Tag Archives: Adam and Eve

Sunday, October 4th

NINETEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Genesis 2:18-24
Psalm 8
Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12
Mark 10:2-16

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.

This Sunday we recognize Francis. No, not the Pope, but the Saint of Assisi from whom the Pope took his name. What we know of Francis has been preserved for us by Friar Thomas of Celano who, at the commission of Pope Gregory IX, composed the First Life of Francis of Assisi. We know from this source that Francis was the son of a wealthy merchant. In his younger years, Francis lived a dissolute life. In his late teens he became a soldier and, on his way to fight for his home city of Assisi, he had a vision that directed him back home. Francis soon became disenchanted with the high life and began devoting himself to prayer. Sent by his father to sell off some of his inventory in a neighboring city, Francis tried to donate the proceeds of the sale to a poor priest at a ruined sanctuary. The priest, suspicious of Francis’ motives, refused to accept the gift. Thereupon, Francis simply disposed of the money. Needless to say, his father was displeased. When he threatened to disinherit his son, Francis beat him to the punch. He returned all that his father had given him including the cloths he was wearing and set out “to preach repentance to all, edifying his hearers with simple words but largeness of heart.” Celano, Thomas of, Frist Life of Francis of Assisi, published in Readings in World Christian History, Vol. 1, (c. 2004 by John W. Coakley and Andrea Sterk; pub. by Obis Books) p. 355.

In accord with Catholic teaching, Francis preached that the world was created good and beautiful by God but stands in need of redemption because of human sin. He preached to human beings and animals the duty of all creatures to praise God and the duty of human beings to protect and enjoy nature as both the stewards of God’s creation and as creatures themselves. To Francis, all animals as well as the forces of nature were fellow creatures that he frequently personified. His sense of kinship with all creation is best illustrated in the Canticle of the Sun attributed to him. The Canticle bears a striking similarity to our psalm for this Sunday.

Saint Francis was a man of peace. He bravely travelled across enemy lines to meet with the Sultan of Egypt in an effort to bring an end to the bloodshed between Christians and Muslims stretching over five church sanctioned crusades. Though Francis was unsuccessful both in converting the Sultan to Christianity and in bringing hostilities to an end, the Sultan was favorably impressed with his courage, humility and sincere faith. He is said to have remarked that he might consider becoming a Christian if all Christians were like Francis.

Poverty was a way of life for Saint Francis. While he certainly did not glorify poverty resulting from greed and injustice, Francis believed that contentment came from getting along with as little as possible and on what is strictly necessary. He believed that people should live as producers contributing to the welfare of creation rather than consumers exploiting the earth. Francis and his followers took literally Jesus’ admonition that the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. They sheltered where they could, accepted such hospitality as was offered and slept under the open sky when no other options were available. They begged unashamedly and shared without reservation. Throughout his life Francis founded three orders: the men’s Order of Friars Minor, the women’s Order of St. Clare, and the Third Order for men and women not able to live the lives of itinerant preachers

There is much about Francis that is legendary. It is almost certain that he did not compose the “Prayer of Saint Francis” popularly attributed to him. His association with animals, though real, has been greatly exaggerated and sentimentalized. Biographical details about his life are intertwined with tales of the miraculous and fantastic. Yet these legends serve only to demonstrate the power of Francis’ teaching and example that have endured for eight centuries.

Into this violent culture of ours that knows no solution to evil other than brute force, no good other than consumption, and no world other than a soulless ball of resources waiting for the strongest and most ruthless to possess it; the gentle witness of Saint Francis drifts across our ruined landscape like a breath of fresh air.

Genesis 2:18-24

This familiar story comes to us at the conclusion of the second creation narrative in Genesis (the first being Genesis 1:1-2:3). It is part of the biblical overture constituting the first eleven chapters of the book and setting the stage for the opening curtain that will occur in Genesis 12 where God calls Abram to leave his homeland of Haran and journey to the promised land of Canaan. Genesis 12:1-3. These chapters tell the story of a God who creates a good world filled with all that is required for human beings to live well and flourish. The goodness and well-being of creation is constantly threatened by human rebellion and violence. In each episode the judgment and grace of God intervene to counteract the destructive conduct of God’s human creatures. At the conclusion of the eleventh chapter, we find an earth cursed by human sin, divided by language and immersed in idolatry. Yet just as creation seems to be caught in the death spiral of curse, God calls Abram to become a nation of blessing. That nation, of course, is Israel. “It is imperative,” says one commentator, “to begin reading Exodus, indeed the entire Old Testament, with Genesis as the point of departure.” Fretheim, Terence E., “Reclamation of Creation: Redemption and Law in Exodus,” Interpretation, Vol. 45, No. 2, (October 1991). Of course, the converse is also true: we cannot read Genesis without understanding it as the prelude to Israel’s story. It is important, therefore, to keep in mind this biblical context as we consider today’s lesson about the formation of man and woman. We are being prepared for the saga of Israel.

