A sermon for the twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

A few of us gathered yesterday at the outdoor chapel for the Blessing of Animals in honor of the feast of St. Francis, which was last week: That saint who understood so very well that nature and Creation are filled with God’s goodness, that Creation is sacred and it’s the first place where we meet God. It was a nice ceremony. It was small. There was a lot of canine energy out there. And it was an opportunity for us to give thanks for those animals, to give thanks for the companionship that our pets provide to us.

So it’s seems ironic to come back 24 hours later and hear the first reading from the Book of Genesis, which tell us very explicitly that animal companionship is not enough. No matter how cute and warm and furry they are, no matter how loyal and devoted they are, our dogs and cats are not enough. We were made for something more.

We were made for relationship with others who can meet us on our own level. God was there with us from the beginning, but God also wants us to have everyday companions made of flesh and bone who can walk with us here on this earth. In that reading, when God says that it is not good for Adam to be alone, that’s the first time in all of the Creation stories that God looks at anything and says it’s not good. It’s not good for us to be alone. We were made for relationship. We were made to be in relationship with others like us.

I took a week of vacation in both August and September this year to attend two weddings. They were both outdoors, in very beautiful settings. Neither one was a traditional church ceremony. There was no “to have and to hold from this day forward.” They each had services that were written pretty much for the occasion. One of the things they did is, before they said, “I take you to be my spouse,” they read lists of promises that they had written themselves. Seemingly endless lists of promises that they had written themselves. Part of me was getting a little impatient, perhaps because at the first wedding we were sitting in the rain, and at the second wedding we were sitting in the blazing sun. And part of me was saying, “Why is this necessary?”

And then I realized that in a very personal way, they were promising to be more than lovers. They were promising to be companions on their life journey together. And every good marriage, every good relationship, has to have those elements of companionship.

Today we have these very familiar readings about human relationship. We have one of the Creation stories in Genesis, and we have Jesus’s words in Mark about marriage. They are stories that are very familiar to us and, in fact, the interpretations are very familiar to us.

Maybe you even heard a sort of short sermon in your head between the time I closed the Gospel Book and when I got up here and started to speak. Maybe you heard the gist of everything you’ve ever been told about those readings. And in some ways, that’s unfortunate, because I think we have to acknowledge that those readings, the second one especially, have been a cause of a lot of pain in people’s lives. I doubt that’s really what Jesus intended.

What I want to do today, I don’t want to reinterpret them. But what I want to do today is just simply ask a couple of questions about each of those readings that I hope will stimulate some deeper thinking about what they might have to say to all of us about what it means to be in relationship. How we’re supposed to live out our relationships with others, regardless of our marital status.

So starting with the Old Testament reading, this is a reading from Genesis. It’s the second Creation story in Genesis. It’s not chapter one. Chapter one is the part that goes through the seven days and what God made on each day. In that one, God makes the animals first and then the humans and rests on the seventh day.

In chapter two, we focus in on this creation of human life. God forms a human person from the dirt of the earth and breathes life into that person, plants a garden in Eden for a residence, and decides that the human needs a helper as a partner.

Then there’s this sort of a humorous place where God tries out a series of animals as possible partners. You know, “Would you like an elephant for your helper as a partner?” “No. It’s very nice, but I don’t think that’ll do, thank you.”

And when none of these turn out to be good enough, God takes—it says a rib, we’ll come back to that—from the first human to make a second human. And Adam is delighted and says, “At last, bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh. At last, a true companion.”

So what is the essence of true companionship? That’s the first question. What is it that we need, that we need to receive and we also need to give? What is it that we need to receive and give that the animals can’t give us?

When we have children, and I’m especially aware of this now because of my little granddaughter who will turn two next month, the first thing that we start to teach them for some reason is the names and sounds of all these animals that they aren’t going to meet for years, you know? But the first words they say are almost always momma, and daddy. What is it about humanrelationship that makes us whole?

Okay, another question is, what does it mean to be a helper as the word is used here in this story? God says Adam needs a helper as his partner. I think when we hear helper, we think junior assistant. Someone not as important as the first person. But I think it’s very significant that in the Old Testament, when there’s a helper to humans, that word almost always refers to God. How are we godly in the way that we serve as helpers and partners to each other?

And what does it mean that God takes, as it says, a rib from Adam? Actually, the commentaries tell me that the word in Hebrew is “side,” not rib. God takes Adam’s side. What does it mean that God takes and creates this second human from something at the same level?

It’s the first human and the animals that are made from dirt in this story. But the second human, the helper and partner, comes right out of the same level as the first.

And taking all these questions together, what is it that makes relationships true companionship, whether they be marital relationships or all of our relationships with each other?

Okay, turning then to the New Testament to the reading from Mark. It doesn’t begin as a sermon or a teaching from Jesus on marriage. It begins as a trap. The Pharisees arrive and, once again, they’re all primed to trap Jesus with their question, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce?”

This actually was a subject of some disagreement in that time and place. Deuteronomy says that a man can divorce his wife if, “she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her.” But the disagreement was about what it means to be objectionable.

For one group, being objectionable meant adultery. But for another group, being objectionable could be anything that the man didn’t like anymore. It could be burning the dinner, you know?

So Jesus is being asked to speak into this situation which is already sort of polarized. And they’re hoping that whatever he says will make somebody angry. But he doesn’t answer it right away. He turns the question back to them. And you have this little discussion in which he says, “what God has joined together … ”

So I only have one question to pose about this reading. And that is, why did Jesus say that? What was the point that he was trying to make with that question?

And I think we can look at other places where he talked about the law and sort of get some sense of it from that. In other places where he talks about the law, he’s never sort of just absolute and strict and whatever, just follow the rule. He’s always actually trying to provoke thought. He’s trying to take the people to what lies behind the law. Why is there that law and what virtue is it trying to support and elicit from you? And I think that’s true here. He’s talking about faithfulness as a virtue.

Also, he’s aware that a woman who was divorced in that time was at a terrible disadvantage. A woman alone in this society was really in a bad place. And that’s why, through the New Testament, we have all those places where people are taking especially good care of widows, and widows and children. Because a woman without a family to take care of her couldn’t just get her own apartment and get a job. It wasn’t like that. So he’s suggesting, I think, that a loving commitment from both parties is not only God’s intention for relationship, but it’s the best way to protect the woman from suffering in this society.

And in our world, as painful as divorce is—and my experience is that it’s always painful on many levels for many different people—but in our world, it may be that divorce is the best way to protect people from further suffering, which is not to negate the ideal. The ideal of relationship for all of us.

One last question. Why did those children show up at the end? What have they got to do with this story? Well, if you’ve been paying attention to the Gospel the last few weeks, which have been from successive sections of Mark, children are weaving in and out of this.

At one point, I think it was two weeks ago, Jesus picks up a child and takes the child into his arms and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name, welcomes me.”

The children were very vulnerable, again, in this society. They were not valued in the same way that we value children. Under Roman law, the father had the right to get rid of any child born either to his family or to his household.

And I think, once again, Jesus is pointing to the people who are weakest and most vulnerable and saying that they are the ones that we should be caring about and looking out for the most, and working hardest to protect.

So we humans are made for relationship. It’s a basic aspect of what it means to be human. We’re made for loving companionship, to be true helpers with others that we can meet at our own level. Jesus gives us an ideal for loving relationship and really, for all relationships, in which no one wields power over the other.

But we are imperfect. We are broken. We can’t always live up to the ideal. And we must trust that God’s love is big enough to cover that. Amen.