Leigh and David Finnegan-Hosey
Kay Spiritual Life Center
October 11, 2015
Genesis 2:18-23, Matthew 22:23-33
Audio available here.
Genesis 2:18-23 • Then the Lord God said, “It’s not good that the human is alone. I will make him a helper that is perfect for him.” So the Lord God formed from the fertile land all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky and brought them to the human to see what he would name them. The human gave each living being its name. The human named all the livestock, all the birds in the sky, and all the wild animals. But a helper perfect for him was nowhere to be found. So the Lord God put the human into a deep and heavy sleep, and took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh over it. With the rib taken from the human, the Lord God fashioned a woman and brought her to the human being. The human said,
“This one finally is bone from my bones
and flesh from my flesh.
She will be called a woman
because from a man she was taken.”
Matthew 22:23-33 • That same day Sadducees, who deny that there is a resurrection, came to Jesus. They asked, “Teacher, Moses said, If a man who doesn’t have children dies, his brother must marry his wife and produce children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers among us. The first one married, then died. Because he had no children he left his widow to his brother. The same thing happened with the second brother and the third, and in fact with all seven brothers. Finally, the woman died. At the resurrection, which of the seven brothers will be her husband? They were all married to her.” Jesus responded, “You are wrong because you don’t know either the scriptures or God’s power. 30 At the resurrection people won’t marry nor will they be given in marriage. Instead, they will be like angels from God. As for the resurrection of the dead, haven’t you read what God told you, I’m the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? He isn’t the God of the dead but of the living.” Now when the crowd heard this, they were astonished at his teaching.
I. Intro — What This Isn’t
David: We figured we’d start off by saying what this sermon isn’t going to be. We’re not going to give you relationship advice, nor are we going to try to position ourselves as experts on marriage, since we’ve only been married for about a month.
Leigh: This will not be a sermon about why “love should wait,” and we will not be handing out promise rings. And contrary to the pop-culture understanding of love, we do not believe life begins when you find “the One.” Singleness is not a waiting room for your life; your life has already begun.
II. A Rather Strange Story
David: We think this idea challenges a lot of our embedded cultural assumptions about how love and relationships work. It’s easy to forget that our understanding of things like romantic love and marriage are recent historical developments. In the gospel reading that we heard tonight, we hear Jesus bumping up against some totally different cultural assumptions that sound strange to us, but would have been as normal to his 1st century audience as the archetypal Nicholas Sparks love story seems to us.
Leigh: It’s a bit hard to pick up on what’s happening in this story about Jesus — we’re really far removed from the context of it. Jesus is being challenged by a group called the Sadducees — they would’ve been associated with the hierarchy of the Jerusalem temple. They’re trying to trip Jesus up a bit with kind of a “gotcha” question about the resurrection. But the background assumption here is an understanding of marriage called “levirate marriage.” Basically, this was a common understanding, based on Torah, that if a woman was widowed without children, their husbands brother should marry them so that they could have a child and the dead husband’s name and property could be passed on.
David: Keep in mind two things — one, a childless widow would have been in a particularly vulnerable position in this society, so the Jewish Law is designed to protect her. And two, on the flip side of the coin, there are some patriarchal assumptions in this first century Hellenistic culture about wives and children being, essentially, property of the male head of household. So on the one hand, this is a law designed to protect the vulnerable, and on the other hand, it does so in a way that upholds the power structures of patriarchy.
So the Sadducees give Jesus this scenario where a woman gets married off to one brother, then another, then another, and another. And the gotcha question is, “So, Jesus, if the resurrection is really a thing, then who is she married to once all the brothers are resurrected?”
Leigh: But Jesus doesn’t take the bait. In fact, he rejects the premise altogether.
The Sadducees want to know: who does this woman belong to? Who owns her? Her first husband? Or the second? Or the third? etc etc etc. They start with the cultural understanding that women are property and therefore God’s kingdom must play by the same rules. But Jesus claims that the kingdom of God is something altogether different, a reality with vastly different assumptions about things like gender, sexuality, commitment, and love.
