Posts Tagged original sin
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 5/21/17. It looks at the spirituality of joy.
We’re slowly realizing that my dog, Lola, is a truly effective life-coach for the Brewer-Geiger household. She’s our resident Zen Master Teacher, always in the moment. If she’s sick, or has to go in for a check-up, she stays happy as she enters the vet, excited for a treat. She’s probably terrified as the vet does the things vets always do, but she has this sort of “if I just stay still this will all be over soon, and then I’ll get a treat. Right, I will get a treat?” And then she’s all licky-face with the vet when it’s all done; excitedly saying good-bye to everyone on our way out.
The other day, on what was probably our first real warm gorgeous Spring day of the year, I was taking her for a 3 mile walk. This usually is a hobby of mine that gives me life; but on this random day the frets of the world were really taking hold. We’re all busy people, and I was at my busiest on this lovely day. But the ‘life-coach’ needed her walk. We’re out, and I’m running through all the things I did, all the things I needed to do, and all the pathways to getting them done as I was stressing at what couldn’t get accomplished. My heart wasn’t in the walk, and my head was surely a million miles away. A short while into it, Lola stops. She turns back and looks at me with her classic wide-faced dog-grin (I know they say dogs don’t actually smile, but mine sure knows how to scrunch her cheeks up to show a killer-grin.) She stops, and turns back, smiles and jumps up and down with a full-body “COME ON ALREADY! It’s gorgeous outside and we’re doing this thing!” It’s the spiritual mantra for joyful living – ‘come on already.’
We all need a dog life-coach some days to get our heads and our hearts back in the same place sometimes. What was I doing? Tasks, and work, and plans, fears and concerns were all distracting me from the moment. Those were my thoughts – a part of me. And they were disconnecting me from life. I was clearly living in the realm of “then” or “soon” or “what if.” That world does not exist. Only the present does. These thoughts steal us away from the sacredness of life – from joyfully living. We excuse our sidetracked minds as merely being easily distracted. But when we turn our focus toward what we are doing, rather than what we could be doing or what we weren’t doing, we become aware of life – our life.
There are several Buddhist refrains that echo this. Some of us may have already heard them, so I’ll quickly recap them. One is about a teacup and another is about washing dishes. When one drinks a cup of tea, they should only be drinking a cup of tea. They shouldn’t be dreading doing the dishes, or hoping to win the lottery. If so, they’ve lost the most precious gift we have, simply being. The only thing they turn out to actually be doing – is nothing. They aren’t even drinking that cup of tea. Now granted, some of us may not particularly enjoy washing our own dishes, and as someone who lived for years in small apartments, I am fully aware of a life without a dishwasher, but that’s life too. If those breaths you spent while washing your forks and knives were taken away from you suddenly, they would be the most sacred thing you could hope for. Yet we rarely pay them any heed. All of our activities, joyful or tedious, are our activities; and mindful presence in them can create a joy through them. Taking these practices to heart, we can gain a sense of accomplishment.
This month we are exploring what it means to be a people of embodiment. We began the month with a music service remembering the great protest movements in our country, and moved into last week reflecting on the original meaning of Mothers’ Day – an international women’s peace movement. Both looked at how we embody our highest values in our lives. As a people of embodiment, how do we live joy more fully into our lives? One of the stories I told last week talked about how our grudges can weigh us down, and stoop our shoulders. I want to talk a little more about that now. Let’s all try that out in our seats for a moment. Maybe you’re already doing it, but if not go ahead and ruin your posture. Hunch down, even more…. How’s that feel?
Walking around as most of us do – slightly stooped, shoulders slightly curled forward and our breath fast and shallow, just feels bad. More importantly, most of us are completely unaware of the connection. (ok you can stop hunching over now.) I don’t know if you’ve had this sort of experience before; for myself, during the latter part of my years in computers, I began to suffer an odd numbing sensation in my arms. The obvious guess was carpel tunnel; but that turned out not to be the case. I was so extremely stressed out, that it crippled my breathing. I simply was not getting enough oxygen into my body. The final prescription by my medical doctor – was to start breathing. (That was a rough prescription to turn into the pharmacist. She had no idea what to do with that one.) And then the miracle occurred. I could feel my arms again. If the meditative washing of the dishes isn’t an end in itself, which I believe it is, it’s also a good practice for our overall health. I know it might seem trite, but I swear, after trying this out for a few weeks, you start to find joy and even wonder in all the little things. In fact, the things that you previously enjoyed seem all the more sweet.
