a sermon by

The Reverend Nick Cardell, Jr.

September 15, 1985



May Memorial Unitarian Society

3800 East Genesee Street

Syracuse, New York 13214






From selected passages in Chapters 2-4 of the Book of Genesis in the Jewish Scriptures.


...And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, "You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die."


Now the serpent was more subtle than any other wild creature that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God say, 'You shall not eat of any tree of the garden'?" And the woman said to the serpent, "We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden; but God said, 'You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.'" But the serpent said to the woman, "You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate.


[At this point God confronted Adam and Eve, but I'm skipping over the interrogation of Adam; it's too embarrassing. It makes him look like an awful wimp. In effect, he says "It was Eve, she tempted me; if you hadn't given her to me none of this would have happened."]


Then the Lord God said to the woman, "What is this that you have done?" "Because you have done pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you."


Now Adam knew Eve, his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain.... And again, she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.




Our reading this morning came from the second of two creation stories that are contained in the first book of  the Torah. It is the second only in terms of placement. Chronologically, it is the older of the two and is based upon an even older creation myth. This myth as told in the Torah is the source and foundation of traditional Christianity's views concerning human sin and human sexuality, dogmatized as the "doctrine of original sin." According to tradition, the "original sin" was disobedience and the consequence of that sin was the loss of sexual innocence. You see Adam arid Eve were virgins prior to their disobedience and, presumably, would have remained so had they behaved themselves and not fallen from Grace. Furthermore, in accordance with the traditional doctrine it is through human sexuality that the taint of that original sin is transmitted generation after generation. Thus, the old Calvinist dictum: "In Adam's Fall we sinned all." It was this negative view of sexuality that led to the idea that sex for pleasure is sinful and is only truly legitimate for purposes of procreation--in fulfillment of God's command to "be fruitful and multiply." This is also a source of the idea that baptism is necessary to wash away the taint of sin derived from the act by which we were conceived. Otherwise, upon dying, we would go to hell--or at best into limbo.


Most of the mainline Protestant traditions have modified the doctrine of original sin in significant ways. (Our Universalist tradition had a great deal to do with that.) Even Roman Catholicism has softened some of the more negative implications for human sexuality, although its adamant position regarding birth control, a consequence of the traditional view, remains intact. It is in the world of Protestant Fundamentalism that one is most apt to find the doctrine in its generic, pure, unmodified form. This is due to the fundamentalist doctrine of the inerrancy of the Scriptures, to the belief among numerous (though not all) fundamentalists in the literal interpretation of every Biblical word.


For the moment, and for the sake of this sermon, I would like to buy into their assumption. Let us suppose that the second and oldest creation story is not a myth, but a literal record of historical events dictated by God to some faithful scribe. And note that "original" as in original sin has two connotations: the first sin, and the fundamental sin. This is where my title sins against grammar, because I want to inquire about the most original sin which is the same as asking about the most first and the most fundamental sin.


According to my reading of the story the first sin was not committed by Eve or Adam or, even, the serpent. And here I suppose I could be accused of another sin (but surely not by any of you) because I am convinced, taking the word at its literal face value, that God committed the very first sin. God lied! It is right there in the literal word: "...the Lord God commanded man, saying, 'You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die. God lied, for is it not written in the literal word "When Adam had lived a hundred and thirty years, he became the father of Seth. The days of Adam after he became the father of Seth were eight hundred years..." I make that out to be nine hundred and thirty years (339,450 days) in all. Even assuming that Adam had been around for some time before sampling the forbidden fruit, he must have lived more than 293,000 days after he had eaten of the fruit of that tree. He did not die in the day that he ate thereof.


And that was not the only lie. God deceived Adam when he told him that he might eat of every tree of the Garden except that one. For we discover when he booted Adam and Eve out of the Garden that there was another tree he wanted to keep their apple-pickin hands off of. "...the Lord God said, 'Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever...'" therefore, God drove them out of the garden.


A lying God is not the only troublesome "fact" in this "history." God denied Adam and Eve any knowledge of good and evil and then punished them because they didn't know that disobedience was a sin. I ask you is that fair? Does it even make any sense?


