October 5, 2009

Truest Life

A sermon from Saint James Church Fordham

Proper 22b 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
For the man there was not found a helper as his partner.+

The second chapter of the Book of Genesis presents us with a marvelous example of God’s generosity and care, and the extent to which God’s children have the responsibility to make decisions, and how God abides by those decisions once they are made.

You no doubt remember the events that lead up to the events described in our reading from Genesis today. God created Adam from the clay of the riverbank, breathing into him the divine life and spirit. And God planted the beautiful garden of Eden, and placed Adam in it, to tend it and care for it as God’s gardener. And God looked down upon this peaceful creation and instead of smiling at its goodness, frowned slightly and shook his head a little. And for the first time in the whole narrative up to that point God said that something was not good.

And what was that? Was it something God had made? No; it was something yet unfinished, something yet to be made. “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” And taking more clay, the same stuff he’d made Adam from, God set to work.

Now, this next part of the story is something many people forget, so I’m glad it was included in this morning’s reading. For what was it that God made out of that additional clay? Not another human being, but rather all of the animals of the field and the birds of the air. And God brought all of these creatures to Adam, for Adam to name, approve and accept. But Adam did not find among them a helper meet or suitable to be his partner.

Only then did God put Adam to sleep and take, not more clay this time, but some of Adam’s very own body, to make for him a helper suitable to be his partner, one like himself. And Adam recognized this kinship immediately, and rejoiced that at last here was one like him, another human being, one who could truly be called his mirror image, bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh.

The wonderful thing about this narrative is that God gave Adam such respect, and abided by Adam’s judgment as to who in all creation was to be his helper and partner, one truly like himself. God did not force Adam to be content to live alone as a solitary hermit in a garden. God did not force Adam to be happy with just the animals to keep him company. God did not take offense when Adam shook his head at all of these other creatures, and found none to be a suitable partner for him. God did not force Adam to accept them, and didn’t get offended and say, “Who do you think you are to turn down what God has provided.”

Rather God allowed Adam the freedom to choose the one who was like himself, his own flesh and blood, as a partner and a helper. God used no force in this: but allowed freedom, revealing, as our Gospel hymn said, that “force is not of God.”

+ + +

Well, you know the rest of the story. Adam and Eve lived in the garden only for a short time. One of those animals Adam had rejected as an unsuitable helper and partner perhaps didn’t take too kindly to the rejection. It was the creature God made with some of the leftover clay, the kind of animal any child knows is the easiest thing to make with a lump of clay — just as the Gary Larson cartoon shows God at his work table rolling out the snake and saying, “Gee, these things are a cinch!” Cinch it might be, but it opened up a whole can of worms! The serpent wriggled in and did his dirty work, sowing the seeds of discontent and pride, taunting with the fear of death, tempting with the promise of divinity, leading Adam and Eve to disobedience. The serpent dangled temptation before them, and they bit.

And so the caretakers got evicted from the garden. And for thousands of years human beings continued to stumble about in their ignorance and pride. Humanity lived under the fear of death, yet unable to escape it, no matter what they did, alternately sinned against and sinning, unable to find righteousness even though God tried time and time again to show them how, by giving them the Law and inspiring the preaching of the Prophets.

God would not, you see, simply force people to be good, any more than God forced Adam to accept Eve. God wanted people to be good from the inside, good from the heart, not just coated over with a whitewash of proper behavior, but deeply loving, deeply just, deeply free — and deeply responsible for the choices they made in that love, justice and freedom.

Just as God had a few false starts in creation, so too there were false starts in this re-creation. God first gave the people a law written in stone, and the people disobeyed it and rejected it. God sent the people prophets, but they ignored them or mistreated them. God gave the people kings and most of the kings turned out to be worse than the people!

But finally, in the fullness of time, God decided to do something similar to what he had done way back in Eden. God would not this time send the Law. God would not send a prophet. God would not send a king, at least not the kind of king people were used to. God would not even send an angel.

God would instead give to humankind one who was human, a human being like Adam himself, but one who was also divine, one who was God incarnate. God would choose incarnation — being made flesh — our flesh.

So as of old when God took the raw material from a human being, from Adam, this time God took from the flesh of a young woman named Mary all that was needed to make the one who was for a little while to be made a lower than the angels, one not ashamed to call men and women his sisters and brothers, for he shared the same human flesh as they — as we. “He sent him down as sending God; in flesh to us he came; as one with us he dwelt with us, and bore a human name.”

