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Sermon: The Curse

March 13, 2011

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-19

On June 11, 1963, Alabama Governor George Wallace stood in the doorway of a building on the campus of the University of Alabama.  He was there to prevent two students from entering the building.  The two students were black, and a Federal court ordered the University to admit them.  It was a key battle in the fight to end segregation.

Wallace, of course, saw it differently.  He believed the court order—backed up by troops from the Alabama National Guard—was an act of tyranny of the “Central Government,” that the state’s rights were being trampled on.  He was “standing in the schoolhouse door” in fulfillment of a pledge he had made to attempt to block all efforts at desegregation.  In his first inaugural address in 1963, Wallace evoked the Confederacy and Jefferson Davis, and said, “I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny. . .and I say. . .segregation today. . .segregation tomorrow. . .segregation forever.”  (Alabama Department of Archives and History, “Alabama Governors—George C. Wallace,” “George C. Wallace’s School House Door Speech” and “The 1963 Inaugural Address of Governor George C. Wallace.”)

This was a painful time in American history.  Many white citizens felt threatened at the Civil Rights movement, and black Americans had endured the full brutality of slavery and its aftermath—including segregation—for more than 200 years.  The next decade would see anger and blood spilled in these States that were clearly not united.

Hatred, fear, anger and sin have been with us since the nearly the beginning.  It is part of Christian tradition to say that sin came into God’s perfect world the moment Adam and Eve succumbed to temptation and bit into the forbidden fruit.  The serpent, which we have called Satan or the devil, pushed them into this act of disobedience.  God had said, “Don’t eat the fruit of that tree,” and yet, Adam and Eve ate the fruit.  And thus, God learned the first lesson of parenthood: if you tell a child not to do something, that child will do precisely that thing at the first opportunity.

We read the story of Adam and Eve, the serpent and the fruit as a depressing tale of sin and punishment.  It seems as depressing and futile as the story of the Civil Rights struggle in this nation—students barred from the schoolhouse, dogs and water cannons used on peaceful protestors, lynchings, assassinations.  And even though gains were made in the areas of freedom and equality, we cannot say there were any winners.  Even George Wallace became a victim of his own hate.  He became paralyzed in both legs due to an assassination attempt.

A part of our Christian worldview tells us that the horrific events of the 1960s are simply a continuation of that terrible day in the garden of Eden.  God had said to Adam, “You can eat from any tree except that one.  The tree of the knowledge of good and evil is off limits.  The day you eat from it is the day you will die.”

But the serpent, “more crafty than any other wild animal” God created, knew exactly which buttons to push.  The serpent said to Eve—although she did not receive her name until after these fateful events—“You won’t die.  God knows that if you eat this fruit, you will be like God.  Your eyes will be opened, and you will know good and evil.”

So the woman took a bite, and then gave some to her husband.  (Of course, if you take this order of events literally, you might be tempted to think that the woman was wise first, and then the man, and it has remained so ever since.)  The eyes of both were opened and, oddly enough, the first thing they realized is that they were naked.  Wisdom isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.

The woman and the man had disobeyed God, and they ate.  Then, like the child with its hand still in the cookie jar, they heard Mom coming down the hall.  And they hid.

God said, “Hello!  Where are you?”  God could see Adam’s and Eve’s feet sticking out from beneath the drapes.

The man sheepishly came out from behind the curtain and said, “Here we are.  We were afraid because we were naked.  We heard you coming, and so we hid.”

God said, “Did you eat that fruit?”

“What fruit?”

“The one I told you not to eat.”

“Oh.  That fruit…she gave it to me!”

The woman said, “The serpent tricked me.  I didn’t want to eat it.”

And then come the spankings, first for the serpent.  God said, “You serpent will crawl on your belly and eat dust.  You and the woman will be mortal enemies.  You’ll try to bite her, and she’ll try to clock you with a shovel.”

To the woman, God said, “You’ve got to endure the pain of childbirth.”

