Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Created for relationship
You crown us with glory and honor. (Ps. 8:5)
Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12
God has spoken by a Son
Teaching on marriage
I am divorced. Not once but twice. I have to put that out there right away in order to deal with integrity today’s texts from Genesis and Mark. Some people might excuse my first marriage as a mistake made by 21-year-old one week out of college. And, though it’s sometimes harder for people to fathom the mistake I made at 40, anyone who has loved someone with mental illness or addiction usually gets it. (Thank God, it turns out third time’s a charm in marriage, at least in my case!) But the fact of the matter is, no matter how anyone tries to explain or excuse it, Jesus says that anyone who is divorced and marries again commits adultery. In case you didn’t remember, committing adultery is one of the Big 10 sins—the 6th Commandment, to be exact—and I’ve publicly and irrevocably broken it. More than once. If you didn’t know it before, now you know: I’m a sinner with a capital S.
Fact: divorce is never God’s dream for human relationships. While it may be the best of several bad options at times, Jesus quotes Genesis to make his point that God’s dream is never for brokenness, adding that it is only because of our hardness of heart that there are divorce laws at all. After all, divorce is, in its essence, both a product and creator of brokenness, and God always roots for wholeness. But Scripture is always a double-edged sword, offering both judgment and grace, a breaking open and a stitching together, and today I believe our reading from Genesis offers both.
It may surprise some people to learn that there are 2 complete creation stories in the Bible, back to back, and sometimes quite different from each other. If we were people who read the Bible literally this might pose a problem for us, as they can be contradictory. But since Biblical literalists would have had all of us sinners cutting off our arms and legs and putting out our eyes after last week’s Gospel reading, we can be grateful again that we are free to read the Bible as a book of faith, and not a rule book, science book, or history book.
The first creation story, Genesis 1, depicts God as distant and almighty, bringing order out of chaos in a well-planned and carefully orchestrated progression of six days of creation. In Genesis 1, humans are created simultaneously, already in community, both fully made in the image and likeness of God at the end of the week. God repeatedly pronounces the results of each day’s work “good,” and at the end of Genesis 1, announces that the whole creation is “very good.”
Genesis 2 offers us quite a different story. Here God does not operate in a distant and orderly manner, but gets “down and dirty” with creation—literally! God forms a non-gendered human (adam) from the land or clay (adamah), and then performs CPR on the newly formed mud creature, breathing into its nostrils “the breath of life.” In this imprecise but detailed version of creation, the garden of Eden is a laboratory, and God is the chief scientist engaging in trial-and-error experiments with life. Nothing is systematic or orderly. Here, God encounters unexpected challenges and tries new solutions in a give and-take interaction with creation and its creatures.
While in Genesis 1 God repeatedly described everything as “good,” Genesis 2 begins with God sensing something is “not good.” God observes, “It’s not good that mud-creature should be alone.” And then, God discovers what is fundamental to human nature and human flourishing: humans are social creatures who thrive in close and intimate relationships with others. God resolves to make for the single human a helper as his partner.” (For the record, a helper in the Old Testament doesn’t imply a subordinate; it can mean an equal or sometimes even a superior to the one who is being helped. In some Psalms, for example, God is called a helper to humans in need.)
God’s first attempt to resolve the deficit of community for the human is to create an array of wild and domestic animals, birds, and other critters as possible soul mates for the human. God marches the colorful parade of diverse wild life before the human and Adam names the various creatures—elephant, skunk, cat, kangaroo, what have you. In the ancient world, naming something or someone was a way of defining and shaping the character and essence of the one named. When he names the animals, the human participates with God as a co-creator in ordering the universe. Sadly, though the animals are interesting, none fully resolves the ache and void of human loneliness.
So God embarks on another experiment. This time God assumes the role of Chief Surgeon and anesthetizes the man into a deep sleep. This new strategy of finding a “helper as his partner” doesn’t involve human co-creation. This time it’s all God’s doing, a gift to creation from God alone. God removes a rib from the human’s side and lovingly shapes it into a second human being who is “like” the first being but also “opposite” him—two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that fit together. The animal-as-full-partner experiment had been a bust, but this time God gets it oh-so-right! The man awakes and instantly recognizes the fulfillment of his deep longing in the eyes of this new “other.” For the first time in Scripture, the human being speaks, and when he does, it is in the elevated language of poetry, a sign of the ecstasy and joy that accompanies this momentous occasion: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. This one shall be called Woman [ishshah] for out of Man [ish] this one was taken.”
You can almost hear Etta James singing in the background, can’t you? “At last, my love has come along, my lonely search is over, and love is like a song….” The imagery of “bone of my bones” and “flesh of my flesh” speaks of a bond so strong that to sever it would be like physically ripping off part of one’s own body. This bond is so intimate that the two “become one flesh”—naked, open to one another, vulnerable, trusting, passionate, loving, and “not ashamed.” This union of two human beings yearning for community and finding it in one another is the great climax of the second creation story.
Whichever version of the creation story you prefer, Genesis1 or 2, the sad truth is that what comes next is Genesis 3. Here the narrative suddenly plunges into the story of humanity’s fall, expulsion from the Garden of Eden, and a general descent into brokenness. Mutual trust, partnership, support, freedom from shame, and equality of relationship are all threatened by human disobedience.
You don’t need me to tell you that the mystery and reality of human love is that sometimes it endures, and sometimes it doesn’t. You also know that God’s dream, in both versions of the creation story and throughout the Bible, is a world in which every person and living being gives and receives love and acceptance to such an extent that we never feel alone. But that isn’t the world we live in, is it? The Garden of Eden is not where we negotiate relationships, romantic or otherwise. Hence, our Gospel reading today: Jesus is talking about divorce. Competing religious communities have come to ask Jesus to resolve questions of the law, but Jesus responds by changing the conversation. He’s not interested in discussing how bad divorce is. He would rather remind people on all sides of the argument that the purpose of the law—divorce law, religious law, ANY law, ALL law—is to protect the vulnerable.
It’s worth noting that in Jesus’ time, only a man could initiate a divorce, and he could do so for any reason. A woman who had been divorced lost all she had—economic stability, reputation, and status. Though the religious leaders in Mark’s story might think they are posing hypothetical questions about a legal matter to Jesus, in truth, they are debating a woman’s very right to existence. Jesus will not have it! He will not hear half of humanity dismissed as less important than the other half. Jesus turns the discussion to an indictment the whole social structure of the time. His interest is in how faith-based communities can/should be different from the society as a whole.
This is why Jesus makes a point, right after this discussion about divorce, to hug a child. Children have no voice in their parents’ relationships, but often suffer because of them (whether those parents are married, remarried, single, divorced, or whatever). Jesus is determined that those who are vulnerable and fragile, who are so often wounded by circumstances not in their control, be lovingly welcomed and cherished, especially by followers of Jesus. Jesus would never have advocated putting such precious ones in cages, with or without their families.
God is both almighty and all-merciful; both above and beyond us, AND willing to mess around in the muck and clay with us. Thank God we are not excluded from God’s family when we stumble, but are encouraged to fumble our way toward healing with God’s accompaniment and care. Thank God we have been endowed with imaginations and intellects that permit us to co-create our realities! Thank God that Jesus dismisses the finer points of sin in order to talk about the big picture of all people needing to be reconciled into God’s family! Thank God all are welcome in God’s arms, cherished and honored. As a result, we are called and empowered to tell the story of God’s extraordinary grace, to invite other mud-creatures into God’s wide embrace together! No matter what else happens in our lives, remember God’s story always ends with all of creation brought together into oneness with God and with each other!
~Pastor Susan Schneider