Toorak Uniting Church

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Don’t Blame it on the Snake

Genesis 3: 8 – 15 and Mark 3: 20 – 35
Pentecost 2
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
10 June 2012

There’s an interesting juxtaposition between the reading Alexandra read this morning from the book of Genesis about God seeking Adam and Eve in the Garden and Mark’s story about what those around Jesus thought of his mental state. These two readings are placed together here by those who put together the Revised Common Lectionary; that is the weekly readings that we mostly follow at TUC and are broadly followed in the reformed and protestant churches. But these readings are chosen arbitrarily. That is, a committee sat down and looked for theological connections between a set of New Testament readings and a set of Old Testament readings. So today, on Sunday June 10th 2012, following a three year cycle – these readings were used 3 years ago - we again make a connection with the myth of the fall from grace of our human ancestors and the accusation that Jesus of Nazareth is in cahoots with Beelzebub. Now it may not seem it, but that is a gigantic theological jump.

Life in the Garden of Eden
The first few chapters of Genesis have had a remarkable impact on our western culture. The people, Adam and Eve; the place, the Garden of Eden; the tree planted in the Garden - in fact there were two trees, the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil; and of course the snake, or serpent. These are all cultural artefacts that have shaped our view of the world and our own humanity. And of course this story places us in the world at the top of the food chain and in fact at the top of every chain in the world.

The story is a powerful retelling of the ancient human experience of being in the world. While today we may talk about us human beings as a part of the great web of life, the ancient mind saw us as the pinnacle and therefore we had dominion over everything. We know the problems that that has caused in our world. But we in the Judaeo-Christian traditions are not the only exploiters of this planet; other religions and philosophies have done their share of mayhem and destruction.

Nevertheless, there remains in this great narrative that we find in Genesis a deep awareness of the human predicament and some definite ways forward for humanity to move into a better and richer place.

The story that Alexandra read from Genesis Chapter 3 gives a very down-to-earth picture of our human beginnings. But the story tells us that something is amiss in this idyllic garden. What was to be a perfect environment not only for the human family, but for all life on earth, had been fractured by an act of disobedience. The main character in this story is not human at all, but a serpent, what we will come to know as a snake, that will slither and slide on the ground as punishment for its role in this drama.

God Comes Walking in the Evening
We know of course that the truth of this story does not lie in the fabric of its literal narrative, but in the theological understandings we draw from it. The ancient author of this narrative has the creator God walking through the garden in the cool of the evening. And God becomes aware that there are no people around. "Where are you," he calls. They are hiding because they, for the first time in their existence, were aware that they were naked and they were ashamed and afraid.

The man answered, "I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid." And the Lord said, "Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?"

The strange thing is that this act of eating the forbidden fruit is associated with their sense of being naked. If we take the story in a larger theological sense it seems that this act of disobedience made them feel vulnerable. They were exposed and their "souls", the centre of their being, were open and shown to the world. Yes, to be physically naked can make you feel vulnerable. Perhaps when the doctor says, "Take your clothes off and sit over there!" you don’t feel particularly powerful at that time. But we want to go deeper into this story.

It’s not my fault, the Snake made me do it!
I think this story has something to do with the experience of growing up and taking responsibility. The very nature of the world in which live means that we must all at some time or other experience the shadow side of life – the vulnerabilities - and we must also take responsibility for who we are and what we do.

Harvey Cox, the Harvard professor I mentioned in my update article, produced a book in the late 1960s entitled "On Not Leaving it up to the Snake," which I poached for the title of this sermon. His premise was that many interpreters of this story in Genesis had suggested that the "sin" committed by our first parents was the sin of pride. That is, they wanted to be like God and have all knowledge. Cox disagrees: if any sin is committed here, it is the sin of not taking responsibility for the actions in one's life.

And the Lord said, "Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from? " The man said, "The woman you put here with me, she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it." Then the Lord God said to the woman, "What have you done?" The woman said, "The serpent deceived me, and I ate."

"The woman you, God, put here, she gave me the fruit and so I ate it!" Oh, I see; it was the woman’s fault? No not really, it was actually God’s fault, because God dropped the woman in Adam’s lap. So Adam is absolved of responsibility. The woman on the other hand looks guilty. She is caught with the apple in her hand. She was the one who beguiled Adam into eating the forbidden fruit. But she is not going down for this crime. She looks around for blame and, seeing the snake, says, "The serpent deceived me and I ate." So the blame rests fairly and squarely with the tempter, the serpent, the snake. Adam blamed Eve, Eve blamed the snake and the snake didn’t have a leg to stand on…

Taking Responsibility
It is very clear that we are all interconnected with each other. There is in fact a great web of life that we are all gathered into. We are really not independent beings; we are interdependent. All of us are the product of the myriad of relationships and experiences that have shaped us throughout our lives into who we are today. There are good things and great people who have come into our lives and enriched and strengthened us in past years. But there are also bad and hurtful things and cruel and uncaring people who have crossed our life’s path. They have devalued who we are, been unkind and diminished us. But also beyond our personal lives, beyond the safety of the country in which we live, there are great evils and terrible cruelties in our world that defy easy and simple explanation. So we ask the question, who is to blame for this pain and suffering? Who caused this daily struggle with the difficult and dangerous?

I was a bit of a sook as a 10-year-old. One Saturday afternoon I was - for a reason I can’t remember - chastised by my mother. I was angry with her, so I went into my room and slammed the door (a very dangerous thing to do to my mother) and lay on the bed thinking to myself, "They are going to be very sorry if I die here on the bed!" A few minutes later my mother came into the room and said, "Your friend Robert is here, it’s time to get up and grow up!" They were strong words which have stayed with me.

I sometimes think that that is what we need in all our relationships, the courage to get up and grow up, to take responsibility for ourselves. Don’t blame it on the snake; don’t blame it on someone else. I am sure that there are many things that have happened to you and me that are the results of the wrong things others have done to us. Just as much as I know that there are things I have done to others that they hold me responsible for. But is just blaming others the solution? No, of course it is not.

Growing up can take a lifetime to do. It calls us to be resilient when we are pressed down; courageous when we fear others; hopeful when disappointment grabs us; and responsible for how we treat ourselves and others when we would rather find an excuse to blame someone else.

© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2012

Comments or suggestions on this page appreciated by email, Thanks.