Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
For thus says the Lord: Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, and raise shouts for the chief of the nations; proclaim, give praise, and say, ‘Save, O Lord, your people, the remnant of Israel.’ See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together; a great company, they shall return here. With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back, I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble; for I have become a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn.
We have returned to the book of Jeremiah and his talk of remnants. The last time we spent Sunday with the prophet Jeremiah, it was in July and he was busy rebuking leaders who were misusing their power for their own gain. He said “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture, says the Lord.” Prophets often teach and speak in cycles of judgement and restoration. While there was a promise of restoration towards the end of that July reading, it was basically a prophecy of judgement. God would judge exploitative and unjust rulers harshly. Today’s reading, however, is not about the terrible shepherds. It is about the restoration of the people they harmed.
When I see the word remnant, I usually think of fabric, those oddly shaped bits and pieces leftover after you finish a pattern. You know the ones I’m talking about. You hold them up and you can see the curve cut out that became a shoulder in a blouse or the sharp angle of a lapel. If the remnant is big enough, you can do something else with them... braid them into a rug or stitch them into a quilt. If you are Dolly Parton’s mom, you make them into a jacket for your little daughter, a coat of many colors. Remnants, when handled with care, skill, and attention, can be joined together into something beautiful and functional.
I don’t know that Jeremiah was a quilter, but he was from a culture where fabric was too expensive and too hard to produce to just throw extra bits or slightly worn pieces away. I imagine that he wouldn’t be surprised to see bits and pieces of fabric patched and given new life, even if this particular kind of blanket wasn’t exactly what he would have used. Of course, I imagine him saying, you don’t discard pieces that can be used. Of course, that which is worn out and torn can be mended. The fabric is too precious to be tossed when it could simply be restored. God is more often called a shepherd than a quilter, but the work of restoration is similar. Find what has been left behind, tend to it, reclaim it for renewed purpose, be it keeping a loved one warm or gathering a new herd of sheep comprised of those that were once scattered by the bad shepherds.
The scholar Jeremiah Unterman defines remnant, as used in our reading today, as usually meaning “the portion left over after a part has been removed.” Usually, this word is used to refer not to fabric but to the last pieces of vegetation or animals or people left after a disaster. According to Unterman, in Jeremiah, and other prophets, “remnant” usually refers to the small groups of people who have survived a terrible crisis or escaped from exile. In the prophets, God will see this remnant, torn and beaten though it may be, and restore it... restore them.
Elaine James, in her commentary on this text, notes that God’s actions are bringing and gathering. The people who had been carried far away and who’s community had been torn apart... God will bring them back from the land of the north and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth. As Dr. James says, the people who have been displaced will be gathering back in. And, notice how intentional the gathering in is. It is not just the abled-bodied survivors who will be protected. It is those with mobility issues, perhaps from illness or wounds from war or from age. It is the ones who can no longer see. It is the ones who are pregnant... even the ones who are active labor will be gathered up and tended to, not left to fend for themselves. As Dr. James puts it, every person mentioned here is someone who has a “bodily condition that requires social supports.” When quick travel is necessary, these are the exact people who are often left behind.
But, God will not leave them behind. God will join them together into a “great company.” Much of the time, when you see a big group of people gathered in scripture, it is an army. Not here. This is a group of people who are often left behind. Dr. James also notes that not only would the folks named here be excluded from the military due to their bodily conditions, they would also be excluded from the groups of people who were allowed to serve in many kinds of religious and priestly service, again because their bodies would be considered problematic or out of the ordinary. But, mobility issues and blindness and pregnancy are every day occurrences in lots of bodies. And, God will treat each of these bodies as worthy of care and consideration. They are worth gathering up and brought back to their home.
Dr. James also points out that God picks routes that would be easier for someone who has vision issues, or mobility issues, or small children to take care to navigate. God will lead them by brooks (a Psalmist might call it still water) that of a good drink and cooler air. The paths will be straight and they will not stumble. James notes that this is an image of God as tender advocate. God, who gathers up people with disabilities and responsibilities for little ones and calls them great, will also provide them with the support they need to travel and gather and return. Jeremiah uses a parental metaphor for God here, a tender father who provides accommodations so that the people can travel safely together. These people who were once displaced and separated are now rooted and connected, akin to a family being guided by a generous parent. God’s restoration will look like a group of traumatized, physically and mentally, refugees guided to safety with great compassion. This isn’t a God who is distant and disconnected. This is a God who is as close a parent’s or partner’s embrace.
