Blame it on the Snake (September 28, 2014)

Rev. Rick MixonA sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA

Sunday, September 28, 2014


Texts: Genesis 3:1-13; Psalm 32; Philippians 2:1-13

I’m pretty sure all of us have had some experience with parenting. Either we’ve been a parent or we’ve been parented. That is surely one frame we can use to consider today’s text about Adam and Eve in the garden. I imagine it is a frame we have heard or used before. Doesn’t the story sound like more than one familiar family drama that focuses on trust and obedience, freedom and disruption? Dad says, “No,” and Junior asks, “Why?” Mom suggests caution and her little one says, “I can take care of myself.” How many times have you either used or heard the expression, “It’s for your own good”? And how many times have you disbelieved, felt the need to test, struggled to let yourself or your children spread wings and reach for freedom?

The grounding place in this story is still goodness. Remember we have spent the last three weeks considering the goodness of creation and the goodness of the generous Creator who not only has blessed us with all we need but has invited us to share in the care and nurture of that creation.

Today, continuing in Genesis, we consider the drama of desire. Desire – “a strong feeling of wanting to have something or wishing for something to happen; a sense of longing or hoping for a person, object, or outcome.” Among the many synonyms are “aspiring, craving, hunger, wanting, yearning, longing, wishing for, desperate for, coveting, sought after, must-have.” What do you know of desire? Do any of those terms ring a bell? Can you tell us anything about your own experience with desire?

In thinking of the drama of desire, I was reminded of two great American plays – Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms and Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. I’m sure there are many others but these two classics dramas name desire in their titles. In Desire Under the Elms, we see a family torn apart by desire for land and heritage, for power and control, for lust and love. The desire for what is forbidden and what is ultimately beyond the characters’ control leads to death of the infant heir and destruction of both individuals and the family.

In Streetcar, the characters and setting are different but the dramatic outlines are similar. Blanche’s desire for what is gone and cannot be recovered leads her through a slow descent into madness. Her own desire to forget through alcohol and sex are crucial to her undoing. The desire of the other characters, with differing motives, to tear away her veil of unreality and expose her to the harshness of their own world results in painful suffering and loss for each of them. Desire is a dangerous, even deadly, thing.

Today’s text tells the classic tale of an overreaching desire for what can neither be contained nor controlled. The result is a disaster of epic proportions. It foreshadows the trajectory of human existence. In some sense, it becomes the story of all our lives. “I’ve seen you eyeing that forbidden tree over there,” says the snake. “I know God said, ‘This restriction is for your own good,’ but aren’t you just a little curious? Surely one small bite won’t hurt you.” Such lovely temptation. It didn’t take a lot convincing for them to give into their desire.

Now before we go any further, it is important to acknowledge that desire is not all bad. Brian McLaren writes of our text, “…there’s nothing wrong with desire. The question is, whose desires are you imitating?” This is the crucial question that this story raises and addresses. We all develop and move through this world through imitation. We begin to learn through observation and mimicking from the very first moments of life. So which desires and whose desires we imitate are vital to the kind of human being we become. McLaren continues, “To be alive is to imitate God’s generous desires…to create, to bless, to help, to serve, to care for, to save, to enjoy. To make the opposite choice – to imitate one another’s desires and become one another’s rivals – is to choose the path of death.”

It is the age-old choice set before people of every age and time. Will we choose life or death? The choice is not always an easy one. In our limited human understanding we as often choose the fruit from the forbidden tree as we do that from the tree of the life. We think, if we just had a little more power or control or knowledge or money or land or armaments, we could eliminate all our anxiety and fear and live securely on this earth. The problem is it was never meant to be that way. In our reaching for that little bit more, we fall off the ladder or out of the tree or over the cliff or into constant conflict and war. The effects are disastrous and the consequences deadly.

