A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho.
September 10, 2016
Genesis 2:4b-7, 15-25; 3:1-8
Tonight begins a new year in our Narrative Lectionary readings. Beginning with Genesis, we will read through the broad sweep of scripture between now and Memorial Day.
One of the reasons we read scripture every week, and encourage you to read it during the week, is that scripture is the story of our Christian faith, and culturally, we have lost the thread of the narrative.
When we don’t know our stories, we don’t know who we are.
Because we are story people.
We experience things in life and then assign meaning to those events by telling stories. The stories we hear and the stories we tell define and shape our world.
As illustration, here are some stories I was told as a child.
–The principal at my elementary school lost vision in one eye. We were told it was because he had run down the hall with a pencil in his hand.
–My shop teacher in junior high would hold up his hand and show us the missing digit of his hand as he told us to be careful using the lathe.
–My dad has had false teeth since he was a teen, because he never brushed his teeth.
I think the early story of my life was that adults maimed themselves in order to serve as object lessons for me. Don’t run with pencils. You’ll poke your eye out. Pay attention by power tools. You’ll lose a finger. Brush your teeth or you’ll lose your teeth.
(Fans of Arrested Development might recall J. Walter Weatherman. )
I was a careful child with well brushed teeth.
Fifteen years ago or so, when we were taking my dad to have his dentures fixed, young Alden asked why his papa had fake teeth. I told him the story and my dad said, “I guess you can tell him that if you want”.
“What else would I tell him, dad?”
Turns out my dad lost his teeth in a fight at a drive in when his face met up with a tire iron.
Now, I see why he didn’t tell us that story when we were children. I trust though, you can also see why it was a little unsettling to hear the actual story after thinking I knew the ‘real’ story my whole life long. I’m also skeptical about what happened to my principal’s eye.
The stories we tell about our life matter and they shape us. If we only tell what we think are the “good parts” of the story, where we are the heroes, and where we get it right the first time, our narrative is incomplete.
Similarly, if we only tell the stories of how we fail, how we do not belong, how we don’t matter, our narrative is also incomplete. We have to tell the whole story.
Telling the story of our life is also a communal act. If we live by ourselves in a cave, there wouldn’t be anything exciting to tell about our story, for one thing. But without people to hear the story we have to tell, what is the story worth? To illustrate my point, in our story tonight, Adam doesn’t speak a single word until Eve exists and he has someone to talk to. Language requires community.
Also, stories are communal because they are mediated and negotiated between people. I was just with my family last week in Spokane and there was a fair amount of “remember that time when….”
Sometimes, we would all laugh and remember the story. Sometimes, though, I would have no idea at all of what they were talking about. Whatever the story was about was something that held more meaning for them than it did for me.
Sometimes, my reply was “that’s not how it happened”.
We each have a particular story to tell and it matters that we give each other space to share stories and give each other time to listen to stories, even as we allow their stories to be different than ours would be.
And so, as we start through the readings for the Narrative Lectionary tonight, think about what it means to be people of the story.
Scripture does not just give us the story of the time God’s people get it right. Scripture does not just give us the story of how they got it wrong. It’s the good, the bad, and the ugly, all rolled into one. And tonight’s passage is a perfect illustration.
The story of the Garden is how our ancestors told the story of us, of how we came to be, of how we were created in love, of how we were created from and for each other for companionship, of how we find meaning in work and toil.
It is also the story of how we had everything we needed, and how it wasn’t enough. We had our pick of every tree in the garden but one. In the story of the Garden, we recognize that even thousands of years ago, our ancestors had abundance all around them, but instead saw the world through eyes of scarcity. “If only we had that one more tree, then we would have it all.”
Adam and Eve both tasted the fruit of that one more tree. And even that wasn’t enough. What the knowledge seemed to do for them was to open their eyes so they knew they were naked. And the knowledge did not help them.
