Tuesday, December 6, 2022

HOMILY: "Lonely Like God"

A Meditation on Genesis and “The Creation”
Sunday, November 20, 2022
Community Church of Durham


“I’m lonely,” says God.  “So I’ll make me a world.”

It’s a brave and a risky thing—creation, creativity—making things of your dreams and your loneliness.  It’s Beethoven composing in his own darkness, or Toni Morrison writing novels in hers.  Or this Great God Almighty rolling the light around in his hands, and setting the sun ablaze in the sky, and gathering the left-over pieces in a shining ball, and flinging the moon against the darkness.  What’s always moved me in James Weldon Johnson’s interpretation of Genesis; and I think it’s a pretty wonderful and faithful interpretation, by the way; what’s always moved me is this notion of God’s solitude, this divine loneliness.  Theologically, spiritually, it’s a potent and provocative intuition.  That creation itself is conceived in that loneliness, in God’s own aching for communion and community.  “I’m lonely,” says God.  “So I’ll make me a world.”

All that God creates, then, every ecosystem, every watershed, every life that God imagines and births into being: all creation is called forth into communion and community.  Valleys and mountains.  Rainbows, green grass, and little red flowers.  We miss the genius of all this, and the genius of God, I think, when we think about forests as markets to be developed, and farmland as an investment to be exploited.  All that God creates is called forth into communion and community.  Oceans and the rivers that feed them.  Osprey riding gusts of wind and the fish below, an unknowing banquet.  Sunlight and photosynthesis, chlorophyll and the greening of the earth.  All that God creates is called forth into communion and community.  Not a spread sheet to be manipulated, but a feast to be celebrated and shared.  

So God spits out the seven seas.  Communion.  And God waves his hand, for the fish and fowl, for the beasts and birds.  Movement and motion.  Communion.  And God bats his eyes, don’t you love this; God bats his eyes, and the lightning flashes.  God claps his hands, and the thunder rolls. Communion.  The world itself, the spinning planet of seas and skies, forests and fields: all of it is tossed into being, hurled between darkness and light, all because God is lonely.  Great God Almighty is lonely.

And that loneliness builds, you heard it, that loneliness intensifies in our poem this morning.  For all God’s joy in creation.  For all God’s choreography and movement.  For all God’s yearning and blessing.  Still God aches.  Still God grieves.  Still God needs.  “And he looks on his world / with all its living things, / and God says: I’m lonely still.”  I’m lonely still.  Whether it’s in the original Hebrew of Genesis, or in the haunting experience of James Weldon Johnson and the Black Church in America—this God, our God, Great God Almighty reveals himself, herself, God’s self, in vulnerability, loneliness and longing.  To know this God is to know this God’s vulnerability, loneliness and longing.  

And I want you to think with me, for a few minutes, about the kind of faith, the kind of Christian practice that draws on God’s vulnerability.  I want you to wonder with me about the kind of discipleship that risks such vulnerability and loneliness, that embraces it.  How might that change us?  How might that change the church?  What kind of tenderness, what kind of courage, what kind of communion might come of a radically vulnerable church?  


Last month in Alabama, I found myself thinking of James Weldon Johnson, this poem of course, but also “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” as I walked the strange and heartbreaking paths of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.  I know a few of you have been there, to the Memorial; and others will go soon.  It opened in 2018, as the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of Black Americans terrorized by lynching, racial segregation and Jim Crow culture.  Daughters, sons, mothers, fathers, pastors, neighbors.  Generations terrorized.  

At its center, at the Memorial’s center, on a gentle Alabama hillside, hundreds of steel boxes, one for each county where lynching took a life, bear witness to thousands of black Americans who died at the hands of white mobs, racist teens, vigilante posses.  Thousands of them.  Thousands of names.  Thousands of stories.  It’s hard to even describe what it’s like to walk those paths, to see those names, to imagine all those lives and families and dreams shattered.  By cruelty.

It's just about impossible to wander through a Memorial like that and not weep for all that hatred, for all that heartlessness, for all that violence.  In Montgomery, I watched friends around me moving slowly, wiping tears and even rage from their eyes.  And as a Christian, as a believer, as a disciple of Jesus, I have to confess I found myself weeping as well for God.  Because I believe in the God who creates us for communion.  Because I believe in the God who calls us forth to be our brother’s keeper, our sister’s keeper, the refugee’s advocate and the poor man’s friend.  And in my soul I feel that God grieves first for all that hatred, it must be so; that God weeps loudest for all that violence, that God bleeds and suffers and dies with every lynching, and with every poor kid starving, and with every bomb exploding, and with every angry fist balled up and ready to strike. 

