Man and woman. Husband and wife. Adults and little children. Our scripture readings this morning revolve around these pairs, and others too: angels and mortals; human beings and animals.
The problem with such pairs is that throughout history they have refused to remain neutral and merely descriptive. For centuries, they have become charged: invested with social/political/economic assumptions about status and worth. They reinforce, even as they reflect, systems of inequality. Pairs, presenting as both–and, get separated into exclusive and hierarchical binaries: either / or. Greatest / least. First / last. Right hand / left. People entitled to be served, to be honored / those reduced to serving the needs and aspirations of others at the expense of their own. Man and woman. Husband and wife. Adults and little children.
And so, instead of delivering good news, our readings may set roadblocks before us – especially the story of the creation of woman and Jesus’ words on divorce.
How should we proceed? We might exploit the fact that in our catholic form of Sunday worship, the liturgy of the word is always followed by the flesh and blood, food and drink of the Eucharistic meal; its nonverbal and symbolic drama. Or we might wager that one of the purposes of the sermon is to open up a conversation about scripture, rather than close it down. But what most undergirds and propels me as preacher this morning is that short prayer Mary Jane offered on our behalf ten minutes ago as we transitioned from ritual gathering to encounter with scripture. The collect of the day. Our collects have been likened to haikus or Zen koans. Poetic, not prosaic. Evocative, not definitive. An overture sounding the themes of a larger piece of music still to unfold.
Today’s collect began: “Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve” (Book of Common Prayer, 234). Let’s explore this always more of God and ask how our scriptures about man and woman, husband and wife, adults and little children might point beyond or behind or beneath themselves and evoke good news.
We have to begin, don’t we, by admitting that the story in Genesis 2 of the creation of the first woman from a rib of the first man just plain reverses what we know from experience: that all human beings – male and female – are born from the bodies of women. And by admitting that this story has long been used to justify male dominance and female subservience in family and church and society.
But unlike the animals God creates and offers to the man as potential companions – and unlike the man himself (for “Adam” is a play on the Hebrew word for ground: “Adamah”) – the woman is not formed out of the ground. She is God’s new creation. Something, someone more. “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,” the man says (Genesis 2:23). He recognizes in her both self and other, and yet neither. The always more of God promises a unity, a community, a commonality beyond or behind or beneath the binaries we impose on the world. Jesus suggests as much in his commentary on Genesis 2: “[W]hat God has joined together, let no one separate” (Mark 10:9). Rephrased, how about: What God has both–anded, let us not either / or into some hierarchy of power and privilege.
When we turn to Jesus’ words on divorce in our reading from the Gospel of Mark, we must resist the mighty temptation to hear him speaking directly to us and our 21st century marriage customs. The whole situation is a test by Jesus’ opponents, trying to catch him saying the wrong thing. As he does so often, Jesus refuses to step into their trap and turns the question back on his questioners, those guardians of separation who thought Jesus was already blurring too many either / ors, like clean / unclean. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” “What did Moses command you?” “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her” (10:2-4).
Right, Jewish custom of the day invested a husband with the power to divorce his wife, but not the other way around. When Jesus attributes this commandment to “your hardness of heart,” he’s actually rejecting it because it reinforces a male-dominated human system of inequality, as opposed to God’s desire (5-8). For a man to divorce his wife rendered her even more vulnerable socially and economically than she already was as a woman.
The ground shifts in the private, follow up discussion with the disciples from Jewish to Roman law, which did grant both wives and husbands the right to initiate divorce proceedings. This likely reflects the context of the gospel writer’s community decades later rather than that of Jesus’ original audience. But I hear even in Jesus’ difficult words about both men and women who divorce and remarry committing adultery (10-12), a warning against humans, all humans, turning their backs on the always more of God, that unity, community, commonality beyond and behind and beneath the binary of male and female.
As if to confirm that Jesus’ deeper objective throughout the text on divorce is protection of the vulnerable within society, Mark immediately adds some words from Jesus about children – the most vulnerable of all. Jesus becomes indignant when his disciples try to hinder people from bringing their children to him for his blessing and says: “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, will never enter it” (10:5).
