The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Second Sunday after Pentecost—Year B (Proper 5); Genesis 3:8-15; Psalm 130; II Corinthians 4:13-5:1; Mark 3:20-35
Oh, I have been itching for this passage from Genesis 3 for 2 years; I have been waiting patiently for it to show up in the lectionary ever since I heard Episcopal Priest and theologian, Jay Johnson, speak on it at the Wild Goose Festival summer of 2013. So, let’s set the stage.
God has created the heavens and earth; the day and the night; God has separated the waters above from the waters below with a dome called sky; God has gathered the waters into the seas making space for the dry land; God has created plants of every kind, the sun and the moon, swarms of living creatures, birds of the air, creeping things, and humankind—male and female in God’s very own image; And God called all these things “good,” and finally, God created sabbath, holy rest. Here endeth Genesis 1.
Genesis 2 unfolds with a different version of creation. Here we have the dust of the ground—adamah—and a stream of water springing up and watering the earth. Then the LORD God formed the human—a-dam—from the dust of the ground, and breathed into the human’s nostrils the breath of life; and the human became a living being.
And the Lord God commanded the human (and listen close here), “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 God figures out that it’s not good for the human to be alone—that the human needs a helpmate, a partner, and so God sets about creating animals to keep a-dam company, but there was not found a helper as a-dam’s partner. Then, we get the whole deep sleep, take a rib, create another who is “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,” and it is at this point that we get the distinction of ish and ishah—man and woman—the hebrew moves from a-dam—the living human being—to ish and ishah, man and woman. And they were both naked and not ashamed. Here endeth Genesis 2.
Then we come to Genesis 3 and that crafty serpent.The serpent said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
The woman replied, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’”
But the serpent said to the woman, “You won’t die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
Well, when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.
They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.
Why are they hiding? (pause)
But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?”
The man said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.”
God said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”
Okay menfolk, how do you handle this? “Uh, the woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” Oh, it’s the classic double blame—not only is this the woman’s fault, it’s also God’s fault for giving the man the woman in the first place
Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?”
Women, whatcha gonna do? The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.” Oh, the classic pass-the-buck blame game. Well played.
And so, the Lord God curses the serpent, and the formerly upright serpent goes horizontal doomed to crawl on its belly all the days of its life with dust for dinner (though it is interesting to think about the serpent ingesting that constituent part of creation itself—it all began with dust, right?—hmmm). Here ends the passage for today.
So, what’s at stake in these passages? EVERYTHING! Partly because, thanks to Augustine, the interpretation of these passages gave Western Christianity a starting place of original sin and “the fall,” instead of original goodness and blessing, as Matthew Fox named it. But even without Augustine’s spin, how you handle these passages sets the course for everything else that will come after, which is the whole sweep of salvation history, and this is where Jay Johnson turned my theological world upside down and right-side up.
Johnson contends that Genesis 3 is a story about shame, and that shame is actually the original wound. We can tell that shame is involved for a couple of reasons. First, in that culture, nakedness was taboo—people experienced shame around nakedness. And, once the man and woman’s eyes are opened, they are afraid, they know they are naked, they hide, and they start trying to cover themselves (sewing fig leaves together and making loincloths), and cover their tracks (by blaming someone else)—all classic shame responses. Brené Brown has noted that “blame is just a way to discharge discomfort and pain…and anger.” Next time you catch yourself playing the blame game, try and see what’s beneath the pain you’re trying to discharge; what is it that you are trying to cover up?
But Johnson takes this even deeper. He goes all the way back to the original temptation. How did the serpent tempt the woman? (pause) The woman internalized that the tree was good for food, a delight to the eyes, and desired to make one wise. But Johnson has picked up on something else. The serpent tells the woman, “Your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.”
Sidebar—did you notice that the serpent prefaces all of this by playing the scarcity card—“Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?’” That’s not what God said! What did God say? (pause) “You may freely eat of every tree in the garden, except this one for in the day you eat of that one, you shall die.” The serpent takes God’s “freely” and “every, except one” and turns it into a “you can’t eat from any”—that’s SCARCITY!
But Jay Johnson sees one more thing that changes everything. The serpent tempts the woman by telling her that if she eats of this fruit, she will be like God. Johnson notes, the original temptation was our believing that being human wasn’t enough.