As we continue to live through this pandemic that has left some people weakened in new ways by this novel virus, in mourning for lost love and lost opportunities, disconnected from the people and places that bring them joy, I hope that we can look to this scripture for a vision of restoration that reminds us that God’s work is tending to those who are left on the margin and forgotten by leadership concerned with their own comfort. If we are to judge the righteousness of any attempts to rebuild in the midst of and after our present crisis, we can see who God gathers up with particular care here in Jeremiah. If we leave out those whom God gathered up, we will run at cross purposes to our God. May we never be quick to leave behind God’s great company. May all our responses to this moment be rooted in the love that God showed the scattered.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Elaine James: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-30-2/commentary-on-jeremiah-317-9-5
Jeremiah Unterman, "remnant," The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, primary ed. Paul J. Achtemeier (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996)
Sermon for October 17, 2021: Finding My Dwelling Place based upon Psalm 91:9-16 by Pastoral Intern Sarah Mills
Because you have made the Lord your refuge,
the Most High your dwelling place,
no evil shall befall you,
no scourge come near your tent.
For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.
You will tread on the lion and the adder,
the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.
Those who love me, I will deliver;
I will protect those who know my name.
When they call to me, I will answer them;
I will be with them in trouble,
I will rescue them and honor them.
With long life I will satisfy them,
and show them my salvation.
When I was looking at today’s possible readings in the Revised Common Lectionary, I knew that I wanted to find something that related to our stewardship theme of being “rooted in love”. A reading about how the work of this church is rooted in love for one another as a congregation, a wider community, a part of the wider UCC. How our faith itself is rooted in love. The love that God has for all of us, as exemplified when God took the form of an itinerant preacher in first-century Judea, Jesus of Nazareth.
So when I saw that Psalm 91, verses 9-16 was an option, I was quite excited. To me, what leaps out of these lines is just how much love underpins our relationship with God. The psalmist says that God will command God’s angels concerning us, God will guard us in all our ways. We can even go and tread on a lion or stomp on an adder and we will be protected. Now, I want to be clear that membership at Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ does not grant you universal lion-stomping or adder-squishing privileges. I feel like Pastor Chrissy would want me to be clear about that. But what it does say is just how much we are not on our own when we have made the Lord our refuge, our dwelling place. Just how much God’s relationship with God’s creation is deeply, deeply rooted in love.
In my short time at Winthrop UCC, I have already noticed very clearly that one of the things this congregation projects out to its community, be they churchgoers or not, is that sense of safety and love. No matter who you are, you are welcome here. It’s said, and it is honored. It is my sincere hope that folks that join our worship services or that come to church events (be they digital, hybrid, or in-person when we can do so safely) feel that no evil will befall them when they are with us. I hope that this congregation feels like a mirror of God’s tent of refuge.
As I’m sure we all know, there are so, so many folks that feel like they are miles and miles from that tent of God’s love. Folks that encounter adders and lions on a daily basis and do not know if they will make it through the day.
When I read these verses, I was reminded of someone who thought that exact same thing and felt like they didn’t have much of a refuge. Those lions were sharpening their claws and the adders were slithering ever closer with each day.
That person was me.
I want to use this time to share a bit of my story, a bit of my journey to this dwelling place. And it is my great hope that I will be able to hear about some of your journeys during my time with you all.
So, a bit about my journey…
I had not always felt like I was without safe refuge, in fact, throughout my life I have had many places, groups, or interests that made me feel all those good feelings: safety, protection, love, understanding.
I grew up at the First Congregational Church of South Portland, United Church of Christ. I sang in choirs, I attended Sunday school, I went through confirmation. I felt safe, and protected, and loved, and understood.
But when I was 13, a new interest entered my life. I heard an announcement at school saying that Scarborough was starting a girls ice hockey program. I had never played before, in fact no one in my family had ever played ice hockey, but I thought it would be fun. I convinced my dad to take me to the informational meeting, and that saw me quickly under the tent of women’s ice hockey. I became a goaltender, and I became pretty good. I played on multiple teams, went to tournaments and summer camps. I felt like I had found something I was really good at and that made me feel safe and protected, and full of love and understanding for myself.
