Blame and Responsibility

Pentecost 3C   Genesis 3:8-15,  Mark 3:20-35

Who is to blame? That’s the question I think we ask ourselves and each other, especially others who think and believe like us, every single day. Who is to blame for how my life, our lives, the world, and fill in the blank are not as they should be? Whose fault is it? Because, if I could just find out who it was that didn’t put a new garbage bag in the garbage can, or did something careless to damage the engine cooling pump on my car, or who voted for whatever law or regulation that I don’t think was helpful in making our society more compassionate, or whatever oil company is ruining our environment, or whichever political party did something to negatively affect my retirement investments, then I could blame them. I, perhaps I could even say we, could blame whoever did these and countless other things every day for every problem in the world.

We human beings are very good at blaming someone or something else for things that go wrong. It’s not thinking through a problem looking for the truth or taking ownership of our own little corner of the world, it’s just finding a quick fix answer for who to dump responsibility upon so we can be safe and have an outlet for our frustration and anger believing that knowing who to blame is a solution. I know that I could place the frustrations of an entire week on having to deal with that one incident of a garbage can with no bag in it. It’s all so much easier that way.

In our text for this morning from the book of Genesis, we hear a familiar tale from the primordial days of humans about sin. This story is about, as it is sometimes called, original sin, or as it is better described, the origins of sin. Even the title we give this story saying it’s about Original Sin, which is a comparatively modern thing that certainly did not exist at the time this tale was first written down or when Jesus would have read and taught it as a first-century rabbi, skews our understanding of what it means. Original Sin implies there is one person to blame; one person worthy of our scorn for such a thing as this that has caused us truly immeasurable pain and suffering throughout time.

Look! There she is! The greatest scapegoat of all time! It’s her fault! She disobeyed God! She had some sort of relationship with the evil serpent and now she can tempt men to sin! She is weak and evil! Beware of her and all of her daughters for they are all manner of darkness and sin and will contaminate everything!

All of the crimes committed against women simply because they are women, which are Legion, are not the fault of Christianity or Judaism or Islam alone (the three traditions who look to the book of Genesis for the origins of life), but that view of this story has surely permitted a lion’s share of those crimes. This interpretation, so skewed and distorted, also makes it possible for us to turn away from or be silent in the face of injustice towards women throughout history. If women were the bringers of Original Sin, they probably get what they deserve.

I wish that I could tell you that I’ve only read that argument in musty old books written by men who were shaped by the historical setting in which they lived. I wish I could say that I’ve never personally heard anyone make that argument overtly, out loud, to me. I wish that I could say that when I’ve heard that belief spoken it was only by people who did not know better or that it was only spoken by men. But I cannot.

This story graciously given to us in the book of Genesis is about the origins of sin. It is not about the one single, individual person to whom we may point and say is to blame. It is about the origins, roots, underlying brokenness, the basic building blocks of sin which, unlike salvation, does not have a person as its cornerstone but a tangled mess of actions.

There have been countless theological pages written about the scene immediately prior to our text for today; Eve’s conversation with the serpent and her taking the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge and giving it to Adam. The act of disobedience itself is found in a single verse. She took, ate, gave to him who was right there beside her the whole time, and he ate.

The story does not stop there. We often stop there because we like the illusion that problems are simple. But the story does not stop there because that set of actions alone might be what we’ve always isolated as The Original Sin, but it is not the origins of sin. That is more complex.

God comes to the garden in the cool of the evening. What a beautiful image that is. Whether we ask for it or not, in the midst of our troubles and confusions and mistakes, in the midst of beauty and comfort, God comes. And God comes for relationship with us. That’s what God is there for in this scene, to see and be with the children of God.

But the children of God hide in the trees and do not come to walk with God in the cool of the evening. Where are you, God asks, as a parent might ask a hiding child. The confession comes. I hid because I was afraid and I was naked. I hid from you, O God, because I was scared and I was vulnerable.

