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Today at sundown marks the beginning of the Jewish New Year – Rosh Hashanah. Rosh Hashanah, also known as the Festival of the Trumpets is the first day of the new year and it commemorates the anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve, the first man and woman, and their first actions toward the realization of humanity’s role in God‘s world (Wikipedia). It seems appropriate for us to mark this celebration as we are also kicking off a new year, of sorts. Today, we here at Western Church are kicking off our new programmatic year – Sunday School classes are back in full swing, committees are meeting again, we’re ramping back up for volunteer shifts at Miriam’s Kitchen and Calvary , and in worship this year, we will be walking through a new lectionary known as the Narrative Lectionary.
The Narrative Lectionary was created by several scholars affiliated with Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN in partnership with congregations across the US, starting in 2010. It is a four-year cycle of readings that sweep through the biblical story from Creation through the early Christian church. The Narrative Lectionary highlights a variety of voices within Scripture, and we will explore the stories of Abraham and Sarah, Moses and the prophets, Jesus and Paul. This fall, we will focus our attention on the Old Testament readings. In the Spring, we will focus on the New Testament. And, this morning, as we are starting out this new year, we are starting at the beginning, with Genesis 2 – the second creation story.
I encourage you, at some other point, to go back and read the first creation story from Genesis 1, but for today, we’re going to start with Genesis 2. It is the story of God’s creative presence in the world – out of nothing God springs up a stream from the ground to cover and nourish the earth, rivers form and the Garden of Eden is created, a home for all the plants and animals and the first human being and then the second. This is also a text that some point to as the first example in Scripture of the structure of marriage. Lauren just read from the Gospel of Mark but, to come clean, the text that Lauren just read is not exactly what was listed in the lectionary. The original passage was just supposed to be Mark 10: 6-8 – just the bits that echo the passage in Genesis about marriage being for a man and a woman – but I expanded our reading, because there is a context, there is a story behind these words of Jesus. Often times, verses are plucked from our holy text and quoted as sound-bites to address complex and intimate human experiences. But, the Mark text speaks to an experience of human relationship and relates to the creation of humanity and the gift of partnership as described in Genesis 2.
So, let us now turn to the Book of Genesis 2:4b-25, and let us open our hearts in prayer. Let us pray:
Creating and loving God, may your wisdom be granted to us and we turn to your Word. Be present with us. Make us not fearful but attuned to the love you have for us and for the world, and may we honor you in our thoughts and words this morning. Amen.
Genesis 2: 4b-25
In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches. The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. The name of the second river is Gihon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Cush. The name of the third river is Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.
The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’
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 each living creature, that was its name. The 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. So 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. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then 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.’
Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.
This is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
So, let’s start in the beginning – Genesis, the first book in the Bible. Though believed to have been composed by a single editor, there are three main sources that have been identified as the “author” of the Book of Genesis. The three sources are “J” which stands for the “Yawhist” and can be detected by the use of the name “Yahweh” or “Lord” in reference to God; “E” which stands for the “Elohist” and can be detected by the use of ‘Elohim’ in reference to God; and the third source is “P” or the “Priestly” writer, dated respectively to the ninth or tenth, the eighth, and the sixth centuries before Christ. As Joel Rosenburg says of the composition of the book, “These alleged sources are orchestrated so skillfully and meaningfully by a later editor that the book’s true literary magic arises not from the sources in their original state…but from their assemblage in a unified composition.” (HarperCollins).
The Book of Genesis has four movements. The first eleven chapters comprise the first movement and articulates the primordial history. The next movement is the Abrahamic cycle and the Jacob cycle comes next followed by the saga of Joseph and his brothers. Each movement describing, in progressive specificity, the events leading to the people of Israel. And, there is distinct symmetry in the stories told in Genesis. Take our text for example – Genesis 2 is the first of 2 chapters set in the Garden of Eden. It begins with a pronouncement of generations to come and at the conclusion of Genesis 3, the story culminates with the birth of the first child, completing the first generation of humanity. Like most expressions of literary symmetry in the book of Genesis, the plot pivots around human transgression – in this case, eating the apple in the garden. It is an eloquent compilation – rich in tradition and history and provides the basis for understanding the identity of Israel.
