Freedom Song

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

A recent poll in England revealed that more than half the school children there don’t know the story of Adam and Eve.

Now that’s bad news to New Yorker cartoonists. They see lots of comic elements in that story.

For example, a cartoon published in 1993 shows a naked middle-aged man with glasses who has just opened the door of his closet. He sees that the only thing in his closet is a single leaf, hanging on a coat hanger. The caption to the cartoon reads, “Simpler Times.”

As we heard in today’s First Lesson, Adam and Eve sewed together fig leaves to clothe themselves. Today, someone who is ignorant of the original story can’t get the joke!

But while the cartoonists will miss it, Christians may be glad that people don’t know about Adam and Eve. For we may feel that the story is often interpreted in a way that makes God look like a heartless, arbitrary judge.

According to the text, the first man and woman ever created are living in the Garden of Eden. God has arranged for their time in the Garden to go on forever. They will enjoy free food; they will be pure and innocent; and they will never die.

There is only one restriction on their actions in Paradise: God has ordered them not to eat the fruit that grows on “the tree of knowledge of good and evil.” God says specifically to the man: “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.”

But there is a serpent in the garden. Later tradition identifies this serpent as Satan or the Devil. The serpent tells the woman that if she eats the forbidden fruit, she won’t in fact die. On the contrary: her knowledge of good and evil will make her divine.

Sadly, the woman trusts the serpent instead of God. She eats the fruit and gives some to the man, too. The text says that the eyes of the couple were “opened,” and they saw they were naked.

But the story continues after the portion of Genesis that we heard this morning. The Bible says that because the couple disobeyed God, they were turned out of the Garden of Eden. Once they left Paradise, they were subject to the laws of the world as we know them, and so they became mortal.

Now this punishment strikes us as unjust; the whole scenario seems like a set-up! Wouldn’t God know that the man and woman would disobey him before he created them?

Granted the first humans were free; they could have chosen to follow God’s will. Yet wouldn’t it be likely that, sooner or later, they would be tempted to indulge themselves?

With the Devil on hand to encourage their temptation, God should have expected Adam and Eve to conclude that they just couldn’t live without a bite of that forbidden fruit! God must have known that the first couple would disobey him. Yet he still punished them. That punishment doesn’t seem fair.

And there are other ideas that Christians in the past have gotten from this story that most of us here wouldn’t accept. We don’t believe that nakedness is inherently sinful, or that sex always carries sin, or that sin is implanted in children when they are born.

But readers today recognize that the Genesis text isn’t a factual account of the beginning of the human race. It’s meant to be a story. That is why the first man is called “Adam”—which simply means man.

Yet we would be wrong to dismiss this text as irrelevant to modern life. It’s not a “mere story” for it conveys timeless truths about human beings.

Put us men and women in a situation where all our needs seem to be satisfied–and we will decide that we want something more! A good dinner isn’t enough – we have to have ice cream! If we can’t find that “more” honestly, we’ll cut corners to get it. We’ll grab what we want, even at the cost of friendships and self-respect.

However noble we are, we human beings are intrinsically selfish. We watch TV instead of calling a sick friend. Eventually, we choose to satisfy our desires even at the cost of the values we believe in.

As the theologian Reinhold Neibuhr observed, far from being fanciful theology, this picture of human beings accords with common sense. As Neibuhr said, “The doctrine of original sin is the only verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith.”

Human beings may think that they can hide the ways that they satisfy their selfish needs. In fact, though, anyone can see what we are doing. The sins that human beings commit aren’t even “original” sins! They’re the same old stuff.

Yet, if the story of Adam and Eve is still relevant, then so is Christianity. As I have often pointed out to my colleagues who work in the Church, if there were no original temptation to sin, we wouldn’t be in business.

If people didn’t misbehave, there would be no need for the Christian message. If the human journey were an endless vacation in Paradise, there would be no need to live a life of faith.

So we can turn the story around. Instead of seeing the text as a sad commentary on the human condition, we can see it as suggesting a way to freedom.

So, on this first Sunday in Lent, instead of regretting the lack of flowers on the altar and cookies at the coffee hour, we can approach this season with hope—maybe even with enthusiasm!

After all, as we heard in the second lesson, Christ’s time in the wilderness allowed him to put any doubts he might have had about his mission behind him. His discipline allowed him to face the future, free of anxieties that had pulled him back.

And in order to go forward as Christ did, here’s an idea for Lent. How about making a Freedom Chart?

On your chart, in one column, you could list ways in which you misuse the opportunities and talents God has given you. You could add items from your general confession: sins and offenses. Things you wish you hadn’t done. Things you wish you had done.

Then—since this exercise is supposed to be a positive step forward—draw up a second list of some ways you want to use your freedom for good. And maybe you’ll want to add a third list of ways you can make yourself happier. (There’s nothing about the doctrine of original sin that says we can’t try to be happy. Just because Adam and Eve’s story ends badly doesn’t mean we have to suffer the same fate!)

After all, Jesus has prepared the way for us. As the Prayer Book says, he was “tempted as we are, yet did not sin.” And, as the Prayer Book also says, serving God in Christ is “perfect freedom!” Amen.


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