The Power of Stories

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 and 11:00 a.m. services. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2011 Daniel Harper.

I’d like to speak to you this morning about the power of stories, both formal stories with a beginning, middle, and end, and the informal stories that we tell about ourselves. And I’ll begin by telling you a story, the story of the Frightened Rabbit. You may have heard this story before in a slightly different form, but I’m going to tell it more or less the way Buddhists have told it for the last two thousand five hundred years. 1

 

One day in the town of Savatthi, some of Buddha’s followers, known as the bhikkus, went out to beg for their food, as they did every day.

Each day, the bhikkus went to a different part of the town to beg. One day, they went past some holy men who lay naked on beds of thorn-plants, in the hope that this would help them become more holy. Further along, they saw more holy men. These holy men had built a large bonfire, and even though the day was hot and the sun was bright, they sat as close as they could to the broiling fire, in the hope that the burning heat would help them become more holy.

The bhikkus continued on their way, stopping at each house to beg for their food. When each of their begging bowls was filled with food, they returned to where they lived with Buddha. And Buddha came to sit and eat with them.

“Buddha,” said one bhikku, “when we were out getting our food this morning, we walked past some holy men who were lying naked on cruel, sharp thorns.” She paused for a moment. “Will doing this make them any more holy?”

“And Buddha,” said another bhikku, “we also walked past some holy men who were sitting next to a blazing fire, out under the blazing hot sun. Will this make them any more holy?”

“No,” said Buddha. “These men are heretics. They have deluded themselves, and so they avoid the truth. They lie on thorns and bake themselves only because someone told them to. Which reminds me of the frightened rabbit and the horrible noise.” And then the Buddha told this story:

 

Once upon a time (said the Buddha), there was a little rabbit who lived in a forest by the Western Ocean. This little rabbit lived in a beautiful grove of trees, at the foot of a Bengal quince tree, the kind of tree under which the god Shiva was said to have lived. Next to the Bengal quince tree was a palm tree where the little rabbit liked to sit and nibble grass.

A Bengal quince (Aegle marmelos)

One fine day, the little rabbit sat under the palm tree nibbling grass and thinking about what would happen to him if the world got destroyed by Lord Shiva. At just that moment, a large, hard Bengal quince fell off the tree and hit the ground directly behind the little rabbit.

“The earth is cracking apart!” cried the little rabbit, and he ran as fast as he could away from the sound.

Another rabbit saw him running, and said, “What’s going on?”

“The earth is cracking apart!” cried the little rabbit.

The second rabbit ran after him, shouting, “The earth is cracking apart!” Soon, all the rabbits in the neighborhood were running with them.

When the other animals saw all the rabbits running, they said, “What’s going on?”

“The earth is cracking apart!” cried the rabbits, “Run for your lives!”

The other animals began to run, too: the wild pigs, the deer, the buffaloes, the rhinoceroses, the tigers, and even the elephants all began to run, shouting, “The earth is being destroyed!”

      Ad lib comment during service: Perhaps this story will
      remind you of a story in the news yesterday and today.

Now, in another part of the forest there lived a good and kind lion. She saw all the animals running, and heard them shouting, “The earth is being destroyed! Run for your lives!” The lion was wise, and immediately saw that the earth was not being destroyed. She could also see that the animals were so frightened that if they didn’t stop they would run into the Western Ocean and drown. She ran as fast as she could and got in front of all the animals. She roared three times.

When the animals heard the good and kind lion roaring, they call came to a stop.

The lion said, “Why are you all running?”

“The earth is being destroyed,” said the animals.

The lion said, “How do you know the earth is being destroyed?”

One animal said, “The elephants saw it.”

But the elephants said, “It wasn’t us. The tigers saw it.”

But the tigers hadn’t seen anything. “It was the rhinoceroses,” they said.

But the rhinoceroses said, “The water buffaloes gave the alarm,” they said.

But the buffaloes hadn’t given the alarm. Nor did the deer know anything. The wild pigs said they started running when they saw the rabbits running. One by one, each of the rabbits said that they hadn’t seen anything, until at last the little rabbit said, “I was the one who heard the earth breaking into pieces.”

The lion said, “Where were you when you saw this?”

