The Reverend Richard Schaper studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University.
He also studied philosophy and religion at Colgate University, theology at the University of Chicago, ethics at Yale University, financial planning at Golden Gate University and the management of nonprofit organizations at the University of San Francisco.
Growing up Lutheran, then worshipping with Quakers and zazen training with Zenki Shibayama Roshi prepared him for nine years as a Benedictine monk at Weston Priory.
Richard’s experiences as a monk, hospital chaplain, parish pastor, and certified financial planner have prepared him for a pastoral and spiritual perspective in financial and estate planning.
His wife, the Reverend Anita Ostrom, PhD., is a psychotherapist.
Richard comes from a seafaring family and enjoys fishing and sailing.
What do you expect it to be like when you meet Jesus?
And then: what is it like when you actually meet Jesus?
We are early on the Gospel of Mark. Mark is the shortest Gospel, it is probably the oldest, and it is the one that tells the story of Jesus with the most urgency. It has this driving, and then, and then, and then quality to it. Mark does not give us a nativity, he does not give us a genealogy, he does not give us the cosmic preamble that we have in John.
What Mark gives us is John the Baptist foretelling Jesus and then baptising Jesus; Jesus being driven by the Spirit into the wilderness; Jesus calling Simon and Andrew and James and John; and then the scene that we witness today. (We’re still in the first Chapter!) This is a scene that offers a possible answer to our opening questions: What do we expect it to be like when we meet Jesus? And what is it like when we actually meet Jesus?
Jesus is teaching in the synagogue. If we feel like imagining this scene in the present day, maybe we can picture him standing at the front of our church. He is teaching. And people are amazed – because, the text says, he has authority. There is something about his words, his stories, just who he is, that tells people that he is telling the truth.
And no sooner has Mark set up this scene than conflict or crisis shoots into the middle of it like a lightning bolt. Someone with an unclean spirit shows up. Unclean spirit is a category that we don’t know much about in 2021. It assumes a fundamentally different worldview than I have and, I’m guessing, than you have. If you haven’t seen the person who lives next to you for a while and you ask another neighbour what happened to them, you’d probably be surprised and confused if your neighbour said, “Oh, Doug has an unclean spirit.”
Even if we don’t have a common vocabulary, however, we do know what it is like when someone is in distress. And this man person shows up all of a sudden in this scene is in profound distress. They are hurting in a big way.
Something fascinating happens then, something that will repeat throughout Jesus’ ministry: the hurting person or, to use the language of Mark, the unclean spirit within the hurting person recognises Jesus right away. Sometimes the disciples are slow to figure out who Jesus is and what he must do. And someone like Pilate never figures out who Jesus is. But this unclean person, this hurting person has no question:
I know who you are,
You are the Holy One of God.
And maybe this makes sense. Because it is often in our distress, in our pain, in our loneliness, in our lostness that God shows up to us most clearly. When I speak with people in hospital or hospice beds, they will regularly tell me that their prayer life, that their conversation with God, has a clarity that it never had before. I don’t think that’s because God is any more present when we are suffering than when we are washing the dishes or when we are in a moment of jubilation. But I do suspect that, in our suffering, it’s sometimes easier for us to notice God.
Now, pay attention to what else this hurting person says next:
Have you come to destroy us?
While being possessed by an unclean spirit may be outside of our experience, I want to suggest that this next part is not, that these words are not. Many of us have inherited this idea that, when we stand before God, what we will encounter from God is disappointment, condemnation, rejection, and the harshest kind of judgment. Many of us suspect that when we arrive at the gates of heaven, Saint Peter won’t have a room ready for us. We wonder, we fear, in other words, that what we can expect from God is violence.
We ask Jesus:
Have you come to destroy us?
But what Jesus offers is healing.
Come out of him! Jesus says to the unclean spirit. And the man is healed, he is set free. And maybe – I don’t know if this is a weird idea – the unclean spirit is also healed and set free. The two are no longer bound together in pain.
