A sermon for the service of Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, including the Blessing of the Animals, at the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio. Readings include Genesis 2:18-24
I heard not long ago of someone in this developed and modern country who had managed to grow all the way into a college-level anatomy course with the ingrained and erroneous belief that men and women have a different number of ribs, based on this story of Genesis.
But that is not what the text teaches. It is not what the Bible says.
These verses have been used to diminish the equality of women, and of those of genders other than male; but that is not what the text teaches. It is not what the Bible says.
The Revd Dr Wil Gafney explains in Womanist Midrash,
“It is curious; the animals are created with the ability to partner and mate; yet the adam is singular, pluripotent, but singular.”[i]
In other words, God has created the human complete in itself, and expects it to find its place in creation.
Yet the human, the adam, is unsatisfied. It envies, perhaps, the animals. So God, ever provident, divides it into two.
Again, Gafney translates for us,
“God puts the creature to sleep and divides it in half … Rabbi Samuel ben Nachman taught that God split the earth-colored adam into two equal portions.”[ii]
Only after the division of the adam into two are the creatures called man and woman for the first time. Despite what the translators of the court of King James have led generations of English-speaking Christians to believe, these biblical origins of humanity are radically whole and equal and encompassing, before we were divided into binaries.
What would it take, do you think, for us to become whole again?
While the human was still in its whole and singular state, God did something remarkable. God delegated to the human the naming of every living creature on the earth: the dogs, the cats, the cattle, the fish, the duck-billed platypi, the pelican. God gave to the human the ability to define and to describe the creatures, and to choose how to be in relationship with them.
And God fully expected that the human would live in partnership with the animals, and find common cause with them, in the tending of God’s creation.
I heard this past week that the Department of Fish and Wildlife of this country alone declared more than twenty species of birds, animals, fish, and one plant extinct. Climate change, pollution, habitat erosion, human selfishness have wiped entire expressions of God’s creative diversity off the face of the planet.
What would it take, do you think, for us to become whole?
Genesis gives at least two answers here.
One is covenantal love. The author looks at the example of two humans promising themselves to one another in marriage and describes them as becoming through that covenant of love, “one flesh”; as though they are restoring the wholeness of the first human. This, by the way, does not depend upon the gender of the people participating, since the first, whole human contained all genders in itself. Remember David and Jonathan, Ruth and Naomi, and their promises to be part of one another’s story, one another’s lives. It depends rather upon the self-giving, union and reunion, that the covenant implies. The covenant of love explains why we feel empty, as though a part had been torn out of us, when we lose the loved one to death or separation; it is as though we were divided into two pieces of clay.
God has also invited the human to make a covenant with each of the living creatures with which they share the earth: naming them makes the human, makes us responsible for their care and nurture. Some of us have brought particular creatures here for blessing today, that we have named and claimed and promised to care for, and we know how strong those bonds are; we are bound by the covenant, the promise, we have made to love them. But our covenant with creation is older and broader and deeper than these bonds of love. If we were to live into our covenantal responsibility for all creation, perhaps we would see fewer creatures go extinct; if we were to model the covenant of love that God has invited us into.
Because that is the second answer given here in the early chapters of Genesis to how we may regain our wholeness. It is God’s mercy, God’s providence, God’s loving kindness that plants the garden and sows the seed and humours the human, dividing it in two so that it may live in relationship with its mirror image, which is the image of God.
The stories of how we came to be divided, from creation and from one another, contain within them the seeds of our reconciliation. They are stories not of a descending order or unequal ribcages, but of the wholeness for which God created us, and the covenants of care, the covenants of love, which God has given us as a framework for understanding our relationship to one another, to the world, and to God.
It is into and out of love that God created us, and it is out of love that God sent Jesus Christ to be among us and to live for us the way of love, the way of wholeness, and it is love that will make us whole out of all of our diversity and encompass all of our humanity: love for the creation in which God has given us our place; love for one another; love for God, who is love, who has embodied love, who hates nothing and no one that God has made, as it is written in the Wisdom of Solomon:
“Because the whole world before you is like a speck that tips the scales,
and like a drop of morning dew that falls on the ground.
But you are merciful to all, for you can do all things,
and you overlook people’s sins, so that they may repent.
For you love all things that exist,
and detest none of the things that you have made,
for you would not have made anything if you had hated it.
How would anything have endured if you had not willed it?
Or how would anything not called forth by you have been preserved?
You spare all things, for they are yours, O Lord, you who love the living.
For your immortal spirit is in all things.” (Wisdom 11:22-26,12:1, NRSV)
[i] Wilda C. Gafney, Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne (Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 20
[ii] Ibid, 21