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“… a paradise that makes me think of two… “

Date: September 15, 2020/Speaker: Sharla Hulsey
Whelan, Brian. “Paradise Lost“ . Digital Image of Painting. Quadrogiz. September 12, 2012. https://quadrogiz.blogspot.com/2012/09/mektoub-de-al-berto.html

Genesis 2:4-9, 15-25

(Sermon title is from “Old Man” by Neil Young, from his 1970 album Harvest.)

We are learning some interesting lessons from the current pandemic.

One is that nobody really likes wearing masks. In the summer when it’s hot and humid, they’re downright unpleasant. One of my masks is, for some reason, lined with flannel, which just makes matters worse.

Nobody likes them, but we have to wear them, so some of us have decided we might as well make a fashion statement—or some other kind of statement—with them. I’ve got around twenty at this point, in various colors and in some cases with pictures on them.

A friend of mine back east who has been making masks for family, friends, and co-workers says she’s in it for the long haul, because we’ve been wearing them long enough at this point that some of the first ones she made are starting to wear out. She is making them because it helps her have a sense of control over some part of this crisis, which is pretty much out of our control. She has made over 200 masks, and is still working.

My physical therapists have to ask me a lot more whether a given exercise is too much, because with a mask on they can’t see the expressions on my face that would tell them if I’m struggling or hurting. And I had to show ID at Walmart a few weeks ago when I was buying a bottle of wine; I guess it’s hard to tell someone’s age when you can’t see half their face. (I told the young lady that I’m old enough to take being carded as a compliment, mask or no mask.)

Many of us are discovering that we can live reasonably well without going out to eat. Although we’ve gotten takeout a few times, I have not been seated for a meal in a restaurant since this all started. (Mike has been, when he goes out with his camera, but I haven’t.)

Early on a lot of us were baking quite a bit.

A Wisconsin-based comedian named Charlie Berens (search for his name on YouTube or Facebook) has done some funny videos titled “Quarantine Kitchen”; sometimes he’s making cocktails, but other times he’s made casseroles (they call them “hotdish” up north) or other things, and usually he has some kind of special cause he’s promoting as part of the video. The first one I watched, he called his dad, who is a doctor at the Children’s Hospital in (I think) Milwaukee, and he told them the kind of equipment they were running short of and how folks could help.

(Charlie just raised over $60,000 for the folks recovering from the derecho that hit Iowa a few weeks back, by the way, selling shirts on his website.)

We’re learning that there are a lot of unnecessary meetings in our lives, meetings that could be e-mails or phone calls, or meetings that can happen over videoconferencing apps like Zoom (although they are oftentimes a bit glitchy).

We’re learning that a large number of people can work at home quite well. (Some of the websites I occasionally shop from have even had their models taking selfies at home, instead of going to a studio for a photo shoot.)

When this pandemic got going, one of the first casualties in the world I inhabit was all the annual shape note singing conventions. The Missouri Convention, which was held the second Sunday in March and the Saturday before, was the last one that’s happened anywhere. I opted not to go to that one this year, and I sort of regret that now, since the other three singings I go to in the spring were cancelled along with all the others in the United States and around the world. Presumably the ones that normally happen in the fall are going to be cancelled as well, since we’re nowhere near being able to sing safely in a group like that. I just got notification this weekend about a few more that are being cancelled.

But we’ve learned something else—and this isn’t just limited to shape note singers; there are videos posted online of other choirs where everybody records themselves singing their parts, and someone compiles them into a finished piece. We’ve learned that we can sing together without being together.

Because of where I live in relation to the various singing groups, I haven’t been able to attend regular singings (the ones that happen every week, every other week, or once a month) since I moved from Portland in 2001. But now, using an app called Jamulus, we have been singing together online every Thursday night. I’ve actually sung more in the past few months than I ever had before.

We’re learning that online education is a pretty complicated venture, especially for younger kids, and that if you bring a bunch of young adults together on a college campus there will be parties, even though that many people in an enclosed space with alcoholic beverages pretty much spells disaster.

But one of the biggest lessons we’re learning is one that God learned at the dawn of time.

We have to be aware, as we look at the 2nd and 3rd chapters of Genesis, and the other stories that come from the “Yahwist” stream of material making up the first five books of the Bible, that they have a particular theology. The portrayal of God in this tradition makes some folks a bit uncomfortable. I actually had a seminary classmate come right up to the line of calling me a heretic because I pointed it out—just pointed out what’s in the text, but this guy belonged to a church that had a really rigid list of things you had to believe, and this portrayal just did not fit with that list.

We generally think of God as all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful, and to at least some extent unchanging. That all comes more from Greek thought than it does from the Hebrew Scriptures. In Genesis 2—3, God is shown figuring things out as he goes along, and not knowing, as we’ll find next week, what’s going on in the garden he created. (Some might say that the “Where are you?” and “What have you been up to?” questions in chapter 3 are like questions a parent asks a child when they already know the answer. But I do see God in chapter 2 as not quite knowing what the person he created needs.)

So God plants this garden—the way Genesis is put together I think we’re meant to understand chapter 2 as zooming in on particular days described in the seven-day creation story of chapter 1—and he forms a human being out of mud, breathes life into him, and puts him in the garden. But remember how, in chapter 1, at the end of each day, God looks around at the work done that day and declares it “good”? Here in chapter 2, Good looks at the garden, and the one human being he’s put in it, and says, “It is not good…”

What isn’t good is that the man is alone. It doesn’t really say why that isn’t good.

