By Reverend Dr. Michael Cover
Sermon Series: The Questions Scripture Asks Us Question 1: “Where are you?” (Gen 3:9)
Well, friends, we made it! Through the high holy days of Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, and Trinity; through the month of May, and the first phase of reopening here at St. Paul’s; and through our first sermon series. We can all, I think, breath a well-earned sigh of relief.
We enter now the “season after Pentecost,” sometimes called “ordinary time”—or, as I knew it growing up, “the long green season.” Much like the glorious Wisconsin summer days that now open before us, with lengthening daylight, cool evenings, and greats gusts of wind undulating high among the treetops, so the Church, in this her long green season, looks forward to growth in her branches and the rustling of the Spirit in her foliage, as God walks in the Garden “in the cool of the day.” It is a time for deepening of our spiritual roots; for putting forth new shoots and strengthening old branches; for clearing and cleaning, for simplification and Sabbath, and for basking in the generative goodness of God.
And: it’s a time for another sermon series! Contrary to popular opinion, Episcopalians are not the only people that God trusts to “take the summers off,” and neither is the season after Pentecost a time to check out of our spiritual lives and skive off of Church. Rather, the long green season, when we maybe have one or two fewer things on our plates, gives us an opportunity tune in more deeply to the words of Scripture, to listen to what God is saying through them.
To help us hone our scriptural attention, I’ve chosen as a theme for this second sermon series: “The Questions that Scripture Asks.” Each week, we will focus on one or more of the questions that we hear in the lectionary. In doing this, I want to invite you to hear the questions that we read each week as posed especially to you and to the Church. Scripture, the Letter of James tells us, is like a mirror in which we see ourselves clearly reflected. Our task is not merely to read Scripture, but to let Scripture read us. Otherwise, we run the risk (as the James also warns) of becoming like people who look at themselves in the mirror and then turn away and forget what they look like.
The question that we begin with this morning is God’s first question to Adam and Even in Genesis 3. It is fitting that for our first installment of “The Questions that Scripture Asks,” we are going back to the very beginning of the human story. The question may at first blush seem disarmingly simple; but there’s more to it deep down. The question is: “Where are you?” (Gen 3:9)
“Where are you?” After a year of lockdowns and quarantines, of changing jobs and relocations, of burying loved ones and literally watching the world change around us, “where are you?” is an especially timely question. Many of us may not know anymore either “where we are” or where we are going. We might begin by answering the question straightforwardly: “I’m at St. Paul’s Church in Milwaukee” or “I’m at the end of a school year” or “I’m at a lot of soccer games” or “I’m going out with friends again” or “I still haven’t seen my grandchildren.” These answers are important, but they don’t get to the heart of the question. God’s first question is likewise about our spiritual location. “Where are you spiritually?” Are you grieving? Are you lost? Are you in good company or bad? Are you alone? What can you see from where you stand? St. Paul’s Church, “where are you?”
It’s a good question to stop and ponder, posed as it is by a God who loves us. Each of us will answer this question differently in the particulars. But the Bible, as Word of God, also challenges us, claiming that whatever our personal story, a part of our answer to God’s question “where are you” must be that which was true of Adam and Eve when God posed this question to them in the very beginning: “we’re hiding.”
We’re hiding. What and why we’re each hiding now, I cannot say, but Scripture tells us with mythic clarity that to be human east of Eden is to become the kind of person who hides. Homo se dissimulans, if we had to name the species: “man, the inveterate hider.”
Adam and Eve, for their part, hid because they had disobeyed God’s solitary commandment. Embarrassed and ashamed at who they had become, they did not know any longer how to talk to God as they used to, and so they were hiding. So quickly has Adam adjusted to this new posture of dissimulation, that even his answer to God’s question is a kind of disguise: we’re hiding, he says, because “we realized that we were naked.” Truer words were never spoken, but they do not primarily refer to an absence of clothing. Nakedness, rather, in the idiom of Genesis 3, refers that inner awareness of ourselves as divided from God and our neighbor—what Rowan Williams calls “the wound of knowledge.” Nakedness is a new kind of self-knowledge, which severs our previous enjoyment of created goods and distorts our ability to look on ourselves as objects of wonder, worthy of love. Rather, the Scripture tells us, we have become objects of our own disgust.
Ever the patient physician, God asks Adam a second question: “Who told you that you were naked?” (Gen 3:11) The answer here is not entirely self-evident. Where did this knowledge come from? God’s third question, “did you eat from the tree,” would seem to imply that such knowledge was a kind of consequential awakening, stemming from Adam’s disobedience. But that is not the whole story. As often, the question Scripture asks is just as important as the answer. In this case, the idea that there was a “someone” who had told Adam and Eve that they were naked, reminds us that our first parents’ decision to eat from the forbidden tree did not happen in a vacuum, nor was it completely of their own making. Adam and Eve fell on account of a temptation—a temptation offered by a third someone—the Serpent, who told our first mother and father not that they were naked, but that they were clever (in Hebrew, the same word ‘arum has both meanings). And the Serpent’s temptation came in the form of a question: “Did God say ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden?” (Gen 3:1).
“Did God say?” Here, we get to the root of things. The question that started it all. The question that led our first parents astray. It is a question that comes to us, according to the scriptures, not from some innate darkness within our hearts, but through the suggestion of another who desired our destruction. In returning to God’s initial question, “Where are you?”, the scriptures now give us a second answer: “We are caught in the snare of the Serpent; we were born, tied up in the house of a Strong Man. Something evil has gotten hold of us and we cannot get free.”
That is the image of ourselves that we see in Scripture’s mirror this morning. To be a human is to be a person in hiding, to have been deceived by our own cleverness, to be severed from God and others; and to be only partly at fault. Looking to our lives and the world around us, we may recognize many elements of this mirror image as true. Perhaps we feel ashamed or unloveable; perhaps we feel trapped by our own foolishness, or bound in the chains of anger and frustration; perhaps we are terrified by death, which St. Paul tells us “entered in” through the sin of Adam; or perhaps we are horrified by the seemingly incomprehensible human capacity for hate and violence—which may turn out to make more sense if we posit some form of non-human evil as a cause.
To those of us who recognize ourselves in the image of our first parents, the Good News comes paradoxically in the form of a curse. A little later in Genesis Chapter 3. God claims he will:
put enmity between the serpent and the woman, and between your offspring and hers.
He will strike your head,
and you will strike his heel. (Gen 3:15)
Old Testament scholars often treat this particular part of God’s curse on the serpent as a natural etiology about why people and snakes don’t get a long. Read in the lectionary alongside the Gospel of Mark, the verse turns out to mean much more. In the light of Christ—the wandering Galilean miracle- worker, known especially among his first followers for his power in exorcism—God’s curse of the serpent becomes a riddle, a parable of healing, and a prophecy, to which the Gospel of Mark holds the key: the serpent is Beelzebul—the Lord of the Flies and all unclean spirits which continue to enslave humanity. the woman is Mary, and Jesus is her offspring who preached the good news to the poor with power and authority, who cast out the evil spirits, and struck the head of the Serpent once and for all, so that we who have felt beset, enchained, and bound by the strong man, may know that we are defended by a stronger man, Jesus the Messiah.
Let this, then, be the first work of the Holy Spirit in this long green season: to cast out the unclean spirits that ensnare and bind us; to exorcise our demons; or, in more domestic terms, to initiate a spiritual Spring Cleaning, helping us to identify and extirpate the things in our lives that simply need to go, so that we too can finally stop hiding from God, ourselves, and our neighbors, step out into the daylight, and feel afresh the Spirit of Living God, blowing where He will and leading us back toward paradise. Amen.