To the man, God said, “You’ll have to go out and work a crummy job that you hate.  You’ll work hard and have a supervisor that doesn’t like you.  And both of you shall return to the dust at the end of your days.”

This is a terrible, depressing story.  It is the Fall, Original Sin, Satan’s intrusion into God’s Creation.  Because of this foolish moment, all humanity is cursed, wounded, alienated from God.  Right?  Well, not exactly.  The story isn’t really as sinister as we make it out to be.  One reason we have read it this way is because the Apostle Paul used it to explain something about the mission of Jesus Christ.  Paul wrote that “sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned” (Romans 5:12).  The answer to sin and death is Jesus Christ.  That’s where Paul is going with his analogy using Adam and Jesus.  The early Church took Paul’s analogy and ran with it, conflating this analogy of Adam and Jesus with the idea of Original Sin, a term that is not found in scripture (Most of this line of thought comes from Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation: Genesis [Louisville: John Knox, 1982], p.23 ff.).

Additionally, the devil—or Satan—does not figure into this story.  Read the text.  The serpent is the most cunning of all the wild animals that God made.  There is nothing here of a fallen angel at war with God.  There is not even a mention of the Tempter or the Accuser as Satan is described in scripture.  It is a wild animal.  A snake.  Adam and Eve were tricked by a snake.  That certainly emphasizes the point that they were not very wise at that time.

There is no doubt that the story of Adam, Eve, the serpent and the fruit include important elements of sin, disobedience and the consequences thereof, but at its heart, it isn’t a story of sin.  It is another chapter in the story of the grace of God.  You see, we often focus on that one tree, the forbidden one.  God said, “Don’t eat.”  Yet before that, God said, “Eat up!  Enjoy!  I have put all these trees here so that you can feast.  Eat whatever you want—except that one.”  God is not the one who prohibits and limits us.  God is not giving us all sorts of impossible rules.  There’s just one simple command: don’t eat that one fruit.

In the same way we focus on the disobedience and the punishment.  The man and the woman failed miserably.  They were alienated from God, and they suffered serious consequences due to their actions.  We could focus on the grace.  The man and the woman did not die.  The serpent had been right.  The serpent knew the character of God, that God would be merciful towards the creatures God had put on the earth.  This is not a story of evil.  It is a story of the grace of God.

The story of the grace of God continued with another story of temptation, this time in the wilderness.  Jesus was in the wilderness when he was tempted by the devil—not a wild creature like a snake.  He was tempted by luxury and power and glory, but Jesus did not take a bite.  Jesus’ own life and temptation showed us that we are not forced to succumb to temptation.  We are not consigned to lives of disobedience to God.  We can have a different future than the bleakness we imagine awaited Adam and Eve when they left the garden.  The story of the grace tells us that God does not give up on us, even if we have been sinful and disobedient.  Adam and Eve did not die.  Jesus overcame in the wilderness and on the cross.  God does not accept failure and despair, but gives us the opportunity to try anew.

Think of the story of George Wallace, champion of segregation.  He literally tried to prevent citizens of this country from exercising their constitutional rights.  He participated in what we now acknowledge as one of the most sinful traditions of our nation, segregation and racism.  But that is not how the story of George Wallace ended.  In the late 1970s, Wallace apologized to black civil rights leaders for his previous actions.  He said, “I was wrong.  Those days are over and they ought to be over.”  A part of his transformation began after he said he became a born-again Christian (Wikipedia: “George Wallace.”).  Apparently, God did not give up on George Wallace even after Wallace bit into the forbidden fruit of racism and segregation.

That’s God’s way with us.  Failure is not final.  Sin is not fatal.  Disobedience is simply a mile marker on the path to greater obedience.  What we have imagined as the story of sin and evil is really the story of grace.

Sin may always be with us.  Failure may seem like our lot in life.  No.  God does not accept that.  God is always looking toward our redemption.  Your redemption.  Where you are today, who you are today, does not have to be where you are and who you are tomorrow.  What seems like a curse is only the entry point for God’s grace.

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