Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12
Prayer of the Day
Sovereign God, you have created us to live in loving community with one another. Form us for life that is faithful and steadfast, and teach us to trust like little children, that we may reflect the image of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Greetings everyone! As many of you know, I spent the last week out in the Red Rock Mountains of Arizona. In addition to getting in a lot of hiking, I managed to do a little star gazing. With the air as clear and dry as it almost always is in Sedona, it is possible to see more stars than you could shake a stick at. When one looks at “the moon and the stars which thou hast established” you have to ask along with the psalmist, “what is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou dost care for him?” The texts for this week all address this question in some shape or form. One thing is clear: to be human is to be related to other human beings, to all of creation and to God the Creator. When any one of these relationships go haywire, our very humanity is threatened. As the First Letter of John points out, when we claim to love God yet hate our sisters and brothers, we are deceiving ourselves. The one we hate is the very image of God. What we claim to worship as God is in fact an idol of our own imagining. Because we have forgotten that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,” we treat it as a bundle of resources we are free to exploit no matter what the consequences to the environment, to human and animal populations or to future generations. To be fully human is to be rightly related to God, to our neighbor and to the rest of creation.
There is an element of humor in this passage that is very much underappreciated. I think that is probably because we have a deeply ingrained sense that religion, faith and the Bible are serious matters. To laugh at something in the Bible seems almost sacrilegious. Often, though, the biblical authors are intending to be funny. They see humor as part and parcel of every relationship worth having, including our relationship with God. Here God observes the earth creature just formed from dust and concludes that “it is not good for this creature to be alone.” So God creates the animals to be companions for this creature. The creature finds the animals interesting and perhaps endearing-so much so that it gives them names. Still, none of them proves a suitable companion. It appears that God is unsure of what is needed here; that God is fumbling around, turning out ever new and exotic animals that somehow fail to meet the creature’s deepest need. Then, in a flash of insight, God suddenly “gets it.” The creature needs a companion of its own kind. “Finally!” says Adam as Eve appears on the scene. “That’s what I’m talking about!”
Note well that the name, “Adam” is not really a proper name. It means simply “taken from the ground,” or “earth creature.” We cannot call Adam a “man” in terms of gender because at this point there is no gender. Without the male/female polarity, the concept of gender is simply unintelligible. As Phyllis Trible, a prominent biblical scholar, has pointed out, the Hebrew word for “man” in the sense of a male human is not used in the Adam and Eve creation story until after the creation of Eve. Only then is Adam referred to as “ish” which means “male person” over against Eve who is “ishah” or “female person.” Consequently, the notion that the male human was created first and the female afterwards is erroneous. Both male and female came into existence when Eve was drawn from Adam.
This text has been cited frequently in the so called culture wars as a proof text for the definition of marriage as the union between a man and a woman. “Therefore, a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife and they become one flesh.” This, it is argued, constitutes the normative pattern established from the beginning. However, it seems to me that we need to read the text from the beginning rather than the end. And the lesson begins with God’s declaration that it is not good for Adam to be alone. God does not proceed with divine dispatch to the obvious (to us) conclusion, but experiments with the creation of other life forms to meet Adam’s need. But Adam’s loneliness is not merely “aloneness.” His longing is for an intimate relationship with one of his own kind. This longing cannot be satisfied by the companionship animals bring or even by his unique relationship to the Creator. The creation of male and female, then, was designed to alleviate that emptiness Adam experiences.
So this lesson is about more than just marriage. The primary concern from God’s standpoint is not the establishment of an institution, but rather the alleviation of Adam’s loneliness. Marriage is obviously not the cure all for loneliness. There are cold and loveless marriages in which one or both spouses find themselves desperately lonely. Conversely, there are unmarried individuals whose friendships, family and professional lives afford them a wealth of deep and lasting relationships in which they find comfort, support and much joy. This is yet one more reason why we should avoid getting hung up on the definition of marriage and hear what this scripture says about what makes us human: the deep and lasting relationships that meet our longing for intimacy and help define us as persons.
