Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Story Begins: A Sermon on Genesis 2:4b-7, 15-17, 3:1-8

The scripture can be found here...

The summer season is drawing to a close, but one of the greatest gifts of our travels and our visits, our reunions and our celebrations, is the opportunity we have to share stories with one another. Think of it: Friends gathered around a campfire, or perhaps a backyard fire pit. You and someone you love side by side on a beach or at an outdoor cafĂ©. Family members normally scattered across the miles, all, for a brief moment, seated around the same table. And the stories begin to flow…

We tell one another the stories of the high points, the mountaintop experiences (sometimes, literally!). How we participated in a triathlon, or ran a 10-K for charity. How our child graduated with honors, or threw the Hail Mary pass that won the big game. How we finally grew the perfect heirloom tomato, or bowled a perfect 300 game, or became grandparents. How we overcame our fear of swimming or flying or being alone.

And we tell one another the other stories, too. Stories of the crisis at work, the loss of the job, our kid’s first fender-bender, our loved one in the hospital, in rehab, in the doldrums. We may even share the story of the one in prison, or going through a painful divorce, or an ugly custody battle. The stories aren’t always happy. Sometimes they’re hard. Sometimes they make us want to weep. But they’re our stories, and the stories of those we love, those we call family, community.

Stories delight and entertain us, and teach us. Stories remind us of who we are, and of the kind of world we live in. And stories bring us closer together.

This morning we begin a year-long project of immersing ourselves in the story and stories of scripture, in a way we have never done before—not as a congregation, anyway. We begin a time of reading through the bible in canonical order—that is, in the order the stories are set out for us. We will read highlights, the major episodes of scripture, and we do this for several very specific reasons. First, we do it in order to learn—to see scripture not as we often do, a collection of disparate stories, letters, songs and histories, but as one story, a Big Story, with a definite arc, a shape, and a theme—a story that starts one place, and ends in another. I’m going to tip my hand and tell you the theme right up front: The story of scripture is the story of God’s amazing love for us. It is a story worth learning! Second, we do it in order to be reminded of who we are. The stories of scripture are our stories, the stories of the people of God across time. These stories belong to us, they speak to us, and they include us. And finally, we do this, we read through the bible together, in order to recognize that we are all in this story, not simply as uniquely created individuals, but as a community, as God’s community. We do this to be reminded that the story of scripture is a story of belonging.

Our passage this morning begins in the second chapter of Genesis, the first book in the bible, and it is the bible’s second creation story. Those of you who were here last Sunday had the opportunity to read responsively the first creation story, the beautiful liturgy of the seven days of creation, the one in which God sees that the creation is very good. This second story focuses in on the creation of humanity. In this story, we are told, “then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7). And so, the first thing the story of scripture tells us today, the first thing we learn, is that humans are intimately connected with the rest of creation, particularly the  earth. In fact, the Hebrew words are connected in a way you can hear immediately. The Hebrew word for human is ’adam and the word for earth is ’adamah. The ’adam was formed from the ’adamah. The earthling came from the earth, the human came from the humus.

We are connected to the earth, not separate from it. We and the earth together are part of God’s creation. So much so, in fact, that, the ’adam, the human, is told to “till and keep” the earth—Hebrew words that also mean “serve and protect.” Our responsibility towards the earth, given us by our Creator, is to serve and protect it. This is a far cry from our usual relationship with the earth. But this is, apparently, one of the things we were created to do: to participate with God in the work of Creation, by guarding it.

The next thing we learn in today’s story is that God puts limits on the human. God draws a line and says, “This far and no further.” The item in question is the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. What’s amazing is that this prohibition is couched in terms of absolute abundance. “Any tree,” God says to the human. “Any tree, except this one.” And the reason seems to be a good one: If you eat of that tree, God tells the human, on that day you will die.

But we learn, in the same moment, practically, another truth about human nature: To know that something is off limits is often to know how very, very much we want it. This is a pretty universal human experience, but one that is highlighted by the conversation with the serpent, who points out something that ends up being true: “You will not die.”

We are used to thinking of the serpent in this story as an evil figure, even a figure we associate with Satan, the Tempter. But that is to miss out on a lot of the symbolism the serpent would have held for those who first gathered around a fire pit to hear this story. In the ancient world, especially this part of the ancient world, serpents were wisdom figures. In fact, the Hebrew word translated as “crafty” here, is translated as “prudent” elsewhere. The serpent is wise. It has some truth to offer. And one of the truths the serpent highlights is that same thing that every dieter knows, that is borne out in studies of three-year-olds who are told they can play with every toy except the one in the box: it is the truth of the desirability of the forbidden fruit.

The woman and the man, together, eat the fruit God has forbidden them from eating. Please notice—there is no seduction, there is no greater guilt on the part of either of them. And the serpent is right: they don’t die. Was it a test, one they failed? Was it God-as-overprotective-Parent, trying to keep the newly hatched children from learning all life’s difficulties too soon? I think all those layers are possible interpretations of the story, as is the traditional Jewish interpretation: this is a coming of age story. This is the story of the original humans learning a hard truth about themselves: the ability to discern good from evil does not equate to the ability to choose good over evil. Just because we know the right thing to do doesn’t always mean that we choose it. In the hot mess that is the human psyche it quite frequently means just the opposite.

The humans are ashamed—see how they try to cover up their nakedness, just as we so often try to cover up our own bad deeds, or even our uncomfortable deeds, or even the deeds of those we love who have somehow messed up—such a human impulse.

God the Creator does not destroy the disobedient humans. But in the part of the chapter that comes later, God gives them clothes to wear, and sends them off to another place to live, a place where they’ll be fine, though they will certainly have to work harder than they would have had to in the garden. Is the garden childhood? And the exodus from the garden adulthood? Hard to say. But know this: the Creator of the garden and of the humans does not abandon them. God does not wash the divine hands of these disobedient children. They still belong to God. They still belong to the earth they are called to serve, and they still belong to one another. God still tends to their needs. The God of the Old Testament is shown, in this first encounter with these disobedient children, to be a God of compassion and mercy, a God who is kind while being just. And that is the true beginning to the long and beautiful story of God’s relationship with us. God is a God of justice, compassion, kindness and mercy. We belong to God, and nothing can change that. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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