There’s something more to this practice than our health and awareness. A central tenet of Buddhism is attention to our breath. Buddhism recognizes a link between all of us when we touch this awareness. The symbolism is expressed in what Buddhists call “the Bodhi Spot” or the place where the Buddha obtained Enlightenment. He attained Enlightenment at the foot of a tree. This spot, for us, is not a geographic place on earth. That “place” is reached by all of us when we encounter the “moment – between the moments.” When we put aside our thoughtful distractions and become fully present in whatever we are doing, we all enter that same space together. It’s a joyful way of living into our 7th Principle, “We are all part of this interdependent web of life.”
Often the lack of presence keeps most of us from ever entering the same world as all but a rare few people. We drive past thousands of people every day living in Long Island. For folks who commute on the LIRR to NYC, they’ll walk by even more folks. We’ve all experienced this; whether in the crowded street or the bustling mall. You remember a few faces an hour later, but for the most part, they weren’t ever there. We were certainly moving along, as were they. But we’re often more focused on our daydream world than the streetscape. I even think it highly unlikely those few whose faces I can recall, would remember mine. And they probably wouldn’t remember yours, either. If we missed that many flowers in a garden, we would think we missed the point of the stroll. It’s as if we aren’t even in the same space together, despite our bodies. Too often, we’re not here. It’s a loss; a tragedy that we’re not here. It’s important to recognize this. Living in this massively populated modern world, we may not be able to engage in deep relationship with each passer by, but we can attempt to experience their presence in our midst. And it’s also important to identify when we carry this anonymity into relationships that we can foster.
Besides the Buddha’s tree, there’s another garden story that comes to mind. It talks about how rarely we’re able to be ourselves around others. How we focus more on what others may think, rather than just being ourselves. I’ll confess – I’m not about to offer you the traditional interpretation of this tale, but I expect you’ll come to appreciate this reading of the text a bit more than the conventional view. It’s the Garden of Eden story.
Genesis 3:1-7 is the classic biblical verse where the serpent convinces Eve to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The crime scene culminates with the expulsion from the Garden. God then barricades paradise with angelic Cherubim and fiery swords. In a Christian context, it is often sited as the moment of original sin, although that interpretation doesn’t begin until after the Second Century C.E. And Jewish commentary doesn’t traditionally read sin into this passage. God warns Adam and Eve that if they touch or eat of this tree He will punish them with imminent death. The original language implies a criminal “death penalty” sentence. Ultimately, however, God does not execute the first couple as warned. Rather they are sentenced to a life of suffering and eventual death in exile from the Garden.
That’s the fairly straightforward reading of the passage. I’d like to suggest another way of looking at it that might be more helpful to us as Unitarian Universalists. The moment humankind internalizes the duality of good and evil, as seen through the eating of the fruit, we became aware of our separation from things. Nakedness in the garden is only a concern if you believe that the other things and people around you may bear a judgment about your nudity. A sense of embarrassment or guilt would also raise these fears. For the first time, Adam and Eve didn’t even want to see each other naked. “I don’t want him to look at me.” “I don’t want her to see me like this.” Until this point, from the little we have to go on with this myth, Adam and Eve did not fear or think about things. Presumably they only did things in response to the world around them. Thoughts likely existed for the couple, but they were evidently not controlling influences on the first people. In this idealized Eden, prior to the fruit-tree crime, humankind effectively lived in the moment, each moment. Before the fruit from that middle tree, nakedness was just nakedness. No positive or negative value was placed on it. No shame, no fear, no embarrassment. It simply was.
What does the exile from the Garden mean in non-mythological terms? Does it simply signify the pain in child bearing or the sweat in manual labor the bible details for women and men? Although myths do seek to explain the source of everyday things, they also reveal deeper truths that we too often dismiss beneath the fable. Moving beyond nakedness, one could consider any emotion we experience in light of the Garden; for instance – fear. All of us have experienced it at numerous times throughout our lives. We’re afraid of the next meeting we have with our boss. Or we’re scared of the results of some serious medical test. We might just need a high grade on a big exam to pass a rough course. Or it might be the truck careening into our vehicle. When we’re separate from the Garden we think about our emotions. Fear no longer remains simply fear; rather it grows into a sort of dread.
The constant cycling of our worried thoughts can paralyze us. What will the medical results be? How long will I live? How much pain will I have to undergo to treat my illness? Am I going to get into that good school next year? All of these are genuine concerns about our future. But generally, when we worry, none of them are in the present. Usually, we worry about things that might happen. We create a world that might be – and for the vast majority of us that world is quite unpleasant. Despite popular sentiment, worry is not a useful means of intelligently planning for the future. If the results turn out to be favorable, we’ll have lived through the experience once through our thoughts. If they turn out to be negative, we will be putting ourselves through that dreadful space twice. Living in our world of thoughts about the real world – that is our separation from the Garden. That is our original sin.