Ice hockey led me to St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN, where I played division 3 college hockey for my first two years. I stopped when I realized that the community of the St. Olaf women’s hockey program did not make me feel all of those nice feelings I spoke about in reference to this congregation. My love for the sport was eclipsed by my need to escape from the adders and lions I was starting to see in the hearts and faces of those around me.
But I had found a real refuge at St. Olaf. A group where I always felt safe. Safe to goof around, to be myself, to share what was in my heart. I joined our college’s improv comedy group, Scared Scriptless within the first week of being at St. Olaf. We rehearsed twice a week, staying together often until they kicked us out of the late-night hangout, a club in the student commons appropriately named The Lion’s Pause. These lions, these Oles, as we are known, were the protecting kind, the kind that would welcome you into the pride and defend you when you felt afraid.
The same was true of the friends I made in the theatre and religion departments at St. Olaf, the two subjects I would go on to dual-major in. I had always been interested in religion and thought, why not just take some classes to find out a bit more. That was the extent of my interest… at the time.
Theatre led me to internships in the summer, including one in London, and to graduate school, first to NYU to study for my M.A in Educational Theatre and Social Studies Ed, and then back to the UK to start in on a PhD in Drama at the University of Kent in Canterbury, writing my thesis about the stand-up comedian as an outsider from their audience, and how they use that outsider nature in performance to connect with and possibly change their audience.
An outsider who changes their created community, those that come to see them… now that I think of it, that sounds like someone else we all know. But more on him later!
About two years into this work is where we find the Sarah I spoke about earlier. The one who is starting to feel surrounded by lions and adders. I was beginning to feel plagued by the beast that is anxiety and intense self-criticism and self-doubt. I was not finding my feet with my thesis, I felt like nothing I wrote was good enough. I was putting on a facade, playing the character of a collected person, but just below that facade was someone very much not holding it together.
I had previously decided, in April of 2014, that I wanted to try and find a refuge for myself in Canterbury. I was playing for our university’s hockey team but had broken my ankle in the summer after my first year and wouldn’t be able to skate until the next season. I couldn’t even begin to see a tent, a dwelling place, where I could be myself and be fully accepted. So in that April I thought back to my days at FCCSPUCC, and the enjoyment I had in the basement Religion department classrooms of Boe Chapel at St. Olaf, thinking about big questions, standing outside of myself for a bit. I didn’t feel like I missed “the church”, but I missed the discussions, internal or with others. I missed being reminded that I was a small part of a much bigger whole.
I chose to try St. Peter’s Methodist Church on the high street of Canterbury since it looked the closest to the church that I remembered in South Portland. When I arrived I looked around and saw precisely one person within about 20 years of my own age. I walked up to her where she was sitting and said, “Do you mind if I sit next to you because you seem to be the only person within about 20 years of my age?” She smiled and said “Of course”. Her name was Maddie and she was a first year undergraduate nursing student. After the worship service ended another person, who turned out to only be one year older than I, came up to us and said, “Hi, my name is Tamara. I’m a PhD student at Kent and wanted to know if you both would like to come to our student group that meets on Thursdays? We also go to the pub on Mondays and just hang out, and you should both come along to that!”
This was the moment I felt like I had taken some gingerly steps into a new tent. A new dwelling place. The friends I made in the Ichthus student group at St. Peter’s are some of the best that I’ve ever had. We hung out about three days of the week (Sunday, Monday evenings at a pub, and Thursdays for our discussion group meetings), but if you were feeling down or lonely, you could shoot a message out on our Facebook message chat and be eating lunch or having a drink with someone within the hour.
I still was battling those feelings of self-doubt, self-criticism, and anxiety, but I was firmly planted, I was rooted in a new loving community that I felt safe and protected by, that made me feel loved and like I was finally understood.
After going to a good number of our discussion group meetings and still remaining very much on the periphery of speaking about my own faith, I felt like it was time to take a fresh look at the gospels because, after all, that was the foundation of our group. We all went to the Methodist Church in Canterbury.