We hear this story from Matthew and think, “wow, thank goodness our expectations aren’t so backwards!” But we have our own assumptions, assumptions shaped by our culture.
Growing up people would tell me that eventually, one day, I was bound to fall in love and get married. But as time went on I started to question this assumption. There were plenty of people in my family, and at my church, who were middle aged and single — a situation that left them feeling deceived and bitter. Or what about my cousin Sarah, who took a vow of celibacy when she decided to become a nun?
I started to wonder: what if finding love and getting married aren’t a given? And in that case, how can we answer the question: will I ever find love?
David: Like the Sadducees, the church in the modern-day United States has often assumed that God is interested in maintaining the way we do things, that God is somehow stuck in the same understandings about relationships and love that we are. Jesus shifts the question away from the patriarchal assumptions of the day and to a vision of hope and resurrection — and we believe that’s what God is still up to, disrupting our assumptions and broadening our understanding of love so that it extends to the whole world. The message of Jesus still messes with patriarchal understandings of marriage and gender — and it still knocks our premises out from under us, causing us to think differently, maybe even to ask different questions.
Leigh: The Sadducees are challenging Jesus’ theology based on questions about earthly relationships; Jesus shifts the focus to divine love, and in doing so, causes us to rethink how we view our earthly relationships.
For us, marriage has felt like a glimpse into the depth of God’s love for the world. Instead of our relationship turning us inward, making us more and more exclusive, we feel like our capacity to love is a growing, expanding, outward reaching thing.
Unlike the Sadducees question, we don’t feel as if we “belong” to each and no one else. It’s like the commitment to love and support each other fuels our ability to love and support our family, friends, and all of you.
III. The Reality of Loneliness
David: At this point you might be thinking, “Ok, David and Leigh. Easy for you to talk about shifting the question and redefining love. You’ve quote-unquote found love already — you’re married, you’re happy, you’re both super-attractive.”
Ok. Maybe you weren’t thinking the last part…
That’s why we included the story from Genesis, too. We see this text as a story about this really visceral, basic, painful human experience of loneliness. God’s created a human, and the human is lonely. The human has been created with a basic desire for connection and companionship, and yet the human is alone.
Leigh: After verse upon verse of God creating and seeing that it is good, the first human experiences loneliness and for the first time God says, “this is not good.”
Loneliness, what Mother Teresa called “the most terrible poverty,” is the very first thing that breaks God’s heart; the very first thing that breaks Adam’s heart, so that when God creates Eve, Adam suddenly breaks out into poetry, crying: “Bone of my bone flesh of my flesh!” In some fundamental way, Adam is incomplete without the companionship of Eve.
David: Of course, this text has been often been interpreted in order to uphold certain understandings about gender roles and marriage. But we think that misses the point of the passage. In fact, in the Hebrew, we read that God created not “a man” but rather ha’adam, which is a word related to the Hebrew word adamah for “Earth” — in English translation, it would be something like, God created an Earthling out of the Earth.
Leigh: So ha’adam is sort of this gender-neutral, undifferentiated character. It’s something akin to “dust clodd.” Weirdly, the translation we heard tonight almost gets this right — it refers to God creating “a human” rather than “a man,” but then refers to the gender-non-differentiated human as “he” the whole time.
David: Check your pronouns, CEB.
Leigh: And the word that has traditionally been translated as “rib,” which the woman is made of, is actually more like “side” — the image is more like the Earthling being split into two, rather than just a little leftover piece of the man being used to make a woman. It’s only after the split happens that the Hebrew words ish and ishah — man and woman — are used. Granted, the text doesn’t exactly smash the gender binary or anything, but it’s got more to do with the human need for companionship and relationship than it does with gender or sexuality.
David: Please don’t hear us saying that to be single is to be incomplete. It’s more that isolation, the experience of feeling unwanted, unloved, or ignored, are anathema to the life God intends for us.