“I was at home in the beautiful grove of trees,” said the little rabbit, “next to my house at the foot of the Bengal quince tree. I was sitting near my favorite little palm tree nibbling grass, when I heard the earth start to break up behind me. So I ran away.”

The lion knew that the Bengal quinces were starting to ripen, and she suspected that one of the fruits had fallen from the tree and hit the ground behind the little rabbit. “Stay here for a while,” she said to the animals. “I will take the little rabbit with me, and we will see what is happening there.”

The kind lion had the little rabbit jump up onto her broad back, and off she ran to where the little rabbit had been sitting nibbling grass. When they got to the Bengal quince tree, the little rabbit pointed in terror and said, “There! There it is! That’s where the earth is breaking up!” And he closed his eyes in terror.

“Little rabbit,” said the lion in a kind voice, “open your eyes and you will see that the earth is not breaking up. I can see just where you were crouching under the little palm tree nibbling on some grass, and right behind that a large fruit from the Bengal quince tree is lying on the ground. What you heard was the sound of that big quince hitting the ground behind you. It must have made a loud sound, and no wonder you got scared, but there really is nothing to fear.”

The good lion went back and told the other animals what she had found. The animals all sighed in relief, and everything returned to normal.

 

“That’s the story,” said the Buddha.

One of the bhikkus said, “Those animals should not have listened to the little rabbit without checking for themselves that the earth was breaking up. Common sense should have told them that the earth wasn’t breaking up.”

Another bhikku said, “I guess those men who lie naked on the thorns are like the animals in the story. They didn’t pay attention to their common sense.”

A bhikku added, “The lion was truly wise and compassionate. If it had not been for her, all the animals would have drowned.”

Then, because Buddha and his followers all believed that they had lived many different lives, the Buddha said that in one of his previous lives he had been the lion in the story: a wise and compassionate being who helped others.

 

Did you notice what happened in this story? — or I should say, in each of these stories: the story about the animals, and the story about Buddha’s followers?

In the story about the animals, a Bengal quince, a piece of fruit, falls to the ground. The little rabbit hears the sound and thinks the world is cracking apart! When the wise lion hears the little rabbit’s story about what he thought had happened, she figures out what really happened, and she helps the little rabbit to retell the story in a better way. In the story about Buddha’s followers, they see some holy men lying on thorns and baking themselves in intense heat, and they’re trying to make sense out of what they see. Buddha tells them a story to help them understand what they already knew — lying on thorns and baking in intense heat are not going to make you any more holy.

We have our educational goals, and there are the Seven Principles printed on those wallet cards you can get outside the main door to this room; as important as these are, they are not nearly as important to our religious community as the stories we tell to one another.

At the beginning of the service, Jack Hardy told us: “When I listen to stories at church I imagine what the person in the story is feeling and thinking what I would do in that situation.” So when Buddha tells the story about the little rabbit to his followers, his followers imagine that they are the little rabbit, and they imagine that they are the wise lion, and they realize that it is better to be the wise lion than the little rabbit. And in listening to the story, and using their imaginations, Buddha’s followers are changed, transformed for the better.

At the beginning of the service, Heather Chen told us how our congregation is a unique community for kids. Now even though she didn’t start with “Once upon a time” and end with “they lived happily ever after,” Heather was really telling us a kind of story about how our kids experience our congregation: she is telling us that while our kids are learning a lot, more importantly they are becoming a part of the community that is our congregation. We are constantly telling each other little stories about who we are and what’s important to us, and these little stories shape us, transform us for the better.

The writer Ursula K. LeGuin once wrote, “We shape each other to be human.” 2 This is why we tell each other stories — big formal stories that may begin with the words “Once upon a time…” and informal little stories and conversations that reveal what is in our hearts and souls. Story by story, conversation by conversation, bit by bit, we shape each other, transform each other into better human beings.

 

Notes

Note 1:

The story in the sermon is Jataka tale number 322, Duddubha Jataka. My source was The Jataka: Stories of the Buddha’s Former Births, ed. E. B. Cowell, vol. III, trans. H. T. Francis and R. A. Neil (1895; rpt., Pali Text Society: Oxford, 2005) pp. 49-52.

Note 2:

Ursula K. LeGuin, “Coming of Age in Karhide,” in New Legends, ed. Greg Bear, (Tor, 1995).