The question then, with respect to gay and lesbian persons, is this: “Is it good for them to be alone?” The text tells us that a man leaves his family and cleaves to his wife because it is not good to be alone. If that is the same reason for same sex relationships, namely, to find intimacy in a faithful union that overcomes loneliness, can we say categorically that such relationships are contrary to this scripture? Can the mutual commitment and self giving in marriage which for St. Paul reflects the love between Christ and his church likewise be found in same sex relationships? If so, what is to preclude recognizing them and celebrating them as marriages? It seems to me that we need to begin with the question presented to us by the scripture rather than the contentious and narrowly defined issues presented in the current political debate over the legal definition of marriage. Indeed, before we even begin talking about marriage, we need to have the more basic discussion over what makes human life “good.” We know that our being alone is not good. So how do our relationships enable us to overcome our loneliness and grow in our humanity? In what ways do our relationships hinder such growth, foster loneliness and frustrate our human development? In what way do societal expectations, class distinctions and cultural differences affect our ability to build friendships, cooperation and trust? St. Paul teaches us that in Christ, distinctions of race, class and national origin cease to be barriers and instead become doors to deeper community and oneness. Is that happening in our church? Is it reflected in our mission and ministry?
This beautiful hymn glorifying God is bracketed by a refrain at its beginning and end that says it all: “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth.” This hymn recognizes both the glory of God under which all created things pal in significance. Yet it is this very glory that dignifies and gives meaning to creation generally and to human beings in particular. Small as we are, God does take note of us. More than that, God has given to us human beings the unique task of ruling over creation and having “dominion” over every living thing.
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
4 what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals* that you care for them?
5Yet you have made them a little lower than God,*
and crowned them with glory and honor.
6 You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
7 all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
8 the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
It is important to understand what is meant by “dominion.” Note that the dominion we are given is over the works of God’s hands. God is still the rightful owner of all things over which we have dominion. We are stewards, not owners. To get an idea of what that means we need to return to Genesis 2:15 which regrettably was not included in our reading for Sunday. The verse reads: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” From the dawn of creation it has been the role of human beings to “till and to keep” God’s garden. This means, of course, that we are not free to make whatever use we will of everything under our dominion. Being made in God’s image means that we human beings have a unique capacity to create. We have the ability to altar the face of the earth in ways that no other creature can. This ability enables us both to enhance the beauty, habitability and productivity of our planet and to wreak catastrophic destruction on it.
Proper human dominion is a pressing issue for us today as the earth’s human population grows and consumes the earth’s resources at an unsustainable rate. A recent United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) report says that if the world continues using its resources at current rates, humanity will be getting through some 140 billion tons of minerals, ores, fossil fuels and biomass annually by the year 2050. The report described this as “three times its current appetite,” and an “unsustainable” rate of extraction. http://www.dw.de/dw/article/0,,15065771,00.html This sorry state has evolved from our viewing the earth as a ball of resources divided and owned by nation states each claiming sovereign control over those resources within its borders and/or owned throughout the world. Faithful dominion requires a different vision that begins with the acknowledgement that the earth belongs first and foremost to God. Our use of its resources cannot be guided by a desire to perpetuate a way of life that ruthlessly exploits and carelessly consumes with no thought for the health of the world’s ecosystems, the suffering inflicted on our fellow human beings throughout the planet or the welfare of generations to come. Proper dominion over the earth means learning to stop being consumers and to begin living as contributors. That, of course, will affect the homes we live in, the cars we drive (if any) and the way we eat. It will change a host of other daily habits that injure the environment, foster inequality and threaten peace. The psalm does not give us any concrete guidance in implementing these changes, but it does suggest to us that the potential for a better world is within our reach-when we finally learn to let God be God, let go of our desire to possess our planet and recognize it as God’s garden to be tended and cared for.
Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12 http://www.workingpreacher.org/bible_passage.aspx?reading_id=1369&cmpgn=5244
Let’s begin with a word about Hebrews. This is an anonymous letter written in the latter half of the first century, probably between 80-90 A.D. In the past, and to some extent today also, Hebrews has been viewed by biblical scholars as a comparison of Christianity to Judaism. The intent, they maintain, is to demonstrate the superiority of Christianity. I don’t buy that. It seems to me that both Judaism and the church faced a common catastrophe, namely, the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D. Obviously, the Temple was central to Judaism. There are indications that it was likewise important for New Testament church. Jesus cleansed the Temple and taught in the Temple. According to Acts, the post resurrection church gathered in the courts of the Temple. The early church, being primarily Jewish, continued to worship in the Temple with fellow Jews. The destruction of that Temple was widely believed in both Christian and Jewish circles to signal the end of the age and the coming of God’s kingdom. That obviously did not happen. So both Judaism and the church were faced with understanding their existences without the Temple. For Judaism, the fulcrum of faith and life became the Torah and the worship of God it inspired in the Synagogue. For the church, Jesus Christ was the Temple of God, the locus of God’s presence. In my view, Hebrews is not an effort to demonstrate the superiority of Christianity over Judaism, but rather an attempt to demonstrate that the messianic mission of Jesus was not refuted by the destruction of the Temple, but rather lives on through the church which continues to embody that faithful mission.
