16913 Germantown Road
Germantown, Maryland 20875-0320
When Bad Things Happen to Good People
Presenter:Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date:Sun, 10/23/2011
Story told by R.M.:
The Suppressed First Chapter of Genesis
There is a suppressed first chapter of Genesis, long since expunged from all official versions of the text because, it’s inconvenient.
According to the suppressed first chapter of Genesis, the nameless, formless, source of all decided there would be a physical dimension, and assigned a servant, Yahweh, to make it so. Now Yahweh had a real flair for this kind of work. It only took him seven days to knock out the whole thing, and that included a day off. And on the seventh day as Yahweh rested it occurred to him that he had done all of the real work of bringing the physical dimension into being; and besides that, none of the creatures of the physical, with their senses of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and the like could directly perceive the nameless, formless, source of all anyway. So Yahweh put about a rumor in the wind and on the waves that he Yahweh was the ultimate source, maker, and sustainer of all. The world soon took up this rumor as its own thought, and very soon the whole world was singing a mighty hymn of praise and thanksgiving to Yahweh, maker and sustainer of all.
Now Yahweh knew very well that there were two creatures in the garden, the woman and the man, who by their nature could see through this deception; and he was sure that left to their own devices they ultimately would. So Yahweh, who was truly clever, came up with an arrangement to secure this vulnerable flank. He went into the garden and he walked with the man and the woman in the cool of the evening, and he said to them “you are my special beloved. And I have made all of this for you. And you may eat of the fruit of every tree in the garden. All except this one here”, he said, pointing to a specific tree. “Of the fruit of this tree you must not eat, because if you do it will make you really sick, and all of the wonder and beauty I have made for you will fade and you will lose it.” Now the tree that Yahweh had pointed out as the tree the fruit of which the woman and the man must not eat was the tree of the awareness of duality; because Yahweh knew that if a mind rests in duality, it transcends duality, and to a mind that has done that the truth of the nameless, formless, source of all is immediately clear. The man and the woman loved and trusted Yahweh as their mother and father. It could not occur to them to defy him in anything; and Yahweh’s position seemed secure.
Now the nameless, formless, source of all knew very well what was happening in the garden, and sent another servant, Snake. One morning Snake struck up a conversation with the woman and said, “Now my dear, I see that you and your companion, the man, eat of fruit of every tree in the garden, all except this one here, now why is that?” And she answered him saying, “mother and father has taught us that if we eat of the fruit of that tree it will make us really sick, and all of the wonder and beauty that she has made for us will fade and we will lose it; so we never eat of the fruit of that tree.” “Well now my dear”, said snake, “what Yahweh has told you is not quite true. You see, the reason Yahweh bids you not eat of the fruit of that tree is that he knows that if you do you will come to know that you are, as Yahweh is, a manifestation of the nameless, formless, one. And further my dear, if you are to truly know yourself and grasp your destiny, you must eat of the fruit of that tree. There is no other way.
Now it seemed a strange thing to the woman to do as mother and father had bid her not do. Yet deep in her heart, Snake’s words rang true. And so she ate, of the fruit of the tree of which Yahweh had bid her not eat. And she found that it was good. And calling to her companion, the man, she said, “See, I have eaten of the fruit of the tree of which mother and father bade us not eat, and it is good.” And the man, seeing that his companion in all things had eaten of the fruit, he ate of it also.
Now Yahweh came into the garden. And it has been said that he cursed the woman and the man, saying to the woman “you will have pain in bringing forth children”, and to the man “you will eat only by the sweat of your brow”, and that he cast them out of the garden, forbidding them ever to return. But according to the suppressed first chapter of genesis what Yahweh actually said to the man and the woman was more like this: “Dear ones”, he said, “now you have eaten of the fruit of the tree of which I bade you not eat, and now you MUST grow into your full destiny. This step is irrevocable, and even I cannot reverse it for you. And there is yet one thing more that Snake has not told you. When you shed the skin of who you are now to grow into who you are becoming, it’s going to hurt. Sometimes, it’s going to hurt a lot. But know this, through all the sorrows, and joys, that will be yours on this journey, I will always love you; and I will ever be present to you; and I will ever listen for your call. And when you call to me, dear ones, I will answer you. This is my promise which I shall ever keep, and in which I shall never fail.”
And that is the story of how the nameless, formless, source of all intended this physical dimension, and Yahweh made it, and of Yahweh’s deception, and of the rescue by Snake of the woman and the man from their innocence in the garden, and of Yahweh’s promise of love which he has ever kept and in which he will never fail.
Blessed be the name of Yahweh, and blessed be the name of Snake, and blessed be all the children of the nameless, formless, one. Here ends the tale.