The Parable of the Empty Jar

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2008 Daniel Harper.

Readings

Upon seeing the title of this sermon in the church newsletter, Everett Hoagland, member of this congregation and a poet, suggested a reading from the Tao te Ching for this worship service. I was thinking about using something from the Tao te Ching as a reading, and Everett found exactly what I was looking for, in a new translation by the poet Stephen Mitchell:

We join spokes together in a wheel,
but it is the center hole
that makes the wagon move.

We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.

We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space
that makes it livable.

We work with being,
but non-being is what we use.

The second reading comes from the Gospel of Thomas, chapter 97:

Jesus said, “The kingdom of the [Father] is like a certain woman who was carrying a [jar] full of meal. While she was walking [on the] road, still some distance from home, the handle of the jar broke, and the meal emptied out behind her [on] the road. She did not realize it; she had noticed no accident. When she reached her house, she set the jar down and found it empty.” [trans. Lambdin (1988)]

Sermon

Back in 1945 in Egypt, Mohammed Ali Samman and his brother by pure chance happened to uncover an earthenware vase. Inside that vase were ancient handwritten manuscripts, containing many previously unknown books, what we now call the Nag Hammadi library. The most famous of the books is what we now know as the Gospel of Thomas, a collection of sayings of Jesus that was written down somewhere around one thousand nine hundred years ago.

I find the Gospel of Thomas to be a particularly interesting book. Although many of the sayings of Jesus recorded in it are similar to the sayings of Jesus we already knew from the gospels recognized by the Christian churches, the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; yet other sayings in the Gospel of Thomas are recorded nowhere else.

Now we know what we’re supposed to think the sayings of Jesus mean, because for the past two thousand years the Christian churches have been telling us what they mean. But the Gospel of Thomas is not an official Christian book. Therefore, those sayings of Jesus that appear in the Gospel of Thomas, and nowhere else are of particular interest to me. The Christian churches have not been telling us what they mean, so we can look at them with fresh eyes, listen to them with openness.

When I first read the Gospel of Thomas all the way through a few years ago, I was particularly struck by chapter 97, which we heard in the first reading this morning. I re-read that short little parable several times over, asking myself: What was Jesus trying to tell us? Part of the reason it’s so hard to understand is that it’s so short; perhaps all that got written down was the merest outline of a longer parable. So as I thought about this parable, I began to imagine it more fully. I filled it out, and this is how I imagined it went:

Jesus and his followers were traveling from village to village in Judea so that Jesus could teach his message of love to whomever would hear it. They had spent the day in a village where some people wanted to hear what Jesus had to say, and many others didn’t seem to care. That evening, they stayed on the outskirts of the village, and as they were eating dinner, one of the followers asked, “Master, what will it be like when the kingdom of heaven is finally established?”

“Let me tell you a story that will explain,” said Jesus, and he told this story….

“Once upon a time, there was a woman, just an ordinary woman who happened to live in a very small village that had no marketplace of its own. At the harvest season, the crops having been gathered in, the woman decided to walk to a larger village, just two or three miles away, where there was a market.

“She started off early in the morning. She brought along some things her family had grown to sell in the market, and she brought along a large pottery jar with two big handles. Since she was an ordinary villager, or course she did not have fancy bronze jars, she just had an ordinary earthenware jar that had been made in her village. The potter who lived in her village was not very good at what he did, so her jars were without decoration, and not very well made.

“She arrived at the marketplace, and sold everything she had brought. Then she purchased a large amount of meal, that is, coarsely-ground flour. She filled her jar with the meal, tied the handle with a strap of cloth, and slung the jar over her back.

“The path home was steep and rough, and by now the day was hot. She walked along, putting one foot in front of the other, and she did not notice anything besides the heat and the rough path.

“But one of the handles to the jar broke off, and the jar slowly tipped to one side. Bit by bit, the coarsely-ground flour spilled out on the path behind her. Bit by bit, the jar tipped even further. Before she reached home, all the flour in that jar had spilled out.

“At last the woman reached home. She put the jar down, and discovered that it was empty. That is what the Kingdom of Heaven will be like.”