In our world of duality, one state only exists in relation to another. Knowledge of good comes with the expression of evil. No longer is it just the world inside the garden, but now there is the world outside the garden as well. Where there’s sin … there’s also grace. But what does grace mean to us? … It’s just being naked. No shame, no guilt, no fear. Worry is not graceful. It’s also not fear. Despite the cherubim and the flaming sword, that now bars entrance to Eden, we can return to the Garden in our life; although the metaphor aptly describes how tricky a proposition that is. We need to separate worry from fear. Fear is the emotion we experience. Worry is what we add to it with our thoughts.
The next time your afraid, just be afraid. This doesn’t mean you ignore the car in the road speeding toward you. But it does mean you don’t consider the cars that missed you, or the other cars that might hit you later on. You just get out of the way.
Most of us will eventually get out of the way; but we’ll do our best to consider all the rest along the road. It’s more than just a lot of energy spent on realities that won’t come to be. It comes back to not living in the life we do have. Instead we’re sleepwalking through fantastical dreams that are both good and bad … but not real.
The self-awareness we gained in the Garden is a gift I deeply cherish. I appreciate the understanding I have over that of any other animal. I even tend to like all my emotions, whether they are full of love and joy, or weighed down by anger. I remember a time when feeling anything was particularly difficult, maybe you remember a time like that too, or maybe you’re feeling numb today. It’s a very hard place to be. Our full and fully present, presence of mind, is the spiritual goal. But just like the first “Fall”, that self-awareness can sometimes feel like more of a burden than a blessing. And yet – joy – can be found in between the moments of hardship and pain.
Adam and Eve grew in wisdom by eating that fruit. They also forgot that everything was OK as it was. After all, they had been running around naked for sometime doing quite well for themselves until then. We can have it both ways though. We don’t need to sacrifice our wisdom to return to the Garden. In a way, we can even return to that state of innocence along with self-awareness. Our experiences are not lost to us with this return. But we do have to let go of our dark dreamings. The innocence we return to is not synonymous with ignorance or even lack of experience. It’s the sort of grace that flows when we’re naked without shame. Sometimes, we can even choose joy, when we allow ourselves.
This sermon was first preached at the UU Fellowship in Huntington on 3/16/14. It explores the nature of evil in response to the horrors of the Holocaust.
The video of the sermon can be watched here.
One of the oldest surviving stories in human history is about the birth of murder. In Hebrew (and later Christian) scriptures, the story of two brothers – Cain and Abel – teach us about the mythic first atrocity. Brother killing brother. Both brothers are loved by God. Cain is a farmer, and Abel is a shepherd. Both offer a sacrifice to God from the fruit of their labors. The story tells us that God is pleased by Abel’s offering of meat, and that God held no regard for Cain’s offering of grain. At first God noticed Cain was disappointed. He asked Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” Shortly thereafter, consumed by jealousy, Cain murders his brother in the fields where Cain toils. When God catches up with Cain and asks him what happened to Abel, Cain responds, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”
Am I my brother’s keeper? These words, to the scripturally-minded, would resonate through the eons as the quintessential backdoor confession of guilt; claiming ignorance and deflecting responsibility. Why should I know or care; that other person is their own man (so to speak) and no problem of my own. It’s an ancient story of murder, but it’s also an early story detailing the roots of evil. We divest of our personal responsibility for those around us – especially when we know they are in trouble – whether we’re to blame or not. Implied in the story, we are our brother’s keeper. Or at least we’re called upon to account for the well-being of those around us.
We often get lost in in the doctrines of original sin. These are interpretations that would come much later in time in the Christian Church.. But from early on – the text itself tells us that evil, that sin, is found when we fail to honor our essential interdependence. When we throw compassion away. It’s found both in acts of harm that are obvious to our sense of morality, and in acts of neglect. Sometimes through complicity, and sometimes through apathy we come to witness evil.
But the nature of evil is not indicative of everything bad we do. Humans make mistakes. Sometimes we’re jerks. We’re short of temper. We’re flippant or rude. We forget to recycle the can of soup. We don’t tip our waiters. Evil is a word I prefer to reserve for the bigger crimes against life. The smaller things are the smaller sins or errors of our ways. Moving forward today though, I’m going to stick with using the word sin to describe the smaller human errors – for our smaller intentional errors. Calling a bad deed an error or a mistake is sometimes appropriate. But sometimes it sounds like we’re talking about a math problem and not human crisis. Separated from the notion of Original Sin and Heavenly Judgement, neither of which I believe in as a Universalist, sin is still relevant. Sometimes we wrong life, in small and big ways – intentionally or not – through our actions or through our lack of actions – and that’s sinful.
