Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
15th of June, 2014
One of the things that I love most about being a minister is that as part of that role people include me in the most important moments of their lives. We live in a society that is rapidly becoming more secular, but many people do still come to the Church for what are facetiously referred to as ‘hatching, matching and despatching’. So this past week I have spent time with the small boy, Eamonn, whom we will be baptising here next Sunday; and time with a young couple who are going to be married in this church in November. I have a role in people’s lives at their times of greatest joy. And I love it.
But as well as welcoming people into the Church and blessing couples as they make a commitment to each other, the Church also marks people’s deaths. We gather the community together at a funeral to give thanks to God for a person’s life; to affirm the Christian conviction that while death is the end of mortal life, it marks a new beginning in our relationship with God; and to share the sorrow of those who mourn and offer them our love and support. If anything, this is even more important than welcoming people to the Church through baptism and blessing couples at their marriage. Offering people the comfort of the sure and certain hope of the resurrection as they farewell someone they love is one of the greatest things, I believe, that the Church does. Spending time with family and friends as they grieve and being able to offer them comfort, even if it’s only the comfort of being there with them, is one of the greatest privileges of ministry. But it can also be dreadfully hard.
This has been a hard month, funeral-wise. No funeral is easy, but there is a joy and satisfaction at the funeral of someone who has lived a long, full life, as we give thanks to God for that life. This month I conducted the funeral of a baby, a little boy, desperately wanted and deeply loved, who died in the womb at 39 weeks. There could be no celebration of life at the funeral of a baby who never even got to take his first breath. Instead, at the service a friend read a letter the parents had written to their son, telling him how much joy he’d already given them, that he would always be their firstborn, and that they would never forget him. At the end of the service the father carried the tiny white coffin out of the Church in his arms, as everyone present cried.
On Friday, we had the funeral here of a man who’d died suddenly at the age of forty-six of a meningococcal infection. Adding to the pain of his family was the fact that last October we conducted the funeral of his wife, also forty-six, who’d died of breast cancer. I looked down at their three young-adult children, sitting in the front row, and struggled not to cry myself. I offered the comfort that the Church offers at every funeral: the hope of life beyond death and the assurance that the person loved is in the arms of the God who loves them. But I also acknowledged that what had happened was profoundly unfair.
It was not fair that these young people had lost their father so soon after losing their mother. It was not fair that the deeply-wanted baby didn’t come home to the room prepared for him. Sometimes life is deeply unfair, and all we can do is acknowledge that.
From this great unfairness of life we come to today’s reading; to the creation story with its balance and pattern that soothes and comforts and reassures. God overcomes the chaos that existed before creation. God speaks, and what God commands comes to pass. There is evening and morning, as day follows day. God looks at everything and sees that it is good. At the end God rests from all the labour, and blesses and hallows the day of rest. How does this story of creation bear any resemblance to the messiness and chaos and unfairness of life as we experience it?
Most biblical scholars agree that this creation story comes from sixth century BC, from the time of the Babylonian Exile. The Hebrew Scriptures contain writings from much earlier in Israel’s history, but the final form is a product of, and response to, the Exile. This particular creation story, scholars believe, is one of the latest parts of the Hebrew Bible written. It’s not meant to be a scientific treatise and trying to read it as science misses the point. This creation story is a theological exposition of who God is and who we are.
I’ve talked before about the Babylonian Exile and just how appalling it was for the people of Israel. The Exile meant that God could no longer be worshiped in the Temple in Jerusalem. Their connection with God was severed: they were no longer living in the land God had given them; they were no longer ruled by God’s anointed king; they could no longer offer sacrifices to God in the Temple. God’s own people were slaves in a foreign land. Israel was estranged from God. They had to ask: were they still the people of God? Or had God deserted them?
It is in that context that this story of creation was written. It starts by describing the formless void, the absolute chaos, the darkness that covered the watery deep, before God spoke. The people of Israel were living in that chaos; in that absolute darkness. One biblical commentator describes what they did like this:
Imagine yourself as a prisoner in a foreign land where no one speaks your language or worships your God. Your fellow cellmates come and go from the cellblock according to no apparent logic or design. Your hope of return is negligible. What do you do? Yes, what do you do? You mark the passing of the days on the walls—the first day, the second day, the third day. You watch for signs, any passing signs of the creations associated with these days in your surroundings—the song of a bird outside the wall, the vestiges of the season’s crops in your gruel … Sure, the Babylonians can take many things from me, but they can’t take the sun and the moon, the succession of days, the light of God which shines in my heart. It is “over the face of the waters” that the wind of God sweeps, creating certain orders that even the most diabolical of captors cannot take away. It is out of chaos that God creates order. Indeed, it is in the midst of chaos that God’s light shines clearest.
This is what the creation story affirms. In the midst of chaos, the people of Israel declared that they worshipped the God who brought order out of chaos. In the face of darkness they told of a God who spoke light, and there was light. When their identity as the people of God was challenged, they gave their faith to the God who said: “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” The creation story speaks of light and order and life not because it is ignoring the reality of darkness and chaos and death but in response to that very darkness and chaos and death. It looks at chaos and says that greater than all this is God the Creator. Not only that, but in the words of today’s psalm, God the Creator cares about us! “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” (Psalm 8:3-4) Human beings are made in the very image of God and are given our own part to play in caring for God’s creation. This is the affirmation that the people of Israel made in the middle of their Exile. This is the affirmation that we can hold to when life is at its darkest and most chaotic – we worship a God who brings light out of darkness and order out of chaos.
More than that, as Christians we worship a God who entered into the darkness and chaos and lived it with us. When Jesus was baptised by John in the Jordan he did what all of us do in baptism, he symbolically entered the waters of chaos, drowned in them, and then rose again to new life. Every time we baptise someone we symbolically kill them and raise them to new life. For Jesus, of course, that death and new life was more than symbolic. God not only brought order out of chaos, God experienced that chaos in love for and solidarity with us.
That’s the comfort that the Church offers at funerals, or at any time when the chaos of life overwhelms us. We are not left alone in that chaos. Just as God was still with the people of Israel during the Exile, God is still with us in the deepest darkness. Chaos still happens, and will until the coming of that new heaven and earth to which we all look forward. There are times when life is utterly unfair. But in Jesus God entered that chaos and experienced that unfairness, and because of that we can be certain that, whatever happens, we are not alone. For that we can give thanks to God. Amen.
 Richard N. Boyce, ‘Genesis 1:1-5’, Interpretation 50 no 4 (1996), p 395-6.