“Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.’ So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.”
The message from last Sunday, October 7, 2018, in which we celebrated St. Francis (following his feast day on October 4) and The Blessing of the Animals. The sermon is related to that day, but rooted in the assigned readings for the Sunday (proper 22 B): Genesis 2:15, 18-24, Psalm 8, and Mark 10:1-16.
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Genesis 2:15, 18-24: 15The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it… Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” 19So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. 20The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner. 21So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. 22And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. 23Then the man said,
…..“This at last is bone of my bones
……….and flesh of my flesh;
…..this one shall be called Woman,
……….for out of Man this one was taken.”
24Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.
Mark 10:1-16: He left that place and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan. And crowds again gathered around him; and, as was his custom, he again taught them. 2Some Pharisees came, and to test Jesus they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 3He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” 4They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” 5But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 6But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ 7 ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
10Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
13People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 15Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” 16And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
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Grace to you and Peace, from God our Father and our Lord and savior, Jesus the Christ.
I don’t know whether I should begin this morning with St. Francis or Brett Kavanaugh.
(Thank you for laughing.)
I am not going to begin with either of those – but I really liked that sentence. It says a great deal to me about our moment in time. It also sets before us two different images of our humanity. St. Frances was a person who came from an upper-class family but renounced his privilege and wealth and sought to love the unlovely. I don’t know Mr. Kavanaugh, but I am troubled by the possibility that he might be among those who take privilege for granted and fight fiercely to hold on to it.
Life is full of people who make great sacrifices for the sake of others. This is the central tenet of our faith. The cross lifts up before us Christ who sacrificed himself for the sake of the world. But the world is also full of people who take advantage of others for the sake of their own power, pleasure, wealth or amusement. St. Francis was surely a frail and imperfect human being – we all are. But he came home from war, renounced his wealth and family name, and spent the rest of his live seeking to follow the example of Christ. And he is not supposed to be the exception to the rule; he is supposed to be the pattern for us all.
This last Wednesday (which happened to be October 4th, the feast day of St. Francis) one of our members took her dog to the vet and had to make that terrible decision to have him put to sleep. Nigel was quite old, and though Lucy had nursed him through many things, there was nothing more they could do – or, at least, nothing they should do. The dog had come to her family in a very difficult time in their lives and brought them warmth and joy. Nigel had also come with medical issues, but they cared for each other and found courage and hope in each other.
It is amazing what an animal can do for us.
We had a cat named CG when the girls were young. CG stood for “Curious George” until we found out it was “Georgette.” I rescued CG when I talked her down from a tree. Three large, fierce, loudly barking dogs had chased her there. Fortunately the tree was beside a wall and gate that protected me as I tried to woo her down.
CG was curious, of course, but there was evidence of the reality of our brokenness in her. The effects of sin, of humanity’s turn away from God and the disruption of the beauty and grace of the creation, could be seen in her. There was a pecking order in our house. Smokey, our first cat, was the alpha and CG was the second. But CG got pregnant (much to our surprise) and ever after seemed to regard herself as superior. When I put food down for the cats CG, in keeping with her station, would let Smokey eat first, but she sat waiting just a little too close for Smokey to be comfortable. So Smokey would eat with a low, complaining growl until she couldn’t take it any more and left, leaving a mostly full dish for CG.
But CG also had the nickname “Crisis Cat.” Whenever the girls were upset or crying and would fling themselves on the couch or bed, CG would immediately jump up on them and put her face in theirs, purring. I don’t know what the cat was doing, but we always found it comforting. The girls felt like they weren’t alone. And then they weren’t so lost in their misery.
I used to talk to my fish. I gave it the creative name “Fishy.” I’m not lacking in creativity in naming pets, even though I did call my dog “Poochie” – but there was a reason for that. At Natalie’s wedding there were beautiful blue Beta fish in the table centerpieces and she let people take them home. It was strange how nice it was to come through the door at the end of the day and say “Hi Fishy.” Somehow, even a little blue fish made it seem like I wasn’t coming home to an empty apartment.