——

That’s how I imagined the Parable of the Empty Jar might have been told in a fuller version. That helped me visualize the parable. Next I thought about how I could better understand the parable, and I began with three assumptions:

First, I assumed that traditional Christian theology was not going to be able to adequately explain this parable; I made this assumption because I noticed that orthodox Christians tend to ignore the Gospel of Thomas in general, and this parable in particular. (Indeed, I decided that this parable was especially interesting because I couldn’t see how traditional Christians could possibly incorporate it into their theology.) Thus, I assumed that I should go beyond the boundaries of conventional Christian theology.

Second, I assumed that “Thomas” or whoever wrote this parable down was a theologian, and so he (or she) had some kind of theological bias. It appears that whoever wrote this parable down was a Gnostic, that is, a member of that branch of early Christianity which taught that there are secret and hidden teachings of Jesus. The Gnostics seem to have believed that Jesus left secret teachings that were never written down, but which they passed on by word of mouth to those who were initiated into their religious communities. So perhaps we are meant to be confused by this parable, and this is part of the theological bias of this parable. At the same time, as a Unitarian Universalist, I’m used to understanding and working around other people’s theological biases, so I assumed that, alien as it might be, I could still make some sense out of it.

Third, I assumed that even though the Gospel of Thomas is not a part of the standard Christian Bible, it’s still an interesting and useful book. I assumed that any book about Jesus that was written within two or three generations after the death of Jesus is worth reading; such ancient books are likely to have some interesting or useful insight into the world of Jesus, or at least into the world of the early followers of Jesus.

Those were my three assumptions. If we start with those assumptions, we don’t have to try to make the Parable of the Empty Jar fit into conventional Christian theology, and we don’t have to reject it simply because it’s not in the official Bible. Furthermore, we know that it has been retold by someone with a Gnostic Christian bias, but we don’t have to let that affect us. Finally, we know that it’s worth trying to understand this parable insofar as it might give us some additional insight into the thought of Jesus of Nazareth. Starting with these three assumptions, let’s see what the Parable of the Empty Jar has to say to us.

The first thing I notice is the that Parable of the Empty Jar tells us that emptiness somehow is the same as the Kingdom of Heaven. This is not traditional Christian theology, where the Kingdom of Heaven means a place you go after you die — emptiness is not a place, emptiness is just empty. Not only is this not traditional Christian theology, it seems to have a passing resemblance to another great religious tradition, the tradition of Taoism. In the Tao te Ching, the central book of Taoism, we find that passage which we heard in the second reading this morning:

We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.

Is this just coincidence? Does the idea of emptiness occur anywhere else in the Christian tradition?

Once we start looking, we find that images of emptiness and nothingness do appear elsewhere in the Christian scriptures. I think of the story of the rich young man who comes to Jesus, says he has observed all the commandments, upon hearing which Jesus tells him: “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” (Bible geeks note: this is from Mk. 10.21 [also Mt. 19.21; Lk. 18.22] RSV.) An empty bank account is equated with the kingdom of heaven. I think also of that passage in Jesus’s most famous sermon, the so-called Sermon on the Mount, where he says that we shouldn’t worry so much about material things; we shouldn’t even worry about clothing, he says: “And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” (Mt. 6.28-29) An empty clothes closet is equated with the kingdom of heaven. Jesus even empties out his family, as in the story where his mother and brothers and sisters have come to see him, to which he replies: “Who are my mothers and my brothers [and my sisters]?… Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.” (Mk. 3.33, 35)

Obviously, the Jesus tradition has a way of talking about emptiness that is quite different from the Taoist tradition; I’m not trying to tell you that they’re the same thing. The teachings of Jesus are more likely to advise us to pay less attention to material things, and instead pay greater attention to matters of the spirit; whereas the Taoist tradition, at least in my limited understanding of it, is more likely to instruct us in how to empty our minds as a form of spiritual discipline. Yet in both traditions, we do seem to find the idea that in order for us to be connected with that which is most important in life, we have to empty our lives of non-essential things; we even have to empty our lives of things we thought were essential, but which we are assured are in fact inessential.

While there are distinct differences, I think that both Taoism and the Jesus tradition are telling us that if we want to truly understand the world, we can’t rely on ordinary ways of thinking and being. Lao-tse, who allegedly wrote the Tao te Ching, invites us to empty our minds so that we may better know what he terms the Tao, the Way; Jesus invites us to empty our lives so that we may better know what he calls the Kingdom of Heaven — which he sometimes also calls the Way. Both traditions are inviting us to step out of the ordinary way of thinking and being, and step into a new way of thinking and being.

