Sunday sermon from July 14, 2013
Text: Genesis 3:1-25
Preached by the Rev. Matt Gaventa
William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Act 1, Scene 2. Enter Marcus Brutus, close friend of Caesar, and Caius Cassius, senator of the Republic. In the background, the sounds of the crowd madly in love with Caesar despite his dictatorial tendencies. But Cassius is not so enamored. He worries, understandably, that the people will turn Caesar into a monarch. He worries that the republic will be lost. He worries about the decline of his own political power and influence in a senate whose relevance wanes day by day. He worries that the world is conspiring against him and his legacy, and so in turn he creates his own conspiracy. This scene is the first step in a conspiracy that will in fact end with Caesar murdered on the floor of the senate, but it begins here, by enlisting Brutus in the treasonous thought that Rome might be better off minus its Caesar, to spark in Brutus the idea that perhaps the two of them had lingered on the margins of history long enough, that perhaps Rome's destiny might lie not in Caesar's hands but in theirs. So here's the rub, in iambic pentameter: that
[Caesar] doth bestride the narrow world Like a Colossus, and we petty men Walk under his huge legs and peep about To find ourselves dishonorable graves. Men at some time are masters of their fates. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
If you were here last week, I hope that last bit sounds familiar. Last week from this pulpit I gave my best pitch for an astonishing book called The Fault In Our Stars, a novel whose author, John Green, pulls his title right from Cassius's words. I believe, and the record may show, that I proposed to sell five copies of the book over the course of the sermon, and have since been informed of a five-person waitlist for copies from the Amherst Public Library. So I will take that as a sign of success and I promise to tithe any check I get from the publisher. But for everything else that John Green's wonderful novel is, he purports it to be in some ways an argument with Cassius far removed from its context. That is, Green's two protagonists, teenagers who meet at a cancer victim support group and fall in love, have to learn how to operate in the world when they really have no power over even their own individual, disease-ridden fates. Through no fault of their own, one of their lives is ticking slowly away; that's the whole point: whereas Cassius wants to convince Brutus to take life into his own hands -- his life, Caesar's life, Rome's life -- Green's book wants to know how you live when nothing is in your hands, when even your own body is out of your control. Obviously, this isn't much of an argument, because cancer and political intrigue are like apples and oranges. There are some things in life that we have more say over than others. So maybe it is not so much of an argument as perhaps a gentle corrective. That for John Green, for his characters Hazel and Augustus, that the story isn't really complete if they speak only of their own bad decisions or their own indiscretions, that we have to talk about the rules of the game itself, about the fault in the stars.
And so, appropriately to the novel, last week we began the story of Adam and Eve and the Garden by considering in some part its rules. Adam and Eve are given a set of instructions that culminates with one particular consequence -- namely, that if they eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil they will surely die -- a consequence that, to my reading, doesn't happen. I'll spare you repeating the rest of the sermon. Suffice to say that I was intrigued by the implications of the rules that God sets for this story and the circumstances into which God places the characters. It was the sort of approach you can take when you're reading through the end of chapter two, before Eve talks to the serpent, before Adam takes the apple, before any of the human responses that we read in today's lesson. As such, last week's was by definition one side of the story. It was the story of God, of the holes in creation and the healing that binds them up, of the fault and grace in our stars. It wasn't the story of us; it was the story of things that happen to us. But of course it's not the whole story; it's not the whole of our story, and this week we have to tell the rest of it. Because of course Eden wasn't just about what God did. It's about what Adam and Eve did. It's not just about things that happen to us; It's about the things we do. So it's not just about the fault in our stars. It's about the fault in ourselves.
We would love for it to be otherwise. That's called blame, and blame is the lifeblood of this text. Having been called by God to till and serve the garden and not to eat of the forbidden tree, Adam and Eve are then met by what the text calls a serpent, one of the creatures God created. After a surprisingly sophisticated dialogue with Eve, she decides to eat from the tree anyway, and Adam follows suit without so much as a follow-up question, and in the next instant Adam and Eve are very much in this together, working to sew garments for themselves to cover up their mutually newfound nakedness. But when God finds them and questions them, they quickly turn on each other, because blame is the lifeblood of this text. Adam says, well, that woman you made, she's the one that started it, and Eve says, well, that serpent you made, he's the one that started it, and then all three of them get read the riot act.
And yet even though all three of them get punished, Christian thought has so rarely managed to escape the boundaries of this blame. Blame is the lifeblood of this text, and it's the lifeblood of how we read this text. So many of the deep roots of our own sexist and patriarchal history lie in woeful agreement with Adam, in saying it's not me – it's that woman you made, she's the one that started it – even though both ate and Adam could hardly be less at fault simply for not asking questions. On the other hand, so many of the deep roots of our images for evil lie in this misplaced agreement with Eve, in saying it's not me, it's that serpent you made, he's the one that started it, even though the serpent is identified as one of God's good creatures and not as the invasive presence of Satan or the Devil, and even though all he does is to ask what are at best some intentionally misleading sorts of questions. So much of our understanding of Adam and Eve revolves around trying to figure out who is to blame, and I find this, frankly, astonishing, because it's exactly what the characters are doing right when God decides to punish them. So could it be that for Israel this story wasn't really about figuring out who to blame? Could it be that for Israel this story wasn't really about those other people who brought sin and and death and dirt and grime and brokenness and despair into the world? Could it be that it was instead a story about the everyday temptations that nestle and fester inside the human heart? Would it therefore be a story not only about the fault in our stars but also about the fault in ourselves?