What the old storytellers conjure up in Genesis, and what James Weldon Johnson imagines in his own poem, is a God of amazing grace, a God of loving genius, a God of unbounded creativity.  But that God, our God, is also profoundly vulnerable and exposed.  That God, our God, aches for community and communion.  That God, our God, yearns for sisterhood and brotherhood.  And when we hurt one another, when we suffer, God suffers too.  It must be so.  So faith involves a kind of kinship with God, then, a kind of compassion for God—and a deep and transforming tenderness around God’s own vulnerability and pain.   


We’ve spent these last three weeks creating a Season of Creation.  We’ve been exploring the contours of Christian commitments to creation spirituality.  We’ve been naming our grief around climate change and wholesale extinctions.  And we’ve been imagining faithful and joyful collaboration in repairing what’s broken and renewing our planet with love and purpose.  A Season of Creation.  Two weeks ago, Rob Grabill talked about the very real possibility of the moose dying off, Brother Moose, Sister Moose, and the breathtaking prediction that humankind has about 100 good years left to repair what’s been torn, to heal what’s been broken, to turn to sustainable ways upon the earth.  If we’re honest, If I’m honest, I have to confess that conversations like that are hard and scary.  Rob’s sermon was like a gut punch for me.  And I sometimes feel myself overwhelmed and almost incapacitated by despair.  I don’t know if this happens to you.  But it happens to me sometimes.  Not because I don’t believe, but because I do.  

And this brings me around to another Black poet, Cole Arthur Riley.  And she writes:

If you wait to be unafraid
You will die waiting.
The terrors of this world do not sleep.
Liberation is for those who tremble.

She’s a young Black writer, Cole Arthur Riley, working and writing new liturgies in the 21st century, by the way.  And her courage gives me courage and fills me with hope.  It’s kind of raw, but it’s kind of honest.  

If you wait to be unafraid
You will die waiting.
The terrors of this world do not sleep.
Liberation is for those who tremble.

Perhaps, then, the profound loneliness we experience in our own generation is not at all a curse, or a plague, but a kind of sacred sign of what’s most important and what’s most urgent and what’s most luminous in our lives.  This grief in our hearts—for the extinctions across the planet, for the wars that devastate peoples and places, for isolation and despair—this grief illuminates our greatest needs, our deepest hunger, our path to communion.  James Weldon Johnson brings the great Hebrew creation story into lovely relief: out of loneliness, the creator creates.  Maybe that’s the invitation we all need right now.  To follow where our loneliness is leading.  To weep our way into new patterns of communion and community.  To celebrate our own capacities for friendship and support, our own gifts for sisterhood and brotherhood.  “I’m lonely,” says God.  “So I’ll make me a world.”  Maybe God’s inviting us to be every bit as brave, every bit as vulnerable, every bit as daring as God is.  “I’m lonely,” says God.  “So I’ll make me a world.”


The final scene in James Weldon Johnson’s poem conjures God’s passion, God’s tenderness and God’s grace as powerfully as any poetry can.  “Up from the bed of the river / God scoops the clay; / And by the bank of the river / He kneels him down; / And there the great God Almighty / Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky, / Who flung the stars to the / most far corner of the night, / Who rounded the earth in the middle of his hand; / This great God, / like a mammy bending over her baby, / Kneels down in the dust / Toiling over a lump of clay / Till he shapes it in his own image; / And then into it he blows the breath of life, / and the human becomes a living soul!”  This is the love refusing to give in to despair.  This is the grace forever binding our wounds.  This is the light shining in the darkness.  This great God, like a mammy bending over her baby.

Friends of God, liberation is indeed for those who tremble.  If you love God, if you love all that God has made, if you love the life God has given you, you will be undoubtedly shaken by the ebb and flow of history.  If you love God, if you love all that God has made, if you love the life God has given you, you will undoubtedly tremble with joy for all its wonders and with worry for the unknown future.  And if you love Jesus, if you love the Prince of Peace, you will undoubtedly weep for the suffering of others, the suffering of those you love and cherish and know to be your kin.  There’s just no way around it.  It’s something like the Way of the Cross.  Liberation is for those who tremble.  Because God is trembling too.

So here’s my proposal then.  Let’s tremble together.  Let’s weep together.  Let’s weep for the Western Black Rhino and the Pinta Giant Tortoise and maybe someday for the Moose.  But let’s also dance together when the spirit moves us.  And let’s also sing together for the glory of God’s irrepressibly beautiful and undeniably gorgeous creation.  Let’s tremble and weep, and dance and sing.  And then let’s continue to build a sacred circle, where all of this vulnerability can be blessed and holy and sanctified by God.  We are called to this.  So let’s continue to build a beloved community, where all of this trembling, all of this tenderness can be transformed into lovingkindness and friendship and communion.

Because that’s what we’re here for, you and me, and all of us together.  To cherish creation.  To bless it.  And to share it.

Amen and Ashe!