a sermon for the nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 22B/Lectionary 27]
Genesis 2:18-24 and Mark 10:2-16
I hear this Genesis reading about Adam naming the animals in the garden one by one and I think immediately about our own house. Right now we’ve got a lot of stuffed animals at home. It’s bit embarrassing. They litter the flat surfaces in every room. I feel like we live in one of those crane machines at Chuck E. Cheese. The main reason why is because my wife and I have discovered that they make really effective rewards for our son, who is five. He makes a good choice, or he achieves an important milestone, and he gets the next stuffed animal he wants. The ones he likes are the ones that are as realistic as possible.
One of the first things he does when he gets his new stuffed animal is to give it a name. The sloth he got for something a while ago is affectionately known as “Slothy.” The bat he got when we were out west this summer is “Batty.” When he got a stuffed chicken that he really wanted he named it “Chickeny.” The mouse is “Mousey.” The owl is—you guessed it—“Owly.” And the shark is… “Bruce.”
To some degree these are real beings in our house. We spend an awful lot of time looking for them when they’re lost and repairing them when their eyes get chewed off by the dog. And a large part of their realness and closeness is in the naming. Naming things becomes the way the world makes more sense to us and becomes less frightening and bewildering. God does not want creation to be frightening and bewildering. God intends creation to involve intimacy, respect, and healing.
And there sits Man at the very beginning, naming all of God’s creatures, one by one. The creation stories in Genesis are unique in this aspect—unique from all other early civilizations’ creations stories. Creation is supposed to be our haven, a place of wonder and beauty, something that supports our life and enriches us. Living amidst creation in all its diversity is kind of like a reward for being human, for being God’s first and prized creation. God places his first human in the middle as a way to provide him shelter and intimacy. The point of this creating and naming all the Batties and Slothiess and Owliess and Chickenies is to help solve the issue of his human loneliness.
We are still naming living and nonliving that we discover, carrying out Man’s first job, making sense of them and ourselves as we do so, and how we’re supposed to tend to this beauty that God gave us. That’s why we’re a bit lonelier when a species we’ve named and therefore grown to love disappears from the face of the planet due to extinction. This week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared that twenty-three American species no longer in existence, including the incomparable Ivory-billed Woodpecker, a reminder that we still exploit and misuse God’s creation.
But even if we had the woodpecker back, and all the species we’ve ever lost somehow returned, none of them would form real community for the human being. For that, the first man needs another human, and that’s how woman comes to be. The way the ancient Hebrews, who gave us this story, would have understood all of this is that Woman, by coming from Man, is equal to him, not subservient to him. It’s like Man and Woman are two ends of a horizontal line that then are looped together to created a circle, with all the creatures of earth descending beneath them but still connected.
And the method of their creation is not supposed to be read as literal science as we understand science now. Rather, when the writers of Genesis say she is taken from the Man’s ribs it is a way of expressing the mysterious, inexplicably beautiful partnership which men and women can have and how they go through life as equals, beside each other. She is called a ‘helper’ to Man, but that is not a demeaning term. Throughout Scripture, in fact, the same word is used to describe God’s relationship to humankind. Woman is a helper to Man in the way that God is a helper to those he creates and guides through life. The bottom line of the story of our creation is that humans are meant for intimacy and connection. For some that pull of community leads to a call of marriage, to join together as one. But even those who are not married know that there is something about their human friendships that is life-giving.
So when our relationships are torn by our sin and selfishness, life can become difficult. The worship service for marriage in our previous hymnal had this wonderful line in the declaration of intent that went “Because of sin, our age-old rebellion, the gladness of marriage can be overcast, and the gift of family can become a burden.” I think all families and all marriages and all individuals know this. I know life with me is a burden for my family, especially when it comes to the kitchen sink and laundry. In reality, those who are most intimate with us have the ability to do us the most harm. I would suspect those who’ve been through a divorce might tell us about that, and those who haven’t should listen non-judgmentally.
The Pharisees try to force Jesus into a judgmental position in this morning’s gospel lesson. They come at him with a question that is not really honest because they are hoping to test him or trap him. I’m not sure the Pharisees really care about divorce or what it does to families, or how it’s a complex issue that, as we know it, involves deep pain and all kinds of emotion. They seem to view it purely as an issue of law and technicalities. And Jesus just throws the question right back at them. It is clear, he admits, all the way back to Moses that God allowed a legal possibility for divorce. Our hardness of heart, our inability to be as totally gracious and loving as God is in every circumstance, is something God lovingly takes into consideration. Sometimes marriages must come to an end so that life for both can move on.
