Mixed Blessings

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Sermon for June 7, 2015, by the Rev. Martha Kirkpatrick, Rector. For attributions, please see the PDF version. 

What is so bad about knowing good and evil? Do you ever wonder? Have you ever said of someone “he doesn’t know right from wrong”? That sounds like a serious problem. Isn’t that the very thing we try to teach our children? Aren’t we supposed to know the good and to try our best to do it?

Listening to the story of Adam, Eve, God, and the snake, we remember that we are near the beginning of the entire Biblical narrative. This is a foundational story that makes a claim about what it means to be human, and our relationship with God from the get-go. It tells of what the church has come to call “original sin,” although the word “sin” is actually never used.

God had made Adam (which means “of the earth”) and Eve (which means “mother of all living”). Rather than seeing them as two particular people, they are better understood as stand-ins for all humanity, as archetypes. God has placed them in this wonderful garden full of all sorts of good and beautiful plants and animals. They can eat the fruit from any tree in the garden except for the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. When they eat of that tree they will die. We then meet the snake. It is worth noting that in the ancient world, snakes were associated with wisdom, fertility, and immortality; it is only later that the snake is interpreted by Christians as the devil. Scripture does not say this. So there is a snake in the garden who engages Eve in conversation, even though scripture is quite clear that the man is there too, and the snakes sows seeds of doubt and suspicion. The snake tells Eve that she will not die if she eats of the fruit, but that her eyes will be opened, and she will be like God. So she eats the fruit, and gives it to Adam and he eats.

Immediately a couple of things happen. They notice for the first time that they are naked, and they sew fig leaves together to cover themselves, and they hide from God. And God is walking in the garden — where the humans are — in the cool of the evening. God is seeking out the humans. “Where are you?” Adam says that he heard God in the garden and he knew he was naked and he was ashamed. God said “who told you you were naked? Did you eat the fruit from the tree I commanded you not to eat?”

And now notice what happens. First Adam blames God. “This woman that YOU gave me . . .” and then Adam blames Eve. “She gave it to me.” And then Eve blames the snake. This cannot have helped matters.

So again, what is the problem? Some say “the problem is not that they now knew good from evil, it was the disobedience. They did something God told them not to do.” But lots of people disobey God in the Bible. It’s not a small thing, and obedience is important, but no where else does disobedience bring on such consequences. And this has a characteristic of blind obedience that is troublesome. When we are young children a parent may well say “because I said so,” but that doesn’t work so well with a 17-year-old; we all need to develop the capacity for self-regulation. And occasionally we touch the hot stove and burn ourselves and learn our lessons the hard way. I also suspect that there is some self-interest on the part of the institutional church, who throughout history has used scripture as a means of social control.

Our ‘primal shame’

So what does the text tell us are the consequences of eating the fruit of the tree of good and evil?

First it says “the eyes of both were opened.” “Teachers of prayer call it the “subject/object split.” Self and other. The man and woman go from being in a state of innocent union with everything, to suddenly seeing the separate self. Self and everything else. There is self and there is other, and we no longer see the connection. This is the human condition. Developmental psychologists say this happens to all of us, usually around age 7. It is necessary stage of cognitive development, when we develop an acute awareness of the separate self. It also creates all sorts of problems.

In our story this gives rise to suspicion, alienation, doubt and fear. Some live their whole lives there. “They realized they were naked.” We might understand this as “primal shame.” Seemingly we all carry this sense that we are somehow inadequate. The comedians get this. There is that famous quote from Groucho Marx:  “I don’t want to belong to a club that would accept people like me as a member.” With that self-realization comes a burning self-consciousness. A sense that we’re not quite right. We paste fig leaves all over this.

And then, most tragically, our man and woman show a tragic break-down of relationship and a failure of love when they blame each other rather than accept the truth and own it.

But I’m still left with the problem: don’t we need to know the difference between good and evil?