Leigh: I mentioned before my cousin Sarah. Sarah joined the Sisters of Saint Joseph when she was just 24 years old. For years I wanted to ask her how she could stand giving up the chance to one day fall in love. When I finally got the opportunity to have this conversation with her, I was surprised to find that she understood her vows not as restrictions, commitments to giving things up, but as as an opportunity to receive even more of God’s love— a chance to broaden her relationships and be intimately connected to not just one, but many many people.
David: When Leigh told me about this, it struck me how cool it was that her cousin’s understanding of her vows — which require her to be “single” — is so similar to our understanding of our marriage vows. That what we said at our wedding and what she said when she entered an order were both about de-centering ourselves a bit, being maybe a bit less selfish and a bit more committed to loving for and caring for the people around us.
As beautiful as that sounds, though, the core human fear of loneliness doesn’t just disappear, especially because we — and I’m sure all of us — have had some real painful experiences with loneliness.
Leigh: Growing up as an only child in a family with divorced parents I felt my fair share of loneliness. I lived with my Mom for most of my life. Holidays were pretty low-key, just the two of sitting on the floor eating fettuccine alfredo on the coffee table.
My Dad lost his vision shortly before I was born and spent most of his adult life wrestling with the experience of being blind. This reality was its own kind of isolation. He liked being alone, but he always told me he wished we could spend more time together.
In high school and college I wanted to date, but for whatever reason it never happened. So for most of my life I was the perpetual third wheel. I watched friends flirt, fall in love, make plans for the future, and go through relationship drama — sometimes right in front of me. Over the years I went on a few dates, but my first relationship started in seminary. It lasted four months before we broke up. A month later I started dating David. But guess what, I still feel lonely sometimes.
David: Marriage, or any other type of relationship, is hard. It doesn’t fix everything, and it doesn’t end loneliness — because the fear of loneliness cuts deep in our human experience, and is sometimes resistant to evidence. In 2011, I was hospitalized due to mental illness. It was a really scary time for me, and I remember wondering whether I would ever feel better, whether I would ever be able to return to seminary or to ministry — and whether I would ever be able to maintain human relationship. Looking back at things I wrote at the time, I can remember just how convinced I was that I was incapable not only of romantic relationship but even of maintaining proper friendships. I wrote about myself as someone who broke relationships and who hurt people.
What’s remarkable to me, looking back, is that the whole time I was struggling, I was surrounded by love. My family, my friends, my faith communities — people really rallied to offer me support and comfort. Mental illness makes you feel isolated and alone, but in actuality I wasn’t either of those things — I just couldn’t see, through the haze of internal anguish, that I was being held in love by so many people. So I try to remember that, now, whenever I’m struggling — that sometimes our feelings of loneliness and isolation aren’t facts; that sometimes the love we’re looking for is right in front of us and it’s just really, really hard to see.
IV. Conclusion — Love Is All Around
David: But there are people in this world — there are people right here, on this campus, maybe right here in our midst tonight — who are feeling really lonely, really lost. Who either aren’t receiving or just aren’t feeling the love and companionship that we all need. So the charge that we have for you tonight is: we can be that love. We can be that companionship. This community can be one of the many answers to the question, “Will I find love?” Not all of our big questions have answers, but this one can — the answer can be, “Yes, you will find love. You will find it right here, right now, in the friendships and the sharing that happen in community.”
Jesus tells the Sadducees that God is a God of the living, not of the dead — and what it seems that he might mean by that is, God is a God of resurrection hope, of life amidst life, love amidst love. The very same God who declared that it was not good for humans to be alone is at work today, bringing life out of death, companionship out of loneliness, community out of isolation.
Leigh: There is a popular saying that goes: what you look for you will find.
The fear of being loveless can blind us to love that is right in front of us. The love that comes in the invitation of a friend; in the persistent emails of a parent missing their college kid; in the vulnerability of sharing our gifts in worship, so that others may experience transcendence.
If the love you are looking for has rigid boundaries, if it has to look this way, or that way, if you want — to quote the Avett Brothers— to be in love like the movies, then we can’t guarantee that you will find it.
But if what you are looking for is a love that will subvert your expectations, extend its hand to you as you wander through the dark, the love that is all around us right here and now… well then my friends, open your eyes and take a look around.