So I began at the beginning. I opened the book of Matthew and I started to read. I remember it very clearly: I was sitting on my twin bed, I had the smaller room in the flat I shared with my friend, and I was reading from the study Bible I had used since my days at St. Olaf. Eventually, I came to chapter 11, verses 28-30:
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
After reading those words, I paused, staring at them, and as I did, I felt a physical weight lift off of me. I don’t know how better to explain it than to say that I felt the heavy burdens I had been carrying, those burdens of anxiety, self-doubt, and self-criticism being taken away. I remember thinking, “You are so hard on yourself. You tell yourself such mean stories about yourself and your worth. But you know who would never tell you a story like that? Jesus. Jesus wouldn’t think that, just because you are struggling with writing your thesis, you are any less beloved. Jesus wouldn’t say that some letters at the end of your name make you a better person, more worthy of the love and comfort available to everyone in the tent of God’s refuge. It was true what you sang in those children’s choirs in South Portland, ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.’ No qualifiers, no degrees or diplomas needed. Jesus loves me.”
I wish I could say that that meant that I never struggled with issues of anxiety, self-criticism, or self-doubt again, but that would not be true. What it would mean was that when I found myself in those dark depths once again, when I started hearing the hiss of the adder or the padding of the lion moving closer, I would remember that Jesus was walking beside me. That Jesus was there to take that yoke off of me when it was too much to bear. What it meant was that I would eventually realize that what I wanted to do, what would make me feel like I was doing what God intended me to do, was to walk alongside people just like Jesus was walking alongside me. To remind people, like those verses of Matthew reminded me when I was sitting on that cheap twin mattress, that you are not alone, there are people and groups and communities that love you. That Jesus loves you, that I love you. That there are places founded on a faith in Christ where you can feel safe and protected and comfortable and seen and understood for exactly who you are, every nook and cranny.
And that is the journey that led me to this dwelling place, this community and that’s calling. I want to thank you all for welcoming me into your congregation and for sharing your own stories with me. Part of what I hope to work on while with your congregation is what’s called spiritual formation. Helping folks think more deeply about their spiritual life. I believe a lot of that thought starts by examining our own journeys, the often-crooked paths that have led us to where we are today. I greatly hope that if you are interested in engaging in some of that work with me, you will keep your ears and email inboxes open for a future opportunity to do so.
No two journeys are the same, many are beset by wild animals, but I firmly believe that we are never on that road alone. That God is always walking beside us gesturing us into the tent of God‘s refuge, into a relationship of love and understanding where we can feel safe and protected.
Mark 10:17-31: The Rich Man
As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.” ’ He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’ And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ They were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’
Peter began to say to him, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you.’ Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.’
The Ten Commandments aren’t the only things God ever told humanity to do, but, often, when people try to remember what God has instructed humans to do, the first thing they think of is the Ten Commandments. I’ve read several scholars who group the commandments under two headings, the “this is how you love God” tablet, tablet 1, and the “this is how you love your neighbor” table, tablet 2. Loving your neighbor is also loving God, by the way. So, it’s not that the two are disconnected. But, some of the commandments direct people how to engage with God and some of them direct people how to engage with other people, as guided by God. These Ten Commandments, found in Exodus 20, become the foundation of all of Jewish religious law. There are more than 600 other specific laws to designed to help people live out these first ten more fully.
Jesus had learned that the roots of his faith were found in love of God and love of neighbor. When he began to teach and heal people, it was an outgrowth of these loving roots. When someone, in this case, a wealthy man, asks how he can live out their shared faith more fully, Jesus is quick to point him back to their roots. Well, first he corrects him. The man calls Jesus “good” and Jesus claims that there is a kind of goodness that only belongs to God. Then, he asks him about the law, their roots. “You know the commandments,” he says and then, as Karl Jacobsen points out in a sermon on this text, he names all the second tablet, love your neighbor commandments. He names with the intention, it seems, to remind the man that God has already given him some directions. Has he followed them? The rich man says yes, since his youth.
