by Elle Dowd
The texts in this week’s lectionary readings are ones that come with some historical baggage. They are texts that have been frequently used to subjugate women and LGBTQIA+ people as well as non-human nature. With the current news cycle swirling with all kinds of triggering content for members of marginalized populations, these readings can feel more than a little bit overwhelming to the preacher.
Scripture pieces like these confront us, sometimes afront us, but we have the power to confront the text as well. As with all sacred texts, there are moments to trouble the canon; times that we look at scripture and push back or ask questions. There are pieces that can’t be honestly redeemed. In those situations, it is good to name it. In many cases, hower, the Holy Spirit is tricky and slippery and even in and amongst texts used for harm, there are moments of grace and subversion if we use our God-given spiritual imagination and listen to the voices on the margins where God can be found. I see a lot of those moments in this week’s lectionary.
However, there are some moments you will need to be a theologian of the cross and call a thing what it is. When it comes to texts about divorce and the subjugation of women and other gender minorities, do not be afraid to speak plainly. The social expectations around property ownership, gender, marriage, and divorce have changed. It is good and important to name that sometimes in our current context, divorce is just a recognition that something has died. You have parishioners sitting in your pews that need to hear that sometimes divorce is a faithful response, especially in cases of abuse.
Below I will give you a few notes about each of the readings and then I will end with a few images and themes or prompts you might use for your sermon writing this week. There is a lot to unpack here, and so I have given a lot of thoughts and material, so feel free to focus on the text you’d like to preach. It will likely be important for you to focus on one or two themes that your assembly needs to hear in particular. For many of us with the Kavanaugh hearing in the news, it will be important to deconstruct texts that have been used to harm women. Because it is October, which is LGBTQIA+ history month, it might be important to pay special attention the queering of the text. For those of us watching closely the trial of Officer Jason Van Dyke, the police officer who killed Laquan McDonald, conversations about criminality and God’s solidarity with those harmed by state violence might be most important. You know your assembly, preach boldly.
Notes and Questions on the Texts
As many queer theologians and Hebrew scholars have pointed out, this creation text begins with an androgynous earth creature. The term adam is a play on words referencing dirt. We are basically talking about a dirt creature here who contains all sexes and genders and is later split by God into man and woman. It is notable in the Hebrew that until the split happens, the androgynous earthling creature is referred to as the adam and then after the split, the Hebrew words ish (man) and ishah (woman) are used. This has at times been obstructed by poor translations which have rendered the Hebrew word tzela as “rib” when in reality, it is better translated as “side,” which is more consistent with the use of the word throughout the rest of Hebrew scripture.
This may seem like new-fangled reinterpretation, but it's really not. The understanding of the first earthling dirt creature as an androgynous human containing all sexes is credited to Rabbi Samuel ben Nachmen who lived in the 3rd century, and was also the view espoused by early Christians like Origen.
A teaching sermon on this can be incredibly good news for LGTBQIA+ people, especially transgender or nonbinary people who do not fit into our current society’s rigid gender constructions. This text, along with the later Mark Gospel reading, have been often misused to say that being LGTBQIA+ is somehow outside of God’s design. However, this ancient reading shows that that is not the case. In fact, you might even argue that a nonbinary or gender non conforming person was God’s original human design. You might also consider pointing out that the binary understanding of gender that is often used to oppress people is not how the early writers and readers would have understood this text. There were at least 6 different named genders that were used.
Another way that this text has been used for harm is by subjugating women. In an English reading of the word, we see that woman is created for adam to be their ezer or “helper”. The connotation in our modern context is that a helper is sort of a side-kick, someone less than. But that is not what the Hebrew word ezer means. Ezer is only ever used throughout the Hebrew Bible to refer to what Dr. Wil Gafney calls the “divine help from God.” God is clearly not weaker than humans or our sidekick, and so Gafney suggests using a term like “mighty helper” instead.
Questions to ask:
The text says that a man will leave his mother and father and join with a woman and become one flesh. It does not say that the woman will leave her family. Yet in our current context in the USA, in traditional heterosexual relationships, women typically take their husband’s last name and in that way, it seems that women are the one’s leaving their mother and father’s house. This seems at odds with how the text frames relationships: that men leave their family of origin to cling to their wives. What other patriarchal conventions can you pull out of you current context that seem at odds with the way this relationship in Genesis 2 is structured?
