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What Got Us Here? Original Sin & the Environment

Green Faith: Week Two

Rev. David Collins

April 30, 2023

Today we’re talking about why we believe the environment is so messed up. To do that, we’re going to look at a theological doctrine that is near and dear to us as Presbyterians.

Original Sin

That’s the concept that while humanity was created in the image of God, entirely good, that is," in true righteousness and holiness, so that we might truly know God our creator, love him with all our hearts, and live with God in eternal happiness"…something happened along the way that flipped the switch. Sin entered the chat. And while we were made to love God, love our neighbor, and love and take care of the earth, we lost the ability so badly that even when we try to do those things, we mess it up.

As we think about how we got here, environmentally speaking, I found a quote from one of our confessions that pretty neatly sums us up. The Westminster Larger Catechism Question. Question 28, asks

What are the punishments of sin in this world?
And it answers, The punishments of sin in this world, are either inward, as blindness of mind,1 a reprobate sense,2 strong delusions,3 hardness of heart,4 horror of conscience,5 and vile affections;6 or outward, as the curse of God upon the creatures for our sake,7 and all other evils that befall us in our bodies, names, estates, relations, and employments; 8 together with death itself.9

1. Eph. 4:18 2. Rom. 1:28. 3. II Thess. 2:11.4. Rom. 2:5. 5. Isa. 33:14; Gen. 4:13; Matt.27:4; Heb. 10:27.6. Rom. 1:26. 7. Gen. 3:17. 8. Deut. 28:15–68. 9. Rom. 6:21, 23.

I’m not really sure what a reprobate sense is, but the other inward punishments really hit the nail on the head when it comes to the way that we treat the earth. Blindness of mind…well, this isn’t affecting me right this minute, so how bad could it be? Strong delusions…well, if we don’t let the factories do whatever they want, they might leave! Hardness of heart…if those kids didn’t want to grow up in dump, they should have been born somewhere else! Horror of conscience…I love this one. All the examples cited in scripture for this one are examples of people saying, “I don’t want to think about it! It’s your problem!”

One thing that really symbolizes original sin and its intersection with the environment is a tool that I’ll bet a few of you have, and I’m just going to pick on you for a moment, but it’s all in good fun, (or you can start working on the email you’re going to send me tomorrow). Do you want to know what it is?

It’s the gas powered leaf blower.

If it wasn’t for the atomic bomb, this would be the single worst invention of the 20th century. At least top ten. Because not only are they incredibly noisy, and create greenhouse gases…but what is the point exactly?

I’ve seen leaf vacuums. Those make sense. You don’t want leaves on your lawn, so you suck them up into bags and mulch them, or send them away to become compost. There’s always the humble rake, which can lead to leaf piles to jump in, before bagging them up.

But leaf blowers? They just blow the leaves into the street! I get that they aren’t on your lawn any more, but have you heard of wind?

It gets even more illustrative of original sin when it’s the lawn guy who is doing it. Because he doesn’t want to be doing it! He can’t help it! He’s just doing it because he needs the job and someone somewhere along the way decided that in order to have a lawn worth paying money to maintain that it needed to have all of its debris blown into the street at the end.

The doctrine of original sin teaches us that

While sin is something you choose,

it’s also something you can’t help but choose.

The Bible communicates this doctrine in many ways, but the primary way is with a primordial story. The second creation story in the Bible is much earthier than the first one. The first one is poetic and the second one is mythic.

In this one, God scoops up some mud and forms it into a figure, and then blows life into it. He names it Adam, better pronounced Ah-dahm, because he made him from the mud called Ah-dahm-ah. He set Adam in a perfect little garden, like a greenhouse where he was protected from the world. And he made him a companion from his rib, because women are not made from mud. And let them have the run of this little garden, where there was just one rule: don’t eat the fruit from this one tree.

God also must have scooped up some more clay and made a snake because they’re so easy to make. That’s not in there by the way. Just a little fan fiction.

We’re going to pick up with the snake.