I believe it’s very important that both Jesus and Lao-tse talk about the “Way.” They don’t talk about “the place we’re going to get to eventually”; they talk about the way, the path, the journey. We can see this in the Parable of the Empty Jar. Jesus says that the empty jar is like the kingdom of heaven, but he also tells us the process by which the jar becomes empty: first the handle of the jar breaks, then the jar empties out over time (and we know that it must happen slowly, or otherwise the woman would immediately become aware that the jar was suddenly empty), and then the woman gets home and realizes that the jar is empty. We also know that the process will continue after that moment when the woman discovers that the jar is empty: she will be shocked, she will wonder how it happened; and then she will have to figure out what to do next — will she borrow flour form someone else? will she be forced to rely on her extended family and the community for help? In other words, will the emptiness of the jar force her to use her network of relationships? And perhaps this is this the kingdom of heaven:– not the emptiness of the jar itself, but the inescapable network of mutuality that binds each of us to the rest of humanity, to the rest of the ecosystem, to what we might call the Web of Life.

We have come a long way from the original parable; nothing that I have said can be found in that very short parable. None of this can be found there, but in the process of thinking about that parable, perhaps this is the direction we must come. We have not come down the well-trodden path of traditional Christianity, which tends to reject the Gospel of Thomas, or tends to interpret the Parable of the Empty Jar as a conventional parable telling us to accept Christian orthodoxy. Instead, by looking into the empty jar, by looking into emptiness, perhaps we have come face to face with reality — face to face with a reality that doesn’t have firm and final answers, a reality that is always changing, reality that is a process.

Not that I think that I have just uncovered the one final, correct interpretation of the Parable of the Empty Jar. This is a process, a path, a way — it is not a final definition that can be pinned down like a dead butterfly in a display case. And to make that point, let me tell you the rest of the story of the Parable of the Empty jar, as I imagined it happening:

You remember that as I imagined it happening, one of his followers asked him what the Kingdom of Heaven would be like, and in response Jesus told the Parable of the Empty Jar. He concluded the parable by saying, “At last the woman reached home. She put the jar down, and discovered that it was empty. That is what the Kingdom of Heaven will be like.”

As I imagine it, when Jesus stopped talking, his followers respectfully waited a little while longer, because they did not think that could be the end of the parable. But Jesus had nothing more to say. They all sat in silence for a while, and one of the followers finally said, “Master, I’m not sure I understand.”

But Jesus did not explain further, and eventually he went off by himself to sleep. The followers sat up for a while talking about the story.

“It is like the story when the prophet Elijah goes to the widow of Zarephath,” said one of the followers. “God told Elijah to go there and she would feed him, but the widow did not even have enough flour for herself and her son. Elijah tells her to bake three loaves anyway, and she finds that she does have enough flour after all, for God has provided for her. Indeed, the jar of flour is still just as full as it was before Elijah had arrived. Jesus is telling us that in the Kingdom of God, we will not have to worry where our food comes from.”

“You mean like when Jesus said, the lilies in the fields don’t go to work and yet they have enough to eat,” said one of the other followers. “Perhaps you are right, but I think Jesus is telling us that we will find the Kingdom of God in the most unexpected places. He also taught us that the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, a seed so small you can hardly see it, but one that grows into a huge plant.”

“Perhaps you are right,” said a third follower, “but a mustard seed can grow, and an empty jar of flour cannot grow into anything but hunger. I think Jesus is talking about the poor, who will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. Like the woman in the story, those who have nothing, who are poor and hungry and have no flour at all. She will be one of the ones who inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.”

No one else had anything to say, and they sat in silence for a while. At last, another one of Jesus’s followers stood up.

“I don’t think any of us really understand that story,” she said, “but Jesus got us to think hard about what the Kingdom of God is like. We have thought about it, and we have talked about it, and now it’s time to sleep, because just like the woman in the story, we have a long walk ahead of us tomorrow.”

