By Nichola Torbett
This sermon was preached Sunday, June 6, 2021–the first Sunday of Queer Liberation Month–at First Congregational Church of Oakland. The focus scripture is Genesis 3: 8-15. You can also watch a video of the sermon here.
The scripture you just heard about Adam, Eve, and the snake is an origin story, and like all stories we tell about ourselves, it has been crafted to make us look a certain way. But before we get into that, I’m hoping that, no matter how you have thought about this dusty old story in the past, you can hear it afresh this morning.
And this time, I hope you can feel the cool of the evening breeze and hear the way it stirs the leaves on the trees and wafts the seeds to the ground to foment more life. I hope you can smell the flowers that have grown from the processed food of the worms and hear the buzz of the drowsy bees as they fertilize their last fruit of the night. This time I hope you notice the way the trees sigh out oxygen that the lions and lambs and hiding humans breath in, and the way the Egyptian plover cleans the teeth of the dozing crocodile, the way all of it works together. I hope you can feel the way the garden grows pregnant with presence as God moves in and that you can sense the yearning in God’s voice as God calls out “Where are you? Where are you?”
I used to read this story as a story about a God who curses the snake and exiles the humans from the garden. That’s how we’ve been taught to understand it, right?
But these days I see and hear and feel something else in it.
It was biblical scholar Wilda Gafney, in her book Womanist Midrash, who taught me that the question God is asking in this passage—“Where are you?”—in Hebrew is simply the word for “where.” Imagine for a moment this plaintive God moving around the garden crying out “Where? Where?” The yearning, the longing in it for you, God’s creation, created in the image of God. What kind of God is this? This doesn’t seem to me like a cursing God but like a God whose heart has been broken, or is about to be, and who is crying out for us, their beloveds.
When I was in junior high, I had a t-shirt with a big apple on it. The apple had a bite out of it, and alongside were the words, “Eve was framed.” I believed it then and I believe it now. But these days, I also believe that God was framed.
Let’s look at what happens here. God comes to the garden seeking the companionship of their creations, but they notice that, while everything else is humming along, the human beings are missing. Finally, after God calls and calls, the humans step out from behind a tree, clutching some fig leaves and looking like the dog who ate the Tupperware while you were out.
“Uh oh. What have they done?” thinks God.
As if intuiting the question, Adam speaks up: “We were ashamed to come out because we were naked.”
“Naked?!” God laughs. “Do you think I don’t know what you look like? Have you forgotten that I am the one who formed you out of the mud, then split you in half and made you into two perfect beings? Oh. Oooooh. You ate from that tree of the knowledge of good and evil, didn’t you? That one I told you….”
And, faced with a direct question about what he had done, Adam did what we tend to do in these situations. He blamed someone else: “The woman made me do it.”
And Eve, for her part, did the same: “Not my fault. The snake made me do it.”
Isn’t that just the way it is when we do something that we regret and shame comes up? We look for someone to blame, and then they blame someone else, and before you know it, someone is forced to crawl on the ground eating dust for all time.
The woman, the snake, and finally, God, take the blame in Genesis 3, which goes on to claim that God cursed the snake and the woman and exiled both Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. That’s what the story says, on the face of it, but something about it doesn’t ring true for me. It doesn’t jive with the gentle, yearning God who comes to the garden seeking our companionship, the God who I experience in the back yard in the early mornings as I drink my coffee. I don’t buy it. I think God’s been framed.
This is certainly not the only time we humans have looked around, noticed that we’ve broken the world, and blamed God. Many Christians attribute Jesus’ death on the cross to God’s plan, and I want to say clearly: God didn’t do that. Systems created by human beings to benefit the rich and powerful, systems supported by popular participation, with special aiding and abetting by religious people, killed Jesus. Likewise, God did not will the premature death of our aunties and grandmas and grandpas to COVID. A failed healthcare system, a bungled political response, the poaching of animals from remote forests—in other words, human decisions and actions—did that. And no, God didn’t need another angel when the police killed George Floyd or Breonna Taylor or anyone else.
God’s been framed. Over and over again. And it’s likely to continue like this unless we can somehow read stories like this one in a new way.
How do we do that?
I want to talk about shame. I mean, I don’t want to talk about shame. I don’t even want to think about it. Who does? Shame is almost impossible to endure, and most of us will do almost anything to avoid feeling it. Shame is not about what we have done—that’s guilt, and it can be remedied by making amends. Shame is about who we are in our essence, the belief that there is something irredeemably wrong with us. The problem for Adam and Eve in this story is not what they did—eat something that they weren’t supposed to—but who they suddenly believe they are in their nakedness, and there is no remedy for that except to hide and obfuscate. It’s unbearable to be seen when we hate who we are. That’s shame. Staci Haines has likened shame to a trampoline. We come into contact with it—we touch in—and it immediately bounces us up and away from, in her words, “underlying, debilitating feelings of abandonment, despair, hopelessness, helplessness, and imminent death.” Yikes. That’s a cocktail I can pass up, thank you very much.
Adam and Eve, in this story, are bouncing up and off the shame trampoline.
The thing is, it bounces them right out of the garden. In other words, their shame tears them out of the interdependent, peaceable, mutually loving web of creation. That’s the exile that this story is written to explain. And the fault is not God’s. It’s human shame and the defensive temptation to blame someone else in order to get the feeling off us. We hate ourselves, and we immediately start making someone else the problem, or we hide, or we try to dress ourselves up somehow.