In her commentary on this text, Sarah Henlicky Wilson points out that there is only one person, in the whole book of Mark, who is specifically and individually names as someone Jesus loved. It is this man. The Gospel puts it this way, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” For Jesus, loving someone means being willing to tell them to do a hard thing... maybe even the hardest thing. So, Jesus tells him the next thing he could do to more fully follow God’s directions. “You lack one thing: go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” This is a hard ask, though he’s not the first person Jesus has asked to give up everything. Simon and Andrew dropped everything to follow Jesus when he said “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” James and John did, too. Levi, a tax collector and likely wealthy, left all he had, too. Twelve men left everything to become his disciples. Could this wealthy young man do the same?
No. He couldn’t. The story says that when he heard what Jesus told him, “he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” After he leaves, we never hear from the character again. To be loved by Jesus and never return... there is great sadness in that part of the story. Wilson, in her commentary, reminds us that Mark is a terse and often hard book. It’s the Gospel that doesn’t have any sighting of Jesus after the resurrection. It’s the Gospel where the first witnesses to the resurrection are so scared that they run off and don’t tell anybody. The disciples mess up All The Time. Dr. Wilson calls the Gospel of Mark “relentless.” Over and over again, people fall short of the measure of their faith. It can be tempting to do like the rich young man and walk away, aggrieved and sullen. That’s what how Luis Menéndez-Antuña translated the Greek word “stagnasas.” It’s translated as simply “grieving” in the version we heard today. Menéndez-Antuña other uses of this word show us that he was more than simply sad. His response to being asked to give up all of his things was grief and also bitterness.
In Jesus’ time, like in ours, too frequently, people equated material success with being blessed by God. Maybe that’s part of the reason why the disciples are shocked when Jesus says that it will be nearly impossible for a rich person to enter the kindom of Heaven. “Then who can be saved?” they ask among themselves. Think of all you’ve been asked to give up over the last year and a half? Might you have a measure of compassion for the rich man who aggrieved and sullen about a sacrifice he doesn’t want to have to make? Especially when he has been so devout for so long?
In his commentary on this text, Luis Menéndez-Antuña reminds us that this teaching, that having wealth is a barrier entering into the reign of God, is often considered one of Jesus’ most radical teachings. He also points out that the most common uses of the word radical in our everyday speech usually mean something impractical or extreme or uncompromising... words that all might be good descriptors of Jesus in Mark, by the way. But, the origin of the word “radical” might point us in a different direction. The word radical comes from the words radix and radicis. Menéndez-Antuña says that those words are used to refer “to the roots of a plant, a problem, the grounding assumptions of an argument.” Therefore, he suggests, when we consider this question of how we can give up what is important to us in order to follow Jesus, we are really considering what is root of our actions, that is what grounds our faith, and makes following Christ possible. Jesus says that God makes salvation possible. So, how might your faith in God help you redefine your sacrifice so that you do not become embittered by what you have lost, and instead, hopeful for what you might gain along the road with Jesus?
Jesus understood his faith to be rooted in love of God, the one who is called good, and in love of neighbor, who will be served if the rich no longer hoard their wealth. For him, wealth is not a sign of blessing. A willingness to sacrifice comfort is. A willingness to completely overhaul your life and orient yourself towards care for those most in need is. This is still a hard teaching, but, not an impossible one. Perhaps Mark, by reminding us that following Jesus is difficult, gives us some space to mess up as we try. We’re going to get sullen sometimes. We’re going to be fearful and aggrieved and embittered. But, for God all things are possible, even helping us live into a generosity that looks something more like what Jesus asked of the rich man. I pray that we have the faith to not walk away from difficult demands and the love to find a way to follow through.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Karl Jacobsen: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/preaching-series-on-stewardship-generosity-week-2-of-3/commentary-on-mark-1017-31-6
Sarah Henlicky Wilson: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-28-2/commentary-on-mark-1017-31-8
Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.’ So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, ‘This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken.’ Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.
Dr. Wil Gafney calls the book of Genesis an origin story. She says it explains “how things came to be the way they are.” And, I’d argue, that Genesis tells us something about what God hopes for the world. Because, sometimes the beginning of the story tells us something about the end of the story. And, Genesis, the beginning of humanity’s relationship with God, shows us humans being in loving, responsive relationships with God and loving, equitable relationship with each other. If our foundation is loving responsiveness and equity, perhaps our future lies in relearning to live as a connected, beloved part of creation. If we are a people rooted in love, how do we live out that love in the world?
