Being Sanctuary

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

March 5, 2017: Lent I

The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw

Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA


The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”
Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.’ So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,
‘This at last is bone of my bones
   and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called Woman,
   for out of Man this one was taken.’ 
Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, `You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, `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 the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.  


Today is the first Sunday in the season of Lent. A season that we will celebrate this year by contemplating some spiritual practices of resistance. This is not the first year that we will have observed Lent through the lens of spiritual practices. It is the first year, however, when we will train those practices on social and political resistance. That is, it is the first year when our focus is not on our own spiritual growth but on the welfare of the creations of God who are on the margins. The first year when our focus for these practices will be outward rather than inward.

Our theme this week is “Being Sanctuary.” The word sanctuary is from the Latin, and its root is sanctus. Like the sanctus in our Eucharistic Prayer. Holy. And holy in the Hebrew (ko-desh) means set aside for God. A sanctuary is a place that is set aside for God. In this space it is the small area enclosed by the altar rail on which the altar rests. That space, where we consecrate our Eucharistic meal is the sanctuary; the place set aside for God.

Over time, the term sanctuary has come mean a place of safety, like a bird sanctuary. A place where those who are threatened may find shelter, harbor, peace. A place that might include the whole of a church. And so as our national political machine increases its assault on those who are most vulnerable among us, those who live on the margins of our society, sanctuary is becoming an increasingly important and valuable offering.

Today’s reading from the Book of Genesis is not only among the most familiar in our entire canon, it also takes place in God’s first sanctuary: the Garden of Eden: the first  place where God and humanity communed; where humanity abided in God’s presence.

Today’s reading is the second creation story -not to be confused with the first in which humanity is created on the sixth day in God’s likeness and then instructed to subdue and steward the earth. But this second version in the second chapter of Genesis begins and ends in the Garden of Eden. This second version of creation is, oddly enough, thought by scholars to be the earlier of the two stories. And in this telling, an earthling is created….Adam, from the Hebrew word for earth, adamah.  And from that first earthling, the first adamah, the first piece of earth the mother of all life is created….Eve, from, from the Hebrew verb for life, haya.

And after these earthlings are created, they are instructed by God that they may sustain themselves with the fruit of any delicious tree in their midst, except one. And our two earthlings seem to be fine with that single prohibition until a snake of a snake, the most sensible of all living beings (or crafty as the Hebrew might be translated), suggests, for some unknown reason,  that the fruit that they have been forbidden might just be the best fruit of all, and they should try it.

I say “they” rather than she, because according to the text, Adam is standing right next to Eve the entire time. A tidbit left out of our popular understanding of the story. Unintentional omission or alternative fact? But the text says that Eve shares the fruit with the man who is with her.  And so they succumb to the crafty serpent bully and they eat the forbidden fruit, which, the text says, deeply disappoints God….although I have my doubts about that.

But then, at the very end of this story, as God ushers the earthlings out of the Garden into the real world, God says to them exactly what we say to each other on Ash Wednesday as we impose ashes and begin the season of Lent. God says to Adam and Eve:  you are dust and to dust you will return. You are mortal. You are temporary. You are short lived. God does not say is now you are mortal, as though they were not mortal before they ate of the forbidden tree, as though mortality is some punishment. But God offers the same reminder that we are offered every year at this season. Life is short. And you will soon realize how much you need me.

And so here we are with the dust of our own ashes still fresh on our foreheads, cast out of paradise to brave the wilderness on our own. And just in case you did not get the full fleshly effect of this message, we will be imposing ashes this evening in our family Ashes and Altars event for anyone who missed this powerful ritual on Wednesday.

We all know this story of the Adam and Eve being kicked out of the Garden of Eden; from paradise to wilderness. Likewise we all know the story of Jesus herded from his baptism straight into the wild, the desert, the great unknown to be tested by the devil herself. These are our classic stories of temptation and obedience. In the Garden Eve and Adam cannot resist the temptation of the one tree from which they are forbidden to eat, and as a result says our faith tradition, humanity falls for all time. All mortals thereafter are born with the stain of their sin. And in the wilderness, Jesus resists the devil three times and in the end, humanity is saved for all time. This is our official Christian story of sin and redemption. And it makes a fairly tidy theological package for our Christian sensibility. Adam and Eve fail to resist the temptation of the bullying serpent and they are summarily tossed out of the Garden for their sin. And then, Matthew’s Jesus ventures not into paradise, but into the wilderness, and there in that place of abject discomfort our divine brother shows us just how resistance to temptation is done. And here is the message: Humanity sins. Jesus redeems. Simple as that.

Our Christian theology has, for centuries, been grounded in the core notions of sin and redemption. Ours is a theology that has been founded on an unflappable belief that humanity is, above all else, Fallen; forever been marred by that Original Sin.