Leaving one’s family (or being pushed out) is something that many LGBTQIA+ people can resonate with, and is therefore a very queer act.. In what ways do LGBTQIA+ people today leave the homes of their mothers and fathers (or their families of origin) and create and “cling” to a new community of choice? In what ways does this bring wholeness or resurrection out of broken or disrupted relationships?
How does the understanding of an original androgynous human who was separated into two sexes (male and female) change our understanding of what it means to become “one flesh” again through sexual union? Could this view of sex, a union in which various genders are united and therefore more clearly reflect the fullness of God, be one sex positive reading of this text?
There are a lot of ways to separate an androgynous human earth creature. In a queer reading of this text, might we also imagine that this earth creature, adam, might have been able to be separated in a variety of different ways? Can we imagine that this might result in innumerable possible combinations of characteristics or genders? Can we envision that the new creatures, split a different way, could form humans that are outside of the binary understanding of gender expression?
This Psalm is one often suggested for use in pastoral care prayer books. Because of this, it might be familiar to some of the members of your assembly.
One beautiful image to note and hold onto - God’s fingerprints are all over creation, including and especially humankind. The tone of this Psalm also leaves room for wonder, which is key for us, because we can think of it as sort of a license to pursue the vast and wild, and to create space for our own spiritual imaginations.
Questions to ask:
This Psalm sets up a sort of hierarchy of created beings (which is later expounded upon in the Hebrews reading). This echoes part of the creation narrative that is not part of this week’s lectionary, but is familiar enough to most people - that humankind has dominion over nonhuman nature. Vine Deloria Jr. and many other giants in Native Christian thought circles would challenge this hierarchy. What do we know about how Jesus treats hierarchy in scripture? How can that inform the ways we might critique or play with the hierarchical structure present here?
Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12
As mentioned above, the Hebrews text refers to and expands upon the hierarchal language of creation used in the Psalm, this time adding Jesus who gets in there and troubles the hierarchy. There is a hierarchy present still, but Jesus who was of course “higher than the angels” as the Triune God in Heaven, chose to subvert this hierarchy and become “lower than the angels” for a point in time until again returning to the throne of Heaven.
Questions to ask:
Jesus is mentioned as a “pioneer” in these things, meaning that we are expected to follow in his footsteps. He has cleared a path for the rest of us, that we also can trouble and challenge these hierarchies. How might we be called to do this in our own time for the sake of the earth and nonhuman nature? How might we be called to elevate our nonhuman siblings?
In the Gospel text we see the religious aristocracy intent on setting a trap for Jesus. These are not questions about the law asked in good faith, but are instead an attempt to criminalize Jesus. This harkens to our current criminal justice system, which sets traps for poor people and people of color in order to profit off of their bodies through incarceration. In many cases, systems are set up in such a way that for people of color, there are no real options left, no “right answers.” Racialized capitalism depends on that. A recent example in my local context is the Bait Trucks set up by the Chicago Police Department which you can read about here. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/24/us/chicago-bait-truck.html
Note the religious aristocracy’s obsession with what we might recognize today as “law and order” mentality (aka repression under a false sense of what MLK calls “negative peace”) when they begin their trap by saying to Jesus “is it lawful.”)
The law in this case is about marriage and divorce, something that has been historically used to oppress people of all genders (particularly women and nonbinary people) and keep us trapped in dangerous or oppressive marriages. This is especially present in Mark, because in this reading, unlike the Matthew version, Jesus does not give any caveat at all okaying divorce.
This text has also been used by queer-antagonists. They take this text and misconstrue it to condemn LGTBQIA+ people, by saying that Jesus is defining marriage here as between a man and woman.
That is using this text out of context and is in many ways in opposition to the spirit of what Jesus is saying. Once again, we need to remember that Jesus is upending oppressive social hierarchies. Remember that in Genesis 2, which Jesus is referencing, we saw an egalitarian and queer creation story. The relationship between the man and woman referenced here was one of equals: an androgynous being, split and pulled apart into two people. Jesus can be read here as harkening back to the original intent of relationships - something queer, full of choice, a partnership. Divorce at the time of Jesus created subclasses of humans. It turned what was intended by Genesis 2 to be an egalitarian partnership into a hierarchy and Jesus was intending to subvert those hierarchies.