Our choir music this morning references the acts of genocide central to the horror of World War II. With the dead reaching beyond 12 million souls – Jews, LGBT folk, dissidents, Gypsies and so many others, the mind can not grasp the loss easily. … Germans killing their own for the differences we pretend are bigger than our humanity. … For us, that staggering number would be akin to the death of two thirds of the people who either live or commute through NYC everyday. Most of our family, most of our friends.
When our music director, Richard, first sent me the lyrics to the choir’s anthem today “Written in Pencil”, I wrote him and said, “I think the lyrics are cut off. Can you resend the document.” All I received was, “Written in Pencil in a Sealed Railway-Car” “here in this carload – i am eve – with abel my son – if you see my other son – cain son of man – tell him that i”…. Richard wrote back and said, “‘Written in Pencil . . .’ isn’t cut off. That is where it ends (poignantly), and it’s as if the writing (in the railway car) has just stopped there. Eve doesn’t have a chance to say anything to Cain. This may be the poet’s way of indicating that the railway car reached its destination and Eve was put to death. It may also be an indication that there is only an unspeakable response to unspeakable horror, even from a mother.” …
And there are no words to finish that thought…. The Holocaust left humanity reeling from what seemed unimaginable before it wheeled into the 20th century. It was grounded in the abject loss of any human sense of interdependence. Evil separates you from I. It teaches us we are alone in this world, and its ok to act from that sense of separateness. On the small scale, being an island to oneself leads to greed, or hate, or fear, or jealousy. Each props up the ego, strengthening the ego’s identity through isolation or group think. Taken to the extreme, these sins lead to horror. It’s a sobering reason to check ourselves when we succumb to the smaller vices lest they rule us.
In Unitarian Universalist circles, we have a propensity toward accepting human goodness in the face of the reality of evil. Even saying “the reality of evil” may get some to raise their eyebrows in polite conversation. We’ve moved away from Original Sin, so we try to throw out all that relates to it, rather than look the difficult parts in their face. This is a great weakness in an unreflective UU theology. One can refuse to believe in an essence to evil, while still recognizing the practice and experience of evil. Hatred that ruins lives, fear that endangers lives – they’re not mistakes. They’re not errors. They’re a perversion of life.
From the big picture, it’s impossible to configure every safeguard, every step along the way, that might have prevented such an atrocity. If war is ever just, war to end genocide is certainly counted amongst the acts of justice. From a practical pastoral level though, we can diminish the roots of evil every day when we offer one simple act.… Being present to one another…. Being present in our messiness, our highs, our lows, and our joys and our sorrows. Being human with one another. This won’t remove the great evils of the day, but it will contribute to reducing the evils of another day – in ourselves, in the people around us. Every act of personal hatred, or fear, or jealously – begins from someone who can’t face the world as it is. They’re either building up their own sense of self by diminishing another, or they’re craving some solace or satisfaction they falsely believe can only be achieved through another’s sense of loss. But with every greed or jealously, the satisfaction of the thing once obtained, rapidly disappears.
The spiritual discipline of Presence teaches us that our souls are not built upon the acquisition of stuff, or in dehumanizing another. Our souls are grounded in the profound reality of being alive, being a witness to life, and being a part of something whose vastness exceeds our imaginations. Presence calls us back to our depth, our breadth, and our essence. It’s opposite, leads us to a road of pain and misery; a road that often drags others along the way. I can’t imagine a form of evil that doesn’t involve ceasing to be present to another’s humanity. Presence may be our most important virtue for this reason. It’s found through openness, and it teaches reverence. All three qualities nurture and respect life.
Our graphic today in the visual presentation depicts an immense pile of shoes from a camp or killing field. The shoes are a testimony to the atrocity that has been committed. They’re also a visible reminder of how evil happens. When each individual’s humanity is relegated to remnants and cast-offs; when we make another’s humanity a number, or a category – we craft evil. When we sit idly by, while the cultural production of evil occurs, we are complicit in its crafting. Evil is not done by acts alone.