In his commentary on Genesis, Walter Brueggemann tells us that “the God announced in this story is not a petty god who jealously guards holy secrets or who eagerly punishes the disobedient.” He argues that “This story is, rather, the anguished discernment that there is something about life which remains hidden and inscrutable and which will not be trampled on by human power or knowledge. There are secrets about the human heart and the human community which must be honored, bowed before, and not exposed. That is because the gift of life in the human heart and in the human community is a mystery retained by God for himself. It has not been put at the disposal of human ingenuity and human imagination.” Brueggemann asks, “So what is urged, if not knowledge? Ignorance? No, not ignorance but trust.”

We may not be quick to embrace such an affirmation. It may be challenging for us – especially with our relative privilege and affluence – to acknowledge that we are creatures, that we have inherent limits, that the exercise of our God-given freedom comes with limiting responsibilities or consequences. We have an insatiable curiosity, an unbridled desire to know. Can we then live with limits? Being such mature and sophisticated adults, can we embrace old-fashioned, child-like qualities like obedience and trust?

More than one commentator argues that this is not a text to explain the origins of sin, sex, evil or death. As you will have noted, no mention is made of “the Fall” or “Original Sin.” What this is is a story about obedience and trust. As we say here, with some regularity, God is “the More.” There is knowledge, wisdom and understanding in the Godhead that will always be “above our pay grade.” The snake challenges the humans to test that faith statement. “It won’t kill you. In fact, it might open your eyes enough that you’ll be just like God.” And you know, the snake was partly right. It didn’t kill them and it did open their eyes, but it didn’t make them gods. They were still human beings, only now their lives were distorted by what they could see and feel. Their eyes were opened alright, opened to shame and guilt. Their desire cost them the beauty and the innocence of Paradise. All they needed to do was trust and obey, but that desire to be little gods, or maybe just like God the Creator, was more than they could resist.

Brueggemann’s comment makes me think of the story I’ve told before from the television series, Joan of Arcadia. Remember, Joan is the teen-aged girl living in a mythical suburb in southern California. Out of the blue, God appears to her with tasks for her to do in her family, school and community. Each week God appears in a different form – a classmate, a small girl on the playground, cafeteria worker, homeless man on the street, trash collector, etc. and the task provides the drama for that week’s episode. Eventually Joan comes to the place where she asks God for a glimpse of the future. For just a moment she wants to see into the future, to see what God sees. After much dissuasion, God gives in and grants her desire. The revelatory scene takes place in a church sanctuary. In the moment of revealing, we see a kind of psychedelic light show on the small screen. When it is over, we find Joan lying on the floor, unconscious. Even the tiniest glimpse of what God sees and knows is more than a human can handle. There are mysteries far beyond our comprehension nor were we made to unravel them, regardless of the depth of our desire.

When we come to question the eternal goodness of the garden, when we turn our backs to Paradise, we find that the consequences are harsh and certain. But this God we serve is still, above all, gracious, tender-hearted, characterized by steadfast love. In spite of grasping desires, even with our turning away, and far beyond our insistence that we can do it ourselves, there is the waiting One, waiting for us to come to our senses, to see the wisdom of obedience and trust, to recognize that some limits really are for our own good, to come home to the garden. Whether or not our disobedience deserves the death penalty, we encounter a God who does not operate that way, whose love for creation and for us is also beyond our understanding. Indeed, in the fullness of time and need, that same creating, loving God took on human form to draw us close and show us the way back to the life intended for us from the beginning of the world. That life is still rooted in goodness and is always available to us.

Today’s Words of Preparation reiterate McLaren’s belief, “To be alive is to be mindful that we live in the drama of desire. We can imitate one another’s competitive desires, and so be driven to fear, rivalry, judging, conflict, and killing. Or we can imitate God’s generous desires…to create, bless, help, serve, care for, save, and enjoy. At this moment, let us turn toward God, not as rivals who want to play God, but as image bearers who want to imitate and reflect God.” Amen.