——

That’s what I think about the Parable of the Empty Jar: I don’t think any of us knows exactly what it means. I don’t know exactly what the Parable of the Empty Jar means, but it makes me reflect on life from a new perspective; and maybe that is the real point of any parable. And I suspect that the real point of this parable, the real point of any parable told by Jesus, is not to give us a final answer about something, but to make us think in new ways. The best teachers, the greatest teachers, are not the ones who give us all the answers. The greatest teachers are the ones who make us think for ourselves, who move us into new ways of being in the world, who turn us towards a way of being in the world that makes the world a better place while it allows us to be more human, which we might call the Kingdom of Heaven. And perhaps the first step is to empty ourselves of the old ways of being, so that we can move into the ways of being.

Creation Speculation

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2008 Daniel Harper.

Readings

The first reading is probably familiar to you. It is from the first chapter of the Book of Genesis from the Hebrew Bible, in the poetic King James translation:

1 “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
2 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
3 And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
4 And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.
5 And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
6 And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.
7 And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.
8 And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.
9 And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.
10 And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good.
11 And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so.
12 And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it was good.
13 And the evening and the morning were the third day….”

The second reading is from the Mahabharata, the central book of the Hindu tradition, in the new University of Chicago translation:

Poets have told it before, poets are telling it now, other poets shall tell this history on earth in the future….

When all this was without light and unillumined, and on all its sides covered by darkness, there arose one large Egg, the inexhaustible seed of all creatures. They say this was the great divine cause, in the beginning of the Eon; and that on which it rests is revealed as the true Light, the everlasting Brahman. Wondrous it was and beyond all imagining, in perfect balance in all its parts, this unmanifest subtle cause that is that which is and that which is not.

From it was born the Grandfather, the Sole Lord Prajāpati, who is known as Brahmā, as the Preceptor of the Gods, as Sthāṇu, Manu, Ka, and Parameṣṭhin. From him sprang Dakṣa, son of Pracetas, and thence the seven sons of Dakṣa, and from them came forth the twenty-one Lords of Creation. And the Person of immeasurable soul, the One whom the seers know as the universe; and the Viśve Devas, and the Ādityas as well as the Vasus and the two Aśvins. Yakṣas, Sādhyas, Piśācas, Guyakas, and the Ancestors were born from it, and the wise and impeccable Seers. So also the many royal seers, endowed with every virtue. Water, Heaven and Earth, Wind, Atmosphere, and Space, the year, the seasons, the months, the fortnights, and days and nights in turn, and whatever else, has all come forth as witnessed by the world. Whatever is found to exist, moving and unmoving, it is all again thrown together, all this world, when the destruction of the Eon has struck. Just as with the change of the season all the various signs of the season appear, so also these beings at the beginning of each Eon. Thus, without beginning and without end, rolls the wheel of existence around in this world, causing origin and destruction, beginningless and endless.

There are thirty-three thousand, thirty-three hundred, and thirty-three Gods — this is the summing up of creation.

[Mahābhārta 1.25-39, trans. J. A. B. van Buitenen in “The Mahābhārta, vol. 1: The Book of the Beginning”, University of Chicago, p. 21.]

Sermon

Recently, I realized that I have never given a sermon addressing creationism or “intelligent design.” I never saw the need to do so. There’s no real need for one Unitarian Universalist to stand up in front of a bunch of other Unitarian Universalists and state that intelligent design, or “creation science,” or whatever they’re calling it these days, is nothing more than religious dogma barely covered with a thin veneer of alleged science. Everyone here knows that “intelligent design” is not science. If a proponent of intelligent design says to us, “But evolution is just a theory,” we all know enough to say, “Yeah, and the theory of gravity is just a theory, but if you throw yourself at the floor it’s going to hurt all the same.” For a Unitarian Universalist to preach a sermon against intelligent design is about as sporting as shooting fish in a barrel.

At the same time, those creationists — sorry, those proponents of intelligent design — are so loud and insistent that they tend to drown us out. Something like a third of all adults in the United States believe evolution is false, and although we take great joy in pointing out that all those people are perfectly willing to take advantage of the advances of medical science, which are firmly based on evolutionary theory, the fact remains that all those people are injecting their dogmatic theology into our lives. And that forces us to spend quite a bit of our precious time debunking the Bible, to the point where we often get sick and tired of the Bible. We get so sick of hearing people say, “But God created the earth in seven days, it says so right in the Bible, so the scientists must be wrong” — that we just want to do away with the Bible altogether.

