Barbara Brown Taylor is my literary mistress. Shannon knows about this, we have uneasy conversations about it, but she loves the beefy guy from Twilight, and Barbara Brown Taylor is twice my age, so I think we’re good. Besides it is for completely platonic reasons that Taylor occupies my mind like she does. Our relationship is entirely utilitarian. Taylor, you see, is a preacher’s best friend, because she writes stuff that starts the fire burning.
Like this week for instance, when I was reading the early parts of Genesis and clumsily treading water in the primordial seas of God’s unordered creation, it was Barbara Brown Taylor who said the obvious, “If you think about it, we sixth day creatures are the latecomers to creation.”
Okay, so you think it’s not much of a spark. But you only need a little. Good dry tinder can light with only a flicker—well, and perhaps a little wind. Like the wind that swept over the face of the deep. It does take a little wind. But once the tinder ignites, look out; these blazes can get out of control in a hurry. That reminds me, back to us latecomers.
Perhaps the famous scientist Carl Sagan said it in the most memorable way. I know about Carl because my father strapped me to a chair when I was too little to resist and made me watch Sagan’s PBS documentary series Cosmos. It blew my mind, and I grew to love Sagan. In the end, however, it wasn’t the documentary series that was the biggest draw on my affection. I loved Carl Sagan for bringing science fiction to life with his promotion of SETI. SETI stands for the “Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence”—for a ten year old boy steeped in the language of Starfleet Command this was a great idea, never mind that terrestrial intelligence is elusive enough on its own. Sagan got his start right around here you know, at the 1939 World’s Fair at Flushing Meadows when as five year old child he marveled at the “America of Tomorrow” exhibit and saw a photoelectric cell make a cracking noise when a flashlight shined on it, and watched the sound from a tuning fork become a wave on an oscilloscope. It was also the first place Sagan saw the future of media—the television set. He would never dream of being anything other than a scientist from that point on. Here is what Carl Sagan said about us late comers, the language is not creation story, but scientific, the point however is just right, ‘If we could squeeze the creation of the cosmos” said Sagan, “into a single year, then the cataclysmic event happened on January 1st. The Sun and the planets came into existence on September 10th. Human beings arrived on the scene at ten minutes before midnight on December 31st. Latecomers.
But if Taylor’s word about latecomers, supplemented by Sagan’s perspective, is the spark, then what is the fire? Where is the meaning? So, we’re latecomers, what of it? Taylor to the rescue again: “I cannot tell you how many times I read the first chapter of Genesis,” writes Taylor, “before I noticed something new on day six. Here all this time I had thought that we human beings had day six all to ourselves—you know, the pinnacle of the story—God’s last, best word in the utterance of creation. With all lesser creatures out of the way, the sixth day finally arrived. God ordered a kettle drum roll, cleared the divine throat, and said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness;”—yes, yes, here we are at last!—“and let them have dominion”—oh yes! Do let them have that! I have always wanted 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.” Over the whole ranch! As far as the eye can see! This really is a wonderful book, don’t you think? Then about six months ago I noticed for the first time that day six does not start there. Day six starts two verses earlier, with the creation of land animals—cattle to be exact. Now all the sudden I do not have day six to myself anymore. I am sharing it with a bunch of cows.”
The fire is really starting to blow now, don’t you think. We’ve caught a good log on fire. And the wind has picked up; it’s feeding oxygen to the hungry flames that need it most. Taylor will do that to you—Taylor, and just a little wind, a breath of God. “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit”—and so it is with everyone who writes sermons.
I am warming myself now, rubbing my hands together over the dancing tongues of fire. Humans had a welcome committee—plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind, lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from night, the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, and every winged bird of every kind. Adam, proto-human if you will, was not born into an empty place. He was born into a world community. Life was everywhere. Life was unanimous. Life was ubiquitous. If the world was a stage then the cast was a great ensemble. Now I know, no suitable helper could be found. But In Genesis 1 that’s not the point. In Genesis 1, in the first creation story, humans are created, male and female they are created, with one swift motion. Boom, they were there–be fruitful and multiply. And when they arrived the cows stood all about, mooing away.
A lot has happened since then. Humans are quite unique, and we tout a very competitive resume, and hold a treasure trunk of patents. We were the first creatures to domesticate and cultivate. We were the first creatures to assert gravity, or explain relativity, or to wear a bow tie. We are the first creatures to decode a strand of DNA, and clone another living organism. We are the first creatures to build a rocket ship and escape this well placed third rock from the sun (my dad was always fond of pointing out, however, that we only did it by bringing the products of the earth with us). We were the first creatures to write down a special revelation of God, and to show the care of God in creation.
This goes to prove that God was right all along—dominion does belong to us. To the babes of creation, God gave the power to subdue. Power to subdue the lollygagging cows who sat and chewed the cud and watched the breath of life enter our dull and inanimate bodies. Power to subdue the plants, and place their seeds in neat heaped rows of fertilized earth. Power to dam rivers, and harvest the energy of the sun, to bring forests to their knees, to remove the sides of mountains looking for minerals, and to cross the waters deep. We have power, just as God has power. In the image of God we are made—opposable thumbs and all.
Some theologians are fond of calling humans co-regents. I shudder to think, but there it is—“fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion.” But they were first. They welcomed us. We were latecomers. We don’t even get our own day. It is the scandal of election. God chooses—not the snow leopard, or the bird, or the duck billed platapus, or the great leviathan, but humans. So when he brought order to chaos he set up the world’s governance, and placed one with God’s likeness on the throne.
I pray we are not despots. I am tearful for the tyrants. I am saddened by the dictators. Humans have such a bad track record with power. In one generation we will pollute the ground with the spilt blood of one murdered in a fit of selfish rage. We will muzzle the ox while it treads out the grain. We will sin and fulfill the words of the prophet Hosea, “bloodshed follows bloodshed. Because of this the land dries up, and all who live in it waste away; the beasts of the field, the birds in the sky and the fish in the sea are swept away.” Oh God, what have you done?
The only way to complete our office of responsibility, says Taylor, is to catch the spark, and fan the ember with the wind. It is to, by the Holy Spirit that animates all life, receive the heart of God who rules with a dominion of love. You know that God, it is the God that sends the sun on the good and the evil. It is the God who established evening and morning in an endless refrain. It is the God who buries the seed of fall beneath the insulating snows of winter in order to welcome the spring sprout and the summer fruit. “We are here to love as God loves. Be perfect therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.” And take care of the welcoming committee, and protect the changing of seasons, and smile at the leviathan that God made for God’s amusement, and don’t forget to show the cow some love. And remember the birds that made bread deliveries in the wilderness, and the quail that gave their lives as meat for our complaining stomachs, and the hungry lions who kept their mouths shut, and the dove that descended, and the donkey that carried the savior into the holy city, and the fish that fed the thousands. And the wind, don’t forget the wind. Remember it all, and reign with a dominion of love, and take care of this world, and all that is in it. Let’s have some terrestrial intelligence. We were not born into an empty place. We were born into a world community. Life is everywhere. Life is unanimous. Life is ubiquitous. We were the latecomers! If the world is a stage then the cast is a great ensemble. To God be the glory. Amen.