I think this is a good time to mention that the notion of sin is never ever mentioned in this story in Genesis. It is not part of our Holy Scripture. There is absolutely no mention of sin (original or otherwise) whatsoever, in this entire story. None. And, I might add, there is absolutely no mention of its theological cohort, free will. Those concepts are theological, but they are not biblical.

The scriptural basis for Original Sin is not the Book of Genesis, it is the Letter of Paul to the Romans in which he says: the sin of the world came from one man. But that is not anywhere in this original story.  And so for centuries this morning’s reading has been known as a story of the Fall of Humanity, regardless of the absence of any mention of sin in the text. It is absolutely a story of disobedience. But it is not a story of humanity crushing “Original Sin” until it is embellished by theologians centuries later. Not until the second century, when Iraneaus, Bishop of Lyon first coined the phrase Original Sin in an argument with some gnostic adversaries.

From the beginning, it has been very advantageous for “the church” to identify our God as one who demands absolute obedience above all else. Because obedience to God requires obedience to the church, the keeper of God’s law. Original Sin was the hook that kept the fallen people coming back to church for forgivnss and redemption.  And by calling this transgression in Eden the “Original Sin” the church effectively made disobedience the ultimate sin…..ergo, obedience to the church the ultimate strive toward salvation.

Now, a big fat red flag on this sermon. This is my theology. It is not necessarily the theology of “the church.” Although, there is no “the” in church. And so this doctrine of Original Sin is front and center in the Roman Catholic realm, but not so much in the Anglican or Episcopal realms. In fact, if you turn to the catechism in the BCP, page 845 (which I highly recommend that you do), you will not find the doctrine of OS anywhere listed. It is not part of the official teaching of the Episcopal church. Although it is number 9 of the 39 Articles that serve as the loose articulation of our non-binding Anglican doctrine.

But our three-legged stool of Anglican authority rests on scripture and tradition through the lens of reason. And my own lens of reason tells me that the God that created and loves and abides with me would not punish all of humanity in perpetuity for disobedience. The propensity to disobey is born into the human condition. A condition created by God. So either God drastically overestimated the free willpower of God’s children, or the mere eating of a tasty, albeit forbidden, apple did not cause and promulgate the fall of all time.

There are other possible reasons why God might have sent Adamah and Haya from the sanctuary of Eden. Maybe the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was essential to the functioning of the Garden, and so by eating it, the earthlings were putting the Garden at risk. Maybe the transgression in the Garden was not disobedience, per say, but destructiveness; risking the welfare of the whole garden for the delight of their own selfish eyes. And so this story is not to remind us of our sinfulness, but to remind us of the preciousness of all of creation and our role in its health and wellbeing.

Or, maybe they would never have left.  Would we? Probably not. And so maybe the snake was God’s idea, an opportunity to send these first humans out into the world without kicking them out for no reason. Maybe the eating of the apple was God’s way of saying, okay, the honeymoon is over, now go out and fill the world with my Holy Spirit. And remember that you are mortal. So choose well.

Please do not mishear me. I am not saying that we should do away with any notions of sin and redemption. I am not. In fact what I am saying, or intending to say, is quite the opposite. I think we need to re-claim and also to re-vision our notions of sin and redemption. I do not think that reading this passage in Genesis as something other than Original Sin lets us off the hook. But I think that it does suggest a very different hook.

Maybe, rather than the traditional notions of sin and redemption as the basis for our relationship with God, creativity and blessing would be a better framework. As Christian mystic Meister Eckhart says, “there is, there must be, a certain divinity that flows from all that is created by a divine source. We are thusly created!” And so maybe instead of obsessively praying for our own individual redemption from the Original Fall, we are intended to join God as co-creators of this wide world into which we were sent by the divine; no longer permitted to languish in the idyllic Garden, but charged to go out and be that sanctuary in the world.

And so here we are at the start of Lent, on the precipice of the Garden. Reminded that we are no more permanent than ashes or dust, and that our station in this life is no guarantee. That we are mortal, and like Adamah and Haya we could lose our space in the Garden any day. But the irony of it is that when we lose our Eden, whatever it is for each of us, when we are stripped down to nothing left to lose, when we have lost our lot and everything we care about has been reduced to ashes, that is when God has us just where God wants us.

Not suffering. But the emptiness that usually follows the suffering. The disorientation that comes when we are stripped naked and thrown from the Garden without a handle or a clue. And when we reach that point where we are standing before God with nothing but God and dust to our name, that is precisely when we realize that we are more powerful than we have ever been, because we have nothing to lose.

It’s a paradox to be sure. But I think that as long as they were guests in the Garden, Adamah and Haya had everything to lose. And fear is the handmaid of everything to lose. But freedom is the handmaid of nothing left to lose. Ironically, nothing left to lose is the place where we can truly follow God’s law with absolute obedience.

And so it seems to me that the Garden is Eden, but the wilderness is sanctuary.

In this holy season of Lent, let us be a sanctuary for God and God’s creations in the wilderness of this world.



© March, 2017 The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw




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