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden”?’ Genesis 3:1

No, God hadn’t said that. The snake was lying to establish a rapport. Like how the fastest way to get the right answer on the internet is to post the wrong one.

2 The woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; 3 but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.”’ 4 But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die;

And that was the truth…in a way. They don’t just drop dead on the spot. But they will die a spiritual death, that will infect all of humanity.

One of our major faults as people is that if consequences aren’t immediate and obvious, we have trouble seeing the connection between what we do and what happens as a result. That’s probably why we aren’t acting with urgency about the climate. There are too many talking snakes, who tell us, “You won’t die. Your great grandchildren won’t have a great life, but you’ll get to die with a well watered lawn with all the leaves blown into the street.

So Eve was tricked just like we are. That’s why this story is so powerful.

4 But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; 5 for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.

This is one of the great ironies of the Bible right here. Before they ate the fruit, they didn’t know good and evil, so they always did good. They were in a direct relationship with God, and didn’t know what evil was, and had no inclination to do it. But after eating the fruit, and coming to know good and evil, they lost the ability to choose good. They can now recognize the difference between good and evil, but now will only choose evil.

Psalm 14:3 puts it like this:

They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one.

You see, it’s not the results of the fruit in this story that brought sin into the world. The knowledge of good and evil isn’t sin. The first sin, the original sin, is that act of disobedience. The reaching, and the taking, and the bite.

The decision that there is no higher authority

than what seems right at the time is original sin.

We were all sunk before even took a bite. But she did. And she gave it to the man, and he did. Also, have you ever thought about Adam and Eve’s reasons for taking the forbidden fruit? Eve was tempted by a mesmerizing talking snake, who promised that she could become like the God that she loved and knew face to face.

Meanwhile Adam ate the fruit because… it looked good.

That tracks.

It might as well have been week-old leftovers in the fridge! Looked good so I ate it. Is there any more?

But seriously, this primordial mythic story is the way the Bible explains how sin became the rule of life for all of humanity.

Genesis doesn’t say that explicitly right here. Instead, it shows the cascading effect that began here. Adam and Eve have two sons, and one of them murders the other out of jealousy. Violence begets more violence, and everyone assumes that the only solution to it is more of it until God decides to wipe out humanity and start fresh, but God still isn’t able to eradicate that impulse in us that there is no higher authority than what seems right to us at the time.

There is a crack that runs through everything. Not just in our hearts, or in our relationship with God, but in our world. This story in the garden of Eden shows us that it’s not just true about us, but about everyone. When things start off wrong, it’s next to impossible to get them to turn right.

Last week Megan ended her sermon with the story of how Presbyterians got involved in the reforestation efforts in Haiti, and have planted 16.6 million trees. It’s an inspiring story, but it got me wondering, where did Haiti’s trees go in the first place? So I did some research, and the story is tragic. It also connects to the concept of original sin in a different way.

Because sin isn’t just something you do. It’s also something that is done to you. The doctrine of original sin teaches us that we inherit our sinful nature. Some think we inherit it genetically…that when Adam and Eve first sinned, that crack that runs through everything ran through their DNA too. But others of us think we inherit our sinful natures through culture, and they way that sin builds up in our collective unconscious because of centuries of violence and exploitation. The story of Haiti’s devastation makes that case pretty well.

Haiti began as a French colony called St. Dominque. It was a slave colony. Until the enslaved people there rose up and killed their enslavers. ( I can’t not smile when I say things like that.) In 1791 they won their freedom and the slavers who were still alive went back to France or America. And by 1804, they became an independent Black-led nation, and were immediately treated as a pariah by the world’s powers, who were all still making huge amounts of money from the enslavement of human beings.

The Haitian people fought back subsequent attempts to re-enslave them, and became the first nation to permanently ban slavery.

“Twenty years later, in July 1825, the French King, Charles X, sent an armed flotilla of warships to Haiti with the message that the young nation would have to pay France 150 million francs to secure its independence, or suffer the consequences. That sum was 10 times the amount the United States had paid France in the Louisiana Purchase, which had doubled the size of the U.S.”
“At gunpoint, Haiti caved to France's demands. The amount was too much for the young nation to pay outright, and so it had to take out loans with hefty interest rates from a French bank. Over the next 122 years, Haiti paid French slaveholders and their descendants reparations…the equivalent of between $20 and $30 billion in today's dollars.”