The biggest difficulty we have with texts like this is the baggage they have picked up from having been dragged through the culture wars. Creationists have insisted that this story must be taken as the literal and sole explanation for the origin of human life on earth. Clearly, the cosmological, geological, historical and biological evidence do not support the formation of human beings separately from the rest of the animal world or their sexual differentiation at a later state of human development. Nor does the harmonious, non-predatory nature of life in the Garden of Eden appear to be sustainable in the world as we know it. Consequently, insistence on a literal interpretation of the biblical creation stories requires wholesale rejection of scientific knowledge and theory that is growing stronger by the day. Creationists are up for that fight and more than ready to re-litigate the Scopes Monkey Trial. A good example of their determination to re-write the geological, biological, cosmological record is the multi-million dollar Creation Science Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky.

This story has also been cited frequently 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.” Vs. 24. This, it is argued, constitutes the normative pattern established from the beginning. But that interpretation seems to place the cart before the horse. In fact, God says nothing about the institution of marriage or anything else. Rather, the story teller reflects on the experience of human beings and their relationships in light of the creation of man and woman. The point seems to be that the attraction drawing a woman and man together finally proves stronger than the parental and sibling ties in which they were raised. This yearning for intimacy, of which sexual expression is one but by no means the only aspect, is naturally disruptive to existing family structures. Yet it is woven into the fabric of God’s good creation and therefore good in itself.

It seems to me, then, that we need to read the text from the beginning rather than the end. 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.

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 (“ish”) 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.

It should be clear that the primary concern from God’s standpoint is not the establishment of an institution, but rather the alleviation of Adam’s loneliness. If we begin reading this text from the standpoint of God’s concern for human companionship rather than our own concerns about how marriage ought to be defined, I believe that we are lead to some very different ways of looking at issues like same sex relationships, transgendered persons and our treatment of human sexuality generally. God would save his creatures from loneliness. God desires companionship and intimacy for his creatures. Marriage (which is not mentioned at all in the text) is designed to protect such intimacy within a covenant of mutual faithfulness. Any definition of marriage that is used to deny this good aspect of human existence to others cannot be harmonized with our lesson.

Finally, a word or two about marriage. Marriage is obviously not the cure all for loneliness. It is only as good as the creatures entering into it. Because we are all flawed and broken creatures, our marriages are also flawed and broken. There are cold and loveless marriages in which one or both spouses find themselves desperately lonely. Conversely, there are unmarried, single individuals whose friendships, family and professional lives afford them a wealth of deep and lasting relationships where 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.

Psalm 8

The superscription to this psalm reads: “To the choirmaster: according to The Gittith. A Psalm of David.” Introductions like these which preface many of the psalms are routinely ignored in our liturgical usage and barely acknowledged by commentators. This is due in large part to the fact that their meanings are obscure. The meaning of the term “Gittith” is lost to us, though most commentators agree that it is most likely a reference to the musical score accompanying the psalm. The Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) associates the term Gittith with the Hebrew term “gat” meaning “winepress.” Accordingly, it interprets the title as “song of the winepress.” Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 by S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 140. Most of us would be tempted to dismiss all of this as another textual prejinkerty of interest only to textual scholars. But Saint Augustine took this title extremely seriously and made it the touchstone for his exposition of the whole psalm. Exposition on the Book of Psalms, The Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Vol. 8 (c. 1979 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) pp. 27-32. Interpreting the “winepress” as a metaphor for the Church, he plumbs the depths of the psalm for deeper understanding of sanctification, discipleship and martyrdom. We might quibble with Augustine’s allegorical method, but his instincts were correct. In the final analysis, disciples of Jesus read the Bible, both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, through their faith in the crucified and resurrected Lord.

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.” Vss. 1 and 9. This psalm recognizes 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. Vss. 1-2. Small as we are, God does take note of us. Vs. 4. More than that, God has given to us human beings the unique task of ruling over creation and having “dominion” over every living thing. 6.