So, let’s focus in our text for this morning. The setting of the text is the Garden of Eden and the geography points to the allegorical nature of this story. The Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers are the only confirmed rivers of the four listed to be known to exist in the world and at the time of this writing, they flanked the known settled world. Havilah is sometimes identified with the Arabian peninsula and Cush in the Horn of Africa (HarperCollins). But, because of this description of the location of the Garden of Eden we begin to grasp the larger theme of this creation story. We begin to see how the story of creation is not necessarily instruction to us as to where and how the world began, but rather, we see how this story of creation describes a creative and powerful God at work in the world, who breathes life and a soul into the nostrils of the humanity.
In the book of Genesis, there are two stories of the creation. The first chapter focuses more on the creation of the world, of the sea and the sky, of the plants and the animals, of the human beings and on the seventh day, God rested. This story, in the second chapter, however, seems to be more from the perspective of the human. This is not an eye-witness account of the creation of the first human being, but it is the beginning of our relationship with God, our relationship with one another and the beginning of our journey as humanity. When the first human being is created, gender is not assigned – our NRSV translates the Hebrew word ‘adam’ as “man,” as in the generic term for humankind. An equally accepted translation of this first creature of our species as “human being.” God then planted a garden and placed the human being in the garden and entrusted the care of the garden to the human, outlining one rule – that the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil not be eaten. Then, realizing it was not good for the human to be alone, God created and brought all the animals before the “adam” or “human being” to be named and to be evaluated for partnership. When all of the animals were named and none sufficient to be an equal partner, God caused the human to fall into a deep sleep. A rib was plucked from the body of the human and out of it, God created another human being. And when the human being made from the rib of the first appeared to be named, in a sign of partnership the human being renamed himself “ish” which means “man” or “male” and “ishshah” which means “woman” or “female.” And, then we come to verse 24 which, in a closer and much rougher translation of the original Hebrew, we understand that, “he leaves from the father of him and the mother of him and clings to the woman of him and they become one flesh.”
So, we have two human beings – different and equal in keeping with the symmetry of night and day, land and water. Out of dust, God created man and a woman and breathes life into the nostrils of humanity, creating us for companionship, for partnership, to care for the earth and all that is in it. And, thus begins the story of the people of God.
In the Garden of Eden, all of life was brought together to represent God’s desire for abundant life, for peaceful existence. It represents God’s desire for us not to be lonely and cut-off and parched, but to be in relationship and the interconnectedness of God’s creation is a gift. Humans till the ground so plants may grow to produce food and nourishment. Animals nurture and provide fertilizer for the earth and food for humanity. Humans care for the animals and for the plants for and the earth and work together to do so. This interconnectedness, this equitable partnership and relationship for humanity, it is an image for which we strive. But, we are flawed people and it’s been many millennia since the Garden of Eden was inhabited by humans and we, like our ancestors, are made out of the dust and are susceptible to the temptation of either cutting others or ourselves off from the gift of relationship.
Our Mark text this morning is further evidence of God’s desire for us to be in partnership with one another. The divorce that Jesus speaks of in Mark is not just about legal marriage – it’s about broken relationship and creating divisions among one another. Divorce is a symbol of cutting off, of severing relationship, of loss of partnership. This is why Jesus speaks with harshness about divorce. To be clear, he was not talking about abusive relationships or the role that healing may bring through divorce. He knew that there were nuances and circumstances in which divorce was necessary – the mere existence of divorce indicates that to be true. He calls re-marrying adultery, because the act of re-marrying after divorce represents the notion that someone would be replaceable, or is unworthy of relationship. By referencing Genesis 2, Jesus helps us understand that each human being is worthy of connection, worthy of being relationship, worthy of engaging partnership – God created humans with the intent that we might recognize God’s own image within one another. Jesus reminds the Pharisees and us that we were created to be in relationship with one another, to care for one another and to not leave things unreconciled – regardless of marital status.
