“Responsible for our Actions”
A Sermon Preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
December 6, 2015
University Baptist Church
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 and reads like a liturgy. 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.
The second creation story is different. Unlike the first story, God is not far off. In this story, God is a gardener. It’s not an accident that Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane when he wanted to commune with God. It’s also not an accident that when the risen Christ appears to Mary, she mistakes him for a gardener. God actually walks in the Garden of Eden, like a breeze. In this garden, God creates more complexity. Domestic and wild beasts get named, but 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 make choices and suffer the consequences. 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. We venture off and always before us are the choices between good and evil.
How have we violated the covenant God made with us? Do we violate it by our actions? By our inactions? Do we violate it by not caring for creation? By selfishness? By settling our disputes with violence? Hold that thought.
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 the language of the Bible, and each story teaches a lesson. The second creation story is about the relationship between God and humanity and humanity with itself. The larger question 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. When we invoke the beauty of the earth, we are saying something about ourselves, formed out of the earth, Adamah.
Another thing we learn from this story is that wisdom and audacious 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. Barbara Grizzuti Harrison calls biting the fruit “Eve’s act of radical curiosity sowed in our marrow.” (“A Meditation on Eve” in Out of the Garden)
Nine hundred years later, 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.
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 danced so much. It’s also why there aren’t many around anymore.
Until the fourth century, Jewish and Christian teachers alike believed that we fought against two competing urges: the good and the evil, and in this struggle is where we find our creative forces. Then along comes St. 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 clothing out of thorny fig leaves. Not one of their wiser choices.
Adam was a victim of institutional sin. He wasn’t tempted. He simply ate because everyone else in the garden was eating. We do this, too. We are no longer tempted, or at least we don’t see it that way. We fall into line because that’s what we’re supposed to do. We stand and recite the pledge of allegiance. We sing the militaristic Star Spangled Banner. We say the Lord’s Prayer. We pay our taxes, we tithe, we bring gifts during Advent to help out the poor and schools and refugees. We invest in the stock market even though we know it is subject to corruption and accounting irregularities. Most of us buy tainted clothing and drink tainted coffee. We get our reality from “Real TV” and corporate sponsored “news” outlets. It’s just too dang much work to look for every single little sin and try to avoid it. So most of us don’t even think about it. We are not tempted, we are drunk by the wine of the beast, as Revelation would say. Yet we dutifully pray at least once a week, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”
Here’s the truth: We are not let off the hook. Unlike Adam and Eve, 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.
God walks in to the garden and asks Adam: “Where are you?” 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, just like we do. The question is, does Adam know where Adam is? Do the earth creatures know where the earth creatures are?
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.
We are given the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We have eaten its sweet fruit, but we act as if we never tasted it.
We act as if toxic language vilifying Muslims or Planned Parenthood has nothing to do with mass shootings.
We act as if the availability of massive amounts of firepower in the hands of citizens with little oversight has nothing to do with the 355 mass shootings that have happened in the U.S. just this year.
We act as if we don’t know that the world is getting warmer and that our dependence on fossil fuels and their pollution ways is dooming our planet.
We act as if we hit a triple when we were actually born on second base.
We act as if rugged individualism will save us when we are almost always saved by community. That’s where God works, after all.
We hear the wolves calling to us, just like the lark, and we can choose to call it evil or weave it into our praise of God, like the choir just did. Kyrie eleison, God have mercy, Christ have mercy.
The truth is that we are responsible for our actions. We can’t say like Eve, the serpent made me do it, or like Adam, the woman you gave me made me do it. No. We have knowledge of good and evil. That means that we have agency and accountability. We can’t get away with society made me do it, guns made me do it, bad parenting made me do it. We are responsible for our actions.
Complexity happened when we ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. We can no longer act as if we don’t know the difference between good and evil.
We are looking at creation stories in Advent because we need to be that new creation. That’s what the nativity story is about. It’s all about starting anew, just like God did when God chose an unmarried outcast refugee couple from a backward backwoods hamlet, forgotten by their families, mistrusted and deemed as threats by the state and fleeing for their very lives. That’s where God emerges with a new creation. And it is no accident that this child is called the new Adam.
YWHW expels Adam and Eve from the garden, but paradise is never far away. It’s in our longing for a better tomorrow. It becomes a better tomorrow inasmuch as we make today better. It’s a place where we know good and evil and we choose good every time.
But evil wears a pious face. Jerry Falwell, Jr. recently spoke to a huge crowd at Liberty University. You can watch it on YouTube. He encouraged people to get conceal and carry permits, like he has, and if a Muslim comes to us we should shoot first. And the stadium-sized crowd cheered. Good God! He didn’t say a terrorist, he said a Muslim.
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. We look at the world and its sorry state and we shift the blame. We ask, “where is God?” And God answers us, “where are you? You are the ones with the agency, the ability, the responsibility to create something. You know the good from the evil. Where are you?”
A week or so ago, after the shooting of five protestors by a self-avowed white supremacist, I joined the throngs of people at the 4th precinct. Before long, Kathleen and David Tice showed up. Former student minister David Coleman, and about 2,000 others who were calling for justice. Calling for good to triumph over evil. Calling for us to distinguish between good and evil. I saw good in the crowd, good in the faces of people from across backgrounds and races coming together and saying, something is messed up. And we need to pull together to make the streets safe again.
God asks Adam and Eve’s descendants to exercise our knowledge of good and evil. God asks us to know who we are and whose we are. We are to recognize that we are responsible for each other, just as we are responsible to live in community with the animals and all of the creatures of this world. It’s so much easier to vilify and destroy that which we don’t understand. But we can do better. We must do better.
We need to be better than pitiful Adam and Eve who explain themselves by excusing themselves. God can see all and wants us to be better than that.
The wolf cries to us kyrie eleison. God have mercy. Christe eleison, Christ have mercy. And we respond. For we long for a world about which the prophet Isaiah spoke, where the wolf will lie down with the lamb and the fatling and the calf together and a little child shall lead them…they will not hurt or destroy on my holy mountain for the earth will be full of the knowledge of YWHW (the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil) as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:6,9)
This Advent season; dare to be a new creation. Exercise your powers of discernment. Hold fast to what is good and reject that which is complicit with evil. And imagine that stable where we will hope to be transformed once again. And God will reign because of God’s radical action and our faithful response. O come, o come, Emmanuel.