The Rev. Canon Kelly Brown Douglas
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh God, for you are our strength and our salvation. Amen.
Good morning, Cathedral family. On this first Sunday of our Lenten season, we encounter an all too familiar story from the book of Genesis. This story in a garden with a serpent, temptation, and the eating of forbidden fruit, has carried the burden of numerous interpretations, reinterpretations, and misinterpretations for countless generations. In fact, this Genesis story has been used and misused to sow divisions within the family of God, as it has been misread and misappropriated to sustain sins of sexism, racism, heterosexism, homophobia, and all manner of harm against God’s creation. This is a story that in so many ways just won’t go away.
But that’s really not a bad thing. For it is a story that indeed speaks to us across time. For it is a story reflective of a people, a people trying to figure out their place, if not their purpose, as sacred creatures of God’s and the world that God has created for them to live in. In an essence, it is a story of an ancient Israelite people trying to discern who it is God has called them to be in the world. It is for this reason that this story compels, if not demands our attention. It begs us on this day to read it anew, with fresh eyes if we can, so to try to hear what it may be saying to us, in this our time, as a people seeking to discern God’s call to us. And so, let us look for a while to see how, in fact, this story told by a people for many ages past is speaking to us today, in this our age. What are we to learn about who it is God has called us to be in this our world, in this our time?
The key to answering this question, I believe, is found in two verses beyond where our first reading ends this morning. For if we read just a little further in verses eight and nine of chapter three, we will find that it says this. It says, “Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God, as God was walking in the garden in the cool of the day. And they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, ‘Where are you?’” Where are you, God asked. The drama of the story all comes down to this often-overlooked question that God puts to Adam, “Where are you?” Now in asking this question, God is not asking Adam to make known where amongst the trees he has fled in order to hide his nakedness. This is not a hide and seek game and hence, a hide and seek question. No, this question is about much more than that. Indeed, it is in the garden drama itself that reveals the very significance and meaning of the question. And so, let us go back to recapture anew this drama as it is before us this morning.
It begins by telling us that the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and to keep it. Now, as an aside, the Hebrew word here that has been translated as “man” is “Adam,” meaning “earth creature.” At this point, there is no gender attached. That is, this earth creature has not been identified as male or female, and indeed the point is not about gender at all. Rather it is to show the close relationship that human creatures have to the earth itself, for the Hebrew word for earth is “Adamah.” So from “Adamah” comes “Adam.” What a wonderful poetic play on words to show the interconnectedness of divine creation, a running theme throughout this drama.
So back to the unfolding drama in our question of what precisely it is that God is asking when God says, “Where are you?” The first clue comes in the commission, if you will, that God gives to the earth creature. Again, we are told that God puts Adam in the garden to till it and to keep it. In assigning the human creature to till and keep the garden, God has called human beings to care for and to look after the world that God has placed us in. Essentially, God’s human creation has been given the responsibility to partner with God, in caring for that which God has created. In this, my friends, is essentially what faith is all about. For faith is about nothing less than our “yes.” Our “yes” to God’s invitation to partner with God in doing the work that is required, so that our very world reflects the image of its divine creator.
And so, in as much as we are a people of faith, tilling and keeping the garden of God’s world as God has created us to do, then a laissez-faire, laid back attitude toward the world is simply not an option for us. Being faithful to our very divine creation means that no matter how messy, how frustrating, and how disheartening the world may be, we cannot withdraw from it or passively exist in it. Rather we are to take an active role in this our world. Silence, indifference, and apathy are not options. For they are unfaithful to who God has created us to be, tillers and keepers of God’s world. This is why Martin Luther King, Jr. admonished faith communities in his day for, as he put it, “remaining silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.” Bottom line, we cannot hide from our responsibility as God’s human creations. And so, it is that God’s question, “Where are you?” is a question about faithfulness. “Where are you?” God asked Adam. Are you being faithful to who God has created you to be? A tiller and keeper of the garden that is God’s world?
Now the story doesn’t end here, for the drama continues to unfold, providing us with two defining aspects of what it means to be faithful to our divine creation. What does it mean to till and to keep? The answer to this, again, takes us to a part of the drama that is not included in our morning reading. For a few verses before we enter the story, we are told that God planted many trees in the garden. But at the center of the garden, as if to show their significance in this unfolding drama, are the Tree of Life and the Tree with Knowledge of Good and Evil. Also, the only two trees named. Now as we know, the human creature is not to eat from the Tree with Knowledge of Good and Evil, which means that the human creature is permitted to eat from any of the other trees, most notably from the Tree of Life. And herein lies the first aspect of what it means to be faithful to our very creation. For it is about tilling the ground for the Tree of Life, which represents nothing less than the life-giving breath of God.
