Rev. Danielle K Bartz March 20, 2022
Genesis 3:8-21 “Naming and Reclaiming”
I think it is important that we begin our consideration of this story by first naming aloud the various ways this text has been interrupted throughout the generations and in Christian doctrine. As we do so, we will see how it has been re-interpreted over the centuries, which will then give us permission to continue that tradition and interpret it for our context today.
This creation story was written sometime between the 10th and 6th centuries BCE. This story existed then for as much as 1,000 years, or an entire millennium, before Christianity. Like all creation stories across traditions and cultures, it helped an ancient people form an identity that placed them within the realm of a Divine Creator, and helped them grapple with the reality that their lives were ones of hardship and toil. This is ancient theology – an attempt to understand the will of God and humanity’s place within God’s Creation. As Christians, we are descendants of these ancient people and have inherited this theology.
St. Augustine, in the 4th century CE – in other words after 1,400 years of this story’s history and place within theology, was the first to use the phrase ‘Original Sin.’ St. Augustine believed all the hardship and toil of humanity could be traced back to the transgression in the garden – the eating of the forbidden fruit. The concept of Original Sin posits that act introduced sin into human history, and therefore all humans are born sinful. Our lives then are meant to repent of that sin and earn God’s favor. Original Sin became a doctrine of the Christian church in the 5th century CE, almost exactly 100 years after the death of St. Augustine.
I think it is important for you to understand that brief history because it highlights that this story was interpreted and re-interpreted over thousands of years. Jesus did not understand this story to be about sin. Not even the Apostle Paul, with his dim view of humanity, believed this story to be about sin. Whether we believe in the idea of Original Sin or not, that interpretation has staying power. But we are not tied to it. In fact, despite my appreciation for St. Augustine, I think he got this wrong. So wrong in fact that he missed the true gift of this story – the origins of God’s grace.
After the first humans were deceived by the serpent, the most intelligent creature in the Garden, they noticed their nakedness and were ashamed. When they heard God walking in the garden, they hid themselves until God calls out to them. God instantly understood the source of their fear – they had eaten of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And by doing so they no longer felt they could stand before God in their nakedness. For the first time, humanity attempted to separate themselves from God. They hid, turned away, tried to pass beneath God’s notice. But God, their creator – who created humanity like an artist creates works of art – calls out to them. God does not allow the first humans to sever the relationship.
When God learns that the humans were deceived by the serpent, the serpent was cursed. Animosity was established between the creatures of the land and the humans. A division was placed, not between humanity and God, but between humanity and the creatures of the land. God goes on to place further limits and hardships on first humans. The woman, whose name we finally learn in this scripture as Eve, will labor in pain. And the man will experience hardship and toil in tending to the earth to feed and nourish the generations. The ground was cursed, thistles and thorns will grow making it difficult for humanity to grow food.
Finally, God tells the first humans that because they are from the earth, they must return to the earth. They will be mortal – for God says, in the words we echo to begin the season of Lent – “you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
Hardship, pain, toil, animosity with animals, mortality – these are limits God places on humanity. These limits ensure humans can never take the place of God. But, did you notice, at no point does God curse humanity. The serpent is cursed, the ground is cursed – but humans are not. Humans are reminded that they are not God. Humans have limits placed on them. Humans are not cursed. Humans are not condemned. Nowhere in the scripture does it say God is angry at humanity, is ashamed of humanity, and declares humanity to be inherently sinful. God does not sever the relationship God has with humanity. In fact, in a beautiful act of love – God clothes Adam and Eve. They are ashamed, and while God may wish they were not, God does not shame them. God clothes them, covers their bodies to ease their discomfort.
I do not believe this creation story is about the origins of sin. Rather, I believe it is about the origins of humans experiencing God’s grace. A grace that passes understanding. A grace that is not simply about forgiveness but rather about God’s undeterred desire to remain in relationship with us. A grace that is evident when God calls out to humanity as humanity tries to remain hidden from God. A grace that is evident when God does not blame or harm humanity when humanity takes actions that are against God’s desire. A grace that is evident when God covers the shame of humanity with tender care, comforting humanity – even though God knows us more intimately than we can ever know ourselves. This is not a story about sin. This is a story about God’s deep and abiding love for all of us – no matter what we may do.