I want to be clear: I’m not saying it is entirely the fault of the first humans. Shame doesn’t come from nowhere. It was not present at the founding of the world. Shame, again according to Staci Haines, comes from trauma, from what we do to each other and have done to each other’s people throughout history. The story that we read in Genesis 3 wasn’t actually written at the founding of the world—sorry, creationists. Scholars believe this account was pulled together at a time of great communal trauma, trauma that was layered on a whole history of prior trauma. It was written at the time of the Babylonian exile, when many of the Israelites had been uprooted from their sacred land and taken captive into Babylon. It is hard for us even to imagine the pain of this for a land-oriented people (or the pain of the people who have been uprooted from their sacred lands to provide land and labor for the US enterprise, for that matter).
But the Babylonian exile—that’s when this story took its final form, and the story bears the marks of imperially inflicted trauma. The snake, for example, who gets such a bad rap here, was associated with gods and goddesses in the ancient empires that had traumatized the people in the past—Egypt, Canaan, Assyria. We need not have anything against snakes; it’s empire we have to watch out for, and the way we internalize empire’s violence as shame. Trauma makes us think that there is something wrong with us by blaming us for being targeted. That’s shame.
And shame breaks relationship. We pull away from one another, from God and all the love that otherwise is available to us, and then we cast the blame on one another. I think about how many times I have separated myself out from community out of fear, trauma, and shame. I pull back, don’t talk to people, hide in the bathroom, whatever, and then I blame other people for excluding me. And I know I’m not alone. We exile ourselves from the garden.
This story in Genesis describes something theologians call “the fall.” We are living in the fall. To say that we are living in the fall is to say, as Pastor Lynice Pinkard has been saying lately, that we are living in a time of decimated relationships, of blame and separation. We are living amidst a torn and tattered web of interdependence in which so much what we love hangs dangling and dying.
What do we do with this shame?
I think first of all we need to catch ourselves when we get tempted to assign blame.
I’ve shared with many of you about my morning meditation and prayer practice. I sit in the backyard with my coffee and listen for God. And since I’ve started working with this passage, I listen for God to call out “Where? Where?” as God moves through the bushes and trees, and I allow myself to reply: “Here! Here! Here I am. And this is how I am feeling today.”
And as part of that, and this is key, I ask myself, in the presence of God: “Who am I blaming today, and for what, and what is really going on?”
In the world we live in, ravaged by trauma, blame is suspect. Whoever we decide the problem is, there may be no such thing as sole responsibility. I’m not sure it exists anymore. We are in all of this together, and we share responsibility for what is happening—not equally—power differences are real—but most of us have a part in most of what is happening, whether we have eaten the apple, or encouraged someone else to eat it, or stood idly by as others did. So what is my part? What is it that I don’t want to look at?
Now hear me! I am not saying we are responsible for the things done to us when we were children, or when we were in a situation of powerlessness vis-a-vis someone who harmed us. I am not to blame for my childhood experiences, but I do share responsibility for how I continue to project that harm onto my present-day relationships and how I continue to act out the trauma today.
I am also not saying we don’t need accountability or that no one is responsible for what they’ve done. I’m actually saying the opposite: that EVERYONE is responsible for what they’ve done or been part of or turned a blind eye to. Yes, we need accountability! But in order even to know what accountability is, we need to sink deeply into a meditation on the intertwining causes and conditions amidst which we are living. I’m saying we need to take accountability at least as often as we demand it. I need to take accountability as least as often as I demand it.
So, what would it take for you to step out of the shadows and come into the presence of the One who loves you beyond reason? Can you share with that One how you are really doing? And who are you blaming, and for what, and what is really going on? What is your part?
Now, let’s face it: No one really wants to think about any of this. Why not? Because it touches into shame, and shame is a trampoline.
Bounce: It’s someone else’s fault. Bounce: Everyone else was doing it, too. Bounce: They never did like me. Bounce: no one understands me. Bounce bounce bounce.
Friends, I think it’s time to bend our knees. Because here’s the wonderful and terrible news. On the other side of shame is so much sweetness! If we can bear to sink down through the shame trampoline, we land in grace. Unconditional acceptance, gratitude, and awe. Wonder, passion, joy and love—the kind of love that you can’t deserve or earn but that just is. All of that is waiting for us in the garden. We never were exiled. We ran away.
We have to pass through the shame in order to get back to the garden. Otherwise, we will keep blaming each other, cursing and being cursed, exiling and being exiled, tearing away from the interdependent web of relationship that can never actually be avoided.
The origin story in Genesis was scripted to explain how belonging got broken. How our relationships to one another have gone so sour. Like all the stories we tell about ourselves, this one was crafted to make us look a certain way—namely, not at fault. And so women, and animals, and God have been blamed. God’s been framed, and along with God, all those who have less systemic power and thus make easy targets.
But today we read this story anew. Today we take in the love and longing of our Creator to be in our presence. I hope you hear God calling for you, missing you, longing for you. I hope you sense how God much adores you in your nakedness, just can’t get enough of you, just as you are, no matter what you have done or left undone. I hope you know that it will be okay if you step out of the shadows. All of creation is waiting to welcome you home.
Nichola Torbett is a spiritual seeker, recovering addict, gospel preacher, nonviolent direct action trainer, and regular contributor to the podcast The Word Is Resistance, available on SoundCloud. She walks dogs for a living and engages in the liberation struggle to stay alive.