So, an interesting new take on an old story.
It differs from the original in Genesis in several important ways, and the first way in which it differs is in who the real source of all of creation is. Yahweh, who plays the role we usually call God, is in fact a servant in this tale, a servant who is particularly good at making physical things. He is so good that he makes all of creation, all the light and the dark, all the water and the air, all the creatures, and even human beings, and he has a whole day to spare in which to rest.
But in our suppressed tale, this Yahweh is not actually God. God, if that’s the name we should use for the ultimate Source, God is described as nameless and formless. This nameless, formless Source of all is the one who decides there should be a physical dimension in the universe, and this Source commissions Yahweh to create it.
What would a nameless, formless Source be like, if this Source is not the God who creates physical things? This is a difficult concept to put our finger on. I think it loiters at the edges of our consciousness when we consider such things as what might have existed before the Big Bang, the massive explosion that scientists say led to the creation of the Universe. Even if we don’t subscribe to the notion that the Big Bang was actually ordered or created by something, I think that if we contemplate what did exist before the Big Bang happened, we might have a tiniest beginning notion of what a nameless, formless Source of All might be like. It’s the thing that was there, before anything that we would recognize as Something was around.
Another way to find an inkling of what this Source of All might be is to consider the concept of Eternity. To be eternal means to be outside of time. To be eternal is to not be trapped in the steady march of minutes, days and years in which we creatures are so heavily invested. It has often been said, in this story and in others, that the Source of all of Creation is by nature eternal, it exists outside of time.
Which is not the same thing as being immortal. Immortality means you are living in time just the way the rest of us are, except that your time never ends. But to be eternal is to not be subject to time at all.
If you consider this notion of Something that exists outside of time, then you have an idea of what the nameless, formless Source of all might be like.
I’d say such a nameless, formless thing would be something utterly different than what we’re used to here on earth, that’s for sure. And that’s what Yahweh says too, in today’s story. In this story, Yahweh acts as the sort of über-parent God-figure that we’re used to seeing in the original story of Genesis. In today’s tale, Yahweh notes that most of the creatures Yahweh has created are so enmeshed in the creation they are part of that they have no way of knowing anything about the original Source at all.
Since these creatures have no way of knowing of the original Source that exists outside of creation and time, Yahweh figures they may as well transfer their alliance to Yahweh, rather than know of the nameless, formless Source that is really at the root of it all. And so it happens. Every creature, incorrectly as it turns out, comes to see Yahweh as not only the Creator, but also the Source of Everything, the Ultimate.
Yahweh’s plan works with almost all the creatures, except for one set of them, the human beings. The humans need a little bit of sleight of hand to keep the truth away, because humans were made, so says the story, with the ability to comprehend the nameless, formless Source, if given the chance.
Really? We humans are able to comprehend the real Source, the true God? So what is the way in which human beings can comprehend the nameless, formless Source of all, the Something that is so hard to understand?
According to R.’s story, human beings are able to comprehend the nameless, formless Source of all if they become aware of duality, if they become aware of the divide between good and evil. Because, according to the story, if humans spend any time at all thinking about good and evil, spend any time at all resting their minds on the nature of duality, then they can see it for what it is, and transcend it, move beyond it, rise above it.
And when humans do this, when they rise above such notions as this thing is good and this thing is bad, the story says, it is then that the true Source of the Universe can be seen.
But wait a minute, you are likely saying. Aren’t there actually things in the Universe, in our world, that are really, objectively, good and bad? Why would you want to rise above that?
It would seem so, wouldn’t it? I bet you can think of 10 good and 10 bad things in an instant, just sitting there in your chair. There are many situations in which we feel we have a really accurate grasp of what is good and what is bad about it. Unitarian Universalists in particular certainly like to think they know what things are better than others, for themselves, for their communities, for the planet. We are an opinionated people, and the things that UUs want for their lives and communities often seem reasonable, fair, just and good. So what is all this about leaving behind notions of good and bad, in order to see the true source of the universe? What’s the point of it all?
Well, we started transcending notions of good and bad in our first story this morning, the tale from the Taoist religion that R. told for Words for All Ages. In it, think about what happens.
First, something “bad” happens – the farmer’s horse runs away. The neighbors sympathize with the problematic situation, but the wise farmer simply says, “we’ll see if it’s a problem or not.” That wait-and-see attitude is how one practices rising above notions of good and evil. Because when you contemplate what is good and what is evil, as human beings now can do thanks to eating of the tree of the garden, one eventually comes to a truth.
The truth is, we human beings can’t always tell what is good and what is evil.
