Sermon: Oh My Goodness

September 2, 2018
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Season of Creation: Planet Earth Sunday
Genesis 1:1-25

I love playing with words. You may have noticed this, despite my friend Paul’s friendly warning to me during his Charge to the Pastor two years ago that I shouldn’t begin my sermons with a pun.

As I think you’ve noticed, I can manage to slip them into the middle or the end.

It’s not just puns, though. A word like “sanction” intrigues me, because it means both what it means and the opposite of what it means. The United Nations Security Council can sanction an activity, meaning that it approves it, or it can impose sanctions, or penalties, on an activity, in order to disapprove it.

The title of this sermon, Oh My Goodness, is a phrase that changes its meaning depending on where you place a comma (if it’s written) or the emphasis (if it’s spoken). With a comma after the “Oh,” you get, “Oh, My Goodness,” suggesting surprise, dismay, perhaps even disappointment. But if you put a comma after “My,” instead, you get: “Oh My, Goodness,” implying the discovery of something wonderful.

Most of this summer has been, “Oh, My Goodness.”

It’s been a challenge to hold to this repeated assertion, “And God saw that it was good.” We have been reminded repeatedly of the fragility of human life and what we create with it, when the powers of Creation apply their might. Flowing lava took no notice of the homes and structures before it, nor our affection for Kapoho Bay or Pohoiki. At Kilauea summit, the land has taken a new shape through weeks of collapses and quaking earth.

Last weekend, we learned once more that molten rock is not the only non-human power on Earth. If we hadn’t attended the reminder we received via Kauai in the spring, we had it up close and personal here in Hilo, down in Puna, and along the Hamakua coast. Not even Hilo copes readily with four feet of rainfall in four days.

“Oh, My Goodness.”

Why would God make such an unruly Creation? Why is God’s creative summons one that is simultaneously authoritative and yet strangely impotent? Walter Brueggemann writes (in Genesis, Interpretation Bible Commentary, John Knox Press, 1982), “We are dealing here with a peculiar kind of sovereignty. This sovereign speech is not coercive but evocative. It invites but it does not compel. It hopes rather than requires. Thus, it may be resisted and unheeded.”

The ancients who wrote this account of the world’s formation understood that Creation itself became an actor in Creation itself. As Gerald West writes (in The Season of Creation: A Preaching Commentary, David Rhoads, Norman C. Habel, H. Paul Santmire, eds., Fortress Press, 2011), “Though clearly the dominant force, God enters into a partnership in verses 6-10 with the Earth, fashioning what is already there, creating an infrastructure for life.” In verse 11, God summons the earth to put forth vegetation – God doesn’t create the plants directly. Again in verse 20, God summons the seas to bring forth their creatures, and the sky to fill with birds. And in verse 24, God directs the earth once more, this time to bring forth the animals, including those domesticated beasts (translated “cattle”), the creatures of the wilderness, and even the creepy-crawlies that few of us regard with much affection.

Partnerships, you may have observed, don’t always work quite as one expects.

God’s affirming, “Oh My, Goodness,” can rapidly become, “Oh, My Goodness.”

And yet. And yet. And yet.

Our troubles with the natural world existed in the ancient world – well, perhaps with less flowing lava in the realm of Israel. They lived in more fragile structures than we do. Lightning strikes killed many people each year before the invention of the lightning rod prevented the widespread fires that swept through villages and cities. Though I do not discount the risk of encountering an angry pig out in the woods, shepherds in Israel regularly faced lions and bears.

Sadly, not tigers, so I can’t chant, “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!”

(Except that I just did, of course.)

Those ancient people – those threatened, anxious people – they are the ones who set to paper that divine refrain: “And God saw that it was good.”

They turned, “Oh, My Goodness,” into “Oh My, Goodness.”

They saw with a clarity our technology frequently obscures that Earth is rich in goodness. Grass grew in the hard rocky soil of Israel that fed a hardy breed of sheep. In that dry land, rain would come to fall. We call rain a “blessing” here in Hilo, but in Israel they knew how true it was, even better than they do in Kona.

They saw the interconnection of earth and vegetation, sea and fish, earth and animals. They didn’t know the detail revealed by modern science, but they almost certainly knew more than we give them credit for. The Hawaiians knew it, too, seeing relationships between living things in the depths of the seas and at the mountains’ summits. Pele’s brother Ka-moho-ali’i was a god of sharks. And they saw in the half flowers of the naupaka a relationship between mauka and makai.

“Oh My, Goodness.”

Let us seize that wisdom of the ancients, and celebrate this unruly and fragile planet Earth. There is beauty in the destruction just as there is destruction in the beauty. There is creation in the calamity just as there is calamity in the creation.

Some of that “Oh My, Goodness,” is simply true. Earth and sea and sky bring forth the grains and fruits and creatures that sustain us. The sun raises water to the clouds, from which it rains to make all green things grow – and the earth filters that water so that we can drink it safely. The very bread which we will bless on our communion table comes from grasses that sprouted from earth and drank dew from heaven.

“Oh My, Goodness.”

It is also an act of faith. We choose which emphasis to place in the sentence. We choose where to place the comma. We choose what kind of story we will believe, and what kind of story we will tell about our home and planet.

We can choose to believe, “Oh, My Goodness,” and be dismayed by wind or sun.

Or we can choose to believe, “Oh My, Goodness,” and celebrate God’s wonders.

I’m going with celebration, friends.

“Oh My, Goodness.”


Listen to the Recorded Sermon

If one can celebrate God’s wonders in the natural world, can one also celebrate the freedom to improvise that makes the recording different from the prepared text? Can one?

The picture shows Pauahi Street in Hilo descending into the floods left by Hurricane Lane on the morning of August 25, 2018. Photo by Eric Anderson.

Categories Sermons | Tags: , , , | Posted on September 2, 2018

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