Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Sermon for September 25, 2005

Original Sin
Romans 3:20-26; Genesis 3:1-21

I couldn’t make this up if I tried. My mother calls her tax accountant. The accountant is excited. She says to my mother, “Oh I’m glad you called. Your sister is sitting right in front of me. So is your brother and your mother.” Strange coincidences happen all the time right. It’s really not that unusual. They all use the same accountant. Here’s what threw my mother off. My mother’s mother -- my grandmother -- has been dead for almost three years. We always called my grandmother Mom. I had to ask – how did Mom get to the accountant’s office? And of all the places for the spirit of the dead to visit, why would she choose the accountant’s office? It all started a few months ago when my uncle talked taxes with the accountant Mid sentence, she suddenly freezes, and then she starts to zone off and stare into the distance, and then her eyes roll back in her head. My uncle thinks she’s having a seizure, and when he goes to help, she snaps out of it and says that Mom, my dead grandmother, is in the room with them. She starts giving messages from beyond the grave. Visits from dead relatives have become a regular feature of tax appointments. My grandmother and grandfather have talked through the accountant, as well as other relatives. Apparently, they have good tax and business advice for the whole family. I think it’s a little weird. When I go to the accountant, I plan to talk about . . . well, taxes. I think this accountant is overstepping her professional boundaries a bit. It says even more about my family that they are willing to stay with this woman. The spiritual visitations freak them out. However, I think they like it at the same time. Plus, the woman is a wonder of an accountant.

I wonder if the accountant’s behavior is a blessing or a curse. Is her behavior helpful, or is it sinful? In fact, I can ask that about a lot of people’s behavior, including my own. In my relationships with people, do I bless them with my words and actions, or am I liability? How about our relationship with God. Were we created to be blessings, or do we carry the mark of original sin in us. Is it written into our genetic code that we will always say the wrong things, make the wrong decisions, and alienate ourselves from each other all before we even get out of bed in the morning?

The traditional way of thinking about sin comes from our understanding of what happened in the Garden of Eden. The snake tempts the woman, the woman tempts the man, the man and the woman eat the fruit, gain knowledge of good and evil, and the man, the woman and the snake are cursed by God. Not only that, their offspring is also cursed. Not only those, the consequences of their disobedience are passed on from generation to generation forever. This is the idea of original sin – what Calvin called hereditary depravity. Here’s our question for today: do we enter a torn and sinful world as blotches on existence, as sinful creatures, or do we enter the world as original blessings?

If I asked a group of kids what the first story in the Bible is, I bet many of them would say Adam and Eve. It’s not true. We learned last week, the Bible starts with the story of creation. God’s word does not begin with a story of temptation and failure. The Bible begins with blessing. Each day God creates something, and he calls it good. Listen to this poem by James Weldon Johnson:
And God stepped out of space,
And he looked around and said:
I’m lonely –
I’ll make me a world…
After the sun, the moon, the stars, the earth, the seas, the green living things, the creatures of the air and land, “God looked on His world/ With all its living things, /And God said: I’m lonely still…
Up from the bed of the river
God scooped the clay;
And by the bank of the river
He kneeled Him down;
And there the great God Almighty
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,
Who rounded the earth in the middle of His hand;
This Great God,…
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay…
Then … blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul.
And it was not just good; it was exceedingly good.
We are created with such great possibilities…. fragile, radiant beings. How is it that we grow our souls within a culture that scares and scars so many because they are infected by the sin of original sin.

Most of us have heard about original sin plenty of times. If you grew up Catholic, it was ingrained in your faith. In Catholic teaching, the evidence of original sin is losing control. Any passion is a loss of control. Lovemaking is seen as a loss of control. How many Catholic kids and adults had to sit through scary lectures about the evils of their bodies and how they were all one slip away from burning in the fire of hell? The Catholic church declared God has no passion. God never loses control, and never has to repent. Unlike us, God is unchangeable, even to the point where the Father did not suffer on the cross with his son, Jesus. It’s called antipatripassionism. The New England Puritans were not much better. Today, the word puritanical means sternly moral – close-minded fundamentalists. In truth, they were really no different than other Reformers who ran away from the decadent culture of the day. No matter our tradition, we all hear about original sin. But rarely do we hear about original blessing. Get out your Bible sometime and scrutinize the texts. The doctrine of original sin is not found in any writings of the Old Testament. It is certainly not in chapters 1-3 of Genesis. Look closely at what the basis of humanity is again. It’s not the curse, but the blessing. Original blessing is the basis of all basic human trust and faith.

What if we took this idea of original blessing seriously? How would it work out, how would if affect the ways in which we look at ourselves and at each other? If we begin with the blessing of God’s creative energy and understand ourselves as originally blessed, rather than originally cursed, how much better we may feel about ourselves.
· Instead of being suspicious about our bodies, we would welcome our bodies and we would be gentle, instead of combative.
· Humility would no longer mean despising of one’s self. The word humility and human come from the same root – hummus. It actually means dirt. Humility literally means to befriend one’s earthiness.
· Instead of trying to control everything, we would be more ready to experience and celebrate the passions of life.
· Instead of our focus on eternal life after death, we would understand eternal life as beginning now. The longer I am in the ministry the less I am concerned with life after death and the more I am concerned with life after birth.
· Instead of regarding humans as sinners we would regard ourselves as people who can chose to create or destroy.

