The Old Testament reading today was about God, and a Man, and, ultimately, a Woman.
It starts when God had nearly finished His creation. In this version, he hasn't made humankind as male and female, but he has made all the animals birds and the first Man. And the Man is in the Garden, but he is alone. God shows him all the animals and all the birds, and gets him to give them names. There are horses to ride, to help with hunting. There are cattle to milk, and to pull the plough, and to give meat and leather. There are sheep to provide wool, milk and meat. Goats, too, provide milk. Then there are chickens and ducks of various kinds for eggs. There are deer for hunting, and other game, too – even wild boar, although perhaps not domesticated pigs. There are cats to catch mice. But there are no companions. Even the dogs, faithful and friendly as they are, helpful in the hunt as they are, aren't real companions. They don't think the same way as Man does.
“Well,” says God, “If none of these will do – and I quite see that they won't – there is only one thing for it!”
And he causes Man to sleep and from his body creates Woman. The perfect companion to Man, who will work alongside him. Together they will create and raise children. Together they will run their home, perhaps doing different things, but alongside one another, equal with one another. In each generation, the man will leave his parents' home and make a new home with his wife.
Or that was the general idea! Of course, we know that on one level these are only stories, what we call creation myths to explain the origin of humans, and of our relationship with God. We know that humankind originated in Africa's Rift Valley, not in the Middle East. We know that farming, which did originate in the Middle East, came only after who knows how many generations of hunter-gatherers. We know that animals have different names in different languages, and the universal Latin names were only given in the last century or so. We even know that these stories were not written down until comparatively late.
But on another level, of course, they are profoundly true. They are about us, and about our relationship with our creator. In the next chapter, we learn about how it all went horribly wrong, how humanity disobeyed the creator and has never been really comfortable with him, or with itself, ever since. Again, stories that explain this that are, on one level, only stories and on another level profoundly true.
And it did go horribly wrong, didn't it? Because the Woman was created last, after all the animals and birds, and after the Man, she has been seen down the centuries as somehow inferior; her role, instead of being different-but-equal, was seen as very much there to serve. Not helped, of course, by the misapprehension that she was just the soil in which a man planted his seed, rather than contributing equally to the genetic material of the next generation.
And the picture of marriage that was painted in these stories hasn't quite worked out, either, has it? Jesus said, in our gospel reading, that Moses had had to allow a law permitting divorce because there were times when it simply didn't work out. But how many women have been able to leave a husband who abused them, physically or mentally? In how many cultures has the man been able to get a divorce on a whim, but a woman must stick to her marriage no matter how ghastly it is. Quite apart from anything else, throughout much of history the only alternative has been a life on the streets.
Even today in the United States there is a worrying trend to try to take control of a woman's fertility away from her, and place it in the hands of men, as though it wasn't her own body. In some states they are trying to make it illegal for a doctor to say if there's something wrong with the baby she's carrying, in case she should decide to have an abortion – but of course, they aren't, as far as I know, making appropriate provision for care and support of badly disabled children. You remember the row the other week when a senator blithely repeated that old, and untrue, chestnut that you can't get pregnant from being raped. Sigh....
It all sounds frightfully doom-and-gloom, doesn't it? I don't mean to sound that way, because, of course, there are so many cases when things have gone right, when people have been happily married for years, supporting one another and alongside one another, just as seems to be the Biblical ideal. I only have to look at my own parents, who, three weeks ago, celebrated 60 years of married life together, and got a card from the Queen. Which is pretty amazing really – not the card from the Queen bit, of course, but the rest of it.
But I'm also sure that, if you asked them, they would say – reluctantly, as that generation doesn't really care to speak of its faith – that part of it has been their kneeling together side-by-side in worship several times a month in Church. Part of it. And I'm not saying you can't have a successful marriage without being a Christian, which would be an extremely stupid thing to say and easily disprovable; I am, however, saying that I am sure this is part of it.
But it's the same for all of life, really. We make a pretty good job of being human without God, but we seem to make a much better job of it with God.
On the other hand, we have done some dreadful things in God's name – crusades and jihads being the least of them. Those abuses of women I just talked about? Done in God's name. Slavery – done in God's name. Even apartheid was originally set up in God's name; people genuinely believed that God wanted people of different skin colour to live separately.
And from that, a small step to thinking that they are somehow different or inferior.Ridiculous to our modern way of thinking, of course, but I'm sure you will tell me that the effects of such thinking linger on to this day. And think of the cultural damage that missionaries, no matter how well-meaning, have done – it's only really in the last twenty or thirty years that we have begun to hear hymns that have their origins in other cultures.
I could go on and on. And that's just humanity in general. Shall we come to us in particular? Hmmm, let's not, and say we did! I don't know about you, but I don't like facing up to the fact that I'm not perfect, and that I have to admit that to myself in God's presence. But why would I be special? Humankind, down the years, has done some appalling things. We read of appalling atrocities in our newspapers every morning – some of them, alas, done in God's name, even today. I am not different or special. It's only through God's grace that I haven't done dreadful things, and at that, maybe I have. Not newspaper-headline dreadful, but hurting people, putting myself first all the time, that sort of thing.
Because that's what it's all about, isn't it? About putting ourselves first, which all of us do, all the time. It's only natural. Look at a baby asleep in its pram – it doesn't have the first idea that the world doesn't revolve around it, with people running to do its bidding whenever it expresses displeasure at its current state! My little grandson is just over two, and is only now beginning to learn this. He has to learn to share his toys and to take turns; he is learning, slowly, that when Mummy or Daddy are working at home and the door is shut, they can't give him their attention – but that doesn't stop him asking, sometimes.
As we grow up, we are supposed to learn that the world doesn't revolve around us. But our natural inclination is always to put ourselves first. And yet we know, from the Bible and other sources, that this isn't really the way to true humanity, true happiness. We just think it is.
One of the quarrels I have with evangelical Christianity is that it does make the good news start “You are a sinner!” And my sermon today has done that, rather, hasn't it?
But, of course, that's not where I want to leave it. We all know we are sinners, we know that we're always going to put ourselves first if we get half a chance, and sometimes we do dreadful things, even if we say it's in God's name. We know that.
But we also know that we are saved. That God loved his creation so much that he came down to live as one of us. He knows what it's like to be human. And his death in some way assures us that we are loved and forgiven. And the Holy Spirit indwells us, if we allow him to, and enables us to live far more in the way that God intended – in harmony with ourselves, with each other, with our world, and with God. Amen.