Wednesday, October 26, 2016

"A Fall Sermon" - September 11, 2016

Text: Genesis 2:4b-8, 15-17, 3:1-8

In traditional Christian theology, it is called “The Fall.”  That moment when sin entered the human race, became a part of the human condition.  There is a famous little jingle that goes all the way back to The New England Primer, an elementary reader published by the Puritans in 1642: “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.”

Well – thanks a lot, Adam.  Thanks for the taint of Original Sin.  We may not make a habit of quoting that little jingle, but we know the sentiment.  In everyday language we sometimes excuse our behavior by saying, “Hey - I’m only human,” which means roughly the same thing. 

Today we are kicking off the fall, appropriately enough, by looking at The Fall.  (I didn’t get a title in the bulletin but if I had, it would say, “A Fall Sermon)  We are starting a new church year with the Narrative Lectionary, a set of scripture readings for each Sunday that follows the narrative – the storyline - of the Bible.  The readings will be different than last year, but again we will start in Genesis and look at key Old Testament stories through up until Advent.  After Christmas, we will read continuously through one gospel, this year the gospel of Luke, until Easter. 

Our scripture today, of Adam and Eve in the garden, is as good a place as any to begin, because it is one of those formative stories in the Bible.  It gets some big ideas out there from the very first pages of scripture.  Creation, humanity, community, sin, grace – it’s all there. 

In Chapter 1 of Genesis, God creates the world in seven days, beginning with the heavens and the earth.  Each day God creates a portion of creation and then pronounces what has been created as good.  Finally, God creates human beings, male and female, in God’s image, and God says that it is very good.

In chapter 2, we have another account of creation, a much earthier version (pun intended).  God creates the human being from the dust of the ground and breathes life into the human.  It is a play on words in Hebrew – God made adam from the adamah.  God made a human from the humus. 

The human is placed in the garden to till and keep it.  The English translation actually understates the relationship of the human to the garden.  The word translated “till” is really closer to “serve.”  And to “keep” the garden really has a connotation of guarding, watching over, protecting.  The Psalm says “the Lord will watch over your going out and coming in from this day on and forevermore.”  The word “watch over” is the same word used here.

So the human is created, God breathes life into the human, and there is a vocation – a calling – to work, serve, to protect, to watch over the garden.  There is a vocation, and there is also a limitation.  It is a small limitation, but it is a limitation.  The human can eat of every tree in the garden.  Imagine acres and acres of fruit trees and fruit-bearing plants.  Apples and oranges and peaches and pears.  Mangos and bananas and coconuts.  Apricots, plums, cherries, pomegranates, pecans, walnuts, almonds, avocados, figs, dates.  Throw in vegetables and berries and grains.  We are talking about an incredible gift.  We are talking about freedom – God said, you may freely eat of any tree in the garden.

But there was also limitation.  The human was not to eat from one tree: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. 

In the ensuing verses, the woman is created from adam.  The woman is called Eve, which means “life,” and adam becomes the proper name for the man, Adam. 

So you have a man and a woman living in this beautiful garden.  They are to care for the garden and to keep and protect the garden, and they may eat from a veritable smorgasbord of offerings.  They may freely eat of everything in the garden, save for one thing.  Save for one tree.

Now, if you are given all kinds of stuff but told that there is one thing you cannot have, what do you tend to focus on?  What you have or what you don’t have?  What you are allowed or what is forbidden?

If a child is taken to a toy store and told that they can choose any toy in the whole place except for that shiny bicycle over there, what is the one thing they are going to want?

If someone is told that they can focus on any area of research they would like, but that this one area is off limits, which area is going to intrigue them the most?

If you are hiking and find a trail that appears to lead to an incredibly beautiful place, but a sign says do not enter, which trail is going to interest you the most?

Our instinct is to strive, to be ambitious, to attain that which we don’t yet have.  Our instinct is to want more.  And if there is anything we don’t like, it is somebody placing limits on us.  We don’t like being told no, not by anyone.

The man and woman seemed to do OK in this beautiful garden – for a while.  But then one day, the woman is approached by the serpent.  The serpent asks, “Did God say you can’t eat from any tree in the garden?”  The woman replied that she and the man could eat from any tree in the garden except for the one in the middle of the garden – they weren’t to even touch it or they would die.  Now, God had not actually said that, but apparently, just to be on the safe side, the man and woman had added the part about even touching the tree. 

The serpent said, “Of course you won’t die – God knows that your eyes will be open and you will know good and evil.  You will be like God.”

Interestingly, the woman saw that it was good.  She apparently already knew good.  The woman and the man saw that it was good, it looked delicious, it would make them wise, and so they ate.  And when they ate, their eyes were open and they knew they were naked, so they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths.

Then, they heard God walking in the garden, around the time of the evening breeze.  Martin Luther had an interesting take on this.  Luther said that when that first couple heard the wind, they thought it was God.  It was actually just the wind, but they assumed it was God and so they hid.

What the woman and the man came to know after eating the fruit was guilt and shame.  They wanted to cover themselves up.  They hid from God just as they were in a sense hiding from one another.  And when they are found out, they turn to blaming.   The man blamed the woman – she gave me the fruit.  The woman blamed the serpent – he tricked me. 

