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There are a few ways we could talk about today’s passages. I’m thinking we could go micro, focus in; or we could go macro, we could pull out and use a wide lens.
Here’s what we see when we pull in close: In the beginning, the woman and the man eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, against the express directions of their Creator God. After their disobedience is discovered, God doles out punishment. The serpent that tempted them is made the most despised of creatures and his offspring become eternal, mortal enemies of the humans. The woman is given painful childbirth and the punishment of being “ruled over” by her husband. And the man? His punishment is all about the land. The ground is cursed. Instead of a garden producing things for him to eat without any effort, he will have to work hard—and he’ll get thorns and thistles for his pains. And then that final reminder to the man that, after all, he came from the ground—the dust—and he will return to it. In the next generation, sin continues to infect and affect people and land: brother murders brother for no good reason we can discern, and the blood soaks the earth and calls out to God.
At the micro level, we have a story of sin and disobedience and punishment.
Now, if we pull back, take a wide view, we see: a story in which sin adds to the suffering of the world.
There is a lot of misunderstanding about sin. “Sin” is not a word or a concept most of us are comfortable with. To add to that, we Presbyterians have, as part of our Constitution, something called “The Book of Confessions,” which contains eleven historic statements of faith, beginning with the Nicene Creed, dating from the fourth century, and continuing through the ages to our most recent “Brief Statement of Faith,” dating from 1983. The concepts of sin found throughout the confessions are startlingly diverse. For example, one of our older creeds, the Scots Confession (written in 1560 during the Reformation) describes the outcome of the events the garden this way:
By this transgression… the image of God was utterly defaced in man, and he and his children became by nature hostile to God, slaves to Satan, and servants to sin.[i]
On the other hand, the Confession of 1967 was written in during the Civil Rights movement in this country, and is founded on a single verse from 2 Corinthians: “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself…” Here, sin is described this way:
In sin, men claim mastery of their own lives, turn against God and their fellow men, and become exploiters and despoilers of the world. They lose their humanity in futile striving and are left in rebellion, despair, and isolation.[ii]
The descriptions of sin are diverse, but a common thread runs through them: Sin is separation from God, and enslavement to something other than God.
In our passages, that separation seems to take on a very distinct shape: the humans, created from the earth, are no longer at one with it. Instead of living in harmony with the land, as the original design for Eden demands, the humans struggle with the land. Instead of living peacefully on and with the land, they are at war with it. “…Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life” (Gen. 3:17b). “Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground” (Gen. 4:10). “When you till the ground, it will not yield to you its strength” (Gen. 4:12).
Sin adds to the suffering of the world. Literally. Separation from God leads to trouble in the land. The land suffers, the earth cries out. And the humans cry out, too. Cain cries out, “My punishment is greater than I can bear! Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face…” (Gen. 4:13b-14). The land suffers, the earth suffers, and we suffer.
It’s often said that liberals like to focus on corporate sin—the things we do as societies, or governments, or big corporations. And it’s further said that conservatives like to focus on individual sin, the things we do one-on-one. These passages don’t allow any of us to retreat to our comfort zones, liberal or conservative. Sin—personal and corporate—has devastating effects, and we can’t ignore them.
Early last year, the New York Times reported:
A mysterious malady that has been killing honeybees en masse for several years appears to have expanded drastically in the last year, commercial beekeepers say, wiping out 40 percent or even 50 percent of the hives needed to pollinate many of the nation’s fruits and vegetables.[iii]
Last year the percentage of lost hives came down to 23%, which, according to one researcher, is still “not a good number.” He said, “We’ve gone from horrible to bad.”[iv] One scientist speculated that, if all the bees should die out, humans would not be far behind. He gave us four years.[v] God created us to be connected, to one another, and to the earth. Science fiction movies that have us relocating to Mars notwithstanding, we cannot live without it.
It’s not clear what’s killing the bees, but lots of people are working on it. It IS clear that the world is suffering, and we don’t even have to look outside our own country: from the hives of California, to the particulate filled air of Wyoming, to the devastated marine life and birds of the Louisiana Gulf, to the toxic drinking water of places as disparate as Oklahoma and Pennsylvania, the earth is crying out. This is God’s creation, God’s gift, given to us for our sustenance and plenty. And we have a part to play. It is described right there in the story… in last week’s passage. “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15).
The verb translated “keep” is a verb I am very familiar with. It’s the Hebrew verb, shamar. I’m familiar with it because, when we were taught the Hebrew verb forms in seminary, shamar was the verb we always used. And the meaning of the verb is “to guard” or “to protect.” And that verb, translated “till”? It turns out that is the verb form of the Hebrew word for “slave” or “servant.” So, this little verse, really, properly, could read, should read, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to serve it and protect it.”
Imagine. We are all creatures of God, created from the earth. And our first job, the thing God tells us to do, right off, is to serve the earth, and protect it. That is our first vocation, our first calling. Our first priority. And, of course, it is a calling that is completely self-serving, since, without the earth thriving and healthy, our time as a species is not long.[vi] The call to protect the earth is not a call to self-sacrifice. It’s a call to save ourselves.
At the end of our passage, God consoles Cain, who has murdered his brother, by telling him he will not be killed. God brands him with a protective mark so that no one will harm him. This is how God responds to our sin, to the things we do that cause the earth to run with blood, human or honeybee. God protects us. God serves us. God reassures us. God sends us on to a new place, in hopes we will do better from now on. God reminds us, as in Psalm 139, that, there is really nowhere we can flee from God’s presence. Sin might be separation from God, but God is having none of it. God won’t be separated from us even if we try to climb in our roadsters and make a getaway. Sin adds to the suffering of the world, but God steps in to ameliorate even that with second and third and four-thousandth chances. God remains faithful. God remains creative! God keeps inviting us to be a part of the divine creative plan. God’s love never fails. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Scots Confession 3.03, Presbyterian Church (USA) Constitution Part I: The Book of Confessions, 11.
[ii] “The Sin of Man,” Confession of 1967 9.12, op cit.
[iii] “Mystery Malady Kills More Bees, Heightening Worry on Farms,” New York Times, March 28, 2013, p. A1.
[iv] “Report Says Fewer Bees Perished Over the Winter, But the Reason Is a Mystery,” New York Times, May 16, 2014, p. A 19.
[v] Leonard Shlain, quoted in the documentary “Connected: An Autoiography about Love, Death, and Technology,” 2011.
[vi] Noam Chomsky, “The End of History?” http://news.infoshop.org/article.php?story=20140905133110637