If your answer to the question, What do you expect it to be like when you meet Jesus? Is I expect pain and rejection and violence then this story is for you.
There is an old and beloved hymn called There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy. The words were written by a guy by the name of Frederick Faber. And one of the verses goes like this:
There is no place where earth’s sorrows
Are more felt than up in Heaven;
There is no place where earth’s failings
Have such kindly judgment given.
That hymn is about the whole earth. And it is about you in particular. We all fail. I sure do. And what we can expect from Jesus, what Jesus promises, is kindly judgment. Again, Alleluia.
What do you expect it to be like when you meet Jesus?
And then: what is it like when you actually meet Jesus?
Whatever you may expect from Jesus, know that meeting him is always, always a joy that is more than we can ask or imagine. Know that when you meet him you will find kindly judgment, you will find freedom, you will find love.
My public school career began a handful of years before the video cassette became commonplace. And so my early experience with watching films in a classroom featured a member of the AV Club rolling a cart with a projector on it into the room. Those projectors had a particular smell: cellulose and frayed vinyl and burnt dust. And they made a particular sound they made as they fired up.
A second or two after that sound began images would flash onto the screen, the first few featuring numbers, some of which counted you down into the film and others of which served a purpose that I have never learned. The numbers were accompanied by holes burnt into the film by misadventures gone by.
And then the film began.
Some of the films were educational: here’s what it’s like to work at a factory where they manufacture a certain kind of product; here’s what it’s like to be an Olympic-level swimmer or diver; here’s what it might have been like to live in a cabin in the 18th Century. As many or more were whimsical or goofy. I remember a film that featured a bear chasing a bunch of people (I don’t know any more why the bear wanted to catch them; it wasn’t especially angry). It included a scene in which the bear strapped on a pair of skis and followed its chasees down a ski slope.
It was after the film ended, however, that the part that my classmates and I really looked forward to began. We would beg our teacher to play the film that we had just watched backwards. I don’t know if you can play a videotape backwards; I imagine that there is a button or an app that would let you play a YouTube video backwards. But with classroom projectors it was easy. The teacher would turn a switch and:
Boom – reversal!
Back at the factory, the product would get unmanufactured, so that the finished items were unsealed from boxes, workers undrilled holes in metal, and a saw took two pieces of wood and cut them into one. At the pool the water started to boil and then a diver went ballistic, shooting feet first up, up, up thirty feet into the air until they came to rest on the diving board. And the bear – wonder of wonders – skied backwards up the ski slope.
My classmates and I laughed hard.
I’m not exactly sure why we found these backwards movies so wonderful. I guess that we loved them because they broke all the rules of the world in a delightful and mischievous and freeing way. I guess that we loved them for the same reason that folks love Lewis Carol and Gilbert and Sullivan. Here was a world of topsy turvy. And, like a lot of things that make us laugh, we sensed something holy in it.
When I first started reading the Bible one of the many things that drew me to it was that this too was a place where I found holy reversal. Jesus is constantly telling stories and creating miracles in which the first are last and the last first, in which those who mourn are blessed, in which there is a divine undoing of what was done before.
A particularly profound example of this reversal is to be found in Jesus’ death and resurrection. In Jesus’ passion, Peter denies Jesus three times, even though he has promised to follow Jesus to no matter what. It is one of the most painful moments in scripture. So what happens in the resurrection when Jesus and Peter meet on the beach? Jesus gives Peter three opportunities to say I love you.
In the resurrection, the film gets played backwards.
Jesus is rooted in what we call the Old Testament. For Jesus and his friends, the Old Testament as we more or less know it is the Bible in its entirety. The Old Testament is the well that waters Jesus’ theological imagination.
And so I guess it ought to be no surprise that holy reversal is found there too.
