In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
The Book of Genesis offers two stories about the creation of the world. This morning we have hear the start of the second one, the version which is about man and woman being created in the Garden of Eden. The trick with reading these stories is not to see them as accounts from ancient history, but stories about today. Adam- Adam is everyman, Eve is everywoman. Adam and Eve are me and you. This is a story about all of us.
It begins, however, this story about all of us, not with us, but with God. Often, that’s where our storytelling goes wrong. We tell stories that begin with us, because we think are the most important beings in the universe. maybe we are. But God existed before us, before the universe, before time and matter. This story begins with God, who created the world and placed us within it.
It is, to begin with, a perfect world. God makes Adam, and places him in Eden. The Hebrew word Eden means ‘delight’- for Eden is a garden of delights, in which everything is provided for the first human, Adam. We hear of beautiful trees, good fruit, flowing rivers, precious stones, rare perfume. God makes the world for Adam, and it is good.
You know, of course, that in the following chapters, it all goes bad. Adam and Eve spoil their garden of delights. How easily we do that. We’re very lucky in this area that some of the most delightful places we have are our beaches- Rosemarkie, Nairn, Chanonry Point are places of delight- lots of open space, high skies, light playing on the water, the calming sound of waves and breezes. We usually go to the beach for pleasure, for beaches are places which delight the senses. But in recent years, many of the beaches of our European continent have become places of horror. This week our media has been dominated by a picture of a beach, on which was found a dead child. We have spoiled our gardens of delight.
And yet in the first part of this creation story, God, with love and care, creates human beings, man and woman. The tale says God created the man by forming him out of the earth. There’s a pun here- the Hebrew for ground is adamah. Man is created from the ground, Adam from the Adamah. We are all of us from the earth, and we ought to remember that. Especially in this technological age, we can forget that we are all, ultimately, of the soil. We are bound up with the earth- and we cannot be healthy if the earth is not healthy.
Yet we can choose whether we care for the earth, or whether we allow it to be spoilt. Too often we abuse our earth, our seas, even the skies. We have been poisoning the earth which gave us birth. We misuse the soil, poison lakes, rivers and seas, pump gas into the air which poisons the atmosphere and is even changing the climate. How can we expect to be healthy if we do not keep our earth healthy? For we are all of us Adam, created from Adamah– humans who came from the ground.
The storyteller has told us that we are of the earth. In a beautiful image, he tells how it is done. This isn’t science, but poetry:
Then the Lord God took some soil from the ground and formed a man out of it; [God] breathed life-giving breath into his nostrils and the man began to live.
We are of the earth- God’s good earth, which God made to sustain us. But there is something else: we each of us have the breath of God within us. Each of us, whoever we are. Men and women. Old and young. People of all races, nationalities, creeds- the Bible tells us that each of us, everyone on the planet, has something of God within us. Our very life has been given to us by God. We are each of us animated by the breath of God. That might seem strange, for so many of us are wicked, or forlorn, or forgotten, broken, frightened, lonely, sick, disabled. Yet all of us who have life have the breath of God to thank for that.
And that is why we weep when the breath goes out of us. When we saw the lifeless body of three year old Alyan, we wept for a small, fragile body who had no life, no breath, within him any longer. And we all of us feel the grief of his father, Abdullah Kurdi, who has also lost his other son, Aylan’s 5-year-old brother Galip, and their mother Rehan. And we despair that this sort of thing could happen. And that it happens, and continues to happen, in a world which ought to be a garden of delights, but which humans seem to be able to turn into something like hell.
It has taken a long time for the refugee crisis to enter the public consciousness. Perhaps it is just too hard for us to take. Or maybe we feel that the issues are just too complicated. The wars in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen have become complicated. They are tied up on great power politics. If we in Europe have been complicit in this disaster, so also have the oil states of Arabia, who refuse to take the refugees, and even finance the warriors. The governments of Russia and China also have blood on their hands, for they have consistently uses their power in the United Nations to support the regime of President Assad of Syria, and so prolong the suffering of the Syrian people.
And our own governments? Of course, our greed for oil is part of it, and our military interventions have made things worse. And for too long, and for too many of us, the people drowning in the Mediterranean, the refugees in Turkey and Lebanon and have been out of sight, out of mind. And how many of us are very aware the vicious war which is going on in Yemen, which Saudi Arabia is bombing to bits, or of the horrible dictatorship in Eritrea, a tiny country which is producing a large percentage of the refugees seeking to cross the Mediterranean? And for we in Scotland, where one of the worst terrorist atrocities of all happened, the downing of the jumbo jet at Lockerbie, the collapse of Libya is painful, for we did so hope that life for the people of that country would get better without Gadhafi, and his state-sponsored terrorism.
We all come from the same earth. We had life breathed into us by the same God. Yet we quarrel over the earth, and take life from those whom God breathed life into. Again, Genesis tells us it is not be so. In the story, God makes the first human, Adam, and then realizes that Adam can only be truly fulfilled if he has another being to share his life with. ‘Then the Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to live alone. I will make a suitable companion to help him’. From the soil, God makes animals and birds, and Adam gives them all names, and the expectation is that Adam will live in harmony with all the life God makes.
And yet it is not quite enough. And so, miraculously, God makes from Adam a woman- a companion who is of the same kind as Adam, who sings for joy:
At last, here is one of my own kind—
Bone taken from my bone, and flesh from my flesh.
‘Woman’ is her name because she was taken out of man.”
