Genesis 3:1-8: Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” 2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; 3 but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” 4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; 5 for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God,[a] knowing good and evil.” 6 So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. 7 Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.
8 They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. 9 But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?”
In the beginning, when God made everything, God looked at creation and said, “I want to make people in my image.” So God took one of the clouds from the sky and it was light and lovely but God said “No, I don’t want people to be made of cloud, so that they’re always floating around, conforming to the available volume” and God returned the cloud to the sky. Then God took the peak of the tallest mountain and it was impressive and majestic, but God said, “No, I don’t want people to be made of rock, so hard and unyielding,” and God returned the peak to the top of the mountain. But then God reached into the ground and took some of the dirt, and God said “I will make people out of the dirt and to the dirt they will return, so that they’ll know their true selves will always be found by going deeper into creation, not in rising higher up.” And God molded the dirt into a body and breathed into the dirt and the dirt came to life and God said, these are people, and they are so good.
From the start, the writers of the Scriptures want us to reckon with two truths: first, our very existence and life comes from the source of God’s breath, we are divine and God loves us so much; and second, at the very same time, we can be real dirtbags.
This is the paradox of living on earth: we are loved, we can be so good to each other; and we can be so cruel, so callous to our neighbors. The earth is full of glory, the majesty of the mountains and the expanse of the seas, the murmurations of birds swaying like smoke over the waters; but just as large and seemingly immovable are health insurance companies, imperial wars, kids who have something called “school lunch debt,” numerous structures that we seem to need and that don’t care at all about us. Do you ever find yourself wondering, “What is this place? What’s going on here?”
We’re taught to resolve this paradox, to smooth it out, to say that everything is either entirely good or entirely bad. We’re tempted to optimism, to say that everything is good. The world is good and you are good and any problem is really a problem with your mindset—with a positive outlook and a can-do attitude you can do anything. Don’t focus on the difficulties, don’t fixate on the problems, don’t make a mountain of a mole hill. Don’t talk about what’s wrong, don’t be angry or judgmental; God isn’t, because God is love and grace and grace and love are always happy and sweet. The moral arc of the universe is long and it gets to justice eventually, so just go along, make subtle, incremental, whispering hairsbreadth changes that don’t upset anyone and everything will be OK because everything is already OK.
Or, go the other way, everything is bad, nothing is OK, you are terrible. The world is going to hell in a hand-basket and that’s what it deserves. The world is just so worldly and there’s really nothing you can do about it, so please, leave it to its own devices. You need to get your life raft, your little ark, ready to last the forty days and forty nights of rain. Forget the world, forget your neighbors—they’ve brought whatever ails them on themselves—and forget your own body and its desires which certainly can’t be trusted. Fly away. You must become a new, doubtless very different, Saint Benedict, cloistering yourself with your holy friends, using Christian as an adjective rather than a verb, setting yourself apart in your music and your movies and your chicken sandwiches because there are no friends for us in the world. This is the temptation to despair.
But optimism and despair are not the only options for understanding where we are, even if it sometimes feels that way. Instead, the writers of the Scriptures teach us that we live in a devastated creation, at once good and wounded. That’s our second statement of faith: We believe that creation is good, and while sin and death have reorganized creation into a devastated world, that goodness abides. We don’t shy away from sin or despair of creation’s goodness. We act as if the world could be better because it was made to be but we don’t pretend things are OK when they’re not: this is the way of hope.
In Genesis 3, a serpent comes and tempts us to eat from a tree that God has told us to leave alone. The serpent says that if we eat from the tree, we will be like God, and we want to feel like gods, we want to organize our own space, we want to have control over our futures. So the story goes, we took the fruit from the tree, exploited creation as a technology for our own profit and from there, things go poorly.
But even in that moment, the Scriptures remind us of the truth that the tree is good, its fruit is good. Prior to sin and death and pain and tears, the deep truth of the earth is that this is all a gift. Creation, nature, the earth, the universe, the birds of the sky, the fish of the sea, the dog on your couch, the body that you are, all of it is fundamentally good because God says it is.
God didn’t have to make anything; God creates entirely out of the love and delight of doing so. God created so that creatures could flourish, so that in Creation we would all have enough of whatever it is we need to live and know we are loved. And God made creation to grow and develop—to be fruitful and multiply—so that in creation’s…creativity, we could find new arrangements and patterns that remind us there is always more of God to know and love. Goodness is not only possible, it’s real and it’s here and it can grow and flower in new ways.