Today we hear from the Book of Jeremiah. It’s a book that we don’t read from too often in church. Jeremiah these days gets less time in the pulpit than his fellow prophet, Isaiah. And maybe that is because Jeremiah is one of the most difficult books to read in all of scripture. Scholars reckon that it was written over as long as a 200-year period. It contains this jumble of ideas – at times you have the sense that the pages that make up this book were accidentally knocked off of a table and hastily reassembled in random order by a guilty student. And many of Jeremiah’s ideas concern loss, self-doubt, and grief.
Jeremiah centers around Israel’s defeat by the Babylonian Empire, by this time in which Jerusalem was sieged and destroyed and an enormous number of its citizens were sent into exile in Babylon. It is a time of massive society-wide trauma.
And in the passage we hear today, God promises reversal. In words that perhaps inspired the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ promise that those who mourn are blessed for they shall be comforted, God says:
With weeping they shall come,
and with consolations I will lead them back
The weeping is reversed.
To those who are exiled, God says:
See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,
and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth
The exile is reversed.
And one more:
They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion,
and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord
The fear that, maybe, the people have been abandoned by God is reversed.
Here’s the thing about reversal, about the film being played backwards. It’s something different than the things in the film never happening. There is still the work in the factory, still the pool and the diving board, still the bear on the skis. There is still the exile, the suffering, the grief. God doesn’t make these things go away.
What God does it to transform them.
Remember the story of the bereft disciples meeting Jesus on the road to Emmaus. The two friends are gutted by what they have just witnessed in Jerusalem. And Jesus doesn’t make anything that they have seen or endured vanish. What he does is something harder and more complicated and more beautiful. He explains what they have endured – he takes them back through it, here’s that reversal – in a way that makes it new, that invites them into resurrection.
If you’ve ever heard me speak at a funeral, you have probably heard me say that the more I live the less time that I have for the notion of closure – closure being this strange modern idea that we can just seal grief away in a box or in a closet. It doesn’t work. It never works. And so we listen to talk of closure and feel confused and maybe even guilty that our own grief has not been sealed up, that it is still with us day after day and year after year.
We feel this way because closure is a lie. It was never possible. Our griefs don’t go away like that. And God has never promised that our griefs will go away like that. What God has promised is that God will be with us in our grief and that God will, in the fullness of time, transform our grief into resurrection. The grief, the presence of absence, remains. And something new and holy abides there with it.
How much grief and loss and loneliness and disappointment have we endured this past year? If 2020 were a movie it would be a kind of awful one, one that get one star out of five, one that would get destroyed on Rotten Tomatoes.
And so as it ends, we say, Please.
Please, we all say to Jesus, please play this film backwards! After this year we need your holy reversal.
Thankfully, this is the sort of request to which the Son of God always says yes. The old projector is sparking into life once more. And something new is beginning.
The Samaritan woman can see someone at the well as she approaches…a man, she realizes, as she gets closer. The text doesn’t say, but given the time of day it’s not unlikely that they would have been the only two people at the well. Most would’ve already done their water fetching in the early, cooler hours of the day. Why is she there? Based on what we “learn” about her life later in the passage – that she has had multiple husbands – she may be a scorned woman on the margins of society. It’s not necessary to extrapolate from this that she would have been seen as a loose woman or even a prostitute, because in first century Palestine a woman couldn’t initiate divorce, so her five former husbands must either divorced her or died, leaving her possibly with no stability or support in a deeply patriarchal society. And here sits another man, and not just any man, a Jew. Why is she there?
Jesus can see someone approaching the well as he sits, resting his aching dusty feet. It’s a woman, he realizes, as she gets closer. He knows he’s in Samaria so the fact that she’s a Samaritan woman doesn’t surprise him the way his Jewishness surprises her. We know why Jesus is at the well, because the text does say. He’s tired and thirsty, and he’s alone because his disciples have gone to find food. But why is he at this well? In the two verses that come before today’s reading, John tells us that, “[Jesus] left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had go through Samaria.” Judea, in the southern kingdom, inhabited historically by Jews, with the capital city and center of worship in Jerusalem. Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel, where worship centered on Mt. Gerizim. And Galilee, up here. So of course Jesus had to go through Samaria to get there. And yet, the animosity between Jews and Samaritans in this time was so deep, so imbedded – for centuries’ worth of reasons that can be summarized as, “They worship God wrong” – that most Jews would say, “I’m going to Galilee but of course I have to go around Samaria, over the Jordan, through the Decapolis and back over the Jordan into Galilee finally. You know how it is.” But Jesus, a Jew, had to go through Samaria. So why is he really there?
