Sermon June 6 – Excuses Excuses (Genesis 3) Rev. Betsy Hogan
Wayne and I have a saying. Or at least, I have a saying, and our poor beleaguered Minister of Music Wayne Rogers has to listen to it every week when we're planning the service.
And it's this: there's only one gospel. So whatever it is that I'm going to land up preaching about, whatever reading it is, whatever theme it is – there's only one gospel. It's in ALL the readings, it's in ALL the hymns, it's in ALL the anthems – whatever we choose, there's only one gospel. It's always going to fit.
I do absolutely believe that. Even when HOW the various choices we make in advance force us to appreciate that fit with a fairly challenging – because very hefty – dose of irony.
There's only one gospel. Sometimes it's beautifully communicated in nods between the reading and the hymns, sometimes it appears and reappears in phrases that arise in the anthem, are a subtext of the sermon, and then surprise us afresh in the final hymn –
And sometimes it's not spoken at all, but just felt. In a juxtiposition that's... shocking.
There's a moment when you wonder if singing the words "We worship you, God of our mothers and fathers" really needs to happen alongside a photograph of tiny shoes memorializing only 215 of the thousands and thousands of indigenous children who died in Residential Schools.
There's a moment when you wonder if singing "Give thanks for life" beside rows and rows of tiny shoes is an abomination that simply can't stand. Change the hymns, change the hymns, change the hymns.
But no. There's only one gospel. And as surely it spoke out of the reading from Genesis that we just heard, in fact it demanded to be felt in our bones in PRECISELY the shock and wrongness and horrified discomfort of that juxtiposition.
Sometimes chance delivers the one gospel beautifully, and sometimes chance delivers appalling irony – and the one gospel seizes it.
The first few chapters of Genesis, the stories of Adam and Eve in Paradise were never told, or written down, or meant to be understood as literal historical descriptions of the early days of Creation.
They were first told, later written down, and only ever actually meant to be understood as the etiological myths that they are: stories that arise to explain how particular realities or traditions or customs began. Where they came from. How they started.
That’s what those early stories in Genesis are, from a literary point of view. They’re stories that arose within the ancient Hebrew community to explain the source and beginning in some cases of traditions that they cherished – like resting on the seventh, or sabbath, day –
and in some cases of realities that they experienced – like childbirth hurts and why don’t snakes have legs –
and in still other cases of systems that they wanted to reinforce – like the secondary position of women in their society.
They’re etiological myths, from a literary perspective, stories that explain, comparable to those that arose in ALL ancient cultures around the globe. They weren’t told or written, and were never meant to be taken, as literally ‘true’ in the historical sense of empirically ‘factual’.
But that doesn’t mean that the early stories of Genesis aren’t equally full of the kind of ‘truth’ that’s discerned by faith. Because if we approach these stories as scripture, as inspired word that speaks to our faith -- what does this story tell me about what God is like, or what people are like, or what God wants people to be like – then there’s all kinds of TRUTH in the early stories of Genesis that does speak to our faith. That's what makes these stories not the history or the science they were never meant to be, but the scripture they are.
The scripture that speaks to all that is having its source in an Other with a capital O, a divine source beyond human understanding, a Creator. And not a Creator who remained apart and separate, but a Creator who loved creation as it unfolded into being and called it ‘very good’ -- and then stuck around to enjoy it.
That’s the faith-truth spoken in the first two chapters of Genesis. That God created, that God loved, that God continued intimately present in the unfolding life on earth.
So then when we return to etiological myth – to the third chapter of Genesis that we heard just now, which seeks to explain the reality that we sure aren’t living in Paradise anymore – with a side order of why don’t snakes have legs, and why does childbirth hurt, and why is farming so much work – we have to approach it the same way.
Not as history but as scripture. Not looking for fact-truth, but for faith-truth. What does this story tell us about God? What does it tell us about people? What does it tell us about what God wants for God’s people?
And probably the first thing that ths passage from the third chapter of Genesis tells us about people is that for as long as anyone can remember and even back to the very beginning of humanity, people have been making excuses, deflecting responsibility, ‘it wasn’t my fault’, denying and lying and doing pretty much ANYTHING to avoid admitting when they’ve done wrong. Because we don't like how guilt feels.
Because at the beginning of this passage, Adam and Eve, the Man and the Woman, have done wrong. In the centre of the Garden in which God has placed them there is a fruit tree they’ve specifically been told to stay away from – and they don’t. Yes, there’s a wily serpent, and yes, there’s an enthralling suggestion that eating the fruit will make the humans like God, and yes, there’s that nasty little fuelling of suspicion that maybe God’s not quite as pro-people as they think God is – but the upshot of it is that the Man and the Woman are told not to eat the fruit of the tree, and they do.