I pondered this as I took Annie for a walk at about 10:30 this morning. About 15 minutes later I heard the sound of bagpipes. People were gathering at St. Anthony’s church for Beau Biden’s funeral, which is not far from my house. When I got back home I opened my iPad and googled the funeral to get the schedule of events. And wouldn’t you know it, the first thing that came up was a report of protesters (I think there were only three of them) from an unaffiliated Baptist church in Kansas, standing out on Pennsylvania Avenue carrying hateful signs that professed to know who God hates. I closed that out and went on to listen to the eulogies. They told of a man who had a strong moral compass. They told of all he did for others as Attorney General and as a soldier in the National Guard and in Iraq. But their first story of Beau Biden, their guiding story, was a story of love.

I think the contrast here is helpful. We are guided by love and our moral compass is put in service to love and care for others. We are guided first by our certainty of right and wrong and we kill our brother, as Adam and Eve’s first born son, Cain, will do. “. . . when we lead off with our judgments, love will seldom happen. If the mind that needs to make moral judgments about everything is the master instead of the servant, religion is almost always corrupted.” (Richard Rohr, 38.) Think about how people use this judgment mind: “You’re going to hell and I’m going to heaven.” Rohr says: “this is more a search for power and control than it is a search for truth or a search for God.” Our quest for certitude, explanation, resolution and answers. We might see this as the primal temptation. “I know” and “I am in control of the data.” When we think we know who the bad guys are, next comes persecution and violence. When we think we are the good guys, we live in illusion and prejudice. We scapegoat others, which is just a fig leaf to cover ourselves. This leads to ethnic cleansing. Religious wars. Hateful picketing. The list goes on. We have a terrible tendency to take our shame and scapegoat others with it.

Original blessing comes first

So what does all this mean and where does the story go from here? Traditional orthodoxy has it this way: “Things were going so well, and then we had to go and eat that stupid apple!” (BTW, there is no apple in Genesis.) We disobeyed God so God had to resort to plan B, and centuries later, sends Jesus to rescue us. Is this the story? this matters. It matters hugely. Does the rest of the story of humanity and our relationship with God become a mop-exercise from a failed experiment?

Or is it something else? Are we, in fact, on Plan A?

I suggest that the fruit of the tree of good and evil was forbidden to highlight the danger. A moral compass is important. Moral certainty is dangerous. It is as if God knew that that was the direction religion would take and wanted to make sure we understood that this was not the way to wholeness and new life. (Again, Rohr). We have to know and see how destructive it is, this judgmental certainty how much suffering is caused. And we couldn’t have eternal life in that state of mind.

We also have to move through this sense of separate self. We can’t go back to an earlier innocence, any more than we can go back to being young children. But we retain this memory, this blue-print, if you will, of unity with God and with all of nature.

Any thought of original sin must start by reminding ourselves that original blessing comes first. We are made in the image and likeness of God. We don’t earn this. We don’t acquire merit badges. The project is not to overcome our sinful nature so we can be good enough for God. We grow in increasing awareness of who we are and whose we are.

We were first in a state of divine union, and that is where we belong. We don’t return to innocence, we grow into awakened spirits. The overarching Biblical narrative is of a growing awakening of consciousness. And one of the primary ways we do that, unfortunately, is through suffering. There wasn’t one fall, and that was it. We all fall all the time. Over and over. Through mistakes, things done and left undone. “It is in falling down that we learn almost everything that matters spiritually.” This should make us more compassionate and humble. This should bring us closer together. This should cause us to reach out to each other. And in enlightened hearts, it does.

Think of someone you know who really has the love of God pouring out of them. I’ll bet you anything they’ve undergone some great suffering. They’ve come through it more fully reliant on God. They’ve found compassion and humility.  Their hearts have awakened. This is the biblical story. Over. and over. and over again. This is what Jesus came to teach us. this is what Jesus demonstrated for us. It took him all the way to the cross.

This is the beginning of the human story in scripture. We are blessed. And, we fall. I invite you to see this not as one big  disaster from which we’ve had to recover, but a slow and real emergence and evolution into ever greater consciousness of a larger and renewed life. Something in us deeply knows where we belong. Julian of Norwich says this: “First the fall, then the recovery from the fall; both are the mercy of God.”

AMEN