Shame is our original wound in response to this original temptation that being human isn’t enough—we thought we had to be like God to be enough.
Johnson goes on to say that we have interpreted this passage down through the ages in terms of original sin, for which the antidote is forgiveness, but if you read this passage in terms of the original wound of shame, the antidote for shame is not forgiveness—the antidote for shame is always unconditional love. And that’s when my mind and heart went ka-boom!
It changes everything. If we think this core story is about our sin for which God has to forgive us then that colors how we read the whole rest of the story of salvation.
But if we think about this in terms of thinking our humanity, a humanity that God created and proclaimed good not 2 pages before, if we think about this in terms of our believing our humanity isn’t enough, and the shame that always comes with any “I’m not enough” message, coupled with a good dose of scarcity, then the only thing that will save us, that will make us whole, is unconditional love.
And then the whole story of the relationship between God and God’s people becomes one of God trying to help us understand that our humanity is enough, that it is good, and that God loves us unconditionally. Wow! Read the rest of the bible through that lens and see what happens—it truly becomes the story of salvation, the story of how we are made whole.
And maybe this key unlocks one other puzzle today—that weird and oddly hopeful thing in the Gospel of Mark. It’s this scene where Jesus has been healing and the crowd is pressing in on him, and his family wants to come and restrain him because people are saying he’s mad, and the Jerusalem scribes are saying that he’s casting out demons by the power of Beezebul—the ruler of the demons. At one point, Jesus says this: “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”—for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”
What is this blasphemy against the Holy Spirit? I’ve always wondered about that; it sounds pretty intense.
To blaspheme is to show disrespect. Interestingly enough, blasphemy shares the same root in Latin and Greek with the word “blame.” Martin Smith defines blasphemy against the Holy Spirit this way: “…A profound spiritual blindness and perversity, which dares to attribute the giving of health and freedom by Jesus not to the Holy Spirit, but to the powers of evil”—it’s calling something that is good, evil.
But let’s go back to Jesus’ baptism—there the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus and a voice proclaimed, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased,” and let’s think about this new way of looking at Genesis 3—maybe blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is the refusal to believe that YOU are God’s beloved, and that in YOU, God is well pleased; maybe it’s taking this creation that God shaped, formed, instilled with the divine image, breathed life into, and called good; maybe it’s refusing to believe in this goodness, refusing to believe that you are enough, and instead, believing you are somehow defective. It is disrespectful to the Creator to call the beloved creation defective.
Why can’t the one who blasphemes have forgiveness? Because we’re not talking about the sin-forgiveness equation; we’re talking about the shame-unconditional love equation. And guilty of an eternal sin? If you fundamentally refuse to believe that you are worthy of God’s love, you will experience yourself as perpetually cutoff, separated from God and everyone else.
Throughout Jesus’ life, with every fiber of his being, with every word from his mouth, with every healing touch of his hand, with arms outstretched on the cross, from the empty tomb, he is crying out for us to hear—“YOU are God’s beloved; in YOU God is well pleased. Believe in this. Trust this. Live this. Love from this. It will change everything. It will change you and all your relationships. It will change the world.” And to his mother and brothers and sisters, Jesus says, “If you try to restrain my proclamation of this truth, then you haven’t grasped what it means to live in God beloved family.”
That serpent was crafty, but there are a thousand and one voices telling us every day that we are not enough. Entire industries are built on convincing us that we need something else to make us whole. We don’t.
God created us; God proclaimed us good. We are God’s beloved; God delights in us.
Are you going to own your inherent worth as God’s beloved, just as you are, OR are you going to try to overreach and overcompensate and spend a whole lot of energy trying to prove yourself worthy?
How you answer this question will dictate how the story flows.
Your worth has already been determined; don’t try to earn what has so graciously been given. Dare to believe that you really are God’s beloved. Let your actions spring from that well, and see how everything changes.
You have nothing to lose, except shame and blame and fear and resentment, and you have everything to gain—a sense of belonging that is infinitely secure, the joy of being enough with nothing to prove—only love to breathe in, and love to extend, unconditionally. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
June 7, 2015