Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Second Creation Story: Marriage

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Genesis 2:4b-25.  If I wasn't already reappointed, this one might have gotten me reappointed:

Today we heard the second creation story we find in the bible, which stands in contrast to the story we heard last week and find in chapter 1.  These two stories are very different and cannot be reconciled, and they also have very different meanings.  The first creation story ends by saying “thus the heavens and the earth were finished,” and the second story begins with   “In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.”  The first creation story starts with the heavens and goes to the plants, animals and then concludes with the creation of humans, both male and female at the same time, from heaven to earth.  Today’s passage reverses that order, and man is created first after the waters begin to flow over the land.  But that’s not the only difference.  God also creates differently.

In the first account, God creates by fiat, God says what is going to happen and it happens, God is transcendent, but this time God fashions man from the dirt by actually forming the man together, and then breathing into him the breath of life, and it is upon receiving the breath of life that he becomes living being, God is immanent.  The word translated here as man is actually Adam, which is the masculine form of the feminine word earth which is adama.  So in the translation we miss a word play from the Hebrew, which we actually find a lot of in scripture, so that adam is created from the adama, or we might say, as Amy Jill Levine notes, that God creates the earthling from the earth or the human from the humus.  But Adam, and Eve, do not get their names until later in chapter 3, here they are simply referred to as the man and the woman, but we haven’t gotten to the woman yet.

There is also a difference in the name used for God.  In chapter one, the Hebrew name given for God is Elohim, which gets translated simply as God.  In chapter 2, God is referred to as Yahweh, or the letters YHWH, as there are no vowels in ancient Hebrew, and so we don’t actually know how it is pronounced, but scholars think that Yahweh is the best approximation, and it is translated as Lord God.  So when you are reading scripture and you see God used sometimes and Lord God used other times it is because a different Hebrew word for God is being used. 
So the name of God is different, the way that God creates, the order of creation is different, and when and how man and woman are created is also different.

In the first account, man and woman are created at the same time, and they are created at the end.  In this account the man is created first, then God creates the plants and puts man in the garden to till it and keep it.    Adam is not just sitting back and enjoying the creation, he must work the soil, but then God decides that Adam needs some companionship, and so God makes the animals, and Adam names them, but God decides they aren’t really good as a helper and partner.  A dog is great and all, but there is only so much the dog can do.  And so God puts the man to sleep, takes out his rib and forms it into a woman.

Typically this has been interpreted as saying that because the woman comes from the man that she is to be subservient to the man.  There are some problems with this idea.  First, is that when is a product that comes out second worse than the first?  Normally the first thing out is sort of the beta test, then you correct everything that’s wrong, and come out with a better product.  We could look at the woman that way.  Now ladies, since I have just defended you, let me defend the men as well.  The rib that was removed I believe is the one that should have been here across our guts to hold our bellies in, and so we don’t want to hear anything more about our bellies hanging out because it’s your fault.  The second problem with the normal interpretation is that because God wanted to make a helper for man, that that must mean that she is subservient, as helper sort of implies servant.  But this is not something held up by scripture, as God is often referred to as our helper, so that term need not imply subservience.

I think there are two Jewish midrash, or scriptural interpretations, that I think give a different perspective.  The first says that when God created Adam first, that he was both male and female in one body, like a Siamese twin, and what God did when he put Adam to sleep is sort of slice him in half, and so the man and woman are the same and yet also frustratingly different.  I think there is something nice about that imagery, although I added in the part about being frustratingly different.  The other midrash says that if Eve had been made from Adam’s head that she would have lorded it over him, and if she had been made from Adam’s feet he would have walked all over her, but instead Eve was made from Adam’s side so that they could be companions and walk side by side with each other through life.

The other major difference between the first creation story and the second is the reason why the story is told.  As I said last week, I believe that to understand the purpose of these stories, of why they are told and why they are told the way that they are, that we have to look at the end.  I believe that the first creation story is not really about the how, but instead the who, that is that God created, and that the purpose is to tell us why we celebrate, recognize and practice the Sabbath, even if we really don’t.  And so applying that standard to today’s story, we find that the purpose of today’s story is to explain marriage.  But there is one interesting thing, and that is that it is not the woman who leaves her mother and father and clings to her husband, which is certainly what we would expect, but instead it is the man who leave father and mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.  Marriage has become a major topic of conversation recently, and not just because wedding season is right around the corner, but because of the Supreme Court’s recent hearing of two cases involving gay marriage.  But before I step way out on a limb waiting for it to be cut off behind me, let’s talk about something we began last week, evolution.  Who would have ever thought that evolution would be a safer topic in church than marriage?