It is important to understand what is meant by “dominion.” 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 (“Adam,” not “ish”) 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 alter 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 alarming rate. A recent United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) report says that if the world continues using its resources at current rates, humanity will be using up 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. This sorry state has evolved from our viewing the earth as a ball of resources owned by nation states, each claiming sovereign control over resources within its borders and/or owned throughout the world. As Pope Francis warned us during his visit to our country last week, “A selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity leads both to the misuse of available natural resources and to the exclusion of the weak and disadvantaged.” See WSJ Market Watch, September 25, 2015.

Faithful dominion requires a different vision beginning 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

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 C.E. It was not fully acknowledged as part of the New Testament cannon until 405 C.E. 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. Mauch, T.M., “Letter to the Hebrews,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol.2 (c. 1962 by Abingdon Press) p. 573.

I don’t buy that. It seems to me that both Judaism and the church were facing a common catastrophe at the end of the First Century, namely, the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 C.E. Obviously, the Temple was central to Judaism. There are indications that it was likewise important for the New Testament church. Jesus cleansed the Temple and taught in the Temple. According to the Book of 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. It was widely believed, in both Christian and Jewish circles, that the destruction of that Temple signaled the end of the age and the coming of God’s kingdom. That obviously did not happen. So both Judaism and the church were left with the task of interpreting their respective 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. It is instead a theological argument demonstrating that the messianic mission of Jesus is not refuted by the failure of certain eschatological expectations following the destruction of the Temple. To the contrary, Jesus’ redemptive mission continues and is embodied in the church.

The passage for this Sunday from the opening of the book consists of rhetorical artistry surpassing “any other portion of the New Testament” according to one commentator. Norden, Eduard Agnostos Theos: Untersuchungen zur Formengeschichte religioser Rede (Stuttgart: Teubner, 1913; reprinted Darmstadt: Vissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1971) p. 386 cited in Attridge, Harold W., The Epistle to the Hebrews, Hermeneia-A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (c. 1989 by Fortress Press) p. 36. The implicit christological pattern of pre-existence, incarnation, death and exultation are reminiscent of the incarnational hymn at the beginning of John’s gospel. (John 1:1-18).

“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. This passage reminds us that we are not a people of the book. 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 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.

As can be seen, the lectionary folk have again taken their scalpels to our reading, omitting Hebrews 1:5-2:4. These verses cite Psalm 2:7; II Samuel 7:14; Deuteronomy 32:43; Psalm 97:7; Psalm 104:4; Psalm 45:6-7; Psalm 102:25-27 in further support of the author’s assertion in vs. 1:4 that Jesus has become “as much superior to angels as the name he has obtained is more excellent than theirs.” More than any other New Testament book, Hebrews weaves the Hebrew Scriptures into every line of its argument. These references are not “proof texts” in the sense that they demonstrate and substantiate Jesus’ status as God’s Son. Jesus’ Sonship is grasped by faith and assumed from the get go. The author of Hebrews employs these scriptural citations not to prove, but to illustrate, deepen and explicate the meaning of Jesus as God’s Son and our true high priest with a rich variety of biblical images.

Our reading picks up again in chapter 2 at verse 5 with a quotation from our psalm. As you recall, the psalmist wonders at the status of the human creature: mortal and perishable unlike angels, yet in intellect and power unlike any other animal. The author of Hebrews uses this paradoxical position of the human creature to speak of Jesus’ status as God’s son. As a human person, Jesus shares fully in our own creaturely nature. Yet at the same time, he is exalted as God’s Son who “tastes death” for everyone. Vs. 2:9.

The reading ends with a citation from Psalm 22: “I will proclaim thy name to my brethren, in the midst of the congregation I will praise thee.” Psalm 22:22. It should not be lost on us that this is the psalm beginning with Jesus’ words from the cross: “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Psalm 22:1. This psalm which begins with a cry of dereliction and concludes with a hymn of praise not only draws the reader’s attention to Jesus’ crucifixion, but also provides the perfect scriptural paradigm for Jesus’ journey from suffering to exaltation. If we are going to understand fully the testimony of this wonderful epistle, we must pay careful attention to its use of the Hebrew Scriptures.

“We do not yet see everything in subjection to [Christ].” Vs. 2:8. 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 yet figured that out. 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.

Mark 10:2-16

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 from woman who have been counseled to remain with their abusive husbands so as not to “put asunder” what “God has joined together.” So if we are to continue reading this scripture in our worship services and preaching on it, it is critical that we get it right.

