The first chapters of Genesis take us inside the Artist’s studio. We are looking over the shoulder of the Creator God and watching God at work. The Artist’s hand moves with swift, sure strokes, bringing into being that which, only moments before, existed solely in the Artist’s imagination: trees, rivers, stars, clouds, birds, reptiles … each emerging from the tip of God’s paint-dipped brush.
Or, perhaps this: perhaps the opening chapters of Genesis are a retrospective … a look back at the burst of energy and genius that marked God’s early career: the invention of wandering planets, fiery suns, silver moons, oceans and rain forests, gold and onyx, petalled flowers and hummingbirds, and, this, the human … the singular creature, possessing a unique combination of mind and soul and heart … the one, who, like the Creator God is also gifted with imagination … the one alone with whom God could converse. The one with whom God would stroll through the Garden in the cool of the afternoon. The one God called companion, friend and partner. The one to whom God entrusted the Garden and from whom God asked only this: to till it and to keep it.
The opening chapters of Genesis are themselves a creative act … an act of defiant, artistic imagination.
You see, there was a prior creation story whose story-line was rather different than that of Genesis. The Babylonian creation story is hundreds of years older than our creation story. Like our creation story, the Babylonian story also tells of a tension between cosmic order and chaos.
But in the Babylonian version this is played out in a violent struggle … in a brutish battle between two peevish gods: Marduk, the sun god (who represents order) and Tiamat, the goddess of the sea (who represents chaos).
Marduk and Tiamat, order and chaos, are enemies. Joined in violent combat, Marduk overcomes Tiamat. He slays her. He hacks her body in two. From half of her body the heavens are formed. From the other half the earth is formed. Humankind, rather an afterthought, bursts from the innards of another god, Kingu, the consort of evil Tiamat.
What is the import of this Babylonian mythology? It is this: the world and humankind are created out of substances that are inherently evil, intrinsically corrupt, and their creation is not purposeful, but haphazard … not intended, but accidental. Moreover, the accident of earth and heaven are born of discord and violence.
It was in defiance of this perception of the world—a perception dominant in the ancient Near East—that the Israelites introduced a very different narrative … a story which avers the essential goodness of God and the inherent goodness of the created order.
In the Genesis account, Creation is not haphazard, but purposeful. God wills it, authors it. God calls the worlds into being. It is for this reason that the Genesis story fairly sings with the recurring, refrain, “And God saw what God had made, and behold, it was very good.”
It is no coincidence that this sanctuary evokes those early chapters in Genesis. This sanctuary is designed as a mini-Garden of Eden.
Up there in the Lantern’s ceiling, painted Prussian blue with a pattern of gilded stars, is the firmament of heaven.
There, decorating the façades of the upper galleries are friezes, carved in cherry wood, depicting thirty-eight different biblical flowers.
All around us, encircling the sanctuary’s perimeter at top hat level, is a band of varied leaves, flowers, fruits and nuts.
Here, at the aisle-end of each pew, a finial. Each is a hand carved flower or leaf. Like snowflakes, there are no two alike.
Here, in the under galleries against the transept walls, the stained glass depicts sun flowers and lilies.
Over there, behind you, intertwined in the limestone tracery of the stone screen are an abundance of animals and foliage
Here, before you, in arches above the doors on either side of the Chancel: Eden’s Tree of Life and Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil … presented in mosaics fashioned from Venetian (Murano) glass.
Surrounding you—above and below, to your right and to left, behind you and before you—are walls decorated in polychrome stenciling: a rose madder background with overlays of ochre, bay leaf green, warm gray and persimmon, with highlights of metallic gold.
The Genesis story says there was onyx in Eden … we, too, have onyx. There, on the back of the south wall are molded arches of Caen stone, carried on pillars of Mexican onyx, surmounted by gables with pinnacles. These frame grey marble slabs upon which are inscribed the names of the ministers of this church.
God employed a palette of colors, materials and textures in the authoring of Creation.
It was this variety and fecundity, this beauty and goodness that our architects imitated and celebrate in this sanctuary.
Just as nature is expressed in rhythms, patterns, proportions and harmonies, so is the handiwork of this sanctuary. Here is a mini-Eden … a sacred space where we come to sojourn with God.
The opening chapters of Genesis describe a universe in harmony with itself and with God: a place of beauty, abundance, security. The man and woman want for nothing. They are in intimate, familial relationship with God. But soon, already by the third chapter, they have disobeyed God, they fall from grace, and find themselves outside the garden, East of Eden.
The task of religion, of religious architecture, of sacred music, of our liturgies, of the sacramental uses of font, table and pulpit is the restoration that harmony … or, at least, a means of pointing to it … to recall us to the delight of living in harmony with God … and the ache of living distant from God.
Just as God ordered the humans to till and keep the Garden of Eden, so too, does it fall upon us to till and keep this mini-Garden of Eden … not for its own sake, but for the sake of our life with God to which it calls us.
The PBS series, God in America, airs tomorrow night and Tuesday and Wednesday. In partnership with this program, this sanctuary was recently identified as one of the outstanding sacred spaces in Boston.
Sacred Space Tours were held here yesterday and will be again this afternoon. Old South docents, Dick Yeo, Bill Ghormley, Mary Hunter and Eleanor Jensen yesterday greeted some 500 people who came to visit. They shared with our visitors bits of history, pointed out architectural and decorative elements, spoke about our life together as a vibrant, urban congregation and invited persons to wander, sit, look, explore, pray, meditate.
What our docents didn’t tell our visitors was the story of the man who came here one day looking for a minister. I brought him to the Children’s Chapel and listened as he spilled out his confession … that he had been unfaithful to his wife, that he was desperate with grief and remorse. That he had tried church door after church door, until he found ours open … that it was here that he encountered sacred space … a space with the capacity to receive his sin and help him to reorder his life.
They didn’t tell our visitors about the young college student who came here one morning heaving with sobs. Her grandmother had just died … her first intimate experience of a death. She was away from home, bereft and lonely. We talked and prayed. She returned several times, to worship and to express her gratitude … to say that in the midst of grief and horror, she had found a sacred space … a place to absorb her grief, and reorder her heart.
Tilling and keeping this mini-Eden, this sacred space, is no idle work. It is how we cultivate the sacred rhythms of prayer and praise, of kindness and generosity. Here, in the presence of the Creator God we cultivate the symmetries of feasting and fasting, of giving and receiving, of work, rest and recreation, of celebration and lamentation ... each in its season.
Here, in the presence of our God, we come to learn mercy, to practice forgiveness, to render justice, to wage peace. Here, against the world’s chaos—a chaos that is forever threatening, forever pressing in on us—we order our lives before God through the rhythms of birth, baptism, marriage, death and resurrection.
“And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to till it and keep it.”
If this was required of us within the Garden, it is especially so out here on the outside. This is our work. This is our ministry. Amen.