It is difficult to remove from our minds and spirits the harmful theologies that have been placed upon us. Somewhere along the way we have been told that we are inherently sinful. That God is ashamed of us. That we must spend our entire lives trying to earn God’s favor. The harm that this has caused runs deep in many people. For some it is self-destructive. They feel shame in themselves and assume God is ashamed of them as well. For some, this self-destruction can be terminal. For others it can manifest by lashing out and trying to re-focus a sense of blame on others. Believing that because God is ashamed of humanity and sees us as nothing but sinful creatures, that it is the responsibility of some, believing they are acting on behalf of God, to cast blame for the world’s difficulties on some people, to shame them in the name of God.
I was forwarded an editorial from the Washington Post a few days ago written by a man who seemed to be rejoicing in the decline in worship attendance. I want to read to you the very end of his piece: “Church attendance and membership has long been on the decline in America. My guess is that because many folks realize that fear is at the root of so much religious conviction, the proposition has become untenable. Those fears have led too many people of faith to police the way that others choose to live their lives.
“The trend away from church will likely continue. Most of us have enough fear and bullying in our lives already.”
The anger and the hurt in that editorial run deep – and I will do nothing to explain it away. The Church needs to hear how so much of its theology has been interpreted as “fear and bullying.” The Church universal must grapple with the ways we have talked about God, have tried to tell others what God thinks about them. The Church universal must acknowledge the pain it has caused. By acknowledging this pain, and repenting of it, we can begin to heal the wounds that have been caused. We can begin to reclaim for ourselves, and therefore for all of God’s creation, our name as Beloved.
I began this three-week series on our ancestral creation story by reminding you that Beloved is where we began and where we will end. God created us, formed us, with passion and love and hope and wonder. And even when we try to separate ourselves from God, God continually pulls us back into relationship with God. God does not shame us when we falter. God instead comforts us, covers us with love and devotion. And anytime anyone tries to cast blame and shame in the name of God, grieves God. But still, God’s grace is there. God is there calling out our names from our hiding places and waiting for us to respond.
Beloved is where we begin, beloved is the name God has for us, and beloved is where we will end at the fullness of time. You and I may not be able to convince everyone of this. But you and I have it completely within our abilities to live our lives by claiming and sharing this belovedness. You and I may not be able to heal all the hurt painful and destructive theology has done to people. But you and I can sit with someone in their pain and hold their tears gently, not to convince them of anything other than they are loved. You and I cannot tell the world love is the answer in order to stop wars and prejudice and injustice and fear. But you and I can share love with all we encounter, spread love with all we do, and speak love in each interaction.
Over the next couple of weeks of Lent we will continue to explore what it means to claim and share our name as Beloved. And we will do so having reclaimed our ancestral creation story as one of grace and love, not one of shame and fear. We will stand upon this creation story and allow it to propel us forward into the world in rejoicing. Amen.
God of Grace, you have never and will never separate yourselves from us. Even when we try to hide from you, you call out to us, eagerly awaiting our response. Even as we know this, help us to hold on to it in those moments when we doubt, fear, or wonder whether your love for us is true.
God, we name aloud today the ways in which too many of your people have done harm in your name. For the ways our religious tradition has caused pain, we repent. Your desire for us is to live in peace and harmony with you and all our neighbors, but far too often we instead invoke your name to do the opposite. This is not what you wish of us, and so we will always strive to do better.
Help us to show everyone we encounter the love you have for them. We know this will be a mere shadow, a dim reflection of your true love – but it is a gift nonetheless. Help us to overcome our fears of people we see as other and instead see them as siblings in your creation.
As we pray this, we pause and hold out to you all those who are hurting, sick, grieving, in pain, or wondering if they even matter. In these moments of silence, we turn over to you the prayers of our hearts that are too deep for words…
God of love and grace, with humbled and over-whelmed spirits we claim our name as beloved.
We pray all of this and so much more in the name of Jesus Christ, the teacher of our faith, the guide along our path towards you. And we pray now in the way he taught by raising our voices together…Our Father…