Proper 22(27) B
20th Sunday after Pentecost
Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12
I find this weeks’ lectionary difficult to read because more than one of these passages have been used violently… or are used violently. Let’s be honest: These passages have been used to justify the oppression and rape of nature, to reinforce patriarchal dominance, to ostracize divorced persons, and to clobber queer people with hate, asserting they are not a part of God’s original design.
Maybe this week’s passages are especially difficult for me because I’m reading these familiar passages in the midst of a cultural discourse has become inflammatory, affecting us like stiffening joints, like a sore neck causing us to be unyielding and inflexible. I have no prescription for this cultural moment, for the erosion of trust in truths, or the deep wounds that polarization causes. But I do know that Wisdom sits in places. She moves in and out of culture and language and even different forms of life with ease. So in an attempt to clear some room for her, to seek what she may have to say about the thread in this week’s lectionary, I offer three stories depicting mother-cultures, languages, or ecologies other than the dominant ones in America right now. The alternative stories I’ve written in response are an attempt to reclaim truth in these passages that have been inappropriately appropriated in the past.
This past summer, I found myself at a gathering of leaders in the food justice movement whose work or lives also intersected with faith. On our last day together, we were savoring the weather and each other’s company after a long day of intense discussion, joking and walking down a path towards the river. The cool water was bordered by a dense stand of bamboo. As we gathered there, about seven or eight of us, someone suggested we pray.
I don’t really know how it happened, but suddenly we stood in a spontaneous circle, clasping hands. Together there, our different lives and histories joined in a sacred moment, mediated by the rustling bamboo and the swirling river before us. I looked into the circle and realized that it contained us, I realized that we were simultaneously older, younger, cis-het, queer, parents, college graduates, farmers, students, blue collar, white collar, single, newly married, long-married, many gendered, brown, black, white, southern, Appalachian, northern, evangelical, agnostic, Catholic, liturgical, Pentecostal. We were together and contained by our togetherness. Someone lifted their voice into the quiet, singing I shall not, I shall not be moved… just like a tree, planted by the water, I shall not be moved. All voices joined the one.
And when we finished singing, more than one of us were crying, and more than one of us had a big goofy grin on our faces. And then we released each other’s hands and departed from that place.
Story II, part A
Once upon a time there was a forest. She was Oak and Maple, Hickory and Ironwood. She was a flowing brook and thriving fungus and a ballet of death and life. She was an infinite number of crawling and flying things, of beauty and motion.
The neighborhood needed that forest for renewal and peace and companionship, so the people passed laws and kept it set apart from development. They breathed better because of the trees. Their houses stayed cooler; their water stayed purer. Their children came to know each other and God’s creation through playing amongst the trees and in the stream. The people needed the woods.
At the same time, the woods felt the people’s presence. She responded to their feet and hardened where they walked. The people kept their feet to the dead trails, knowing that their footsteps might threaten the health of the soil-nursery that needs to be soft and alive to let new trees grow. Sometimes the people forgot about this and trampled whole areas of the forest floor. Sometimes they forgot that they had taken the role of the top predator and the deer devastated whole generations of trees. Sometimes the brook ran milky-white with pollutants and the people suffered.
The people and the forest lived in this conflict and dance, thriving and suffering together. This dialogue continued, and the people and the forest lived together messily ever after.
Story II, part B
Often I find myself trying to explain to folk that I can simultaneously believe that humanity has a special place in the natural order, AND that we are animals and utterly dependent upon the wellness of innumerable other pieces of creation.
Psalm 8 seems to contain some of these apparent paradoxes, pointing both to the vulnerability and mastery of humanity. The most sincere praise comes from the mouths of infants and children, who are utterly dependent on other’s nurturing and care… and yet all the works of God’s hands can be ‘under our feet’. This is a troubling reality—the very ground we walk on, the fabric of the ecosystems that sustain us, are subject to our mistakes. These feet can be used to explore and better know the ground or crush it. This position we have is not license to destroy. It is the responsibility—the ability to respond—and to affect creation in huge ways.
To understand and live in this reality amidst the polarized climate of my human community, I (imperfectly, but I hope respectfully) borrow from the Jewish tradition. Mahlochet is a Hebrew term for conflict, debate, disagreement, or controversy. It is a tradition in Jewish thought and culture. Rabbi Ilyse Kramer explains:
The variety of examples of multiple and diverse opinions, purposefully codified and preserved in rabbinic tradition, teaches us an approach towards the opinions of others—especially those which might be in direct conflict and opposition to our own. The concept of sacred arguing demonstrates how it might be possible to respond to diversity of opinion and real difference without turning those who disagree into ‘the other’.
I think that the dominant culture rejects mahlochet. I think that the dominant culture of Christianity likewise denounces conflict and conversation, instead seeking consensus above all else. This creates an either-or culture, a culture in which it is very easy to become blind to the pieces that we don’t understand, a culture of dominance and hierarchy versus an ecology of mystery and interaction. Creation is under our bipedal feet, yes… but does that mean we are meant to crush it? Walk on its back? Psalm 8 does not say this. It starts off by reminding us that the most vulnerable of our species are the ones fit to magnify the true nature of God. What does it mean to live in this conflicting reality of vulnerability and mastery, messily ever after?
The woman named all cattle, and the birds of the air, and every animal of the field; and though they were companions, the woman also had a special companion, an ezer kenegdo, an equal strength, a help-meet human, and together they decided to raise a child. So the Lord God caused a profound pain in the woman, and she labored; then they delivered the incarnation of blood and bone from her. And the infant that the Lord God midwived from the woman, they saw it was a baby boy and gave him to the arms of the woman. Then the woman said,
“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called Man,
for out of Woman this one was taken.”
Therefore a woman becomes a mother, and they become two who have afore shared one flesh.
Epilogue: Some Final Thoughts on the Gospel Lesson
I keep coming back to Christ’s words in the Gospel lesson:
Therefore, what God has joined together, let not man separate.
And this is what I’m hearing: Forget dualisms. Forget binaries. This gospel is about what God has joined together. Hear, oh Israel, the Lord your God is ONE.
Jesus of Nazareth, the Jew, calls us to a spirit of conversation, not the spirit of consensus. He calls us to interdependence and to wrestle with sometimes conflicting realities and opinions with love. All this in the context of trusting that God holds all of it, and is more than capable of joining this broken world together.
There is vulnerability in being subject to love, to the one flesh of creation, to interdependence. Humans have an instinct to divorce everything which does not seem to fit; American Christians have an instinct to divorce everything which does not meet consensus. Christ calls us to live in holy tension. What God has joined together, let not man separate. For the sake of mahlochet, I suggest that in the gospel lesson from Mark, Christ is not telling us that divorce is unacceptable, but urging us to look underneath the law to find God and the way the Spirit knits life and people together. To remember the mystery of our humanity, and how we might grow to be and act like one flesh.
This is the story told to us daily in the language of Creation, told to us in the biology of our own bodies, and in surprising, holy circles of new friends from different walks of life.
Jessica Miller is a botanist and the Land Stewardship and Program Manager at Bellwether Farm Camp, Retreat, and Education Center. In that role, she is responsible for development and planning of ongoing adult and youth programming, overseeing the care of the land, and enacting a land management plan. She is a disciple of the Doan Brook and Vermillion River Watersheds and a Northeast Ohio native. Jessica lives in community with family and friends along with three chickens, vegetable garden and an accumulation of medicinal and native plants.
Wild Lectionary, a weekly reflection on land, creation and environmental justice themes in the texts of the revised common lectionary, is curated by Laurel Dykstra, gathering priest of Salal + Cedar, Coast Salish Territories.