And that’s a conservative estimate. “Modeling based on the growth rate of Haiti’s Latin American neighbors suggests the payments diverted to France cost Haiti as much as $115 billion” if that money had stayed in their economy.

So where did Haiti’s trees go? To France. They were crippled, knee-capped, by an evil regime, who continue to deny culpability.

How are you supposed to recover from a beginning like that? How do you unbreak a country that has been so sinned against?

And that’s just the tragic story of one nation. Half of one island. The story of the devastation of the earth’s environment is made up of thousands and thousands of stories like that. Though there are some positive ones too. I’m just not going to tell them this week.

Some people see the wreckage in the environment as God’s punishment on the earth for that first sin. They believe that all death, disease, and decay, not just for us, but for the universe, is the result of that sin. I don’t read it that way, and I’d love to talk with you about why you shouldn’t either.

For one thing, we already saw that Adam saw that the fruit looked good to eat. Fruit ripens through decay.

It’s also super demotivating. It makes it seem like we shouldn’t even try to make a difference, like we’d be going against God.

But mostly, it’s just bad Bible scholarship.

You see, the Old Testament doesn’t really have a doctrine of original sin, in the way that we do in the Church. The Bible isn’t really able to articulate how badly entrenched sin is, until we see what God ultimately does to save us from it.

The gospel isn’t good advice. It’s good news.

There isn’t a list of ten or a hundred things we have to do to save ourselves and the planet. That would be good advice. What we have instead is good news. And that good news is Easter.

Romans 5:18-19 puts it like this.

Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.
For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.

Salvation isn’t taught, it’s caught. We are saved from sin not by trying super hard this time, but by and in Jesus Christ. We don’t need new actions, we need a new nature. And that’s what we’re given in and through Jesus.

1 Corinthians 15:21-22 puts it like this:

For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.

The primordial story of Genesis 3 tells us that we inherited sin. In much the same way that we inherited this world and all of it’s problems. In much the same way that Haitians inherited a nation that was ruined by greed. And for all of us, that tarnished inheritance affected our behavior. It made us blind, hardened our hearts, perverted our conscience, and gave us delusions. There is no way to work within that system to fix that system. It’s broken and needs to be thrown out.

But none of us has the ability to do it. Even if we banded together and killed the masters, they’d just send a flotilla of gunships and shake us down for their lost investment plus interest, and we’d have to take out the loan from their banks.

So we can’t overthrow the system. We need someone outside of the system to come and help us. We need someone like us, but unlike us, to come and be our champion, and win on our behalf. We have that person in Jesus Christ.

Jesus didn’t come to overthrow all the evil powers. Instead, he let the evil powers take his life. He came to establish his kingdom, which grows alongside of, and within, and all around the powers that be.

God does not want a Christian government, but would like for there to be many actual Christians working in it, and working on it. God wants Christians to be working alongside of people of every faith, or no faith at all, on the problems that are facing our world, especially the environment. In large part, because we believe something that not everyone does.

We believe we’re wrong.

We believe that everyone is wrong, and prone to not be able to see that. So we should be a little more willing to check our work, and look for good examples around us, or in the past.

We believe that everyone is susceptible to act like there is no higher authority than what seems right at the time. So we should be the first to call for a time out when we’re sitting at one of those tables where everyone seems to agree with a plan that just happens to fit with everyone’s preconceived ideas. Because, it turns out there is a higher authority than what seems right, or convenient, or palatable at the time.

It's Jesus Christ.

And if you believe in him, you are in him. You used to be in Adam and Eve, and they're still in you. You'll never get over the tendencies that you inherited from them, or from the world they made. But now you are in Christ, and he is in you.

So how do we undo the damage done to our world by sin?

Well, what got here won't get us out.

We'll start looking at that next week.


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