Thursday, November 18, 2010

Sermon - In The Beginning

In The Beginning

Most of us know about the Christian story of God creating heaven and earth in seven days, and Adam and Eve and their travails.

But what about the time when out of the swirling chaotic waters, Atum willed himself into being, and then spat out a son, Shu, god of the air. Atum then vomited up a daughter, Tefnut, goddess of moisture. These two were charged with the task of creating order out of chaos. Shu and Tefnut generated Geb, the earth, and Nut, the sky. Or at least that’s the story of how it all began from an Egyptian perspective.

There are countless stories like these. Some are wonderfully fantastic, but they all answer one very basic question, “Where did we come from.” For time immemorial, human beings have offered up different stories of their beginning. We call them creation myths. Nearly every human society has one. And it is always a story, a rich story that can be passed down generation to generation. Remember most of these stories are ancient. They were told long before language was written. The story of where we come from had to be remembered and passed down, generation to generation.

Creation stories aren’t always understood literally. They aren’t seen as a detailed description of the way it all happened in a realistic way. But they are metaphors for the source of life, and the way a community understands itself. Creation myths hold profound truths for every society, including our own They tell the story of why things are the way they are, or more importantly, the way things should be.

In a minute, we will talk about the big bang, the Creation Myth that most of us adhere to, but for now, I thought it would be fun to look at a couple of other stories of the beginning of time.

For the Aztecs in Mexico, the Universe was born out of the earth mother. She’s called Coatlicue, or “skirt of snakes,” because that’s what she wore, a skirt of snakes. She also sports a necklace of human hearts, hands and skulls.

The story goes that Coatlicue was impregnated by an obsidian knife and gave birth to the goddess of the moon, and to 400 sons, who became the stars of the southern sky. Later, a ball of feathers fell from the sky and Coatlicue became pregnant again. But the moon goddess and her brothers turned against their mother because they were angry about her being pregnant again. They didn’t know that the child inside Coatlique, was the sun god, the god of war. When the time came, the sun god sprang from his mother's womb, fully-grown and armed to the teeth. He immediately attacked the moon goddess, and killed her. Cutting off her head, he flung it into the sky, where it became the moon.

The story goes on from there and the violence continues. We can only guess that the violence in that story has some relationship to the Aztecs use of human sacrifice in religious life. It’s a fascinating story and a far cry the garden of Eden and Noah’s Arc of the Old Testament. It’s a little violent for my taste. Strangely enough, most of the creation stories I cam across are really violent.

I think my favorite creation myth that I came across this week is from China. Of course we are talking about a huge area and many stories were told there, but this one is lovely. In the beginning, a cosmic egg floated within the timeless void. That one egg contained the opposing forces of yin and yang, light and dark, male and female. After eons of incubation, the first being, Pan-gu emerged from that egg. When the egg came apart, the heavy parts, the yin of the egg drifted downwards, forming the earth. The lighter parts, the yang rose to form the sky. Pan-gu, fearing the parts might get all mixed up and re-form the egg, or totally separate, so he stood upon the earth and held up the sky. As he held these two forces together yin and yang, he grew 10 feet per day for 18,000 years, until the sky was 30,000 miles high. When his work of holding the world together was completed, he finally died. When he died, Pan-gu’s body parts transformed into elements of the universe, the animals, weather phenomena, and celestial bodies. Some say the fleas on Pan-gu became the humans.
But this isn’t just a story. The cosmic notions of Yin and Yang presented here are one of the core concepts of Confuscianism, the teachings and social order that have been the underpinning of Chinese civilization for a couple thousand years. These stories stick with tremendous impact to their societies.

I love these stories. They always have a certain tension to them, and wonderful characters. There is almost always a balance of forces and some amount of conflict and triumph involved. But there isn’t just one creation story about the universe. There are billions of creation stories. We each have our own. We each came into this world in a particular way, in a mixture of pain and hope, struggle and light.

And just like the creation stories of the universe, these are stories that we can’t confirm first hand. Sure there is a birth certificate, but we certainly don’t remember what was happening the day we were born. What time of day was it? What kind of emotions flooded the room? What kind of joy emerged? What was the struggle? We have to take someone else’s word for what it was like. We get the story passed down to us.

And for some of us, there is no story passed down. For those who are adopted, or for some reason are separated from their family of origin, that story of creation is never told. And so we make one up. Speaking from my own experience, as an adopted child, when you don’t know the story of where you came from, you eventually make one up. This is too big of a question for the human psyche to leave blank. If there is no explanation provided, no story of creation, then we will patch together what little information we have to come up with some reason for our existence in the world.

