Michael Livingston: The Gift in Grace

“Where are you?” God asks Adam and Eve in the garden. They were naked. Their humanity stripped to skin on bone. They had nowhere to hide. How big could the garden have been? Doesn’t really matter though, does it? It could have been the size of the whole earth, infinite in ways we cannot imagine. A home of beauty with riches for the soul and the body, the heart and the mind - myth as reality, every need anticipated, every desire fulfilled. Nothing compares to this.

Eden has no modern-day parallels. It was better than a Democratic president with blue coats in control of the House and the Senate - the nation’s capital, a playground for a liberal agenda. This garden was better than that. A Supreme Court with an invincible Republican majority and a clear path to interpreting the constitution through a bright red lens, elephants on the march with long memories and wounds that need healing. The Civil War isn’t over yet. This garden was better than that.

They had only to set one thing outside the boundary of their exploration, their curiosity, one thing, one tree in a forest of infinity; one piece of fruit in an endless buffet. They failed. Then they heard God walking in the garden. And they understood what it meant to be naked. This is sin. Called out by God - hearing the judgment of God with this kind of clarity. Hearing, “Where are you?” - fully aware that the asking is rhetorical, the meaning clear, the answer certain. Experiencing nakedness for the first time, with the full force of awareness bearing regret and shame. This is sin. God coming for you, the garden decaying with every step.

Do you know this reality, this sense of the garden disappearing all around you? Relationships eroding, mistakes multiplying, tongue-tying secrets inhibiting freedom of speech? The sure knowledge that God knows where you are and what you’ve been up to? That no matter what you put on, your skin is exposed? All of it. Every naked inch. I know you do. I do. Only the extreme narcissists among us escape the indictment of sin. They never hear, “You’ve been served.” God, walking in the garden. They own the plantation; God would be trespassing. They are victims of their hubris. Deaf to the sound of sin in their lies, the presence of sin in their strategies, their financial schemes, their political machinations. Victims always, inconvenienced by the truth. If Donald Trump and Elon Musk didn’t create this fraternity, they are currently its first citizens. At least Trump fits the description the Australian writer Shirley Hazzard wrote of a character in her novel The Transit of Venus, “...a destroyer who sees [himself] as a perpetual victim.”

But, for all of us, there is no escaping the sting of sin, rebelling against God, denying God’s image on every face. Time is a court of justice. The verdict will be read, justice done.

The third chapter of Genesis is an echo, a defining context of Paul’s 5th chapter of Romans. And I love that Paul doesn’t give an instant of attention to blaming Eve for all of this - there are centuries of bad theology undergirding awful sermons from this toxic perspective. For Paul’s community in first century Palestine the issues were circumcision - who’s in, who’s out? Obedience to Caesar or Jesus, faith or works-righteousness? For us in the twenty-first century, it’s racism, militarism, materialism (thank you, Martin Luther King Jr.); first world or third world; haves and have nots; Mars or earth. Then and now - the question is the same. Shall we live in peace as one people or destroy one another for the vanity of exceptionalism? I am, we are, God’s chosen ones, no other.

Adam and Eve were so like us - wanting it all, respecting no boundaries, exercising freedoms that don’t exist, taking whatever is before us, privatizing God’s creation, price tags everywhere, everything for sale, rationalizing and legalizing theft – even the theft of human beings.

If, in the mythology of the garden, individuals began this sinning, we know now that perpetrators of the sins of injustice that imperil communities, cities, nations, the world are collective. It is gangs, tribes, races, governments, corporations, international conglomerates acting together to carve up the universe like the colonial powers that created African nation-states in the modern sense, where none existed, and in 1948 allied powers establishing the nation of Israel and igniting the never-ending war in Palestine. Today, in Africa and Palestine/Israel, God could be heard walking, if anyone was listening, asking questions no one wants to answer. My people, where are you?

I wish I knew how we get out of this. Our own nation mired in the sins of our creation, genocide and slavery, white privilege and a patriarchy so entrenched in our way of being that our electorate is still closely and deeply divided over issues decided by God in creation. The same divisions that were inherent in our founding constitution exist now: indigenous people were savages, blacks were property devoid of rights, women and poor whites who didn’t own land were second-class citizens.

It is both too simple, yet so deeply and profoundly true, to say Jesus is the answer – at least for the Christian community. But how could one man, however exemplary, be the answer? Just as Adam in our text from Romans stands in for humanity, Jesus, in his divine particularity, stands in for us. We could be like him, just as we are like Adam. And if there is a word, a theological concept, that Jesus brings to life in almost every New Testament encounter we read and in words attributed to him, that concept, that word, that reality, is grace. That free gift, unmerited, renewing, and surprising gift of God - grace.

It was grace that Jesus offered the woman at the well: “Sir, give me this water.” It was grace that sent away with dignity the woman caught in adultery and scattered her accusers in self-reflecting shame. “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone….” It was grace showered over the crowd in the words of the Beatitudes: Blessed are the poor, those who hunger, you who weep now… _you pure in heart… _for… _yours is the kingdom… _you shall be satisfied… _you shall laugh… _you shall see God. It was grace that humbled Jesus in his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman: “Yes Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Grace in the tears Jesus shed over Jerusalem days before his trial and crucifixion: “As he came near and saw the city, he wept….” It was grace that Jesus showered on the criminal one cross over: “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

Here is the really good news, we know it but do not trust it nearly enough: grace is a gift, it cannot be earned, it is given. And here is the gift in grace in three parts: grace is free, grace is stronger than the sin that binds us, and since grace is in Jesus, who wore our very humanity - one with God - it is in us, kin to Christ, God our creator, Spirit our guide. His way can be our way.

God knows we need to walk that way now, as never before. The garden is at risk, there is no righteous place for God to walk. We must ask more of ourselves. Every one of us still drawing breath has a part to play. Yes, we need to organize to save our earth – decaying while we fiddle with a carbon tax and bow to oil. And yes, we need to organize to save our democracy; the moment requires local organizing and large-scale movements across the nation to dismantle systemic racism and white privilege; to return to women control of their bodies from men and their laws to honor the love of one human being for another as each choses so to love; to secure and protect opportunity for those left behind in inner cities and rural communities abandoned by manufacturing; to protect our children from gun violence, now the leading cause of death for the most vulnerable among us.

Movements can seem distant, the work of activists - others. This is our work, every Christian worthy of the name.

Desmond Tutu once said, “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” We have a world to overwhelm. Bits of good to do every day, in every encounter. Our silence, our inaction betrays our great faith, the God of our creation, the Jesus of our humanity, the gift of grace. Frantz Fanon, the great writer and psychoanalyst who gave us The Wretched of the Earth, once said he learned to be “responsible in my body and soul for the fate reserved for my brother.”

Friends, you are hearing this on or near the first Sunday in Lent, February of 2023, but I’m recording this early December 2022. There have been mass killings in Colorado, Oklahoma, Virginia, and over 600 so far this year - at a Walmart, in a gay club, football players in Richmond, Virginia. The war in the Ukraine continues.

Has anything changed as we begin this Lent? It can. We can accept the free gift of God’s grace and like Jesus, care in our “bodies and our souls for the fate reserved for” our earth and our siblings in Christ, wherever they may be.

Let us pray.

Loving God of all creation, the earth is still our garden and grace the fruit that never fails. Help us to live in your grace and love with the whole family of humanity in all the earth. In the name of Jesus, we pray. Amen.