Genesis 2:7-9, 15-25
Colossians 3:1-4, 10-11
I still remember that time at James Montgomery Elementary School in Houston, Texas, when Miss Oehlberg, the teacher I all but worshipped, taught us about evolution—or at least the third-grade version of it. More than that, she gave us an assignment: to write about what we had learned.
Looking back, I think this was my first crisis of conscience, maybe even my first crisis of faith. I loved Miss Oehlberg and I loved learning, but my parents took me to church three times a week and our church all but worshipped an extremely literal view of the Bible. At nine years old, I didn’t know a lot but I was pretty sure Miss Oehlberg’s evolution was not in the Bible.
What was a straight-A student and teacher’s pet to do?!?
I’m not proud of it but, friends, I tried to have it both ways. I completed the assignment, regurgitating exactly what I’d been taught about how the Earth and everything on it came into existence over a very, very, very long time.
And then I added a P.S., which said in so many words: I wrote this because this is what you told us, but I don’t really believe it because the Bible says God made the world in six days and I believe the Bible.
All of which is to say: By the grace of God and lots of education and loving community, my understanding of both science and scripture has changed quite a lot since my fundamentalist upbringing. So when I discovered that the Rev. Dr. Wilda Gafney’s Year W lectionary would have us reading from the Bible’s so-called creation stories over the first three Sundays of Lent, I let out a long, low groan.
I didn’t want to go there myself, much less be tasked with taking you there.
But here’s some good news (wrapped in a tired cliche): We don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Or, to put it in terms a third-grader could understand: Sometimes, we can have it both ways.
While staying firmly rooted in the authority of scripture, we can seek to understand what it is really about. We can move past the translations and interpretations that for much of Christian history have alienated science-believing people, taught countless children and adults that they were born sinful, and justified the oppression of women, girls, people of color, LGBTQIA folks, and many other kinds of people.
We can throw out the teachings that would have us believe God is angry at us because we are “bad,” and embrace the liberating truth of the God who made us in the divine image, which is love; the God who called us and all creation good; the God who made us not to go our own way but to live in partnership and mutuality; the God who, far from throwing us out of the garden, continues to move toward us in love, compassion, and vulnerability no matter how many bad choices we make.
We can acknowledge the power and validity of story while understanding that this story—especially the parts that have God issuing orders, humans disobeying them, and God seeming to respond with eternal punishment—is, as much as anything, a human attempt to understand and explain why the world is the way it is:
Why good people suffer, why childbirth is painful, why men justify their power over women, why we die, why there are floods and earthquakes and hurricanes, why some people seem to care about no one but themselves, why entire groups of people oppress other groups of people, why nations go to war, why military forces bomb civilians, why evil seems to win out so much of the time, and why institutional Christianity has put so much emphasis on a story that, as far as we know, Jesus never discussed.
We will explore the particulars of the creation story and the so-called “fall” in our Lenten Bible studies, but for now let’s be clear that there are significant differences between the story itself and how it has been used throughout history. For now let us trust that, as our Pilgrim forbears said, “there is yet more light and truth to break forth from God’s holy word,” and let us seek it out. Let us listen for God’s still-speaking word.
Because what a shame it would be to throw out God’s love, tenderness, and grace along with the simplistic and self-serving answers of male religious leaders throughout history. What a shame it would be to get so upset by the distortions of the story that we altogether miss its good news: That God has breathed into us the breath of life; that God has made us for partnership—partnership with God in tending the earth and all living souls, and partnership with one another.
“It is not good that the human should be alone,” God says in the story. “I will make it someone to rely on as its partner.”
Someone to rely on—how beautiful is that? How comforting to know that God recognized that God’s human partner needed its own created partner, someone it—someone we—could rely on. Not someone for us to rule over, not someone to serve us, but someone we can partner with, someone we can depend on, someone we can see and touch and count on to be with us and for us.
Isn’t that what we all want?
(And before we get too distracted from this good news by the original readings of this story, let me point out that the text itself does not speak of marriage. The text speaks of partnership. I invite you, as one important step in reclaiming this story and what is says about who we are and what we were made for, to replace the word “marriage” with the word partnership—because while many would have us believe that we were made for marriage between a man and a woman, what our creation story says is that we were made for partnership.)
Our creation story, along with the entire narrative of our scriptures and much of our life experience, suggests that, in the words of the late Rachel Held Evans. “autonomy is overrated.” Whether we’re seeking separation from God, independence from our parents, freedom from vaccination mandates, or freedom to do whatever we want, all wisdom literature tells us that much healing, growth, potential, and joy are derived from relationship, and that the world is served and changed, movements are fueled, and life is made meaningful and purposeful by the power of partnership.
This partnership is not only for our own sake or the sake of our family, but for the sake of all people—all genders, all races and religions, all nations and political parties. We are made for partnership that not only supports the people of Ukraine, but also prays for the people of Russia. We are made for partnership not only with other humans but with all of creation.
We are made in the image of God and placed in a beautiful garden not only so that we can spurn organized religion and explain that we find God in nature, but also so that we can find God in one another and in the messy, inefficient, bumbling processes and partnerships of a church. And we are called to be part of a church not only so that we can let other people do all the work of ministry, but also so that we can live out our own callings in partnership with them. We are called to commit ourselves to a church community not only so that we can do good works with others but also so that we will have, in that church, dear ones to rely on, kindred souls who will rejoice with us, weep with us, love us as we are, and nurture us to become our best selves.
We are given the capacity to tend the garden not only so that we will have whatever we need, but also so that we can partner with others to insure that everyone has enough and that the garden is well cared for.
This partnership for love and care, peace and justice, healing and hope, fruitfulness and joy is what we were made for. Indeed, partnership with God and with one another, the church, and all people and all creation is a high and holy calling to which each and every one of us is called.
How will we—as individuals and as a church—answer it?