When I was a very little girl, I remember hiding from my mother in the kitchen pantry.

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I’d been in there eating peanut butter from the jar with my fingers. I knew I wasn’t supposed to do that. But I heard her in the hallway, so I shut the door. “Hmmm, I wonder where Rosemary is,” she said as she opened the pantry door. I think I said something about not eating any peanut butter before she even asked me a thing. Not only did I still have the open jar in my hands, but she leaned in and said, “I can smell peanut butter on your breath.”

 

God asks two questions. Who told you that you were naked? Did you eat the fruit?

Actually, in the Hebrew, it says: Did you, from the tree I told you not to eat from, eat from it? I think my mother must have taken lessons from this. Did you, when I told you not to eat peanut butter with your hands and not to eat it before dinner, eat peanut butter?

Who told you that you were naked and therefore vulnerable to being hurt or that you should be ashamed? This almost seems like an unimportant question and, in many ways, the answer is self-evident: no one told them. How much harm have we done in this world because of fear and feelings of shame? These are the origins of much of the hurt we do to others.

The second question is the one that really needs answering. This, too, is probably as self-evident as peanut butter breath. But despite this being a yes or no question, the response is fairly elaborate. The woman you gave me, well, she gave me the fruit and I ate it. Yes, there are two places for blame besides me. It was really your fault because you gave me this woman, but it was also her fault because she made me.

Oh really, God seems to say.

Well, it was the serpent that tricked me, says the woman. The devil made me do it. To be clear, there is no solid reason to believe that this serpent is intended to be the devil. Yet both of the children of God are eager to say the devil made me do it. That is, the other one is to blame; the animal, the person, or even God is to blame, not me. It’s their fault; it’s your fault, God, not mine.

A friend of mine used to always tell her adopted children that they were responsible for their own actions. These children had experienced many things that children should never endure, and she had a great deal of compassion for the suffering they had experienced. But she also understood that blame was not the same thing as responsibility. It was not their fault that bad things had happened in their lives and had happened to them, but how they chose to behave, the help they chose to seek out, and the way the responded when they made mistakes of their own was their responsibility.

The origins of sin lie here in this story. Fear, shame, blame, and the desire to be like God, as though we were not already bearers of the image of God. The consequences of these things are what God lists at the end of this story, a portion of which we heard today. This is not a description of how God is punishing, or what mean and cruel things God is doing. It is definitely not a description of how human relationships are supposed to be, with one dominating the other, one accusing and demonizing the other, or how people are to relate to the natural world, as though we are enemies, as though nature itself were an evil thing to be conquered. Rather it is a description of the ways in which the world and we are broken.

It is also a description of the things Jesus has come to heal and the things we are called to move away from as followers of Jesus. We are called to move away from fear towards love and compassion, from blame and scapegoating of others to repentance and to taking responsibility for ourselves, our actions, and for the world.

Who is to blame for Original Sin? This is never a question that God asks in this story. It is never really the most important question anyway. Finding the blame for Original Sin when blame itself is part of the whole origin of sin in the first place is a hopeless circle that never gets around to healing the problems, which is really what this is all about. Who is to blame and who is responsible are not the same thing. If we must have an answer, it is best to say we are all to blame and be done with that question altogether.

So, who is taking responsibility for this mess of sin we have gotten ourselves into? That would be Jesus. And Jesus calls us family, calling us to also be responsible as he works through us in healing the world. We are empowered by the Holy Spirit to be actively responsible for untangling the sin in the world, to turn around from the ways in which we are fearful, ashamed and shaming, blaming and trying to be God instead of being a part of God’s work in the world, and instead practice love and compassion, courage and humility.

We, Jesus Christ and his family, the Children of God, are responsible for ourselves and the care of this world. So let us go from here this day, in the power of the Holy Spirit, no longer seeking to blame but seeking to follow Jesus in healing the world.

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