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.”
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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.”
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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.”+