When I told Kristin the title of this sermon, the first thing she asked was, “You’re not going to have any visual aids, are you?” I reassured her by reminding her that one of the laws I learned about preaching from Gracia Grindal at Luther Seminary was this: never give anyone in your congregation any kind of sermon illustration that describes the pastor in bed or in the shower. You just don’t need to go there.
But physical nakedness is only one part of what we’re about this morning. In a society saturated with sexuality, it’s easy to read these texts and assume that they, also, are talking about sexual behavior. But they aren’t. We read these texts with our prejudices if all we hear in today’s readings is talk of sexuality. God is, as usual, up to something bigger here, something of which sexuality is only one part, and a small one at that. Let us pray:
Father in heaven, we come to You clothed in our success and our failures, in our rights and our wrongs, in our love and our sin. Strip away our imaginary righteousness, with all its morality and condescension and pride. Clothe us in Your righteousness, that we may learn what it means to love openly, faithfully and well. All this we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Douglas John Hall once noticed something peculiar about Genesis 2: there was a problem in paradise. There they were, in the Garden of Eden, before “The Fall of Humanity,” and what does the Bible tell us? “The Lord GOD said, ‘It is NOT good that the man should be alone.’” The hallmark of Genesis 1 is that everything God created was good – but here we have something that is not good: loneliness. Humanity was alone. There was no companion suitable for Adam, the first being.
So there are questions to be asked here. First Question: how does God know that loneliness is not good? Second Question: how does God know loneliness at all?
First, God knows that loneliness is not good because God does not want to be alone. The work of creation is not something God does on a whim: it is at the very core of God’s being. We look at this from our perspective, where our very existence is defined in some way by the presence or absence of other human beings. To be human is to know that other humans exist. But this is not so for God. God can exist without humanity – God can and did exist before creation began. The presence of creation was something God desired: one could argue that God created because God wanted to be in the presence of something other than God.
Second, God knows loneliness because there is nothing like God. No one else has the power to create from nothing. When I want light, I flip a switch that opens a circuit through which electricity flows and light comes through the heat generated by filaments strung between two wires: when God wants light, God says, “let there be light,” and light is created. Imagine being the only thing that is – no light, no sun, no football, no music, no speech, nothing at all – and then imagine having the power to change nothingness by creating. Does God know loneliness? I think God knows more about loneliness than we could ever guess – and we, God’s creation, are the means by which God wishes to end loneliness and create joy in companionship. The cost of that creation to God is immeasurable, but God created and continues to create; we should be thankful that God knows loneliness and knows it is not good.
So out of this God in goodness created again. And again and again and again, if Genesis 2 has it right. All the animals of the earth and birds of the air? Unsuitable for companionship. So much for the bumper sticker that reads, “The more I know about people, the more I love my dog.” Humans aren’t supposed to be alone: and God created other humans as a remedy to loneliness. Nothing else will do.
And what a relationship there was! Adam & Eve, the man and woman – created from the same earth and given the same names in Hebrew: Ish and Ishah. This is the joining of all humanity – and they joined together with nothing to hide, naked and unashamed.
But perhaps they weren’t just physically naked. Perhaps they were naked to one another in every sense of the word. No fear of rejection or mockery. No worries about being likable and no fears of inadequacy. No worries about risking yourself and taking the chance that you’d wind up being hurt. Sin had not entered the picture – every moment was a discovery and every word an adventure. Perhaps “naked and unashamed” meant that Adam & Eve were exploring each other with nothing to hide whatsoever – vulnerable to each other in ways we cannot imagine. And perhaps this is the greatest loss of the Fall: we can no longer be naked and unashamed with one another as Adam & Eve were in those few moments before sin claimed us as its own.
There is no way for us to know here and now what it must have been like for the first beings in the time before Sin. But we can certainly see what the ages since the fall have worked in our relationships and our ability to be suitable companions to one another. We see it in all our failed relationships. We cannot be what God created us to be, at least not in the way God intended, because our companionship in all our relationships is broken by our bondage to sin. We can justify our actions in our relationships all we want, but everything boils down to this: we are incapable of being naked and unashamed with one another as God had intended. We need look no further than our Gospel reading to know how this is so.
