Tuesday, March 3, 2020

The Root of Sin

(written by Kristen Leigh Mitchell)

"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.

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “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 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.” 

So 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." 

~Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-17

"Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him: 
“If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 
But he answered: “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus said to him: “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him: “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him: “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him."

~Matthew 4:1-11

Let's talk about sin. After all this is the first Sunday in Lent. On Wednesday, many of us received ashes on our foreheads as a reminder of our mortality, but the ashes are also traditionally a sign of penitence. Lent is what we call a "penitential season," a time for deep spiritual reflection, self-awareness, and transformation. But transformation from what? And to what?

Our readings today take us to the very root of this question: how we understand the nature of "sin," and how to recognize the ways in which it manifests in our lives. Because this is something we don't always see very clearly, do we? Maybe we think we do. A lot of folks tend to think of "sin" in a very technicolor sort of way: sin is murder, or adultery, or cursing. That is to say, we think of sin in a legalistic wayas a breaking of the rules. Or sometimes we think about sin in terms of desire: sin is anything that I want but probably shouldn't have—more chocolate, another glass of wine, my neighbor's new car.  

But the Biblical word for "sin" (cheit in the Hebrew and hamartia in the Greek) was actually an archery term that meant to "miss the mark." Sin often results even from our best aims and intentions. Sin frequently appears as the shadow side of our best efforts to be "good," or do the "right" thing. "Every villain is the hero of his own story," the old adage goes.

I took up traditional longbow archery a few years back, so I "sin" quite a lot!

And this is precisely what we see happening in our text from Genesis this morning. Joe and I have been asked many times whether we believe the Garden of Eden story to be true, and the answer we always give is yes! We absolutely believe that this is a true story about the nature of humanity, one that offers us a way of understanding why evil exists in a world that God repeatedly called "good." 

It's a familiar story... perhaps a little too familiar. We know the basic outline, maybe from Sunday school or art history class: Adam and Eve lived happily in paradise until one day the woman gave into the temptation of the snake. She disobeyed God by eating an apple from the forbidden tree, and she got her husband to eat from it too. And as a punishment for their disobedience, God got really really angry at them and cast them out of the garden. This tendency to disobey God has been passed right on down to us, a condition of rebelliousness that we call "original sin." 

The Fall of Man, by Rubens

This particular understanding of the Genesis story and of the nature of sin, which developed in the context of feudalism during the Middle Ages, is also tied in with a particular theology of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection that developed around the same time: where our first parents disobeyed, Jesus obeyed. And because of this, God was able to take out all his wrath towards humanity's disobedience on Jesus, who was innocent. And because of that, anyone who says they believe that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead can escape the eternal torment of God's wrath and return to paradise when they die. That's pretty much the gist of it, right?

This "popular" version of the Christian salvation narrative stressing obedience is easy to understand and easy to translate across many different cultures and languages, which helps to explain why it has become so widespread. It is also a convenient means for establishing and maintaining social conformity and political order, which is why it has served as the foundational narrative of so many colonization efforts and religious attempts at world domination. But when it comes to actual human transformation, this version of the story remains woefully inadequate. Truthfully, there is far more going in these texts than I could even begin to unpack in one Sunday morning sermon. But today I just want to call your attention to a few things that this dominant narrative typically tends to leave out. 

Depiction of Eve in Avreha & Atsbeha Church, Ethiopia

First of all, let's get this out of the way: Eve, or "the woman," is not to blame for bringing evil into the world. The serpenta kind of trickster character that the Christian New Testament would later come to identify as "Satan"already existed within the created order! In other words, that undermining agent of confusion was already present, right there at the birth of consciousness. Also notice that, technically speakingthe serpent doesn't lie to Eve. He tells her that the fruit will not cause her to immediately perish but instead will make her "like God, knowing good and evil"... which is exactly what happens. 

I also want you to pay attention to the fact that when Eve converses with the serpent, it appears that God is nowhere to be found. Now how can that be, since just a few lines earlier we heard that God was with them in the Garden? We know that God is omnipresent, but clearly Eve at least perceives in this moment that God is absent. And we can all relate to this, can't we? We say we believe that God is everywhere, and yet we have all experienced that sense of being alone in the universethat existential anxiety which produces a very real lack of trust in the basic "goodness" of the universe.  

That moment of perceived distance from God—whether real or imagined—is what leads Eve to reconsider what this forbidden fruit might have to offer her (the text never says it's an apple, by the way...just fruit). Yes, the couple does disobey God's instruction for them not to eat from this tree... but why? What was the nature of the temptation? What was actually at the root of the couple's decision to eat? 

The text says that when Eve looked again at the fruit, she noticed three things: 
1. The fruit is good for food. 
2. It is a delight to the eyes. 
3. It is desirable to make one wise. 

So in her perception of God's absence, Eve struggles with the three most basic human needs: the need for sufficiency that leads to the desire for possessions ("the fruit is good for food"); the need for connection and belonging that leads to the desire for prestige ("the fruit is a delight to the eyes"); and the need for autonomy that leads to the desire for power ("the fruit is desirable to make one wise"). 

These, brothers and sisters, are the three temptations out of which all "sin" arises. But notice how they are connected to our most basic human needs. In and of themselves, they are "good." Food is good. The delight we experience in the presence of beauty is good. Wisdom is good. Adam and Eve "miss the mark," however, when they stop trusting in God's goodness, and instead reach for a kind of goodness they can grasp for themselves, hoping to become like God so that they might take care of their own needs. 

And what was the name of this particular tree? (Hint: it wasn't an apple tree!) The tree from which they were not supposed to eat was called The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. This little detail is not incidental to the story either! This wasn't just some random tree that God put in the garden and told them not to eat from simply in order to see if they could pass an obedience test. After all, what kind of sense does it make for an omniscient God to test the moral compass of two beings who were without the knowledge of good and evil?  

The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, which splits the world in two

Understanding the specific nature of this tree is central to understanding why God tells them not to eat from it in the first place, and to interpreting what happens next. Because what is the first thing that happens once they eat from this tree? Now, seeing the world in terms of good and evil, they suddenly feel ashamed.  The shadow side of this new moral outlook, and their newfound ability to judge one another, is the fear of being judged. And so they cover themselves with fig leaves and try to hide from one another. When God calls out to them, they hide from God as well. 

Before eating from the tree the humans didn't know judgment, but now they begin passing judgment on each other. Adam blames Eve: "It's the woman's fault! She made me do it!" We hear echoes of this even today as men continue to repeat these same words in an attempt to avoid taking responsibility for their own choices. But what does Eve do? "It's the serpent's fault! He made me do it!" And thus begins a vicious cycle of blame and scapegoating and self-justification that has had disastrous consequences for us as a species and for our planet as a whole ever since. We grasp at something like divinity, we try to hide the most vulnerable aspects of our humanity, and we blame one another, or "the devil," for nearly everything that happens as a result. 

This is sin. 

This what missing the mark looks like. It is that constant habit of covering up or rationalizing our own choices while passing judgment on the choices of others. It is that deeply felt need to find fault in someone else's circumstances so that we can feel better about our own and gain the moral high ground. It is that obsession Jesus describes in Matthew 7:5 with trying to pick the splinter out of our neighbor's eye, while ignoring the "log" in our own. All of this stems from our own fears of being judged and from the shame we feel about the exposure of our frail humanityour nakedness. 

Adam & Eve fresco in Avreha & Atsbeha Church, Ethiopia

Although we don't hear about it in today's reading, it's important to consider what happens next: now seeing themselves as the subjective reference point for what is right and good, Adam and Eve can no longer exist in the garden because they are no longer in right relationship with one another. "The man will rule over the woman," the text says, "and her desire will be only for her husband." Take note of that: the subordination of women, and the power dynamics of narcissism and codependency that so often play out in the context of intimate relationships were not part of God's original plan for humanity, but were a direct result of "the Fall."
"The subordination of women, and the power dynamics of narcissism and codependency that so often play out in the context of intimate relationships were not part of God's original plan for humanity."

Also, right relationship with the Earth and with the animal kingdom has been severed, since now we perceive ourselves as being above nature, which has consequences for the entire world. Every Feast of St. Francis, Joe mentions that our animal friends are very much still "in the Garden," because they still live into that original relationship between Creator and created, built on that basic sense of trust, intimacy, and interconnectedness. Animals may hunt and kill one another for food, or in order to protect their pack, but they do not wage war for the sake of power or prestige. They do not build barns and banks to hoard more possessions than they could ever possibly need. 

We are told that human beings once existed this way as well, for nearly two hundred thousand years. But at some point around ten thousand years ago (interestingly, right around the time that the Creationists claim that Adam and Eve lived), this relationship was severed in a very particular way that Christian theologians call the "original sin." Scripture also tells us that this new development occurred alongside the rise of agriculture, and the construction of city-states. Consider the very first thing that happens in Genesis outside the Garden of Eden: Cain tries to present a grain offering instead of the traditional meat sacrifice, but God "prefers" the meat offering of his brother Abel. It is precisely out of a sense of justice and the belief that he had been treated unfairly that Cain kills his brother Abel. Then he goes and builds a city. 

The Earth cries out with the blood of Abel every time we repeat this cycle of temptation and judgment that leads to violence against one another and violence against the rest of creation. But what can we do about it? Obviously, we cannot go back to a pre-conscious state. So what do we do with the deep sense of fear and shame that arises from our moral conscience, causing us to hide from ourselves, others, and God? Indeed, what can we do about the fact that even many Christian churches have taught the doctrine of "original sin" in such a way that only exacerbates the problem, emphasizing those same feelings of shame and enabling those same patterns of hiding and scapegoating and judgment?

Ewan McGregor as both Jesus and Satan in the film "Last Days in the Desert"

While the human reality that Genesis describes may seem pervasive and inevitable, the Gospels tell us that there is another way: the way of Jesus. Today in our Gospel reading, we learn that Jesus faced these same three temptations during his 40 days in the wilderness: 

The desire for possessions: "turn these stones to bread."  
The desire for prestige: "throw yourself down if you are the son of God so that angels will catch you." 
The desire for power: "all the world can be yours."