Darwin was not the first to really propose the idea of evolution, in fact it was literally known to his paternal grandfather who was a naturalist and also wrote about what we would now see as evolution.  These ideas were swirling around long before Darwin ever put them onto paper, he was just sort of the one who synthesized the different ideas into one.  Reaction to Darwin’s ideas were, as you would imagine, wide ranging, although reaction in the US was quite calm compared to where we are today.  One of the responses was the rise of viewing the Bible as being inerrant, a movement that arose at the same time and for the same reason as Catholics claiming the Pope as inerrant, although I strongly suspect that few of us think that the Pope is inerrant.  But even reading the Bible that way did not automatically mean a rejection of evolution.

Rev. Dr. Benjamin Warfield who really created the definition of Biblical inerrancy as we understand it today believed in evolution because he said it matched what he saw in the world, and he and others who were just beginning to be called fundamentalists thought that evolution helped people understand God’s process of creation.  True opposition to evolution the way we understand it today did not really develop until the 1920’s and later, and had less to do with what Darwin actually said than to how some were applying Darwin’s ideas into social policy with the rise of social Darwinism.

Social Darwinists claimed that the poor, handicapped, criminals, and others deemed unworthy  by society should be weeded out, allowed to die, or purposely killed in order to protect humanity as a species.  This movement also took on a distinctly racial characteristic for many in keeping the race, meaning the white race, pure.  The idea of eugenics, of only allowing selective breeding among humans, came out of this thought.  William Jennings Bryan, who served as prosecutor in the famous Scopes monkey trial in Tennessee, turned from a moderate on evolution and came to believe that evolutionary thought must be opposed in all ways because it had become too dangerous to be taught or believed after he visited Nazi Germany, which sort of served as the testing ground for social Darwinist thought.

So the opposition to evolution as we understand it now really had little to do with what Darwin actually said about evolution and its potential conflict with the Bible, but instead came about because of social policy and it’s clear violation of biblical principles of loving our neighbor.  So if we want to oppose social Darwinism, and it is still out there and alive today, as opposed to scriptural witness, we absolutely should, but we don’t have to oppose the scientific principle of evolution in order to be good Christians.

So with the easy thing out of the way, let’s return to marriage.  Even though this story tells us that marriage is just between a man and a woman, we don’t have to look very far in Genesis, let alone other books in the Bible, to see a different witness.  To name just a few, Abraham has at least two wives, or a wife and concubine, Jacob has two wives, and then there is King David who has nine wives, and he is followed by Solomon who has 300 wives and 700 concubines, and I have no idea how Solomon did it, I have a hard enough time just making Linda happy.

Lately it has been argued that while we might have some different witness in scripture, that certainly for the last 2000 years the understanding of marriage has been one man and one woman.  While that is somewhat true, it’s still not as clear cut as we would like it to be, nor has the definition of marriage remained unchanged over time.  Gentlemen, if you did not have to give your future father-in-law some of your possessions in order to purchase your wife, then marriage has be redefined.  Ladies if you did not have to bring a dowry into the marriage, or basically money to make it worthwhile for someone to marry you, then marriage has been redefined.  If you got to choose your spouse, marriage was redefined.  If you married for love, versus for practical purposes, marriage was redefined.  Our very conception and understanding of marriage is very different than it was even 500 years ago, let alone 2000 years ago.

But the church’s understanding and participation in marriage have also changed.  The first evidence we have of a marriage rite in the church comes from the second century, but it was said that a couple should receive the consent of the bishop in order to marry, something I didn’t do, and the church only blessed the marriage, the marriage ceremony was a civil ceremony.  In the 8th century we find the first marriage liturgy, but again it is still just a blessing performed by the church, it is not done in the church, and the church’s blessing adds no legality to the affair.  As marriage continued to develop and the church thought more about it, the Roman Catholic church came to articulate that the purposes for marriage was first for procreation, second for issues of sexual morality and third for mutual companionship.  But it was really the Protestant Reformation which changed the church’s perspective and led us to where we are today.