So although we don’t need a sermon debunking creationism, I do think it’s worth preaching a sermon about the value of religious creation stories. I’m not going to try to convince you to read the Bible, but I am going to try to convince you that the creation story contained in the Bible is a worthwhile part of our religious inheritance.

1. To begin with, let us be clear what the Bible is, and what it is not. The Bible is a collection of books which includes many books full of stories. The book of Genesis contains several dramatic and arresting stories: the story of Noah and the flood, the story of Abraham and Isaac, the story of Joseph and his technicolor dream coat, the story of Eve and Adam,– and the story of how God created the universe. All these stories are strung together in a more-or-less coherent narrative that begins at the beginning, and winds up with the establishment of the people of Israel as the chosen people of their God.

When you think about it this way, it’s obvious that the book of Genesis has more in common with a novel than with a collection of scientific treatises. The creation story in Genesis is not a systematic scientific explanation for how the universe came to be; it’s a story that reveals something about the character of God and humanity. It is not a book full of precise scientific proofs. The philosopher Aristotle tells us that it is the mark of an educated person “to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits; it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician scientific proofs.” [Nich. Eth. I.2, 1094b] We know that it is foolish to read the book of Genesis looking for the kind of certainty science can bring to certain subjects; but we should be equally clear that the Bible can reveal to us something of the poetic truth about our human selves, and something of the poetic truth about our place in the universe; topics which do not allow the same kind of precise scientific knowledge.

Religion is meant to help us find meaning in life (among other things). A scientist might be able to look at a flower and tell us its place in a taxonomic scheme, reveal to us its place in the wider ecosystem, show us its inner anatomy; we may well feel a sense of wonder at this but we are unlikely to feel enough emotion that we need to wipe tears from our eyes. A poet can look at the same flower, and write for us a poem that will cause us to weep, or to rejoice, or discover profound feelings or thoughts about that flower; and we may well need to wipe tears from our eyes after the poet speaks to us. But the poet and the scientist do not contradict each other; they only reveal to us a different aspect of the same flower. Religion is yet another way of knowing the flower: religion may help us to look at that flower and know our relationship to it, and so help us to understand our place in the universe and the flower’s place in the universe; not through the precise taxonomic understanding used by the scientist, nor through the metaphorical and emotional understanding used by the poet, but through an understanding of how everything is connected and bound together. The book of Genesis locates that connection in the personage of God; the New Testament locates that connectedness in the Kingdom of Heaven; but we could simply call it the Web of Life through which we are connected with all that is living and non-living.

That, in fact, is what the creation story in the book of Genesis tells us. Genesis tells us about a God that created everything, including us human beings. Genesis tells us that we are connected through God to all that is: the sun and moon and stars and sky and plants and animals and the other human beings. A literal reading of Genesis would try to tell us that there is a literal personage called God who created all these things; but such a literal interpretation of God immediately runs into all kinds of logical inconsistencies; such a literal interpretation tries to turn Genesis into precise scientific knowledge, when it is really religious understanding.

An equally literal reading of Genesis would dismiss the whole book out of hand because it does not conform to scientific facts and theories as we know them. Many of the Bible-debunkers who are active today fall into this intellectual trap; they accept the arguments made by creationists and literalists that the Bible is literally true. Such literal interpretations try to turn Genesis into science, when it is really religion. It would be far more accurate to understand God, not as a literal personage, and not as a scientific explanation, but as the Web of Life through which we feel and know a deep connection to all life and to all that is.

2. We can gain a deeper understanding of the creation story in Genesis if we take the time to look at other creation stories from other world religions. I happen to love the imagery in the creation story of the Mahabharata:– the one large Egg which arose, from which time began, and out of which came everything in the universe. From that great Egg came Brahmā, and from that came all the gods, and the ancestors, and the seers and sages;– and “Water, Heaven and Earth, Wind, Atmosphere, and Space, the year, the seasons, the months, the fortnights, and days and nights in turn, and whatever else, has all come forth” from that Egg.

In this Hindu story of creation, just as in the creation story in Genesis, we learn of the connectedness of all things. The details of the Hindu creation story are quite different from those in the Hebrew creation story. But both tell of the Web of Life that connects us human beings with the earth and sky, with water and wind, with all beings including all human beings.