Lately, as many of you know, I’ve been finding out more pieces of my birth family story.
I’m grateful for each and every piece of my story that I can gather up and weave into the story of my life, even as I see the blank spaces where my birth mother’s secrecy keeps me from accessing a piece of the story.
I’ve been blogging about this experience and have been surprised by the number of emails, Facebook messages, and texts I have received from people who tell me, “we have a similar story in my family and I have nowhere to talk about it because of the secrecy”.
People who gave up children for adoption.
People who discover they have extra siblings in their family that nobody will talk about.
People who years too late discover the secrets of their family after anyone they could ask about it is long dead.
Because of my story, I’ve been reminded there are so many stories that aren’t being told right now because people are burdened by secrets and shame. People do not have safe spaces, or do not feel it is safe, to reveal the brokenness of their lives.
And our lives are all broken in one way or another. I think we know that about our own stories, about our own family tree. I think we doubt it is true about other people’s trees, which look healthy, or at least nicely pruned.
We gather fig leaves and sew them together to cover up the naked, shameful, secret parts of our lives, trying to hide them from God and each other.
I’ve been wondering what the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is about. And each time I read this passage, it means something different to me, so I’m grateful for biblical stories that are so multivalent.
Maybe one piece of the fruit from that tree is a knowledge without perspective. We take a bite of it and we can see our own nakedness and have knowledge of the ways we have made mistakes and have sinned, but we can’t see the mistakes others are living through.
This fruit isolates us, causes us to turn away from the people in our lives who could journey with us through our troubles, our weaknesses, our mistakes. Knowledge without perspective is dangerous because it focuses too much of our attention on either our successes or our failures. Knowledge without perspective separates us from caring for and supporting each other.
It led Adam and Eve to hide from the God who created them.
I know many of you like the old hymn, “In the Garden”.
And He walks with me,
and He talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own;
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.
When we eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we miss out on the sentiment of this hymn. Silence and shame keep us from each other. And it keeps us from God. It keeps us alone, hiding behind our fig leaves, isolated and cut off, unable to experience the joy as we tarry there with Jesus.
Yesterday, I heard the story of Vaughn Allex, an American Airlines ticket agent who checked 2 men in for their flight, 15 years ago tomorrow. Two men who turned out to be hijackers of flight 77. Two men who crashed a plane into the Pentagon.
Of course, we know that hindsight is 20/20 and that he had no way of knowing who they were. But at the time, people stopped talking to him. They blamed him and he blamed himself. He felt he couldn’t talk about it, that he couldn’t go to support groups where people were mourning their lost loved ones because he would have to tell them that he had made sure 2 hijackers didn’t miss their flight. He covered himself up in fig leaves of silence and darkness for years, convinced that had he done something different that day, 9/11 could have been prevented.
He said that now that he has started talking about it, things have gotten a little better. He said, “I feel like in some ways I’ve — I really have come out of a shadow over the last 15 years,” he says, “and I’m — I’m back in the light now.”
As we journey through the story of the bible this year, notice the whole story. Look for connections between the biblical story and your own. Listen for the stories other people aren’t sure they can tell. Be brave to seek out safe places to tell your own.
If you doubt there is beauty in the broken places of your own life, if you doubt anyone else needs to hear your story, when you are tempted to hide it all behind fig leaves of one sort or another, I invite you to remember Michelangelo’s statue of David in the moments before he battled Goliath.
What is arguably the most famous piece of art in Western civilization came from a block of marble that was so flawed that two artists stopped carving on it before 26 year old Michelangelo convinced the authorities to let him give it a try. There were flaws in the marble that made them doubt anything of beauty could be made from it, that made them doubt there would be strength in the finished project.
If Michelangelo can make a masterpiece out of a flawed and abandoned piece of marble, imagine what story is waiting to be told from your flawed and beautiful life. We are story people. Tell your story. Make it a beautiful one. Don’t let the flaws get in the way.