The Blame Game – Genesis 3:8-15 Pastor Pat Simpson, University Temple Methodist Pastor
Note to Preacher: READ from MARY OLIVER’S “SPRING” (Readers: please see below to click on the “Poem1” hot link to read the poem)
Oh, let’s not be too hard on the snake. A wild creature, a beast of the field created by God. And a truth-teller! He made no false statements, just revealed some information the Creator had chosen not to provide. Some options. . . like the knowledge of good and evil, ripe for the taking.
In many ancient tales snakes are bearers of wisdom because they go down into the earth and bring forth hidden knowledge. Women who consort with them may be sought out as oracles or seers, not vilified. Snakes go down into the earth, seeming lifeless in the cold and dark – and then come back to life. We know a story like that.
Do you think it’s odd that of 29 passages from Genesis that appear in our three year lectionary readings, only this one represents the story we have named The Fall? The selection captures the finger pointing when Adam and Eve get caught, but skips over their fateful decision, and stops at the poor snake’s curse. That leaves out the consequences handed to the human actors in this tale: hard labor of childbearing and tilling the cursed fields; relationships undermined by dominance and blaming; banishment from the beautiful, bountiful Garden where they walked so intimately with God. And heaviest of all, the thing they took for themselves and now must carry with them: the knowledge of good and evil, and the weight of choosing.
Maybe not reading the whole story doesn’t matter, because we know these things. Eve and Adam are us. We’ve seen ourselves in a hundred old paintings, and everywhere we turn we see an apple with a bite out of it. In every age people have carried the human burdens named in this story, and suffered those broken relationships – living estranged from each other and from God.
Some way, sometime, we are all exiles, longing for return. Yet we can’t go back to what was—as individuals, as communities, as a human species. There’s truth in that flaming sword. We live in the midst of an earthly Garden that we have spoiled with our human choices, and long to restore. Our world is torn by heartbreaking violence and plagued by systems of injustice.
Even in our personal lives we can’t get back to innocence. Baptized and redeemed though we are, faithful adult lives don’t always have a squeaky clean from the shower feeling. Even good choices are messy. You know.
Yesterday I drove to Forks on the Olympic Peninsula for a high school graduation party. It was a chance to connect with some relatives I hadn’t seen in a couple of years, and the drive along Lake Crescent was a blessing to my eyes. Still, that’s a pretty big carbon footprint for a two hour visit . . .
Choices in church life are messy, too. Even hindsight isn’t 20/20. Declining in numbers from the glory days of packed Sunday Schools and full sanctuaries, both our congregations carry a sense of loss. What went wrong? Why are so many of our own offspring not going to church? How come that guaranteed church growth strategy from Texas didn’t work for us? There is so much good in our church life, if we could only make people see it . . .
With no clear answers we can get into a cycle of fruitless diagnosis, blame and regret. I didn’t realize how true that was for me until I heard Diana Butler Bass do a lecture about large societal trends a few years ago. “It is not your fault,” she said. Tears came to my eyes as the burden lifted just a bit.
There is more messiness to come. As University Temple is moving ahead on replacing our building, and University Lutheran is considering coming alongside, we will be facing blame: for demolition of a much-loved Sanctuary, for displacement of vital human services, and for complicity in the gentrification of the neighborhood. We believe good will come from our choices, but the costs are real and significant. I don’t look forward to hearing those accusations when we go public in a couple of weeks.
In that reluctance I may be exhibiting an area of historical difference between Lutherans and Methodists. Coming from a tradition that aspires to sanctification – being made perfect in love in this life – Methodists can get a bit too invested in being good and getting things right. Well, speaking for myself anyway.
Lutherans, on the other hand, have those famous words “sin boldly” – which could possibly lead to a different attitude. Might a Lutheran Adam be less likely to point the finger at Eve, and just plead for mercy instead? Might a leader so grounded in grace that sin is not an embarrassment, stand up to public blame with less fear? Actually the old Methodists also had a name for that – assurance. Maybe if I got a pair of those “Here I Stand” socks, I would be doubly ready.
I looked up the context of “sin boldly,” and it does provide some good advice for us, standing outside Eden’s gate:
If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong (sin boldly), but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however . . . are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign.
That’s the turn we need to make, of course, facing our messy selves toward the future over and over again. But if not from the snake, where do we find the wisdom – and the will – to go forward? How do we get a glimpse of the here, now and future Paradise where God is beckoning us, the New Creation?
The easy answer at the beginning of a Pacific Northwest summer would be to send you outside. To your garden or your birdwatching. Out on the water, or gazing from a quiet beach. Far enough from town to see the Milky Way on a clear night. Among the community of trees, older than all your worries. To the mountains, older still. There is healing there, and rest for the weary soul. We heard it last Sunday in some of Wendell Berry’s Sabbath Poems
Ancient practices like Sabbath carry deep wisdom. So do that. But not every Sunday morning like Wendell Berry please. Because you know where else God gives us a glimpse of Paradise created anew? In church! Not church as an abstraction, but the real thing, steeped in the knowledge of good and evil.
By the power of the Spirit, we experience a bit of Paradise in our common life.
In our singing, where each different voice finds its place in the great harmony of Creation.
In prayerful, honest conversation with God.
In teaching and learning the Way of Jesus, generation to generation.
As we walk that Way out into the neighborhood and our daily lives, acting out compassion and justice.
At the font, where we are welcomed into the Body of Christ and raised into a new life.
At the table, practicing for the great feast where all peoples are gathered in, and God’s abundance feeds everyone.
Setting aside the old enmity, we can quietly behold the snake for its beauty as it comes up from the dark and back to life – as we behold all wild creatures being fully the selves God created them to be. They stir in us a desire for such singleness of heart, and in that they are wise teachers. But our guidance for being fully human, made in God’s image, comes from Christ, embodied in . . . us.
We learn Paradise life in these relationships – not tempting or blaming, but mentoring, shepherding, companioning and delighting each other. Those who have gone deep and known the dark night of the soul become bearers of wisdom. Some whose shining lives reflect their intimacy with God lead us into the light. Others are our truth-tellers, leading with courage and strength and transforming the world. People we haven’t even met yet will become the re-creators of old traditions and practices for a new future.
The Church is a glimpse of Paradise. A workshop. A rehearsal. God’s pilot project maybe – and certainly not the only one. But it is enough that we need not lose heart. God does not leave us naked, but clothes us in mercy. God doesn’t leave us homeless and alone, but walks beside us, dwells among us, and goes before us. Recreating. Making all things new.
Poem1 (click on this “Poem1” document to read the poem ‘Spring’ by Mary Oliver)
Here’s the audio recording of the sermon. TO LISTEN, in the SoundCloud window below, CLICK (or double-Click) the red button with the white arrow pointing to the right. If that does not work, then click on the “06-10-18 Sermon” name of the sermon