and that no one tells.

Let me ask you this,
when was the last time you told someone the creation story?
Or any Bible story, for that matter?
And I’m not talking about in church,
Sunday School, and worship.
I’m talking about in life—
I’m talking normal, every day, day-to-day conversation.
When was the last time you told someone a Bible story?
Because isn’t the point of a story to tell it?
And the point of a good story, to tell it with excitement—
anticipating the response of the person to whom you’re telling it?

And our story is so needed.
For the affirmation of beginning is always
that we can begin again with God.
And we all want the affirmation that it’s possible
to begin again—that it might unfold differently—better—
after failure—after disappointment—after embarrassment—
after death, amidst grief—after letting someone down—
after letting myself down—after diagnosis—in the midst of sickness—
of dis-ease—after divorce—feeling anxious.

So what does it say if we’re not telling the story?
It says we are people of the story who don’t tell the story.

And I’ll be honest with you, there’s some anger and some grief,
having spent a lot of time with these stories,
that they’re not the ones told,
but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re not.
So the option we face
is to cling to the stories no one tells (not even us)
and tell each other how truly wonderful they really are,
or to somehow grapple with how truly wonderful they are
and then tell new stories—wonderfully true.

Now we’re doing this lectionary sabbatical
after 12 and a half years of lectionary based worship together—
after almost thirty-five years of lectionary-based worship here at Woodbrook.
We do this prayerfully grounded in Bible study and theological education.
We do this with some fear and trembling
because this is most definitely not tell whatever story you want.
This is not self-indulgence. It’s not supposed to be.

So I have a story for you today.
Not scripture, but a story distilled from scripture and experience
in the crucible of the imagination.
A story that surprised me in its unfolding into a deeper truth
than the one I thought we were headed into—
a truth about the beginning that beginning again is.
As Brad Paisley once said introducing a song on Prairie Home Companion:
“This is a true story I made up.”

She lived at the westernmost point
of the westernmost of the seven kingdoms
on a remote estate overlooking the Great Sea,
deep and terrible, beautiful and marvelous.
She was renowned throughout the seven kingdoms—
renowned for her singular beauty and grace, yes,
but the stories were told—
ah, the stories were told
of her dancing.

Told by those who walked the wild ways
of the remote western shore
and who, somedays, saw her grace,
in the forest’s depths,
dappled in leaf-filtered sunlight,
dancing with the wind—
weaving lithely through the trees,
waving with the wild grasses and flowers in the meadows,
twisting and bowing and rising again,
all to a rhythm less heard by observers,
as seen in her deliberate pace—
the quickening of it—the slowing—
the steadiness—the syncopation.

Other stories were told by those
who saw her, some nights,
in storms on the heath—
illuminated in strobe lightning—
the sheen of moving wet
as suddenly lit as suddenly gone—
hair plastered to face,
and gown to body—
arching into the drenching, falling in billowing sheets,
spinning in the soaking—
to the percussive driving, beating, pounding—
and like water hollowing out rock in time,
the power of the repetition of her movements
carved out in time unforgettable memories
to thunderous appreciation and applause.

But by far the most stories were told
by those who could have actually seen her everyday
come the eventide,
winding her way down the cliff,
gliding across the beach into the sea,
floating across the surf—
dress and tresses, arms and legs
somehow merging into whitecaps—
one with the grace of spray and foam—
moving in with the breaking waves,
moving out with the surging currents
to the steady rhythm of the rolling sea—
pale gown diaphanous in the light of the setting sun—
translucent as the water—
somehow not just lit by,
not just reflecting,
but part of the choreography of color—
the blues and pinks and lavenders,
the oranges—
luminous in the darkening.

She manifest always
an exquisite coordination of her whole body—
holistically integrated movement
whether the whole moved in symmetry or asymmetry—
in obvious or in surprising balance—
the lines of her body longer than the lengths of any limbs—
the arcing curves of her extensions
suggesting motion even in stillness,
her every position so distinctly defined
suggesting stillness even in motion.

She was acknowledged
to have been touched by Terpsichore,
of the nine muses,
the goddess of dance,
whose very name means “delight in dancing”—
a name made incarnate in the lady.

But amidst the truth of grace and beauty,
there is, always, as well,
the truth of horror.
And there were in the seven kingdoms,
followers of Vulcan, the god of fire and forge,
who thought because their god was short—
who thought because their god was considered ugly—
misshapen—
who thought because their god was lame—
that because his leg had been broken
leaving him off-balance and awkward,
that anything beautiful and graceful, whole and strong,
was an offense,
and that they would honor their god by destroying such.

And so, believing it to be the will of their god,
they laid in wait within the forest deep,
until the lady of the sea came dancing with the wind.
And they fell upon her, the lady of the sea,
the weight of them holding her down, terribly immobile,
as with the heavy blacksmiths’ hammers they carried in honor of their god,
they broke her legs—tearing muscle—shattering bone—
in the unnamed jealousy of those who see others do what they cannot,
in the unthinking hatred of those who see others manifest truth
other than their understanding of it,
in the abject fear of those who hear and see grace
but do not accept it.

