A Family Classic
Reading: Genesis 3
“Did mum really punch you in the face?”, my 8-year old nephew asked me a few weeks back with a look of both horror and delight. “Well, yes…but it didn’t really hurt,” I replied, uncle’s pride intact.
Last month, I enjoyed a few days of annual leave which included spending some time with my family up in Blackpool where tales of past conquests, defeats, horror and hilarity were shared. I know we’re not the only ones who, at sporadic clan gatherings, reach for the anthology of well-worn family tales and retell the classics, with dramatic gusto. One of the favourites for my nephews involves the aforementioned punch alongside stories of Granddad Sid, whose photograph, model spitfire and service medals sit alongside dinosaur drawings and school certificates in one of the boys’ pits they generously call a bedroom.
And one of the stories we share with the eldest nephew, Joseph, is that of Grandad Sid and the family tree, the short version of which goes a little like this – Sid was doing a bit of light family history research and was gathering various birth, death and marriage certificates together. Much of this he could do online but some of it required a visit to the records office in Kew Gardens so one Saturday, my sister accompanied him up there to find his parents’ wedding certificate. Now my Grandad was born in August 1921 so they began by going through 1920 thoroughly. January, February…November, December…no record there. They must’ve got married a year earlier, in 1919, he thought. January, February, November, December…Nothing. Oh, okay – 1918, end of the War marriage…makes sense…but no. Nothing there either. Perhaps it’s just not here, my Grandad suggested to my sister. But she had other ideas – “Why don’t we check 1921, just to be thorough?”
So they began…January, February, March, April…and then they found it…the certificate which told them that, on a Saturday in May 1921, 3 months before my Grandad came into the world, my great-grandad and great-nan were declared husband and wife! Ever since, the story of how my granddad first found out that he actually attended his parent’s wedding, albeit three months before his arrival, has become a firm family favourite to retell at gatherings and get togethers.
It’s these kind of stories we share, which tell us about our history, our heritage, our shared family identity. And today, in the story of Adam and Eve, God and the serpent, we share a church family classic. It’s one which has been told and retold through the millennia, performed through drama and dance, poetry and even puppetry, across the world.
For some, like the story of my Grandad’s discovery, this tale is told with blushed cheeks and wry smiles as God walks, a snake talks and appropriately sized leaves are gathered. For others, like the story of my sister’s punch, the story speaks of disobedience and pain, of an angry parent and a punished child. And perhaps that’s the version that most of us are used to. That Adam & Eve eat the apple, get chucked out of the garden of Eden and let sin into the world. It’s one of the Sunday School explanations for why the world isn’t perfect, why people die, or even why we deserve punishment all because that wicked Eve went scrumping in God’s backyard.
Now, apart from the fact that this explanation isn’t helpful to any parent trying to persuade their child to eat more fruit…because, well, look where that got Eve…this version of the story is far too slick for me. For one thing the story contains far too many questions – such as why did God make the serpent crafty in the first place, if God is all-knowing wouldn’t God have known what was going to happen and then definitely should have known where Adam and Eve were hiding later on? There are also the omissions – the words ‘apple’, ‘sin’ and ‘the fall’ are never actually mentioned in the text. Then there’s the fact that the idea of a literal Adam and Eve is no longer believed by all but the most conservative of the Christian family and actually, whether literal or not, I simply cannot accept the notion that we all deserve hell because ages ago some couple ate some fruit that wasn’t theirs as this sounds nonsensical and far from the God of extravagant love and abundant grace that I’ve glimpsed before.
Given the choice between this explanation of original sin and Eddie Izzard’s suggestion that actually, an original sin is poking a badger with a spoon, I know which one I’d rather go along with!
And yet…and yet whilst I can’t believe that I share the same DNA as any literal Adam and Eve, I do believe that this story is part of our family identity…that this bizarre tale might tell us something about who we are and from where we have come. So far from banning this story at future family gatherings, I think we might rather revisit it, retell it, reinterpret it amongst family once again for in so doing, we might learn something of our relationship to the Earth, to one another and to God.
First, then, the story of Adam and Eve might tell us about our family business for, in the previous chapter we’re told that after breathing life into Adam, “God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” Adam was to be a gardener. Green fingers are part of our family heritage. Now all you budding Titschmarsh and Dimmocks might immediately feel some affinity to Adam but for those of you who, like me, don’t know your cockscomb from your chrysanthemum, take heart, as we’re not really talking about herbaceous borders and water features here for the words we now read as ‘to till and keep the Earth’ might be more accurately translated from the Hebrew as ‘to serve and preserve the Earth’.
