Everything we do should flow from gratitude. There is a simple principle that undergirds everything that we, as Presbyterians, should do: it all begins with God, and it all ends with God. Everything else streams forth from that. And it all starts with our lesson this morning from Genesis, the story of Creation.
Actually, this is the second of two Creation stories in Genesis. The first recounts the days, or periods, of Creation – from the light and darkness to the earth and the seas to the birds and animals and people through to the day of rest, that first Sabbath. This second story zeroes in on humanity: those first people formed in the image of God, man and woman, Adam and Eve.
It is an odd story to read, admittedly. From all of the wisdom we have gained from scientific knowledge down through the centuries, it can be jarring to revisit our own origin story in Scripture. And there can be a temptation to pit the two against each other, faith and science, in a kind of cage match where only one can come out alive. Either Genesis or Darwin is right. Pick your side.
Those of you who know me well know that this isn’t the way I approach these things at all. And that’s not just because I’m married to a scientist who holds the two in healthy tension in her own life. I think the key to it is right there in the Genesis story itself.
You see, there are a couple of moments in the story that give me pause. The first is when woman is created from man, from his rib, because he needs a helper. As soon as I read this, I remember that throughout the rest of Scripture, despite the culture and time in which it is written, there is an overall ethic of equality. From the first story of Creation where God creates man and woman in the image of the divine all the way to Paul’s proclamation in the New Testament that in Christ men and women meet on equal footing, there is a clear rejection of the idea that somehow man is superior to woman. Not only that, the first woman shares the title “helper” with God’s very self, bringing a depth of power and holiness to it all.
This intimate connection between God and humanity, however, is countered by the presence of this forbidden fruit in the middle of the Garden of Eden. God gives them access to everything, absolutely everything, except for this tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Why? Why in the world would God not allow these precious folks to know what good and evil are? Why would that be forbidden to them? And how do we hold onto this while simultaneously proclaiming that the pursuit of knowledge is a noble and even faithful objective?
It’s a puzzling question, certainly. And then, when we look at it through the lens of our current political and cultural climate, the whole thing gets particularly sticky. Especially during Primary Season, there is such obnoxious, pandering overconfidence about who or what is good and who or what is evil; and it tends to reinforce the same within us, taking us back to that ancient tree in the Garden of Eden.
There has always been an element of this lesson about forbidden fruit where we humans are supposed to just learn our place. We are not God. We are not meant to be God. And that temptation to harvest from this one tree is about our problematic desire to replace God with ourselves. It is, I believe, a lesson more about idolatry than disobedience. Only God is meant to know good and evil perfectly. And we are supposed to trust God in that knowledge. The single bite from the fruit did not turn us into gods; nor did it give us the full, divine wisdom of right and wrong. Instead, it only allowed us to fool ourselves into believing that we are wise.
And that, I think, is where faith and science meet, whether they know it or not. Faith is not better than the search for answers. And science is not the cause for certainty. In true faith, there is always this desire to know more about God and about God’s creation so that we might mirror that divine character to the world around us. And in true science, there is never proof – only evidence that leads to other tests and more evidence. In other words, the forbidden tree represents the false certainties that people of faith and science think we know. They both require, in their search for wisdom, a healthy dose of awe and mystery. And this, this “almost but not quite” nature of faithful wisdom, is what moves us into this posture of thanksgiving, where everything we do flows from gratitude.
We have spent the better part of a month and half looking at the skeleton of worship: this thing we do week in and week out for about an hour on Sunday mornings. We have talked about how it is that everything hinges on the Word – Scripture, sermon, sacraments, even Christ himself – and that everything that leads up to the Word is preparation – the gathering of the people, the preparing and confessing and transparent honesty…And yet, that doesn’t mean that once we finish the sermon we are done. There is much more to do.