The passage for this Sunday reminds us that disciples of Jesus are not a people of the book. “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son…” Hebrews 1:1-2. We are disciples of Jesus Christ whose ministry of healing, forgiveness and reconciliation continue in his resurrected Body, the church. Of course, the Bible is critical to us because it constitutes the normative witness to God’s saving act in Jesus Christ. The Bible is not, however, an end in itself. We read it seeking Jesus. We interpret it through Jesus. Jesus is the Word of God made flesh. We can call the Bible God’s word because it points us to Jesus.
“We do not yet see everything in subjection to [Christ].” That is true today as then. It does not appear that Jesus reigns. Yet contrary to all appearances, we confess that he does. More than that, we live under the belief that he does. For if Christ is not Lord of heaven and earth, the Sermon on the Mount makes no sense. It is not practical to turn the other cheek in the face of aggression. It is not practical to give to people who beg from you. It is not practical to love an enemy that is trying to kill you. At least none of this is practical in a world run by the principalities, the rulers and the assumptions of this age. But disciples of Jesus maintain that Caesar is not Lord. Nor is the invisible hand of the market nor is dialectical materialism nor is any nation state. Jesus is Lord and the day will come when every knee will bow and tongue so confess. Therefore, we throw in our lot with the one we know to be victorious even if that means we will have to take some lumps from those who have not figured that out yet. We take the long view. The Kingdom of God is coming and so we gather as Christ’s Body animated by the Spirit of God so that we can be transformed into the kind of people capable of living in such a kingdom.
This passage and the way the church has interpreted it in the past is responsible for a lot of pain inflicted on a lot of people. I can still recall the days when our churches would not perform second marriages on the basis of this passage. I have heard a number of heartbreaking stories about woman who have been counseled to remain with their abusive husbands so as not to “put asunder” what “God has joined together.” So I think it is critical that we get this scripture right.
First, note that Jesus does not dispute the law of Moses in this regard. Divorce is permitted under the terms of the law. Jesus goes on to point out, however, that Moses wrote this commandment “for your hardness of heart.” Marriage was designed to be a life-long commitment. Because “it is not good” for a person to be alone, dissolution of a marriage is contrary to its purpose. Yet because our hearts are hard, many of God’s good gifts to us are ruined. Marriage is one of them. It is important to emphasize here that the “hardness of heart” necessitating divorce is not found solely or even primarily within the divorcing couple. Due to our ever increasingly mobile society, many young married couples begin their lives together and raise their families in neighborhoods far from where they grew up and where their families reside. They lack the family support and encouragement that is often so helpful in building up and supporting a marriage. Demand upon professionals to work long hours takes a toll on marriage. Loss of employment, financial stress and illness of a spouse can test even the strongest marriages. I speak from experience when I say that marriage is too big a job for couples to manage on their own. I am thankful that Sesle and I have enjoyed the support of Sesle’s parents who served as a “second set of parents” for our children when they were small. We never had to worry about babysitting or day care. I am thankful for a vibrant community of faith that stood by me during times of illness in my family. I am likewise indebted to a supportive employer who was flexible enough to give me the time I needed to care for my family in periods of crisis. This week I will celebrate 29 years of marriage-but not with any sense of pride or accomplishment. I know only too well that I owe my successful marriage to a host of partners who stood by me and Sesle in time of need. I also know that there are better people than me whose marriages have broken under the strain of the factors discussed above.
In sum, there are many guilty parties in every divorce, such as uncaring and unflexible employers, unsupportive faith communities, distant and disinterested neighbors and corporate business entities that put profits before the stability of communities and the welfare of their workers. So also, behind every successful marriage there usually are a host of supporting angels that have been present at critical times to encourage faithfulness and endurance. Most significantly, the sins involved with the breakup of a marriage are no different from any other sin. They are covered by God’s mercy and forgiveness. Just as God raised Jesus from death, so also God can bring new life and love out of the ruins of a failed marriage.