Back when my mother was teaching Sunday school in a Unitarian church in the 1950s, there was a curriculum called Beginnings of Earth and Sky, which presented a number of different creation stories to school-aged children; and today we still teach our Unitarian Universalist children a variety of creation stories. We do this for good reason. Of course we want our children to know the creation story in Genesis, a story that is central to our own religious inheritance; but we want them to know other creation stories as well, so they can begin to understand how all religions begin with a sense of wonder at the universe, a sense of how everything is interconnected through the one Web of Life; indeed, we want them to have a sense of how all religions are utterly different while remaining deeply connected. All these creation stories, all these religions, are different, but each can help human beings to understand who we are and where we are situated in the universe, and so lead us to find meaning and connection in our lives.

3. I said that we are open to learning the creation stories of other cultures and other religions. That raises an interesting question: Do we need a creation story of our own? Quite a few people would respond that yes, we do need a new creation story that is all our own. A year ago I heard two Unitarian Universalists, Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow, speak about a new creation story that they think Unitarian Universalists and other religious liberals should adopt. They want us to adopt a new creation story put forth by a fellow named Brian Swimme, who tells a creation story founded on modern science, a creation story that links contemporary astronomical theories about the beginnings of the universe, with evolutionary theories about the beginnings of life on this planet.

There’s nothing wrong with this, of course. Anyone can sit down and write their own creation story. And for some people, Brian Swimme’s creation story has become an important part of their religious understanding. I’ll admit my bias: I’m not enthralled by this or other similar modern creation stories. I’m not particularly interested in mixing my religious creation stories with science; especially considering how science has a way of evolving and moving forward; and for me science has its own beauty that will is diminished by mixing it with story-telling.

More to the point, none of these modern creation stories is anywhere near as lovely as the Genesis creation story, or the creation story in the Mahabharata. You’d have to be a pretty good poet to compete with the beauty of the poetry of the King James version of Genesis, and frankly Brian Swimme and other creators of modern creation stories are not a particularly good poets. And you’d have to be a pretty good storyteller to compete with the generations of people who told and retold and polished both the Hindu creation story and the Genesis story before they were finally set down in writing. If you’re going to come up with your own creation story, you’re facing an uphill battle to create something to equal the beauty of these age-old stories. For that matter, you’re facing an uphill battle if you’re going to compete with the beauty of scientific theories that have been honed over the decades by a whole community of scientific researchers. So if you want to create, or find, a new, modern creation story, more power to you — but I don’t give you a very good chance of making a success of it.

Personally, I prefer to stick with the creation story in Genesis. Even though the creationists and the other literalists and fundamentalists have done a pretty good job of wrecking Genesis, it has one deep strength. The central theme of Genesis, as with most of the Hebrew Bible, is the theme of justice. Genesis aims to hold us to high ethical and moral standards. Those high ethical and moral standards have been perverted at times by being inappropriately associated with guilt and shame; the same literalists who say that Genesis tells us that God created the universe in seven days also try to tell us about “original sin,” a phrase that appears nowhere in Genesis, and which is simply a figment of their imaginations. But in spite of these perversions of Genesis, it remains a book founded on the principle of equal justice for all human beings.

The real creation story in Genesis tells us that we are connected through the Web of Life with all that is; it is through this connection t hat we know our inherent worth and dignity, and thus our right to equal justice no matter who we are. Furthermore, the creation story in Genesis can give us what we’d now call an ecological approach to justice. We can read the creation story in Genesis thusly: Earth was given as a garden to human beings, and indeed to all beings. And if Earth is a garden, then we are the gardeners who are supposed to keep things growing well. As gardeners, we nurture and help things grow; and in so doing we are connected with the cycle of life and death. As gardeners, we are ethically and morally responsible for nurturing the garden so that all beings have access to life and the means for life; we have a moral responsibility to facilitate the interconnectedness of the Web of Life.

So it is that I don’t yet want to abandon the Genesis creation story. Even though the creationists have twisted Genesis to their own purposes, that doesn’t affect the true meaning of the story. Even though science presents a different truth to us, that doesn’t do away with the importance of the Genesis story. The creation story in Genesis tells us about our responsibility to nurture all life and respect all beings; through its poetry it tells us that we are connected to the entire Web of Life.