The Biblical narratives about the creation are quite profound. And our story today, in particular, talks about the deep connection between us and the creatures of the earth. We are amazed, enthralled and changed by them. I remember hiking in the north woods and coming upon a fox trotting up the path towards me. Or again, on the same trip, coming across a female moose and her calf. There is the sense of wonder and amazement that compels you to stand quietly to watch them. One year at Yosemite a bear came up and looked over my shoulder at the group sitting around the campfire. I didn’t understand why everyone suddenly jumped up and backed away – but, even as they did so, they didn’t turn away. They were yet awed by the sight before them. (As cautious as I am about bears, I was still disappointed that he turned and slipped into the woods before I could see him.)
There is a profound connection between us and the creatures of the earth. It’s hard for me not to talk to the crows that are sometimes on the lawn here in the morning, or to the rabbit that lives under the fence by my downstairs office. I was in the Natural History Museum in New York last year and went into the butterfly exhibit. These amazingly beautiful, strong and iridescent creatures lighting softly on your hand seem to invite you to talk with them in a quiet tender voice.
We are deeply tied to the natural world around us. We surround our children with stuffed animals from teddy bears to Easter bunnies to skunks, elephants and octopi. The Biblical narrative puts it simply with these words: “It is not good that the human creature should be alone.” (“Adam” in the story, by the way, is the Hebrew word ‘adam’ for a human being. There are other words that refer more specifically to men and women in their gender roles. ‘Adam’ is not really a name, it’s more like the word ‘man’ or ‘mankind’ that we used to use.)
In the Biblical narrative given to us in the second chapter of Genesis, God makes the first human from the clay of the earth and breathes into it the spirit/breath of life. God makes a garden (Eden) and places the human creature there to care for it. Then God surveys God’s work and says: “It is not good that the ‘adam’ should be alone.” There is so much being said in this brilliant narrative, but the piece we are focused on today is the Biblical understanding that we are creatures who need to be connected with others. We are fashioned for community. We are made to be in relationship. And, in the narrative before us, all the creatures of the earth are created and brought before Adam in a primordial effort by God to meet our need for companionship.
We are not just flock creatures, though we often act like it. We are created to be in relationship: to be in relationship to God, to be in relationship with one another, and to be in relationship with the natural world around us. We were made for connection. It is natural that we should talk to the animals.
In the verse where God says, “It is not good that the man should be alone,” that word ‘alone’ means separate. We are not meant to be separated. We are made for connection. Again and again in scripture we get reminders of this. It is why Leviticus commands us to “love your neighbor as yourself,” and it is why Jesus makes clear that all people are our neighbors. It is why God is portrayed in the psalms and prophets as a shepherd who gathers a flock and keeps it safe. It is why Jesus is the good shepherd and tells the story of the shepherd who leaves the 99 and goes after the one who has strayed away. It is why Jesus eats with outcasts and sinners. It is why fishermen and tax collectors are among his twelve innermost followers. It is why Jesus welcomes children, and receives women as his disciples. It is why the prophets promise a day when the lion shall lie down with the lamb. It is why the ultimate triumph of God at the end of the book of Revelation is portrayed as a city, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of the heavens like a bride adorned for her husband.
It is why forgiveness/reconciliation is the central word spoken at the beginning of worship and at the communion table. It is why our central act or worship is a meal around one table. We were meant for connection.
In that day when God created us, when God formed us from the earth and breathed into us the breath of life, there was something in God’s good creation that fell short of beautiful and perfect: this human creature was separate, alienated, alone. So God forms all the creatures of the earth looking for the right partner to overcome our separateness. All the creatures around us are part of our need for connection. It’s why we have an instinctive reaction against cruelty to animals. It’s why we feel sad when a bird flies into the window or a storm knocks a nest from the tree. It’s why an animal can calm us in distress or reach someone who has trouble connecting with people.
Our need for connection is ultimately answered by the creation of another human, shaped by a part taken from the first human. It’s important for us to recognize that the text says the woman is created as an equal to the first human. The Hebrew word contains this sense of being face to face.
