June 14, 2015

Church of Peace, United Church of Christ

Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield

Genesis 3:1-13

In the Garden: A Little Knowledge

Today we’re continuing our summer sermon series, In the Garden. In the story we just heard, the LORD our God was drafted to make a cameo appearance. I’ve often thought that cameo appearances must be awkward for celebrities. Here you’re asked to play yourself, but you’ve got all these writers deciding what you’ll say. I imagine the LORD our God can relate.

In this story, made up by human people, we encounter a made up idea of God. In this story, infused with knowledge and shaped by tradition, we also encounter the very truth of God.

Now if it were me directing, I’d cue the lights. The woman and the man just ate the fruit, now their eyes are open. Now they think they know!  Everything is somehow brighter and blurrier at the same time. They’re still naked, but now they are ashamed.

Cue the sound. The Bible tells us there is an evening breeze, but these human people mistake the breeze for the sound of the LORD sighing and rustling through the garden. They panic and say, “I know let’s hide behind these trees. Surely God won’t see us here!” An idea which makes me wonder just exactly how much knowledge they acquired from eating from this tree…

Cue the LORD our God who strides down the center aisle, and maybe God looks right at Adam, or maybe he humors him for a minute. Either way, the LORD calls out, “Where are you?” And Adam tells the truth. “I heard you coming, and I was afraid because I’m naked.”

God asks, “How did you know you were naked? Did you eat the fruit I told you not to eat?” The right answer is “Yes.” But the man does not give the right answer. He says, the woman made me do it! The LORD God speaks to the woman and asks, “What did you do? [Did you eat this fruit?]” Now the right answer is “Yes.” But the woman does not give the right answer. She says, the snake made me do it! And the blame game begins.

Our scripture stopped before the next part of the story. What happens now is the LORD our God pronounces curses. Everybody gets in trouble. No longer can the snake walk around on its feet, hereafter, it shall crawl on its belly in the dust. As for the woman, hereafter, giving birth will be painful. As for the man, hereafter, the ground is cursed. Instead of enjoying a garden full of food, you must toil as a farmer.

“By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground… for your are dust, and to dust you shall return” says the LORD. Knowing they are naked and ashamed, God makes some clothes for these two and sends them out of the garden. God sends an angel with a flaming sword to stand guard at the garden’s edge, and the LORD goes with Adam and Eve to the next chapter in their story. The curtain falls in front of the angel harnessed and swinging in the air. And the house lights come up.

Friends, we can hear how this story is an etiology. It gets told to answer those hidden questions like: Why are people afraid of snakes? Why is giving birth so painful? How can some communities justify patriarchy? Why is work so hard?

We human people make up this story, and remember this story, to answer our questions about life. We make up this character called God, we remember God. We human people have knowledge of God, we really do. And our knowledge is too small. There is a whole sky in between God as a character in our stories and God. There is a whole sky of flying angels in between what humans know and what God knows. Oh how we think we know, and we do not know…

A few years ago at my previous church, I helped set up a display in the narthex area. It was a little tree of plastic Easter eggs. Inside each egg was a slip of paper with the name and age of a child who has a parent in jail. The idea was that people in the church would take an Easter egg, sign their name on the clip board, then go and purchase little presents for a gift bag that we’d deliver to the kids on the day before Easter as a present from their parents who are locked up. We do things like this here.

Already I was nervous about these displays because I can guess how people might feel about people who are in jail. Now on the Sunday of their debut, a terrible thing happened. I came out of the second service and saw several middle school boys standing by the table. The tree was flipped over and there were plastic egg pieces all over the table in a huge mess.

I was livid. I felt tears prickle in my eyes, but I didn’t have time to deal with this because the third service was just beginning. All through it, I was seething with anger at those boys. I’m the one who sticks up for them! When something goes wrong in the church, I’m one of the first ones who says, Do not blame the youth. Do not say, “I’m sure it was those kids.” And now those kids wrecked my display! How could they do this?

Only thing is, those kids did not wreck my display. After the last service, I went over to the table and saw what really happened. The sign up sheet was full of names. People had been taking the names out of the Easter eggs, but then leaving the eggs for us to reuse next year. In all the commotion the little tree had simply tipped over.

And sure enough, midway down the sign up sheet were the names of those middle school boys. See they were not wrecking my display, they were volunteering to help children in need.

I felt tears prickle in my eyes. I could not believe how wrong I had been! I could not believe how great these people were, how the worst thing turned into the best thing. First, I felt shame. Then I felt it turn into humility, and if that’s ever happened to you, you know there’s a whole sky between shame and humility. See the angels flying across.

Now I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person who has experienced this. This rush to judgment is something we human people do. We make assumptions and fill in the gaps to construct meaning, and we think we know, and we do not know.

Turns out, this is a significant problem for police detectives conducting interrogations.[1] Sure, sometimes people lie, which is one problem. But sometimes suspects and witnesses give false information by mistake. When we have bits and pieces of evidence, it is horrifyingly easy to misremember, to hear the suggestion of a plausible story and decide: Absolutely! That’s the only way things could’ve happened. This is not about trying to scam the system or making a false confession to get a lighter sentence. It’s about becoming convinced that we know what happened. I’m sure I know who did it…

When this kind of internal judging goes on in a community, you can understand how it fosters a whole culture of punishment. A culture of punishment is one in which a cloud of fear hangs in the air. There is amplified concern over getting in trouble or getting someone else in trouble, and the currency is always, “I didn’t do it, but I know who did.”

You can imagine this kind of culture, you might have experienced it during a bad week of summer camp or maybe for four years in high school. It proves that blame is the basic building block of prisons. Blame is the stuff from which prisons are made.

But human people were not made in a prison, we were made in a garden. The thing about gardens, they don’t teach a lesson of humiliation. Gardens teach humility. And there’s a whole sky of difference between humiliation and humility. When you have an hour to get your fingers down in the earth to dig out the roots of the weeds and let the glistening worms slither through your fingers, you can’t help but remember the stuff from which we human people are made.

Gardening exposes our limitations; it teaches us just how powerless we are. Because you can do everything right, you still cannot force the plants to produce a good crop. Gardening teaches us how powerful creation is, and we are part of its story.

Gardens turn dirt into life. Gardens turn shame into humility, and in this, we become more receptive to the grace of God. This is the grace that makes the sun shine on the evil and the good, the rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous (Matt 5:45). Gardens remind us that a culture of punishment is not the only choice.

Together, as a community, we create a culture of grace. In this, we honor the mystery, the parts of the story we don’t know. There is generosity in giving, and forgiving, in giving each other the benefit of the doubt. In a culture of grace, the currency is compassion, and compassion multiplies and increases, and see we just don’t have time to care about who’s to blame. We’re far more invested in finding out who’s in need. Friends, you can imagine this culture of grace; it’s what we’re creating here.

Here we help each other remember: As high as the sky is above the earth, the knowledge of God is greater than we’ll ever know. The wideness in God’s mercy is more vast than we can comprehend. The grace of God more powerful than this imagined angel guarding the garden with its flaming sword and growly face.

And this grace of God is ours to know in our own gardens, in the garden that began the world, in the garden where Jesus cried tears of blood. There revenge turned into forgiveness, shame turned into healing. Death turns into life…

May it be so. Amen.

[1] For an excellent article on the challenges with different types of police interrogations, see “The Interview” by Douglas Starr in The New Yorker, December 9, 2013. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/12/09/the-interview-7

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