“How Do We Know God: Human Community”

Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen
Westminster Presbyterian Church

On September 23rd, Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen, Senior Pastor of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, delivered the sermon with the above title.

How do we know God?

Two weeks ago we answered that question by looking at the story of Creation found in Genesis 1 [: 1-25]. The beauty and majesty and wonder of the natural world and its inhabitants, the creatures – all of that, we concluded, introduces us to the Creator. . . .

But the ancient Hebrew account of Creation doesn’t stop there, with the mountains and rivers, with the birds in the air and the creeping things on the earth and the fish of the sea. The old stories take us, eventually, to the creation of humankind.

There are two accounts of creation in the Hebrew Scriptures.

One of them, the better-known seven-day version in Genesis 1 [:1-25], ends with humankind being created in the image of God – ‘male and female, God created them,’ . . . – and that happens after . . . the heavens and the earth, next the waters and the dry land, then the plants and animals [are created]. . . .

[This passage in Genesis 1: 27-28 goes on to say that “God told them to ‘be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth [and subdue it] . . . . ‘ [This passage is often used  to argue that] “the very design of humanity . . . revealed God’s intention for male and female to procreate [and, therefore, that gay marriage was against God’s will.] . . . [Rev. Hart-Andersen agreed that] giving birth is a wonderful and necessary part of life, but there’s more to the biblical story of creation.

The second account [of creation], from Genesis 2, puts the human being on the earth before the plants and animals, and humanity does not come in a pair this time, but, rather, as a singular, non-gendered person. [As Genesis 2:7 puts it, ‘the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground.’]

[In other words,] God bends down and scoops up the dust of the earth – the Hebrew word for the dust of the ground is ha adamah – and, like an artist working with clay, God forms a new creature. Arms and legs and head, hands and feet, each little toe, every joint, eyes and mouth, ears and nose. Then God blows breath into the nostrils of the mud-creature – and ha adam, the earthling, the one made from the adamah, the dust of the river bank, stirs to life. God then uses the same soil to form the creatures of the earth, to whom the earthling, gives names. There is no gender identity to the earthling at this point. That enters later in the story, when the Hebrew changes to ish, man, and isha, woman. It’s simply not correct to use the English term man as the translation of adamah. . . .

I think it’s best to hear these texts not as technical descriptions but, rather, as stories told around the campfires of desert dwellers, repeated during rituals, shared by parents with their children. They’re narratives of profound and lasting significance, telling us who our God is and how God has been with us since before the beginning of time.

It’s not a question of which version is correct; there’s wisdom in both stories. Both accounts contain deep and ancient truth about God and our relationship to God. From my vantage point each of the old stories holds at least one deep truth.

First, in Genesis 1, when God decides to create the human being, the big news is who they look like. God says, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” (Genesis 1:26)

The chief point of this account is not the business about being fruitful and multiplying – it’s the astonishing claim that every human being, male and female, is made in the image of God. That’s a breath-taking, life-altering declaration.

How do we know God?

Take a look around. Look into the face of another, look into a mirror, and you will see something of God. That claim revolutionizes religion: the God we worship and serve is as close to us as the next person. No one – not our enemies, not those who hate us, not those ‘on the other side,’  not those we despise or fear or view with revulsion – no one is excluded from the image of God. Everyone bears it alike and is, therefore, worthy of respect and honor. . . .

We may be introduced to God by the dazzling wonder of the natural world, but we know God most completely in our fellow human beings. That, above all else, should compel us to strive for fullness of life for all people. The pursuit of justice is not simply some vague prophetic imperative – it is how we come to know God.

If the linking of the divine image with every human life is the salient point of the first version of creation, the second account yields another great theological truth. When God has formed the one earthling and placed that creature in the garden, God is not satisfied. Everything else in creation up to then had been deemed good, but when God sees that the human creature lacks a companion, God says, “It is not good that the earthling should be alone; I will make the earthling a partner as a helper.” (Genesis 2:18)

The human creature needs a companion. God throws everything at the earthling as a possible partner – birds, beasts, fish of the sea, and nothing sticks. The earthling needs a companion of its own kind. The human creature is not meant to be alone. Human beings need community. Do we not all understand that, from our own experience?

Three weeks ago today, in the early morning darkness, I was in my father’s room on the skilled nursing floor of the retirement community where my parents live. I was alone with him, and lonely, as he was moving toward death. All was quiet, save for his raspy breathing. It was 1:30 in the morning in Portland, [Oregon,] but I needed to be in touch with someone.

It is not good for the earthling to be alone.

I decided to send a text message to my colleagues on staff, to tell them my dad was nearing the end. I knew they would be waking in a few hours to prepare for worship at Westminster and I wanted this community to include us in prayer that day.

[Tim immediately received a response that he had sent it to a wrong number, but the recipient also said that he was sorry to hear about Tim’s father.] We continued our texting back and forth, this stranger and I, for some time [until after his father’s death on September 5th].[1]

Whoever it was sensed I needed someone by my side, and he or she was willing to stand with me through those lonely hours. We were created to be in community, and I needed it that night. The stranger mediated for me the divine presence. How do we know God? We know God in human community, in the love that binds us to one another, even when we may not know each other. . . .

It is not good for the earthling to be alone.

The Sunday after my father’s death I received an email from our partner church in Matanzas, Cuba. . . . It was a very long email, with a string of personal messages from every member of the congregation who was there that day. Very few of them have access to email, and regular mail service to the U.S. is not reliable, so they patiently lined up in the church office and one by one typed in their words of love and support on that old, slow computer.

We come to know God through the love of others. . . .

It was a summary of the truth found in the two accounts of creation: we bear God’s image – because of God we are – and we are given each other – because of God we are one.

We cannot exist, God realizes in this account of Genesis, apart from one another. Here we see an early indication of God’s own Trinitarian nature – even the divine being exists only in community. Remember the Word that was in the beginning with God? The Spirit that brooded over the dark waters was there, too. “Let us make the human being in our image,” God says, “according to our likeness.”

Relationships matter; in them God looks back at us.”

The full text of the sermon is available online as is a video of the service.

[1] A subsequent post will set forth an obituary for Tim’s father, Rev. Dr. Henry William Andersen.

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As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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