• Rev. Joel L. Tolbert

Where are you from?

I’ve Been Meaning to Ask, a 4-week summer sermon series on questions that open us to curiosity, courage, and connection, week 1 of 4

Preached August 8, 2021 for the 9:30am Worship


Context

For the rest of August, Rev. Caitlan and I have chosen a sermon series from the group Sanctified Art, called “I’ve Been Meaning to Ask...”


All courageous conversations begin with simple questions and the curiosity to truly listen. "I've been meaning to ask..." implies “I’ve been thinking about you and I’ve been wanting to check in...”


Each week, we will ask a different starting question. Through our courage to be honest, vulnerable, and authentic, we hope these questions remind us who we are, whose we are, and lead us to become the community God created us to be.


This week, I’ve been meaning to ask, where are you from? Let’s pray, and listen for the word of the Lord.


Prayer


Scripture Genesis 2:4b-15

(If you’re willing, open your pew Bibles and I’m going to have yall read along with me… not verse by verse though. I will start us and pause when its your turn, and I will grab it back from you when its my turn. Ready?)


In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, 5 when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up


—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; 6 but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground—


7 then the Lord God formed (hu)man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. 8 And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there (God) put the (hu)man whom (God) had formed.


9 Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. 10 A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches.


11 The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; 12 and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there (too). 13 The name of the second river is Gihon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Cush. 14 The name of the third river is Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.


15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.


Sermon

In the late 1600s, some scholars began noticing differences in the original languages throughout the first five books of the Bible. In some places across the Pentateuch, the Torah, God is a singular God, under the Hebrew word Y H W H which means “I am.” Some consider this Hebrew word the unspeakable name of God. Our Jewish brothers and sisters do not say this Hebrew word but simply replace it on the fly with Adonai. Some Christians transliterate this Hebrew word for God into English, and it becomes J H V H, or Jehovah. In most Old Testaments, you will see the word LORD (in all caps) whenever this Hebrew word for God is behind it. We are from the people who called God by this name.


In other places across the Torah, God is a plural God, a God-council so to speak, under the ancient word Elohim. El is a generic word for god and was used for any image or idol or persona any culture considered their god. Elohim is a plural form, meaning Gods or a God council. We are also from those who called the triune God we worship Elohim.


Scholars also noticed language and styles of writing across those first five books that strongly emphasize the history of God’s people and the lessons learned from them on how to live, how to lead, rules to follow, how to treat one another.


Scholars noticed styles of writing and content that focused on how to worship, temple structure and decor, liturgy and songs, acceptable offerings, and the like.


It’s called the JEDP hypothesis. The J, for Jawhists or Jehovists, refers to those oldest stories about a single God. The E is for Elohists, those who also told very old stories about a God council. The how-to-live history lessons and commandments come from D, Deuteronomists. The how-to-worship instructions come from P, the Priests.


If the hypothesis is correct, the J material is very old, going back thousands of years down one wide vein of humanity, told and retold many times as oral tradition until one day, God inspired those with the skills and knowledge to write the J stories down so they wouldn’t be lost and could be more easily shared. The E material is also very old and goes back thousands of years as well, but from another wide vein of humanity. It too was told and retold and survived until God led those stories into the hands of some with the skills to write them down.

Both parallel but different stories came together and lived alongside one another in the one people of God. For example, the creation story in Genesis 1 is an Elohist story. The first words of scripture, Genesis 1, are “In the beginning, the Gods created…” Bereshit Barach Elohim… If you remember the creation story as seven days… for five days Elohim speaks all things into being and calls all of it good. On the sixth day, Elohim speaks humanity into being from God’s own self, male and female, and calls them very good. On the seventh day, Elohim rests. If you remember that creation story, you are listening to those who spoke of Elohim for thousands of years. We are from them.


The creation story we read today, from Genesis 2, is a J story, a Jahwist or Jehovist story. In it, God creates the dry ground first, then male humanity second, places humanity into a garden, and begins populating the garden with plants and trees using a four-pronged river that flows up from the ground. In this creation story, we don’t know how long it took. We don’t have any animals yet, nor do we have woman yet. When we read this creation story, we are listening to those who spoke for thousands of years of the God who is as some say Jehovah and others say as Adonai. We are from them too.