Which makes the version of Jesus’ words about adults and little children in the Gospel of Thomas all the more remarkable. While not included within our canon of scripture, Thomas does reflect the way an alternative early Christian community viewed Jesus as evoking the always more of God. “Jesus saw some babies nursing. He said to his disciples, ‘These nursing babies are like those who enter God’s domain.’ They said to him, ‘Then shall we enter God’s domain as babies?’ Jesus said to them, ‘When you make the two into one, and when you make the inner like the outer and the outer like the inner, and the upper like the lower, and when you make male and female into one, so that the male will not be male nor the female be female,…then you will enter God’s domain’” (Gospel of Thomas, saying 22).
These cryptic words about the blurring of binaries are intriguing, but I could use them fleshed out in a story, in human experience. And that’s more likely to happen, I’ve learned, if I can glimpse the world through eyes not my own. The witness of African American writer Toni Morrison accomplishes this for me – brilliantly. Oh, my goodness, white and black: another exclusive and hierarchical binary in our society, politics, and economics! Listen to how Morrison, in her novel Beloved, describes the character Baby Suggs and the kind of worship service she led for her people.
“Accepting no title of honor before her name, but allowing a small caress after it, she became an unchurched preacher, one who visited pulpits and opened her great heart to those who could use it. In winter and fall she carried it to AME’s and Baptists, Holinesses and Sanctifieds, the Church of the Redeemer and the Redeemed. Uncalled, unrobed, unanointed, she let her great heart beat in their presence. When warm weather came, Baby Suggs, holy, followed by every black man, woman and child who could make it through, took her great heart to the Clearing—a wide-open place cut deep in the woods nobody knew for what at the end of a path known only to deer and whoever cleared the land in the first place. In the heat of every Saturday afternoon, she sat in the clearing while the people waited among the trees.
“After situating herself on a huge flat-sided rock, Baby Suggs bowed her head and prayed silently. The company watched her from the trees. They knew she was ready when she put her stick down. Then she shouted, ‘Let the children come!’ and they ran from the trees toward her.
“‘Let your mothers hear you laugh,’ she told them, and the woods rang. The adults looked on and could not help smiling.
“Then ‘Let the grown men come,’ she shouted. They stepped out one by one from among the ringing trees.
“‘Let your wives and your children see you dance,’ she told them, and groundlife shuddered underneath their feet.
“Finally she called the women to her. ‘Cry,’ she told them. ‘For the living and the dead. Just cry.’ And without covering their eyes the women let loose.
“It started that way: laughing children, dancing men, crying women and then it got mixed up. Women stopped crying and danced; men sat down and cried; children danced, women laughed, children cried until, exhausted and riven, all and each lay about the Clearing damp and gasping for breath. In the silence that followed, Baby Suggs, holy, offered up to them her great big heart.”
There’s much more to Baby Suggs’ story, of course – starting with the sermon she preached – and to Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Still, this little glimpse makes me wonder if you come into our Clearing today laughing or dancing or crying?
I wonder how it all gets mixed up for you? for us?
And I wonder who might coax us out from among the trees shouting the promise that God is “always more ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve.”
Marion J. Hatchett discusses the collects for the church year at great length in his “Commentary on the American Prayer Book” (HarperSanFrancisco, 1995), pages 163-216.
You can study the Gospel of Thomas compared with and contrasted to the canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in “The Five Gospels,” edited by Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar (Polebridge Press, 1993); saying 22 with commentary is on pages 486-487.
For the story of Baby Suggs’ worship service and sermon, see Toni Morrison, “Beloved” (Vintage Books, 1987, 2004), pages 102-103.
Marc Chagall’s painting “Homage to Apollinaire” (1911/12) both depicts the male / female binary in the Adam and Eve story and evokes the always more of God that blurs it. The image is in the public domain in the United States: www.wikiart.org/en/marc-chagall/homage-to-apollinaire-1912.