You see, the rest of the worship service itself, everything that follows the Word, is meant to be a response to that Word. When we sing, when we pray, when we affirm our faith, when we ordain elders and deacons, when we commission teachers, when we commit and re-commit ourselves to God’s work and God’s desires in the world: all of this comes in reaction to our direct experience of God through the Word made song, the Word made Scripture, the Word made teaching, the Word made visible, the Word made flesh. And this is where our gratitude comes into play.
Think about it: we, for all of our 21st century sophistication, are no less likely to pursue that illicit tree than our storied ancestors. We still think we can be gods, or at least God-like. We still think we can find absolute, 100% certainty. We still think that we know who is good and who is evil. And, not surprisingly, those who disagree with us happen to fall into that latter category. But that’s what happens when we get that one, single bite. We are tempted to think that, by virtue of our faith, or our church membership, we have been ushered into some kind of exclusive club. We may want others to come on the inside, but only so they can be part of that special elite, too. And none of that is what this is all about.
For those first people, there were consequences for their disobedience. They experienced shame. They knew the struggles of labor. It was only a few more years before bloodshed and exile and division entered the picture. If this was all about being in the special club, then our ancestors should have had their membership revoked centuries ago! But that’s not how God reacts. God responds with firm judgment, and with loving mercy. They are still the stewards, caretakers of what God has made. And time after time after time, when we have demonstrated how unsuitable we are for this Godly society, God has welcomed us back in, again and again and again and again!
And when we know that, when we feel it in our bones, that being a person of faith has nothing to do with any kind of earned worthiness, that’s when our true worth comes into focus: God’s beloved, redeemed by Christ, gifted and guided by the Spirit if we only ask. How can we do anything else but respond in gratitude?
We have set aside today as a day to say “thank you”, because we recognize how many people it takes to make ministry possible here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian. And I hope you have made plans to stick around for lunch today – if you haven’t, I hope you will change your plans. Our deacons, our co-hosts for today’s lunch, are those who have responded to God’s call by being ministers of care in our midst. And they know, more than anyone else, how many others it takes to provide care for our community. Our Stewardship Committee, chaired by Cindy Alexander, our other co-hosts, they are the ones who remind us that our giving, our serving, our generosity is not something that comes as an obligation, but as an outpouring of gratitude and thanks for this comfort of God’s mercy and forgiveness and healing.
And as we commission our Sunday School teachers today, those who facilitate classes for our adults and children and everyone in between, we are reminded of all of the other ministries that we share. My hope is that what we do in ministry is borne not out of obligation, but of joy. Our faithful response to God’s goodness, to God’s welcome, is not sense of burdensome duty, but rather a grateful celebration.
So here is an exercise I would like to suggest to you: what is one thing you are doing out of obligation, rather than gratitude? And if there is such a thing, what can you do to change that? Can you allow room for gratitude to nudge obligation aside? Or is it, rather, that this thing, whatever it is, needs to go – or at the very least, be held lightly, trusting in the possibility that it is not what God desires from you?
Actually, let me step back from that for a moment to ask the question writ large: what is the one thing you do out of gratitude? If it’s there already, praise be to God! You’ve got the special sauce, and I hope you’ll share the recipe. If it’s not there, what could it be? Maybe, as I suggested earlier, it’s the thing you do out of obligation that needs to be reframed. Or perhaps it’s the burdened duty from which you need to loosen your grasp so that you have space to take hold of the joy and gratitude that is already there, calling you to something new.
If you are looking for a place for that gratitude to bear fruit, we certainly have plenty of opportunities here: from service to others through our mission and caring to ministries of hospitality on Sunday morning, shaping this more and more into God’s community of welcome. If you are looking for ways to plug in, please just let me know.
At the same time, don’t think for a moment that God’s ministry is contained within the four walls of our building. After all, this isn’t a select club we belong to. It is, instead, a community grounded in the knowledge that everything starts with God; that our response is rooted in gratitude; and that this gratitude flows right back to God for the sake of all of God’s Creation.
May it be so, now and always.