Holy Extravagance

The other day, driving home through the rain, I made the final righ turn and parked the car in the driveway just after it had stopped raining. I sat there for a moment, listening to the rest of a story on the radio. Then I pulled the key from the ingnition and opened the door.

It was late in the evening, the sun was low, light pouring through the  trees like the world had just taken a bath. I was about to open the back door of the car to grab my bag from behind the seat, when a very gentle breeze stroked my face and a sweet fragrance greeted me in passing. Suddenly nothing else mattered. I just stood and then turned toward the tall magnolia tree, slowly breathing in, hoping to catch another wave of scented air from its graceful blooms – and there it was.

Such goodness. Such generosity. I didn’t say a word, but for a moment my whole being was a thank you to life and the God of life. It didn’t cost me a penny, all I had to pay was a little attention.

Our days are full of these wonders. Honeysuckle. Watermelon. Strawberries. Such goodness. Wine with friends. Thick slices of fresh bread. Travel stories. Sitting on the beach, watching the waves roll in. Or closer to home, gently swinging in the hammock, listening to the happy noise of the children at the pool. Such goodness. The joy of noticing all the places where the Wrens love to stop before they fly to the nest to feed their young. Or seeing how the hills cradle the lake and the air carries the hawk above the cliffs by the river. Such beauty. Such wideness and fullness of grace.

We listened to the entire first chapter of the first book of the Bible this morning, which may have seemed slightly over the top to some of you, a little extravagant perhaps. “That was enough text for a seven-week sermon series,” you may have said to yourself, “complete with an adult education forum on faith and science – why waste it by pouring it all out at once?”

Why pour it all out in one reading? Because it’s the whole story of life in one chapter, from first light to God’s rest. Because it’s poetry that wasn’t written to be chopped up into lectionary sections but to be read and heard, to be spoken and sung with at least some of the extravagance the text applies in describing the wondrous orderliness of creation. And we listen to the whole poem because God takes time in creating. God doesn’t just snap the divine fingers and immediately bring creation into being. God speaks. God makes. God names. God observes and delights. “And God saw that it was good,” is one of the refrains of this grand poem. The first day. The second day. The third day. God is not in a hurry. Like an artist who steps back from the detail, again and again, to behold the whole as it is taking shape, God pauses to observe closely how the earth brings forth plants yielding seed of every kind and fruit trees. The fourth day. God notices how the waters swarm; God sees how birds fly across the sky and where they build their nests. God lingers with delighted attention over every movement of every wing. The Carolina Wren, the eastern Goldfinch, the Great Blue Heron. The fifth day. God speaks. God makes. God observes and delights. “Why so many forms?” asks Annie Dillard in her book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

“Why not just that one hydrogen atom? The creator goes off on one wild, specific tangent after another, or millions simultaneously, with an exuberance that would seem to be unwarranted, and with an abandoned energy sprung from an unfathomable font. What is going on here? The point of the dragonfly’s terrible lip, the giant water bug, birdsong, or the beautiful dazzle and flash of sunlighted minnows, is not that it all fits together like clockwork—for it doesn’t, particularly, not even inside the goldfish bowl—but that it all flows so freely and  wild, like the creek, that it all surges in such a free, fringed tangle. Freedom is the world’s water and weather, the world’s nourishment freely given, its soil and sap: and the creator loves pizzazz.”[1]

According to the poem from the opening chapter of Genesis, human beings are latecomers to creation. We are creatures of the sixth day, made in the afternoon, after cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind. When Carl Sagan came up with his now famous model for the age of the cosmos, he didn’t count days, but he arrived at a similar conclusion regarding the late arrival of humankind. Sagan first popularized the idea of squeezing all the time of the universe into not seven days, but a single year, beginning with the Big Bang on January 1. On March 15, the Milky Way galaxy was formed. The sun and planets came into existence on August 31. The first multicellular life on earth appeared on December 5, fish on December 18 and birds on December 27.

Human beings arrived on the scene about 8 minutes before midnight on December 31. And we started writing only about half a second ago in cosmic time.

“What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” asks the Psalmist, awed by the dawning knowledge of creation’s grandeur. It is in us, in these last few minutes of creation’s magnificent unfolding in the hands of God, that the universe has become conscious. Human beings are the first creatures to look at the heavens, the moon and the stars, and ask questions. Human beings are the first creatures to discern the unity of life in all its wild and orderly freedom, and to name the source from which it comes. All creatures praise God by simply being what they were created to be, but there was great joy in heaven when the first human beings looked around with awe and delight and said, “Thank you.” Human beings find themselves addressed by the divine creator in a particular way that calls us to respond to every detail of the miracle in which we know ourselves to be participating, to respond with praise and gratitude, with caring responsibility and exuberant creativity.

We listen to the entire opening chapter of Genesis on a Sunday morning in June, because it is a beautiful invitation to step out of our little worlds and to live into the unfathomable splendor of a gazillion creatures great and small, each vibrating with the love of God, giving that love a shape that changes from moment to moment and yet remains one for as long as God breathes and speaks. We listen to beautiful scripture to better know how to be who we are made and meant to be.

More than fifty years ago, in 1967, a historian named Lynn White wrote an article for Science magazine in which he charged that the roots of the ecological crisis are essentially religious. The problems derive from Christian tradition in particular, he said, which has taught people to view themselves as “superior to nature, contemptuous of it, willing to use it for our slightest whim.” James Gustafson calls it “despotism”—one of the historical ways that people of faith have interpreted their divine calling to dominion over the earth. “In this view,” says Barbara Brown Taylor, “you do not have to ask a tree before you bulldoze it for a subdivision. You just knock it down, push it into a pile with the corpses of other trees, and set it on fire. Then you are free to scrape the clear-cut earth free of green moss, tiny wild iris, unsuspecting toads and a couple of thousand years’ worth of topsoil before calling the pavers to come cover your artwork with steaming asphalt. Oh—and if the mountain laurel block your view of the river, just cut them down too. The next time the river floods, the banks will collapse without those living roots—the river will silt up eventually, until you can push a sharp stick three feet straight down in the sandy bottom without ever hitting what used to be the river bed—but what the heck, if the trout die, you can still buy some at the grocery store—already cleaned and boned, for just a few dollars a pound. You are Lord over this playground, after all—God said so. It is all for you.”[2]

A lot has happened since 1967. We have listened to the prophets and begun to repent. We also listened to our teachers of Scripture who reminded us that dominion on God’s earth doesn’t mean self-serving tyranny, but rather caring attentiveness that allows life to flourish. And by the mercy of God, growing numbers of Christians remembered that God isn’t some absentee landlord who can’t wait to burn the place to the ground, but the creator who delights in every creature and on the seventh day rests serenely in the wondrous whirl of creation.

Summer, of course, is the perfect season for us to fully immerse ourselves in our God’s delight in all creatures and to practice seventh-day-living by resting completely in God’s providence and care. So have a full, slow, free, wild, wonderful summer.

[1] Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 1988, p. 137

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Dominion of Love,” Journal for Preachers 2008, p. 26