Before we move to that Gospel text, I want to make one point that rises out of the following story in Genesis. Genesis 3 tells the story of Adam & Eve eating the fruit that was forbidden. But our confirmation class noticed something peculiar about this story when we studied it a few weeks ago. The fruit was not the biggest problem in this story: it was Adam & Eve hiding their nakedness. The first question God asks Adam after they eat the fruit is, “Why were you hiding?” When Adam says he hid because he was naked, God asks, “Who told you that you were naked?” Hiding from God and one another is the problem: being ashamed of one’s vulnerability before God and one’s companions.
Now in Mark we see that humanity is still hiding from God, still ashamed of our nakedness and vulnerability. The Pharisees hid behind what was right in order to trap Jesus in something wrong.
The question was about the lawfulness or ‘rightness’ of divorce, which strikes most of us who’ve been divorced as somewhat silly. Seeking divorce is as right as amputating a seriously infected limb: they both cause serious, life-changing damage, damage that can never be made whole again, but sometimes the alternative is far worse. But even our modern understanding of divorce is far different from what the Pharisees were asking Jesus. The Pharisees were asking Jesus if they could divorce themselves of women that had become distasteful or displeasing and remain right in God’s eyes. The Pharisees wanted to trap Jesus, to get Him to say that a relationship was less important than the Law. The Pharisees were hiding their nakedness and their shame behind the Law, behind morals and right actions and an attempt to catch Jesus being opposed to both.
But Jesus knew that marriage law was not about marriage: it was about suitable companionship. Jesus knew that God wanted the people to trust in their relationships as they once had done. Even after the fall, we know that loneliness is not good for us, because God created us in God’s image, and so we seek out companionship and ask God to bless our relationships. What does it mean to say, “What God has joined together, let no one put asunder?” It means that God says “Yes” when we ask God to make us one in marriage as Adam & Eve once were one. God says that anything we do to be naked and unashamed with each other is good, because it removes the barriers and disguises we use to hide ourselves from God and each other. When we hide behind anything, we choose loneliness over companionship – and we choose to remove ourselves from the relationships that God has intended for us.
Jesus also knew that all human relationships exist to build the community’s trust in each other – that all relationships should aspire to be more open and vulnerable, more naked and unashamed. The Pharisees were concerned with individual righteousness and morality: Jesus was concerned with the well-being of the entire human race. There are communal effects to broken relationships, and we need only look around to realize this is true. When a divorce happens, every marriage is questioned: “Is our marriage strong enough?” Every instance of broken trust causes a chain reaction of distrust that cascades throughout our communities. Watch what happened this week in Washington D.C. as trust was broken and relationships shut down for fear of further damage. Instead of a cascade of openness and vulnerability, we further hide the truth of who we are from ourselves and our neighbors, in the vain hope that maybe, just maybe, we can cover up enough that no one will realize how deeply we need one another.
As an antidote to all of this, Jesus lifted up the lowliest of the lowly: the children being brought to Him for healing. Since Jesus was known as a healer, we can safely assume that these children wouldn’t have been angelic, rosy-cheeked, smiling babes; these would have been the children who needed healing. Maybe there was one with a lazy eye, one with a club foot. There were probably several with cleft palates who couldn’t swallow because their mouths were deformed. They were probably dirty, hungry, and crabby. “These”, Jesus said, “are the ones to whom the kingdom of God belongs.” These tired, scabby, smelly children. These children who only want to feel better, to be human. These children who come to Jesus naked and unashamed.
Make no mistake, Jesus says, adultery is adultery. Divorce is divorce. Sin is sin. Two wrongs do not make a right. Don’t hide behind your lesser sins because you’re ashamed of your greater sins. You cannot clothe yourselves in morality and be a suitable companion. You cannot shame yourself or your neighbor into a relationship that is what God intended it to be. You are broken, flawed, hard-hearted, unable to return to what you were before Sin claimed you as its own. But Jesus also gives what we cannot give: blessings to those who need them. Jesus came to his own, naked and unashamed of who He was and what He was doing. Jesus came to his own, naked and unashamed, and refused to be caught in easy answers and shallow spirituality. Jesus came to his own, naked and unashamed, and established a living relationship between God and God’s people again. Jesus comes to his own, naked and unashamed, and asks us to stop hiding. Those rags of self-righteousness and high morality you wear, Jesus says, are nothing compared to being clothed in true righteousness, true forgiveness and true mercy. These are the garments of those who have received the kingdom of God, Jesus says; let me strip way your sins and clothe you in my righteousness, and do not be ashamed. Amen.