Martin Luther and others found themselves with a major problem on their hands, because in Germany at the time the only thing required for a couple to get married was for each of them to say to the other “I marry you.”  So what was happening was that large numbers of women were finding themselves pregnant and claiming that the man had said he was marrying them, and the men denying it, leaving everyone involved in the ultimate he said-she said.  And so Martin Luther moved marriage from something that happened outside of the church, to instead becoming a rite of the church and wedding ceremonies moved inside churches for the first time.  But, marriage was still a civil affair with the priest acting as an agent of the state.  What Luther also did was to change the reasons for marriage so that mutual companionship came first, followed by providing sexual morality and followed by procreation.

Today marriage remains a civil affair, even when done by the church as I and other ministers marry by the authority of the state.  But the church adds another dimension giving the blessing of God to the marriage.  Within Europe these two different dimensions are recognized by the fact that couples normally have two ceremonies, a civil ceremony and, if they desire, a religious ceremony, so that ministers do not act as agents of the state.  Conservatives are going to lose on the issue of gay marriage, and the tide is already rapidly turning.  80% of people under the age of 30 support gay marriage.  31% of evangelicals support gay marriage, and I am guessing that the majority of those are younger.  In fact, more people accept gay marriage then believe in evolution.  And this is really a generational issue.  For my generation and younger it isn’t an issue for most, but that doesn’t mean it’s going away, and so I would like to propose a different way out of the current dilemma.

My compromise position, and I know it will be unpalatable to many, but it will be unpalatable to both sides, which is the sign of a good compromise, is to remove the church from the issue of performing marriages.  That is not to say that the church won’t do weddings, but that we will no longer perform weddings as agents of the state.  We say to the state that they can define marriage however it is that they want, and we will do the same.  Because here is the big problem with making the state’s definition our definition: it means that the state can dictate to the church who we can and can’t marry.  One of the arguments made to the Supreme Court, primarily by Protestants who have flipped the understanding of the purpose of marriage over to the Catholic position, said that the purpose of marriage is procreation and thus only males and females should be allowed to marry.

The Court could technically rule that the sole purpose of marriage is procreation, and thus only men and women who are capable of having children would be legally allowed to get married, and that would require me to only marry such people.  And if I was to marry an older couple who were no longer of child bearing age, or to marry a couple in which one of the partners was infertile, then I could be charged.

And lest you think I am out of my mind with this idea, several years ago in the State of New York, an episcopal priest was charged because she performed a marriage ceremony for an elderly couple who never sought a marriage license from the state because there were significant financial reasons for them to be unmarried, but they wanted their relationship recognized and blessed by the church, and so they were.  Charges were later dropped because the state decided that they didn’t want to really take this on, but as the population continues to age this will become more and more of an issue.

And so I believe that the church should stop trying to force the state to take on their definition of marriage, because then the opposite will also be true and the church will be forced to take on the state’s definition of marriage, whatever that may be.  It doesn’t have to be this way, and it shouldn’t be this way.  Marriage is not really about sex or procreation, although that is certainly a portion, but I would argue it’s a small portion.  Just look at the marriage vows, which contain none of that language.  Instead the couple pledges to love, comfort, honor, and keep each other, for better and for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, and to forsake all others  as long as they both shall live.

I believe strongly in the sanctity of marriage.  I believe that marriage provides stability to families and to society, but I would also say that the bigger mockery to marriage is not gays and lesbians who are in long-term committed relationships getting married, instead the bigger mockery is what Brittany Spears and the Kardashians and so many others are doing with marriage.  The church should have a standard and definition of marriage and it should be of the highest order, but it doesn’t have to be the states’ definition.  We are called to be in the world, but not of the world, and we can do that and hold to our own principles whatever they may be, whether you are opposed to gay marriage or whether you support it, as I do, and I know I just got myself into a lot of trouble, and that’s okay.  I have said many many times that you don’t have to agree with me, and I understand and respect the power of the pulpit and I am not telling you that you have to believe the same thing I do, we can disagree and still be brothers and sisters, and still be civil and respectful to each other and still take our faith seriously, but I think that my compromise can help all of us in many many ways.

And the only way I could really think to end this was simply by saying that next week we move past the controversial things of the past two weeks to looking at the fall of Adam and Eve in what is often called the temptation story.  May it be so.  Amen.

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