January 23, 2021
*The inspiration for this sermon and many of the quotes come from Rachel Held Evans’ fantastic book, Wholehearted Faith.
Today we’re talking about origin stories. An origin story is an account or a backstory that tells us something about where someone came from or what events transpired that molded them into the person they are today.
Origin stories and myths have long captured the human mind. We know that some of the oldest civilizations had their own origin stories that all addressed existential questions like, why are we here? And is the world and the gods who created it ultimately good, or chaotic? The Babylonians believed the world was created through a violent battle between the gods, and thus their war machine was fed through such an origin story. The Egyptians believed that the gods created the earth and then left Pharoahs in charge, and the Greeks had so many origin stories and myths that all grappled with the resilience and mortality of humans.
America has its own origin stories that have shaped our nation’s psyche, our government structure, our foreign policies, and our sense of entitlement to the land. Our nation was founded with God’s blessing, to be a place of liberty and justice for all. God’s hand and favor was with us as we conquered the natives who would deny our right to this land, and as we fought off the British who would steal our religious and economic freedom. With Manifest Destiny in our back pocket, we knew we were God’s chosen nation, a new Israel of sorts who would bring order to a chaotic world. Or so we believed and were told. Only in recent decades have many of our nation’s origin stories been questioned and examined under more light—and that’s been a painful process, hasn’t it?
Even in today’s most common form of storytelling, movies, the most popular stories are about superheroes who have complex and intriguing origin stories of their own: Spiderman was bit by a spider and lost his uncle; Batman’s parents were killed in front of him, giving him the rage and motivation to seek vigilante justice.
Origin stories are all around us. And we all have an origin story we tell about ourselves too, whether we realize it or not. The stories we tell about ourselves matter. They determine how you view yourself and others around you, and they set a particular trajectory for your life.
What does your origin story say about you? Does your origin story set a trajectory towards worthiness, belonging and a sense that you were called to do something worthwhile with your life; or does your origin story whisper that you are unworthy of love and belonging, that due to past experiences and traumas you are somehow broken beyond repair, or that you are not beautiful enough, smart enough, [fill in the blank] enough, to have a fulfilling life.
One of the oldest known origin stories offers its take on these questions. And it’s a story we’re all familiar with. Adam and Eve, an apple and a snake. And it’s a story that may, for many of us, depending on your church background, be deeply entwined with your own origin story, your own sense of identity.
There is a lot at stake in how we read and understand this story, because it sets the trajectory for the rest of the biblical story and for how we understand our faith, our purpose and our relationship with God and each other today. That’s a lot at stake.
For so many of us Christians, the tale of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is one we learned growing up in Sunday school. Many of us learned that the third chapter of Genesis, (the one Roger read for us) depicts an earth-shattering event called the Fall, in which the first humans, born into a perfect world without sin and death, succumb to the temptation of Satan. And their one act of eating the forbidden apple is what unleashes evil into the cosmos. Right? This is how most of us learned the story.
We might have also been told that “This is the [origin] story that explains why we suffer, why we fight wars, why hurricanes and earthquakes ravage the earth, why we lie, why we can’t agree on politics, why we divorce, why we get old, why we die. It explains the cruel things we say to one another and the brutal things we say to ourselves. It is the historical footnote to those harmful thoughts that seem to sprout from nowhere. It is the reason why God feels so distant at times. It tells us who we are and what we are destined to do. It [is a story that] marks us as unworthy of God’s love, [as destined for sin and brokenness].” (Rachel Held Evans).
…Or so we were told.
What’s so complicated about reading this story today is that because it’s been around for millennia and has been subjected to so much projection and interpretation through the centuries, it’s almost impossible to read it without seeing things that aren’t actually there.
For example, Western art and imagination depict an apple as the forbidden fruit, but in the biblical story itself, the fruit isn’t named. Also, contrary to popular embellishment, the Bible never actually describes the garden of Eden or creation as “perfect”. Rather, it is described as “good,” “very good,” and “blessed.”
And nowhere in the story does it claim that before Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, that death was not already part of the natural cycle of growth and decay necessary to make a garden green, nor does it say the couple were promised immortality if they obeyed. Even the crafty serpent is never identified as Satan – it’s just a talking snake. But it’s so easy to read these details into the text, because this is how the story was taught to many of us. This is how the story goes in popular imagination. But that’s not how it actually goes in the text.
“And perhaps most significantly, nothing in this story, or in the rest of the Hebrew scripture, for that matter, suggests that the choice made by Adam and Eve in the Garden permanently and negatively altered their nature, forever damaging the image of God within them and transmitting that damage like a congenital disease to every person on Earth, [so that now everyone is sinful and can’t help but sin]. In fact, the word “sin” is nowhere to be found in the story.” (Rachel Held Evans).
This origin story has been taught to many Christians through the ages as the moment when human nature was forever marred and ruined. When Adam and Eve ate that apple, or whatever fruit it was, that single act replaced the divine nature in us with a sin nature, separating us from God and damning us to be broken and sinful, unworthy of God’s love or attention.
Some of us were taught that because of Adam and Eve, original sin entered the world, and we are therefore undeserving and unworthy of God’s love; we can’t help but sin and God can only come to love us because of Jesus, not because of who we are – because we are just broken sinners after all.