+ + +

The human name he bore is Jesus, which means Savior. The divine name he bore is Emmanuel, which means God is with us. He was and is our Saving God who is with us, who shared with us in mortality and pain, shared the weakness of human flesh, so that he might redeem and save that human flesh. He suffered death so that he might destroy death for ever, and destroy the one who, as the Letter to Hebrews says, had the power of death, the same devil who ages before had snaked his way in, to ensnare and enslave humanity by their fear of death.

Jesus, our Savior and our God, is also our brother, for he taught us to call his Father our Father. We who share in the flesh of Adam also share — through Jesus — in the Spirit of God. The old serpent can do nothing to us any longer if we do not let him. He’s done his best to do his worst, and he failed utterly when Jesus broke the power of death and was raised to life again. And we who are united with Jesus in his death, are also given the power to rise with him in his life.

We can still refuse God’s offer. God respects our freedom too much to force us to follow the path he so desires for us. And there are those who would rather listen to a serpent’s lies than to God’s own truth. There are still some so possessed by their fear of death that they have forgotten how to live. We look at a world in which we see that all things are not under human control — disease, crime, famine, and injustice still seem to rule. Some seek long life or wealth, or pleasure or fame, but rarely find lasting happiness. But we also see Jesus, the human one who suffered, the human one who died, who gave up everything and yet who through the power of God triumphed over everything, and now is exalted over all things.

We too can confront all the shallow promises of the world, promises offered in the devil’s accent, to find that none of these things will answer our deepest need. In none of these things can we find our true and final happiness whatever the snake may say to the contrary. It is only in Jesus — God from God, light from light, true God from true God, that we recognize our own truest human self — the perfect image of humanity made after God’s own image and likeness. God offers us the option, and will not force us to choose life rather than death. God invites us to find our truest life in him, and has shown us the way, but he will not force us on that path.

In this is our hope, our freedom, and our challenge. As we make our choices, let us always remember the promise of our Gospel hymn, and choose rightly:“Not to oppress, but summon all their truest life to find, in love God sent his Son to save, not to condemn mankind.”+


Gary Paul Gilbert said...

Actually, from the evidence of biology, God created woman -- then took her XX chromosome, lopped off a leg of one of the Xs, and made a male to help and protect her. (Unfortunately, the male has used his strength ever since to dominate.)

Is there anything Genesis got right? Why do we quote it?

Murdoch, husband of Gary

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Well, Murdoch, if you want to get literal about it, the origin of the Y-chromosome lies much further back than "woman" -- probably well back in our evolutionary ancestry and long before humans to the dawn of the mammals.

Genesis is not "right" about such things, of course. It is not a science text. And with two discordant accounts of creation, it doesn't even work all that well as history. That doesn't mean it doesn't have its uses as a poetic work addressing what it means to be human, and that's why the church continues to read it. The primary lessons I derive from the text here are that men and women are created as equals, and that people have the right to choose their partners in life, whether husband or wife. I hope you would not disagree that these are points worth making -- whether based on Genesis or a secular agenda. I, for one, am pleased that the sacred and secular support each other in this regard, as they are all too often placed in conflict.

Murdoch Matthew said...


I lost a comment last night from a botched sign-in.

I doubt that you got your excellent points from reading Genesis -- more like you can spin Genesis to support your argument. The text of Genesis points in many wrong directions, not least the flat earth. No, it's not science, but people take "male and female" literally, when the truth is not so obvious as it appears (we can see the sun go around the earth, can't we? and people divided into male and female all around us . . .). Archeology indicates that Abraham and Moses are legendary figures, yet we're in the habit of seeing them as history. They should be in the back of the Hebrew scriptures, with fictions like Esther, Jonah, Job, and Daniel, not up front where they are mistaken for origins.

Nice that you, and Susan Russell, Gene Robinson, and others can do God talk so effectively, to the distraction of those who wield it as a weapon, but you're still playing a language game that has inhibited understanding of the world we actually live in.

No, the tradition ain't science, or history, or fact -- it's received opinion backed by authority. I like your version, but it can't be distinguished from its opponents' except by being nicer.


Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Dear Murdoch,
These are fair points, but to some extent beside the point. The point being that Scripture serves as an important factor in how the church orders its life. As such, it is open to critique -- as: when people insisted on a literal reading of a geocentric world, and threatened people with torture for suggesting otherwise, they were bound to be corrected and repent when it was realized that they had imposed a literal interpretation on Scripture that could no longer be justified. One can still, however, speak in terms such as "sunrise" instead of saying "earthspin" -- without suggesting that the sun is literally coming up over the horizon. (Though a cosmologist might well say that is a valid way to describe relative motion!)

