DELIVERED AT REVOLUTION ANNAPOLIS, 23 JUNE 2019
A few weeks ago, I finished reading a book by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin titled The Heart of Everything That Is about the true story of the great Lakota chief Red Cloud and his defense against intrusion on tribal lands during the gold rushes of the 1850s and ‘60s.
The book was extraordinarily interesting, but one anecdote stood out as I was reading, and it kept coming to mind as I was preparing for the summer series we are starting today. In the anecdote, the chief Red Cloud visits Washington, D.C. in the year 1870 to make his case for tribal sovereignty over much of the Great Plains. During that visit, he meets with then-president Ulysses S. Grant for a state dinner, and at that dinner, he tells President Grant the story of the various Sioux tribes’ relationship with the Black Hills of South Dakota. He recounts a creation myth shared between the Plains tribes that begins at a place that is now a national park called Wind Cave. Wind Cave is the fourth largest cave system in the entire world, but quite unusually, it has only one entrance: a small, circular, and inconspicuous hole in a hillside.
Because the cave extends for hundreds of miles, and this hole is the only means of modulating the cave’s barometric pressure, as the pressure outside the cave changes, giant rushes of air move in and out of the cave so it can equalize. The effect is as if the cave is “breathing.” It’s pretty cool, really–you should visit!
But in any case, the Sioux creation myth says that the 7 tribes of the Sioux were born inside of the cave and tasked with waiting until the Great Spirit could finish preparing a world outside of the cave for them to live in. But, as we all know, waiting is the worst. So, finding the one entrance/exit of the cave, the people wait until the Great Spirit is at work and then they sneak out early. As a result, the Great Spirit is unable to finish its work, which is why–the Sioux believed–the Plains are so barren. Taking pity on the now-terrified humans, the Great Spirit scrambles for a plan and creates the bison or “buffalo,” sending great herds of them across the landscape and teaching the Sioux how they can survive in this half-finished world by using every part of this resource with great care. After telling this story, Red Cloud says to the President that the landscape is important to him because his “ancestor’s bones lie in the Black Hills.”
But Grant knows another story. He knows that the Lakota aren’t ancestrally from the Black Hills: their tribes migrated west less than 200 years earlier from the Ohio River Valley, waging war for the territory and only truly adapting to the harsh environment of the Great Plains when horses were introduced to the region. So he says to Red Cloud,
“Horse****! Your people have been there no more than a couple of generations. They come from Minnesota, and you were born in Nebraska. You took that land from the Crows. And do you know why you took that land from the Crows? Because you could. And do you know why we will take that land from you? Because we can.”
This anecdote comes to mind this morning because we are starting a series today on a topic that is both universal and surprisingly complicated: we are talking about stories. When we do this–particularly, when we talk about stories from the Bible–we often run into all kinds of trouble. One major source of trouble is the tension that I would guess every one of you has experienced before between the value of a story we tell and what we believe about its history. It can be very easy for us to assume as readers that this second concern is the only thing that matters: that the truth of a story is really a question of historical accuracy. But what I think this series–and that story about Red Cloud–can challenge us to think more deeply about is whether or not historical faithfulness is the only thing a story can be good for…and what we lose when we spend all of our energy fighting about what might be false instead of focusing in on what might be true.
Here’s what I mean: when Red Cloud tells President Grant that his ancestors’ bones are in the Black Hills, he is trying to communicate an important belief among his people, which is that the Black Hills are their spiritual center. Despite centuries of wandering, here they have found their real home. But, of course, what Red Cloud is saying, at least in the way he is saying it, can be understood as historically inaccurate.
So, here’s my big question: why does President Grant only respond to the story’s lack of “historicity”?
I think the answer is because it allows him to skip past Red Cloud’s bigger point about what makes a place a home in order to justify discrediting the entirety of his argument. Grant’s logic goes something like this: because it’s not where you’re from, it’s not a place you have any more of a right to than I do.
I worry that sometimes, when we talk about the stories from the Old Testament of the Bible, we make similar mistakes: by fixating on whether or not we believe 2 of every animal on the planet can fit on a single boat or whether or not a person can live for 3 days inside of a fish, we transform our conversations into arguments about what did or didn’t happen…instead of asking a bigger and (in my view) more fruitful question, which is why have we kept telling this story? It’s not that the questions about history aren’t important. It’s that I fear we sometimes fight over those questions because the deeper questions a story suggests are ones that make us far, far more uncomfortable…no matter which side of the history debate we are on! Like Grant, we use arguments about history or mythology to bat aside the point.
Over the course of this series, we will be looking at 8 different Old Testament stories that most of you have heard before, either through popular culture or in a church Sunday School class…and our goal is not to get into a debate about the history of these stories, it is to ask: why is this story important to know? I want to reassure you that we’re not (I repeat NOT) trying to suggest that whether or not the stories are “history” is an unimportant question. Of course it matters! But what we are trying to do is spend some time asking a few other questions that, I think, can live in our minds right there alongside the question about history…and which might prove to be even more practical and useful for us in our faith: those questions are
What does this story tell us about who God is?
