“In the Know”

Gen 2/Ps. 51

“In the Know”

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

I will admit to you that I enjoy celebrity gossip.

I’ll want to know when Lindsay Lohan gets out of jail. I’ll be curious to see pictures of any new haircut on Justin Bieber and I’ll be grateful for any information whatsoever about Jenifer Aniston!

Now I realize that, as a clergyman, I am also bound to keep up with the latest commentaries on the New Testament, and I should know what theologians today are saying about the doctrine of the Trinity.

But the fact that so many Americans follow the lives of the rich and famous is in itself interesting. I wonder whether it is because such gossip gives us useful information about what goes on in the human heart.

Such insights are also found in religion. So, for example, when we Christians read of the sad decline of some popular actors, we may be reminded of the story of Adam and Eve–what our faith refers to as the story of “the Fall.”

In the Bible text, which was our First Lesson today, Adam and Eve are allowed to eat the fruit of almost every tree in the Garden of Eden. They have everything that they need for a peaceful, contented existence; they literally live in paradise. The one restriction on their activities is eating the fruit from what the Lord calls, “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”

Unfortunately, the first man and woman want to have it all. Their temptation is too great: they decide to eat the forbidden fruit, and their transgression causes them to be ejected from the Garden of Eden and ultimately to die.

Now, this ancient story has a lot of nuances, and it is not easy to interpret. After all, human beings are admirable when they make the right moral choices and these choices depend on our knowing good from evil. The nobility of human beings derives from our capacity to tell right from wrong.

There is, of course, knowledge of good and evil that we would prefer not to have – even we gossip lovers can do without knowing about some rich and famous people who have sordid private lives.

So, too, knowledge that seems to be only about neutral facts can have moral consequences. Sometimes, we might wish that the fund of scientific knowledge were smaller than it is. Humanity would have been better off if we had not discovered how to make nuclear weapons. Medical research that has led to advances in keeping people alive has also led to ethical problems about whether certain lives should be prolonged.

Indeed, as the English philosopher, Francis Bacon said, “Knowledge is power.” And power can be used for either good or evil purposes.

So we may have some sympathy for Adam and Eve. Granted, they shouldn’t have disobeyed God’s command—that was their sin, and clearly they would have been happier in paradise than they were in the fallen world—where one of their sons would eventually kill his brother. The spiritual lesson that disobeying the divine leads to a fall is as valid today as it was in the early days of humanity.

Still, it’s a strange and complicated story. When the first couple grabbed that apple, human beings became moral beings. And as the rest of the Bible demonstrates, that was a fortunate result.

For once people gained knowledge of good and evil, they could follow God as mature spiritual persons. The story of the Temptation of Christ in the Wilderness suggests that the whole ministry of Jesus was a response to the fall. The moral strength he displayed when he was tempted by Satan would have been impossible if Christ had had no knowledge of the difference between good and evil.

So while the Bible says that Adam and Eve made a cosmic mistake by disobeying God—still, now that we live in a fallen world, we are free to be human. We are free to make moral choices. And that’s a good thing.

Of course, as the Biblical story of the Fall also reminds us, moral responsibility is accompanied by difficult ethical puzzles. In a fallen world, there can be unintended consequences; the sharing of knowledge that we find on the Internet, for example, can undermine community. A person’s past college amusements can be recorded on a web site and then revealed years later by a business rival who wants to make the person appear frivolous.

At the same time, though, such sharing of personal knowledge can strengthen human bonds. The religious historian Martin Marty has proposed the value of what he calls, “holy gossip.”

Holy gossip involves sharing private information in a church community in such a way that the community is strengthened.

Of course, church gossip can also be unholy – even within the Body of Christ jealous people can spread misleading rumors about someone who is highly successful.

But in a healthy parish, gossip can be strengthening. Suppose that a woman in the church is undergoing medical tests and struggling with the prospect of unfortunate results.

The woman may not want that information to get around her office. But if word quietly spreads in her church, and folks then say an encouraging word to her at the coffee hour, and offer their prayers for her when she goes to the hospital—well, that kind of gossip is holy. Knowledge of the woman’s problem is whispered from church member to church member, and the fellowship rallies around the woman in her hour of need.

I would argue that gossip can also be holy on those occasions when it seems more like the Hollywood variety. For instance, a man comes to church without his wife, who is normally alongside him in the pew.

Fellow parishioners naturally wonder where the wife is—but they are careful not to ask. Instead, as time goes by, the man’s friends and acquaintances invite him out for coffee. They tell others in the church to put up with the man’s gloomy remarks.

So instead of implicitly condemning the man for whatever mistakes he might have made in his marriage, the holy gossip supports him as it builds up the community of the church. So, too, knowledge of good and evil and our compassionate response to that knowledge nourishes the body of Christ in a fallen world.

And now unto God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.

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