To begin with, we need to acknowledge that what we call marriage has undergone significant changes throughout the ages. Marriage in the time of Jesus is not what it was in the days of the Patriarchs or during the reign of David over Israel. Marriage today is different from what it was in the time of Jesus and, for that matter, different from what it was only a century ago when women in our country could not vote, enter into contracts or, in many instances, own land. Women in Jesus’ day were regarded as the property of men. Adultery was not a crime committed between a man and a woman. It was a crime committed by one man against another man. It was a crime committed by a woman against her husband. Notice how the question is put to Jesus: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” vs. 2. A woman could no more divorce her husband than a cow could rescind her owner’s bill of sale.

So this is not an issue of sexual morality. It is a question of justice and compassion for women. A divorced woman loses her home, her source of sustenance and her livelihood. She can only hope that her father will take her back into his home or that someone needs a servant or a day laborer. Divorce as it was practiced in Jesus’ day laid a disproportionately heavy burden on women. This was, in every sense of the word, a man’s world-but not according to Jesus. For Jesus, women were as much children of God and called as much to discipleship as men. Jesus will not have them treated as cattle that can be disposed of arbitrarily.

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.” Vs. 5. 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 strengthening 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 am thankful for a vibrant community of faith that stood by me during times of illness, economic instability and stress 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 32 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 my wife 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.

Sunday, June 7th

SECOND SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Genesis 3:8-15
Psalm 130
2 Corinthians 4:13—5:1
Mark 3:20-35

PRAYER OF THE DAY: All-powerful God, in Jesus Christ you turned death into life and defeat into victory. Increase our faith and trust in him, that we may triumph over all evil in the strength of the same Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

These are tough times for the Duggar family. For those of you who might not be in the know, Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, along with their nineteen children, are stars of the TLC network reality show, “Nineteen Kids and Counting.” The show focuses on the life of the Duggar family. Devout Independent Baptists, the Duggars have home schooled all of their children and limit their access to movies, television and gaming. They frequently discusses values of purity, modesty, and family. The Duggars reject all forms of birth control claiming that God alone should determine the number of children they have. They practice “chaperoned courtship,” monitoring the dating relationships of their children. The expectation is that physical expressions of affection, even hand holding, are to be avoided until engagement. Kissing and sexual conduct are to be foregone until marriage. The Duggars promote and practice family structure based on male hierarchy and female submission to male authority.

TLC portrayed the Duggars as the model of everything a wholesome Christian family ought to be. At its peak, Nineteen Kids and Counting averaged 2.3 million viewers. But this image began to crumble two weeks ago after a police report from 2006 surfaced showing that sexual molestation allegations had been made against the Duggars’ eldest son, Josh Duggar. According to the report, Josh, who was then fourteen or fifteen years old, molested five young girls, four of which were his own sisters. TLC promptly suspended the series.

I feel sorry for the Duggars. No parent should have to go through what they did with their son Josh. Certainly no little girl should have to endure molestation. Obviously, Josh has serious problems that need to be addressed, not only for his sake, but chiefly for the sake of all children with whom he might someday come into contact. This is a family deeply in need of prayer, care and support. That they happen to be celebrities does not make them any less human. I wish them only God’s comfort and healing presence.

That said, it sticks in my craw that for nearly a decade the Duggars, with the help of their TLC handlers, represented themselves as the paradigm of Christian family wholesomeness and virtue when they knew full well that incest and sexual abuse had been occurring under their own roof. I find it repulsive that Josh had the moxie to accept a leading position at the Family Research Council, a right wing parachurch organization that seems to conduct little research but lobbies and promotes extensively “family values” which, however defined, I am sure does not include incestuous predatory behavior by teenagers against their younger siblings. Be aware that Josh’s criminal conduct was brought to light in 2006, a good two years before the Duggar family took to the airwaves in order to help “others to see that the Bible is the owner’s manual for life.” Thus, for the better part of a decade the Duggars have been perpetrating a lie on the public. For that they ought to be ashamed.

Though I would not describe the Bible as a “manual for life,” it is (unlike the Duggars) brutally honest about the realities of family life. Our lesson from Genesis tells us that the first recorded marriage in the Bible is seeded with mutual blame, dishonesty and struggle for dominance. The next generation brought with it the first recorded murder-a fratricide. Biblical families are rife with incest, sexual abuse, violence and betrayal. According to our gospel lesson for this Sunday, even the “holy family” seems to have been a bit dysfunctional. Nevertheless, these same dysfunctional families are the arena for love, faithfulness, reconciliation and promise. Despite their brokenness, God finds ways to work redemptively through families to bring healing and peace.