What does it tell us about why things are the way they are?
What does it tell us about who we’re designed to be and how to live that way?
At the end of the day, I think those are the 3 questions behind all of the best stories we tell. And they are almost always the questions that make a story worth retelling, over and over again. The stories of the Old Testament of the Bible are–at the most conservative estimate–almost 3,000 years old! I want us to study them for what they can reveal to us about our God and our faith. I want to see more than their history.
This week, we are starting this series in a pretty logical place: the very beginning. Specifically, we are going to look at the story told in the second and third chapters of Genesis about an event called The Fall. There are perhaps no stories more important to any group of people than the kinds of stories we tell to help explain why the world is the way that it is. Even as children, two essential truths about the world are inescapable: 1) there is a “right” way for things to be and 2) things are not, generally speaking, that way. So, for all people, the stories of why things feel…broken…are essential to our understanding of the world.
In the story we have inherited as Christians from our Jewish ancestors, the story begins in a place called the Garden of Eden with the first two people God created: Adam and Eve. In the beginning, God made Adam and Eve and placed them in a garden where they had work to do and all of their needs were met. He cared for them, protected them, and even walked with them in the evenings each day. They had perfect relationships: with God, with one another, and with creation. And then, one day, a snake, which the Bible says was
Genesis 3:1-21 (excerpted in this and subsequent quotations)
“more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made […] said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
Now here, the snake is referring to one tree in particular: the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. This tree was placed in the middle of the garden, and Adam and Eve were instructed never to eat from it, or (God said) they would surely die. But the snake says to Eve,
“You will not certainly die […] For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he 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?”
He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”
And [God] said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”
The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”
Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”
The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”
After this, God curses the serpent, and then he passes additional consequences on to Adam and Eve. To Eve, he says that from now on, she will experience great pain in childbirth and be subject to oppression from her husband. To Adam, he says that the earth will no longer produce food for them with ease and plenty: instead, planting and harvesting will be hard and inconsistent. He says,
By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”
And then, finally and with the punishments handed out, the Bible says,
The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.
For the Jewish people–and for us, as Christians–this is the story of why the world is broken. Our lives are difficult–we experience pain; we work hard for little gain–because sin was ushered into the world through our own actions. This is the account that explains why creation seems to point towards goodness…but still somehow fall short of it. It’s because it–and we–are “fallen.”
But behind the history of this story, what else can we see about our other central questions: who God is, and who we are designed to be? What has made this story important to tell and re-tell for thousands and thousands of years?
Once upon a time, when I was a teacher at a Christian school, my students would ask me all the time why I believed what I believed. And the answer I would always give them is that the Bible is beyond human in its understanding of being human. In particular, I would talk about this story of the fall as an example of a moment when the stories of the Bible seem to know who we are so deeply and so critically that I simply can’t imagine any one person writing it down without God’s direct help. The story impresses me so much that I have a tattoo about it right here, on my left arm. Here is what I think we can learn about ourselves, our world, and our God from this story:
The root of all sin–the reason things are broken–isn’t disobedience..it’s rejection. More specifically, the rejection of a relationship with God.
When Adam and Eve lived in the Garden, they were in perfect relationship with God, walking with him every evening. He provided for them and even went one important step further: he allowed them to know him. That word (and that idea) are at the center of this story, I think: what does it mean to know? In the Garden of Eden before the Fall, knowledge was something that unfolded over time and through relationship: it was a word that referred to the fullness of understanding; to wholeness or (as we have talked about before) shalom.
But there is something strange, then, about having a tree of knowledge, isn’t there? What would it mean for there to be a tree? Why does God use a tree as a symbol for this?
My understanding of this story begins with that question about what a tree is: a tree is a living thing, composed of roots that dig deep into the ground to draw water, leaves that spread out to catch sunlight, and a trunk that helps move what is important in the water up to the leaves, and what is important in the leaves down to the roots. It’s an organism, whole and complete, and yet–even though it is a thing unto itself–even it only exists in relationship to its environment. If I take a tree and pull it out of the soil…it dies. If I plant a tree out of the sunlight…it dies. It exists–and grows, and flowers–when it is healthy and living and connected.
For me, a “tree” makes perfect sense as a symbol for relational knowledge: to know a tree would mean more than just being able to diagram it…it would mean understanding it as a thing tied to a whole system of other things.
And this makes what happens between the snake, Eve, and Adam incredibly interesting to me: what the snake tempts Eve to do isn’t to know this super-important tree, or even to consume the whole thing…but to do one simple, small, and completely insufficient thing: in order to have knowledge of all things…he tells her to just take a bite of one piece of fruit. It’s true, of course, that the seeds of an entire tree are contained in a single piece of fruit…but eating it is in no way the same as knowing it.