These two stories came together and coexisted alongside one another in the united people of God. When Israel was at its height with its capital in Jerusalem and all the tribes united together, both stories were retold and remembered for the truths they each revealed about God. We are from that united people, that united kingdom.


The unity did not last. The difference in their stories, their priorities split them into north, Israel, and south, Judah. The Deuteronomists experienced the split and wrote down history lessons, voices of prophets to remind the people who they are, and to call the people back to their true selves and unity with one another.


In Deuteronomy 10, starting at verse 12, they write, “12 So now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to revere the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to keep the commandments of the Lord your God and his decrees that I am commanding you all today, for your own well-being. 14 Although heaven and the heaven of heavens belong to the Lord your God, the earth with all that is in it, 15 yet the Lord set his heart in love on your ancestors alone and chose you all, their descendants after them, out of all the peoples, as it is today. 16 Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer. 17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, 18 who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. 19 You too shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. 20 You shall revere the Lord your God; him alone you shall worship…” We are from the people who chose division over unity, and we are from the people who remembered history, and protested, and prophesied in hopes of reminding us who we are, whose we are, and how to live in communities of justice and peace.


Despite their best efforts, the unity was not put back together. They did not listen to the prophets and historians, and reconcile. Even the priests were split between those who considered themselves descendants of Aaron and those who considered themselves descendants of Zadok. The southern kingdom fell as well, and the temple was destroyed. The Priests sat down in the deserts of exile, and learned how to worship God without a temple. They also began writing down everything they remembered about the temple, in hopes one day, they could rebuild it and make it as it was, better than it was. If you’ve ever read long explanations of measurements and materials, that is what the priests were doing, trying to hold onto a memory of a holy house of God. We are from them too, the priests who took sides against one another and lost it all, the exiled who took for granted their holy spaces until they were lost.


Over the last 400 years, some have rejected this hypothesis, this scholarship, insisting God or Moses wrote it all. I suppose, to some, there is a sense of threat to the holiness of scripture if we consider this multifaceted authorship possible, or true, even if we say God inspired it all along the way.


But for me, I hope it is true. It would mean I am from a people who can tell the story of God in many different ways and appreciate and honor the different stories we tell in order to point to the same God. It would mean I am from a people who once were united “under God” despite their differences and build a beautiful kingdom on earth of justice and peace. It would mean I am in good company when I dare tell the old stories that remind us of our sin that still needs confession and reconciliation, or when I speak with passion and conviction like a prophet calling us to give special attention to the children, special care to the elderly, and special energy to the stranger.


It would also mean, I am from a people who made big mistakes and hurt my whole community when I took a side and refused to sacrifice for the good of the whole.


Where are you from? If we truly believe everyone is from this God, beloved, shaped from the dust of the earth and the very breath of God, then doesn’t that mean we are from a people who confess everyone has a story to tell. No matter how messy or beautiful, painful or hopeful someone’s story might be, we are from a people who want to hear each other’s stories, and want to remember them. The designers of this series suggest, ”In order to build connection and trust, we need to listen to each other’s stories and experiences to learn who and what has shaped us. We also need to feel seen and known for who we are. …we hope to affirm the particularity of our identities while also acknowledging our common ground. Formed from the dust and God’s very breath in the garden of Eden, we have a common home, a shared birthplace, and a collective calling: to sustain and care for all of creation.


Sometimes people ask, “Where are you from?” and the question is sprinkled with assumptions, judgments, and even microaggressions—all of which can be exhausting and painful to receive. I pray this church will be a family of people who ask each other and others in our community, “Where are you from?” and carefully, curiously listen for people’s deep response so they know they were heard and honored as they share their evolving stories.


Benediction

In the Genesis 2 story, the garden of Eden contains a flowing river that divides into four headwaters. Each river flows out to a new region, bringing abundance to the land it nourishes.


A Church, a congregation is meant to be like that garden, a source of nourishment and abundance for all the areas around us. I pray, as we go today back into Chestertown, Kent County, Queen Annes or beyond, people see the love and compassion and cuiriosity we have about them, and when they ask “Where are you from?” we can say, “Originally? The same place as you, the dust of the earth and the breath of God. But for now, the Presbyterian Church of Chestertown. Come join us, anytime.”

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