There’s another part of Adam and Eve’s “Fall” in Genesis. Instead of being called “The Fall”, it should be called “The Slide” because in the 3rd Chapter of Genesis Adam and Eve sort of slide, or segue into their condition of irresponsibility and dishonesty. The “original sin” is not so much a rebellion but rather laziness, passing the buck, blaming the snake, and not owning up to responsibility (This is sort of like all of the finger pointing that’s going on during the response to Hurricane Katrina, but that’s another sermon). In other words, we are originally blessed, but for some reason we can’t handle it. We were supposed to be the co-pilots – co-creators with God -- but we decided to reach over and take the controls away from the captain. Here was our downfall; our slide into hubris, a condition called, well, . . . sin.

But, is it original or is it learned? Ask any teacher about the saintliness of their children and they will be glad to testify to their uncanny ability to fight, hit, steal and hoard, as well as to their ability to learn, charm, love, and share. But ask Kindergarten teachers about children who are entering schools now. More and more children entering our school systems are morally challenged, that is their moral compass is dysfunctional. We are finding, regardless of socio-economic level, children who seem to have no conscience. How they got this way is a complex environment of causes, but in some way, by influence or lack of influence, by omission or commission these children learned … nothing. And who teaches them … nothing. Well, I guess the adults do. But who taught us? Our parents. Who taught them? You get the idea. The spooky thing about all of this is that the sins of the parents seem to stretch out several generations long after the parents are dead.

It seems that in the past 10,000 years we all learned something rather well, and it is not a reflection of our original blessing. As Paul reminds us, “All sinned and have fallen short of the glory [blessing] of God.” That is, despite living with a positive attitude about our originally blessed selves, we will have times when our ugliness will show through much to our embarrassment.
· We still look at other people who are different than us with fear. We judge others. We protect ourselves from “them.” We talk about “those people” but fail to think about how we function in the system.
· Instead of celebrating and being gentle to our bodies we are hard on them, working them long hours, depriving them of sleep, putting all kids of foreign substances in them and otherwise wearing them out before their time.
· Instead of emphasizing the healing of the whole people of God, the whole earth, we want our own personal salvation, our own piece of the economic pie and we want it now, even if two-thirds of the world must suffer to support our selfish standard of living.
· Our desire to experience ecstasy and the joy of sexuality turns on itself and we use the blessing of sexuality to sell cars, and boats, and facial creams, and of course, Viagra. I watched an interview with Barabara Streisand the other night. She was talking about her sexual modesty and how embarrassed she gets when she sees Cialis commercials on TV. Cialis is a competitor with Viagara. During the commercial break, what commercial do you think the network ran? Cialis! I don’t agree with Babs on most things, but some of those commercials make me blush, too. As we regard ourselves as persons with the freedom of choice, we choose a number of good things but so often we chose those things which destroy rather than create.

So which is true? Are we originally blessed or originally cursed? Let me wind us down with a story. Fred Craddock, a teacher and preacher, was driving through Tennessee some years ago. He stopped at a restaurant for a meal, and he was intrigued as one man went from table to table greeting everyone. When the man came to Craddock and learned he was a minister, the man insisted on telling a story. He said that he had been born in the mountains not far from where they sat. His mother was not married when he was born. In that time and culture, the mother and her son were scorned. The boy grew up feeling the love of his mother, but also the contempt of the townsfolk. He was known around town as the bastard kid, or the son of the whore. At recess, his classmates would exclude him, and he learned to keep to himself in order to avoid getting teased. At age 12 the boy took up going to church on his own. A new minister had come to the church near his house. The boy would slip into the back row just as the services began, and leave before it was over so that no one would ask him, “What’s a boy like you doing here.”

However, one Sunday he so wrapped up in the service that he forgot to slip out. Before he could quietly exit, he felt the big hand of the minister on his shoulder, light and gentle. The preacher looked at him and asked, “Who are you, son? Whose boy are you?” The boy’s heart sank, and perhaps his pain showed on his face. But then the preacher answered, “Wait a minute. I know who you are. The family resemblance is unmistakable. You are a child of God.” With those words, he patted him on the back and added, “That’s quite an inheritance. Go, and claim it” The boy was now an old man greeting people in a restaurant. He told Craddock, “That one statement literally changed my whole life.” The man’s name was Ben Hooper and he elected the governor of Tennessee -- twice.

Do we hurt others, live by our compromises, and forget some of the important things
Do we take what God created as good, and manipulate it for our own gain?
Of course we do.
Do we suffer the consequences of the other’s bad decisions.
Yes, we do.
Are we the bearers of hereditary depravity, cursed and rejected by God? All I can say is this, I know who we are. The family resemblance is unmistakable. We are the children of God. You bear the image of God. Our legacy, and our potential, is exceedingly good.

Works Consulted

“Original Sin or Original Blessing” by The Rev. Rod Frohman
“Original Sin” at Wikipedia.
“Puritans” at Wikepedia.

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