Even though we learn from Genesis 2 that it is in our nature, literally our God-given nature, to be in relationship with God and with one another, we have found a way to use this text for divisive and hurtful and judgmental purposes. Because as you know, some people use our texts this morning in support of marriage between one man and one woman at the exclusion of same sex marriage. Now, I want to say, right off the bat, that I am not here to make an argument for marriage equality. Worship is not the time and place to do that. Worship is a time when we gather together to listen for God’s Word and, in humility, become vulnerable to the Holy Spirit, deepening our faith in the loving and living Christ.
But I would encourage everyone reading Genesis 2 not to miss the forest for the trees. In opening ourselves to the fullness of what this text teaches us about God’s character and God’s desire for us, we are open to the blessed understanding that we all are created by God to be in relationship with one another and with God, to experience oneness with each other, to experience a sense of bonding, not bondage. Marriage, in this text, is a symbol of that oneness – of bringing together of two to make one. Putting our interpretive language aside, God created two human beings so that one would not be lonely. It wasn’t the gender that mattered. It wasn’t the race, religion, appearance or sexual orientation that mattered. We’ve added those layers on over time. The symbol and experience of oneness in relationship is what’s important.
Now, I won’t go into the myriad ways marriage has been defined, understood or practiced over the generations of the people of God, but suffice it to say, it has not remained stagnant. From the fathers of our faith to our experiences today, the definition and practices of marriage have changed and developed. The fathers of our faith, like Abraham, Caleb and Solomon, they had multiple wives and concubines galore. In Deuteronomy not only was a wife to be subordinate to her husband, but if she was not able to prove her virginity at the time of the marriage, she would be stoned to death. Centuries later, the Pharisees in the Gospel of Mark inquire with Jesus about a case study concerning a law of marriage which states that “if a woman’s husband dies and she hasn’t had a son, she must marry his brother and have intercourse with him until she has a son.” These were faithful people, trying to obey God’s will.
And we see faithful people today, disagreeing about marriage while trying to obey God’s will – you’ve heard all the arguments. There are parallel discourses taking place – the legal and the theological. The highest court in our land has found that same sex couples can enjoy the right to marriage just as heterosexual couples have enjoyed for generations under the law. In our own denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), we have codified that marriage is between two people, and all couples, gay and straight, should be blessed and upheld in their covenant with each other and with God. But, in our culture, the religious debate is volatile. Voices such as Kim Davis, the county clerk of Rowan County, Kentucky who refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples based on her understanding of “God’s authority” fills the headlines while responses to her fill Twitter and Facebook feeds. Some Christians cling to their belief that God defined marriage between one man and one woman, blind to the pain caused by their beliefs. Others revel in the judgment of Christians like Kim Davis and say, “I’m not that kind of Christian,” or hurl her past divorces in her face and call her a hypocrite, yet equally blind to the pain caused by their judgment.
Yet regardless of one’s understanding of “Biblical” marriage, the tension and discord infusing the debate is antithetical to what we learn of God’s creative, abundant love for us in Genesis 2. Regardless of what we believe about marriage, the Bible is not a weapon and should not be used to inflict pain and cause division. The Bible is a gift; It is our holy text; It is written by human hands that were inspired by the love of God; It is an articulation of the experience of God’s presence among God’s people throughout the generations; It is comforting at times and can be challenging and unsettling too but, it is not a weapon. And, if we turn to the Bible to reconcile our understanding of issues such as marriage, we must listen first, listen deeply and prayerfully, and orient ourselves as descendants from the Garden of Eden, created by God, each of us equal, each of us created to be in relationship with one another.
The Presbyterian Church’s Book of Order states that “Marriage is a gift God has given to all humankind for the well-being of the entire human family. Marriage involves a unique commitment between two people, traditionally a man and a woman, to love and support each other for the rest of their lives. The sacrificial love that unites the couple sustains them as faithful and responsible members of the church and the wider community” (W4.9001). And, what does Genesis 2 say about rules for marriage? Only that a human being is not meant to be alone and that partnership is good. Each of us is made of the same substance – we each are made of God and of one another – and we are all created to be in equal partnership with one another. We’re not meant to be in judges of one another or self-righteous in the face of one another either. We are created and called to delight in the creation and creativity of God and revel in the abundant love and forgiveness God has for all of God’s people. Amen.
Sermon preached at Western Presbyterian Church on Sept. 13, 2015.
Narrative Lectionary Year 2, Week 1