Am I My Brother’s Keeper? (October 5, 2014)

Rev. Rick MixonA sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Texts: Genesis 4:1-17; Psalm 51; James 4:1-8

The drama continues. Now that Adam and Eve are settled outside the garden, it is time for them to be fruitful and multiply. “Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, ‘I have produced a man with the help of the Lord.’ Next she bore his brother Abel.” Two boys, the first family to feature two sons, something that will become a recurring motif in the biblical literature. The naming rituals seem to support the patriarchal notion of preference for the first born. Walter Brueggemann writes, “The names are suggestive: ‘Cain’ derives from qanah, ‘to get, to create.’   The name is given as praise to God. Cain is celebrated and well thought of. As first-born, he embodies future possibility. Abel’s name is ‘vapor, nothingness,’ without the possibility of life. In the text, Abel is dismissed while Cain is an embodiment of vitality” (Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Genesis, p. 56).

In fact, Abel appears only briefly in this tale and is gone. Cain is the character that challenges us to consider once more what it means to be human, to be made in the image and likeness of God. Abel, indeed, vanishes and we are left to deal with the Cain in each us.

When we read this story in Bible study, I think all of us had a first impulse to ask the question I’m sure many have asked before us, “Why in the world does God favor Abel’s sacrifice over Cain’s?” Is there something missing from the text or from our understanding of the Ancient Near East that would explain the preference?

Perhaps it says something about an ancient feud between farmers and herdsman. Harold Kushner writes of scholars who have argued this. “The nomadic shepherds thought that the farmers were wicked people for trying to claim some of God’s earth as their private domain, and then violating Mother Earth with their sharp iron plows and tools instead of waiting for it to yield its bounty as shepherds did” (Harold Kushner, “Cain and Abel: Is There Enough Love to Go Around?” in How Good Do We Have to Be? A New Understanding of Guilt and Forgiveness, p. 121).

In Bible study we wondered if there was something in blood versus grain that was more valuable in the ancient sacrificial system. There are others texts that seem to support this. So God would automatically favor Abel’s sacrifice to Cain’s because blood is more valuable than produce.

Is there a subtle challenge from the very beginning to the notion that the first son should be privileged over the second? More than once God seems to lift up a younger sibling to inherit the mantle of authority and move the story along. At least the younger son plays an important role in instructing us in how God expects us to live in this world.

However, nearly every commentator agrees that there is no real answer to this question nor is the text interested in addressing it. As frustrating as it may be for some of us, we are not privy to every aspect of the mind of God. God’s reasoning and motivation are above our pay grade. If it is any help, one can certainly argue that this ancient story is just that – a story, a myth, a parable that is not meant to explain everything as it attempts to explain something. At least we can accept that God’s seemingly arbitrary choice is necessary to the story.

One angle of address is to see in these old stories an evolution of our understanding of God. The ancients told tales that were useful in their time and circumstance for making sense of the world around them. Brian McLaren tells us that “For ancient people in oral cultures, a story was like a hypothesis. A good and helpful story, like a tested hypothesis, would be repeated and improved and enhanced from place to place and generation to generation…storytelling was, like the scientific method, a way of seeking truth, a way of grappling with profound questions, a way of passing on hard-won insights. As our ancestors deepened their understanding, their stories changed – just as our theories change” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking: A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation, and Activation,  p. 20).

So what is at stake in this story? As I mentioned earlier, it is the challenge of being fully human in the best since of the word, of learning to live into the image and likeness of God. Sibling rivalry is as old as siblings. Here is evidence in this story of the first siblings. If you want more, I refer you to Harold Kushner’s book, How Good Do We Have to Be? – especially the chapter on Cain and Abel.

It is also interesting to note that the Bible’s first mention of sin is in this story. Kushner argues that the sin found here is, in fact, original sin. He writes, “As I read the biblical narrative, the Original Sin is not disobedience nor is it lust. The Original Sin that affects virtually every one of us and leads to other, worse sins is the belief that there is not enough love to go around, and therefore when someone else is loved, he or she is stealing that love from us” (op. cit., p. 123).