Parents Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar write in their official response to the recent revelations about Josh, “We pray that as people watch our lives they see that we are not a perfect family. We have challenges and struggles everyday.” Well Jim Bob and Michelle, though I wish you had said this eight years ago, I am glad to hear you say it now. I hope you mean it. I hope that the brokenness in your own family moves you to look with greater empathy, understanding and acceptance for all of the other broken families in our country, especially the ones that look different than your own. I hope you can now see single parent families, families of same sex couples, even white bread families like my own that don’t adhere to your standards of behavior as arenas for God’s redemptive work. I hope that you will come to see that all families, whatever their makeup, share common needs, yearnings and dreams. Perhaps one day we can both sit at the same table and discuss how together we can strengthen our families by ensuring a living minimum wage for all workers, stable communities based on an economy driven by human need rather than corporate greed, and access to affordable health care-especially for our children. Perhaps, too, we can share insights into how we read the scriptures for wisdom and guidance in our parenting. Your experience has demonstrated that you do not have all the answers for what ails our family life. There is no shame in that. None of the rest of us have answers either. But working together in humility, mutual acceptance and trust in our God, we can build a healthier environment in which some of those answers might emerge.

Genesis 3:8-15

To get the full impact of this encounter between God and God’s human creatures, we need to go back a chapter to where God, determining that it is “not good” for the “Adam” (“earth creature”) to be alone, draws from Adam a partner. Here for the first time Adam is referred to as “man” or “ish” in contrast to the “isha” or woman. Significantly, they are at this time both naked and unashamed of their nakedness. Genesis 2:25. We are told that the serpent was more cunning than all the other creatures God had made. Genesis 3:1. There is a clever play on words here that gets lost in translation. The Hebrew words for “naked” and “cunning” are “arumim” and “arum” respectively. Thus, the knowledge offered through the cunning (arum) of the serpent manifests itself first by revealing to Adam and Eve that they are naked (arumim). Genesis 3:7.

Our understanding of this text is clouded by our cultural association of nudity with sexual immorality. The eye opening shock experienced by Adam and Eve had less to do with sex and more to do with the sheer terror of exposure, a terror that could not exist if all indeed were clearly exposed. But I suspect that Adam is even now concocting his plan to throw Eve under the bus when confronted by God over the matter of the forbidden tree. Eve, too, is formulating her defense and would prefer to keep that strategy to herself. This new “knowledge” Adam and Eve have obtained discloses in a poignant way how little they can know of each other, which is truly terrifying given their growing lack of trust.

What we see in this story is a reflection of relationships in general as well as of marriages in particular. “There are no secrets between us,” I often here couples say. But of course that is never the case. I doubt most couples share between them all of their fantasies and daydreams. Most of us have experiences in our past we prefer to keep secret. We tell small, inconsequential lies to one another in order to bring comfort or avoid hurt. So too with less intimate relationships. We weigh how much to share with any given friend, keeping back those things we think might cause him/her to think less of us. In social settings we steer conversation away from topics that we think might give rise to argument, awkwardness or embarrassment. We develop “filters” to prevent us from speaking all that is on our mind because we know how destructive that can be to our relationships.

The portrayal of God in this story is quite remarkable. God comes not as the unbearable presence atop the fiery mountain in Sinai, nor as the overwhelming presence enthroned in the heavens we met in last week’s lesson from Isaiah. God comes strolling onto the scene enjoying the evening breeze just as any one of us might do in the cool of the evening. Adam and Eve are nowhere to be seen. Vs. 8. God must call them out of hiding. Vs. 9. God interrogates his creatures on their odd behavior. “Why ever would you hide from me?” Vs. 10. Of course, God knows what is wrong. God’s creatures now have secrets from God (or so they think). They don’t want to be naked in front of God anymore than they want to be naked before each other. There can be but one explanation for their unusual conduct: “Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” vs. 11.

Now it is clear that the humans cannot hide their nakedness any longer-at least not from God. Rather than giving God a straightforward “yes” to the inquiry about the tree, Adam moves immediately to his defense. “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” Vs. 12. The woman explains, “The serpent [whom you made and put in the garden] tricked me, and I ate.” Vs. 13. If the serpent had an excuse, we don’t get a chance to hear it. God evidently feels he has taken enough evidence to enter judgment on this case.