I know I’m off in the weeds right now, but stick with me. Here’s where I’m going with this: man, if I could boil down the mistakes I have made in my life to one single, symbolic explanation, I could never do any better than this: I sin…when I confuse taking a bite of something with having a full understanding of it. I treat people poorly when I see one small thing about their lives…and tell myself I know everything I need to know about them and who they are. When I see a person fly by me on the highway and give me the finger, I think to myself: oooohh, I know you. You are the worst. When I see someone with too fancy of a car doing it, I think: oooh, I REALLY know who YOU are. YOU are the worst. When I see someone in worn out clothes holding a cardboard sign on the side of the road, I know the score: you’re just looking to get high. You get the point: the root of my dismissal and mistreatment of other human beings is arrogance. It’s the belief I hold that because I know some of their story, I have knowledge of them. I take a bite of the fruit…and think I’m eating the whole tree.
For Adam and Eve, this is the point of what happens in the Garden: they live in routine relationship with the God of the universe. They are living knowledge, and not just knowledge of trees, but of good and evil, because it is God’s character that determines the difference between those two things! Things that are like God are good–that’s what the word means!
But instead of being satisfied with a living relationship, they chase a temptation to have the knowledge now, apart from the daily walks with their Creator. So, they eat a seed.
Why are things the way they are? Why do each and every one of us come into this life hungry for love and connection and then so often grow into people who bicker, fight, and distrust each other? Because there’s a temptation seeded deep inside of us–it’s okay with me if you think of it as the whisper of a snake–saying, you don’t need to LIVE in relationship in order to know things, you just need a few facts…and then you can pass judgment yourself! And we all listen to that snake. And we all pass judgment without having the full pictures of each other, or of our world, or of our God. We get content eating seeds.
The root of all sin–the reason things are broken–isn’t disobedience..it’s rejection. More specifically, the rejection of a relationship with God.
There’s a thread throughout all of Scripture that we should go ahead and introduce now, since we are here at the start: over and over again, the consequence of what the Bible calls “sin,” which is a word that simply means “to miss the mark,” isn’t some abstract punishment. It’s true that sometimes God is angry, but there are fewer stories of God inflicting suffering on people in the Bible than you might think. Instead, almost always, the consequence of sin…is getting what you want.
If, at the root of the story of the Fall, is a choice human beings make to choose independence and arrogance over a living relationship with God, the punishment God gives to them is truly telling. What happens to them? God lets them go. The intimacy of their relationship has been damaged, and so they can no longer live wholly in God’s presence in the Garden. Suffering is introduced into their daily lives, as well as unfairness and cruelty: again, these are logical consequences of people who confuse knowing something about one another for truly knowing one another.
And then, at the end of the story, I think we see one more important thing…one which, perhaps above every other detail, amazes me about it: the Bible says, then “the Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.” Another consequence of breaking their trust with God was a loss of trust with one another and even unto themselves. The Bible says that they realized they were “naked,” or exposed and vulnerable. And rather than abandoning them to those feelings, God makes clothes for them. He cares for them; he sends them out of the garden in some small way protected.
And to do that…the Lord God had to kill his own innocent Creation. The garments God makes are garments “of skin.” They are made from an animal.
To cover the guilt and shame of Adam and Eve’s sin, God sheds innocent blood and clothes them.
If you’re a Christian, or even a person here today familiar with the Christian story, this detail might be causing just a bit of tingling somewhere in the back of your mind. And no matter who you are or what you believe, I want to invite you to at least share my awe at the richness of this story: from the very beginning, God is telling the people he created and loves that he will pay the price to make things right again. The fullness of what that means won’t be clear for literally thousands of years. But between this moment and that one, when God’s own Son sheds innocent blood to cover the shame of God’s people, a thread is going to be developed in the stories shared by generations and generations of Adam and Eve’s descendants that the solution to the problems we make out of our own arrogance isn’t a one-time miracle or magic bullet but the knowledge of a relationship with God. According to the Jewish people, this is the arc humanity is living out:
- we rejected the fullness of a life with God
- as a consequence, we have gotten just what we thought we wanted: independence, and all the pain that comes with it
- but God has never stopped pursuing us, and inviting us back into the wholeness of living relationship.
As we close today, I know that this message hasn’t lent itself to a tidy set of action steps for your week. But I hope that’s okay. I hope that instead, you start this series with me by simply dwelling on or meditating on the wonder of a God who writes stories more rich than the stories we write on our own. Who, perhaps, calls us to storytelling because telling stories is, itself, an echo of who he is and who he has made us to be.
And maybe, as you think about this this week, spend some time thinking about your own story: what is the arc you are on? Have you walked roads of rejection–of God, of others–and felt the pull to relationship on the other side? Are you walking one of those roads now? How can we all repent–or ask forgiveness–for the times we confuse knowing something about someone for knowing enough about them?
And how can we let go of that desire for control and rest in our relationship with a God who not only leaves the door of relationship open for us, but clothes us while we wander away from it?
I’m excited about this series, my friends. I am eager to walk through it with you.