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The Rev. Sheila C. Gustafson The Rev. Sheila C. Gustafson

The Rev. Sheila Gustafson is retired as senior pastor and head of staff at First Presbyterian Church of Santa Fe, NM.

Member of:

Presbyterian Church (USA)

Representative of:

First Presbyterian Church of Santa Fe, NM


Snake Bite

Genesis 2:4b-9, 3:15-17, 25:3-7

February 25, 1996

On this first Sunday in Lent, the lectionary sends us back to Genesis to read again the story of the first humans and their need to be in control of their own lives. In an effort to explain the human condition, the Yahwistic writer tells the story of how God created man and woman, giving them, from the beginning, three wonderful gifts. The first gift was the gift of life itself, a gift so sacred and so valuable that humankind was to treasure and respect it always. And, as unique and wonderful as human life is, God also gave life to animals and to plants, set in motion a complex eco­structure, and recognized the need for a caretaker, a steward of the creation in all its marvelous variety.

The second gift came directly from that recognition ~ God gave humankind the gift of meaningful work. "God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till and keep it." Although our work may not always seem like a gift, we can hardly imagine life without purpose, without the sense that we are making a contribution.

The third gift was the one which proved the most problematic for human beings: God gave the gift of freedom ~ freedom, that is, within limits. "You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat you shall die."

There is something about the human which cannot accept being told "This far, and no further." If there is a limit imposed, there is a limit to be challenged. We have only to observe humankind at our most basic in the form of a two-­year-old child to see how powerful is the urge to be in control. They don't call the third year of life the "terrible twos" for nothing. How often have we watched preschoolers insist on crossing the line; touching the hot stove; pushing over the plant ~ only to be confronted with consequences too difficult for them to handle? A toddler's face reflects shock, and the loss of innocence, in such a misadventure. It takes a few years more to feel the shame endemic to the human condition. If it is difficult for a two year old to accept that Mom or Dad knows what is best for their child, it is even more impossible for a teenager. How often have we been successful in sharing our painfully acquired wisdom with our young adult children? It seems as if every generation needs to test the limits for itself. And it is the agonizing experience of every generation that there are some consequences which are more powerful and chaotic than we can manage.

God gave human beings the third gift, the gift of freedom within limits ~ and it has been the most difficult gift of all. As the Yahwist tells the story, it is the serpent who encourages the woman to violate the proscription against eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Interesting that it should be a serpent. The ancient world found snakes fascinating and attributed to them mysterious powers for good and evil. Snakes were associated with many pagan gods and goddesses, acting as their familiars and their signs. The royal kings of Egypt are often depicted wearing on their headdresses a rearing serpent. Snakes supposedly had mystical insight and wisdom, and could impart that knowledge to those they chose. Even though the serpent was associated with pagan religions, and in our story was supposedly punished for its role in events, remarkably the Old Testament reports the presence of a bronze snake in Solomon's temple as an object of veneration, if not of worship, well into the development of Judaism.

The original impulse to disobedience may have been external to the human, but ever since, as history has amply demonstrated, the impulse has been from within. How convenient that we should blame the snake, or the devil, or our peer group, or our parents or anything outside of ourselves. It is in us to want to test the boundaries, to know whatever it is that we think is being kept from us, to control whatever has an influence on our lives. And, like Eve and Adam after her, the forbidden fruit is the very fruit that we know will taste sweetest.

The danger is, of course, that having eaten the fruit, having gained the knowledge, we are often not equipped to deal with the consequences of what we know, of what we are able to do, and with the devastating discovery that, even with all of this knowledge, we are still not in control of all the circumstances of our lives.

This has been a devastating week for two families in my congregation who have had to make end-of-life decisions for loved ones. They have lived for weeks in the high tech world of the intensive care unit where marvelous machines take over for body organs which are out of commission, where scanners and imagers provide information about what is going on deep in the core of the human body, where sophisticated machines do wonderful things. All of these scientific marvels were developed for the purpose of bridging the gap from sickness to health. The difficulty comes, however, in the fact that the machines and the medicines do not know the difference between a patient who is recovering and one who is dying, and so they will keep breathing, and blood­-cleansing, and monitoring until some human being determines it is time to shut them off. Who makes that decision, and when should it be made? The truth is, we don't really know. Our technical knowledge outstrips our ethical development.