You will recall that in this Genesis story we are told that when God made the human creature from the dust of the earth, God breathed into the creature’s nostrils the very breath of life. For us to till the ground that is the Tree of Life, is for us to respect, foster, and protect the sacred breadth of life that is all of ours to breathe and thus to do nothing to creation, or to one another, that might profane or take that breath away. And I must say, there is nothing that takes my breath away more than seeing another human being, being humiliated, belittled, put down, degraded, or destroyed in any way. Let alone being subjected to the breathtaking reality, such as bigotry, inequality or poverty. To be faithful to our very divine creation is for us to till the ground that is the Tree of Life, and thus to use our sacred breadth in a life-giving way, which means protecting the sacred breadth of others, and thus utterly refusing to be consoled until all of God’s creatures can freely breathe. “Where are you?” God asked the hiding Adam. Where are you in tilling the ground for the tree that is the breath of life? To be faithful to our divine creation is indeed to partner with God in honoring our sacred breath, by respecting the sacred breath of others.
But there is another aspect of our created faithfulness that this Genesis story points to. As the drama unfolds, we find that God has created a helper for the earth creature, Adam. And so, we now have two human beings, a man and a woman in the garden. As the story goes on, we find the woman in dialogue with the serpent. A dialogue, which of course, culminates in both the man and woman eating fruit from the forbidden tree, the Tree with the Knowledge of Good and Evil. And it is in this dialogue that we find the final aspect of what it means to be faithful. For you will recall in the dialogue, the woman said this to the serpent. She said, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees and the garden, 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.’” It is interesting to note here, that God did not say that the humans were to not even touch the prohibited tree. In claiming such a thing, the woman is proffering a justification for breaking God’s prohibition, as she suggests that God’s demands are unreasonable in hints ripe for the breaking. Now with the woman’s proclamation, the serpent goes on to suggest that God was actually withholding the real truth from the human beings, by saying, “You will not die for God knows that when you eat of it, your eyes will be open. And you,” the serpent said, “will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Essentially, both the woman and the serpent have, at best, misrepresented divine truth by essentially obscuring it with their own desires and ambitions. Being faithful to our divine creation, of tilling and keeping the garden that is God’s world, means that we’re to keep, to steadfastly cling to, the very truth that is God’s.
We are living in confounding and complicated times. It is a time in which wrong sometimes looks like right. In which injustice masquerades as justice. And where expediency overwhelms morality. These are times where it is easy to distort the truth that is God’s soul, to satisfy the self-interested and short-sighted desires and ambitions that are ours. To keep the garden as God has commissioned human beings to do, is to keep the truth that is God’s. And by the way, that those humans in the garden did in fact, eat the fruit from the Tree of Good and Evil, suggests that we as humans cannot hide behind the innocence of not knowing right from wrong, divine truth from human falsehood. Put plainly, we know what is and what is not God’s truth. This is a truth that as Paul tells us, “is noble, is right, is pure, is lovely, is admirable, and is praiseworthy.” This is the divine truth that we are to dwell on and to keep, regardless of how expedient or popular it may be to not do so. It is for this reason that Jesus proclaimed the truth will set you free. For indeed to keep the truth that is God’s, is to be free from immoral human deceptions that masquerade as divine truth. And so, when God entered the garden and asked Adam, “Where are you?”, it was a question about truth. Where are you in being faithful to keeping the truth that is God’s?
And so there you have it. When all is said and done, God’s question to God’s human creation, “Where are you?” is a question about faithfulness. Faithfulness to who God has created each of us to be, tillers of the sacred breadth of life and keepers of divine truth.
And so back to the beginning. After looking with fresh eyes, how is it that the story of a garden drama, told by a people from many ages past, speaks to us today? It speaks to us as it is spoken across time. It compels us in this our time to hear the voice of God asking each and every one of us, “Where are you in tilling and keeping the garden that is God’s world?” Are we faithful to the task of tilling the tree that is the breadth of life and keeping the truth that is God’s? Each of us must hear this question as it is put to us and answer it for ourselves. For be clear, it is a personal question that God is asking. For God is not asking where are others, or where are they not. Rather, God is asking each of us, “Where are you? Where am I?”
Church, as I hear this question from God to me, especially on this weekend that marks the end of Black History Month, I think of those who were indeed faithful to their divine creation, as they tilled the breadth of life by refusing to be content until the breathtaking shackles of slavery were broken. And in so doing, they clung to the truth of God that no human being was created to be a slave. And I know, I know it is because of the faithful Harriet Tubmans of the world that have gone before me, I know that it is because of them that I am standing here today in this pulpit as an embodied testimony to their faithfulness.
And so how could I, how could I in this time that is mine, be any less faithful to whom God has created me to be? A tiller of life, a keeper of truth. And indeed, how can any of us who claim to follow the one who proclaimed, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” how could any of us be other than faithful tillers of the breadth of life that comes from God and the truth that is God’s.
And so, on this first Sunday of Lent, let us leave this Cathedral place, resolved during this Lenten season, that is ours in 2020, let us be resolved to hear and to wrestle with this question of God, to us. Where are you? Where are you? Where are you? Where are you? Amen.