My effort has been, partifcularly in Reasonable and Holy to undermine the Single Reading Model concerning the creation account that has for so long held sway -- you know the one: "God's design revealed in creation points only to heterosexual monogamy." As the Anglican Rules say, nothing can be required unless it can be proved by Scripture. So what I am doing, in showing that there is an alternative reading that is just as "probable" it is no longer possible to require conformity to the old reading. Once such alternatives are presented and received, the old alternative fails to meet the criteria to function as a requirement. This is why you are correct in saying that it is a question of received opinion and authority.

But ultimately this is how change happens even in science -- as old models, or to use the technical term theories (that is, "ways of seeing") give way in the light of new readings or new evidence.

Because of this reality even in the scientific realm, I am loath to share your confidence concerning "understanding of the world we actually live in." I think a world without myth or fiction or faith -- each of which teach us certain realities -- would be severely impoverished, and leave us less in touch with the world as it actually is. Science and faith both play their part, and to echo Galileo, they both move. All understanding is asymptotic, and the best course is to have many models available, each of which may teach us something.

Brother David said...

If I may, one of my most treasured volumes in my English library collection is The Dream of the Earth by the late Father Thomas Berry. Mine was published by the Sierra Club. I am sure it is long out of print, but finding a used copy would be well worth the read. It paints a whole new approach to our inherited mythology and creating the ongoing and continually unfolding story of the earth and the cosmos, aided by our inheritance and our continually gained knowledge as we more understand the micro and macrocosm in which we live, and breath, and have our being.

One of his most endearing ideas is that with the dawn of humanity, creation was now able to contemplate and reflect upon itself.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thank you, Dahveed. That is part of what I'm getting at -- there are any number of ways of "reading" the world -- Scripture being one of them. And there are many ways to "read" Scripture.

Obviously whoever composed Genesis didn't know that the combination of growth in brain size and upright posture necessitated earlier and more difficult birth in humans; but I'm struck by how well this resonates with a reading of "gaining knowledge from the tree" and the self-reflective capacity expressed in Adam and Eve's awareness of their nakedness, and the subsequent "curse" of pain in childbirth. So it is that it can be understood as a parable -- not literally true, but still capable of "meeting the evidence" at a certain level, and with the power of poetry and story that bare science puts in prose.

Now some might say, Why bother? What does it gain? All I can say is that it adds a level of richness, of poetry. I would hate to think that I had to toss out King Lear just because he is a legendary figure. Does this mean I treat Scripture as another literary monument? Yes -- for me the whole issue of divine inspiration is a separate question. Ultimately all inspiration -- and even the ability to think -- is a divine gift. Like most great literature, it is capable of multiple interpretations, and thus can remain relevant in many circumstances, not on the basis of original intent, but present reading.

So I no more toss out Genesis because it is wrong about cosmology than I toss out Newton because he was wrong about chemistry, or Shakespeare because his history of the succession is heavily colored by his own contemporary concerns.

And let me add that I was formed in my early return to Christianity by the work of paleontologist and theologian Teilhard de Chardin -- whose work, once condemned, has been recovered and celebrated more recently.

IT said...

I'm also reflecting on mystery over at FoJ, in the context of a review of Karen Armstrong's new book. She apparently challenges this notion that religion and science are somehow opposed. I'm relieved to see that, as I find it frustrating and unnecessary.

On the other hand a friend of mine just returned from the Galapagos where in the main city on the island, there is a large billboard denouncing evolution. In ENGLISH.

Anonymous said...

"Teilhard de Chardin -- whose work, once condemned, has been recovered and celebrated more recently."

AFAIK in his own (and my) Church, he still lies condemned for his errors.


Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, IT. I think most of the divide between science in religion comes from scientists who don't understand religion (R. Dawkins, for example) and religionists who don't understand science (fundamentalists of various sorts.)

Fr Michael, I realize that the 1962 "warning" is still on the books, but I hope you realize it is increasingly ignored. What I was referring to was the favorable citation of Teilhard by none other than the Pope last July, in his address on environmental concerns. Many have seen this as the first step in a gentle revision of the 1962 hard-line opposition. I suspect there will be further movement in that direction, and I imagine that many of his "errors" will be discovered to be in a deeper level of consonance with church teaching than was suspected in the 1960s. Such a "reconciliation" of apparently discordant positions is something that I think appeals to Pope Benedict's mind.