The Sunday Sermon: Seventh Sunday after Pentecost – July 23, 2017
Scripture: Genesis 4:17-26
In the Wilderness: A Community
One more week in the wilderness this month. (Next Sunday is the last one of July, actually, bur Wayne will be here to preach the word. He may keep us in the wilderness a week longer, but I don’t know for sure.) What I do know is that this morning, we complete another journey we embarked on together three Sundays ago. We stepped out into the wilderness with our guest preacher, Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty, on July 2nd. I wasn’t here, of course, you started without me, but her sermon inspired this exploration actually. She titled her message Building God’s Household in the Wilderness, using the story of Hagar and Ishmael’s banishment by Abraham into the wilderness to remind us of our conviction, our belief, and our experience when we allow it – that God is always with us, even in the wilderness experiences of our lives. Hagar found “God” even in her banishment, and Ishmael birthed another nation of God.
So, we were reminded, and I’ve reminded us every week since that, as complicated as “the wilderness” is as a symbol in our biblical witness, it is never a place where “God” is absent. There is no such place, in fact, biblically speaking. (Look up Psalm 139 when you get home.) No, even in the wilderness – in Sheol or at the farthest limits of the sea – “God” is present. We meet God in the wilderness and we are able to build God’s household, even in the midst of our chaos, when our hearts are open. We haven’t left the book of Genesis in providing examples, proofs, of that conviction.
We moved back in Genesis two weeks ago to explore this conviction. In the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden into the wilderness, we found “sanctuary.” Not just a room, but a way of life, not just a place to gather “beyond” the wilderness, but a space to open in the midst of the wilderness, in the chaos of our lives, a space in which we may meet the mystery and calm the anxiety that wilderness creates in our lives.
Last week, in exile, finding God, we read the story of Cain and Abel. And we did that about five minutes after we baptized Benjamin Wade Faul. What a pairing. Our focus, of course, was not on the first killing recorded, brother killing brother, but the divine question: Am I my brother’s keeper? Our response to Benjamin, and to Andre and Emma, was “Yes.’’ Our response to God and to one another in the wilderness must never, ever be different. We are not here alone. We are here with each other, for each other.
So, in our journey into the “wildernesses” of our lives, we come this morning to a(nother) fascinating place, scripturally speaking. The second half of the fourth chapter of Genesis. Take a look at the subtitle placed before verse seventeen in your pew bible, if you have it out. “The beginnings of civilization,” our editors announce. Listen for the Word of God:
Read Genesis 4:17-22, 25-26 … The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
I’ve actually come to appreciate the “names lists” in the bible over my years of ministry. Like many of you, I suspect, I wasn’t sure what to do with them growing up. Truthfully, I never remember hearing these lists read much in church. And like many, I most often skipped over them in my bible reading. Now, you don’t miss too much “theology” when you do this, but you do miss a good deal of identity, and even history. Whether it can ever be proved that Enoch actually lived or that “Zillah bore Tubal-cain,” the fact that so many lists of generations are included in our Holy Bible makes clear the fact that these ancient writers found it vitally important to “ground” the story of their life with “God” in history. This story, our story, doesn’t happen in a fairy tale. It’s real, it’s here, our ancestors are part of it, and so are we.
This is the first list, these descendants of Adam and Eve. And in these generations, as the translators of our NRSV version note, civilization begins. There are herders and farmers listed here, as well as musicians and artists, and manufacturers and builders. The whole of Genesis, chapter four, in fact, charts the evolution of civilization in a “nutshell”: The farmer (Cain) displaces the shepherd, Abel. Enoch is born and builds a city, displacing the farmer. Bronze and iron replace wood and stone. And another child is born to replace, to erase (?), the memory of the first who was killed. To that son was born a son. And “this is the list of the descendants of Adam.” Genesis 5:1 Chapter four of Genesis covers several thousands of years of human evolution and by its end, “civilization” has begun.