Judgment is first pronounced upon the serpent. Henceforth, the serpent will be cursed even within the animal world, doomed to crawl on its belly eating dust for the rest of its days. Vs. 14. Furthermore, there will be enmity between the serpent and humanity that will continue throughout the generations to come. Vs. 15. In my opinion, we read too much into this text when we construe the “crushing” of the serpent’s head in this verse as the victory of Christ over Satan. The serpent is not a demonic figure in this narrative. It is one of God’s good creations. Though “cunning,” it is not inherently evil. Yet its presence in the garden and the role it plays in this story tells us that there is an element of randomness in God’s good creation. God made a world loaded with potential for good, but the potential for tragic and unintended consequences exists as well.

Perhaps the greatest difficulty I have found in preaching this text is the baggage it has accumulated over the last century in the still active campaign of “creationists” to defend their interpretation of this text as an historical, geological, astronomical and biological account of origins in the face of all we have learned from the sciences. Even our own theological language characterizing this story as “the Fall” mischaracterizes the narrative truth. This is not the story of a pristine beginning spoiled by a stolen apple. When the text is read in that way, we are left with a host of imponderables. Who is the serpent? Where did he come from? Why did God put him in the garden to begin with? It does not help to identify the serpent with the devil. That only kicks the metaphysical can further out into the cosmos. For now we must ask where the devil came from.

This creation story is best understood as descriptive of what now is rather than an explanation for why it is. To the extent that there is a “why” lurking in the narrative, it consists only in acknowledging that God creates a world filled with creatures loaded with potential. Human inquisitiveness, cunning essential to survival, knowledge that is both promising and dangerous are all woven into the fabric of creation. The creation of the “earth creature” or what we might call the emergence of self-consciousness and differentiation from the animal world is a good development, enabling the human to serve as God’s steward and gardener for the earth. Yet this same development brings with it the temptation to exploit, dominate and control. In a sense, each generation is Adam and Eve. We are born into a world with certain givens. There is inherent randomness. We inherit a history of violence, injustice and cruelty that continues to make itself felt. It is in this sense that we can speak of what is often (and inaptly) called “original sin.” Yet there are endless opportunities also for enacting compassion, justice and peace.

If you were to read further in the chapter, you would discover that judgment is not the last word in this story. Though the consequences of their transgression are not reversible, God nevertheless sends Adam and Eve from the garden with clothing made by God’s own hand, covering the nakedness that so terrifies them. Genesis 3:21. God has not given up on the human creatures. There is more to this story which is only beginning to unfold.

Psalm 130

This psalm is one of seven “penitential psalms” (the others being Psalm 6; Psalm 32; Psalm 38; Psalm 51; Psalm 102; and Psalm 143) so named by Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator, a statesman, writer and scholar of the sixth century. It is characterized by Hebrew Scripture scholars as a “lament” containing all of the essential elements of its type:

  1. Initial Appeal to Yahweh, vss. 1-2.
  2. Portrayal of inward distress, vss. 3-4
  3. Expression of confidence, vss. 5-6
  4. Witness of praise to the community, vss. 7-8.

See Anderson, Bernard W., Out of the Depths, The Psalms Speak for us Today, (c. 1983 by Bernard W. Anderson, pub. by The Westminster Press) p. 97. The Hebrew word “mimmaamkym” “From out of the depths” is a term that is equated with “sheol” or the abode of the dead. For the Israelite there was no “after life.” The concept of resurrection from death came only much later in Israel’s thinking. Consequently, death was the end of any meaningful life. To be in sheol was to be separated from the realm of life and therefore from the Lord of Life. There is no praise of Israel’s God in sheol. Consequently, the psalmist must have been in very deep distress, though we cannot tell what his or her specific complaints were.

According to Anderson, supra, the “word ‘depths’ [mimmaamkym] reverberates with mythical overtones of the abyss of watery chaos, the realm of the powers of confusion, darkness and death that are arrayed against the sovereign power of God.” Ibid. Perhaps, but the point seems to be that the psalmist feels as utterly distant from God who is “enthroned upon the cherubim” (Psalm 99:1) as any creature can be. This distance is due, in part at least, to the psalmist’s sin. Though clearly in some sort of deep trouble, the psalmist knows that s/he is in no position to claim God’s help and salvation. Nevertheless, the psalmist is able to “hope in the Lord” and encourages all Israel to do the same because, “there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared.” Vs. 4. It is worth repeating here that the New Testament did not invent forgiveness. God has always been and always will be forgiving toward his people Israel and toward his people engrafted into the covenant with Israel through baptism into Jesus Christ. If that were not the case, if God did in fact “mark iniquities” (vs. 3), there would be no point in prayers such as this.

