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Sin Story, Sitcom, or Something More Important?

A sermon on Genesis 3: 8-15 and Mark 3: 20-35.

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Andy Bodemer on Unsplash.]

You may have noticed that I almost never use the word “sin” in my sermons.

I have several reasons for this reticence.

As a person whose faith has grown away from its roots in the culture of Evangelical Christianity, I am very aware of the social and theological baggage associated with the language of sin.

It is baggage crammed full of rules for purity and righteousness, with the added heaviness of guilt and shame filling up the corners.

And it is also baggage that has a matching carry-on shaped like a vindictive judge that God gets stuffed into with a finger-pointing luggage tag and a deliberately uncomfortable shoulder strap meant to punish us.

(I had a little fun with this metaphor, but it’s not actually funny. That baggage does real damage.)

I also avoid using the word “sin” because it is so alienating, both for those who have ever been hurt by the church and for those who might have never been exposed to it except through cultural messages and caricatures.

It’s just not worth the risk of using a term that could reopen past wounds or be the evidence to dissuade someone from trusting the church that talks about truly welcoming people.

And then, from a practical perspective, sin is just so often not the most precise or descriptive word available.

If I am talking about problems that cause harm in our lives, then I want to articulate that harm, not just cast moral blame that leaves people feeling dirty or helpless.

And if I’m describing the brokenness of our world then I want to make it clear what systemic forces or patterns of relationship or power imbalances are at the root of the problem, because that is what helps us to imagine a different possibility.

So… yeah. I don’t use the language of sin very often.

And, with all of those reservations, you might assume that I would be inclined to give today’s reading from Genesis a pass, since this story is widely acknowledged as introducing “sin” into the history of humanity.

But, actually, that claim about Genesis 3 is factually questionable.

For one thing, the story never uses the word sin.

“Sin” is a theological category that got imposed back on the story in the introduction of the idea of “The Fall” as a pivotal moment in the salvation story.

For another thing, Gensis 3 is not an account of history.

Scholars of the Hebrew scriptures will tell you that the first eleven chapters of Genesis are clearly written in the form of ancient near-eastern mythology.

The story of the Garden of Eden is a poetically framed, simplified narrative meant to convey deep truths about the human condition, through mythical characters.

AND, when we remove these problematic interpretive veils that are so often placed over this text… I love this story!

First off, it’s funny! Embarrassed nudity, bumbling excuses, and talking snakes… we were clearly meant to laugh, and maybe even cringe a bit.

Because it’s so relatable, right!

It’s the plotline of half the sitcoms ever made:  someone makes a stupid decision and then bungles the cover-up, drawing others into the mistake, exposing their own idiocy, and making everything worse in the process until they finally get found out.

And yes, it’s a little over-the-top and farcical, but that’s a way of diffusing the awkwardness of being honest about the human condition.

Because even though the story of Adam and Eve is not historical, it is deeply, deeply true.

It tells the truth about the kinds of mistakes that we make,

And about the way that shame drives to us to hide, and to try to deflect blame onto others,

And about the consequence of these patterns in broken relationships.

The point of the myth of the Garden is not about the cosmic origins of sin, it’s about self-understanding and insight, with a side-order of bumbling so that we can learn to laugh at ourselves instead of taking ourselves too seriously, since it’s the desperate desire to hide our flaws that causes most of the harm!

In the simplicity of the narrative, this story also tells us the truth about what we most need: connection, relationship, the trust in God and in others that is the heart of what gets broken in this story.

Paradise was paradise because of the connection:

The humans were perfect partners, sharing everything together.

And the animals weren’t either food or enemies, that’s why Eve trusts the serpent at his word.

And every evening, God would come to walk with them at the time of the evening breeze, sharing simple pleasure in the beauty of creation and the chance to be together.

Everything that goes wrong in the story ties back to broken trust and fractured relationships:

God comes to be with them, and the people hide:

They no longer trust the safety in God’s presence that they have always experienced.

And when God questions the man, he expresses fear and shame.

I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.”

If that is not the most poignant description I know of the human condition…

Fear of being seen in our naked truth… the inability to trust God (or others) to love who we really are… the instinct to hide, to convince ourselves that our safety depends on our own efforts of self-protection…

So, we put on masks, and hide our vulnerability, and end up even more anxious and lonely and desperate to defend ourselves.

Which means that, when we feel called out, or exposed, and just vulnerable in any way… we deflect and cast blame.

We say God made a mistake (in making the other humans who make mistakes)…

Or we say we were deceived by those will ill intent (which might be true, but avoids any responsibility for our own actions)…

And because there is no confession, no willingness to be honest about our mistakes and our fear and our shame, there is no opening for forgiveness.

There is just the natural consequence of broken relationship.

That’s what the curse is about in this story.

It’s not a retributive judgement from God… it’s a simple description of what comes next in the pattern of shame, fear, and hiding:

What naturally comes next is enmity, distrust, a repeating pattern of hurting each other because we are so desperate not to be vulnerable.

The one thing I don’t like about the story of Genesis 3 is that this is where it ends.

It brilliantly describes the problem, and it hints at the alternative, but it doesn’t give us a way to get there… it doesn’t show us how to restore relationship.

Fortunately, we get to hear more than one story today, and our gospel, in a way, tells the story of Genesis 3 in reverse.

In the excerpt from Mark 3 we start with a situation of shame, distrust, and blaming:

Jesus’s family is alarmed and defensive because people are saying nasty things about Jesus;

And the religious gatekeepers are accusing him of Satanic identity;

We see the exact pattern of enmity and attack that God describes as the curse in the Garden.

But Jesus breaks the cycle:

He refuses to absorb the fear and shame, or to strike back in self-defensive aggression.

Instead, he talks about the power of forgiveness.

And he explains that the only barrier to forgiveness is the refusal to trust God:

to see the healing hand of God’s Holy Spirit reaching out and to be so addicted to the pattern of distrust and self-defense that we call that very healing evil.

Because, again, it’s about natural consequences.

Distrust is the root of the problem… if we want to hold on to that we have chosen to hold on to the natural consequences… to the pattern of enmity and harm that results when we hide ourselves behind our walls of self-protection.

But we don’t have to.

The most fundamental truth about “sin,” about the pain at the heart of the human condition is broken relationship.

And Jesus promises that our relationship with God and with others does not have to stay broken.

The people who came to him, who suspended their distrust and shame, who reached out in their honest vulnerability…Jesus says about them, “Here are my mother and by brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

And that invitation is open to us too. We don’t have to be without sin… sins can be forgiven. We just need to come to Jesus willing to trust God’s healing.

Thanks be to God.


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