"Events Occur in Real Time"

Sunday sermon from June 9, 2013
Texts: Romans 8:18-25 and Genesis 1:6-23
Preached by the Rev. Matt Gaventa

About a month ago I preached on the difference between Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica as a way of trying to understand the apocalyptic imagination of the book of Revelation. Several weeks ago I used a new HBO series called Family Tree as a tool for thinking about our relationship with scripture. And yes, this week, yet again, knowing full well that I run the risk of transforming the Sunday preaching act into an issue of Entertainment Weekly, this week yet again I want to talk television. But instead of talking about the bright-eyed fantasy of Star Trek or the gentle comedy of Family Tree, this week I want to talk about something a bit more dramatic and a bit more intense: the lengthy run of the Fox action drama called 24. 24 debuted six weeks after 9/11 and ran every year up until a few years ago; if you never watched it, you still might know something about it. The show, which followed the actions of a pathologically committed agent for the fictional Counter-Terrorism Unit, was famous for its depictions of torture, its indifference to personal and constitutional rights, and a general win-at-any-cost kind of mentality. But those pieces had to evolve over time. The real conceit of 24 was its unusual format: that each season of the show would take place over the course of one day, one 24-hour period, and that each of the season's 24 episodes would take place over the course of one fictional hour. Thus at the beginning of the first episode of the show, we see the tagline: "The following events take place between midnight and 1:00 a.m.; events occur in real time."

Events occur in real time. So if a character gets in their car to drive fifteen minutes down the street, they won't arrive until fifteen minutes later in the broadcast, commercial breaks notwithstanding. Whenever the camera is focused on one scene and one group of characters, it's leaving open the possibility that something unseen is happening elsewhere, because the clock ticks steadily and evenly for everyone involved, including the viewer at home. It was a groundbreaking kind of dramatic realism, and, in hindsight, just absurdly ambitious. In fact several episodes into the first season of the show, the writers dropped the tagline itself; now, the following events would take place between 4:00 and 5:00, but there was no promise that they would take place in "real time." Without that tagline, the editors had a kind of implicit permission to do the sleight-of-hand that regular television drama craves. Maybe two scenes, shown back-to-back, but really happening at the same time. Maybe a slight allowance for a commercial. Maybe a slight allowance for somebody on the show to ever have a sandwich, or a cup of coffee, or even a trip to the restroom. Without that tagline, there's just the hint of flexibility; that's the problem of asserting that "events occur in real time." It creates a nearly impossible standard of storytelling. There's just no way that Jack Bauer could drive from one side of the city to the other in the time allotted, no matter the absolute demands of the plot. And so a narrative premise designed to create the most "realistic" experience actually ends up undercutting the realism of the show; the more realistic it tries to be, the more obviously fantastical it becomes.

I submit that one could say the same thing for today's account of the days of creation: namely, that by ordering creation into these discrete twenty-four-hour periods, that the Genesis text makes the unlikely story of God's creation of the world seem wholly fantastical. The daily cycle of God's actions -- one day the fish and the oceans, the next day the birds and the skies -- it's supposed to ground God's actions, make them seem realistic, make them relatable to the Jewish audience that first encountered this text as well as to us. God gets up in the morning and does his task for the day and the next day he does something else and on the seventh day he takes a breather, and that's very much like what we do; it's supposed to make creation seem relatable. But of course it has quite the opposite effect: the idea of Jack Bauer getting from one side of LA to the other during a commercial break is trivial compared to the thought of God creating the dynamic, interconnected, evolutionary history of global marine life during the course of a normal workday. The more realistic it tries to be, the more fantastical it becomes.

Of course, the last two centuries of Christian history are full of some fairly imaginative workarounds to this problem. Yes, there are still Christians who fundamentally deny the scientific reality of evolution, who can hopscotch through scripture and prove to you that the earth is 6,000 something years old and that any empirical evidence to the contrary is either human conspiracy, divine planning, or the devil's trickery. There are others who hang their hats on a particular verse in 2 Peter, where the apostle writes that 1,000 years in the sight of the Lord are like one day, thus giving us the interpretive room to believe that each of the days of creation is actually approximately 1,000 years - never mind that adding another 7,000 years to the history of creation wouldn't even put a dent in the discrepancy between the Biblical-literalist picture and the timeline offered by evolutionary and geological science. And of course there is the growing interest in the so-called theory of Intelligent Design, which argues that back in the beginning of the universe God set things in order, that a universe of such rich complexity could only be understood to be the intentional creation of the Almighty.