And with their rage self-righteously justified,
they left her, struck down in the forest,
her every movement a hurting.

And there was no more dancing
at the westernmost point
of the westernmost of the seven kingdoms.
There were no more stories
for I have not been ready to tell this one.

And it wasn’t just that she was physically unable
to do what she had before,
it was that she could not bear the dreadful juxtaposition
of her memory of what had been
and the reality of what was no more.

In that time, in which there was no dancing,
one of the volcanos of the islands of the western sea
erupted—flames spewing into the western skies.
And it is said that Vulcan himself, god of fire and forge,
came to the lady in a shower of fiery golden sparks—
came to her bedside in the villa of the remote estate
at the westernmost point of the westernmost of the seven kingdoms—
came to her bedside and knelt—
weeping at what had been wrought in his name.

Would that his tears had made her whole
and straight and strong,
but such miraculous divine anointing happens only in fairy tales!
And some things even the gods cannot undo—
among them, things done in their name.

So the lame god whispered to the broken dancer.
“As clearly as you were a child of Terpsichore,” he said,
“dancing with balance and strength of limb—
dancing with the entirety of your body,
you also danced always with the entirety of your being—
which many took to be all the same, but it’s not.
And it was always so easy to see you dancing
in the forest, and in the rain and in the sea—so obvious—that.
But you danced also in relationship—
within the ease of the flow of conversation—
with your dry wit and your repartee, your instinct for droll phrasing,
for meaningful tone and intonation,
the lunges of your incisive insight and your intelligence,
the footwork of feistiness,
your deep leaning into honesty and vulnerability.

Your dancing is not just what was—
what you could once do and can do no more,
but rather more a matter of how you saw yourself
within the connections of all around you in a glorious choreography—
an exquisite coordination of more than just the whole of your body.
You saw always the exquisite coordination of the whole—
of the all—in which you took your place.
And that dance continues—
awaiting your eyes to see it again—
and you to join it again.

Here is your secret, child of Terpsichore,
your secret to hold close and dear:
dancing—physically dancing may be what you were best known for,
but it was never ever the best you are.
So remember the joy.
But then remember as well, that that joy
was not just in what you did—in what you could do,
but in what you were a part of in doing.
And within all that people do to each other
and all that just happens—all that life brings,
there is only and always
the great freedom to choose to be you—
within the great dance.
Or not.”

And I attended the lady my god attended.
I forged the crutches
with which she navigated her home—
at first just the one room, and the bed in that room at that.
But then another.
Then the library with its large windows overlooking the garden,
and then the living room with its balcony overlooking the sea.
And long she stood just looking out.

Eventually though, she ventured outside—
on to the heath,
to the edge of the forest.
And she watched the wind,
and the rain, the birds—
never moving once she got somewhere—
just watching.
And I forged a winch down the cliff to the sea,
and she stood on the beach and watched the surf,
the dolphins at dusk—the sunset—
just watched—never moved—
as if abstracted from the whole scene.

And so it went.
day after day, week after week,
month after month, year after year.
There was never a time frame for her grief.
There was just always another day
of gradually going out into the world
and seeing it.

It was her eyes that first began to dance again—
eyes in whose depths swam the knowledge of profound pain
and immense loss—
just her eyes,
and I watched those eyes,
was lost and found in those eyes,
until it was said, there was seen again in the waves
arms and hands, a dress and tresses,
and, here and there, as awkwardly rigid as can be, a crutch—
yet a part of the dancing.
Some swear they saw sparks as of fire—
impossible though that be
amidst the sea foam,
but I believe.

The little girls of the seven kingdoms, of course,
had long since turned their attention and their admiration
to the dancers people started talking about
when there were no more stories told of her grace.
But some of those little girls, who remembered—
little girls now older, had waited—believing—hoping—trusting
there was a richer story worth waiting for—
the story I’ve not been ready to tell—
because she always wept—
for what she could no longer do.
That pain never went away.
And she wept at what it cost her
to dance in her condition.
It hurt.
But she also came to weep (I came to see)
that she could call what she still did dancing—
that she could still be a part of the beauty she saw—
the exquisite coordination of the all—encompassing even
the lame and misshapen, the ugly—the broken.

It was her secret, you see,
that dancing was never just what she did,
it was the way she saw the world around her—dancing.
It was the way she saw herself as part of the all dancing,
her grace, the lady of the western sea,
deep and terrible, beautiful and marvelous.

Witness of the Closed Canon, ii.
John 1:1-5
In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came into being through him,
and without him not one thing came into being.
What has come into being in him was life,
and the life was the light of all people.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not overcome it.

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