The psalmist is resolved to “wait for the Lord.” Vs. 5. S/he knows that answers to prayer are not instantaneous. Prayer requires a willingness to wait and watch for the answer. Jesus also told his disciples “Ask, and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” Matthew 7:7-8. Thus, asking is only the beginning. One must then seek the answer and be willing to knock on what appears to be a closed door.

“My soul waits for the Lord more than the watchmen for the morning.” Vs. 6. This is a striking image. In Jerusalem, watchmen took their post after sunset to keep a look out for approaching enemies. They were the ancient world’s equivalent of early warning systems. It was a tedious job on a long winter’s night and one can well imagine the watchman, who had no clock or wrist watch, scrutinizing the horizon for signs of the sunrise signaling that his lonely vigil was finally coming to an end.

In verses 7-8 the focus changes from the psalmist’s personal prayer to an admonition directed to all Israel to hope in the Lord. As we saw in Psalm 51, Israel frequently took ancient prayers of individuals and adapted them for use in public worship as prayers for the whole people. In this case, an Israelite who lived after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem may well have found in this individual’s plea for personal help a reflection of Israel’s post exilic distress. Having lost the line of David, the Temple, and her land, Israel was likewise “crying out from the depths.” Like the individual, Israel turned to the Word of the Lord and God’s promises for comfort and hope, knowing that with her God was forgiveness. Vs. 4.

2 Corinthians 4:13—5:1

For a brief but thorough introduction to Paul’s Second Letter to the Church in Corinth, see the Summary Article by Mary Hinkle Shore, Associate Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. In short, Paul’s relationship with the church at Corinth deteriorated significantly between the writing of I Corinthians and II Corinthians. It appears that there were some individuals or groups within the church at Corinth that were challenging Paul’s apostolic authority, undermining his leadership and questioning his fitness as a preacher. Following his first letter, Paul made what he describes as a “painful visit” to the church. II Corinthians 2:1. This visit did not accomplish whatever it was he had intended. Not wanting to make another such visit, Paul wrote a “severe letter” to the church in Corinth out of “much affliction and anguish of heart.” II Corinthians 2:4. Though we cannot be certain, many commentators believe that at least part of this “severe” letter is contained in II Corinthians 10-13. E.g., Godspeed, Edgar J., An Introduction to the New Testament, (c. 1937 by University of Chicago Press) pp. 61-62. Whatever the case may be, it is evident that Paul was concerned about the effect his letter would have upon the church and so sent his associate, Titus, to Corinth in order to deal with the fallout. (It is also possible that Paul sent the letter along with Titus). Paul became so preoccupied with the problems at Corinth and the potential impact of his letter that he cut short a preaching tour in Troas and traveled to Macedonia in search of Titus. There Paul finally caught up with his associate who brought him a very favorable report from Corinth. II Corinthians 7:5-13.

Paul’s severe letter had evidently done its work. The congregation gave its full support to Paul. Paul’s opponents were disciplined by the congregation so severely that Paul had to write and urge the church to reach out to them with forgiveness and “reaffirm” their love for these errant members. II Corinthians 2:5-11. It is this third letter from Paul to Corinth from which our lesson comes.

Our reading begins with Paul’s lose citation to Psalm 116:10: “I kept faith, even when I said, ‘I am greatly afflicted.’” To make sense of this, you need to go back and read II Corinthians 4:7-12 where Paul speaks about the afflictions he has endured as a missionary of the gospel of Jesus Christ. These include being “persecuted” and “struck down.” Notwithstanding these afflictions, the Spirit continues to give Paul the courage to “speak out.” Vs. 13. Paul is convinced that, though he is always “carrying in the body the death of Jesus” (II Corinthians 4:10), the God who “raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence.” Vs. 14.

For this reason, says Paul, “we do not lose heart.” Vs. 16. Even though our “outer nature” is wasting away, “our inner nature is being renewed every day.” Vs. 16. The former is evident. We experience the aging process that diminishes our bodily health and strength. We see our achievements fade into insignificance. Our friends move away, die or become estranged through time and circumstance. The universe, we are told, is expanding and doomed to run out of steam. The latter is not evident. Based solely on the empirical evidence, no one can assert that we are being renewed even as we are in the process of dying or that this expanding universe is being transformed into a new heaven and earth. This reality is only illuminated by the resurrection of Jesus from death. It is for that reason we dare to believe God is at work bending each subatomic particle of the universe and turning all of its energies toward redemption. In the words of Rick Barger, president of Trinity Lutheran Seminary, “If the tomb had not been empty on Easter Sunday, we’d have nothing to talk about.”

