From the sixth through the eighth grade, I was second chair trombone in the Paragould Junior High School band, and I was all-in. I practiced every night. At first, I practiced in the dining room. After the first night, I was asked to move to the study…and close the door. By the second week, I had been banished to my parents’ bedroom at the very back of the house. Apparently, not everyone embraces the beauty of second trombone. More about that to come (I promise).
Did you know that there are three creation stories in the Old Testament? Many Christians are aware of the first two. They appear in the first and second chapters of Genesis. EfM graduates and other Episcopalians who regularly study the bible are aware that these are two separate accounts, from two different and unrelated strands of the Jewish tradition. The first is a hymn (not a science text, by the way), which tells of God’s wondrous creation in a series of stanzas that chart the creation by days. At the end of each stanza, as a kind of refrain, the Genesis 1 hymns says, “And God saw that it was good.” The Genesis 1 creation story is grand, bombastic, and cosmic in scope, like a Wagner opera.
The second creation story, in Genesis 2, is much more localized and down to earth. It is in this second story that we find the Garden of Eden. It is in this second story that God appears as an anthropomorphized character, walking in the garden in the cool of the day.
There is one shared theme for both of these stories: At the culmination of creation, whether grand or intimate, God creates humanity. Genesis 1 says that, on the final, ultimate day of creation, “God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” And God grants humankind dominion over all the rest of creation. In Genesis 2, God creates Adam and Eve and as the inhabitants of Paradise. In both accounts, the creation story turns out to be a story about, and for, people. We are the denouement of God’s creative acts, the center of things, those for whom all the rest is made. To return to where I began today, in the Genesis creation stories we are first chair violin in the orchestra, or if you prefer, lead guitar in the world’s rock band.
It is rare that even biblically-literate Christians are aware of the Old Testament’s third creation story, but it is there, and it may even be more ancient that the stories in Genesis. It is found in Job 38-41, and we read its beginning verses today. To catch us up to speed, Job has been inflicted with every manner of distress and disease. His life has fallen completely apart; his friends claim that he must be at fault (though he knows differently); and he has demanded that God appear and answer for his malady. In Job 38, God obliges.
In the ensuing chapters, God combines the cosmic scope of Genesis 1 with the intimacy of Genesis 2, as God recounts the creation for Job via a series of pointed questions. Today we heard the cosmic part: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? Can you lift up your voice to the clouds, so that a flood of waters may cover you? Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may go and say to you, “Here we are”?
A few verses later, God will extol all of God’s beautiful, majestic, tender, and awkward creatures. God mentions the lion, deer, the hawk, the horse, the lion, monsters of the deep, and even the ridiculous-looking and acting ostrich as each invaluable and precious. As God speaks, Job undoubtedly awaits the culmination of God’s peroration, a mention of humanity—Job himself—as the apex and center of creation. But the mention never comes. God finishes speaking with no final, culminating day of creation; no Garden of Eden; no mention of humanity at all.
The implication is clear, and Job gets it. After God has finished speaking, Job replies, “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know…I repent in dust and ashes.”[i] Whether or not we grasp the implication, and whether or not we can accept it, is the question.
We have each and all spent a lifetime, and before us humanity has spent eons, both consciously and unconsciously embracing the Genesis creation stories. We believe that we—humanity as a whole and each of us individually—is at the center of things. We believe that we are the apex of creation, that we are the main characters in the story, that our joys and accomplishments deserve accolades and that our pains and sorrows deserve the sympathy of the world. Collectively, this self-regard imperils the natural and social nexus of our world. Individually, it often strains our relationships to the breaking point and leads to very many of our disappointments in life.
This is certainly the understanding of James and John, the “sons of thunder,” in today’s Gospel. They believe that they are at the center of things and that they deserve to be at the very center of the story Jesus is writing. Their only dispute is which of the two of them is the greatest, which one will play lead guitar in the “Jesus saves the world” grand tour. Everyone and everything else is peripheral.
But the creation story in Job tells us that none of this is true. The creation story in Job tells us that we are not at the center of things. God loves us, yes. In God’s eyes we are incredibly precious. We matter. But not more than the deer, or the hawk, or the ostrich, or the earth. We are not first chair violin, virtuosos for whom all else stops when we begin to play. Perhaps we are, instead, second chair trombone.
Second chair trombone matters. If it were removed from the Arkansas fight song, you’d notice its lack. It is a complementary component of the whole, part of a symphony of music that lifts and carries God’s song forward. In a way, second trombone is a much harder part to play. Rather than setting the pace and driving the melody, the second trombone must recede at times, only to bellow forth at just the right moment in support of the whole song. Second trombone must be especially attentive to the other instruments, so as not to overpower or underperform. And, second trombone must reconcile with the fact that, alone, its part makes no sense. Second trombone is not in the center. It is not the most valuable, but it is essential.
This recognition is the cup from which Jesus asks James and John to drink today. It is hard elixir, the toughest medicine to swallow. But drink it, they ultimately will. They will give up the presumption of their elevated self-importance and becomes apostles of the Gospel, serving and sacrificing for it, and speaking its Word of Truth rather than getting in its way.
Will we? Can we? Can we, with Job, acknowledge that we have always assumed a human-centric and self-centered world, when in fact we are not the be all and end all? Can we give up the adolescent dream of playing lead guitar and instead play second trombone? In this stewardship season, as we are each called to support the ministry of this place with our time, our talent, and (now especially) our treasure, can we recast Genesis 1’s badly-translated “human dominion of the earth” as, instead, “human stewardship,” giving up the starring roles for lives of service to God, whose creation is so wonderful as to be beyond our understanding? God does love us, just as God love all of God’s creation. If we can embody a little less Genesis and a little more Job, then the dissonance of our lives will become harmony, and we will play our part in the symphony of God’s song.
[i] Job 42:3 & 6