MARY LEE TALBOT – STAFF WRITER
“My third great-grandmother was Leah Ballard, enslaved in South Carolina. She was a ‘breeder;’ she bred money (in the form of children) for the slave owner. She had 17 children. Who chooses that?” said Lisa Sharon Harper.
Harper preached at the 10:45 a.m. Sunday ecumenical worship service. Her sermon title was “Four Words that Change Everything.” The Scripture reading was Genesis 1:26-31.
In 2003 Harper embarked on a pilgrimage around the South. She called it “four weeks with 25 people, including children.” The group traveled along the Trail of Tears, the trail followed by the Cherokee Nation on its forced march from North Carolina to Oklahoma, and went to places of importance in the Black experience in the Deep South.
The Gospel had shaped Harper’s life. She had learned to tell people that God had a wonderful plan for their life, but they had sinned and fallen short. All they had to do to get into heaven was pray one simple prayer and they would receive salvation.
“I asked myself, would Leah receive this as good news?” Harper said. “When I faced the question, the answer was no. If I had told her about how to get to heaven in 1980, she would have asked me, ‘Have you been smoking crack?’ She would say, ‘Do you not see me? Do you not see my context?’ If the Gospel that shaped my life was not understood by my grandmother, then it is not good news at all.”
Harper spent 13 years working on the text of her book, A Very Good Gospel: How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right. In the Scripture reading from Genesis 1:26-31, she found four Hebrew words that changed how she understood the meaning of good news. “As my pastor used to say, I am a beggar coming to these beggars to tell them where to find food. Are you hungry?” she asked the congregation.
The first word is tov m’od, very good. The Greeks liked to build perfection and so they looked to the thing itself to find its perfection. “In Hebrew, ‘very good’ means the relationship between things — and that changes everything,” she said. “All relationships in all of creation are abundantly, overwhelmingly good. Relationships between God and humanity, within humans themselves, between people and between people and creation. There were no whales who needed to be saved in the beginning of creation.”
The second word is tselem, the Hebrew understanding of icon or representation. Harper noted that some scholars believe Moses wrote Genesis, while others believe that there are four groups of people who wrote it. One of those groups were a group of priests who were leaving Babylon after 70 years of exile.
“After war, death and removal, the people of Israel were told they were created to be slaves. As they were exiting Babylon, this group of priests wrote their own creation story,” Harper said. “It was revolutionary because no civilization had placed the image of God in all of humanity, only kings and queens. The priests could have snatched power and taken the image of God for themselves, but they democratized the idea.”
The third word that changed everything for Harper was radah, dominion. “This word is so sorely misunderstood that we can’t use it anymore because it now means domination,” she said. “It originally meant to ‘tread down’ the vegetation that was everywhere and to be stewards of the land. Don’t let the vegetation grow all over; keep it in relationship.”
She continued, “In Genesis 2, humans are told to till and keep the land. … ‘Dominion’ is supposed to look like ‘protect and serve.’ So we have three implications. First is the very goodness of all creation. Second is that to be human means to be made in the image of God. Third, we were made in the image of God, therefore we are called by God to exercise dominion and cultivate the earth.”
Genesis 2 is the story of the two trees in the Garden of Paradise: the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. “God told the humans that they would die if they are from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil,” Harper said. “This was not an apple tree, because apples are good for you. It was a Twinkie Tree. Eating from this tree was going against God’s counsel and demonstrated a lack of love for God. This act was a break from the source of life and it brings death and broken life.”
In Genesis 3, the story continues with the description of the fall of all relationships.
“Shame enters the picture,” Harper said. “The relationship between God and humans falls down,” she said. “The snake is now nipping at the woman’s heels, and the earth has to be beaten down to get anything out of it. This is where death enters the world.”
Using a series of slides of works of art and photos, Harper showed that in this world, when people decided how they would live together it led to removals of Indigenous people, the crushing of spirit and culture, elimination by massacres, twisting bodies with torture, hanging by lynching and exploitation. “Any people we are crushing, removing, lynching, exploiting — we are removing from the image of God on earth,” Harper said.
In the ancient world, the image of the king indicated the health of the kingdom. If the image was of health and power, the kingdom experienced strength. If the image of the king was toppled, there was war against the king.
“What will it take for us to lay down our arms against the image of God on earth?” Harper asked the congregation. “When we see those who govern the image of God in humanity, we should see it as a war against God. What will it take to bless every image of God in every person, every town, every inch of all the land? What are the politics that serve and protect all?”
Harper answered her question by reading Galatians 3: 27-28: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
She continued, “This is the first baptismal liturgy and of course we do not take it literally. Before baptism we looked at humans as we were taught, that there is a hierarchy of being. After we go under the water, when we come up we only see the image of God in one another. We see the capacity to exercise dominion in everyone.”
The fourth word that changed everything for Harper was dmuwth, meaning likeness. “We are like God, but we are not God. It is a humbling word and places us in context,” Harper said.
This would be good news for Leah Ballard. “I would say to her, ‘The king of the kingdom of God has come to restore the image of God in you, so you can exercise dominion,’ ” Harper said. “Then I would turn to Master Ballard, and would tell him, ‘The good news is that you are not actually a master, but a simple human being. Get down off the scaffolding of hierarchy that enslaves you, and join hands with the rest of us. We are having a party. The good news is we have laid down our arms against God.’ ”
Harper asked the congregation to close their eyes and “think of someone who is ‘Other’ to you, who is not like you. Then open your eyes and say ‘I see the image of God in you.’ ”
The Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, vice president for religion and senior pastor of Chautauqua Institution, presided. Nancy Kyler, a member of the Chautauqua Institution Board of Trustees and the board of the Chautauqua Foundation, read the Scripture. For the prelude, Joshua Stafford, Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organist and director of sacred music, played “Prelude on Nicaea,” by Peter Lukin. Members of the Motet Choir sang “O Thou, the Central Orb,” with music by Charles Wood and words by Henry Ramsden Bramley, for the anthem, and “The Heavens are Telling,” from The Creation by Joseph Haydn for the offertory anthem. The postlude, played by Stafford, was Toccata in F, BWV 540, by Johann Sebastian Bach. The Alison and Craig Marthinsen Endowment for the Department of Religion provides support for this week’s services and chaplain.