There are countless examples of how the human need to know and understand have pushed ahead of the human capacity to think ethically and theologically. Back in the middle ages, physicians who wanted to learn about human anatomy by dissecting cadavers were anathema to the church. Somehow, the human community has found a way to understand such activities as useful without being disrespectful ~ a contribution to the common good. Back in the l940's scientists discovered a way to split atoms and unleashed a power for destruction hitherto unimagined. Was the world ready for the decisions about good and evil which came with that knowledge? Today, again, we find all our assumptions challenged by the ethical dilemmas of fetal tissue research, of experimentation with animals, of increasing evidence that sexual orientation is biologically determined, of prenatal testing for birth defects. Does the fact that these things are a problem for us mean that we should not permit scientists to move ahead in these areas? It is clear that such a prohibition is not an option. The forbidden fruit has been tasted, the snake had done its work, symbolic ways of saying that the human is by nature a limit­tester. It is not possible to get back behind the Garden of Eden story.

My favorite theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, has written extensively on the nature of the human and some of his insights are helpful here. He explains that because the human has been given the gift of freedom within limits, and because we recognize the paradox of that state of being, humans are anxious. We are tempted to deny the limitations of our knowledge by maintaining the illusion that we are in control. "Anxiety," Niebuhr says, "is the internal description of the state of temptation." Anxiety itself is not sin, because there is always the ideal possibility that faith would "purge anxiety of the tendency toward sinful self­-assertion." The ideal possibility is that faith in the ultimate security of God's love would overcome all immediate insecurities of nature and history. Anxiety is not sin...it is the precondition of sin, but (and here is the incredible paradox of human existence) it is also the basis of all human creativity." Listen to Niebuhr here:

(The human) is anxious because life is limited and dependent and yet not so limited that he does not know of his limitations. He is also anxious because he does not know the limits of his possibilities. He can do nothing and regard it perfectly done, because higher possibilities are revealed in each achievement. All human actions stand under seemingly limitless possibilities. There is therefore, no limit of achievement in any sphere of activity in which human history can rest with equanimity.

The story of the temptation of Jesus illustrates what Niebuhr was getting at. In Matthew's gospel, Jesus had come directly from his baptism in the Jordan to his retreat in the wilderness where he wandered alone, contemplating his mission. His questions must have been many: How was he going to accomplish the ministry entrusted to him by God? How would he subsist in the meantime? What kind of worldly credibility did he have which would make people listen to what he had to say? Jesus was anxious. The precondition for temptation was there. However, anxiety is not in itself sin ~ as Niebuhr says, there is always the possibility that the anxiety can be addressed by faith. Systematically in the temptation story we see Jesus addressing his own anxiety, dramatically highlighted for us in the figure of the devil, by drawing upon the resources of faith: How was he going to feed himself? "one does not live by bread alone;" how was he going to demonstrate his credibility? Not by selling his soul for all the kingdoms of this world. "Worship the Lord your God and serve only him."

Human creativity comes from the same source as human sin ~ the anxiety we feel about our finitude. Human creativity has accomplished wonderful and terrible things. All those machines and medicines we have available to us today ~ they save lives, they improve the quality of life for countless people. They also allow human beings to find themselves in impossible situations.

The time came for two of our families this past week when they called upon all the knowledge of those humans best informed about the workings of the human body, their physicians, and they realized again, with terrible clarity, that human knowledge is limited. Yet, with their limited knowledge they were called to exercise their stewardship of that first and most precious gift, human life. Surely that is one of the most difficult decisions any family, or any individual has to make. It seems impossibly arrogant to think we can know when it is time for someone to die; and it seems impossibly arrogant to impose physical life upon someone whose spirit seems to have returned to God.

The time came when the most creative inventions of the human mind had reached their limits, and as they were turned off one by one, each human being was thrown back upon his or her humanity. Stripped of their magic machines and drugs, the doctors were simply human ~ their human compassion and limitations evident, and comforting. At the boundaries of science there is only meaninglessness, or faith.

The dilemma which is so graphically illustrated in the story of the Garden of Eden, the limit-testing which brings into being the greatness of human creativity and the destructiveness of human sin, is resolved finally, only by acknowledging our human limitations and our total dependence upon the love and grace of God. God did not punish those disobedient humans with instant death as was threatened; instead God entered into a history-­long project to redeem them. The apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans... "If, because of the one man's trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the man, Jesus Christ."

When the decisions which must be made are decisions which seem too difficult for human beings to make; when, but for human intervention, they would have been God's decisions, the human can only get the best information available, and then with trust in the grace of the One who alone, of the whole race of us, was able to address his human anxiety perfectly with faith, fall back into the love and compassion of almighty God, who created us and gave us the gifts of life, work and freedom within limits. Amen.


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