Sermon “Adam’s Fall”
Copyright Sarah K. Person
Delivered: March 30, 2014 to The First Unitarian Universalist Society of Middleborough
The ideas of sin and purity are some of the most basic attributes of many different faiths. Where do our definitions come from? Where does our capacity for good and evil reside? Our answers to these questions are not only relevant to our spiritual growth, but deeply and urgently relevant to our society.
“In Adam’s Fall we sinned all” is a rhyming couplet from the famous seventeenth century New England Primer. It’s preceded by this useful admonition:
“Pray to God. Call no ill names.
Love God. Use no ill words.
Fear God. Tell no lies.
Serve God. Hate Lies.
Take not God’s Name in vain.
Speak the Truth. Spend your Time well.
Do not Swear. Love your School.
Do not Steal. Mind your Book.
Cheat not in your play. Strive to learn.
Play not with bad boys. Be not a Dunce.”
There you have it, all the rules we need to live a good life and not be a dunce. And in that clever couplet we found all we needed to know about where we stand in the great scheme of things. Adam disobeyed God and was evicted from Eden. All of our travails began with that choice and that moment.
Tears or sighs or screams or smiles or dreams make up who we are. And we have always been occupied with how it came to be this way. We have always been occupied because life can be so hard and indifferent and we so vulnerable. We have always wondered how to keep ourselves open to love and joy when we might lose them in a moment. We have always demanded answers to why this is so. We have always asked why bad things happen to good and courageous people. And we ask with all the self-righteousness we can muster why good things happen to bad people. The truth is we need to make sense of life so we can get through it, and that means a faith that we can live by. So that we can know why. So that we can know what to expect. So that we can know what choices to make. So that we know what we deserve, and know that others will get what they deserve. That’s the way we are and it has always been so.
Thousands of years ago, the ancient Hebrews explained it something like this:
God formed man out of the dust of the ground and breathed life into him and man became a living soul. Then God planted the garden of Eden and put man there to take care of the garden and there grew every tree, and the tree of life and also the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God put the man in the garden to dress it and to keep it, and the man could eat from any tree in the garden except from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
To keep him company, God created animals and birds and let the man name them. But none of them were a help meet to the man and so God created a being from the man’s rib and man named her woman. There they lived until one of the creatures persuaded the woman to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil and she persuaded the man to eat and they knew good and evil and they became aware, and knew propriety and felt shame. They also became like God and the angels with the power of their knowledge. When God found out, God cursed the serpent and condemned him to crawl on his belly and for there to be constant enmity between his kind and humankind. And God made the woman to have the pain of childbirth, and to love and to love only her man so that man could rule over her. And God made the man to depend upon the jealous earth for their survival, the earth that would not give up its fruits gladly but would make humankind suffer for it. And God clothed them in warm furs and shepherded them out of Eden, and locked the gate behind them, but God did not abandon these children.
That is how this narrative goes. It’s a way to hang on to reasons for trying to be good and do good even though life can be hard, brutish and short. But it also paved the way for the notion of an angry God and humanity perpetually fallen from a state of grace.
So humankind gave up Eden; Eden that had no tears or sighs or screams or smiles or dreams. They would mean nothing in there. All consideration of separation from an angry God aside, in your heart of hearts, would you want to get back to the garden; to that taste of heaven; to get back to a state of no strivings, no confusion, and only grandiose everlasting expectations? What would that be like for you? Never to make mistakes. Never to lose your way. To receive all confidence, all love, all respect, all comfort without effort? I know, there are days when that looks pretty good, doesn’t it? But that gate is closed to us forever. We can’t go back to Eden.
What does any of this mean, if Eden has no meaning for us? We are still here, still have to live together, don’t we? We still have to have a reason to be good, to care for this earth and its creatures and one another. And we still keep trying to do the right thing, even when we fail, as we so often do. And that is the deepest matter before us – Who are we, what are we capable of, and how do we reconcile ourselves to the fact that life is unfair and yet still make it worthwhile.
Heaven was one way some of us reconciled ourselves to life. The idea that there is some great and glorious restitution and retribution waiting for us in the afterlife. And because we are who we are, you’d better believe that we jealously guarded the gate of that heaven! That’s one reason that Protestant Christians revolted against the notion that sinners could buy absolution and gain heaven. It’s a reason why five hundred years later, Christians erupted when they heard that a Catholic priest had offered the notorious Jewish gangster Dutch Schultz the possibility of absolution.
