Sermon preached January 11, 2015
Texts: Genesis 1:1-5; Mark 1:4-11
Chicago, “Beginnings” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XI5aD6m7ub0
There is nothing like a little music to lighten a cold day. Our worship service has been filled with music and with music references. This song that I played a bit of is from the band Chicago. If you listened to WEBC or WAKX in Duluth in the 1970s you could not miss Chicago, and the name of this song is “Beginnings.”
The invitation to worship this morning was filled composed to two musical references. “Begin the Beguine” is a Cole Porter song, written in 1934, and made particularly popular by the clarinetist Artie Shaw in 1938 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zNcPnEc99UE ) . If you listened to music in the big band era, you would know “Begin the Beguine.” And if you listened to rock music in the 1980’s and 1990’s you would know the band REM. Their 1986 album Life’s Rich Pageant opened with a song entitled “Begin the Begin” – no doubt a play on the Cole Porter song (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rePNg6MmdEQ ). Music is a good way to begin a day, a sermon, a task. I enjoy listening to music while I cook or while I exercise.
So we’ve had our share of music trivia already, but here’s one more interesting bit of trivia. What’s a beguine? A Beguine was first a Christian lay woman. Beginning in the 13th century, Beguines were Christian women who joined together in religious community to devote themselves to a simple life, to caring for the poor and sick, and to religious devotion. Unlike nuns, they did not profess a lifetime vow, and could leave this community at any time to marry or resume a different kind of life. While they were in the community, Beguines did pledge to live a celibate life.
To creole people in the Caribbean, “beguine” became a term for white women, and then, in an interesting turn, the term was used to describe a certain style of music and then dance – particularly a slow couples dance. Cole Porter was not writing a song about women in religious community, he was writing a song about a dance. “When they being the beguine, it brings back the sound of music so tender.”
From a term for religious women who, among other things, were celibate, to a term for a slow, romantic couples dance – talk about beginnings and new beginnings, change, transformation. I would guess for the religious Beguines, this was often an opportunity for a new life, for a new beginning. Finding a partner to dance the beguine might also, I imagine, be an opportunity for a new beginning.
That’s what our Scripture readings are about this morning – beginnings and new beginnings, about a creative God of beginnings and new beginnings.
The God of the Bible is a God of creativity, of creative love. This God creates out of chaos. In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep. Life requires some kind of pattern and order to be lived meaningfully and joyfully. Complete formlessness, undifferentiated darkness – that’s not life, or its life falling apart. God is one who in the beginning brings beginnings, creates out of chaos. God still does that.
But order can become stifling. Too much order makes life rigid, takes the air out of living space. Order can exclude. The story of the baptism of Jesus in Mark’s gospel is also a story about the God of creativity, of beginnings and new beginnings. The very first words of the Gospel are these: “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.” Then comes John the Baptizer, then comes Jesus, to be baptized by John. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart [sometimes creativity begins with an act of energy] and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.
Something new is happening. God is up to something and it is different than the order of the Roman Empire. To get a sense of God creating something new when order has become too rigid, it may be helpful to hear something of the Roman imperial theology, which justified certain kinds of oppression, certain rigid social norms. Octavian, the son of Julius Caesar, but also the divine son of the god Apollo was proclaimed Caesar Augustus when he triumphed in the Roman civil war. Here was a proclamation about Augustus: The birthday of the most divine Caesar [Augustus]… we might justly equate with the beginning of everything… since he restored order when everything was disintegrating and falling into chaos and gave a new look to the whole world, a world which would have met destruction with the utmost pleasure if Caesar had not been born as a common blessing to all. For that reason one might justly take this to be the start of life and living, the end of regret for having been born (in John Dominic Crossan, The Power of Parable, 157-158).
Rome had one idea of beginnings and new beginnings, the Christian witness of faith had another. It was not Casear Augustus and the social structures he created that were the beginning of life, but the God of creation who also acted in a unique way in the life of Jesus, from Nazareth in Galilee, baptized by John in the Jordan river.
New beginnings. God is a God of creativity, of beginnings and new beginnings. While we cannot simply leave the past behind, as I spoke about in my December 21 sermon, we can re-weave the past more creatively in our present. We don’t need to be slaves to the past. It should also be said that we cannot repeat the past. One of the painfully poignant moments in the great American novel The Great Gatsby is when Jay Gatsby tells his new friend Nick, “Can’t repeat the past?... Why of course you can!” (Maureen Corrigan, So We Read On, 11). We cannot repeat the past, nor can we simply walk away from it, nevertheless, there are always possibilities for new beginnings. God is a God of creativity, of beginnings and new beginnings.
This week I have been saddened, angered, and moved by the stories in the newspaper about human trafficking. I have admired the courage and determination of the women who have been caught in the life of prostitution, most because they have been manipulated masterfully by men who know how to use reward, violence and fear well, women who have struggled for new beginnings. They will carry the past with them, but they need not be prisoners of the past. It takes work, but they can be free of fear and violence. I believe God is with them in their struggles, God’s grace is a source of new beginnings. God’s voice speaks to them, telling them they are beloved, not for the money they can make turning tricks, but simply for who they are. New beginnings are rooted in discovering our belovedness.
I also hope and pray, and will do what I can, to help foster new beginnings for men. It is men who drive this. Men need to change, to see and think of women differently, to relate to their own sexuality differently. We need new beginnings, and perhaps that starts with recognizing our belovedness is not found in sexual conquests, but in God’s love for us. We men need to help each other with new beginnings in God’s grace.
God is a God of creativity, of beginnings and new beginnings. One of the most powerful and profound testimonies I have ever read about the possibility for new beginnings in the face of the sadness and tragedy of life is Nicholas Wolterstorff’s book Lament for a Son. Wolterstorff’s son Eric died in a mountain climbing accident at age 25. Wolterstorff, a prominent Christian theologian writes as a person of faith grappling with this reality in his life, and testifies to this God of new beginnings.
In one section of the book Wolterstorff wonders what he should do with his regrets related to his son “over all the times I did not prize the inscape of that image of God in our midst which he was” (64). I believe God forgives me. I do not doubt that… [but] what do I do with my God-forgiven regrets? Maybe some of what I regret doesn’t even need forgiving; maybe sometimes I did as well as I could. Full love isn’t always possible in this fallen world of ours. Still, I regret. I shall live with them. I shall accept my regrets as part of my life, to be numbered among my self-inflicted wounds. But I will not endlessly gaze at them. I shall allow the memories to prod me into doing better with those still living. (65)
God not only forgives, but God gives opportunity for new beginnings, for new creative weavings of the past into the present, for new opportunities to love and care and do better with those who share our lives.
God is a God of creativity, of beginnings and new beginnings, and all these new beginnings are rooted in God’s creative love, in that creative love of God which also says to each of us, “You are my beloved.” With this new year, let’s begin again. In God’s grace, let’s hear the sounds of music so tender that we can incorporate some new dance steps into our lives, dancing to the unforced rhythms of God’s grace. Amen.