In the beginning, God breathed into the dust and created humankind out of the dirt. That’s people for you — made from dust with the breath of the Spirit, made out of the stench of all things human and the Hallelujah of all things holy…
In the beginning, God placed the human people in the garden and told them, Here. You can eat from any tree, except that one. Not the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Now in the ancient world, this was a folk story that got told in order to answer the questions people were asking. Somebody asked: Why is work so hard? Somebody asked: Why is giving birth so painful? Somebody (who I’m guessing was a brilliant second grader) asked: Why do snakes crawl on their bellies? And the wise ones leaned back in their chairs and said, Oh let me tell you a story. Once upon a time, in the beginning…
Now in the centuries since this story came to be, the ancestors have been asking questions like: How are human beings different from God? Why is there evil in the world? Why is there sin in us? And the wise ones leaned back and said, It’s all here in this story.
Here at Church of Peace we follow what’s called the Narrative Lectionary. This is a collection of Bible stories organized over the school year that taken together, present an arc of God’s work in the world. Today is the first day for the new Lectionary year, and appropriately, it has us beginning at the beginning when everything changed.
God placed the people in the garden and told them they could eat the fruit from any tree except from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Then the snake turns up and asks Eve the question every good teacher of faith has ever asked us: Hold on. Why do you believe what you believe? So Eve explained. We can’t eat that fruit, or we’ll die.
The snake said: That’s not true! God just told you that because God does not want you to eat the fruit and become like God. There’s power in understanding, and there’s delight in wisdom, and you eat the fruit, you’ll get just a taste of the knowledge of good and evil —another way to say that is the knowledge of the everything of everything. You won’t be able to pretend like you don’t know.
And the snake was right. The people ate the fruit. And the people did not die like they had feared —at least not yet; the fruit didn’t kill them. And the people did not become like God —at least not like God had feared.
Instead. When the people took the fruit, their eyes were opened, and they saw the truth. They became ashamed of their human nakedness, and they became afraid. Their whole story is about to change, and the mercy of the Holy Spirit starts spilling into the trouble.
Maybe there’s no way for us human people to look at our own shame, to behold the stench of all things broken that we smell coming from ourselves, no way take this in and not have it change our story. In each of us, next to our own deep shame is the shining mercy of God. This is what it is to get something of the everything of everything, to taste the knowledge of good and evil.
If we’re going to take seriously our own sin, we’re going to take seriously the Hallelujah of the Holy Spirit. But then, things will never be the same.
All through this summer, our nation has been struggling with the sin of racism. It could be that we have begun examining our racism more honestly than we ever have before. We’re beginning to acknowledge that racism is not simply perpetrated by individuals who hold racist worldviews. Instead, racism is baked into our American culture. Its stench is overwhelming. And maybe you have known this forever, but as a nation, our eyes are being opened.
Taking seriously the shame of racism leaves us all reeling, and not all in the same ways. Some of us are feeling our defenses rise up, we hear ourselves say: But I’m not racist! which misses the point. Some of us have been traumatized by police and following the news re-opens wounds that we thought had healed. Some of us are feeling worried and protective of our loved ones who serve in law enforcement; we know police officers who went into this work with the goal of serving and protecting.
Some of us are entirely persuaded that racism is present, and evil, and breaking the heart of God, but what can we do about it anyway? Just tell us how to fix it! Some of us show up at the protest even though we’re afraid —because staying home would be worse. Looking at our own deep shame is not safe. It’s so much more important than safe.
Something is different this summer. The world is turning itself over, and God is about to do a new thing. The grace of God is shining in your soul and in mine, but it’s up to us to see it. Because anybody could take one look at the shame and decide to give up. The stench fills our nostrils and leaves us feeling bad about ourselves, so this was a mistake, no thank you! Except hold on… Really look at the sin, and our eyes will adjust, and that’s when we’ll see the mercy of the Holy Spirit, and what if.
What if seeing the mercy matters more than we realize…
A friend recently shared this quote on her Facebook page by Rev. Dr. Ron Bell. He said this:
“I think you were so busy looking for a riot that you missed the gathering of the grieving.
I think you were so busy looking for looters that you missed the lament and heartbreak of a community.
I think you were so busy looking for trouble that you missed the tragedy of systemic racialized trauma on the bodies of black and brown people.
Tonight, tomorrow, and even the next day, I beg of you, look again.
Look again at the wounds and the rage from racism. See God is getting grace into this story. By giving attention to the grace, what we’re doing is giving our power to the compassion of the Holy Spirit. We could let our own hearts be moved. The world has been changed by less.
Earlier this summer, I attended a rally in Rock Island calling on faith leaders to take a stand against racism. We practiced distancing in a church parking lot on a blazing hot afternoon, and one by one, speakers took the microphone and issued the charge for our world to change, and all of them were right. One speaker was a teenage girl who read a poem that she had written in response to the murder of George Floyd.
Partway through her reading, the power of the poem took over. The Holy Spirit poured out of her words filling the parking lot, and the whole crowd was captivated by her anguish and her courage. And our hearts were moved. Now none of us can pretend that we don’t know.
Elijah McClain was a young black man from Aurora, Colorado who died last summer while being detained by police. He was also a violinist who used to play music for the animals in the shelter. Earlier this summer, string players in Aurora organized a violin vigil in McClain’s memory. Ashanti Floyd is a violinist from Georgia, but when he heard about this vigil, he knew he had to be there. Floyd joined Lee England Junior in coordinating the music.
Pretty soon violin vigils in memory of McClain were springing up in cities all across the country. Even though the one in Colorado was shut down by police, there was no stopping the music.1https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/13/arts/music/elijah-mcclain-violin-vigil.html
Now I am not saying that a poem compensates for George Floyd’s life or that violin protests make everything better. Not at all. What I’m saying is there is grace in the horror like there’s breath in the dust, and there’s no stopping the mercy of God, and noticing this mercy matters.
The story of Adam and Eve comes at the beginning, but it’s actually not the first story of our faith. In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the Spirit breathed over the chaos, and the LORD called for the light, then this happened: God saw that it was good.
Now maybe that was an assessment from quality control, like the LORD looked around and said, Eh, Good enough! But I don’t think so. I think when God saw that what he had made was good, a surge of delight rose up in his soul, and the LORD our God started singing. What happened was that some of God’s Hallelujah got into each of us, and all we can do now is give it back any way we can.
Seeing what is good is creative work. Seeing the grace and paying attention to it, this is work that won’t leave the world the same way we found it, because a world that is healing from racism is entirely different from a world that’s too afraid to talk about it.
The Spirit is spilling into the streets, and the artists are painting murals, and the poets are not sitting this one out, and you know singers, the singers are not staying quiet, and when we make it our mission to pay attention —when our own eyes are opened, we will not only see our own shame, we will not only see that there can be a world that is vanquishing racism and building beloved community —then we’ll have to see. This world is beautiful!
Let your eyes see it is good.
Let your own heart be moved.
Let the holy Hallelujah rise out of your being.
This world needs your Hallelujah. Amen.