Intelligent Design is a runaround. It circumvents the best critiques of the scientific community by admitting to facts like the evolutionary process or the existence of dinosaurs. But it also circumvents the Biblical text; there's no attempt in Intelligent Design to understand Genesis 1 in anything but the most vaguely metaphorical language. And frankly, I think we can do better. And I think we can do better not by abandoning Genesis but rather by confronting it even in its nuance and even in its historical context. Genesis 1 is not God's autobiography; it's not God's account of creation; if it were, we surely would have legitimate questions about the reality of the daily cycles of creation. Instead, Genesis 1 is Israel's account of creation. It's Israel's story, and the story that Israel tells about God in creation is based on the God that Israel has already come to know. In Israel's memory, God separated the waters of the red sea, and so Israel writes a story of creation wherein God separates the waters from the dry land. In Israel's memory, God ravaged pharaoh with plagues ripped from the far corners of the natural world, and so Israel writes a story of creation wherein God sets all of those creatures in their right places. In Israel's memory, God works powerfully for the order of the kingdom and the preservation of God's people, and so Israel writes a story wherein a powerful God orders creation and preserves it day in and day out. The power of our text this morning is not as an account of the days of creation; its power is as an account of God's faithfulness to Israel, to the people who composed these words, to the people whose everyday experience of God led them to imagine God's involvement even in the first days of the world.

Of course, we are in exactly the opposite situation. One of the reasons Intelligent Design has gained such traction is that it is far easier to imagine God's involvement in the first days of Creation than it is to imagine God's involvement in our everyday lives; regardless of what you think of Intelligent Design, my hunch is that many of us share that part of its belief system. In our lives, how much easier is it to imagine God's hand in the curvature of the mountains, or the hue of the blue ridge, than in the everyday struggles of the people who now call these hills our home? In our homes, how much easier is it to imagine God's hand in the original architecture of our own human bodies than in the daily struggle of decay and disease that they inevitably carry? In our churches, how much easier is it to remember God's commission to disciples long ago than to imagine God's call to us, here, now? How much easier is it to believe that God created Heaven and Earth than to believe that God might still have something new to create? And yet such promise is precisely the good news of this text: the Genesis story is Israel's testimony about God's faithfulness even in the midst of the everyday. The Genesis story is Israel's witness to God's power even in the midst of disaster and destruction. The Genesis story is Israel's conviction about God's authority over creation even when creation itself seems to turn its back. Read from the perspective of the people who first lived this story, the events of Genesis 1 are not the events of some far-flung, long-ago fantasy. Quite to the contrary. These events occur in real time.

God's creation occurs in real time. Paul knew it. In the famous words of the second letter to the Corinthian church, Paul asserts that anyone in Christ is a new creation, words that we said today in the assurance of pardon - words that we use with the understanding that God's forgiveness of our sins occurs, week in and week out, in real time. And Paul's theology of creation extends far beyond our own personal relationship with Jesus. It has cosmic consequences. In our New Testament reading for today, Paul gets it. All of creation has been in longing, bound by the sufferings of the present time, groaning in labor pains - but now, for Paul, now, in the aftermath of the cross, in the aftermath of Pentecost, with the power of the Holy Spirit set loose over the waters, now God's creation occurs in real time. The problem that Young Earth creationism and 1000-year creationism and Intelligent Design theory share isn't first and foremost in their somewhat suspect relationship with scientific evidence. It's that they've assumed creation to be something that God did a long time ago. But instead we proclaim something even more astonishing, something far more realistic and therefore far more fantastical: that God's creation occurs in real time.

In our lives, God's creation occurs in real time. With the brokenness of the world laid bare, with the struggles of God's children for justice, peace, equality laid bare, even and especially then, God's creative power is happening in real time. In our homes, with the brokenness of our own bodies laid bare, with our own struggles against disease and heartache and grief, even and especially then, God's creative mercy is happening in real time. In our churches, as we ever and always measure ourself against what once was and what used to be and what we have lost along the way, as we look for God's call on us even into an unknown future, God's creative faithfulness is happening in real time. God who created Heaven and Earth; God who divided the waters from the dry land; God who separated the light from the darkness; that selfsame God is working, calling, leading, loving, forgiving, healing, imagining, and creating here, now, and I can only dream of what new creation we will be.