"The S Word"
Scripture - Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-13
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, March 30, 2014

Irish author, Frank McCourt, had a stint teaching English at a tough, blue collar high school in Staten Island. Without fail, each time he gave a writing assignment several students would not complete the homework on time. However, on the day the paper was due, students would not show up empty handed. They would bring a note explaining their reason for not completing the assignment. The notes were supposedly from a parent, but they were clearly forgeries. After a while, McCourt became so exasperated and amused by the notes he started saving them.

He held onto the notes because they were always well written. In fact, they were better than any other writing his students did. In his book, Teacher Man, he writes, "If [their parents] could read the excuse notes, they would discover that their kids are capable of the finest American prose: clear, dramatic, persuasive and especially imaginative."

Here are a few of the excuses he collected:

"The stove caught fire and the wallpaper went up and the fire department kept us out of the house all night." Don't you just hate it when that happens?

"Arnold doesn't have his work today because he was getting off the train yesterday and the door closed on his school bag and the train took it away. He yelled to the conductor who said very vulgar things as the train drove away. Something should be done!"

Here's a beauty: "A man died in the bathtub upstairs and it overflowed and messed up all Roberta's homework on the table." You can't argue with that, right?

"We were evicted from our apartment and the mean sheriff said if my son kept yelling for his notebook, he'd have us all arrested."

McCourt reflects, "Isn't it remarkable how they resist any writing assignment in class or at home. They whine and say they're busy and it's hard putting two hundred words together on any subject. Why? I have a drawer full of excuse notes that could be turned into an anthology of Great American Excuses."

As he pondered how skilled they were at concocting excuses, an idea struck. The next day he wrote on the board: Write "An Excuse Note from Adam to God or from Eve to God." He told his students that they could start their essays in class and finish them at home. He writes, "The heads went down. Pens raced across paper. They could do this with one hand tied behind their backs....The bell rang, and for the first time in my three and a half years of teaching, I saw high school students so immersed they had to be urged out of the room by friends hungry for lunch."

That assignment elicited the most imaginative and expressive writing he had seen. The students came up with brilliant excuses for Adam and Eve.1 As is apparent from this morning's Scripture, from the very beginning, humans have cooked up excuses to explain their errant behavior.

God confronts Adam in the garden, "Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?" God is looking for a simple "Yes" or "No." But that is not how Adam replies. He says, "The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate." Ahh, it's all her fault.

So God turns to Eve and says, "What is this that you have done?" And she replies, "The serpent tricked me."

Since the dawn of the human race, whenever people have been called to account, they have displayed a remarkable ability for dreaming up excuses. Perhaps you know someone who has difficulty taking responsibility for his/her actions? A seasoned veteran at concocting excuses? I am confidant this does not apply to anyone here because we have sound justifications for those times when our behavior is out of bounds.

Then, again, I wonder if God is collecting our rationalizations and preparing to publish a collection of The Best Alibis Ever. I hope God gets an occasional chuckle from how imaginative we can be, because I suspect that most of the time, God despairs over our hesitance to own up to our failures.

In the past few weeks, we have focused on God as the Creator of all that is, including the creation of human beings in God's image. Last week we saw how the psalmist echoed the Genesis account of the special place given to human beings in the created order. He proclaimed that humans were made just a little lower than gods.

It is imperative that we stamp our foreheads "Image of God" before venturing into this morning's story. It is the profound story of the first man and woman who barely have their feet on the ground in the astonishing garden God has provided, when they are thrown out and the gate is slammed behind them.

We read that Adam and Eve have it made. They have each other, they have a garden paradise and they have meaningful work - to care for the garden. The text says they have every tree that is pleasing to the eyes and good for food.

God tells them that they may eat from every single tree in the garden. Except one. They are not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

What typically happens when we are told we may have all of this, but not this? A voice goes off in our head that says, "Why can't we have it?" And something lures us to crave the one thing that has been named "Forbidden."

In the creation story, the serpent serves as the voice that entices us to do what God has warned us not to do. The serpent tells Eve that if they eat from the tree, it will not result in anything bad, "it will open your eyes and you will be like God." Don't you want to be the master of your destiny?

God creates the world, including human beings, and declares it all "very good." People are created in God's image and declared to be just a little lower than God. Further, our Creator knows that life would be meaningless if we were unable to act and choose, so God gives us freedom. It is the enormous risk God takes.

If we choose well and live as God wants us to live, life is paradise. However, if we place ourselves in the role of God, rejecting divine wisdom and deciding good and evil for ourselves, all hell breaks lose. If we give in to lust, trust is destroyed; gluttony, we self-destruct; envy, we shatter our relationships; anger, we abuse and oppress; greed, financial markets collapse and the environment is polluted; neglect, the hungry starve.

In the book he wrote a few decades ago, psychiatrist Karl Menninger asked Whatever Became of Sin? He noticed that the S word was falling out of discourse as the language of sin morphed into the languages of law and medicine. Terrible actions were named crimes and turned over to the courts so that society could determine the appropriate punishment. Destructive actions that were harmful, but not criminal, picked up the language of illness.

