Vive la Différence

Rev. Liza Knapp
June 15, 2014
Genesis 1:1-2


In the beginning when God was creating the heaven and the earth, the earth was a formless void. Then God said, Let there be light, and there was light.  And God saw that the light was good. God separated the light from the darkness; and God called the light Day, and the darkness Night.

I spent last weekend in the Catskill Mountains. My family owns a log cabin there, right up against the state forest. There are a few other houses along the road, but they aren’t visible from our property, and at night, there’s not a single streetlight to be seen. If the sky is clear, you can see an incredible number of stars. And if the sky is cloudy, you can’t really see anything at all. If you leave the windows open at night, you can clearly hear the stream that runs at the foot of our hill. Occasionally, you can hear an animal scratching, or screeching, or howling.

Now, I grew up in Manhattan, the city that never sleeps. Where you could probably live your entire life and never experience true darkness. At least, not outdoors. People talk about the New York City night-life, but really there is no night-life in the city, just more day-life. But in the Catskills, the darkness is still dark, and the night still lives.

As we drove in on Friday night, we passed some of that nightlife on the road. The moon was bright, so we were able to see deer browsing along the road. We even startled a bear as it was crossing the road with its cubs. We stopped the car, and one of the cubs scooted halfway up a tree, until its mother reassured it we were not a threat. My daughter announced at that moment that this was the best vacation ever. And we weren’t even there yet.

This then, is the place where I prepared today’s sermon. This is the background, the context for today’s story of light and darkness, of creation and goodness. Perhaps you have a place of your own, where you go to be surrounded by God’s creation. I invite you to take a moment to go there, in your mind. You might even close your eyes. Picture it, feel it, smell it.  This is where our meditation begins.

In the beginning, there was one, and from that one, came everything.

Before I was a preacher, I was a science teacher. I taught science for almost two decades, first to middle schooler, and then to college students. So every now and then someone asks me, so do you believe in creation or evolution? And I always say, yes. Because whether I listen to scripture or to nature, I hear the same mind-boggling story: In the beginning, there was one – one primordial soup, one big bang, one formless void – and from that one, came everything.

In the beginning there was only an undifferentiated sea of sameness. Then God spoke, and otherness emerged. Vive la différence: Let there be light. 

The first chapter of Genesis describes this unfolding of cosmic diversity as a process of separation. God separates the light from the darkness, the sky from the sea, the dry land from the waters, and then fills these realms with creatures: fish in the sea, birds in the sky, animals on the dry land. As an ecologist, this makes sense to me: separation breeds diversity.

Last weekend, in the Catskills, I saw my first firefly of the season. And I remembered, as I do every year at this time, a particular summer in Vermont, many years ago. I was part of a college summer stock theater group; there were nine of us, sharing a big farm house. When the first fireflies appeared on the farmhouse lawn, my friend Simon must have spent half and hour, running around the lawn, catching fireflies and setting them free. You see, Simon was from Palo Alto, California, and he had never seen a firefly before. I hadn’t realized this until that moment, but apparently there are no fireflies on the west coast.

Well, actually, that’s not exactly true, there are technically fireflies there, close relatives of ours, actually, but they don’t light up. Although the two groups of insects share a common ancestor, they became geographically separated; living in different places, under different circumstances, they were free to follow different evolutionary paths. I’m not sure if one group gained a light or the other lost it; I just know that Simon was as excited to see those fireflies as I was to see the California redwoods.

Separation promotes biodiversity in other ways, too. Diversity can exist within a community, as long as the different species give each other some room. Species can co-exist if they can find some way to share the habitat. For example, one species might forage for food in the morning, another in the afternoon. Ecologists call this “temporal partitioning.” (Parents call it “taking turns.”) Or one species of bird might nest in the top branches of a tree, and another species in the lower branches. (Parents call this “bunk beds.”)

So it makes sense to me, this idea that God creates diversity through separation. We need to move over and make room, if we are to share our planet – or our neighborhood, or our home – with others.

But still, “separation” is an odd word to raise up in a UCC church. We are, after all, the United Church of Christ. We are proud of the fact that our denomination was not formed by separation but by union. We celebrate our inclusivity. And we all know that the phrase “separate but equal” is a euphemism for inequality and exclusion.

This week marked the anniversary of Loving vs. Virginia, the landmark 1967 Supreme Court case that struck down our own country’s anti-miscegenation laws. Richard and Mildred Loving were a married couple that had been sentenced to jail under Virginia law, because he was white and she was black. The judge who sentenced them to jail had argued that their marriage was contrary to God’s will as expressed in creation. He wrote in his decision that “Almighty God created the races and placed them on separate continents. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for them to mix.”

Let me make this perfectly clear: I believe that this is a misreading, both of scripture and of nature. “A place for everything and everything in its place” is a laudable goal for organizing our closets, but when we apply it to our neighbors it is usually means putting others in their place, rather than being right-sized ourselves. There are species that hog the resources, that crowd out others, that can’t share. Human beings are just one these invasive species. But the deep theme of creation is still this: In the beginning there was one, and from that one, came everything.

What story do we hear in the first chapter of Genesis? Is it about God’s desire for orderly segregation, or is it about God’s longing for diversity? Our interpretation of scripture sometimes reveals more about the desires and longings of our own hearts, than of God’s. In our bulletin meditation, Simone Weil writes that God, if he exists, must be good, because he delights in something other than himself. But are we ready to do the same?

The truth is, God may delight in diversity, but humans have trouble embracing otherness. We tend to either demonize it, or deny it. I remember an incident in the school where I taught for several years, in which someone wrote some racist graffiti on a locker. An all school meeting was called, and students were invited to come forward and share their thoughts about the incident. One by one, students spoke of their horror that someone would denigrate a fellow student for her race. I remember a white student who stood up and said, “I can’t understand why someone would do this. When I look at Andrea, I don’t see a black woman, I see my friend.” And while I appreciated his support of his friend, I found myself wondering: Couldn’t she be both a black woman, and a friend? There is an easy form of tolerance that is based on the belief that “we are all basically the same.” But what if we’re not? Can we find it in our hearts to allow for differences?

This weekend, as I stepped outside the cabin to look at the stars, I was reminded of another weekend at the cabin, many years ago. My nephew Nick was about four years old at the time. I remember him, standing in the door of the cabin, peering anxiously into the night, and saying, quite seriously: “I need some light, so I can see the dark.” Quite right. But the reverse is also true: we need the darkness, so we can see the light. We need both, if we are to see anything at all. Pediatricians tells us we should give our children black and white striped toys, for it is contrast that awakens their senses.

To celebrate God’s work in creation is to celebrate difference. For how can God do a new thing, unless it differs from the old? We can only know the light, because it differs from the darkness. As we watched fireflies last weekend, my wife remarked that there don’t seem to be as many of them now as she remembers from her childhood. And she’s right; fireflies are on the decline. Their disappearance seems to be related to increased human presence. You see, fireflies flash their lights in order to attract mates; it is how they find each other. But human beings are constantly generating light of our own; it spills from our televisions and street lamps, lighting up our lawns and parking lots at night. As a result, the fireflies can no longer find each other.

They need the darkness, so they can see the light.