Sermons from St. Martin-in-the-Fields:
Oct 03, 2021 |
It's Not Good That We Should Read Alone| The Rev. Dr. Reed Carlson
It's Not Good That We Should Read Alone
Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Reed Carlson for October Evensong on the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 22. Today's readings are:
Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12
Readings may be found on LectionaryPage.net: https://www.lectionarypage.net/YearB_RCL/Pentecost...
It’s Not Good That We Should Read Alone
The Rev. Dr. Reed Carlson, October 3, 2021
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Please be seated.
In my freshman year of college I was randomly assigned to share a dorm room with three other guys and one of them, I’ll be honest, when I first met him I wasn't sure whether he and I would get along. I'll call him Jesse to protect his privacy even though his real name was Jack. When I first met Jesse it was clear to me that he and I had different interests. Jesse wore a lot of black clothes, the music he preferred was the type where people screamed a lot, and worst of all he was kind of ambivalent towards my Xbox. I mean, how can you trust someone who doesn't like to play Xbox, am I right?
So as the weeks went on it turned out that I was right in part, it was true Jesse and I did not spend, you know, a lot of our free time together, but he and I did share something very important in common. We liked our dorm room to be clean. Not spotless necessarily, you know, but livable. In this Jesse and I were unlikely allies because as it turns out our other two roommates were not human beings but filthy trash monsters.
The trash monsters' names were Nick and Brian and I'm not going to protect their privacy. You see, Brian would throw his dirty clothes everywhere when he was done with them and he didn't do laundry until midterms. And Nick would leave his dirty dishes in my bed because that was where he ate all of his meals because he said it had the best view of the TV. After a few weeks of this thankfully Jesse had an idea. It was called building a fire.
Once per week at some point while the trash monsters were away Jesse and I would walk around the room and take everything that we considered to be out of place and put it in a big pile in the entryway and it was understood that our roommates would then have 24 hours to clean up the pile before we burned it. Was this extreme? Absolutely. Were we serious? You know, probably not, but it did kind of work. Things did improve although not really enough and after that first semester, Jesse and I we ditched the trash monsters and we got a different room together, and so even though Jesse never played Xbox with me and I never went in for the screamo music he ended up being the best roommate that I ever had.
Okay so why am I telling you this story? Because my sermon this evening is about unlikely allies and the perspectives that they can bring. You see, I think churches are a bit like freshman college dorm rooms. Often they smell a bit funny and we don't always get to choose who is there even, so we do need to learn to live together and we need to learn how to solve problems together. Some of our roommates do and say things that can make our shared space unlivable while others can do just the opposite, and it's not always the roommates that you expect.
Two of the texts that we read this evening, Genesis 2 and Mark 10, are texts that maybe many of you have heard before in addition to them being read regularly in kind of the church calendar. Portions of them show up in various liturgies, especially wedding liturgies. For centuries they've been used to form a kind of theological framework for understanding love and partnership especially in the home.
However, many of us probably also know that some of our roommates in the church have used these texts in profoundly oppressive ways, especially the story of the Garden of Eden that we find in Genesis 2 and 3. That's my focus for this evening. This text has been used to prescribe restrictive normative notions of gender and sexuality which have resulted in systematic inequality and violence, especially towards women and queer people, and as a result, for many people both in and outside of the church, these stories are sources of trauma, not of hope. Thankfully in the church we have other roommates as well and they know how to build a fire.
I teach at the seminary in Mount Airy about a mile away from here on Germantown Avenue and I offer most of the Old Testament classes there. This is the part of the Bible that was written before Jesus came along and one of the skills that I teach my students (most of them are preparing for ministry), is how to separate out what the Bible says from what people say the Bible says. One of the ways we do this is we read texts together. We read them in class, they read them at home and then they post about it in our class forum. They also read or listen to the interpretations of scholars and other ministers who have unique perspectives on scripture, and in cultivating these different readings of scripture not only do we notice the things we've missed, we also become more aware of our own particularities and intersecting identities.
Now, I teach the Hebrew language too and ancient Near Eastern cultural facts and that sort of thing, but the most important skill that we practice in my classes is learning to read scripture together within the Body of Christ. And it is here where we hear the Holy Spirit speaking to us of liberation and hope and love in the Bible.