So, we’re home free, right? With civilization comes the end of “wilderness,” or at least the end of having to live in the wilderness. That’s now a choice, but we can stay safe in our “civilized” world now, can’t we? Apart from the chaos the wilderness represents.
Well, I’ve only just begun the third page of my sermon manuscript that averages six or seven pages, so you have a sense that it’s not quite that easy. Plus, if you’re paying attention, you’ll have noticed that the sermon title is not “In the Wilderness: A Civilization,” but rather “a Community.” I must think there’s a difference. There must be more. We must not be “home free,” yet.
If chapter four of our biblical book of Genesis “charts” the rise of civilization, it also records something else, namely, the escalation of violence, yet another “tool” that civilizations have relied upon since the first one that grew in the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The beginning of civilization, documented in the passage we just read and heard this morning, began in fratricide, with Cain killing Abel in verse eight. In verse fifteen, even as God refuses to avenge Abel’s death, God promises to execute “sevenfold” revenge on anyone that would harm Cain. In verses twenty-three and twenty-four of our reading, Lamech admits he killed a man who harmed his, announcing his revenge is “seventy-sevenfold.” The next chapter of Genesis continues the genealogy of Adam to one “Noah” and his sons, and the story of that family, of course, includes the destruction of virtually all of creation.
(You see what you miss when you skip over the “name lists” when reading your Bible?!”)
Another of the questions that the book of Genesis asks in its opening chapters, from “the beginning” to the first “end” is, Are we destined to violence, to destruction and death, by human nature or by human civilization?
Its seems clear from our wilderness journey this past month, from Adam and Eve to Seth and Enosh, that we were created “good – very good,” but that, in our effort to regain what we have lost, we have “civilized” ourselves by violent means; in our refusal to accept responsibility for our actions and for one another, we have created an “us versus them” reality that was not part of the divine plan. We’ve even conscripted God to our violent ways, making Love itself a destructive force. On this last Sunday of this particular journey, we are so deep in the wilderness that even our strongholds, the complex societies – the towns, cities, governments, and social classes – we have designed to protect us from the wilderness, are destroying us. What hope do we have if the civilizations we have created for ourselves are doing more harm than good to creation, human and otherwise? Where in this wilderness of violence and oppression may we find “God?”
In this wilderness: A Community.
From the Old Testament prophets to Jesus the Christ, to the Apostle Paul and the early church God calls us, in the words and narratives, through commandments and parables, into community. God doesn’t call us to be “civilized,” to create civilizations. Those are our own doing, created as our attempt to control the chaos we’ve created. (And to be frank, our civilizations aren’t working out so well for far too many.) No, God calls us into community, into God’s attempt to overcome the chaos we’ve created.
“Community” never stops encouraging and admonishing, rejoicing and praying, giving thanks and being patient with one another, never stops working for the mutual good. Community has nothing to do with products or services for individuals or for a select few, but for all. Being a part of a “community” means sticking around and helping each other out whenever needed and whenever we are able. Being in “community” means never allowing anyone in our community to get used to not being around, not begin part of it. Now that’s scary to many, and to some of you, perhaps. There’s a lot of comfort and relief in not being relied upon, in not being counted on to show up, in not being missed when you’re not involved. We lead incredibly busy lives, and to “not be missed so much” on any given Sunday when Saturday night went a bit long or when Sunday comes along (and it does every week!) relieves a sense of guilt we still feel.
But that’s not who we are, and I hope and pray that is never who we become because that is not what God, through the prophets and priestly writing, in Jesus and through the gospels, and through Paul and his letters calls “the church” to be. We are called to be a community or each other and for the world.
(Recite some generations at PVPC like the one from Genesis.)
This is the list, partial as it always is, of the descendants of Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church.
We live wilderness lives. Our sanctuary reminds us of God’s presence always. A baptism reminds us of our call to love and care for one another all our life long. And this community proves to us that we are never alone. The church must always be a community that needs not only for each and every one of us to be “in” church, but to also “be church” for the future of this congregation, and the Body of Christ around the world.
In the wilderness: A community. May it always be so.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / July 23, 2017