Now, people have done all kinds of things with this text.  There are those who have argued that women cannot be ordained ministers because Eve was the first to take a bite of the apple.  If you read this story and that is the meaning you get from it, I would worry about you.  I really don’t think that is the point.

There are those theologians who have used this passage to argue for a doctrine of Original Sin – that sin entered the human race by the sin in the garden, and since then there has been a more or less hereditary passing on of sin.  Before the fall, humanity was capable of living sin-free, but no more.

I think that is also may be a little bit too much reading into the story.  To me, this is a kind of universal story about all of us, about the choices that we all make, about the nature of temptation, about our striving for more, about the nature of shame.

I mentioned the great coach Vince Lombardi last week, and I hate to do this to you, but I’m going to quote him again this week.  Lombardi famously said, in a comment that is etched in the American psyche, “Winning isn’t everything – it’s the only thing.”  The comment kind of spun out of and Lombardi came to regret it.  “I wish I’d never said the damn thing,” he said shortly before his death.  “I meant the effort… I meant having a goal… I surely didn’t mean to crush human values.”

But that attitude, that drive to succeed and to get what you want at all costs, no matter what sacrifices are made or who might get hurt, is deeply rooted in American culture.  We have all seen that.  It is also exactly the kind of thing that our scripture warns about.  Ambition can get the best of us.  Accomplishing and acquiring and accumulating all sorts of things has a big part in determining our sense of worth, and that is not always a good thing.

Peter Marty recalled a cartoon in an old New Yorker magazine.  A wealthy husband and wife with self-satisfied grins sit down to dine at a fancy restaurant.  The waiter introduces them to the menu.  “For your convenience,” he says, “the starred items are dishes associated with success, riches, power, and the like.”

The man and woman were in to upward mobility.  They wanted to be like God.  They were not the last ones with that desire.  Adam and Eve went on to have three children, three boys.  Abel was blessed, seemed to do everything well.  He was the golden boy who somehow managed to get what he wanted.  Abel never seemed to make a mistake, except one.  One day, he went for a walk with his brother.

Cain had a much more difficult time of it.  He wanted everything his brother had.  He resented his brother and blamed Abel when he didn’t get it.  Cain blamed his brother to the point that he knew that if he could just get rid of Abel, it would all be his.  And so he did, but life did not get better.  He spent the rest of his life wandering the earth, carrying a load of guilt for murdering his brother.  He thought that the only way to get rid of the guilt would be for someone to do to him as he had done to Abel – but no one ever would.

The treachery and murder in their family compounded the guilt and shame that Adam and Eve felt.  And they saw the continuing cycle of blaming and wanting more.  They could see it in their third son, Seth, and his children.  And their children and their children.  Generation after generation, always striving, always wanting more. And when they got more, they would still want more.  To have more, they would steal and cheat and lie and fight wars, nation against nation.

And if it that didn’t work out, they could always find someone to blame.  The government.  The schools.  The administrators and bureaucrats.  They could blame the church. Blame the media.  Blame their families, their neighbors, their bosses.  Blame their enemies.

Today is the fifteenth anniversary of what we know simply as 9/11.  Freshmen entering Iowa State were only 3 or 4 years old when it happened.  It was that long ago, but I remember it very well.  I was driving to church, not too far from our house, about to turn onto 13th Street.  I was listening to Morning Edition on NPR when they started talking about a plane that had crashed into the World Trade Center.  The early reports were sketchy, but as the morning went on it was clear something awful had happened, and we all knew that life was going to change in some way.  There were incredible stories of courage and bravery and sacrifice that we continue to remember and honor.  But what we felt most was deep loss and deep sadness.

What happened on 9/11 fell in that long line of violence and blaming and hatred that goes back centuries, even millennia.  Harry Emerson Fosdick’s great hymn has a line, “Cure thy children’s warring madness; bend our pride to thy control.”  The sentiment of that hymn has always been needed. 

I think of the 15 years since September 11, 2001, and the choices that have been made.  Choices made by all kinds of people, including us.  And sometimes I wonder if maybe the sort of choices made back in the first pages of scripture keep getting made over and over, again and again and again.

The episode we read about this morning is not just Adam and Eve’s story; it is also our story.  It is about choices that we all make, over and over, even when we know better.

The comedian Ron White put it this way: “They told me I had the right to remain silent… I may have had the right, but I didn’t have the ability.”  Knowledge alone is not enough.  Knowing what we ought to do is not always enough.  Falling short is part of the human story. 

In the end, the man and the woman did not die, not on that day.  At least not a physical death.  But innocence died, trust was broken, and the closeness they had felt to God and to one another would never completely be recovered. 

Yet in this story we also have grace.  Grace in that even as they left behind the garden and had to travel east of Eden, God was with them, caring for them, providing for them.  Grace in that while the knowledge we gain does not necessarily lead to wisdom or to making the right choices, it does increase our ability to do good, our ability to bring about justice and righteousness and healing.

And grace in the fact that just as the man and woman had choices, so do we.  We have freedom.  We have the ability to live in God’s grace, to take up the vocation of serving and keeping God’s people and God’s world – or not.  And there is grace in that while humanity kept making choices that just broke God’s heart, God never gave up on us.  Filled with pride, humanity kept saying, “More!”  But in time God sent One filled with humility who went to Calvary and said, “Enough.”  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

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