The first creation story, Genesis 1, is a story where God made a world that was good and humanity was the crowning creation in this good work. The second creation story, part of which is our reading today, is slightly different. God still creates, but in a different order. And, in this case, order of creation matters. First, God creates heaven and earth. There is some water, though not rain, yet. But there is mud. In part of chapter 2, just before today’s reading, God takes up a pile of dirt or mud and, like a potter with clay, forms a human shape. In his commentary on this text, Dr. Dennis Olsen notes that the word for dust or dirt in Hebrew is adamah. The human-shaped mud creature is call a-dam. Now, you might be more familiar with this word not as a thing, but as a name, Adam, given to the first man. And, there is eventually a man in this story called Adam. But, this first being is not yet that man.
I remember hearing Dr. Phylis Trible call this first being a “mud creature.” Dr. Wil Gafney calls them an “earthling,” that is, a being made of earth. You see, there is a Hebrew word for “man.” In her commentary on the text, Dr. Sara Koenig says that it is the word ish. She points out that the mud creature is not called an ish. They are simply called a-dam. And, God and the a-dam are very close. They spend a lot of time together while God is creating a garden in a place called Eden. Just plants at the beginning. God only creates animals when God realizes that the earthling might get lonely. Plants, while lovely, aren’t always good companions.
In her commentary, Dr. Gafney notes that God here seems to be experimenting with creation, trying out all manner of animals to see if they work as a companion for the mud creature. Eventually, though, God sees that the mud creature will most need a creature like itself. So, God sets about to make a second one. It is likely that you, like me, learned that God was making a subordinate helper for the first human. After all, in modern English, the word “helper” often means a subordinate. But, Dr. Gafney notes that God is called a helper to humanity in the Psalms. The idea of “help” is connected with the Divine. Dr. Gafney argues that the helper is more like a co-worker... an equal. Dr. Koenig does, too. And, God realizes that in order to be equal, the co-worker must share something foundational with the first being. It makes sense, then, that God would return to the first being in order to create the second. God puts the earthling to sleep, and removes part of its side to fashion a second human.
It is only at this point in the story that the Hebrew words for man and woman, ish and ishah, are actually used in the text. When there was only one creature, only one word was necessary- a-dam. Now that there are two, we need two new words, ish and ishah in order to differentiate one from another. The newer being would become known as a woman named Eve. The part of the creature who remembered what it was to be alone, who would come to be called a man, would also be called the named Adam. Remembering that time alone, with no part of creation that seemed like them, the new man, Adam, cried out, "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh." It is hard to be the only one. To have a partner, a co-worker in whom you recognize yourself, is a gift.
God created two humans so that one human would not be alone. God created two humans so that they could help one another and they could be partners. God created these two out of the same stuff. Eventually, all of the rest of humankind is said to have been created through the relationship between these two. If we are looking to the beginning of the story to tell us something about how the story might end, we must start with the idea that God sees humanity and sees that we are not meant to be alone. It seems like scripture is saying that our very nature calls us into relationship. Now, when I say that we are created to be in relationship, I don't mean that everyone has to be married to feel complete. Getting married because you feel another person will fix something you are missing in your heart can cause its own set of issues. Instead, what I think this story can tell us is that our existence, all of our existence as humanity, relies on our ability to nurture relationship with other people and with God.
This reading of the Creation story demonstrates that communication, intimacy, and co-operation are just as much a part of God's creation as the Sun, Moon, and stars. It shows a compassionate God who wants to help humanity and acts on our behalf, providing us with mutuality, community, and partnerships for our journey. As we live in the midst of a pandemic that has reminded us of both the difficulty of living in isolation as well as the utter necessity of each other’s competency, compassion, and care for our very survival, it is good to be reminded that we are, in fact, made for each other. Our dependence on one another isn’t a weakness or a mistake or something to be overcome. According to the book of Genesis, our very presence in the world is evidence of God’s care and concern for humanity. We can be a gift to each other, if only we can remember that our foundation, our roots, are in love. Genesis shows us that God knows we need each other. The question becomes, then, how do we craft a life where we live like we are made for each other?
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Wil Gafney- https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2537
Sara Koenig: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1359
Dennis Olson: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=400
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.