And so I learned that when it comes to this book called the Bible, it’s always good to check our assumptions at the door-- to read each story, every time, as if it were the first time. Because what we think we know, or what has been handed down to us, may not be the whole truth or the whole story.
Our reading this morning is just one of many stories we will be looking at together this summer-- stories which have often fallen victim to exactly these kinds of misinterpretations, misreadings, and misunderstandings. We’ll be making our way through some of the most ancient stories of our faith--Noah and the Great Flood, Jonah and the Whale, and the Tower of Babel—just to name a few. But first things first--we begin with creation. Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden.
It’s such an old and familiar story that we hear it and we think we know exactly what it’s about—right? It’s the story of how original sin came into the world--it’s about the corrupt and sinful nature of humanity and the introduction of the devil in the form of a serpent. Isn't that what most of us were taught? The thing is, if we let go of these previously held assumptions and read the story with fresh eyes--as if for the first time-- it might reveal a few things.
For instance, in the story there is no mention of “original sin” and in fact the word “sin” does not even make an appearance. There is no mention of the devil, Satan, or Lucifer, and the snake is never said to be anything more than just a clever snake. So many of the things we think we know about this story are things that have been handed down to us, but are not actually anywhere to be found in the text itself. And so it’s always worth taking a closer look, just to make sure we’re getting it right, or to make sure we’re not missing anything important.
There is a word that biblical scholars often use to describe this story and others like it. The word is etiology. Etiology is the study of origins, and an etiological story is one that attempts to explain the origins of things. The Bible is full of these kinds of stories. For instance the story of the Tower of Babel, which we’ll look at in a few weeks, is often interpreted as an etiological story about the origins of different languages and cultures.
In the case of our story this morning, many Christians simply take for granted that this is a story about the origin of sin. But that’s hardly the only interpretation that exists. Other scholars have offered that this is an etiological story meant to explain the origins of human mortality, or the pain of alienation, or on a less serious level-- why snakes don’t have legs.
And then there is this one, offered by church historian Diana Butler Bass, one that I particularly like-- she writes that when Adam and Eve turned their backs on God in the garden, they separated themselves from their creator (or as the text says, they “hid themselves from God”) thus setting the stage for the “long human quest to regain paradise, to somehow find a way back to God’s presence, to seek holy reunion with God in this life and the next.” In other words-- to go back to the garden. Bass offers the idea that this is a story meant to explain why it is that we are set apart from all other creatures in wanting to understand who we are, where we come from, and why we are here. It’s a story meant to help people understand why it is we feel this pull deep within us towards something greater than ourselves.
I like this interpretation of the story because it does not assume humanity’s essential sinfulness, as the doctrine of original sin so often implies. Rather, it assumes humanity’s essential goodness. It reminds us that we were created to be united with God, not rivals with God, or apart from God. And it affirms that hidden deep within us is a spark of the divine that is always driving us to return to the source of our being-- to go back to the Garden.
So if we recognize this as a story about the origins of our innate human desire to connect with God-- when then? Does that recognition actually bring us any closer to God?
I think it could. In the sense that it gives us an opportunity to let go of old narratives-- narratives that say we are corrupted from the moment we are born by a sin that was committed by someone else, long long ago, and that the whole of our religious existence must be to purify ourselves of that sin and to somehow make up for it.
What if we were to let go of that narrative? Could that possibly open us up to be able to claim a new narrative? One that says that God created us with the image of the divine already within us, and that reconnecting with the divine source is about journeying to the very heart of who God created us to be and how God intended us to live?
The story of Adam and Eve in the Garden is one biblical writer’s imaginings of why it is we have this desire to connect within us. A more contemporary theologian-- Karl Rahner-puts it another way. He writes that within our very nature is an orientation towards what he calls: “an infinite mysterious horizon”-- in other words—God. Thus, we need only to say “yes” to that divine orientation within ourselves in order to experience the ultimate unity between self and God-- to go back to the Garden.
So we have the why. But what about the how? How do we journey to the heart of who we are to find that spark of the divine within us--to achieve that kind of unity?
I think a lot of it has to do with prayer.
For as long as religion has been in existence, so too has prayer. For as long as humans have sought to understand who we are and where we come from, we have used some form of prayer or meditation to seek the answers to those questions.
And so this morning, as we strive to find new meaning in an ancient story, we will also seek new meaning in one particularly ancient form of prayer. In the front of the chapel this morning is our very own prayer wall. Prayer walls have actually been popping up in lots of places these days--outside on chain link fences and stone walls--and inside churches and synagogues--but they are not a new idea. They take their inspiration from one of the oldest sacred sites in the world--the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The Western Wall is a site of prayer and pilgrimage for Jews-- and these days even a few Christians and Muslims as well-- since at least the 4th century. Visitors to the wall bring their prayers, written on small pieces of paper, which are then slipped into cracks in the wall. More than a million of these prayer notes are placed in the wall each year.
I have to pause now to say something that I had not originally planned to talk about today, but while we're on the subject of prayer, there is something on my heart I want to mention. When the news came in last night of the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case, I struggled to know how or if I should talk about it this morning. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that to remain silent simply would not feel right. At the same time, I hardly know what to say. Especially since I was not on that street, and I was not in that courtroom. There is a lot that I don't know. But one thing that I am almost certain of, is that this was a tragedy that did not need to happen. And that cases like this reveal a deep and present need for our communities to continue to think about, talk about, and pray deeply about our attitudes towards race, guns, justice and violence. How did something like this happen? How can we change our country and our communities so that something like this does not happen again?
There will be plenty of commentary, analysis, and heated debate over the next few days and weeks. But before we get carried away by all of that, let us first and foremost remember to pray. Let us not be reactionary in our response to this news, but let us be prayerful, and let us be honest, and let us look to the heart of God that beats within us, as we seek the best response in our communities. I have no doubt that there is far more that can and must be said on this matter in future days. But if we are truly to believe that our connection to the creator is real and powerful, then our heartfelt prayers, and our striving to achieve unity with God will allow us to respond with greater wisdom and compassion than we could ever find on our own. And so for now, we pray. Many people will be offering prayers for justice and peace this morning. We add our prayers to theirs. We add prayers for peace and justice-- forgiveness, healing and reconciliation-- to all the other prayers on our hearts this day.
This morning we will take an extended time for prayer using our prayer wall. You are invited to use the next few moments as a time to reconnect with the divine spark within you. And then, you are invited to write down whatever it is that that connection brings to the forefront of your heart. You may choose to write down your prayer and pin it to the prayer wall, or you may choose to simply use this time to sit quietly and reflect and pray.
Let us begin our time of prayer...