Sep 10, 2023

3 1-1


A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA

Genesis 2:4b-25

Happy Welcome Back Sunday, everyone. Today, after a summer break, we return to the narrative lectionary, which is a four-year cycle of readings that takes congregations through the story flow of the Bible. Each fall, we hear stories from the Old Testament, the Hebrew scriptures that Jesus knew as a Jewish man, the texts from creation to the prophets that shaped and formed his self-understanding. Then in Advent we turn to a deeper dive into one of the Gospels until Easter, when we go into the epistles—the letters of Paul and others. The idea being that we get a fuller and richer experience of our sacred texts this way.

It seems fitting that, on the first Sunday after Labor Day, the first Sunday of the program year, we start at the beginning with one of the creation narratives from Genesis. Cultures from across the world—from native Americans, to tribes in Africa, to groups in the ancient middle and far east each had their origin stories, explaining how the earth and its people came to be. Listen now for part of the story that the ancient Hebrews told about the creation of the world and how human beings came to be. Hear it like you might hear an origin story from another culture, imagining it being told around a campfire perhaps.

When you hear that Adam—or in Hebrew Ah-dahm—was formed out of the dust of the ground, bear in mind that the Hebrew word translated ground is Adamah. Consider what that says about humans connection to the earth. When you hear that God breathed life into Adamah, consider what that says about humans connection to the divine. Listen for what this earth-person is given to do and the one thing he’s commanded not to do. Note how the person is not left alone, but is given animals also shaped out of the Adamah to name—and finally another human companion with whom to share life. And ponder, if you will, what all of this might mean for how we are connected and what our responsibility is as humans.

In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches. The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. The name of the second river is Gihon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Cush. The name of the third river is Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’
Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.’ So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,
‘This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called Woman,
for out of Man this one was taken.’
Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.

There are a number of ways to look at a story like the one we just heard. One is to say “How quaint. Why that sounds a lot like one of those folk tales we hear and smile at from some other culture because we see it clearly for what it is—an attempt to explain how human beings came to be.” Another is to try to defend it as some sort of contemporaneous account of an event that literally, factually, actually happened, which seems like a fool’s errand to me. But a third is to dig deeper into what that origin story—one that is part of our heritage and our sacred texts—wants to say about what it means to be a human being.

And what it means to be a human being, at least as I read the text, is that we are integrally tied to the earth and the rest of its creatures—and that we have within us the breath of the Living Divine—and that we have been given responsibility—the ability to respond.

Responsibility might not be a word that comes immediately to your mind when you consider that text. In fact, it could be argued that what makes the vision of the Garden of Eden so attractive to some is that it’s a place that involves very little responsibility. A lush tropical paradise without cellphones and laptops, complicated relationships to navigate or bills to pay, programs to run or kids to raise or parents to see about. You know, kind of like a never-ending summer vacation, or can I say, sabbatical. It’s a time of innocence, without anxiety or guilt or difficult decisions to be made. All Ah-dahm is commanded to do is to not eat of one tree in the garden—and his main job seems to be naming the creatures that God brings to him. Then after God performs the first surgery by putting him to sleep and making a woman out of a rib of the man, all they seem to have to do is wander around the garden naked and unashamed. They have only one job. Not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Even though we stopped short of reading the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey would have put it, we all know how it goes. We don’t have to read it verse by verse to know that the serpent misleads Eve. She takes a bite of the apple and gives some to Adam, too. The consequence of that is shame, and guilt, and eventual death—a time-limited existence in a human body. It is an introduction into a world where decisions matter, and people and the things they love don’t live forever.

We can’t read Genesis 2 without knowing that Genesis 3 is coming. The people who first heard and told Genesis 2 knew as well as we do—even thousands of years ago—that humans live finite lives and can and do experience guilt and shame and, for that matter, sorrow and wonder and joy. In other words, we’ve already taken a bite of that apple, for good or ill. Which means that we have responsibility now. Response-ability. The ability to respond, to make choices. Choices that matter because they are made within the context of finitude.

I’m not sure who first came up with the notion that there is an ancient Chinese curse that can be translated into English as “May you live in interesting times.” I looked it up yesterday, and apparently that phrase is apocryphal. There is no known equivalent expression in Chinese. The closest thing to it is a Chinese proverb that says it is better to be a dog in times of tranquility than a human being in times of chaos. Whether “may you live in interesting times” is an ancient or modern curse, we are certainly living in interesting times, now, aren’t we? Globally, nationally, communally, individually, we are living in interesting times.

We are seeing and feeling the effects of global climate change—raging fires in places unaccustomed to them, hotter days and nights than have ever been recorded, bigger and more devastating storms. Whatever we believe about the extent of human involvement in causing and exacerbating climate change, the fact that it is a reality is increasingly beyond dispute. The question now is what, if anything, human beings can and will do about it. We have responsibility in these interesting times.