I don’t like the translation that says: “I will make him a helper as his partner.” The word translated ‘helper’ doesn’t mean that the ‘adam’ is getting a servant – God’s purpose is to overcome our separateness. The word ‘help’ is used in Psalm 33, among other places, to describe God as our ‘help’: Our soul waits for the Lord; he is our help and our shield” (33:20).
The ‘adam’ is getting a partner equal to him, equivalent to him. And this is what the ‘adam’ says when he wakes, “At last, this is a creature like me.” (This, by the way, is when we begin to get the words ‘ish’ and ‘ishah’, the words for man and woman.) It’s also important to recognize that this other human is brought to the ‘adam’ as a gift; he doesn’t just wake up and find her at his side, God brings her to him.
As we listen to this narrative it is important to recognize that the whole earth around us is part of our connectedness. The human community, the creatures of the earth, and the natural world itself – it is all part of our connectedness. We are made more human by walking along the sea or standing among redwoods or walking through fall leaves and mountain meadows. It’s why the story tells us that we were put in God’s garden to tend it and care for it. We are not here to dominate and abuse, but to protect and care.
So when we ask God to bless the animals we bring with us this morning, we are talking not just about these individual animals, but also our relationship with them – and we are talking about the whole complex web of life. We want God to bless it all.
We want the world to thrive. We want the whole creation around us to vibrate with life. We want the rains to be gentle and the winds soft and the sunlight warm. We want the crops to grow in season and the fruit of the earth to be bountiful and nourishing. We want the human community, also, to be whole and good, to be gracious and generous, to be kind and compassionate, to be creative and rewarding, to be joyful and peaceable. We want God to bless it all.
And we want that blessing because we know that the fabric of creation has been ruptured. This, too, goes back to a story about us as humans. This is the story about the “apple.” It’s our fault that the world has been thrown off kilter. It’s on us that the fabric of the world is torn by violence and war, poverty and injustice. It was not God’s purpose that that the human family should be torn by divorce. It was not God’s purpose that societies like ours should be bitterly riven over a president, a senate, and a judge.
When Jesus is asked about divorce, his opponents know full well that divorce is discussed in the Biblical law. Maybe they think Jesus, the Galilean peasant, is too ignorant to know his scripture. But more likely they are trying to frame Jesus. This is a question that will get him in trouble with the king. It got John the Baptist killed because he condemned the king’s illicit marriage to his brother’s wife. King Herod* had married the daughter of the king of the neighboring nation of Nabatea. But then Herod divorced her in order to marry his brother’s wife, Herodias (who divorced her husband to marry Herod). It started a disastrous war with the Nabateans.
Marriage in the time of Jesus wasn’t a relationship between two people; it was an alliance between two families. To dismiss a woman, to send her back to her family, was an attack on the honor of her family. It led to conflict and feuding and violence.
Jesus’s answer to his opponents is brilliant. He dodges the political trap and confronts us with the existential one. It is because of our brokenness, our “hardness of heart”, that all this conflict and division exists in the world. Jesus doesn’t cite the legal code; he points us back to our beginnings. He points us back to a time before the world was torn in pieces and we were divided from one another. He points us back to God’s purpose for us – and, in so doing, he points us forward to the day when the Spirit of God breathes in every breath.
The question isn’t whether divorce is legal. The question is whether we were meant for connection, for community, for relationship with God, with one another, and with all the creatures that surround us. And the promise that comes to us in Christ Jesus is that we are not condemned to live forever in our brokenness. In Christ there is before us a world where the Spirit of God reigns. In Christ there is before us a world where sins are forgiven and communities made whole. In Christ there is before us a world where we are gathered at one table. For that world we pray. And that world we are invited to live.
* This is not Herod the Great from the time of Jesus’ birth, but his son, Herod Antipas. Herod was technically a ‘tetrarch’ having been given a fourth of his father’s kingdom by the Roman senate, but the Gospel writers refer to him as a king.