As many of you know, Laurie and I are among those people whom certain cats will allow to live with them. There are two cats at the church manse now who allow us to live with them. When we got married, one cat at my apartment was allowing me to live with him, and two cats at her apartment were allowing her to live with them, and ever since, throughout our years of marriage, either two or three cats have allowed us to live with them.
The cat who allowed me to share his apartment, as I was getting married, was named Benjamin.
Benjamin posed an interesting little problem for me while I was living at Pittsburgh Seminary, preparing for the ministry, because halfway through my stay there, the housing director left and a new director took over, a director who decided he was going to enforce a new “No Pets” policy – no pets in the seminary apartments.
Well, I wasn’t about to move. For one thing, my furniture had been lost for two weeks when I moved into the seminary apartments, and I wasn’t going to go through that again. And I wasn’t going to give up Benjamin. So, Benjamin became a secret.
Well, sure, half the seminary community used to visit at my apartment and see him there. But, um, Benjamin was a secret.
Well, yes, the kids who played in the courtyard behind my building did come over to see me, and ran back into the courtyard shouting “He-has-a-cat-we-met-his-cat-I-petted-him.” But, Benjamin was a secret.
I mean, he was white, and he did love to sit in the picture window, against a dark background, looking out over the seminary grounds. In fact, I used to walk out the end of the building halfway across campus, and see him, all the way across two lawns and a street. But Benjamin. . . was a secret.
Yeah, right; some secret.
I bring up the subject of Benjamin the cat because the contrast he provides with us, regarding a couple issues raised by this passage from Genesis. The way he related to his world was different from the way we relate to ours. Benjamin was an indoor cat, so except for exciting excursions to get the mail, his “world” consisted of my apartment.
First, he seemed to have no interest in “subduing” or “having dominion” over this world. He pruned the plants a little more than I would have liked, and did pride himself on being a fierce beastie holding power over any creatures smaller than, oh, his paw – but unlike human beings with their world he didn’t rearrange the landscape, dig holes, build buildings, pollute the water, decide what species shall become extinct, or poke holes in his ozone layer. Those ideas of “subdue the world” and “have dominion” just weren’t issues for him.
And second, he didn’t worry about what it means to be male and female – which came first, who is subject to whom, what are the “proper roles.” Now, there was a very good reason for this. When he was four months old, he was . . . well, there’s this operation for cats that . . . let’s just say that gender and sex were no longer issues for him either.
And that is quite a contrast from us, isn’t it? “Male and female God created them. And God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion.’”
God created them male and female and God said to them, “Go out and do.” Here you are, the two of you, and here are your instructions. You are male and you are female and together you’re supposed to go out and do. Notice there’s no excuse, or disclaimer, or condition. It’s not: You are male and female and in spite of that try to do. Or. You are male so you go do this, and you are female so you go do that. No, the verses are back to back, right smack together. Male and female – go and do.
But how often do we let the fact of “male and female” become an obstacle in our doing instead? How much do we fail to accomplish, how much of our potential never materializes, because of how we react to being male and female?
The first way this happens is in our refusing to look past someone’s gender to see anything else about them. I’m sure there were many people who chose to vote for Hillary Clinton or not because of some of her policies or proposals, but I’m also sure there were some who cast their vote one way or the other only because she is a woman.
I remember when the first woman minor-league baseball umpire was one of seven minor-league umpires who had a shot at two major league openings. How many of the seven were on the cover of Sports Illustrated? How many of them had to adopt a policy of no interviews because they were beginning to interfere with the games? How many of them had to put up with comments like those from Houston Astros pitcher Bob Knepper? Knepper called the media around to announce that he was against her being an umpire because . . . he is a Christian. And all Christians know that no women are supposed to have any kind of authority over any men. This guy put himself forward as a spokesman for your faith; how do you feel about that? It didn’t matter how good an umpire she was, or how much experience she had, or how she compared with the other candidates. She’s a woman, so she can’t “go and do” this thing.
Even certain gender words can make us uncomfortable. A friend referred to me as being a feminist once upon a time. She meant it as a compliment, but to my surprise I felt a twinge, a reaction against the label. That word, I guess, was a little too close to the word “feminine” for me, and even though in my head I know she was referring to attitudes and philosophies, not mannerisms or gender, my male upbringing made my first instinctive reaction to be “NO. I’m a man. I’m not one of those. The first way gender is an obstacle for us is in our not seeing beyond it to who someone as an individual is – what they think, what they feel, what they can do.
The second way our sexual identity gets in the way is when we can’t see except in terms of sexual relationships. Two co-workers, a woman and a man, are seen together at lunch three days in a row. The whispers begin, the knowing looks, the suggestions and smiles. Imagine if either or both are married! Or if they were to go out for dinner together after work, instead of lunch! Two men together, two women together – no reaction, but for these two: well, we know what’s going on here, don’t we. It probably won’t be long until the two hear the message that they shouldn’t work together or lunch together any more.
I once had a boss who was very much a control person; he wanted to have every aspect of his business in his two hands. My friend Mike helped my friend Carol move to a new apartment, and in return she invited him to dinner some time later. The boss happened to call Carol that evening about a client, and I’m told the end of the conversation went something like this:
“O.K., thanks, Carol. I have to go and call Mike now.”
“Oh, he’s right here. I’ll put him on.”
“Uh . . . what are you doing there?”
“Oh, I helped Carol move, so she cooked me dinner.”
“Then you’ll be going home now, right?”
“Well, actually, we haven’t eaten yet. We’re just about to start.”