This passage is incredibly good news for social workers who spend their energies helping people crawl out of horrible situations only to fall back in again. It is good news for teachers struggling to provide a quality education to underprivileged children in underfunded, poorly run and neglected schools. It is good news for pastors of churches that continue to struggle notwithstanding their enormous efforts to build them up. We do not look only to what is seen in the light of the status quo. We view everything in the light of Jesus’ resurrection which demonstrates that the universe is bent toward the kingdom of God and that life in conformity with that kingdom is eternal.

Mark 3:20-35

What would you do if you learned that your adult son was acting erratically, not eating properly and getting himself into trouble with the authorities? Upon hearing these very reports about Jesus, his mother and brothers did what I believe any loving family would do. They organized an intervention. It was their intent to “seize” Jesus and take him home by force if necessary. They might have succeeded but for the crowd around Jesus they could not penetrate. Failing to reach Jesus, they send word that they desire to speak with him. His response must have been a blow to their hearts, particularly to his mother. “Who are my mother and brothers?” Vs. 33. “Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.” Vs. 35.

As I have noted in previous posts, there is no shortage of organizations under the Christian franchise devoted to preserving the “traditional family.” One such organization is Focus on the Family whose self described mission is “to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with as many people as possible by nurturing and defending the God-ordained institution of the family and promoting biblical truths worldwide.” Of course I think sharing the Gospel is critical and know well that success on that score requires cooperation with the Holy Spirit. I am not necessarily opposed to promoting biblical truths either, though I suspect I might not agree with Focus on what those truths are. The real sticking point, though, is the “God-ordained institution of the family.” According to Focus, the ideal family is “one man and one woman committed to each other for life, raising their children in a loving, supportive home.” That, however, is not what Jesus just told us. Marriage is not the foundation of family and blood lineage does not define its boundaries. Baptism is the foundation of family and trumps all other relationships, including marriage. See Luke 18:29-30. For disciples of Jesus, water is thicker than blood. Church is the only “God ordained” family there is. Focus on the Family is therefore focusing on the wrong family.

That is not to say that families and households are not important. To the contrary, they are. I agree with Focus that “our culture increasingly disparages family life,” though I believe poverty, inadequate wages, increasing demands for employee productivity, requirements for worker mobility, lack of job security, lack of access to adequate health care and erosion of quality educational opportunities have a lot more to do with that than marriage equality-the culprit blamed by Focus. Does anyone really believe that marriage of the gay couple across the street poses a greater threat to his/her family’s well-being than losing a job or health care coverage? If Focus is truly committed to the welfare of families, I would recommend to its board of directors a campaign against late stage capitalism. Somehow, I don’t think that would fly.

Sandwiched in between the two ends of this episode with Jesus’ family is the allegation of the scribes that Jesus is possessed by Beelzebul who enables him to cast out demons. Jesus responds by pointing out the faulty reasoning of the scribes. Vs. 22. Why would Satan give Jesus power over his own legions? If in fact “Satan is cast[ing] out Satan,” his kingdom is imploding. That can only mean the Kingdom of God is at hand-just as Jesus has been saying. Vss. 23-25. Jesus goes on to say that no one can plunder a strong man’s house unless he first binds the strong man. Thus, Jesus can only do what he is doing because he has, in fact, bound Satan. Vs. 28.

Finally, we have that ever troublesome verse about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit for which one “never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” Vs. 28-29. That verse has been a torment to many people over the centuries, not the least of whom was the father of Soren Kierkegaard who confided to his son that he once cursed God for the dreariness of his life while living as an impoverished serf. What does it mean to blaspheme the Holy Spirit? In the first place, it is important to note that this admonition is not addressed to the public but to the specific scribes who equated Jesus’ exorcism of demons with the work of demons. Unable to deny that Jesus has truly freed people from the power of Satan and unwilling to ascribe any good to Jesus whatever the evidence may show, they resort to nonsensical arguments in order to discredit Jesus. These particular scribes are hardened in their opposition to Jesus. They are not doubters, skeptics or even indifferent to Jesus. They have made up their minds and formed their opinions about Jesus. They refuse to allow the facts to confuse the issue.

To the few folks I have met over the years (and there have been a few) concerned about whether they might have committed the unforgivable sin of blaspheming the Holy Spirit, I have simply told them that their concern in that regard is a pretty clear indication that they have not. I am fairly convinced that the persons (if any) who are actually guilty of this sin don’t much care and never lose a night’s sleep over it. In sum, if you are worried about having committed this unforgivable sin, you haven’t. If you have committed blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, you are not the least bit worried about it and you are probably not reading this blog anyway.