We can see that this makes sense in context because the very next thing Jesus does is bring forth children- someone even lower down in the structure of the social hierarchy- and he blesses them and lifts them up. Jesus can be read as referencing and noticing the current hierarchical system but troubling it, reminding us again as he has before that the first will be last, and, as he learned from his mother’s protest-song-lullaby, “the mighty will be cast down.” This power system, the way the nuclear family is arranged in cisgender-heteronormative spaces, is not the end all be all or divinely ordained. It is impermanent and able to be challenged and queered and played with. There are a lot of ways to organize families, to bring relationships together, and many of those ways are queer. The heart of the matter for Jesus here is not that those relationships must be male-female, but that they aspire to the original equality of Genesis 2, correcting the current sinful hierarchies by making sure that we center the most marginalized so that all are cared for.
Questions to ask:
Many people believe that Jesus was unmarried. If so, he would in some ways be considered strange, or queer, making him a sexual minority at the time. Even outside of his marital status, there are many things about Jesus that theologians have noted as queer. Marcella Althaus-Reid conceptualizes Jesus as God in human drag. How might it change the text to understand Jesus as speaking as a representative of a sexual minority?
Other Common Threads and Themes
Queerness, Family, and Relationships
There are several moments of queerness in the ways that relationships are structured and families are built throughout the text. There is the queer creation story of an androgynous adam split into to equal partners who, through their sexuality more clearly and wholly reflect the image of God.
There is the subversion of patriarchy in the ordering of relationships, with the woman reflecting God’s Mighty Helping Power and the man leaving his family of origin behind, something in opposition to patriarchal culture.
There is one partner leaving a family to create and cling to a new family of choice, something that resonates with many queer people.
There is the centering of women and children and the upending of the hierarchical cis-het social order. It is challenging Empire and the status quo. As Marcella Althaus-Reid says, being queer is not only progressive, but transgressive. It violates norms of social acceptability. It is breaking rules, both written and unwritten.
Hands, Fingers, Finger Prints
Throughout Western art history, artists have used images of the hands of God as a way to talk about the creation narrative. Perhaps the most famous example is the creation depiction on the Sistine Chapel, where God is reaching out, God’s fingertip touching Adam’s outstretched finger. Adam’s reaching posture mirrors Gods, and we are meant to understand that humans are created in God’s image.
The hand and fingers theme continues in Psalm 8 where the heavens, the moon, the stars are known as the work of God’s “fingers” and other nonhuman nature is known as the works of God’s “hands.”
In Hebrews, Jesus is named as a “very imprint” of God, whose fingerprints are all over creation (as outlined in Psalm 8).
In our current context in the United States under the system of mass incarceration, fingerprinting can take on a very different meaning. Fingerprints are taken after someone is arrested, when they are booked. Fingerprints are put into a system to track criminals, so that it is easier to link them to more and more crimes. What might it say that Jesus - a criminal, killed by the Empire and religious aristocracy - is the clearest imprint of God? If God’s imprint is mostly clearly seen on Jesus, like Hebrews says, and Jesus is a criminal, how does that identify God? How might that change the ways we look at those that our current system might criminalize?
Colonialism and Loss of Connection to the Earth
I learned when I visited Standing Rock that for the Lakota people, fingerprints have an entirely different connotation. For the Lakota, the pattern of one’s fingerprints show us the direction that the winds were blowing on the day they were born. It is in an inherent connection between nonhuman nature, and humankind. Creation is imprinted, mapped out, on the bodies of human beings.
What a shocking difference between the use of fingerprints to criminalize, cage, and separate! Colonialism and the resulting dominant white supremacist culture in the United States leads to disconnection-from the earth and from one another. What ways might we think about this deep connection human beings have with the earth through the texts in Genesis, Psalm 8, and Hebrews? What sinful structures of domination and control are keeping us from that? What hierarchies need to be upended for the sake of the health of the Earth?