Sunday, January 11, 2009

Today's Sermon: Sorting Things

Sermon for January 11, 2009
Gen. 1: 1-5, Acts 19: 1-7, Mark 1:4-11

The beginning of the Book of Genesis is intense. I’ve always loved it because it is poetic, but it is not in the least bit romantic.

The first two verses, in particular, have long intrigued me: “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.”

Think of it: a formless void, with a wind from God over the face of the waters. It’s a dark picture, isn’t it?

At seminary, when I got serious about my study of Biblical Hebrew, one of the most marvelous moments was when I knew enough to be able to read today’s passage from Genesis in the original language.

Bear with me a minute while I read those first two verses in Hebrew – trust me, I’ve got a reason.

{here I am inserting a rough transliteration, because Blogspot doesn't support Hebrew fonts}

Biresheeth burah elohim eth hashamaim ve’eth ha’aretz
veha’aretz haeethah tohu va vohu vitoshek al-pineh teh’hom
Va-ruach elohim meratepet al-peneh hamaim.

You can hear the strange and beautiful poetry, can’t you?

Did you catch that little phrase in the middle, tohu va vohu?

It’s translated in the NRSV translation as “a formless void,” but in my Hebrew class, my professor told us that it really wasn’t translatable into English. The picture those three words painted was much more chaotic, much more like all the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle tossed out of their box across the living room floor. He struggled to come up with words that would convey the sense of the Hebrew, and finally looked up at us, shrugged, and said “Higgledy piggledy!” Tohu va vohu. Utter disorganization…not just disorganization, but the antithesis of organization.

We think we understand a lack of organization – certainly my office desk is a prime example – but this is chaos to the nth degree, this tohu va vohu. But then there is a wind over those wild waters – ruach – not just a wind, but God’s own breath. And then the breath incarnates into God’s voice, speaking the words that begin to bring order to the chaos. God’s word, in God’s voice, in God’s breath, taming the water, making sense of the insensible.

At the very beginning, it takes God’s voice to turn the chaos into something comprehensible.

There is a wonderful phrase that the English use to describe someone whose life and whose choices are chaotic and don’t make sense: He needs sorting. I read it first in British mystery books, and I loved it. Someone who’s really messed up needs to be sorted out. The stupid things he may have done means that he’s not thinking straight, and he needs guidance to organize his mind so he no longer makes those foolish choices.

If you’re a Harry Potter fan, you’ll remember the scene in the first book, where the new students are assigned to their house. There is a magical hat, The Sorting Hat, which tells each student whether they’ll be in Gryffindor, or Ravensclaw, or Slytherin. The voice of a higher authority sorts them, organizes them, into their proper place.

That sorting function is one that is a basic human need. We like things to be organized. We hunger for some level of predictability in our lives. We want to know that certain things will happen in certain ways, like the light being separated from the darkness. We don’t like chaos; it makes us profoundly uncomfortable. Perhaps that desire for order is one of the ways that we are made in God’s image, because God certainly does some sorting, the first of a long series of sortings, in the work of Creation as the Book of Genesis begins. No, we don’t like disorder. We like things to be categorized, organized, in their proper place.

So it feels familiar when we hear of another sorting in our Gospel reading today. John the Baptizer makes sure his listeners understand who is who. John wants to make sure that he is properly categorized, and tells them that there is someone on the way who is a whole different category. John reminds those who have come out to the River Jordan that he merely baptizes them with water – a familiar Jewish ritual still observed by Orthodox Jews as the mikvah, a purifying bath – but that there is someone else coming who will baptize them with the Holy Spirit. That baptism will be the ultimate sorting, one that will change those who are baptized in a fundamental way. John is not only distinguishing between himself and the Messiah to come, he is talking how those who come to know the Messiah will be sorted differently as well. And isn’t it true that God’s voice does the sorting in this story as well? When John baptizes his cousin Jesus, there is a voice coming from the clouds, God’s voice, categorizing who Jesus is: "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." When we hear that voice, we know who this person is.

Sometimes we rail against being categorized, but there is, as I said, a need to know where we stand, with whom we stand. It sounds like confusion about categories was in play amongst the people whom Paul met when he went to Ephesus, in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles. The Ephesians had been baptized in the manner that John baptized – the baptism of repentance – but they didn’t know there was a more powerful kind of baptism available to them, the baptism of the Holy Spirit. And when Paul baptized them in this manner, they were radically transformed, re-categorized, sorted into something different, something wild and untameable…they began to speak in tongues and to prophesy because they were so changed by God through the Holy Spirit.

And that’s the marvelous and frightening thing about God’s sorting – it isn’t a tame thing. We don’t know when God sorts us out where He will place us. A few years ago I certainly couldn’t have imagined myself standing up here and preaching. Others among you may have never anticipated that you would serve as Lay Eucharistic Ministers, offering the chalice at Eucharist. Still others may never have imagined they would be teaching in Sunday School, or coordinating a ministry area. God’s sorting is neither predictable nor tame, and the results are sometimes very different than we expect.

So what does that mean to Saint Gabriel’s, to each of us who are part of this limb of the Body of Christ here at Belmont Ridge Middle School?

Well, one thing that it means is that we have to be aware that God is sorting us all the time, not just individually, but as a community. We think that we organize ourselves into a community, but God is there all the time, doing the sorting. As we were on the vestry retreat yesterday, we talked about how we thought we would get one piece of land several years ago, and it was really a sad moment when that fell through. A little while later, we received the gift of the land on Battlefield Parkway. Not what we expected or planned, but God was doing the sorting. We may be wondering why it had to be that Pastor Jeunee had to go to Farmville. God was doing some sorting.

Here’s the challenge: can we be open to some radical sorting here? Can we accept that the Saint Gabriel’s we know right now may be sorted by God in ways that we cannot anticipate?
What this requires is the willingness to enter a space of “tohu va vohu,” of that crazy jigsaw puzzle chaotic world, and then to stop and to wait. To listen for “ruach elohim” – the breath of the Lord – to come murmuring, shimmering over the dark waters of the unknown. To hear the words humming through that shimmering breath guiding us to what our future might be. To accept God’s sorting in those words coming from heaven, as Jesus did after John baptized him. To live into our own response to the Word, as the Ephesians did after Paul baptized them and the Holy Spirit descended upon them.

It takes more than a little courage to enter into the wildness of God’s sorting, and a great deal of trust. Are you willing to trust, and dive into the chaos so you can rise up to become who God names you to be?


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