Genesis 2:18-24; Mark 10:2-16
What does it mean that one of the core beliefs of the Lutheran church is that we believe that the Bible is the Word of God? In the Constitution of the ELCIC, it says that we believe that the Scriptures are “the inspired Word of God, through which God still speaks.” Every Sunday, we come together to hear this Word of God, and to try to hear what God is saying to us today through this Word. And every Sunday, what God says to us is both the same, and different, from what God said the week before, or the year before, or even the century before. Which is both comforting and unsettling. On the one hand, we yearn for things to stay the same, to be predictable from day to day. We need to know that the God who loved us in the past still loves us today and will continue to love us tomorrow. To imagine that God is going to say something different to us next week makes us anxious––how can we live our lives according to God’s will if there’s a chance that will is going to change?
On the other hand, especially in times like these, we are desperate for things to change. The things that we’ve been told God said in the past, like women come from the ribs of men and are therefore relegated to the position of only helpers of men, or divorce is a sin on par with adultery (the punishment for which is stoning), these interpretations continue to shape our lives today in profound and traumatic ways, and we are yearning for a new Word from God to wash away all of the pain. Our world is different in so many ways from the world of Jesus, from the world three thousand years ago when our Genesis stories were written down and we need to hear the Good News that God is speaking to us today, in these circumstances, even if it will be different next month, and next year, and in the next century.
This morning’s Scripture readings are a prime example of this tension between the Bible being comforting and unsettling. In the past, and even today, they were comforting to those who heard them––our Scripture from Genesis tells us something meaningful about the human need for companionship: it is “not good” for us to be alone. We were not created to live in isolation, but to live in relationship with others, and our yearning for connection is not a sign of weakness or sin. God blesses our search for meaningful relationships and encourages us to find them. And our Gospel reading tells us that God does not desire that we go through the pain of a relationship coming part. Jesus emphasizes that intimate relationships should not be disrupted easily, either by the ones in them or by others from the outside. He also emphasizes the role of God in our relationships, and reminds us that when God is the center and goal of our interactions with those around us we are all blessed. These things are a comfort.
But in the past, and still today, these passages have also been unsettling, if not downright painful. They have been used to argue that marriage is for heterosexual couples only, they’ve been used to relegate women to second place behind their husbands. Jesus’ words have been used to label divorce a sin worse than many others, and to imprison victims in abusive marriages. They were written at a time when marriage was very different from what we today in Canada understand it to be––when marriage was essentially an economic arrangement, the movement of human property from one man to another. And though times have changed, these passages have profoundly shaped our culture’s––our church’s––attitudes towards relationships, in sometimes destructive ways. They have led us to unthinkingly privilege marriage as the most desirable and fulfilling relationship God intends for us, thereby painfully excluding those who are not called to be married, those who want to be married but haven’t found anyone, those who were married but aren’t anymore, because of divorce or death. I mean, think about it for just a minute, how often do we in the church celebrate marriage as the primary relationship in our lives, or hold events that are focused on families? In our church membership database, when you enter the names of two people who live in the same household, the default setting is that the primary contact is Mr. So-and-so, while the secondary contact is Mrs. So-and-so, same last name. If the people are sisters, or roommates, or have different last names, or are the same gender, the database doesn’t automatically recognize that.
By the same token, how often do we in the church bless––truly bless, not just acknowledge––friendship? In my entire life in the church, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone put flowers on the altar in honour of a ten-year anniversary of their Best Friends Forever friendship. I’ve seen those anniversary markers on Facebook, but not in church. What are we teaching our children and young people about God’s presence in their relationships with their friends? What are we teaching them about fulfilling God’s calling to them in life if they choose other priorities in life than getting married? Or if they choose not to get married at all? Believing that today’s Scripture passages are the inspired Word of God, through which God is still speaking to us, what is the blessing God intends for us to hear today? What is the new life God is speaking to us this morning?
Well, one of the blessings of the passage from Genesis comes from its emphasis that God intends for the relationships in our lives to be ones that give life––to us, and to others. In the translation that we heard this morning, God creates a “helper” for Adam. We’ve seen the problems that word has caused in relegating women to “helping” positions, but the Hebrew is more nuanced than that. The Hebrew actually translates more accurately as “helpful counterpart,” which is a term found in Psalms that call on God for help. In other words, God is one of our helpful counterparts. Definitely not a secondary position. And so we can see that those interpretations that tell us that the woman is to be a helper and servant to the man are not right. Instead, what God is telling us today is that God blesses and nurtures relationships––all relationships––that are based on a radical equality of helpful counterparts, where the stronger helps and serves the weaker, not the other way around, so that no one struggles alone and so that both are lifted up by one another’s companionship.
When it comes to what God wants for us in our relationships, our Gospel reading tells us that God desires that in our relationships with others we act in such a way that the other person finds it easier, because of us, to draw closer to Christ. The writer of the Gospel of Mark follows Jesus’ words about divorce with the incident of Jesus and the children because it’s Jesus’ words about the children that show us what God wants in relationships. “‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.’ ... And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.” In other words, do not disrupt someone’s direct relationship with Christ. The life-giving relationships God intends for everyone are the ones in which each person feels blessed by God through the other, whether that other is a spouse, or a sibling, or a child, or a friend.
God does not restrict the blessings of relationships only to marriage. Marriage is one of only many different ways in which God gives us life through our relationships with others. While Jesus’ words about divorce might lead us to believe that he thought marriage was the height of what God is calling us to, his actual life tells us otherwise. Jesus’ most meaningful relationships did not come in marriage, but in his friendships with his disciples and those around him, including men, women, and children. His relationships were built on serving his friends, and also in being helped by them.
For the church, the inspired Word of God through which God still speaks to us today both challenges and comforts. Today, it comforts us by reminding us that we are born into community, and that God’s plan for us is that we should all be nurtured by relationships that are a blessing, whether that be through marriage or family or friends. And it challenges us to reflect on how we, in our practice, keep people away from Christ when we insist that the only relationships God blesses are the ones found in marriage. It also both comforts and challenges us by reminding us that this very community, this particular incarnation of the Body of Christ, is called to be a place where people can come to find life-giving relationships. It’s a place where we are called into life-giving relationships with one another, as sisters and brothers through Christ, where we are called to make it easier for others to feel Christ’s blessing on them, where we are called to be “helpful counterparts” to one another, maybe for a lifetime or maybe just once.
In all of this, in the comfort and the challenge, in the things that stay the same and the things that change, the Word of God comes to us and God still speaks to us, telling us that God is with us always and that God desires blessing and new life for us here and now, in a diversity of relationships. Thanks be to God. Amen.