Last night I was in my usual Saturday evening posture of simultaneous sermon-writing and watching the world go by on Twitter. At about ten o'clock news broke in the Florida trial of George Zimmerman, accused of second degree murder for the killing of an unarmed black teenager named Trayvon Martin. The jury had returned a verdict of not guilty and Zimmerman had been returned his freedom and, amazingly, his handgun. Now this story was a national sensation when it first happened, and the trial has been the subject of national conversation and the verdict will be as well. And I don't know enough to know enough yet of what I think, except to say that criminal justice and moral justice play by a different set of rules, and yesterday we may have witnessed a victory for one and a loss for the other.
But what most struck me as I sat and watched the world go by was that by 10:30 I had been offered no less than twenty-five different persons, organizations, trends, legal statutes, and historical principles that, if I wanted to, I could blame for the injustice at hand. You see, the prosecution failed to make a good legal argument. Or: Trayvon's advocates failed to make a case in the court of public opinion. Or: public opinion as always was resting on a set of deeply held and deeply racist assumptions. One major national news outlet literally encouraged me to blame the state of Florida. And what struck me was how tired I am of living in a culture so consumed with its own self-righteousness that all we can do in the aftermath of tragedy is to hurl cannonballs of blame at one another until everything crumbles. And what struck me was how tired I am of the cult of personality without any cult of personal responsibility. And what most struck me was that I could sit and read about all the people there were to blame, or I could admit that I was really just sitting and watching the world go by, and that for all of us who just sit and watch the world go by, the fault lies very much in ourselves.
But the problem in the Genesis text goes a little further, because the pattern of blame-mongering in this story is entirely intertwined with the process of becoming individual human beings in the first place. After all, this is the story of the first people, the first people to differentiate themselves from God and from their environment. In the Bible this is the first time any person ever makes a decision or asks a question; it's the story of Adam and Eve coming into their own as individual persons; in some ways the most telling moment of the text is the moment just after Adam and Eve have both eaten the fruit, when, faced with the shame of their newly-discovered nakedness, they work to sew coverings for themselves. They do it for themselves, and in the logic of Genesis that coming-into-being goes hand in hand with the pettiness, the temptation, the anxiety, the fear and shame and blame-mongering that so fills the rest of the story and so fills so many of our stories. You know the old saying that the problem with finger-pointing is that one end of your finger is pointing right back at you. Which is exactly the story that Genesis tells: that our emergence as thinking and feeling people goes hand-in-hand with our endless capacity to be un-thinking and un-feeling and selfish and self-centered. That to say the fault lies in ourselves is more true than perhaps we even realized -- that in this story, and in our story, the fault lies in the very power and possibility of being a self in the first place.
Fortunately, the Eden story is not only our story. It's also God's story, and in God's story, even as Adam and Eve come into their own, they never become on their own. After everything, after they eat the fruit, after they sew the coverings for themselves, after God finds them out, after they start pointing fingers, even after God punishes them, there's a moment that I think we all to easily forget, where the text says that the Lord God made garments of skins for Adam and Eve, and clothed them. This even though they had already made coverings for themselves, coverings that marked both their shame and their newborn distinctiveness. But God makes new ones. Even after their disobedience, even after their selfishness, even after they become the selves that God had pushed them to become, God's not done protecting them. God's not done taking care of them. God's not done loving them, even with their selfishness, even with their blame-mongering, even with their pettiness and temptation, even with all of their faults so firmly entrenched. We tried to tell our side of the Genesis story, a story of temptation and blame and becoming, but of course it's not the whole story, either. The whole story includes the abiding faithfulness of God that keeps us close even as we push away. It includes the gracious love of God that remembers whose children we are even as we so often try to forget. It includes the powerful mercy of God that will not send us into the world equipped only by and with our selves.
Several weeks ago I was home in Princeton for a few nights, partly for the purpose of cleaning out some of my childhood from my parents' attic in preparation for their cross-country move. Most of what I found was of little or no surprise -- mostly I expected Legos and old discardable trophies, and Legos and discardable trophies are what I found. But a few surprises nonetheless awaited me. Nestled amidst the giant cavernous piles of Legos I found three or four of my original childhood Star Wars action figures. Now, I was never a huge Star Wars kid. The Legos were much more my speed. To tell the truth part of me was a bit surprised that I even had those old figurines lying around, or that anyone had ever thought to save them instead of helping them find their way to a church rummage sale. But the other part of me was a bit giddy, because in the age of eBay original Star Wars figurines can go for quite a bit of cash, and I'm certainly not above selling off pieces of my childhood, especially the less sentimental parts, for the right price.
But of course on eBay the market for collectibles isn't really designed for toys that have spent the last twenty-five years in the bottom of a cardboard box. They want pristine. They want mint-condition. They want new-in-the-box. They want toys that have avoided the bumps and bruises and dust and dirt of being out in the world, of being played with, of being tossed around. I suppose if I had been a far-sighted, investment-minded sort of seven-year-old, I would never have opened those packages in the first place; I would have kept them on the shelf, staring at me from behind some molded plastic, waiting for the day when I could redeem them for some small portion of Charlie's college education. But you know I don't regret that at all. Because the toys needed to become who they were going to become. They needed to be loved. They needed to be wanted. And I couldn't have done that without ripping off that plastic and letting in the dirt and the grime and the bumps and the bruises. They show on their bodies the love I must have had. And friends, I think this is the whole story of the Garden. That we could be sitting on the shelf covered in molded plastic. But instead God so loved us. Instead God so wanted to be with us. Instead God so wanted the world for us that he ripped open the box and let in the rest of creation. We may have lost some of our resale value. But what value instead in the fellowship and care and grace of God! And what beauty in a story that is not finally about blame but about how loved we have been, even since the beginning. Amen.