Look at the situation this story addresses. There is nothing here to indicate that God does not love Cain. Think of our own stories. I’m sure each of us could tell a tale or two about a time when a parent or a teacher or a loved one made a fuss about a sibling or a fellow student or a child or friend and we felt left out. Your brother got a blue ribbon or your sister got straight A’s. Your child is demanding or attracting all your spouse’s attention. The job you really wanted went to someone else. Your best friend decided to hang out with another. I’m sure you can add to the list.

But it’s a big leap to go from disappointment to believing you are no longer loved or appreciated or valued. In this Cain comes across as vain and self-centered. He was very angry and downcast. “Why?” God asks. “Do you really think it’s all about you?” (Well, isn’t that a big piece of the problem? Surely he thinks that.) “Can’t you be happy for your brother? If you do well, will you not be accepted? Your day will come, my child.”

And then the ominous warning, “And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” For the first time, sin rears its ugly head. Sin is lurking. It desires to get you in its clutches. Beware if you do not let go of your self-absorption and animosity. They could destroy you.

This is such a powerful statement of our agency. There are choices we can make as we walk this earth. We can choose to give in to the wily tug of sin – all that separates us from our true selves, from our brothers and sister and, ultimately, from God – or we can choose to do well, to live into the love and compassion, responsibility and grace that God blew into the core of our being at creation.

Of course it’s not easy to fulfill our creation in the image and likeness of God. The pull of sin is powerful. We are constantly challenged by that sense that, if we don’t get just what we want, we are not loved, appreciated, accepted. Despite God’s clear warning, Cain gives into his anger and hurt feelings. His self-centered pouting grows dark and ugly, eventually overwhelming him. He lures his brother out to the field and kills him.

“Where is your brother, Cain?” Once again God comes to his creature with a crucial question and once gain the creature lies, trying to keep God in the dark. “How should I know? Am I my brother’s keeper?” “Well, yes, Cain. Yes you are. How could you not know that?” This is central to what it means to be human, to be made in the image and likeness of God – loving and caring for your brother and your sister, your friend and neighbor, your colleague and the stranger in the land. “That’s the way I made you. Relationship and community is what it’s all about, Cain.”

It’s not at all clear how much Cain understands by the end of the story. He’s knows he’s messed up but he is still focused on saving his own skin. “My punishment is greater than I can bear! Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.” Sadly, we never hear him say “I’m sorry.” He never really repents. He sees that he’s been convicted and he even entertains the thought that he might be guilty. But where is his remorse? Where are his tears for the loss of his brother? It is painful to observe that he doesn’t fully comprehend what it will mean to live the rest of his life without his brother. As someone who has lost his brother, I have to say that Cain’s callousness is incomprehensible to me. The pain is palpable and does not recede easily.

Perhaps that is why God does not exact the expected judgment. No life for a life here. Again, as with his parents, God foregoes the death penalty. Love rules the day. There is enough love to go around, Cain, even for you who has murdered his own brother. However, this is no sappy, sentimental love. By the time he has spent his days wandering the earth, perhaps he will have come to his senses and realized the enormity of his sin. In the end, he may have wished for a quick execution rather than a lifetime to reflect on what he had done. The irony of God’s loving forgiveness is that it gives Cain a lifetime to learn what was expected of him and to understand what he has lost.

As we come to God’s welcome table, let us remember what it means to be human, to be made in the image and likeness of God. Let us look to our capacity for caring about life beyond our own, to our ability to let go of our self-centeredness, to our responsibility for brothers and sisters and all creation. God has made us for communion, to live together in peace and harmony, justice and compassion, love and community with one another, with creation and with God. Today, as we celebrate World Communion Sunday with sisters and brothers around the globe, may we see that we are all in this together. Indeed we are brothers and sisters all in the family of God and, yes, each of us a keeper, companion, sibling, lover of every other. Challenging as it may be at times, that is the role which we have been given and the life to which we have been called. Am I my brother’s keeper?

Oh, yes I am, child of God, and so are you. Amen.