There is another wordplay here, for as in English, the Hebrew words for man and woman are alike. In this case, the Hebrew word for man is ish, and from man, ish, comes woman, ishah. Sometimes people seek to use this story to emphasise the differences between men and women. But, in fact, woman makes the perfect companion because she is, unlike all the animals, so like the man: one of Adam’s kind, bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh, isha from ish, woman from man.
For we humans are made to be companions for one another. We are meant to live with one another, take joy in each other’s company. Perhaps the primary example of this is the relationship of a man and woman, especially in marriage, in which, as the storyteller tells us, man and woman become one.
In the first creation story in Genesis chapter one, we hear that God looks at his handiwork and, we are told ‘God saw that it was good’ (Genesis 1.25 NRSV) sees that it is good. In this second story, we seem to hear an echo that sentiment. So often, we don’t find human relationships very good. They are messy, complex affairs. But Genesis gives us a striking image of the first two humans: ‘The man and the woman were both naked, but they were not embarrassed’. In our damaged Eden, that is rarely the case. We are often ashamed of our nakedness. Perhaps it is only with someone we really love that we can be naked and not embarrassed- indeed, we need to be in order to enjoy a sexual relationship, which is a very special sort of companionship.
But in Eden, before the garden is spoilt, Adam and Eve can enjoy each other without reserve. They are the original human companions, given by God to each other to be a help and a joy to one another. But in our spoilt gardens, we make enemies of those who should be our companions. By chapter four of Genesis, murder has entered the story. The brothers Cain and Abel get into a fight, and Cain murders Abel. And again, Genesis is a story not about ancient people, but about each of us. We are meant to be companions to one another, but companions become enemies. We rape, torture and kill those who are the bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, and claim that we are not our brother’s keeper. This is the tragedy of human life, and the writer of Genesis 3,000 years ago understood that very well.
Adam, ultimately, fails. There is a snake in the garden, the forbidden fruit will be eaten, Adam and Eve will blame each other, and Eden will be lost, and the delight will go from human affairs. The Bible is unflinchingly realistic about all this- there will more murders to come, and wars, and disasters. We shall try to build proud towers, and they will not reach to heaven. Even the innocents will be victims, until today lifeless toddlers washing up on holiday beaches is not an uncommon sight. Where will it end, and how can we stop the madness?
Many a sentimental Victorian print or stained glass window was made of Jesus blessing the children. A gentle Jesus lays his hands on smiling children, while their mothers happily look on. But read our Gospel story in context. It comes just after a controversy, in which Jesus has been arguing with religious leaders about divorce- what to do when the relationship between man and wife has broken down. We are a long way from the perfect companionship of Adam and Eve, who were so innocent that they were never concerned about nakedness. And then, as so often in Mark’s Gospel, we are breathlessly into the next incident, and it starts with conflict:
Some people brought children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples scolded the people. When Jesus noticed this, he was angry…
You’d think the disciples would be happy to welcome children. But these pushy parents upset the disciples, and the disciples scold the people. Why would they do that? Perhaps because children are disruptive, annoying, distracting sometimes. Especially if you are trying to think about higher things. At the Doors Open Day, we had some children running around the Old High Church, clambering around the Communion Table and climbing into the pulpit. And for some people, that doesn’t seem quite right. But whenever people complain about children in church, I’m afraid I come back to this verse: when they brought children to Jesus, ‘the disciples scolded the people. When Jesus noticed this, he was angry’.
The Jesus of the Gospels is different from the Jesus of the stained glass windows- he quite often gets angry. This is one of the times. Jesus gets angry at his own disciples, who cannot see the worth and value of noisy, unruly, dirty children. But Jesus blesses the children, and as he does so, he tells his disciples that they will never enter the Kingdom unless they are like them.
Jesus is angry. Jesus is angry about Aylan, and Galip, and all the other children, and all the grown-ups too, whose lives are snuffed out because we cannot learn to live as companions with those who are flesh of our flesh and bone or our bones. Jesus is angry with us, for we have pushed the children aside too long, and ignored their cries for help.
And Jesus’ anger was to take him to the cross. Jesus wasn’t killed because he was nice, but because he annoyed people, because he was controversial, because has was a threat to the powerful.
Media pundits wonder if the image of little Alyan lying face down on the beach might cause a sea change in public opinion, and make our politicians work harder at solving the refugee crisis, and the wars which have caused it. Stories of hundreds drowned don’t seem to have made a lot of difference- but the picture of this one dead child might make a difference, it is said.
For Christians, it shouldn’t be such a surprise that the death of one person might make a huge difference. Alyan represents all the other children- and adults- who have been the victims of our current wars. When we ponder Christ on the cross, does he not represent all the death, suffering, torture and agony of people everywhere? And does he not also represent something else- the anguish and pain of God, who made the world good, who suffers with those who suffer, who dies with those who die? One person’s death can- and does- make a difference, for in one person’s death, so much more is represented.
We cannot go back to Eden. We have to live in a world in which true delight is rare, for our lives are so often shadowed by sorrow, pain and death. But yet there is hope- for God suffers alongside us. And there is hope when people see in others, even those who seem very different from us, bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh. There is hope when people see others not as enemies, but as companions. There is hope when we all come to realise that we all of us are children of the earth, and have been given life by God. The Genesis story of Adam, the everyman, and of his companion Eve, reminds us of our common humanity. The ancient Hebrew writer spoke of bone of bone and flesh of flesh, of each of us animated by the breath of our loving creator God. Modern science tells us that there is very little difference in our DNA. Only when we remember that, can we have hope that there will be no more dead bodies on Europe’s beaches.
Ascription of Praise
The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.
Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. BCO 1994, p584
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2015 Peter W Nimmo