Why are they there, together?
They are there for a conversation.
Last week’s Gospel reading was also about a conversation, between Jesus and Nicodemus, and when we have back-to-back stories with a similar setup – a one-on-one conversation between Jesus and another person – there’s an opportunity to ask what we can learn, not just from today’s story but from comparing it to last week’s. There are two things in today’s story that I want to highlight.
First, the questions. Nicodemus opened his conversation with Jesus with a statement. The Samaritan woman opens with a very cut-to-the-chase question: how are you talking to me? And the questions continue, from the minor – how do you plan to get water without a bucket? – to the major – should we worship in Jerusalem (remember, where the Jews worshipped) or Mt. Gerizim (where the Samaritans thought worship should be centered)? And finally to the most incredulous question of all, the one she asks not of Jesus but of her fellow villagers – “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” She is curious and persistent; she wants to know. In addition to the contrast with Nicodemus’s statements, there’s a contrast with the disciples who, when they return with food, are, reasonably, shocked to see him speaking with a Samaritan woman but who keep their mouths shut, who don’t ask the question that John tells us is running through their heads – “Why are you talking to her?” Imagine what they might have learned from Jesus about crossing boundaries, about the inclusivity of the good news, had they asked. But their lack of curiosity kept them from knowing more about Jesus and more about God in this moment.
The second distinction in this conversation is their vulnerability. Jesus is naturally vulnerable – he needs water, something the woman can get for him. As a woman alone with a man, the Samaritan woman is culturally vulnerable. In order to make his point about living water, Jesus needs her questions; he’s vulnerable to how she interacts with him. And, as her eyes are opened to the living water Jesus offers, she shows her vulnerability in how deeply she needs it, saying, “give me this water.” As Jeanne told us last week, Nicodemus is also in a vulnerable position coming to Jesus. He’s well-respected, in a position of influence among the Jews, and Jesus is a radical. But rather than embrace this vulnerability, he diminishes it by coming to Jesus under cover of darkness. This is such human behavior, it’s so relatable. Feeling vulnerable, we hide in order not to be exposed, not to be truly known.
And yet, when the moment of greatest vulnerability comes – when Jesus tells the woman that he knows about her husbands – she doesn’t flee, she doesn’t accuse Jesus of being wrong, she doesn’t defend herself. She has been exposed, and yet because Jesus too has been vulnerable, and because she has practiced vulnerability already in this conversation and had it rewarded with more conversation, she gets the gift of knowing and being known.
She is known to Jesus. He knows about her husbands, yes, and about her current living situation, yes. And at the risk of being flip or even sacrilegious, Jesus knowing that is sort of like a “cool Jesus trick.” But it’s how he responds to knowing this about her that really shows us and shows her who she truly is. She is known to Jesus as one deserving of this living water. I’m so glad last week when Jeanne read John 3:16 during her sermon that she didn’t stop there but kept going through John 3:17: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Jesus’ knowledge of this woman leads not to condemnation but to the offer of eternal life, living water, Godself.
And then Jesus is also known to the woman. There’s a Greek phrase ego eimi, and while it’s typically translated “I am” its meaning is something more like, “I always have been, am and always will be.” Capital I, capital A, capital M. John, as the Gospel writer most explicit about Jesus’ divinity, has Jesus speaking this phrase 24 times in his Gospel, considerably more than any other Gospel. And the very first time it appears in John is here when Jesus responds to her saying “I know that Messiah is coming,” by saying, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” This way of saying “that’s me,” (ego eimi) would be familiar from the Torah – for example, Moses encounter with God in the burning bush – and the writings of the prophets like Isaiah. Knowing now what she does, she leaves her water, the reason she came there in the first place, to share this knowledge.