We need a story, we need the story. But what I want to focus on today, is that there is a choice in how we tell them. We always have a choice in which version of the story we tell, or which pieces we emphasize. In that great cosmic tension is it the darkness of light that wins out. Do we remember the pain of delivering a baby, or the joy of new life in the world. Which story will we choose to remember? Because the story that we choose to remember, is the story that will shapes our future.

These creation stories, both the stories of how we came into the world as individuals, and the story of how the universe came into being are very powerful. It’s easy to see how for other cultures, their understanding of where they cam from influenced their experience of the world. The way they understood animals, and the cosmos, the way they understand themselves in relations to the earth each other. The stories get passed generation to generation. With each retelling they become more ingrained and they shape the way we understand the world. They are not just stories. They are myths that tell us why the world is the way it is. They are stories that shape our understanding of the way things are, and the way that things should be.

Even today, here and now, our understanding of creation impacts how we will respond to it.

There’s one more creation story. One that we are deeply invested in. It’s the Big Bang. It’s the story that shapes most of our awareness of the way the world is. So I want to tell you this story, in a couple of different versions.

Around 13.7 billion years ago, all that existed was a single dot, a fleck of energy. That speck was hotter and denser than anything we could possible imagine. For a very long time, it was so hot and so dense that particles actually collided with one another and destroyed each other. But eventually it started spreading and cooling.

As it spread out from that speck, and cooled down, the particles stopped destroying themselves from this constant collision and three different types of matter formed, dark matter, hot dark matter, and baryonic matter That’s the sort of stuff we would understand for the periodic table of elements.

As the universe cooled, the three types of matter started to emerge. Most of the universe consists of cold dark matter. Anything that we would understand as matter, the “stuff” of the universe, makes up less than 18% of what is out there. And as most of the universe is made up of cold dark matter, so too, it is dominated by a mysterious form of energy known as dark energy. It permeates everything.

Since the Big Bang, the moment the universe started to expand, it has continued expanding. But it cannot expand forever. Everything has its limits. Some say that once it reaches its maximum size, it will begin to collapse in on itself again, ending in the opposite of the big bang, which would be a Big Crunch. Or perhaps it will just keep spreading out and cooling down as stars burn out and black holes consume all the matter and it all ends in a Big Freeze. But those scientists who are interested in dark energy, you know that mysterious force that makes up the vast majority of the universe, They think that as the universe spreads farther and farther apart, that galaxies and eventually particles of matter themselves will be pulled apart, so that everything, every piece of matter is ripped into nothing. They call it the Big Rip.

That’s one version of the Big Bang, one version of the way that we can understand the world around us. It’s dominated by a dark mysterious force and one day will be crunched, frozen or ripped into oblivion. That’s a very real summation of the scientific understanding of the Big Bang theory. But it’s not all that inspiring.

Fortunately, there is another version of that story. A version that I hope we can celebrate, a version that we can share in worship.

This story also starts out with a single speck. It’s a speck of energy and of matter that would be the source of everything we know. No-one knows where that speck came from, we only know that it once was there, a speck holding within itself the seed of all the energy and matter of the universe.

In the speck were two competing forces. On one hand particles began to clump together to form matter. On the other hand, they were so hot and so fast that these clumps just destroyed each other. But through a mysterious anomaly, eventually the clumps of matter found a way to stick together and not be destroyed . As that matter formed, a tremendous force pull the particles to one another, attracing them into larger and denser groups. That wonderful attraction pulled matter into stars and planets and all of the things that we can see today.

Out of the stars in their flight, out of the dust of eternity, here have we come,
Stardust and sunlight, mingling through time and through space.

(Follow is adapted from Robert T. Weston)

Out of the stars have we come,
up from time.
Time out of time before time in the vastness of space, earth spun to orbit the sun,
Earth with the thunder of mountains newborn,
the boiling seas.
Earth warmed by sun, lit by sunlight;
This is our home;
Out of the stars have we come.

Mystery hidden in mystery, back through all time;
Mystery rising from rocks in the storm of the sea.

Out of the stars, rising from rocks and the sea,
Out of the sea to the land, out of the shallows came ferns.

Out of the sea to the land, up from darkness to light.
Rising to walk and to fly,
Out of the sea trembled life.

Life up from sea:
Eyes to behold, throats to sing, mates to love.

Life from the sea, warmed by sun, washed by rain,
Life from within giving birth rose to love.

This is the wonder of time; this is the marvel of space; out of the stars swung the earth; life upon earth rose to love.

This is the marvel of creation, rising to see and to know;
What a wonder that we live!

Our past creates our future, our foundation sets the possibility for growth. So I ask you as we close our time together, what story of this creation will you tell. What will motivate your life and our shared future? A story of darkness and eventual anhialation, or will you choose to believe in and participate in a story that creates life? The choice is yours. How will you tell the story?

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