Sunday, October 08, 2006

Proper 22B

Genesis 2:18-24; Psalm 128; Hebrews 2:1-8; Mark 10:2-9

Okay, quickly now: If you subtract 35 from 125, add 16 and then add 4, then subtract 6, what have you got? A) The extra credit question on your 10th grade math final; B) A problem you’ve scribbled out the answer to in the margins of the math section of the SAT; or C) The equation you have to do in your head (with the offertory anthem in the background and an attentive acolyte trying to hand you water and wine) every Sunday when you’re the priest counting out wafers before and after communion. Let’s see, 125 wafers in the ciborium, but not that many folk here so take out 35, but the priest host breaks into 16 so add that, and remember 4 families get their babies from the nursery, but 6 or so people out there probably won’t come up for communion, okay, that’s what….10 wafers? Or 20? 50?? Who knows?!?

It never occurred to me that I’d be doing so much math as a priest. It’s not my favorite subject. In college, we got to choose between math or foreign language, a choice that for me was, well, muy facil. I haven’t taken math since high school. I’m not bad at math – I can do it, but it takes effort, and I can’t do it in my head. I’ve never once counted out the right number of communion wafers.

The stories of our faith are full of numbers. Seven days of creation. Forty days and nights of rain. Twelve disciples. Forgive seventy times seven. After three days rise again. Perhaps we should offer a math tutorial as part of confirmation classes. Even so, there’s no accounting for some of the stories, challenging us with some kind of “new math” in which the numbers have a meaning beyond our ability to count days or nights or “I forgive you’s”. God is three in one and one in three?? We, though we are many, are one body?? And today’s equation: A man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. One plus one equals….one??

Today’s readings challenge us, not just because of the math involved, but because they have a meaning beyond our ability to add or subtract people from our lives. They are about properties of equality, about relationships, about infinity. And while they are, on one level, about marriage – a topic that, ironically, threatens to divide our church these days – marriage is really just serving as a placeholder for a constant beyond our ability to measure. It’s not a simple equation.

But it all starts when the Pharisees present Jesus with a math problem. Subtraction – Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife? Of course, they already knew the answer – this was a test, an attempt to indict this man who didn’t play by the numbers. But Jesus tested them right back – What did Moses command you? Of course, he already knew the answer to that one.

In that time, the law reflected the prevailing cultural view that women were the property of men – first the property of their fathers, and then transferred by the marriage contract to their husbands. The marriage contract was really between the two extended families, strengthened financially and socially by their union with one another, and guaranteed a future in the children the marriage was expected to produce. If no children were conceived it was assumed that the woman was barren, and that God’s blessing was not upon the union – the man was then allowed to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her, discard her. Now a shame to her family, she likely would not be received back by them and so would be left alone, a desperate situation in such a patriarchal culture. It was not good for a woman to be alone.

The Pharisees had challenged Jesus before, putting him to the test, adding up in their heads his repeated violations of the Mosaic law. Jesus now challenged them to consider their own violation of the law as God originally intended it to be. Because of your hardness of heart [Moses] wrote this commandment for you, he said to them. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.

How profoundly conservative, and how profoundly radical, this insistence that God intended the marriage contract to be inviolable! Conservative, because it was a much higher standard than that to which the Pharisees appealed. Radical, because that standard had nothing at all to do with finances or social status or the promise of children but, rather, was a standard of love and longing, love that chooses to love, love that endures hardship, love that mirrors God’s eternal, infinite love and longing for us. Your question doesn’t make any sense, Jesus was telling the Pharisees. You can’t measure the legal boundaries of love any more than you can measure the circumference of a square.

It was part of the same test, with countless senseless questions, by which the Pharisees and other religious leaders regularly separated people from one another: the good from the bad, the strong from the weak, the rich from the poor, the righteous from the sinner, the party line from the prophet. And so Jesus’ words, set in midst of his continued teaching (that we’ve been reading for weeks now) about what it really means to follow him, his words have a meaning beyond our ability to count wedding anniversaries, just as the sacrament of marriage points beyond itself to something far greater, which is this: We are made to be in relationship with God, with one another, with all of creation. We are made for community, for communion.

We are made for community, because we are made in the image of Community, in the image of God whose perfect love and longing are always directed outward toward the other, toward us. Jesus’ words weave together the two accounts of creation from the book of Genesis, beginning with the first, in which God made the heavens and the earth and the waters and the lights and all the living things that creep or crawl or swim or fly, and it was all good. At the very last, God creates human beings in God’s image, male and female God created them. In this account of creation, to be made in God’s image means fundamentally to be made already in relationship with another who bears God’s image.

We heard the second account of creation this morning, in which God made the heavens and the earth and the waters and the lights and then a human being. But instead of the refrain from the first account, and God saw that it was good, in the second account God looks at all that was made and said, it is not good, not yet….It is not good that the man should be alone. God adds myriad living things to the count of creation, but not one of them is the missing variable. Finally, God creates a second human being, making people literally part of one another, thus making them and all of creation whole. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.

If the first two chapters of Genesis reveal how God intended us to be in relationship with God, with one another, and with the world, then the third chapter of Genesis all the way through to, well, October 8, 2006, reveals how we actually live. Made in God’s image, we are made to be in community, to be in relationship, to direct our love and longing outward toward others; but made in God’s image, we are also made to be free, free to choose community, to choose relationship, to choose love. Which means, of course, we are free to not choose those things. From Cain and Abel to a gunman in a schoolhouse, we are free to not choose to be who we were made to be. We are free to choose to be and to act alone, even though, from the very beginning, God said it was not good that we should be alone.

Thank goodness most relationships don’t end so violently, but every ending is tragic because every relationshipevery relationship – has the potential to reveal what it means to be made in God’s image. We aren’t perfect. We make mistakes. We allow differences to define and divide us. We have all known the pain of separation, of a relationship that has been broken. My first broken relationship was from Tracey, my best friend in 5th grade. We argued one afternoon about, of all things, who was better at math, and then we never spoke again. For a long time, the school bus stop in front of her house was the loneliest place in the world.

Sometimes there are situations in which separation contains the only possibility for healing and hope. And yet we painfully recognize these - and all broken relationships - as exceptions to the way life should be, the way we want our lives to be, the way we were made by God to be. And we learn.

The Reverend James Liggett, an Episcopal priest, suggests that God, to help us learn what it means to not be alone, has given us structures “where we can have our humanity drawn, and sometimes dragged out of us. God has given us schools of love, places to grow.” Friendships are one such school of love. So is marriage. So are families. So are all relationships with another person in which love and longing struggle against fear and pride and self-interest. Relationships in which we grow through another, in which we endure difficult times, in which we risk rejection.

The church is a school of love, where we grow into wholeness as many members of the one body of Christ. Here we celebrate our communion, our shared call to spread the good news that God so loved us and longed for us to become flesh of our flesh and bone of our bones, so that, though it doesn’t make sense if you measure by the law, we even in our sinfulness and selfishness might never be separated from God.

There may be a lot of numbers in the stories of our faith and in the records we keep – probably incorrect numbers if you’re counting on me! But the only equation that really matters is this: that not just two but many – indeed, all – are made by God to be one. It makes at least as much sense as darkness becoming light, sinner becoming redeemed, stranger becoming friend, death becoming life. We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord. We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord, and we pray that our unity may one day be restored. And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love. May they know we are Christians by our love. Amen.

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