We are living in a time of increasing polarization in our national political life, brought on by forces on both sides of the spectrum that seek to profit off of that division and to portray people who disagree with them as less than truly American, and worse, less than truly human. The question now, in these interesting times, is what, if anything, we can and will do about it. What will we do to try to heal the divide and maintain relationship with those who see the world differently than we do? We have responsibility in these interesting times.

One of the ways people have dealt with the fact that our nation has a—shall we say, interesting, or complicated—history is to try to cover that over in our teaching of history as if we can return to some imagined Eden–rather than to look it squarely in the face and say, yes, that’s the way it was and in too many ways still is, but our story continues and we can take responsibility now for working to make things better for all and not just for some. We can’t go back. We have already taken a bite of the apple, which means we have responsibility in these interesting times.

These are interesting times, too, in the lives of congregations around the country. Post- and even-pre pandemic, in person Sunday attendance (or Friday evening attendance for our Jewish friends), has gone down. Cultural patterns have shifted. Activities other than being in communal worship tempt young families—and people of any age, frankly—away from religious services. We can wish that weren’t so, that we could return to some imagined Eden, back to 1950’s when being in church was the thing to do, or even 10 years ago when the cultural forces conspiring against service attendance weren’t quite as strong as they are now—but we have already taken a bite of the apple. So now we have responsibility. We have choices to make. Creative new approaches to take, activities to engage, relationships to nurture. Choices to make.

As we head into the rest of the fall in worship, we’ll be looking at different stories from the Old Testament and reflecting on various gerunds. I promised myself I wouldn’t use the word gerund in this sermon, but here I’ve gone and done it. Gerunds are verbs that we render as nouns. It could be argued that God is a verb we render as a noun. Verbs that we render as nouns, like responding, and listening, and wrestling, and doubting, and praying—and what these things tell us about how we move into action as individuals and as a congregation in these interesting times.

This morning’s text—that story of our origins—gives us some important things to remember as we navigate these days of global climate change, and political division, and the challenge of being a religious community in this day and age, and, lest we forget, it gives us important things to remember as we face our own personal crises, too—because life happens to us on its terms and not on ours.

This means that the doctor doesn’t always give us good news, and sometimes it’s our car that breaks down or our SUV that gets a flat tire on Interstate 5 heading to Oregon. It’s our house that gets hit, or our loved one that needs more care. Sometimes we are the ones who have to say goodbye to a beloved place or person before we are quite ready. And in those times we have responsibility, too—which is different than blame—which is so often how we think of the word responsibility. We look for who is responsible in order to blame them, which may be part and parcel of eating the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. That tree could stand for our human inclination to be convinced that we know what is good and what is evil, so that we can judge people, places and things—and place blame on others or ourselves—rather than stepping up and taking responsibility for our own choices in this interesting life we have been given.

Given that, I think it’s worth reiterating that according to our text part of what makes humans human is that they are integrally tied to the earth. We’re made up of it, we belong to it, we have responsibility for it and its creatures. We are all made up of the same stuff. So human, humus, and humility all come from the same root, just like Adam and Adamah come from the same root in a different language.

The second thing our text for this morning suggest is that we all contain within us, while we are incarnate anyway, the breath of God. From the first breath we take to the last breath we draw, the animating force within us is the Living Divine. It is God breathing in and out—which makes stopping and tending to our breath truly a spiritual activity. Just try it with me for one moment, would you? Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out.

A third thing to note is that we cannot do it al. We are not endlessly responsible for everything. We can’t attend to everything. We can only respond to what is before us and the causes and creatures we feel particularly connected to. It might be our beloved pet in one moment, the person experiencing homelessness in the next moment. It might be something we read in the paper or online in another moment. We are not endlessly responsible for everything. We are responsible only for own choices in the moment.

Last night I was at a Game Night, an auction party event hosted by Nancy Boobas. After dinner we played the game Never Have I Ever. For those of you who know the game, this might feel like dangerous ground I’m about to step into.

One of the questions involved looking at your hand of 5 cards and picking one thing, that if you had a chance to do it over, you’d do it differently. You wouldn’t do the same thing again.

I looked in my hand and some of the things I wasn’t even guilty of. But there was one thing that I knew I had done. The card read, “Have a crippling addiction.”

I put it out on the table. “That’s one thing I’d do differently if I had the chance,” I thought.

As I’ve been reflecting on my choice to put that card down, it occurs to me that actually there’s a way in which I’m glad I experienced a crippling addiction, because dealing with it forced me, allowed me, invited me to rely in a new and deeper way on a Higher Power. And just as important as that, to recognize and own that I have the power to choose. I have the ability to respond. And guess what? So do you.

In Jesus’ name. Amen.

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