It may be a slight overgeneralization, but basically, the fundamentalists and evangelicals stressed the need to punish sin. They emphasized personal sins and drew up a list that included drinking, gambling and having sex before marriage. Noticeably missing were racism, economic injustice and dubious wars. Plus, whenever they used the word "sin" they tended to point the finger at others. As they saw it, sin was simply about choosing right from wrong. If you choose right, you are a sheep, but if you choose wrong, you are a goat.

Most of us in mainline churches realized it wasn't that simple. Human beings are a mixture of light and darkness, and doing what is right is not always as easy as deciding between two choices. Sometimes we are caught up in large unjust systems that we cannot change. Sometimes we cause harm unintentionally. Sometimes we simply cannot stop ourselves.

We mainliners contributed to the fading language of sin when we became enamored with the therapeutic model. We relinquished our understanding of sin in favor of psycho-social explanations. The more we understand a person's dysfunctional upbringing, the more we are tempted to substitute the language of sickness for the language of sin. When "illness becomes the metaphor for human failing, what we need is a compassionate physician who will never stop trying to heal us. This language lends itself to a kind of no-fault theology based on an understanding of sin as all-pervasive and unavoidable."2

Moreover, the therapeutic model held up "guilt" as public enemy number one. If people could just be free of guilt - placed on them by an overbearing parent or a controlling religious institution - they could be freed to discover happiness.

Priest and professor, Barbara Brown Taylor, points out that "neither the language of medicine nor the language of law is an adequate substitute for the language of theology, which has more room in it for paradox. In the theological model, the basic human problem is not sickness or lawlessness but sin. It is something we experience both as a species and as individuals, in our existential angst and in our willful misbehavior. However we run into it, we run into it as a wrecked relationship: with God, with one another, with the whole created order. Sometimes we cause the wreckage and sometimes we are simply trapped in it."3

Sin can never be reduced to a simple checklist because it is larger than that. In both Hebrew and Greek the root word for sin means "missing the mark." Instead of being spot on, we are off target. Sin ruptures relationships; it torpedoes our ties with each other and it alienates us from God. It does not separate us from God, because nothing can separate us from God. But it puts us terribly out of sync with God.

Sin can mean thinking too highly of yourself, but it can also mean thinking too poorly of yourself. "Sin is a name for the experience of being cut off from air, light, community, hope, meaning...There are a thousand ways to turn away from the light...The point is to know the difference between light and darkness, and to recognize the pull of darkness when it comes."4

Most Sundays we include a prayer of confession in our worship service. The reason for it is not because we need to whittle away at our self-esteem. God does not call on us to confess our sin in order to puncture our egos. Rather, confession is a way of overcoming denial and opening ourselves to God's forgiveness.

But forgiveness is not the end of the road. God does not forgive us simply to wipe away our guilt and patch up our relationship. God forgives in order to transform. God does not want us to stay where we are. God wants us to become more than we are.

Confession is an admission of where we are, not simply to obtain a clean bill of health from God, but so that we can move to a better place. Confession is a clearing of the deck so that God can help the divine image at our core to reemerge.

If we make excuses and refuse to admit what is wrong with us, we remain stuck where we are because we block God's power to transform us. That is why confession should never be approached in despair, but in hope. God forgives us so that we become free; free to live the rich life God intends for us to live as partners with God, striving for a world much closer to paradise.


  1. Martin Copenhaver, "Excuses, Excuses, Excuses" July 31, 2011.
  2. Barbara Brown Taylor, Speaking of Sin, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 2000), p. 55.
  3. Ibid., p. 57.
  4. Ibid., p.63.

Prayers of the People ~ Randall T. Clayton

Redeeming God, in life and in death you are our only hope. Trusting in your mercy, we bow our heads before you today asking that you cleanse our hearts even as we give thanks and praise for the mercies you have shown us. Cleanse us from actions that create walls between ourselves and others, from thoughts that distract us from you, from hatreds that divide, from dreams that lead us down a path that is not in accord with your desire for our lives.

Hills turning to mud and then cascading down, planes disappearing from the skies with almost no trace, armies massing menacingly on the borders of countries across the globe, have been the news of our world this week. Hearing this we ask that you bring comfort to those who wait for loved ones to be found, strength for those who mourn deaths of those they hold dear, and peace for a warring world. Far away in Guatemala there is poverty, lack of clean water, hopelessness, but there is also hope - hope in the form of water filers, missionaries, churches, physicians. We lift up to you the people of that country and those who are trying to make a difference in the lives of her people. Let this church's commitment to that place be a beacon of hope that sustains and nourishes a people.

Nearby there is violence in our city, and children who come home to empty houses, and there is hunger and homelessness too. And yet there is also hope - hope in the form of breakfasts, after school programs, and hope in the form of churches who care and people committed to being a loving presence in this community. Thankful for beacons of hope all around us, we pray this day for those who are hurting in our city, for those who are lonely, those who are hungry, those who are wet, even as we pray for Family Promise, Urban Promise, Friendship House, and the Saturday Breakfast program of this church.

Amid the competing desires of the world, help us to find room in our days to nurture our faith, to enjoy the beauty of your creation, to connect with those who find themselves in places they did not choose or in circumstances they do not desire. Help us to reach across the aisles of this sanctuary, across the streets from this building, to offer your hope and wholeness to strangers in our midst.

We ask these things, remembering the prayer which Jesus taught, saying, "Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen."