Sermon Seeds: What Have You Done?
Sunday, February 26, 2023
First Sunday in Lent | Year A
(Liturgical Color: Violet)
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Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 • Psalm 32 • Romans 5:12-19 • Matthew 4:1-11
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 in conversation with Matthew 4:1-11
What Have You Done?
Rend Our Hearts (Click here for the series overview.)
By Cheryl A. Lindsay
Have you ever told a story about an event from your childhood and had someone who was with you retort, “That’s not the way it happened”? Have you ever realized that a memory had shifted and been transformed in the telling of the story? Maybe your perspective changed or you received new information. You heard the motivations of the other actors, and that insight reframed the story for you and your telling of it for others.
Sometimes the stories that are the most familiar become the least understood. The focus scripture falls within this category. It is a continuation of the second creation narrative that begins in Genesis 2:5. The two creation stories are told from different perspectives and with distinct emphases. The first is transcendent, tells the orderly progression of God’s creative work, and presents a completed work. The second story unfolds more gradually as creation does not have an ending point. It is ongoing. In this account, the role of humanity as creative actors assumes and maintains a prominence unexplored, if hinted at, in the first account.
If the creation account of Genesis 1 is a doxology, what begins with Genesis 2:4b is a short story with economy of characters, action, and place. In contrast to the material in Genesis 1, we step into a barren world, parched dry (2:5). The primeval stuff is dust (Hebrew: ’adamah) and the problem is not too much water, but too little. Springs rise up from below, clouds appear above, and an oasis is planted in the desert from which the rivers of life flow to the four corners of the earth. A male creature is formed first (Hebrew; ’adam). He is patted into shape by God from the dust of the ground. God creates not by the magnificent word, but simply and by hand. The clay doll or earthling is animated by the breath (ruach) of God blown into the man’s nostrils (2:7; in 1:2 the ruach is the spirit hovering over the primeval waters). To be alive is to have the breath, the spirit, of God.
Celia B. Sinclair
When these familiar stories are retold in popular settings, they get both simplified and dramatized. That’s the story that often gets embedded in our memories. When we re-read the original versions, we discovered what really happened according to the text. Simplification leaves out important detail. Dramatization adds extraneous elements. Both often lead to conflating two distinct narratives as if they were one account from one source. This does not just happen when Hollywood or Sunday School curriculum writers get to work. We can thank the interpretative presentation of theologian Augustine for much of our understanding of the creation stories and the prominence they hold in Christian theology.
Reading the first sentence of this passage, however, begins to dispel some of the myths that have formed. “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” (v. 15) Apparently, life in the garden was never intended to resemble a perpetual vacation at a lavish resort with human beings lounging in leisure with everything magically, or perhaps miraculously, cared for without their participation. Work was not a punishment for bad behavior but an opportunity to participate in God’s creative acts as living creatures endowed with the capacity and responsibility to nurture and sustain the rest of creation. The role of humanity in creation is not of user and consumer but caretaker and steward. Mimicking the divine-human relationship, the human-nature relationship is mutual, if unequal.
Another understanding from this story that needs examination is the notion of the “fall.” Celia B. Sinclair does an extensive treatment of this in her commentary, Genesis. Suffice it to say, there is no articulation of this event as the fall in the biblical text. Again, Augustine and other early church thought leaders contribute to our perspective on this concept. Satan does not make an appearance, and the serpent is presented as an anthropomorphized animal, but still an animal. In other words, it’s another creature that instigates the tempting here. This is in contrast to the gospel passage this week, in which the devil does tempt Jesus. Again, when we read these together, it can be easy to conflate the two, but the fact that it is another earthly creature is significant for this story.
The traditionally accepted interpretation of this text is that this is the moment that sin enters the human timeline. If only Eve had not offered Adam that apple (note the fruit is never identified in the text), and they had not eaten it, then we would be living this idyllic life of leisure and luxury!
Genesis 3. It is instead a marginal text. After Genesis 4:1, Eve is not mentioned in the Old Testament again. No allusion is made to Adam’s sin except possibly Job 31:33. In Romans 5:12–21 and 1 Corinthians 15 Paul uses Adam as a type, by way of comparison and contrast, for Christ as the “new Adam.” Nevertheless the role of the text is exceedingly limited. There is no reference to Genesis 3 in the prophets of the Old Testament or the Gospel writers of the New Testament. The fact is that the text is simply not central or decisive to the biblical testimony.
Celia B. Sinclair
I posit that the most significant assumption–and misconception–underlying the claims of theological and biblical centrality is that God alone was offended by the actions undertaken by the humans that day. But, the second creation narrative has three main categories of actors–God, nature (which includes all non-human creation), and humans. These categories would later be explicitly paralleled in Jesus’ framing of the greatest commandment: love God, neighbor, and self. In this text, the offense is as much against nature as it is against the Creator.
What has traditionally been characterized as “the fall” might better be considered a break.
One definition of sin is anything that separates us from God. Romans 8:38-39 assures us that nothing can separate us from the love of God; presumably, sin distances us from the will of God and participation in the creative acts of God. Sin separates us from right relationship with God like a partnership that does not break up but takes a break. The call to repentance is not a declaration of the so-called depraved nature of humanity, which God declares fundamentally good in the first creation narrative and treats that way in the second. Rather, it serves as invitation to return from the break by living according to God’s expectations and hopes for us.
This biblical anthropology [to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God as proclaimed in Micah] is expressed in the Jewish teaching of the yetzer ha-ra, or inclination to do evil, and the yetzer ha-tov, or inclination to do good. Both are present in human nature. People are required to worship God with their yetzer ha-ra and their yetzer ha-tov, that is, with the whole self. Indeed the potentially aggressive and self-centered yetzer ha-ra can be marshaled and used for the good. The rabbis noted that without it, children would not be conceived, houses would not be built, business would not be conducted (Telushkin, 544). But we must work to develop the yetzer ha-tov, strengthening the inclination toward righteousness as we mature. Choices really exist. In other words, life outside the garden is problematic but not fallen.
Celia B. Sinclair
A word about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The tree did not embody good or evil. It embodies knowledge. When the serpent casts their temptation, they emphasize that eating from that tree will lead to “knowing.” The Bible talks about human beings knowing God to refer to deepening relationship and revelation or human beings knowing each other to allude to sexual intimacy. When the word “knowing” is used in the biblical text, it’s meaning transcends acquiring information. This knowing is intimate, meaningful, and relational. Perhaps, we might dispel the myth that the two human beings in this story were naive and innocent, and the fall kept them–and by extension, us–from living their entire lives with the simplicity of young children.
Rather, they yielded to the temptation to break the boundaries established by God in the midst of abundance and flourishing. Everything, but one thing, was not enough for them. It was not need that drew them to eat from the restricted tree, it was discontentment with God’s abundance and overuse of nature, humanity’s siblings in creation. Contrast this with Jesus, who actually suffers from hunger, declares that being in right relationship with the Holy One is enough to satisfy.
What have they done? The humans made a choice–it was not God and it was not nature. They chose only with themselves in mind and forgot their interconnectedness with all creation and Creator. They sacrificed real “knowing” for a temporary understanding. Perhaps, like Sinclair suggests, we have made too much of this story, but there is still something very illuminating about remembering and considering how singular actions and choices can alter our path and detour our journey.
What have you done?
Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent:
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.
You know, there are some stories I like to tell because they shaped who I am, and I never want to forget them. One is about growing up as the child of sharecroppers in rural Alabama. We considered everyone in our community to be like family. One weekend, about fifteen of us children in the community were playing in my aunt Seneva’s yard, which was about half a mile from where I lived. What began as a sunny day turned into a dark one as the clouds gathered, turning the sky gray and moody. We heard the rumbling of thunder in the distance, and those sounds got closer and louder. The flash of lightning startled us as the sky was illuminated with bolts. I had seen firsthand what lightning could do—turning forests into fires. I was afraid of thunderstorms, their sounds, and the havoc they brought to our community. My mother would hush us whenever there was a thunderstorm, saying the Lord was doing His work.
Aunt Seneva gathered all of us children into her small house. We waited there quietly, listening to the rumblings, booms, and rolls outside. All of us children were afraid, and so was Aunt Seneva. The house began to rock from side to side. The floor beneath us started to buckle and arch. And then the roof above us started to lift. The storm was quite literally pulling the house up. Thinking quickly, Aunt Seneva told us to all hold hands and walk toward the corner of the room that was rising. This had the effect of weighing down this area of the house and keeping it grounded. When another corner began to lift, we walked to that corner as one to use our weight as a countervailing force. Wherever the house was rocked, we had faith in each other, that we could keep it under control, and that the higher power would protect us. We were walking with the wind.
I think this is a metaphor for how we live in the world today. Whenever the house of America is rocked or roiled by a problem or injustice, we have to join together as one, hold each other’s hands, hold tight, and have faith that our collective and conscious action will secure this part of the house for the moment and for the future….
The most frequent question that I get is “How did you do it? After getting beaten up, bloodied, and trampled upon, how did you not strike back or even try to defend yourself? How did you endure the death threats and abuses?”
My answer is: Faith.
–John Lewis, Carry One
For further reflection
“…the liturgical traditions of the Church, all its cycles and services, exist, first of all, in order to help us recover the vision and the taste of that new life which we so easily lose and betray, so that we may repent and return to it. … It is through her liturgical life that the Church reveals to us something of that which “”the ear has not heard, the eye has not seen, and what has not yet entered the heart of man, but which God has prepared for those who love Him.”” And in the center of that liturgical life, as its heart and climax, as the sun whose rays penetrate everywhere, stands Pascha.” ― Alexander Schmemann
“We suffer these things and they fade from memory. But daily, hourly, to give up our own possessions and especially to subordinate our own impulses and wishes to to others – these are hard, hard things; and I don’t think they ever get any easier. You can strip yourself, you can be stripped, but still you will reach out like an octopus to seek your own comfort, your untroubled time, your ease, your refreshment. It may mean books or music – the gratification of the inner sense – or it may mean food and drink, coffee and cigarettes. The one kind of giving up is no easier than the other.” ― Dorothy Day
“…the Word was with God, and the Word was God. That’s where God is from, and knowing that changes everything. And, where am I from? I am from God. …not easy to believe.” ― Ken Untener
Sinclair, Celia B.. Genesis (Interpretation Bible Studies). Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 1998.
Suggested Congregational Response to the Reflection
Engage the gathered assembly in Join the Movement’s Courageous Conversations: A Lenten Antiracism Journey
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 • Psalm 32 • Romans 5:12-19 • Matthew 4:1-11
Find the full text here: https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=24