As Jeanne mentioned last week, John loves a metaphor. And there may not be a better metaphor for the divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ – the knitting together of spiritual and earthly – than the simple act of communication. Sitting face to face with another human, over a well in the hot sun, in a hallway at work, in the dark, over dinner. Talking gives embodiment to our thoughts and feelings and instincts. It takes all of those things, none of which are tangible, all of which are spiritual, and turns them into words that another person can hear and share in and by which we are known. When the woman leaves the well, without her water jar, she has not had her physical thirst quenched. When the chapter ends, Jesus has not eaten the food the disciples brought back. Perhaps John is telling us that they have been filled by these encounters.
A final word that needs to be said in a sermon about how conversation makes us known to each other, in the midst of a global pandemic, which we now know requires us to stay apart, to keep our bodies away from each other. I’d like to suggest two things. When you do have occasion to safely talk with someone ask questions and be vulnerable. Are you feeling worried? Lonely? What are you missing, and how are you staying connected? Get to the good stuff; let deep conversation become as second-nature as singing happy birthday twice while washing your hands. Stay known to each other. And second, talk to God, pray, meditate, write, whatever that looks like for you. Become known to God and yourself as one deserving of living water.
Life begins in water.
Life begins in the dark.
This is true biologically. Our lives all begin in the water and darkness of our mother’s bodies. We are water creatures first, floating with eyes sealed shut as our bodies are knit together cell by cell, being prepared for the first sharp intake of breath that is our very first act on this earth.
Life begins in water.
Life begins in the dark.
This is true biblically. The first creation story in Genesis describes darkness over the face of the deep, with God’s first creative act the sharp exhale of breath which inspires and inspirits cosmos.
Today’s Gospel begins in darkness. We are not accustomed to encountering Jesus in the dark, especially in the Gospel of John in which, from the very first verses of the prologue, Jesus as the very essence of God is described as the light of life, a light which the darkness would not overcome.
But Nicodemus arrives in the dark. Certainly there may be practical reasons why Nicodemus seeks out Jesus in the night. He is a prominent and well-respected leader and perhaps he does not want to be associated with this radical teacher who just created chaos in the temple, upending tables and chasing people with whips.
Maybe, and I like this more generous reading of one scholar, Nicodemus is a dedicated and diligent scholar and teacher who took seriously the rule of his community to study always, even in the darkness of night as others slept
And because this is the Gospel of John and the author never met a metaphor he did not like, the darkness might symbolize Nicodemus’ lack of understanding, his confusion about who and what Jesus is.
But honestly, it is hard to understand why Nicodemus is there that night. And maybe he does not know himself. Something called Nicodemus out in that night, maybe an itch, a sense that this man, this strange shaggy man from Galilee has something to offer him, a well-respected teacher. Maybe Nicodemus had heard or seen firsthand this Jesus: seen a dove alight on his shoulder or was a wedding guest at Cana and had sipped an extraordinary vintage and marvelled at the story of where it had come from.
I suspect even Nicodemus did not know why he came. He opens the conversation with a statement not a question, and does not even seem to be speaking for himself. “We know you are a teacher who has come from God” he says. I wonder if he is afraid to ask what is really on his heart. Afraid to own his own wonderings.
Nicodemus does not ask a question but Jesus seems to sense his yearning. And there is a wildness and poetry to Jesus’ responses here, like he has been waiting to start sharing about how everyone is invited to experience the kingdom of heaven. “Amen” he says, “no one can see the kingdom of heaven without being born from above.”
But Nicodemus does not follow, he can not keep up. He responds to the poetry and metaphor of Jesus with literalness and fact. And I get it, I really do, I understand Nicodemus’ dogged earnestness is trying to translate Jesus’ words into something he can grasp….into the physical experience of literally being born again.