I think God could be forgiven for committing the first sin and for his deception and hypocrisy were it not for what I see as the fundamental sin. That was God's, also. For it was God who introduced prejudice, discrimination and the very idea of inferior/superior into our lives and into the world. It is right there in the literal word. First, with Adam and Eve what does he do in punishment? Instead of an even-handed judgment he says to Eve: “...your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” There is the fundamental sin. The establishment of inequality. The suggestion that there is something inherently superior about one kind of being and inferior about another.


And God did not stop there. Consider the situation of Abel and Cain. Cain was a farmer, what else would he bring as an offering to the Lord but the first grains from his harvest? Abel was a herdsman, what else would he bring but one of the first lambs? And what does God do? He says to Abel "Hey, that's marvelous. You're a good man Abel." And What does he say to Cain? He turns up his nose. He says, “Yech..cereal.” And we're told it was not only the offerings he rejected, that he had no regard for. We are told that the "Lord had regard for Abel and his offering but for Cain and his offering he had no regard."


But there was worse to come: If we read further in this record of origins, e.g. in the tales of Noah, we discover that God originated other forms of prejudice and discrimination: bigotry, racism, jingoistic nationalism, even slavery and genocide.


Some God! That, at any rate, is the picture that emerges with an inerrant, literal, fundamentalist view of Scriptures if one is rigorously honest as a literalistic fundamentalist. On the other hand, when we assume that it was a human mind that conceived these stories and a human hand that preserved them for us, and when we examine the mores and beliefs of the time and place in which they were conceived, then there are many other ways in which to understand them and many genuine insights in them.


One clear implication of the story that I accept as valid along with most of my and your religious ancestors is this: the first and fundamental sin, the most original sin had to do with alienation from God. It was an alienation resulting not from disobedience, but from a sin of catastrophic significance. Now if those traditional words trouble you, think of it this way. In the evolution of human consciousness there arose the fallacy of separateness, of isolation. And the first value-awareness to follow from that consciousness was not one of "good and evil" but of "superior/inferior." The first and fundamental human flaw (the original sin) was the belief that human beings were separate from the very source of creation itself; that we were unrelated to Creator or creative process and, thus, unrelated and likely to be inferior or superior to any creatures that were different from ourselves.


All of our religions, even the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, have reinforced that fallacy. They have encouraged that alienation, that isolation, that disconnection. Yet throughout those Scriptures, as well as elsewhere there is another theme, a repeated reminder of the ultimate reality. In the very last of the prophetic books (last in placement) are words which had a profound affect on me back when I was wrestling with my war-time experiences and with the decision to enter the ministry. In the Book of Malachi I came across words to which I said a silent Amen. It is written there "Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us."


In the years since then the patriarchal and anthropomorphic imagery has come to be inadequate for me. But the essential message remains. We are all children of one creative process; we are one with all creation. Marge Piercy expressed it more poetically in her poem "The pool that swims in us." Listen to a portion of it:


HELP STOP WETNESS cried the Arrid ads

that year. I used to leave you

and as the bus lurched westward on 14th

Street, from the slack of my pleased flesh

and the salty damp of my thighs

I would take comfort.


Wet is what flows and seeps and comes again:

that ocean we carry inside,

a tidal pool cherished from our spawning grounds

bottled to nourish us among alien rocks.

The sea is our ultimate ancestor.

Even trees cup sap that rises and falls.


Wet and sloppy the mutual joy

of stirring bodies together

warm as breast milk.

We are wet jokes and wet dreams.

A scalpel slits us open like a busted

bag of groceries, and out we ooze.


Noses drip, Armpits sweat. Eyes weep.

We are born from a small salt pond,

yet immersed in our own element we drown.

We have no natural habitat, we have

no home. We build shelters of trees

and stones and clay to keep us warm.


Our wise cousins, a million years past,

went home again. Dolphins have no houses,

no coins, no tools or tolls, no warehouse,

no armies, classes or taxes.

Dolphins in the sea help one another.

People among rock and cement

fear each other worse than the cyclone.


How can we feel part of one another?

How can we count the children of the trout

and the coyote and the humpback whale

as our relatives, when we cannot

believe somebody who makes half what

we do has as many feelings, that when small

black-haired people bleed, it's blood.


We must feel on our collective nerves the great pattern,

how the same water drifts in clouds across

our sky, blows on the rain in gauzy drifts,

gushes down storm drains. Swells the cabbage,

lengthens the grass blade the cow chews.

