Monday, 21 September 2009 16:17

"Paradise Revisited", September 20, 2009

“Paradise Revisited”
Genesis 2:4b-3:13
A Sermon Preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
September 20, 2009
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN


Walking around the campus this weekend, it felt like paradise.  I’m certainly not talking about the Gopher’s loss.  I’m talking about the gorgeous weather.  I’m talking about the positive energy that was around as people tailgated and even cleaned up after themselves.  Today I experience it in the beautiful music we hear from the choir whom we welcome back.  Nothing like starting out small, eh?   When we focus on the possibilities out there, it feels a bit like paradise.  In a little while, we’ll look at portraits of paradise from the churches of Rome that Jean and I visted as part of the Global Baptist Peace Conference in February.  We need those reminders of how good it can be when things get really bad—like when rage and racism become toxic, even to the point of wearing the disguise of civil debate, when it is neither civil nor a debate.

I had an experience of paradise as I sang with a friend who is in her last weeks here on this earth.  She gathered friends around to sing her spirit home.  And yet we were singing with her those familiar Sacred Harp tunes, the words about which we sang took on new meaning.  When we sang of “crowning our journey’s end” or “I’m on my way to Canaan to the New Jerusalem,” another dimension opened up.  It was her husband who said the time in hospice has been a holy time of blessing.  His exact words were, “we are in the midst of a love-filled miracle.”

The rivers of paradise flow through our lives.  They flow into and out of our darkest moments, mystically connecting us with one another.  In the good times, the water flows smoothly.   In the rough times the water runs in torrents destroying and recreating the streambed.  But the rivers of paradise never stop flowing.  That’s what we need to recover and celebrate.

There are three creation stories in Genesis, if you count the flood.  The first one is where God creates the world in six days and then rests on the seventh.  It’s familiar.  Creation begins as God brings order out of the primordial soup.  Light, darkness, heaven, earth, plants, animals and finally humanity are created by the dramatic word and work of God who art in heaven hallowed be thy name.  Everything is good.  Nothing is bad.

But there is a second creation story, most of which we read earlier this morning.  Unlike the first story, God is not far off.  In this story, God is the planter of a garden who exists nearby.  God actually walks in the garden, like a breeze.  Into this garden, God creates more complexity.  Not everything is good about creation.

There are good trees and bad trees.  Good fruits and forbidden fruits.  There are serpents about—calling the first creatures to forget the rules and eat the forbidden fruit.  What we see in the second story is humanity moving further and further away from God until we can no longer live in the garden of paradise.

We cannot look at the Bible as simply fact or fiction.  It is a mirror through which people have searched for and have wrestled with God.  Myth is a form of psychology.  That is the language of the Bible.  The second creation story is about the relationship between God and humanity and humanity with itself.   The larger agenda is what does knowledge do to human community?

In order to understand this story, we need to know that there are a few word-plays in the original Hebrew.  The first person is formed out of the earth.  The word for earth in Hebrew is adamah.  The first person is adam which really means earthling.

The first earth creature is not male.  For there is no distinction between the genders until the second is created.  At that point the man is ish and the woman is isha.   To say that Adam was created before Eve is not biblically accurate.  They were both the essence of the first earth creature adam.

Another thing we need to recognize is that Eve saw that wisdom and creative action is part of the creative process.  Eve chose to eat the fruit so she could have wisdom.  Adam ate because Eve gave him some.  Beverly Harrison calls biting the fruit “Eve’s act of radical curiosity sowed in our marrow.”  (“A Mediation on Eve” in Out of the Garden)

The writer of Timothy turned Eve’s creative searching into a justification for misogyny saying, “Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness.  I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over man; she is to keep silent.  For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.  Yet a woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.”(I Tim. 2:11-15)  If we have knowledge of good and evil, we might be able to show how Paul’s writings and interpretation of Genesis is flawed.  As Bess sang, “the things that you’re liable to read in the Bible, it ain’t necessarily so.”

Some of the loonier theologies said that the knowledge Adam and Eve gained was carnal knowledge and the only way to undo the sin or Adam and Eve was to practice celibacy, even in marriage.  The Shakers believed this, which is why they shook so much.  It’s also why there aren’t many around anymore.