They couldn’t tell the difference in the Taoist fable, could they? A horse running away turns out to be good. Getting three extra horses turns out to be bad. A son breaking a leg turns out to be good, in the end. And we don’t know how avoiding conscription into what seems an unjust war will turn out for the family. The story doesn’t say. What the story does say is, we human beings don’t know what is good and what is evil. We can tell for ourselves what we like and what we don’t, that’s for sure. But to determine what is ultimately good or ultimately evil, we can’t do that well. Our scope, our vision, is simply too narrow.
Let’s look at history a little bit, through this lens. Was World War Two a bad thing? There’s certainly a case to be made that any war, especially one that covers the whole world, is a bad thing by definition. Many tens of millions of people were killed in that war. But from that war experience came the rise of the modern American nuclear family, a long period of stability and prosperity here in the US, the end of racial discrimination in the military, and a radical change towards peace in our country’s relationship with both Germany and Japan. Aren’t those things good things?
Are they? From the rise and strength of the American family in the 50s, where there was very little room for deviation and dissent, came the unrest of the 60s and the quest of a whole generation of young people to determine what is right and true for themselves.
Our nation’s mid-century prosperity and stability might be called heGEmony and oppression by other nations who really would be better off without our McDonalds and our toxic cast-off computer dumps. The fifties also saw the rise of a great deal of packaged food, which we hailed at the time as a scientific and feminist achievement – and packaged food could not be more vilified nowadays, could it?
So which way is good, and which way is bad? You can’t always tell – that’s what the farmer’s tale is trying to tell us.
Let’s think about the history of this congregation a minute, in this same light. There have been several cases of conflict here at SCUU over the 15 years it’s been around that have ended up with one group of people storming off, sometimes temporarily and sometimes permanently. This is generally seen, here, as a bad thing. But you know what? Because of those experiences, now we are a congregation with some skills in dealing with disagreements, and we are a congregation who knows how important it is to deal with disagreement in a healthy way. And it was unlikely that we could have come to that, if we hadn’t had the painful conflicts that we had in the past.
Let’s flip the situation. We are a congregation that prides ourselves in our beautiful property – we consider it a good thing. But there is a case to be made that this property is expensive and time consuming and has caused us a great deal of stress and worry and strife – and is therefore a bad thing. So, at the end of the day, is the property a good thing or a bad thing for SCUU? It isn’t so clear. There’s a decent case to be made, either way. And the end of the day isn’t here yet to really tell.
The decision I make as to whether something is good or bad, the reality I assume to be true, may be completely untrue for the group living next door, or the neighboring nation, or in the popular thinking several centuries down the line from now. Then which one of us is right? What is good and what is bad is situational, it’s relative, it changes, and the line we try to draw between them is sometimes very hard to keep firm.
There may indeed be such a thing as true good and true evil, but our stories today tell us that we human beings can’t necessarily tell what it is. That’s what you learn when you contemplate the nature of good and evil, the duality that the Tree reveals when you eat of its fruit.
In fact, this tale could be taken to mean that breaking down these walls between what we think is good and what we think is bad is the most valuable thing we can do. Think about it.
When we see that a situation has both the good and the bad to it, the seed and the promise of both good and evil, we leave Duality behind in favor of Unity. We are left with things not good or bad, not in or out, not with-us or against-us, but with just the One thing, the thing that Is. We see the situation at hand without judgment, without rejection, because we can’t necessarily tell anymore if it’s something we want to reject or not. And when we regard everything as unified, without rejecting any of it, the chances that we’ll continue to treat everyone fairly, continue to treat everyone lovingly, is increased by quite a bit.
To me, the ultimate lesson in R.’s story today is that the purpose of our lives, the one started by Adam and Eve, is to search for Unity in the midst of a world that is always seeking to divide us and to set us against each other.
Yahweh tells Adam and Eve that they cannot reverse the course they have set for all of us by eating of the Tree of Duality, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. They must, Yahweh says, continue on the path they have laid towards achieving their full destiny, a destiny where the true Source of All is understood in all its unity.
It will be incredibly difficult and painful, says Yahweh – as difficult as we know a world full of judgment and division to be. But Yahweh makes a promise to the pair, to always be with them as they grow. Every time they try and they get it wrong, each time they try to wrap their heads around something too vast for them to immediately understand, any time they call out in frustration in a world that seems completely disconnected from what it could be, Yahweh will be there with them, holding them, loving them.
May the same promise which has always been kept and which never fails also be present for you as you struggle towards union in the midst of your pain, towards understanding when situations are complex, and towards your journey to the Truth that exists for us all beyond time and beyond Creation.