This particular gospel reading can often be a bit of a hand grenade. It gets lobbed in here on a Sunday morning, landing on our bulletin page, making so many people uncomfortable and hurt. I wish that weren’t so. Marriage in Jesus’ time was almost nothing like marriage of today. Women, in particular, were treated in marriage agreements like little more than property traded between families trying to consolidate power. Women were usually prohibited from writing letters of divorce, and so they lived very precariously at the desires of their husbands, and a divorced woman even more precariously in society. Men would easily file for one divorce just so they could take up with another woman, and in many cases everyone knew they were already doing that.
That is the issue Jesus is addressing here—this rampant abuse of divorce laws to cover for infidelity that promoted the patriarchal system and put women’s lives at risk. In one simple discussion with his disciples after-the-fact, Jesus instantly puts women and men back on the same level. What good for the gander is good for the goose. Women and men can both write letters of divorce and should both be held accountable in the same way. Because, as God initially designed it, marriage is about mutuality and respect, about intimacy and love, not exploitation.
Suffice it to say, marriage and divorce is most often so different these days, and I’d have a hard time believing Jesus would not be in support of people getting remarried in most of the cases we encounter. Some of the most blessed unions I have officiated have been people’s second marriages, and some of the most harmonious and wholesome families I’ve seen have been blended families—ones with siblings from parents’ previous marriages.
I think most religious debates and riddle problems, like this ones the Pharisees offer, even when they have good intentions and decent outcomes, are a bit like hand grenades. They leave people feeling let down or confused or in need of grace and in the end, no one escapes unscathed at the damage they do. Try getting involved in a religious disagreement on social media. Everyone ends up looking and sounding bad. And so immediately Jesus looks for an opportunity to set things right again, to clear the air, to remind his people of God’s grace—to remind us that in spite of all the laws and rules, God always desires intimacy for his beloved humans. God always wants the lonely to be given companionship, the marginalized to be brought close, the unnamed people among us to be bestowed with dignity and honor.
And so when people start bringing him children—which they do, right after this—he starts to pay attention to them. My guess is they are women doing this. They know. They’ve heard about Jesus by now and how he reminds people of their blessing. And when his disciples try to stop the people from bringing the children, he rebukes them. He is indignant, the Bible says. It’s the same word for “angry.” Jesus doesn’t get described with that word many times at all, but one of them is when people try to prevent children from coming to him.
And then he goes a step farther, as if patting them on the head isn’t clear enough. He picks them up in his arms. Children!—those who are considered non-people, or not-yet people. Who have stuffy noses all the time and don’t appreciate fine food and who laugh at inappropriate things like fart noises. Those who feel little and left out. Those who can’t follow rules very well. Those who are usually exploited for their labor or trafficked for their youth. These are the ones Jesus takes in his arms, as if to make it clear: no more trying to come to God through religious riddles and debates. No more trying to impress others with your legalism or do-goodism, your grasp of the Bible and theology. Just trust and be curious and rejoice in the world around you.
One Sunday in my internship in Cairo, Egypt, we were doing a big group baptism for one of the African refugee congregations. There were a bunch of them all lined up at the font in our church—men, women, old and young. And it was about 100 degrees. We baptized one little boy—I’d guess he was five or six. The pastor poured the water over his head and instead of getting out of the way, the boy stood there at the font and took his hands and spread the cool water all over his head and face. And he did it again. The adults behind him saw it and started to laugh a bit, but tried to move him out of the way The boy was feeling that cool. He was in the moment, and it’s a baptismal image I’ve never forgotten.
In that moment, I’d bet Jesus would keep spraying water on him, laughing as he did it. And then probably he would have splashed all the grown-ups too. “Don’t be bewildered or frightened anymore, little boy,” he’d say. “Don’t be bewildered or frightened, kids, any of you. Enjoy this place every once in a while. And trust me all the time, especially when you mess up,” he’d say, with the compassion he showed on the cross. “God knows your name”.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.