Until St. Augustine in the fourth century, Jewish and Christian teachers alike believed that we fought against two competing urges.  The good and the evil and that in this struggle is where we find our creative forces.

Then along comes Augustine.  He believed that the eating of the forbidden fruit irrevocable changed human nature and made us unconsciously and naturally hell-bent on sin.    Western Christianity followed right along in lock-step, taking us off the hook in our moral responsibility to choose between good and evil.

But does such an interpretation accurately describe what we see in Genesis?  Walter Brueggemann in his commentary on Genesis says that the text is not interested in theoretical or abstract questions of sin/death/evil/fall/sex.  Brueggemann and Claus Westermann both remind us that the OT does not assume a fall.  Instead, the OT assumes that we have the ability to choose life so that we and our descendants may live.  We can choose life.  We can choose between good and evil.  The text also gives no explanation for evil.  Genesis is not interested in the origins of evil.  It’s interested in how we cope and faithfully respond to temptation.

In the popular mystical book, Conversations With God, God addresses the fall in the following way, “What has been described as the fall of Adam was actually his upliftment—the greatest single event in the history of humankind.  For without it, the world of relativity would not exist.  The act of Adam and Eve was not original sin, but, in truth, first blessing.  You should thank them from the bottom of your hearts—for in being the first to make a “wrong” choice, Adam and Eve produced the possibility of making any choice at all. (Conversations with God, 1995:56.)

What we see in Genesis 2 and 3 is people making choices and living out the consequences of those choices.

Creation starts out good, just like in the first story from Genesis 1.  There is harmony and beauty in the garden.  It’s what Phyllis Trible calls Eros, life.  But then comes the discord.  A serpent dares talk theology with one of the creatures.  The serpent opens Eve’s eyes to the possibilities out there.  And she eats and hands the fruit to Adam and he eats, too.  There is no temptation of the man from the woman. The text even notes that the man was with her at the time of the discussion with the serpent, but said nothing.  Phyllis Trible notes “…the woman is intelligent, sensitive, and ingenious, the man is passive, brutish, and inept.”(God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, 1988:113)

When they ate of the fruit, their eyes were opened, but they did not receive wisdom, what they received was helplessness, insecurity and defenselessness.

Adam and Eve emerge as adults, but when they are expelled from the garden, they act like children, unable to cope with their new powers or responsibilities.  They shift blame.  “The woman gave it to me.”  The serpent tricked me.”  They hide from the one from whom there is no hiding.  They hide their beauty from each other, from God by creating fig leaf fashion.

“Where are you?” is the question of God to Adam.  Adam doesn’t seem to know.  We often hide from God, from each other.  It’s a rhetorical question, really.  God knows where Adam is.  The question is, does Adam know where Adam is?  Do the earth creatures know where the earth creatures are?  The answer is, “you are in paradise.  You are in a garden surrounded by my creatures and plants and alongside your lover.  But you don’t see that, do you? 
You know the distinction between good and evil, but now you are hiding out from that very knowledge.  The fact that you ate of the tree means that you now can answer ‘where are you?’  You can discern whether this is a good place or a place rampant with evil.”

YWHW expels Adam and Eve from the garden, but paradise is never far away.  It’s in our longing for a better tomorrow, by recalling a better yesterday.  It becomes a better tomorrow inasmuch as we make today better.

Hear these echoes of the rivers of paradise and its beauty in the Song of Songs:
“A garden locked is my sister, my bride. A garden locked, a fountain sealed.  Your channel is an orchard (Pardes) of pomegranates with all choicest fruits, henna with nard, nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense, myrrh and aloes, with all chief spices—a garden fountain, a well of living water, and flowing streams of Lebanon.” (4:12-14)  Note the fragrance and the feast of the senses.  Note the water flowing out of it and connecting with all of us—or at least with our longing.