Apparently part of the human condition, even in paradise, is a tendency as soon as someone tells us NOT to do something, to very very much want to do it. And then, once it’s done, to not want to get in trouble.
Because first we have the Man, like a guilty toddler hiding in a closet with chocolate all over his face, who finally emerges shamefaced from the shrubbery in which he’s hiding to tell God “It was HER fault. She MADE me do it”.
While meanwhile the Woman, now on the defensive and probably annoyed at the Man for blaming it all on her, tries to put it all on the serpent. “It wasn’t my fault -- the serpent TRICKED me.”
And thus – etiology again – thus did humanity get thrown out of Paradise. And for extra punishment, that’s why the snake crawls in the dust, the woman experiences pain in childbirth, and the man labours endlessly over the touchy task of actually getting food to grow out of the earth. End of story, all questions answered, amen.
But here’s the thing. Before the Man and Woman have even EATEN the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, it’s already been identified to them as ‘forbidden’. Which suggests that they must already have some grasp of the notion that not eating it is ‘right’ and eating it would be ‘wrong’.
So already, in some sense, inherent in their humanness as created by God, they seem to have a knowledge of good and evil, or at least right and wrong, and they seem to know they have the free will to choose, even before they get anywhere near that fruit.
So that’s not what eating the fruit taught them. Not that there exists a difference between good and evil, or right and wrong. They already kind of know about that difference ~ something’s been forbidden them. So that’s not what eating the fruit taught them.
What eating the fruit taught them about is what feeling guilty when they’ve done something wrong feels like.
And I know this story just meant to be primarily an etiological myth about why we’re clearly not in paradise anymore, but I can’t help but wonder – given the faith-truths of these earlier chapters of Genesis in which Creation and Humanity are so clearly beloved by God the Creator, so lovingly shaped into being and so intimately encircled by God’s continued presence –
I can’t help but wonder whether at least a part of what hurts God so badly in this story and causes God to become so angry and disheartened by how things have unfolded is NOT actually what they did in eating the fruit, but instead is about what they did afterward.
When they blamed each other and made excuses. Instead of just owning up. Admitting they did wrong, taking responsibility, saying they were sorry.
Even if all they were really sorry about is that they listened to the perfidious serpent, STILL – what if they'd just owned up? But they didn't.
And I think that's what breaks God's heart in this passage. That they wouldn't, they couldn't, they pushed back against it. Excuses and disconnect and rationalizing. Anything to avoid feeling what guilt feels like. Because it feels terrible.
But here's the one gospel speaking out of this reading. It feels terrible on purpose. It feels terrible NOT like labour in childbirth or endless work farming or having to crawl on the ground – it feels terrible like being chucked out, cast away, pushed out of the garden.
It feels terrible on purpose. So we'll want to do whatever needs to be done to be restored. To make things right.
The words of that first hymn were written in 1902. We sang that hymn as Canadians and as Christians in churches across the country for decades. From comfortable pews where we simply accepted that it was the will of "the God of our mothers and fathers" to erase indigenousness from Canada, one child at a time.
And no – it wasn't "a different time" and it wasn't "just how things were". There were Canadian leaders and Canadian clergy who loudly protested and spoke against the residential school system from the beginning, calling it an atrocity, bearing witness to the wrongness. Canada, Canadians, the churches, the United Church – we made a choice.
And it was wrong. Did you know that in the 1930s when Prime Minister Mackenzie King attempted to call out Hitler for the dispossession and disenfranchisement and terrorizing of German Jews, that Hitler's response was to literally point at the Indian Act, and reserves, and residential schools – and sneer? That's a thing that happened. And it was reported on the front page of the newspaper, from Vancouver to Halifax.
The words of our second hymn later, they were written – ironically – in 1986. The year of the first United Church apology to First Nations. Which was rejected, in part, because we just didn't get it. The depth of the damage. The breadth of the impact. The degree to which residential schools are just the tip of a Canada-sized iceberg of continuing and deliberate de-indigenizing by attrition.
What breaks God's heart in the Genesis story is the excuses and the deflection and the rationalizing. Anything to avoid feeling how guilt feels. Not my fault, nothing to do with me. Anything to avoid owning up – yes, I'm Canadian, I live here, I vote, that flag represents me, that's my parliament. Anything to avoid admitting the need to change.
There's only one gospel. It calls us to love and it calls us to responsibility and it calls us to right relationship and whatever that takes. It calls us, it forces us, to sing those words and sit with those images and feel what we feel. And then make that feeling shape what we do, and the change we demand of ourselves and each other. The God of all our relations being our helper. Amen.