And if this, as Christians, is our origin story, I wonder what kind of messages we internalize and come to believe about ourselves. I wonder what this type of origin story does to our psyches, to our sense of self-worth, our belief about the inherent goodness or badness about my neighbor across the street (they’re just a sinful wreck who needs to be saved by me). What does this version of the story tell us about how God really feels about us? It doesn’t look good, does it?
And I wonder, what if we’ve been getting this story wrong all along?
Because, while Western and American Christianity has long read our origin story in this way, neither Judaism nor Eastern Christianity has ever read the story this way; their adherents do not believe that the choice of Adam and Eve permanently altered the nature of all human beings and severed our connection with God.
Instead, for their origin story, they look back even further to the very beginning of Genesis, two chapter earlier, where God creates the world out of love, blessed it and called it good, and impressed upon each person the very image and likeness of the divine.
This makes so much more sense to me—If you look at the biblical origin story, it doesn’t begin in Genesis 3; it doesn’t begin with Adam and Eve disobeying God. It begins with God calling us good and beloved before we are anything else.
Pastor and theologian Danielle Shroyer offers a much-needed lifeline to those of us uncomfortable with the original sin origin story we’ve been handed and that seems to be the predominant view in Christian circles. She writes, “Sin is not at the heart of [human] nature; blessing is…And that didn’t stop being true because Adam and Eve ate the fruit in the garden. In fact, it has never stopped being true.”
Notice that when God places the first humans in the garden, God places them underneath the sprawling tree of life—an image that evokes the interconnectedness of all living things. God blesses them with tasks to care for this creation and God’s involvement in the garden is intimate, even humanlike. The story reports that God strolled through the grounds “during the evening breeze.” “And like children exploring a safe and loving home, Adam and Eve enjoy their connection to creation, to God, and to each other, free of worry and shame. God tells them they can eat from any tree they want, except the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Eating from that tree leads to the opposite of life; it leads to death.” (Rachel Held Evans).
As a kid I found this curious – that God would forbid Adam and Eve from eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, because isn’t that what God’s people are supposed to want? To know the difference between right and wrong, good and evil? So what’s going on here?
These questions have intrigued the faithful for millennia, and they explain why many biblical scholars characterize these first few chapters of the Bible in the genre of wisdom literature, similar in its themes to the books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, which repeatedly remind readers that knowledge gained apart from God is not true wisdom at all (Rachel Held Evans). In this genre, those who find wisdom find life, and those who fail to find wisdom “love death”; and the awe (or often translated “fear”) of the Lord is declared to be the beginning of wisdom, but knowledge gained for its own sake proves nothing more than “a chasing after the wind” (Ecc. 1:14).
As Rachel Held Evans writes, given the genre of these first few chapters, “Perhaps the failure of Adam and Eve, then, isn’t their desire to know right from wrong, good from evil, but rather their attempt to gain knowledge through a convenient shortcut, apart from God. In a sense, they tried to grow up too fast, to shake away the hand of their loving Parent before they were ready to run around on their own.
Read in its historical, literary, and religious contexts, perhaps the story of Adam and Eve isn’t about a single moment—a great ‘Fall” that explains the origins of evil and the presence of death in the world—but rather, what if this story is really about the many moments in which human beings face a choice between independence and interdependence. [What if] it serves as a warning, originally to Israel but also to us, that autonomy is overrated….trying to go it alone without the wisdom of the Creator leads to shame and exile, desecration and death.”
You don’t have to be an ancient Israelite to recognize the truth of this, to see how knowledge gained and used without wisdom leads to death. With scientific knowledge humans have created both life-saving vaccines and body-obliterating bombs. With technology we can wish grandma a “Happy Birthday” from across the nation on our iPad, and we can Tweet out horrible means things about each other.
Even our knowledge of scripture has been used to advance noble and righteous causes as well as to justify all sorts of horrible things like slavery, crusades and exclusion. “The Tree of Knowledge must always grow next to the Tree of Life, their roots intertwining, lest in our striving for comprehension we forget to honor the sacredness of our connection—to God, to one another, and to all of life.” (Rachel Held Evans)
And indeed, immediately after rejecting God’s direction and eating the fruit, they sense something is wrong and seek to cover themselves from each other and hide away from God. But notice this!: rather than turn away from the couple as they scramble for fig leaves to cover their bodies, “God moves toward them in their vulnerability. God seeks them out! At no point does the ground tremble as a gulf opens between God and the humans God created. Even when God banishes them from the Garden of Eden, the point seems to be to protect them and the rest of the world from the consequences of their decision.” (RHE)
This Genesis origin story serves as an epic coming-of-age tale. “It’s not a story about how humans lost their worth; it’s a story about how humans lost their innocence. And most important, it’s not a story about how God turned away from creation but rather a story about how God, in God’s relentless way, moved toward creation while giving people the freedom to make choices, to test boundaries, to rebel, to wreak havoc, to grow up.” (RHE)
The stories we tell about ourselves matter. If we believe we are unworthy of love or incapable of doing good, then we will live like people who are incapable of doing good and unworthy of love and belonging. If, on the other hand, the primary story we tell about ourselves is that we are God’s good and beloved creation, made in the image of the divine and worthy of love no matter our sins and failures, then we will live into that reality and seek it out in one another.” (Rachel Held Evans). Our Creator has entrusted us with the choice to either take away life, or to give and create life.
Which story will we allow to define us? Which story will we tell about ourselves? Amen.