The prophets call us to remember the rivers of paradise, especially when we have turned the wrong way.  The Prophet Amos rails against the people who think that religion is just about praising God.  He says, “Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps, but let justice flow down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:23-24)

When Israel was in the wilderness of exile Isaiah invokes the rivers of paradise to remind the people of their longed-for future: “For YHWH will comfort Zion; God will comfort all her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of YHWH.” (Isaiah 51:3)

Paradise meant caring for the suffering and the oppressed as Isaiah says in the 58th chapter:  “Loose the bonds of injustice, undo the thongs of the yoke, Let the oppressed go free, bring the homeless poor into your house, offer your food to the hungry, and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then you light shall rise in the dawn, you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.” (Isaiah 58:6-11 excerpts)

Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker put it this way:  “This is what it means to say that paradise is in this world: the actual tastes, sights, fragrances, and textures of paradise touch our lives.  They call us to resist the principalities and powers that deny the goodness of ordinary life, threaten to destroy it, or seek to secure its blessings for a few at the expense of many….In Galilee, the legacy of paradise would feed a movement of resistance, led by a rabbi named Jesus of Nazareth.  Like a tree planted by the water, his movement took root, moistened by the waters of paradise and shaded by its trees and vines.”  (Saving Paradise pp.26, 27)

Jesus said to the thief on the cross, “today, you will be with me in paradise.”  Was it heaven, or was it that part of us that realized that the cross of evil torture and cruelty no longer had power over any of us who followed after him and took his teachings seriously.

God asks all of us all the time:  “Where are you?” “What is your place in the world?”
“What are you doing with your life?”  And we since we have the knowledge of good and evil, then we ought to be able to answer.  But not only that, our answer ought to mean something.
Where are you?  I’m not talking about where you are physically.  But where are you emotionally?  Where are you spiritually?  Where are you existentially?  Where are you psychically?  It’s hard sometimes to know where you are.  It takes discernment.  It takes wisdom, the integration of information.  It takes perspective.

Where are you on your spiritual journey?  Are you where you want to be or is there something more you need to do/something more you long to discover?

God asks Adam and Eve’s descendants to exercise our knowledge of good and evil.  God asks us to know where we are.  Because if we know where we are, then we know what our response ought to be towards good and what our response ought to be toward evil.  We need to be better than pitiful Adam who explains himself by excusing himself.   God can see all and only wants us to articulate how we are to be.  Where are you?

We feel God walking past and we wonder how we can hide.  And yet when we answer the question in honesty, then we find our way in the world.  We find our way out of the wilderness of despair. We find our way to live a faithful life.  We find our way to recreate ourselves and maybe even recreate our world.  We know good and we know evil.

And we are not let off the hook to try to do good.  Unlike Adam, we are not to skirt or placate the truth away.  We are to know the truth and be set free by the truth.  We are to know good and know evil and choose the good which leads to life so that we and our descendants can live.

Where are we?  We’re in paradise.  We’re called to revisit paradise.  I’m not talking simply about taking care of the earth, although that’s a pretty good start.  I’m talking about remembering that God has planted the garden of your life.  We tend its soil.  It’s full of temptation, and knowledge and life and conflict and beauty and excitement and blessing and hope and comfort and in it we are never alone.  God is as close as the gentle breeze and the everflowing stream coming down from the mountain.  And it’s here right now.  It’s the ultimate gift from God.  May we tend it wisely and visit it often.  It has everything we need.

In our despair, may we revisit paradise.  In our longing and commitment may we recommit to a paradise-view of the world, where we recognize the beauty of the garden and the responsibility that comes from discerning good from bad.  May our actions and our posture as Christians help us to revisit paradise not as a Pollyanna escape mechanism, but a renewed commitment to imagining the world as God would have it—imagining our lives as God imagines our lives.  For we were made to ride the rivers of paradise flowing out of Eden to a place of blessed release from the powers and principalities of this world.

And as we ride that current and join with other streams of blessing and justice and peace and commitment, then the world starts taking on a new landscape.  And in the process, we are made new as well.

Revisit paradise, my friends.  Ride its rivers to an even better place of insight and creativity.  For we follow one who makes all things new and longs for us to join together in vision and hope and courage as we carve our way through this life until we join with the eternal sea.