Sunday, October 4, 2015

Ideal human(s)

A Sermon preached on October 4th (Proper 22) at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden
Job 1:1; 2:1-10, Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12, Mark 10:2-16

One of the greatest sins of a preacher, apart from bad jokes and talking too much about him- or herself of course, is something called Eisegesis (and perhaps I had better add using incomprehensible Greek terms to my list of sins). Eisegesis means reading something into a text rather than what a preacher is supposed to do, which is Exegesis, reading something out of the text. So the sin is to have a fixed idea or theme and to preach on it regardless of what Scripture actually says. As we are celebrating Harvest Festival and the Blessing of the Animals today and as I want to talk about creation, you might think I am going to be guilty of the sin of Eisegesis. After all where is that theme in the trials of Job, in Hebrews’ hymn of praise to Jesus’ divinity and humanity, or in Jesus’ prohibition of divorce in Mark? It is in there, I promise, though it’s not the only theme, I will admit.

So, let’s look at the headline topic of divorce for a moment. One thing I will say, playing off what I said last week, is that I find it more than a little ironic how many churches and church leaders accept divorce and allow for remarriage, while at the same time condemning homosexuality and loving, committed homosexual relationships. They manage to ignore what sounds like a very clear prohibition of divorce by our Lord in Mark, and in Matthew, and a similar statement by St. Paul in Corinthians (with some exceptions) and yet manage to find and hold to a doctrine against homosexuality based on a few verses that are considerably more obscure – and do not include any teaching by our Lord.
Anyway, in the passage from Mark, Jesus does his own Exegesis based on Genesis 1:27 “God made them male and female,” leading him to conclude with the well-known phrase – which is part of our marriage ceremony - “What God has joined together, let no one separate." This is a wonderful ideal and it is one we should all strive to achieve. We should certainly not give up on what God joined together in the marriage ceremony at the first hint of trouble. 

Relationships are worth fighting for – but not fighting over. In the end however we are human and not perfect – there is also that little episode of the Fall and the loss of innocence in Genesis - and so in this as in so many other ideals we fall short and need forgiveness. Some relationships just can’t go on as they are and need to be put on a new footing – which may have to include separation and divorce. And if Jesus’ teaching about adultery sounds harsh – I think we can assume that it was at least in part a criticism of king Herod’s and Herodias’ marital relationship, that’s the one that cost John the Baptist his head when he criticized it.

What is interesting about Jesus’ high view of marriage, and also relevant for my main theme, is that he doesn’t base it on the Law, but on the story of Creation. God not only created things, and creatures, and people, he also created them, Jesus says, to be in relationship(s). The first human needed a companion, humans are not solitary individuals. And to be created in God’s image is to be created in the image of the Trinitarian God, a God of relationships.

Many churches have started to celebrate not just Harvest Festivals at this time of year – with their focus on agriculture and on nature mainly as a source of products for us to use and consume. Instead they celebrate Creation or Creationtide – a whole season from the 1st September until the 4th October (St. Francis’ Day). You might have heard that this year the Pope declared Sept. 1st to be a Day for celebrating Creation. The German churches have done this for some years now – with a central ecumenical service on the first Friday in September – next year not far from here in Bingen. And as I was chairing the meeting at the time, I remember well how all the Anglican churches in Germany agreed to this initiative, which came from our Orthodox brothers and sisters, who have always had a high doctrine of Creation. The purpose of Creationtide is not just to celebrate and give thanks for God’s Creation, without which we would not exist, but also to remember and remind ourselves of our responsibility to act as stewards of God’s Creation, most famously described in Genesis 1:26 as “to have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of heaven … and over all the earth.” Psalm 8, from which the author of Hebrews quotes today, also describes this role:
“You have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.”

The translations “to have dominion,” “to put under their feet,” or in the version we heard in Hebrews, “subjecting all things,” are all phrases that do not give full justice to the concept better described as stewardship. According to Genesis 2:15 God put Adam in the garden to till and to keep it. That’s a much better description, as unfortunately the words dominion and subjection have proved to be dangerous. They were and still are used as a justification for the claim that we can do whatever we want to the environment, to the atmosphere, to the oceans, to the genetic make-up of plants and animals as long as it serves that other god we seem to love so much: economic growth and the increase of wealth. Yet as the Pope rightly pointed out in his recent speech to the UN that is both against our own long-term self-interest and is wrong theologically:
“Human beings are part of the environment. We live in communion with it …. Any harm done to the environment, therefore, is harm done to humanity” “Second, because every creature, particularly a living creature, has an intrinsic value, in its existence, its life, its beauty and its interdependence with other creatures. We Christians, together with the other monotheistic religions, believe that the universe is the fruit of a loving decision by the Creator, who permits man respectfully to use creation for the good of his fellow men and for the glory of the Creator; he is not authorized to abuse it, much less to destroy it.” [1]

This is not a new criticism. Two thousand years ago the author of Hebrews also noticed and noted that humanity was not doing a particularly good job with the responsibility for the world and for one another that God gave humanity at Creation: (Hebrews 2:8) “Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them,” or being looked after for with due care and reverence.” No we don’t, the world is still full of chaos, destruction, exploitation, and injustice – much of it human-made. 

So, is all is lost, must we give up and go home? No, because as the author of Hebrews makes clear, while humans in general have not done well, one human being did, one human being lives up to God’s ideal of stewardship, one human being saved the world, and one human being has empowered us to do likewise: Jesus. “But we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels,” that is human, “now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.” (2:9) Jesus has already attained the status that God has marked out for humans in general. As our representative he has done what we could not do for ourselves. This does not relieve us of our responsibility. When Hebrews says that we have been sanctified by Jesus and have the same Father, and when Jesus calls us brothers and sisters that means that our status as sons and daughters of God has been revived and renewed. And not only has our status been renewed by Jesus, but also our role as stewards. He is the “pioneer” of our and the world’s salvation and he calls us to love God and to love, to care for, to respect, and to rejoice in everything and everyone God has created. Amen


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