This post is longer than typical because it is the transcript of a sermon given on August 9 at Eastminster Presbyterian Church in Grand Rapids MI. Sermons are, of course, meant to be heard rather than read so the style of this post reflects that. If you would rather hear than read, you can listen to the sermon here.
Scripture: Genesis 2: 4-7,15-23; John 21: 15-17
The early chapters of Genesis can be difficult to talk about. Big bang, human origins. Young earth, old earth. You know the issues. They are often the source of fierce debate even among friends. And we don’t know each other very well. I don’t know what you think about this, and you don’t know what I think. So this is potentially a mine field, but lets go there anyway.
But first three orienting comments about this scripture passage.
Today I am not asking “Did it happen?” That’s a topic for another time. I am asking, as I do with any Biblical text “Why do we have this story? What does it tell us about God? What does it tell us about humankind? What does it tell us about the relationship between God and humankind?
Second: Sometimes I’ll refer to the scripture passage as “text”, sometimes as “story” This is not a comment or an assumption – one way or the other- about the historicity of the passage. We can talk about the story of the 2012 election, or we can tell a child the story of how she was born. Text and story and passage are all ways of talking about a section of a larger work, the Bible.
Finally: These are rich and complex and for me, endlessly fascinating chapters. What we talk about today just scratches the surface of what these early chapters of Genesis contain. There is so much more we could say. But here is what we have today.
Please pray with me.
My the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be acceptable to you O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer.
There are two stories in the Bible about the creation of humankind. Each has something important to tell us and today we’re looking at a part of the second story. Its important to take each story on its own terms and to listen carefully to the text. It is easy for us to bring our assumptions and world view to the text, we just about can’t help it. Its easy for us to assume we know what’s in the story and what it all means. So I want to spend a little time with this familiar passage.
What strikes me about this passage in Genesis is how interconnected we are. We are formed from the dust of the ground. We are intimately part of creation. We have important things in common with other creatures. They too are created by God from the ground. We are linked together by this.
We humans become alive by the breath of God. This is not simply divine CPR. In the Bible “breath” means more than respiration. As you might know the Hebrew word for breath is also the word for wind and spirit. It is a rich word in Hebrew. God breaths into us and so we belong to God body and soul.
Think about that for a minute. Plants and animals and us, made by God from the ground and we, humans, animated by the breath, the spirit of God. The story situates us between God and creation in a unique way.
In the search for a helper, God brings every animal and bird to the human to be named. The human names every living creature.
This is important.
In the ancient world, naming was a significant event having to do with identity, role and function. Naming involves knowledge and insight into the thing being named. Naming is a creative act. It is an act that describes and defines. Think about the times in the Bible when God gives someone a new name. . Jacob to Israel. Saul to Paul. Simon to Peter. The humans naming of animals was not a trivial event. God gave the human an important responsibility. With that act God shared some of God’s power and authority with the human.
All this naming takes place in the midst of the search for a suitable helper. Because it is not good for the human to be alone. We need to spend a little time with this often misunderstood and misused word “helper”. We read in translation and so sometimes nuance is missed and often connections with other parts of the Bible are missed.
Some traditional interpretations limit this verse and the ones following to be only about the status of women and those readings declare that status to be a subordinate one.
The Hebrew word so often translated here as “helper” in its other uses in Scripture is not limited to women and does not refer to a subordinate being. In fact most of the time this word translated as “helper” refers to God.
God as Israel’s helper. God who helps God’s people.
A better reading evokes a sense of kinship and community. Remember the man has named all the animals but not until he sees another human,
the woman does he find his helper. Bone of my bones. Flesh of my flesh is a cry of recognition by the man of “here is another like me, I am no longer alone”.
All this is interesting, but, so what? What does this tell us about being human? When you stop and think about it, what it tells us is amazing. We forget how amazing it is.
God shares, freely shares responsibility with us. God shares God’s work with us. With us!
God gives the man, and by extension all of us responsibility.
We live with all of creation on earth and we live with and for God the creator.
We have the ability to name, to know, and that makes us responsible.
We are made for community, it is not good for us to be alone.
We need each other.
Being human involves responsibility and community.
Which brings us to the New Testament reading.
Do you love me?
Feed my lambs
Do you love me?
Tend my sheep
Do you love me?
Feed my sheep
Somehow, love appears to be interconnected with responsibility and community. Jesus sends Peter, fallible as he is, and so by extension all of us fallible as we are into community and gives Peter and us responsibility for each other.
