Sunday 3rd April 2016, Trinity 2
by Revd Kate Tuckett
I had a dream last night and it’s a dream I have quite a lot. In this particular version of it – again, one that I have a lot --- I am taking my German A level, but get to the exam room and sit down and realise that the last time I did a German class was over 20 years ago. There are other versions of the dream --- turning up in totally the wrong clothes to something, or stepping out and realising that you’ve forgotten to put any clothes on at all.
You know the dream, right? At least I hope you do or else this is really embarrassing. People have different versions of it, but it’s always about starting to panic as your cover is blown, you are exposed for who you truly are, and you feel humiliation and shame.
We’ve just heard the ancient myth of part of the creation of humanity. It’s a story about our origins set in the context of an ancient understanding of how the world came to be and how we came to be. It’s a story that tells us some truths about ourselves and how we perceive ourselves. But the way it’s told and the emphasis we give it speaks volumes about our self-perception.
On the front of the notice sheet you’ll see there’s a description of the reading. In my Bible and in every translation I looked up, this passage was described as The First Sin and its Punishment. And that is how most of us know this story. But in the Genesis account of the Garden of Eden, there is actually no mention of sin, or a fall, or Satan, or temptation, and I hate to break it to you but there isn’t even an apple mentioned, which means that the countless paintings through the history of Western art of a tree and a snake and very white Adam and Eve holding a Red Delicious are somewhat corrupted.
I want to suggest that this isn’t a story about sin or disobedience, but rather it’s a story about shame, a story about how we see ourselves and how we project that onto others.
Shame is big business. We love it when a politician or another public figure is caught out in the gap between what they say and what they do. And shame is everywhere. The crucible of teenage sexting. The tabloid press. The gleeful images of whoever it is whose weight has fluctuated. Expenses scandals. The degradation of Iraqis at Abu Graib. The coloured wristbands. The Jewish star. Witches burned at the stake. Judas Iscariot. Adam and Eve. Throughout history, cycles and spirals of shame.
Shame is big business in our world and it’s big business in our faith. Jesus had no time for it. He was consistently and heroically concerned with the healing of human shame, fear, and guilt, leading to his final and full identification with all human shame on the cross so that we could become what Paul would describe as the very goodness of God.
And that is what I would like to suggest is what this passage from Genesis is about. God will go on to sew tunics of skin for the man and the woman in the garden because they felt so ashamed and inferior. ‘Who told you you were naked?’ they are asked. I surely didn’t seems to be the implication.
Religion has so often told us that this story is about disobedience, and that the fracture in the relationship between God and humanity is caused by us breaking God’s rules. And if we follow this to its natural end, it would seem that religion is established so we can be certain about what rules we need to follow in order for our relationship with God to be loving and peaceful.
That to me is a fairly problematic view of God. If we believe in a God of grace, and if we believe that grace is the great thawing of logic and reason and worthiness, the unbelievable promise that we are loved whatever we do, and if we believe in the God of Easter who puts an end once and for all to any nations of having to buy our way to God through the money-changers at the temple, or through ledgers of merits and demerits, then this cannot be what this story is about. And I would suggest that a fall-back on the story of Eve eating some fruit she was not told not to, and then messing it up for everyone afterwards, seems kind of unfair on her, and unfair on us.
And I wonder if this is more a story about how we are programmed to listen to voices that make us feel ashamed. I wonder if thee damage to the relationship between the first man and woman and God, wasn’t so much the rule-breaking as it was allowing themselves to believe lies about themselves and God. The serpent had lied to them about how they were and who God was and like the most dangerous lies, they were just close enough to the truth to be really destructive.
Adam and Eve are in the garden. And God calls out to them and says ‘Where are you?’ and they say ‘We are naked’, and God says ‘Who told you you were naked?’
And I wonder how different this story would have ended if they had simply said ‘we’re sorry.’ We got it wrong. We listened to a voice other than yours and we didn’t trust you. We didn’t trust the immensity of your love for us. Please forgive us. I just wonder how the story would have gone. Because maybe their disobedience wasn’t so big a deal. From what I know of God in Jesus, forgiveness is a really big deal. In the following verses we have the beautiful image of God as seamstress, sewing garments to cover our immense and intense sense of shame. Forgiveness, the melting into the mystery of God as unearned love, unmerited grace, underserved wholeness and protection is the beginning, middle and end of Christian scripture as far as I can see. It can never be earned. It is only and always received as gift. Reconciliation and the desire to make whole that which has been broken, to undo our shame, is a big part of God’s redeeming love for us.
Of course we’re in the season of Easter as we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus who can create and recreate life where it is most broken and who can still offer forgiveness. And so in this context, perhaps we can read this story not only about where we fall and how we are programmed to listen to voices that make us feel ashamed, it’s also a story about how we survive. It’s a story we all know in some form or other. A story about how you listen to a voice that undermines your confidence in what is right, and you give in to a mad desire that you know at the time isn’t a good idea, and the car crashes, the exam is failed, the relationship ends, and there is no going back. But Adam and Eve don’t die at the end of it; they fashion a future from their sorry past; they live through the loss of paradise.
And we too can live through and find new life wherever we fall, wherever we fail, wherever paradise is lost for us. Because the God of grace we know in Jesus is one who draws all things to himself and offers wholeness and healing and forgiveness and new life. In his stories and his actions he creates a space where we calls us to be ourselves even with all the shame that we bring.
When, like Adam and Eve, we can’t say the truth, we can’t bring ourselves to look at who we truly are, but hide from God and are fearful and justify and blame other people as we see them do in that first story – Adam blames Eve, Eve blames the serpent – it’s as if we deny God being the forgiving and redemptive God God always wants to be for us.
God says ‘Where are you?’ And they say ‘We were naked and tried to hide from you because we were afraid.’ And God said ‘Who told you you were naked?’
Maybe you are sitting here tonight having listened to a voice other than that of God. Maybe those voices are so familiar that you think they are the truth. But they are not the voice of God. So maybe you can hear God asking you tonight: Where are you? Who told you you were naked? Who told you your body isn’t beautiful? Who told you you can’t make a new start? Who told you you’re not creative, or clever enough, or attractive enough? Who told you you have to hide from your shame? Who told you it’s anything to be ashamed of anyway? It may well not be. Who told you aren’t loving or lovely or loveable?
Who told you these things? These voices are blasphemy. Because the God we worship did not create us just once, but goes on creating us forever, taking the broken bits of our lives and offering healing, redemption, forgiveness, salvation, justification, and a love that never ends.
I want to finish with some words from George Herbert that express this much more beautifully than I can.
Love bade me welcome, yet my soul
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed love, observing me grow slack
from my first entrance in
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
if I lacked anything.
‘A guest’, I answered, ‘worthy to
Love said ‘you shall be he.’
‘I? The unkind, the ungrateful? Ah my dear
I cannot look on thee!’
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
‘Who made the eyes but I?’
‘Truth Lord, but I have marred
them. Let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
‘And know you not’ says Love, ‘who bore the blame?
My dear then I will serve.’
‘You must sit down,’ says Love,
‘and taste my meat.’
So I did sit and eat.