This week’s sermon from First Presbyterian, Boonville.
The text is Genesis 3.
If you have ten minutes, I highly recommend listening rather than reading, since the story is much funnier when heard.
As I was preparing this week’s sermon, I called my mother in North Carolina to see if she could help me.
“Mom,” I said, “I’m looking for a story about my teenage years for this week’s sermon. I’m looking for some amusing incident when I made a bad decision and had to face the consequences.”
Well, let me tell you something: I learned a valuable lesson from this exercise. I learned that parents have a supernatural ability to reach into the deep, dark shadows of the past and pull out your single most embarrassing moment. Furthermore, I learned that if you ask them to exercise this ability, they will.
Let’s just say that, in the future, I’m going to think twice before I ask for my mother’s input on a sermon!
However, I can’t complain too much because I got exactly what I asked for: a somewhat amusing story about a time when I made a bad decision. Over the phone, my mother laughed as hard as I’ve heard her laugh in a long time. So, without further ado, I give you my most embarrassing moment:
I almost got arrested once. It happened late one night in the years after I had finished high school. I met some pals at “an establishment of merriment” and got caught up on our high school days. After they left, I went to go settle my tab and discovered that I was a little short on cash.
My next move was to find an ATM inside a nearby mall. The door was locked. What next? Well, there was this outdoor fountain beside the mall entrance. You know, the kind of fountain that people toss their spare change into for good luck. I was only a little short on my bill. I could probably get what I needed from there. So I rolled up my sleeves and you can guess what I tried next.
Thanks to the magic of closed-circuit surveillance television, Mall Security was on me in a flash. They escorted me into their office, let me off easy, and banished me from the mall for a year. I wish I could say that I learned some kind of redemptive and philosophical lesson from this encounter. I can’t say that. But I can tell you I learned that the money in those fountains goes to local charities and is taken quite seriously by Mall Security!
It was a growing-up moment and a stupid decision on my part. Like I said, there’s not really any redeeming quality to this story. It simply stands out as moment in my life when I was not at my best.
So it is with this morning’s story from Genesis 3. There’s no moral to this story. There’s no last-minute rescue or redemption.
Over the millennia, theologians of all stripes have tried to impose additional layers of meaning onto this text. In the Christian tradition, many have read this story as an historical account of how “original sin” came into the world. The talking serpent is understood to be Satan himself, tempting humanity to sin. Paying special attention to Eve’s role in these events and the curse imposed upon her by God in the end, many have also used this story to justify the subjugation and mistreatment of women in the western world.
However, the text does not lend itself so easily to such black and white interpretation. The serpent is never explicitly named as “Satan” in this passage. Likewise, there is no mention of “original sin” whatsoever.
This story is often referred to as the story of “the Fall”, but I don’t see it as such. For me, this is not a story about humankind “falling down”. Instead, I see it as a story about humankind “growing up”.
In my understanding, humanity was not created perfect, but innocent. The human race was in its infancy in the Garden of Eden. Everything was provided for them as a free gift from God. This is not at all unlike what human beings do with their own children. They are born into our lives and we provide for them in any way that we can. Parents feed, clothe, shelter, and love their kids. It’s the natural thing to do.
However, there comes a time when kids grow up. They start taking for themselves the things that we used to give them. It starts in the terrible twos and continues through the teenage years. As they grow older, they take on more and more knowledge. With that knowledge comes increased responsibility. It can be a very difficult process. But eventually, most teenagers break through into adult life and (hopefully) a more mature relationship with their parents.
This is exactly what happened with Adam and Eve in this story. They begin as children. They were placed in a lovely garden where everything was given to them. Then, they begin to exercise their free will. They tested the boundaries set for them. They took upon themselves the “knowledge of good and evil” and become responsible for it. They had to leave their happy home. That which was previously given to them had to be worked for. This is the way of the world. It’s the way life goes.
It’s the same journey that all of us must undertake at some point.
It begins with a decision that cannot be undone. We must face reality and go out into the world. The end results are mixed. Sometimes we learn from their mistakes and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we use our power responsibly and sometimes we don’t.
I don’t believe this particular story is historical at all. To quote the author Rob Bell, I see this as a story that “happens”, not one that “happened”. It’s a very human story that expresses truth but not fact. There is no airtight theological system at work here, nor is there a redemptive resolution at the end. Adam and Eve walk off into an uncertain future that will be of their own making. What it becomes is up to them.
However, I do see a glimmer of hope:
God is present. At no point in this difficult “growing up” process does God ever reject Adam and Eve as children. They must be made to face reality, but they will not do so alone. God provides them with new clothes on their way out the door and, as we know from the rest of the book of Genesis, God never gives up on them or their family.
God keeps on showing up unexpectedly in the darkest of situations. God is constantly working to guide, provide, and console. I used to tell folks in my street ministry, “I like the book of Genesis. It’s one of the few books I can read and find people more dysfunctional than I am. And God never gives up on them!” God doesn’t give up on Adam and Eve either.
Don’t parents do this with their grown-up kids as well? They never give up. They never stop hoping. They never stop loving. In the best of circumstances, a new relationship begins to develop. This relationship is more mature and more mutual than the one-sided provider role that falls to the parents of little kids.
I believe this is God’s hope for us. As we learn to use our power, God’s hope is that we will someday return home as adult believers who have become mature in our faith. We can explore new and undreamed of territory that was completely foreign to us before. We come back to God with a gift to offer and not just a need to fill. This kind of relationship is more mutual and fulfilling for parties on both sides. Having known the fruit of labor and redemption, we appreciate what we have so much more.
That is the kind of relationship that God wants with each one of us. Are we prepared to accept that offer?