Concern for creation was never meant to be the property of a few fringe hippy groups or simply something we acknowledge once a year in our harvest services but is rather it is to be the duty, the joy, the job for us all. The very word Adam can be translated as ‘humankind’. We are all Adam. We have all been put here by God to serve and preserve God’s handiwork. We have other work to be getting on with, of course, but none of that can be done if we don’t first attend to the original task on our divinely ordained to do list – to look after creation. And, looking around at the current state of the world, I think we have some work to do!
This past summer, we’ve seen further evidence of human made climate change as wind and water have stolen land and lives across the planet. The garden is groaning and we need to roll our sleeves up. Perhaps, for some of us, that simply means a rededication to buying more locally produced food, recycling more intentionally or thinking about how often we eat meat or use the car. For others of us, it might mean more serious reflection on how an economic-political system which says that might is right, greed is good and more of everything is needed has seriously damaged God’s garden. Just last week a report by the World Health Organisation suggested that by 2022, the number of obese children in the world will outnumber the malnourished ones. However we understand that projection, surely it gives us pause for thought.
For many of us a change in outlook might be helpful and perhaps such a change comes from the reminder that the Earth we’re called to care for is home for all humanity.
In the story of Adam and Eve, the real sin, if that’s what we want to call it, is one of individualism. When God confronted the pair with what they’d done, suddenly their union, their interdependence, was reduced to a blame game. “I didn’t do this,” Adam says to God, “She did and you put her here in the first place.” “This isn’t my fault,” Eve says to God, “the serpent made me do it.” No shared responsibility; no us or we but me, my and I. Any notion of paradise will always be ruined when we only think of ourselves – when my wants come before our needs.
Later this morning we will say words which Jesus, who is sometimes known as the second Adam, taught us. And when we do, we won’t say ‘My Father, but Our Father’ – I won’t ask for my own daily dread but for our daily bread. That means asking God to provide the daily bread of those of us in this Brian-battered town this morning as well as those in the devastated islands of the Caribbean; bread for those living in the famine-threatened lands of East Africa and for those in the Pacific Islands whose homes are being taken by the rising sea levels. And Jesus didn’t tell us to simply pray this prayer one moment and live in denial of it the next but rather to live this prayer in our words and actions too. Our prayers, our outlook, our living cannot be reduced to me and mine but must rather be broadened to how best we can serve and preserve the Earth for the good of all.
So the family story of Adam and Eve tells us of our duty to care for the planet; our need to remember that we do this together; and, finally, it reminds us that we do not do this without God’s help. In our ancestral imagination of what life was like in the beginning, we’re told that God would walk the Earth with Adam and Eve until one evening when they ate some fruit and played an ill-advised game of hide and seek. It was then that God told them that life in this world wouldn’t be easy – the harvest would get a whole lot more difficult with talk of thorns and thistles and dust. They would have to face suffering and hard work and death. Suddenly, the poetic had been replaced by the painfully real.
And yet at no point does God wash God’s hands with creation or the gardeners sent to tend it. Instead, we hear stories of a God who cares for creation and actively gets involved in it. Stories of plentiful harvests with enough to provide for the widow, the orphan and the foreigner. Stories of jugs of oil and jars of flour which keep a widow and her son alive in a time of famine. Stories of a man from Nazareth who knew what it was to toil and get his fingers dirty.
Far from sending Adam and Eve away and shutting up shop, we’re told that God stepped into creation, coming to eat and drink, fish and farm with us; coming to share our hunger, delight in our harvests; to pick up a spade and join in the family business. After all, on that first Easter Sunday, when Mary Magdalene went to the tomb to see where her friend’s body was laid, she met the risen Christ and first thought he was the gardener. Perhaps she wasn’t as mistaken as we might think.
So weird and wild as it is, the story of Adam and Eve must still has a place at our family gatherings. For it’s a narrative which speaks of the importance of the family business – of the need to care for one another through our care of God’s garden. It a tale which hints at the messiness of life, of our tendency to think of ourselves, to blame others, to play hide and seek with God. And it’s a story which whispers to us of God’s amazing grace – of the God who created the world and called it brilliant; who tends to the world and the people within it; who comes to the world with green fingers, open arms, a welcome smile and bread to share. Amen.