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Sunday, September 25, 2011

Beyond Good and Evil: A Sermon



Beyond Good and Evil
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

September 25th, 2011

Genesis 2:15-3:24


During the season of Autumn we are going to spend time with the myths of Genesis. This is the season in which we honor the path of letting go and letting be, the via negativa. This is the path characterized by silence, darkness, depth. It is the path of loss, of stripping away, and of letting go. It is a reflective path. It is not a path we often choose, but is chosen for us through a loss, a challenge, or a change. We are forced, gripped, led, pulled and pushed toward questions we have not asked about ourselves and our place in this life.

The myths of Genesis are part of our heritage. They live in the marrow of our bones even if we aren’t conscious of them. They are the myths of patriarchy, male stories of a male god, who is called alternatively, Elohim and Adonai. No one dared call him YHWH. The via negativa is the path that invites us to face the God who demands allegiance, obedience, wrestling, sacrifice, and who is silent at our tears. This is the God of our religious heritage. This is the God who doesn’t need a devil, because evil and suffering is wrapped up in his own being. He is creativity and destruction. He punishes and chastises, chooses favorites, rejects others, makes plans, but reveals little.

People ask me on occasion if I believe in God. Talk about a question that misses the point. I am haunted by God. And so are you. Those who claim to have advanced beyond the “God of the Old Testament” and have embraced some watered down version of Protestantism or some feel good New Age fantasy are in denial. This God will not be trivialized.
“Abraham!...Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”
You don’t think that story is real? You don’t think that God is real? He is as real as today’s newspaper. All over the world, fathers sacrifice their sons for some ideal such as flag or freedom or some religious superstition or even their own narcissism. What was your relationship with your father? For what did he attempt to sacrifice you? Did he succeed? And your son and your daughter? For what abstractions (honor, belief, success) will you sacrifice them? Mothers sacrifice their children too. We are all recipients of patriarchy’s bowl of pottage.
Cain said to his brother, Abel, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. Then Adonai said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”
Is that story real? Is Cain real? Is Adonai, the fickle lord who picks favorites, who prefers Abel’s offering to Cain’s and thus raises murderous resentment in Cain’s heart real? Listen to the news. You can hear variations on this theme from your television talking head every day. Read your heart. What is your relationship with your siblings? Any resentment you care to admit? Or maybe you were the favorite. Maybe your offering pleased daddy. How does that feel? How does that shape who you are today?

Do you believe in God? Silly question. We live God. We breathe God. We till the ground that is cursed by God and through pain give birth to children and in sorrow and joy live our lives by the sweat of our brow. And this God who haunts, demands, and curses, also clothes us:
And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them.
Yes these are myths. They are the creations of our imaginations. But do we create them or do they create us? These stories are what it means to be human at least in part. In church, we still read them under the aura of holy writ. We expound upon them from pulpits. Our fundamentalist friends frame them with halos of inerrancy. We hip progressive types try to dismiss these silly tales with a nervous chuckle. Neither approach honors their terror and their claim upon us. If we wish to find out who we are and why we do the things we do, we might do well to enter these myths.

Before we enter them, we will need to notice the dogma of interpretation and commentary that like cherubim with flaming swords bar our entrance to these texts. We will have to push past those cherubim and demand access to that tree of life. These are ancient stories formed before theology and doctrine.

They are ambiguous stories. These stories have their own agendas. Those agendas are not those of synagogue or church. Neither Elohim nor Adonai fits into a neat system of philosophical thought, "the attributes of God" for instance. He and the creatures he made in his image are neither moral or immoral, good or evil; they simply are, as are we.

Once we pass the cherubim who try to scare us with their flaming swords of orthodoxy and who try to threaten us with charges of heresy and blasphemy if we don’t read the stories in the “right way” we will find ourselves in this garden of dreamlike myth. Once there we will have to wrestle with these images until dawn and not let go until they bless us.
Adonai took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and to keep it.
Indulge me.
Close your eyes.
You are the adam, the man.
It doesn’t matter if you are a man or not, be Adam for a moment.
Be in the garden.
It is your Eden. What is there?
Take a moment and describe it for yourself. Picture it.
What does it mean to till it?
There are no thorns or thistles. Those come later.
How large is the garden?
Can you reach its boundaries?
Explore it.
It is your garden, all yours.
Adonai made it for you, alone.
Alone.
Keep exploring.
How long have you been in this garden?
A month? A year?
A hundred years?
A thousand?
Alone in the garden.
Your own perfect Eden.
Have you explored it all yet? Have you tilled it all yet?
Are you lonely yet?
And Adonai 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 the day that you eat of it you shall die.”
How do you feel about that?
Isn’t this your garden?
Isn’t Adonai your friend?
What is with the power trip?
Keep your eyes closed.
Picture the tree.
Knowledge. What is that?
Good and evil? ...Die. What is all that about?
What does the tree look like?
Is it large or small?
What does the fruit look like?
Are you curious?
Do you wonder about knowledge, good, evil, death?
No? How long then?
Will you wander around the garden and till it for another thousand years—
--all alone?
Do you ignore the tree?
Or do you visit it every day?
Are you bored yet?

Adonai decides you might like a companion. He creates animals. All of them. You name them. You roll around in the dirt with the dogs. It takes an edge off the monotony of living alone in your own private paradise. Keeps your attention distracted from that darn tree. You have fun with the zebras, cockatoos, and the possums. You race the turtles.

But the novelty wanes. Infinity is a long time.

Adonai puts you to sleep and when you awake there is another animal. This one is different than the others. She is so fine, she inspires a rhyme:
This at last is bone of my bones
And flesh of my flesh;
This shall be called Woman,
For out of Man this one was
Taken.
You tell her about the garden, and the tilling, and the animals, and Adonai.

And you show her the tree.

Now imagine you are the woman.
Do you get to speak to Adonai?
Or is he just Adam’s friend?
How do you feel about Adonai?
What kind of friend creates a tree and says the fruit is forbidden?
Imagine the animals.
What is your relationship with them, those who Adam named?
Picture the serpent.
What is the serpent like?
How do you feel when the serpent speaks to you?
But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not 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.”
Do you trust him?
Look at the fruit.
Why didn’t Adam take the fruit before now?

Should you just forget it and go and till the garden for another 1000 years and watch Adam talk with Adonai and play with the animals he named?

Hmmm. Serpent. Fruit. Know what God knows.
You are going to take the fruit, aren’t you?
How do you take it? Greedily, warily?
Do you eat it slowly or hungrily?
How does it taste?
Where is Adam?
Do you have to get him?
Do you bring him the fruit or bring him to the tree?
Or...was he standing by you all along?
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.
Now open your eyes.
You ate the fruit, you and Adam.
Bad thing to do? Good thing? Or beyond good and bad?
Do you feel guilty, liberated, or both?

It is your story. It is our story. The church has turned it into a story of original sin and it is still used today to instill guilt, fear, and distrust of women. The story itself is simply a story that invites us to reflect on our own lives and the choices we make and the risks we take or don’t take. We hear in this story the voices of authority who demand obedience but offer no reason, and the voices of resistance who promise great things but neglect the fine print of all the consequences. It is a story of coming of age, of growing up, of testing limits.

Limits will be tested again in the myths of Genesis and in our own lives. It is what humans do. We make choices. We take the consequences. No guilt. Just life.

Amen.
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