And also, to be honest, there is something so radical in Jesus’ language that it is no wonder Nicodemus does not follow….eventually he throws his hands up with the response “How can this be?” when Jesus continues to double down on this image of birth as an explanation of how we come to have life in the Kingdom and life in God.
Because what Jesus is doing, quite remarkably, is painting an explicitly feminine image of God. Jesus does not correct Nicodemus for responding with the language of birth and wombs, but only corrects the literalness with which he takes Jesus. The metaphor still stands….that being born into the kingdom means being born of water of water and spirit of God just as we are born of water and breath of a woman.
So no wonder Nicodemus did not get it. I mean, given his cultural, social, and religious location and gender…why would he? And, when he responds “How can this be?” perhaps it is out of confusion and frustration, or perhaps it is out of comprehension and disbelief. Perhaps, at some level, he gets what Jesus is saying but it is so radical, so beyond his imaginings, all he can say is “How can this be?”. How can it be that being born into the kingdom, that being born as a child of God, can be at all like being born of a woman?
And while certainly I am employing a 21st century feminist lens to this reading, there are echoes of Jesus’ language in the Hebrew scriptures with Wisdom personified as female in the Book of Proverbs and images of God giving birth to creation in the Books of Deuteronomy and Job. In Deuteronomy God rebukes Israel saying “You were unmindful of the Rock that begot you, and you forgot the God who gave you birth.”
This birth language not only points to a feminine image of God, but an earthy one as well. John’s Gospel is often labeled as the most ‘spiritual’ Gospel, and certainly the author of this Fourth Gospel often describes Jesus as if he is already half-way back up to heaven.
But I would suggest that what the Gospel writer might be trying to do here, what Jesus might be trying to do, is to knit together the heavenly and the earthly, the spirit and flesh, and suggest that it is in our very earthiness, in these very bodies, that we encounter God. Like we are born of through water and woman we are born through Spirit and God.
When our son Seth was born it seemed he never stopped crying. While he was born full-term, it always seemed to us that the harshness of this world was too much for him and he could have used a couple of extra months in the womb before he came into the world.
But in the world he was and he was none too happy about it. The best way I found to comfort him and end his tears and screams was to take him into the bathroom and turn out all the lights and turn the tap of the bathtub on full blast. Somehow the combination of darkness and the sound of water was familiar to him, reminded him of where he came from and there he found peace.
Maybe that is what Jesus was doing in today’s Gospel, trying to remind Nicodemus where he came from, from the womb of God and to get him to feel that in his heart and in his body, not just try to reason it out with his mind. Jesus is calling Nicodemus, calling all of us, to encounter God in the physicality of this world, of our bodies.
And maybe that is why God gave God’s only son, to paraphrase John 3:16, not so that Jesus could atone for our sins and guarantee a place for us in the afterlife but rather so that we could physically encounter God in flesh and bone and learn that what is Spirit and what is flesh is inextricably knit together.
I think Nicodemus learns something of this. We encounter him two more times in the Gospel of John. A few chapters from now Nicodemus, in the light of the day and in front of his fellow leaders, defends Jesus and calls for a fair trial for him, a trial he never has.
And finally we encounter Nicodemus in the most unexpected of places, the foot of the cross. He, along with Joseph of Arimathea, take Jesus’ body down from the cross. The Gospel tells us that Nicodemus brings 100 pounds of myrrh and aloes to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. I imagine them, together, washing Jesus’ body so tenderly with water
Life begins in water.
and then burying him in the darkness of the tomb.
Life begins in the dark.
This is the story of the man, the woman, the snake, and God.
God has set up this garden, this paradise. In it, there is everything a human being could need, everything that a human being could want. The weather is so pleasant and the conditions otherwise so favourable that it doesn’t even occur to anyone to wear clothes. And the food! If you want a carrot, just pull it out of the ground. If you want a smoothie, pluck a mango and turn on the geothermic-steam-powered blender. If you want a BLT, go to the bacon bush.
But God says: Do not do one thing. Everything but this one tree you may touch. This tree, you must leave alone.