Jesus shares his work with us.
Peter is told to tend and feed.
It echoes the Genesis command to till and keep.
What, in practical terms, does being human look like? Well the short answer is as always, Jesus. Jesus is our model and example.
For us city folks, the life of a shepherd might seem idyllic. Out in nature, with woolly, friendly sheep. However feeding and tending sheep is actually pretty mundane and boring. Get up, take the sheep to pasture. Watch them eat. Be sure they don’t wonder off. Make sure nothing eats them. Bring them home at the end of the day and put them in the pen. The next day, get up, take the sheep to pasture. Watch them eat. Be sure they don’t wonder off… Most of the time not exciting or dramatic.
Kind of like feeding the kids three times a day, every day for 18 years.
Kind of like showing up at the job five days a week, every week for 25 years.
Feeding and tending.
Perhaps not so exciting, but so crucial to do well.
Once I was on the train to Chicago and because I don’t use earphones or ear buds, I overheard a conversation. I’m not trying to ease drop, its like going alone to a restaurant and being seated next to a table with a couple of people engaged in a lively conversation. . You just hear some of what they are saying. So this woman is on the train and begins, like you do, making small talk with the younger woman sitting next to her. By the time the train gets to Chicago, their conversation had moved from the superficial to the deep. Their conversation had become intimate and the woman’s faith was clearly evident and gentle and comforting to the other woman. As I get off the train, I thought that was a great thing. Seven days or so later I’m on my way home riding the train from Chicago to Grand Rapids and that same woman is in the same train car with me. And she does the same thing.
She starts chatting with the person next to her and by the time we reach Grand Rapids she and her seat mate are talking about an important and tender subject. And the woman promises to pray for the other person.
In seminary my New Testament professor used to tell us, If its repeated it must be important. If its repeated it must be important.
That holds true from more than Bible study.
What are the odds that the same woman would be in the same train car with me and have two deeply personal conversations with complete strangers? This happened eight years ago and I still think about it. She didn’t even talk to me and I was affected by her. How did she do that? How did she go from chatting to deep conversation? My sense was that she had these sorts of conversations all the time. This appeared to be normal for her. I think it was because she listened well and carefully and she was safe to talk to. You just knew by her demeanor that she was safe to talk to.
She was a recently retired secretary from a Grand Rapids public elementary school. And I thought, how blessed were all those children in her school to have her as a school secretary. How blessed for them to have such a safe and good listener. Just imagine how many live she touched by being herself and going to work each day.
Do you love me? Tend my sheep.
In my work with community college students, I use a little book by Calvin College professor Quentin Schultz and he tells a story about a bus driver that resonates with my students because a lot of them ride the bus every day and they have some stories to tell about that. Here is his story, 1
Recently I rode on a city bus in San Diego. The middle-aged African American driver was a remarkable servant. She greeted us with a sincere smile, offered advice about local places to visit, and asked the bus load of people what they thought about city and world affairs. She cracked witty jokes and told us all how thankful she was for her job of twenty three years.”There’s nothing I would rather do,” she declared. “I love my passengers.” She mentioned that she had turned down office work in order to continue serving her riders.
Then an elderly Asian man walked from the back to the front of the bus to place trash in a small bucket. The driver complimented him for keeping the bus clean, smiled, and leaned into the aisle. He then leaned toward her while facing the back of the bus, and she kissed him lightly on the cheek. Passengers broke out in applause. During this short trip, the driver’s heart transformed the vehicle into a station for civility, service and joy.
I would say that driver transformed that bus into a little encounter with the kingdom of heaven.
Do you love me?
Tend my sheep
I bet you can think of someone, at least one person like these two, can’t you? WAIT
Who comes to mind? Perhaps you can share those stories with each other after worship.
Being human is not especially hard, not in the sense of being a nuclear engineer or a brain surgeon or a Supreme Court justice.
But being human requires awareness and persistence and patience to nurture connections the way our texts in Genesis and John, and really all of Scripture tell us.
Being human is being connected, being in community
with the world around us and
taking our God given responsibility seriously.
Being human means we recognize our common kinship, all of us humans,
all of you are bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh.
Partners, helpers, companions along the way as we live our common calling to love God and neighbor.
Jesus asks us, do you love me?
We know what to do.
May we continue to grow in the love of God and neighbor. May we continue being human.
Thanks be to God.
1Quentin Schultze, Here I am, Now what on earth should I be doing? Page 38, Baker Books, 2005.