Like Eve, Jesus confronts these temptations in a moment when it appears that God is absent, out there alone in the Palestinian desert. And just like in the story of Genesis, God doesn't swoop in to intervene, or offer any reassuring words. Also, Satan, much like the serpent in Genesis, uses truth to try and trick Jesus. 

But as Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, where other humans have failed, Jesus succeeds. He does so precisely by resisting the voice that tempts him to be "like God." In other words, rather than leaning into divinity, Jesus fully embraces and claims his humanity. Keep in mind that this event takes place right after Jesus' baptism, where he was just called God's "son," and God's "beloved." But it is precisely through those same words that the devil then tries to tempt Jesus: "since you are the son of God..." and "if you are the son of God..."

Jesus' responses demonstrate what it looks like to maintain one's humility and trust in God, exposing the whole mechanism of sin for what is: an illusion we buy into whenever we give into the temptation to make ourselves into "gods," placing our own subjective desires at the center of the universe, and using that as a justification for grasping at more possession, more prestige, or more power. 

This is why we say that Jesus was "fully human" and yet was "without sin." This is also why Jesus is the only one truly worthy of passing any kind of judgment: because the judgment that Jesus will pass is not based on humanity's game of scapegoating, blame, and punishment, but on the love of God that has always been there since the beginning of creation for humanity. "You judge according to human standards," Jesus tells the legal and religious authorities of his day. "I judge no one. Yet even if I do judge," he adds, "my judgment is valid, for it is not I alone who judge but I and the Father who sent me." (John 8:15)

The story of Jesus in the wilderness also helps us to see that possessions, prestige, and power —the three things that motivate us to want to be "like God" and keep us locked in these patterns of condemnationare temptations for us precisely because they are all ways in which attempt to cheat death:
We store up possessions. 
We seek to bolster our reputations by making ourselves "a delight" in the eyes of others.
We try to gain control over our lives and the lives of those around us. 

But these attempts to artificially extend our existence are what often end up leading us into an even deeper kind of death—this is what Paul refers to in his letter to the Ephesians as being "dead to sin." This kind of "deadness" may not feel like death to us, but it is a numbness that ultimately prevents us from truly living, from truly accepting and embracing the full human reality of our lives. This "deadness" is often characterized by a slavish attachment to the status quo, a desperate clinging to power and to life which blinds us to our pride, our addictions, our envy, our greed, our narcissism, our nihilism, and our despair. 

 Tree of Life by Liudmila Horvath

But there was another tree in that Garden: the "Tree of Life." 

Though we never specifically hear of anyone eating from this tree, the implication is that it was the tree from which all creation ateincluding Adam and Eve. Christians have understood this tree as Christ himself, the one who invites us into abundant life precisely by destroying our fear of death. When we eat on Jesus, as we do at the communion table, we abide in the one who emptied himself of his divinity in order to show us what it means to fully embrace being human, and in so doing he has shown us how to overcome these temptations, by remembering what Adam and Eve forgot: that even in death, there is no such thing as being absent from God, for there is nowhere we can go that is not in the presence of that deep Mystery which is at the heart of all creation. 

Lent is a time when we intentionally seek to remind ourselves of this reality and reflect on some of the ways in which we have organized our lives around our fears and our judgment of ourselves and others, rather than our trust in God's presence, and love, and mercy. Lent is a time for us to examine those things that get in the way of our ability to claim the real truth of who we are: fragile, mortal humans, who are beloved by God. 

This is what all that penitential language and what the sacrament of confession are really about - both the communal kind we do on Sundays, and the individual kind that is offered at any time for those who seek it. While individual confession is not "required" by the Episcopal Church in order to receive communion, it is available and encouraged for those who would like to experience the grace of this sacrament, because we know that we "miss the mark" in both personal and communal ways: as individuals and as participants in larger social structures. Confession sets us on a path of reconciliation by allowing us to develop brave eyes to see ourselves and our world more clearly, and in the midst of that seeing to experience the grace of God that can heal even our deepest shame and liberate us from our self-protective judgments. 

As we move towards Easter, let us take some time this season to ponder how these cycles have manifested in our own lives, searching our hearts for understanding of the ways in which we have sought to be like little gods, rather than fully embracing our humanity as Jesus did. And let us always remember that even though we often fail at this, Christ has succeeded, and is always with us to show us the way. 


"In my folly, before this time I often wondered why, by the great foreseeing wisdom of God the onset of sin was not prevented: for then, I thought, all should have been well. This impulse of thought was much to be avoided, but nevertheless I mourned and sorrowed because of it, without reason and discretion. 
But Jesus, who in this vision informed me of all that is needed by me, answered with these words and said: 'It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.' These words were said most tenderly, showing no manner of blame to me nor to any who shall be saved." 
~Julian of Norwich, 1373

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