Arthur Flegenheimer, born at the turn of the century, was German-Jewish American mobster in the 20s and 30s who ran bootlegging and numbers rackets in New York City. He’d lost a fortune during two trials for tax evasion prosecuted by Thomas Dewey and asked permission from Lucky Luciano to assassinate Dewey. Luciano refused but Schultz tried anyway and failed. For disobeying them, the mob ordered that Schultz and his men be murdered. Schultz was mortally wounded but lingered at a hospital surrounded by detectives. The morning of his death Schultz asked for a Catholic priest. Fr. Cornelius McInerney instructed Schultz, baptized him and gave him the sacrament of the sick. I don’t know why he did this. Perhaps it was to save the biggest sinner of his acquaintance. Perhaps it was pity for his family, or massive irritation with the police force. Burning with fever and in severe pain, Schultz spent hours raving while witnesses transcribed every word. Some of it was strangely poetic. “No. No.” he cried, “And it is no. It is confused and it says no. A boy has never wept nor dashed a thousand kim. Did you hear me?” Schultz died that evening. He was buried in a Catholic cemetery. This sparked a public uproar.
One columnist wrote that “People could not understand how the Church could accept such an evil man into her fold. They could not understand how Schultz could be taken up into the arms of a Church that expresses such horror of the least sin; a Church that upholds such high ideals of virtue; a Church that stands for the very opposite of the things Schultz had done all his life.
It was ridiculous, unthinkable, that Dutch Schultz could be mingling with the angels—that this hardened hoodlum could be living with the holy people of all ages in heaven. It was unjust, unreasonable, that he, in a few moments, could win the eternal reward for which struggling souls fought through years of trial and temptation.”
What do you think? Even if you don’t believe in heaven or hell, what do you think about offering comfort and absolution to a very bad man? In a strange way, this is an example of our Universalist principles in action.
In 1805, Hosea Ballou wrote his famous Treatise on Atonement. For our spiritual forebears, it was a closely reasoned challenge to the orthodox Calvinist Christianity of the day. We still carry its sentiment and logic in our affirmations about the inherent worth and dignity of every individual.
Ballou argued that we are made imperfect, and God would not hold us to laws of infinite perfection, and thus infinite sin. “The most that human beings can do is come to the best understanding of moral good that is possible for them and act accordingly. To sin is to do otherwise.” Ten years ago, historian Charles Howe summed it up nicely: “Orthodoxy considered humanity’s punishment for its infinite sin as separation from an angry God. Ballou, by contrast, saw men and women struggling to turn toward moral good and away from the sins that separated them from a loving God. Orthodoxy required Christ to take on the burden of humanity’s sin by being sacrificed on the cross, thereby atoning for sin and making it possible for an appeased God to be reconciled with humanity.
Ballou, on the other hand, contended that Christ’s death released a great spirit of love into the world, making men and women who were receptive to this spirit better able to atone for their own sins and be reconciled with God. Thus Ballou argued that the orthodox had things backward: It was humanity that needed to be reconciled to God, not God to humanity. Moreover, this atoning spirit of love was available not only to Christians, but to all people, irrespective of “names, sects, denominations, people, or kingdoms.” In no case would anyone be sent to eternal punishment by a loving God. No sin was that great; salvation was universal.”
This is the understanding we own as Unitarian Universalists. This is stamped on our history and part of the very fabric of our beliefs. Irrespective of the reasons, Hosea Ballou would probably have understood Father McInerney very well. Whether you believe God or in heaven or in the power of redemption, could you offer a compassionate act to someone who didn’t deserve it in your eyes? Could you receive compassion if you didn’t think you deserved it?
It comes down to this; how do you commit yourself to doing the thing that is hardest for you to do? How do you face your fears and strip them of their power? How do you pry yourself off of dead center and admit, no welcome, your imperfections? How do you fill your bucket with gifts for the rest of us imperfect ones? We are all in this together. We are all capable of selfishness, of self-righteousness, of harming those we care about and not caring at all. We were never supposed to be in Eden, we have something real instead. We are supposed to grow the gardens of our souls, get our hands and knees dirty kneeling before this amazing gift of life, prune away our dead spots, tend our roots, clean up after ourselves and share the fruit of our labors.