Our wisdom story today is probably the best metaphor for my own belief in heaven and hell. I tend not to spend much time on the afterlife. I know it’s an odd thing for a minister to say, especially one who does believe in God. I just don’t find it’s an area that I have much to go on either way, so it’s not very helpful getting caught up thinking about it most of the time. But I do believe our sense of Heaven and our sense of Hell – in this life, and the next (whatever that may entail) is built upon this Jewish Folk story. We create a thousand heavens and a thousand hells in our everyday by how we handle and treat one another. If everyone’s sitting around a warm cooking pot full of nourishing soup, but is stuck with very long handled spoons – the people who care to help one another to the soup will be well fed; those who ignore their interdependence will starve. And those that force others not to help one another will also make the community starve. I think of this when I hear stories of people saying we should cut food stamps; or that people are unemployed because they’re lazy. It’s a profound lack of empathy; it’s a profound lack of being present to the pain of others; and it’s a profound lack of awareness of the actual economic nature of our country. But it’s an easy rallying cry to say, “those people over there! They’re the ones that are the source of our problems.” It’s the nature of evil to do that. And it’s a scary thing.
Heaven and Hell are open to us in every moment, in every way, for every thing. If we retract to our egos when pain or challenge comes along, we will be greeted with further pain and challenge. If we reach out to our neighbors and they do the same, we will nurture a heaven of compassion. It may not end the wars abroad, or violence in the next town over, but it will create pockets of humanity where we have the most influence. And in time, the rest will follow.
This is not the same thing as saying we get what we give, or we get what we send into the universe. I’m not preaching The Secret here, or what they call Laws of Attraction. I’m saying that compassion calls us to reach out – but still – our neighbor has to also reach back. That’s not a given. Reaching out doesn’t earn us or guarantee us a positive response. But spiritually speaking, it’s the only sane thing to do under most circumstances. To put it lightly, in our everyday living, Heaven happens when a group of decent people act like proper humans. Yet, most of the time we don’t do that. Each of us in this room here – each of us – from time to time, we won’t do that.
Hell happens when we institutionalize the clutching and grabbing. It happens when the ego reigns supreme. It happens when decent folk look away. We saw both the clutching and grabbing, and the looking away in the story of Nazi Germany. It’s sobering to know that the two decades prior to the rise of Hitler saw a decade of liberal acceptance followed by an economic downturn. The flow of freedom, turns to an ebb of fear from scarcity – and a people change. It’s easy to say that’s only in them over there back in that decade some 75 years ago. But our Nation’s own history with the depravity of slavery; with the genocide of Native Americans; with the Japanese prison camps; and the Chinese worker-chains; and as our responsive prayer today reminds us – of our actions with the Atomic Bomb.
We have that in ourselves too. Human nature has a profound potential for good. Human nature also has a tendency toward sin when left unexamined. And in some situations – individual – or communal – that sin can be staggering. In each of the American cases of depravity, the people of the time were able to rationalize their actions. Each was based upon the false notion that the other – that the African, or the Native American, or the Japanese or the Chinese – were somehow less deserving of freedom or life because of the arbitrary difference chosen for the moment. We were not present to another human being as a fellow human being. We strengthen our egos through the idolatrous worship of sameness, and we shatter the lives of those that can’t worship our idol because of birth, station or chance.
Some of you may still have a hard time hearing the word sin in reference to our individual actions. Try thinking about it in terms of communal actions for a short time. In society, you might even come to believe in Original Sin, albeit in a new form. Our nation struggles with many institutional forms of oppression. Oppressions that were birthed in another generation, before any of us were alive. Oppressions that were responding to different circumstances in a different time. But they were passed on. Not just in the form of personal bias, but in the form of institutional systems that keep some people down, while lifting others up.
We see it with women who can’t get equal pay for equal work. Is that crisis your personal fault? Yet it continues. It’s inherited in our system, and we have tremendous trouble cleansing our nation of that disparity despite the facts being in the open. You can replace this systematic sin with any other -ism you’d like and it would only strengthen our concern.
God’s words in the early scripture return to us, “And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” When we do well, and things are going smooth, sin is not that close to us. It’s when times are tough, or we fail at something, or we need a scapegoat, that it runs in through the open door. When the stock market is down, or housing is hard to find, or our schools are underfunded, or we can’t seem to stop going to war, or when people’s sense of power is threatened as demographics shift – that is when we must master what’s lurking at the door. When we succeed we may be vulnerable to pride. But when we’re weak, we’re vulnerable to making others weak as well so that we appear strong. In these times of failure, our faith, or our character becomes committed to the care and feeding of our ego, rather than resting upon the eternal bedrock, that can be found, in every moment, where we take in another breadth. Feed your neighbors with your long-handled spoons, and be ready to be fed in return. Make sure to teach our kids that lesson well. It is here that we craft Heaven.