Below is my sermon from June 10, the third Sunday after Pentecost. It focuses on the readings from Genesis and Mark, which both deal with the question of discernment. How do we determine what is good and what is evil? Or, in my title, who (or what) are you listening to? As I mention in the beginning of my sermon, both of these readings start somewhat abruptly. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to read from the beginnings of the chapters to get some context.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
I was tempted to begin this sermon by starting in the middle, as our readings from Genesis and Mark do today. Sometimes picking up right in the middle of a story can be interesting, but other times, like today I think, it’s often confusing.
This Genesis reading is a really well-known story, and maybe that’s why the powers that be thought we could start in the middle. But the thing about well-known stories is, we often remember our own version of the story, rather than what it actually says, so I’d like to spend a little bit of time focusing on this story of Adam and Eve.
Except they aren’t called Adam and Eve, not yet. They’re just the man and the woman. Prior to our reading, they had been instructed by God to live in the garden, and do pretty much whatever they wanted, as long as they didn’t eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
But along comes this serpent, who the Bible tells us is very crafty. And he strikes up a conversation with the woman and convinces her to eat by telling her that eating the fruit will make her like God. And she gives some of the fruit to her husband, who was with her, and he eats, too. That’s a detail we miss a lot. The man is with the woman the whole time. He’s not some unsuspecting bystander, he knows exactly where this fruit is coming from.
And their eyes are opened and they are ashamed of themselves. Ashamed of their nakedness. Ashamed of their humanness. This is where our lesson this morning picked up. Ashamed, they hide from God, who, because of their disobedience condemns the snake to crawl for their rest of its days, and also casts the man and the woman out of the garden.
This story raises so many more questions than answers. Didn’t God know all along that the man and woman would eat this fruit? Why did God put the tree there in the first place? Who created the serpent—God? How are Adam and Eve supposed to know what they’re doing is wrong if they don’t yet have the knowledge of good and evil? Bible stories like this are meant to make us wrestle with big questions—questions to which there are no easy answers.
There’s too many questions for one sermon, and I’d like to focus on just one: how do we discern what is good and what is evil? Or, put another way, to whose voice do we listen? The man and the woman were told one thing by God (do not eat from that tree) and another by the serpent (you can eat that, it’s good). Why did they choose to listen to the serpent over God?
They knew what God said, they knew that God had only been good to them, and yet they did not listen. It reminds me a little of a time when, flying home with my family, I bought one of those huge Toblerone bars in the duty-free shop. Like, five pounds of chocolate. My mom told me, “Don’t eat all of that chocolate during the flight.” I was a teenager. She shouldn’t have even had to tell me that. I knew she was right. But you can all guess where this story is going. Despite knowing that I shouldn’t, I ate all the chocolate. And I still can’t eat more than a tiny piece of Toblerone at a time.
Adam and Eve chose not to listen to God, but instead to listen to the serpent, to listen to their own desires instead of the will of God. Adam and Eve knew what they were doing was against God’s will. They had it pretty easy, if you ask me. They literally saw and talked to God and knew exactly what God wanted of them. And still they screwed it up.
How do we, who don’t have the luxury of hearing directly from God’s lips, decide what is good and what is evil? How do we decide what is from God and what is not? Discernment, making these decisions about good and evil, is not easy.
The scribes in our gospel reading come down from Jerusalem to meet this Jesus who is making such a fuss. And they see his power and they discern that he is from Satan. Now, this story would be easier if the scribes were purely evil. They’re not. They are the educated religious and cultural elite committed to maintaining domestic and religious life in challenging times.
They recognize Jesus’ power: the power that has cast out demons and healed the sick. And yet the scribes confuse good for evil and evil for good. They say that Jesus and his work are evil, are from Satan. Now, Satan is not some little man with a pitchfork and a spiked tail. We don’t think of the devil in that way anymore. But we would be kidding ourselves if we did not acknowledge that, while we don’t believe in a physical devil, there are still powers of evil that continue to seek our allegiance. That continue, like the serpent, to try to make us confuse good for evil and evil for good.
They have even craftier names nowadays. Nationalism, which will tell us that good and evil are relative, so long as our nation is safe; which allows us disregard fellow human beings, simply because they come from another country. Patriarchy, which has its very roots in today’s Genesis reading, tells us that human beings are not equal, and that it’s okay for us to treat some as less than. Racism, which does much the same thing along the falsely constructed lines of race. Consumerism, which tells us that what we have and what we own determines our worth and our power over others. And that insidious idea that comes from so many corners that tells us that we are never good enough: never rich enough, pretty enough, smart enough, important enough. We must always be seeking to improve.
These voices are crafty like the serpent, because they usually don’t seem all that evil on the surface. In fact, they often seem good. So how do we know what is good and what is evil? The easiest way to tell might be to look at the outcomes. Listening to these voices of evil sows divisions and alienations—which is exactly what they want. When the man and the woman stand accused by God, things go south quickly.
The man blames the woman, and blames God for giving him the woman in the first place. The woman blames the serpent. And so it goes. The voices of evil which seek our allegiance want to turn us against each other, rather than toward each other. They want us to be divided from each other. A house divided cannot stand. And evil wants us to fail.
But the voice of Jesus, the voice of God, says something different to us: do not be confused. Call evil, evil; and good, good. Do not divide your allegiance, do not divide your very self, but belong to God. The people around him, including his family, thought that Jesus was out of his mind. Maybe he was. But maybe that’s what we need to be, too.
To trust so much in God’s promises that people call us crazy. To believe that all people are made in God’s image, that no one is any less worthy of love and respect because of their gender or the color of their skin or their nation of origin. To believe God when God says that we are enough. That we don’t have to be anything other than what we are to be loved.
There are so many voices seeking our attention, trying to claim us. And it is not always easy to know the good from the evil. Life would be much simpler if it were. The serpent is crafty, but God will not let the serpent get the last word. Let us cling to the voice of God, which says that we are brothers and sisters. Which says that we are enough. Which says that there is always room for more at the table of grace. And which, at the end of the day, when all the other voices fade away, says that we are loved. Amen.