But our heroes can’t do it, won’t do it. In what is officially a staple of folk tales and horror movies – don’t look in the room in the back of the house, don’t open the box, don’t read out loud from that alarming leather-bound book that you found in the cabin’s basement – the delay between God’s command and humanity’s breaking of that command is measured in minutes.
The serpent shows up and says: God doesn’t want you to touch that tree, to eat of it, because God knows how awesome it is. And God doesn’t want to share that awesomeness with you. Which is totally selfish of God.
To which the woman replies,
But God said that if we ate of that tree, we would die.
The serpent smiles in a serpent-like way. You aren’t going to die.
You’re just going to know things.
And so the woman eats. And she gives the fruit to the man and he eats.
Thanks to oil paintings, this is the moment in the scene when we maybe hear the crunch of apples. But actually, the text just says fruit tree. If you want to imagine the man and the woman peeling oranges or the juices of cherries running down their chins, you totally can.
They finish eating. They look at one another. And everything changes.
The serpent was telling the truth. But he wasn’t telling the whole truth or nothing but the truth. Our heroes do indeed know things now. And they don’t die, not this instant. But they do know about death and they know that it applies to them. And this knowing itself is a kind of death. And they know as well that they are naked. And so they sew themselves clothes out leaves.
This is the beginning of fashion. It is the beginning of shame.
What is the moral of this story?
Here are three possible morals.
One. This is a story about the origins of sin.
Maybe you know how this one goes. This is the moral that you will get if you are hearing this story while sitting on Saint Augustine’s knee. In Uncle Auggie’s telling, this is when sin shows up, even though that word appears nowhere in the text. Even more specifically, this is when original sin shows up.
Things were perfect. And then through our sin we ruined it. Or if you’re feeling misogynistic (and let’s tell the truth, the institutional church knows a thing or three about misogyny), things were perfect and then the woman ruined it. Either way, God leaves this wonderful tree, this dessert, in the middle of the garden. And like a kind of crappy, passive-aggressive parent setting a test-slash-trap, God leaves the room and says:
Don’t touch the dessert.
But they do touch the dessert.
And because we are reading this story paired up, thanks to the lectionary, with Paul talking about sin and with another story in which Satan tempts Jesus, we get point and counterpoint. Adam and Eve, the dessert eaters, are the problem: Jesus is the solution.
Now, lest we be too, too hard on Augustine, there probably is something to this reading. (Not the misogyny part but the sin being loose in creation and Jesus being the solution to that part.) This world is not as it ought to be. Most of us, maybe all of us, sense that. I was in a waiting room on Thursday morning and I glanced at a newspaper, the headline of which announced that there were children fleeing Syria who were freezing to death in refugee camps.
That kind of horror: it ought not to exist.
And maybe we need a story that explains how the selfishness and violence that makes that horror possible came into being. Augustine has an answer for us: the very first people broke things and their very first sin is still echoing through the world.
Whether or not we need that explanation, we assuredly need to know that Jesus is present in that refugee camp with those children. We assuredly need to know that Jesus is, indeed, the solution, that as Jesus’ hands and feet in this hurting world, we can change things. There is something unexpectedly and profoundly moving about that old icon in which Jesus, who has descended to the dead just like the creed says, is grabbing Adam and Eve by the wrists and pulling them, like two people on the verge of drowning, out of death and into life.
But let’s also acknowledge that this reading is a huge trip hazard for a whole lot of folks, that for many people this is the reading that makes Christianity incoherent. Why did God put this tree in the garden which, as the text tells us, the man and the woman desire? And what does it mean that once they eat they discover nakedness? Throw into the mix Augustine’s understanding of sin, and many people’s understanding of sin, which is to say that sin overlaps heavily with sex, and you can see how God and God’s church don’t come out of this story looking very good.
As the wonderful singer-songwriter Josh Ritter puts it:
Eve ate the apple because the apple was sweet
What kind of god would keep a girl from getting what she needs?