Many of us have learned otherwise, instead learning that to be a Christian is to hate the world, to hate matter, to hate our own bodies, seeking instead after a purity that is ashamed of our own flesh and it’s desires. But this kind of purity, purity from desire, is not what the Scriptures teach. The book of the Bible that has for centuries been considered the most spiritual, having been called the very language of heaven and the Holy of Holies in Scripture’s temple, is the Song of Songs, a marriage poem where Lover and Beloved delight in each other’s flesh, seeing instances of creation’s goodness and God’s grace mirrored in their bodies and their desires. In the Bible, the most spiritual is also deeply material, heaven irradiates earth, God’s grace is embodied in the graces we meet in the flesh.
So even in the moment where the Scriptures describe everything going wrong, the stuff of creation is still named as good. The problem is in how that stuff is used. One early teacher wrote that because God is good, anything God makes is good; and if that’s the case, then evil isn’t it’s own thing, but is instead a twisting, a rearranging of good things so that they are used for death rather than life.
So we grasp, we insist on taking creation and calling it “mine,” we turn it into property. But a world of grasping quickly becomes organized around competition, and when that’s the case the strong always have the advantage. So in the Bible it’s not long before Cain is killing Abel and saying “I am not my brother’s keeper.” And it’s not much longer before a guy named Nimrod builds the first Empire, uniting all the peoples of the earth and trying to conquer the gods, too. The ruling class accumulates and carves the world up into networks of trade, while the people who work the land have to move from place to place to survive and sometimes are the ones traded as slaves. Grasping, competition, and war become a whole way of life that starts to feel larger than the sum of its parts. Creation’s abundance gets channeled so that a few control the means to make life and the many struggle along.
While the writers of the Scriptures assert creation’s goodness, they also want us to be honest about the kind of world we live in, how these arrangements that redirect creation into these class structures make it harder to love God and each other. The people who wrote the Bible imagined themselves living in a world populated by Powers and Principalities that bend and twist Creation into patterns that take life rather than giving it. Those Powers aren’t God but they are, ya know, powerful—we could easily mistake them for God. We might not think of these Powers as spiritual, but there are forces, institutions, that we depend on. We might not talk about Zeus or Moloch or Jupiter, but we all know that there is something called the Economy, something called Insurance, something called Debt, these features of our world that are really just the sum of lots of people acting together but then they also take on a life of their own so that they shape our actions rather than just being shaped by them.
And these Powers are rather indifferent to our individual situations. Do you ever hear people talking about the Economy, and they’re like “The Dow set new records this week, the Economy is booming!” And you’re like, for who, because your whole salary’s going to childcare but you can’t quit your job because you need the health insurance? And so you find yourself in this bind where the very things you need to live grind your life away. The Powers rearrange creation’s abundance, and that puts most of us under tremendous pressure that shapes who we are and how we relate to each other. It makes us anxious and cranky and depressed. It makes us want to control the things we can control, which puts pressure on our relationships with other people; we feel like we have to protect what we do have from our neighbors when things are so precarious for me. We learn to be distrustful and suspicious because there is not enough for everyone, so I’ve got to get my slice of the pie. We even become alienated from ourselves, because the Powers teach us that whatever we are it is not a good creation, but Human Resources in need of development. This is God’s good creation reorganized into a devastated world, and that devastation goes all the way up and all the way down.
At Jubilee, when we talk about “the world,” we’re not talking about secular stuff as opposed to church stuff, or material stuff instead of spiritual stuff; the world is creation reorganized into competition and strife. And this whole network of devastation, from the global to the psychological, is what we mean by “sin,” this is what we try to be honest about each time we gather when we confess.
So creation is always indelibly good, but the good stuff of creation has been twisted into sinful arrangements, and we have to be able to tell both of those truths; the end of optimism is indifference (because things are already fine) and the end of despair is fascism (because should be policed). But, if creation never stops being good, then our task as the church is the work of hope, where we start rearranging the world so that it better reflects the creation that is already under our feet. This is the way God chooses when God meets us in Jesus’ flesh, intervening in creation as a creature, not saving us by drawing us away from creation, but instead by joining us in solidarity in our devastation and drawing us deeper into creation’s goodness.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus puts our calling this way: he says we are called to be salt and light. I was always taught that this meant Christians were supposed to be distinct from the world, but that’s not really how salt or light work. Salt preserves and accentuates what is already there. You add salt to a meal and it brings out the flavors that are already present in the ingredients, and if you use it to preserve, it draws out the water that corrupting agents need to survive—it accentuates what’s there and wards of corruption. The same is true of light, which allows us to see objects and colors that are already there by casting out the shadows. That’s our calling as a church, to find instances of creation’s goodness, whether that’s in our own ministries or with others who are organizing in our community, and to join in and accentuate that goodness wherever we find it, to name and cast out the darkness wherever it haunts us. We’re called to tell the truth about the darkness wherever we find it and make evident the good things that are already there. We are called to remember that we are dirt and we are breath and find hope in the fact that both are always true. Amen.