“But as soon as you’re done, you’ll go home, right?”
“I . . . I guess.”
“I think that’s a good idea. I think you should go home.”
Now, I’m not sure why it would have been so awful even if they had been on a date, but what’s notable is the presumption that something not right was going on here. This man and this woman couldn’t be cooperating on a project without being suspected of some sort of sexual relationship. The second way our sexual identity gets in the way of our doing is when we can’t see except in terms of sexual relationships.
The third way has to do with the classic “battle of the sexes.” Here we get into competition – any gain for “them” is a setback for “us.” Way back in seminary I developed a practice at the end of a term of schoolwork; after the final exams were over and the papers were handed in, I used to “detox” by picking up a fantasy novel, escaping into another world. The one I grabbed after one term turned out to be, frankly, a pretty bad book, but it had looked promising and it was in the Free Book Exchange, so I picked it up.
In this fantasy world, the male primitive-warrior tribes lived in the North, and the female primitive-warrior tribes lived in the South. Both kept members of the opposite sex around only as cooks, servants, and breeders. They would capture one another from time to time, and even when they compared lifestyles, which were quite similar, when they observed each other at work, they could never get beyond the idea that the opposite sex was obviously inferior, that their way was clearly right and the others clearly wrong. Even when threatened by a common enemy, both continued to think to themselves: “After this is over, then we’ll take them captive and put things back to normal.” If they were a member of the opposite sex, they were the enemy.
Now, we aren’t primitive warrior tribes physically fighting, men against women, but we’re not without our more figurative battles of the sexes. A man campaigns against a woman’s promotion because “they” will start to take over. Next thing you know, “they” will be putting “their own” in all the key slots. A woman has a bad experience with one man and, perhaps justifiably, declares the entire half of the population dispensable and begins preaching a message of hatred of men, putting happily-married friends in very awkward positions as they try to balance loyalties. A woman theologian hears one too many Bob Kneppers defining Christianity, so rejects the entire Judeo-Christian religion and God as hopeless and bad. The third way our sexual identity is an obstacle to our doing is in our battle of the sexes.
None of this is found in the world of Genesis 1. “Male and female, God created them. And God blessed them and God said to them.” Go and do. Tend the world. Fill the earth. Rule the animals. This “ruling,” by the way, is not an exploitation or abuse. Human beings being created “in God’s image” are those who are to rule the way God would rule if it was God determining the fate of plants and animals and oceans. It is not a license to ruin or destroy or grasp and waste.
God said to them, Go and do. Tend the world. There’s no note of specific roles for the two sexes. There’s no hint of “Don’t work too closely together or you’ll end up having illicit uncontrollable sex.” There’s no trace of anything suggesting any kind of loyalty to one’s own gender. There is the creation of male and female, and there is the instruction, to them, together, to go and do.
One commentator, in describing the phrase “image of God,” says that this passage, Genesis 1: 26-28, is speaking of the purpose of being in God’s image more than its nature, the specific attributes we may or may not share with God. It’s describing what being in God’s image allows us to go and do, what opportunities and responsibilities it gives us. It seems to me that when we face the reality of being male and female, we get hung up instead on the nature, the real or supposed characteristics our sexual identity results in, to the point where we’ve blocked ourselves from accomplishing God’s purposes. When what God really had in mind, the passage says, is that together, we would go and do.
Bob and Cathy are section supervisors on the production floor of a plant that makes packaging machinery – machines that wrap up Oreo cookies in plastic or pop fresh moist Play-doh into airtight containers. They know the position of Production Manager, supervising the whole manufacturing floor, is open, so it’s a big moment when the President of the company calls them into the office. “Bob and Cathy,” she tells them, “we’ve seen the good work you’ve been doing and I’m happy to announce that we’re making you both Production Managers. Business has grown enough that we need one for each product line. Now, right now there’s only one big office available – one of you will have to use the small one next to it – but I’m sure you’ll work something out. The job is yours effective immediately, and we have a big new project. So as soon as you get to your offices and tell your staff the news, start the work.” Bob and Cathy look at one another, and they know there’s a problem.
Their new offices are at the far end of the plant from Ms. President’s office – they’ll have to walk right across the manufacturing floor, past everyone, who knows they were called in, to get to them. They’re competing for the big office, so they’re not about to let the other one get over there first alone to claim it. Bob thinks briefly of running across the floor first, announcing that he gets the big office, rewording the promotion so that he’s in charge and Cathy’s his “helpmeet” –but he knows he can’t get away with that. And neither can she. They don’t trust each other – they can’t go separately.
But Bob doesn’t want to walk over with Cathy, beside her, because the guys on the floor have already been giving him a hard time about how much the two of them have been working together; his wife’s already heard and been disturbed by rumors about “this Cathy person,” as she calls her. And Cathy doesn’t want to walk over with Bob, because she’s been bragging to all her friends on the floor that she’s got the promotion all locked up herself because, after all, the President is a woman and will of course choose a woman over a man for the top spot, beginning the Reign of the Women at this plant. So they can’t go together. And they can’t go apart. And they stand there and look at one another, and at least for the moment, the big new project waits.
Let us pray.
God, we find so many excuses not to do your work. We’ve even turned the marvelous fact of our sexual identities into an obstacle, a barrier to living out your instruction to us. Help us to see one another as co-workers, as talented individuals, capable of great things, not just as male and female. Help us to stop being suspicious and small-minded when we do see women and men working together and enjoying one another’s company. Help us to cooperate with one another and not compete, to see how much more can be accomplished when we work together. Help us to see what needs to be done – and get on with it. Amen.