That’s a fair enough question. And if Augustine’s moral is right, it may be a question that proves the antitheists right when they say that we should shake off the handcuffs that are belief in God so that we can get on with enjoying our lives and enjoying our sexuality in particular.
Two. This is a story about God, about the one whom Jesus will one day call Father, acting like the most loving of parents.
There is probably nowhere in the Bible where God is more like a human being than God is at the beginning of Genesis. Later on in the Bible, God is a pillar of cloud, a burning bush, a whirlwind, a still small voice, a sound from the sky that might be words and might be thunder. But at the beginning of Genesis, in one of the most beautiful images to be found anywhere in scripture, God walks through the garden in the cool of the day, just the way that you or I might. God is enjoying God’s creation, with all of its beauty and wonder.
And God, for reasons that make sense to God and may or may not make sense to us, God has allowed danger into creation, evil into creation. And into this world, God has brought children.
To bring children into the world is to have no fewer than two goals in tension with one another. The one is that you want your children to have a good and a complete life, full of love, meaningful challenge, friends, learning, and so on. We want, in other words, our children to know the world, know themselves, know God. The other goal, the one in tension with the first, is you don’t want your kids to get hurt, whether hurt means the bruising of their bodies or the bruising of their hearts.
And so we try to insulate our kids from hurt or, at a minimum, to delay as long as possible the time when hurt will come. We try to see if we can postpone the day of disillusionment or disappointment. That’s because we know that, when that day comes, something breaks. When the day comes, for instance, when a child understands that their parent cannot solve every problem there is, it is the end of a kind of beautiful innocence.
What if that is what God is doing when God says, Don’t touch that tree, the one that will tell you about death? What if God is saying to the man and the woman, I just want childhood, your childhood with its fleeting, fragile innocence, to go on a little longer?
Three. This is a story about the importance, the holiness even, of accepting boundaries and limitations.
Earlier, we talked about how the man and the woman desired the tree – or, in the strange, passive voice that the New Revised Standard Version gives us, that the tree was to be desired. But here’s the problem with reading stuff in translation. The very best translatuins give us, maybe, 85% of the sense of the original text. The English translation of this story doesn’t let us know that the Hebrew is full of puns, so that this story in origin has a whimsical, playful feel to it. And other nuance gets lost: the word that the NRSV renders as desire in this passage, nehmad, is precisely the same word that in the final of the ten commandments, it renders covet. As in:
You shall not covet your neighbour’s house. You shall not covet your neighbour’s spouse, nor their servants, nor their animals, nor anything that belongs to your neighbour.
You shall not nehmad these things.
The tree was nehmad.
So, if we are going to use the same translation here in Genesis as in the tenth commandment, the tree was coveted. Or, in less awkward English, maybe something like: The man and the woman coveted the tree.
God says to the human beings: Here is paradise. Here is abundance. Here is enough.
And then God adds: But if paradise is going to work, if you and everything else are going to thrive, you must be content with enough. You must not take too much. You must not cross the boundary into covetousness. You must not nehmad.
Suddenly, this is a story for our time. For you and me, right now. Because there is enough on this earth for everyone to live, for everyone to thrive. Be content with that, says God. Be happy with that. Because what there is not are the resources for everyone to have too much. Do not nehmad more than you need. Or you will bring death into this world.
But the snake, who these days goes by the name consumerism, smiles and says: God is just kidding. God knows how much fun it is to nehmad. And God doesn’t want you in on that fun. Go ahead and eat. And if you break the tree or something else in the process, never mind. You can always buy another one. It might even be covered by warranty.
And we have eaten. And we have brought death into this world by doing so. We are perilously near to breaking this earth and breaking ourselves. It is not too late to make a different choice. But it is dangerously close.
Three possibilities. A story about sin, a story about love, a story about healthy limitation. Probably a story about still other things. Assuredly a story about us. A story about how God has given us paradise and said, This one tree you must not touch or you will die. A story that offers us a choice between the advice of God and the advice of a snake. A story that asks you and me the question, whose advice will we take?