Maybe the man has started wandering around muttering to himself, like a lot of us do when we’re by ourselves. Maybe he is cold and scared at night when the garden is dark. Maybe the work God has given him to do—tilling and keeping the garden—is more than one person can do on their own. In any case, God determines that the man needs a partner.

I think it’s important to know that there is not a single Hebrew word behind the older translation of Genesis 2:18, where earlier English speakers got a compound, “helpmeet” or “helpmate.” In the King James Version, God says, “I will make him an help meet for him.” Not one word, but two.

The word “meet” has changed meanings in the 400 years since that translation was first published. In 1611 meet meant suitable, or appropriate, or fitting.
It doesn’t mean that today, so we don’t understand, which is why newer translations usually say something like “I will make a fitting helper for him” (as in the New Jewish Publication Society’s version) or “…a helper as his partner” (as in the NRSV).

What we also don’t know is that the word translated “help” or “helper” (‘ezer in Hebrew) is most often used to refer to God—we see it in the altar called Ebenezer, which means “stone of help,” and the reason for that name as, “Thus far the LORD has helped us” (1 Samuel 7:12) We would never say that God is subordinate to us, as we often imply when we talk about a man’s wife being his helper, or talk about people who work for us as “the help.”

And the same word is used when God determines to create a helper for the first human. I think the New Revised Standard Version has it right to pair “helper” as “partner.” The first man and woman were meant to be partners, not master and servant.

But God doesn’t seem to know exactly what kind of creature would be a suitable helper to be the man’s partner. So God gets back down in the mud and starts sculpting animals, and after breathing life into each one, God brings them to the man so he can name them. God made birds, and horses, and dogs, and pigs, and aardvarks, and geckos, and giraffes, and hedgehogs…but none of these turned out to be a suitable partner. God spent all day forming creatures, only to discover with each one that it just wasn’t right.

Then God tried something different. God put the man to sleep, took one of his ribs, and used it to form another human being. (And no, just before someone asks, men are not short one rib to this very day.)

When God brought this creation to the man, he says, “At last…”

Now paradise, once lonely with just the one human being in it, is full, with animals everywhere, and a man and woman working in the garden as partners.

This brings us back to the important lesson we’re learning during the current pandemic. It’s the same one that God figured out after creating that one man and setting him in the garden of Eden: “It is not good for [one human being] to be alone.”

Many of us who are introverts really don’t mind being alone for substantial periods of time. But even we get tired of it after awhile.

When I was in seminary I went on a weekend “retreat” of sorts. I got a hotel room right on the beach, and stayed there by myself from Friday afternoon until Monday morning.

At first I thought, “This is great.” I’m by myself, not having to endure the noise of the television that was always on in our little apartment where there was no place I could go to get away from it, not having to put up with a husband who didn’t sleep at normal times, eating what I wanted and doing what I wanted, which was mainly reading and watching the tide come in and go out.

By Saturday night I was at my wits’ end. I had to go out and find someone to talk to, even if it was just a cashier at the little used bookstore up the street.

Turns out that, even though other people can sometimes be loud, inconsiderate, annoying, or just plain always there, it wasn’t good for me to be totally alone.

Without modern technology, I suspect a lot of us would have been beside ourselves when we were all told to go home and stay there. There are people in some parts of this country and the world who are still isolated because their risk of complications from covid are higher than mine might be.

Now I think we can begin to understand why the one thing God said wasn’t good in all of creation was one human being all by himself.

We are not meant to live that way forever. We are meant to have relationships with other human beings, whether those are marriages, friendships, family, you name it. God did not create us to be autonomous units who don’t really need anything from anybody else. Isolation is hard on us—maybe harder than a bunch of us shut up in the same house, tripping over one another as we try to work, go to school, and manage the household all at once.

It is not good for us to be alone.

And our modern world makes it awfully easy for us to isolate ourselves, even without a global pandemic. You wouldn’t believe the number of people nowadays who flat-out hate talking on the telephone—even folks who, like me, grew up spending hours on the phone with our friends every night. We just don’t have to do it; we can send text messages, or e-mails. We justify that by saying, well, we don’t know what else the person might have going on when we call; we could be interrupting something important. If we send a text or an instant message or an e-mail, they can look at it at a time that’s convenient for them. We are absolutely allergic to the possibility that our call might be intrusive, even though it’s equally possible that person would be delighted to hear the sound of our voice.

Social media makes us connected in ways we could never have been before. Many of us have friends on Facebook that we have literally known our entire lives—and they’re not all relatives. I have several Facebook friends I’ve known since I was in kindergarten or first grade.

Once upon a time, people just lost touch with one another, and only saw each other at reunions; now it’s possible to keep up with friends and kinfolk every single day. We form groups on Facebook around shared interests—cooking, or pets, or our work, or even the bands we like; I just joined a group for U2 fans this week. We have fun on cat Twitter, where we set up accounts and have conversations as though we were our pets.

But with all those connections, it’s still awfully easy to be isolated.

Maybe we see someone’s post on Facebook describing their perfect lives…and since our own lives are far from perfect, we feel like maybe we don’t belong there. We don’t realize that they’re posting their highlight reels, while we’re all too aware of our own blooper reels. (I know that dates me; video isn’t really on “reels” anymore, is it?)

Trust me when I say they’ve got blooper reels, too. It’s awfully easy to hide those on social media, which means that the connections we make there are oftentimes a mile wide and an inch deep.

We’re connected, but we still feel alone. And it is not good for a human being to be alone. So why are we so often so alone? Why is it so hard to reach out and make the kind of life-giving connections that God knew at creation we needed to have?

Well…that’s the subject we’ll tackle next week, so stay tuned.