So let me give you just a few examples from our genesis reading this this evening. Okay, so you may have heard that this is a story about how women are to blame for sinning and wrecking God's perfect creation for the rest of us, but when you read this story together with the Body of Christ you might see that both the man and the woman are present during that whole exchange with the snake, it's just that the woman does all of the talking while the man is silent. You see, whenever that snake speaks he addresses them in the second person plural form - that is, he's saying “y’all” (but you know, like, in Hebrew), so I believe that whatever the nature of that disobedience is with the fruits and the Tree, whatever its consequences, both the man and the woman are equally responsible.
For centuries the predominantly male interpreters of the Bible have been all too ready to believe the man at his word when he tells God in chapter 3, “Hey, she made me do it. It's not my fault.” But thankfully not everybody who reads the Bible is a man. You may have heard that this story teaches that women must submit to their husbands but when you read this story together with the Body of Christ you might see that this is not how God intended to create the world.
Now it's true that there is a verse in chapter three where God says to the woman, “Your husband shall rule over you.” That's in there, but what too many fail to acknowledge is that this speech from God happens after the snake and the tree and the fruits and all that stuff, thus God is not prescribing the way things ought to be, God is describing the tragic consequences of what has resulted from that first sin. Women submitting to men was not an order that God imposed on creation, it's a sign that things are going wrong.
Now, that may seem like a kind of minor rhetorical distinction but consider this: in the same speech God also tells the man that the ground itself is now cursed and that it will be difficult and back-breaking work to farm food. So does that mean it's wrong to, I don't know, buy a tractor? Is it going against the very nature of Creation to spread a little weed killer or to find some other way to ameliorate this curse that is on the ground? Just because gender inequality was a consequence of sin, that does not mean we have to live our lives maintaining it, thankfully. Thankfully not everybody who reads the Bible is willing to believe that God baked gender inequality into creation.
You may have heard that because this story depicts a man and a woman in a committed sexual relationship that it thereby forbids any other kind of sexual contact between human beings. But when you read this story together with the Body of Christ you might see that God's imperative to those first human beings is to create and raise children, and that is not at all the same thing as a prohibition against other expressions of love and generosity and commitments, including those that develop between same-sex partners.
The fact is, the very first problem, before the tree, the very first problem that we see in the Garden of Eden is that the very first human being is lonely. That's what's in our reading this evening. The very first verse, this is what God says: “It is not good that man should be alone.” Companionship and partnership is what God creates in this story and it's what God intends for all of us, however and with whomever we might find it. Thankfully not everybody who reads the Bible has such a narrow understanding of human relationships.
Let's do one more. You may have heard that this story teaches that every human being is naturally one of two genders but when you read this story together with the Body of Christ you might notice that God originally created just one person, and within that single person are the substances that will eventually become the first man and woman. The first human being is called Adam, which is the Hebrew word for mortal. It's also the root of the name that we use today, Adam. The word Adam is actually a pun because God forms Adam from the adama - that is, from the ground. As one Bible scholar puts it, God takes some of the ground and creates a groundling. The words man and woman -that is, ish and isha in Hebrew - do not even appear in the narrative until there are two people split apart from that original mortal Adam.
What could it possibly mean to be male or female when you are literally the only member of your species? What does it mean that the very first human being that God created was sexually ambiguous? Thankfully there are people in the Body of Christ asking these important questions because I'll be honest, as interesting and as necessary as they are, I would have never thought of them. And I'm a Bible scholar right?
So let me close with one more thought. There's this idea out there that I sometimes encounter in progressive, inclusive churches that the Bible and especially the Old Testament, is not really on our side. “Yeah there are some nice bits here and there but overall the Bible is old, it's outdated and it's non-essential for a kind of modern, you know, progressive Christian faith.” I think when folks say this most of the time I think they mean well. They might be thinking of passages like the Garden of Eden and how some branches of the church have used this text to control and to injure and to violate, but when we bracket off the Bible so uncritically I don't think we realize that we are making the same mistake that those other Christian branches are making. Neither of us is reading scripture with the church.
Today, we're reading it only with the church of the past. It's just that some of us like those past interpretations and some of us reject them, but both perspectives are impoverished, both are short-sighted and both are exclusive. Reading scripture together is one of the most important ways that we as the Body of Christ hear what God is speaking to us today, and in those settings the voice of the Holy Spirit comes as much from the people around us as it does from our own individual readings or hearings of the text. It is not good that we should read alone. Therefore let us cling to the Body of Christ, our community of interpreters, and become one flesh. Amen.
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