The same water rises from the well, runs

through us and falls to rush through sewers.


We carry in the wet cuneiform of proteins

the long history of working to be human.

In this time we will fail into ashes,

fail into twisted metal and dry bones,

or break through into a sea of shared abundance

where man must join woman and dolphin and whale

in salty joy, in flowing trust.


We must feel our floating on the whole world river,

all people breathing the same thin skin of air,

all people growing our food in the same worn

dirt, all drinking water from the same

vast cup of clay. We must be healed at last

to our soft bodies and our hard planet

to make fruitful conscious history in common.


The catastrophic consequences, the products of the most original sin are still with us. All of the forms of it exhibited in the scriptures have been with us all along. The snobbery, the sense of superiority about material possessions, the chauvinism, the bigotry, the jingoism, the racism, you name it. I've been reading Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. Listen to some of the attitudes our forbearers brought to the founding of these lands of ours: This is from English Law in 1632 and it can be found reiterated in other forms in the early history of the colonies:


...It is true, that man and wife are one person, but understand in what manner. When a small brooke or little river incorporateth with Rhodanus, Humber or the Thames, the poor rivulet looseth her name...A woman as soon as she is married, is called covert...that is "veiled"; as it were, clouded and overshadowed; she hath lost her stream. I may more truly, farre away, say to a married woman, her new self is her superior; her companion, her master...


We are still struggling with such assumptions. There was a letter in the Syracuse papers, recently, objecting to a proposal to legalize the practice of women who keep their own names after marriage. Now listen to Alexander Hamilton who was an aide to General Washington during the Revolution:


All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are rich and well-born, the other the mass of the people. The voice of the people has been said to be the voice of God; and however generally this maxim has been quoted and believed, it is not true in fact. The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first class a distinct permanent share in the government ...


There was much sympathy for those views among the creators of the United States Constitution. They weren't very overt in their expression of it, but they found subtle ways to incorporate those assumptions of inequality. Thus, as Zinn points out, "Four groups... were not represented in the Constitutional Convention: slaves, indentured servants, women, men without property" and, of course, Native Americans.


We are still struggling with the consequences of the most original sin. We may express it in different forms, but it is still, tragically, with us. We see it in the continued prevalence of violence in family life. One F.B.I. report I remember indicated that wife battery occurs every sixty seconds in the United States. It is only recently that such assaults have been treated by police as anything more than a domestic issue not warranting any official action on their part. We see it in the U.S. Government's assumption of the right to impose its will on the governments and peoples of Central America, even to the point of fostering and subsidizing terrorism by the Contras in Nicaragua in an attempt to overthrow the government with which we have diplomatic relations.


I spoke of the other theme that appears in the scriptures, a theme that theologian Matthew Fox has called "Original Blessing." In a book with that title he has given contemporary voice to Malachi's ancient words: "All humans are born from the earth, are nurtured from it and are destined to return to it. What is more universal than that. All religions, when they are true to themselves celebrate this truth."


This is a part of what Fox calls the "Original Blessing." Yet, throughout the history of Western religion--especially in Christianity--we have focused on original sin and that is the most original sin. Instead of emphasizing our universal kinship, the dignity and sacredness of all creation, we have focused on alienation, on inferiority. Is it any wonder we constantly strive for some imagined superiority and wish to believe that some gifts are more worthy than others, that one sex, one race, one nationality, one economic system is inherently superior-all to overcome an assumed inferiority and alienation. Is it any wonder that we exploit and brutalize vulnerability wherever we find it; all because we lack the wisdom to comprehend that we are all children of one creation. We are all brothers and sisters to each other and to all the earth.


To be true to itself a religion needs, as Fox suggested, wisdom as understood in the Native American tradition: "that the people may live." This understanding of wisdom, Fox wrote:


...encompasses the breadth and depth of cosmic and human living and I believe it names what God the Creator wants for all her children: that the people of this precious earth may live. Bangladesh people, old people, hungry children people, robust adolescent people, people in socialist countries, people in capitalist countries--that they may live.... What does that mean? ...Living implies beauty, freedom of choice, giving birth, discipline, celebration. Living is not the same as going shopping or buying, nor is it the same as making a nest in which to escape the sufferings of one another. Living has something to do with Eros, love of life, and with the lover of others' lives, others' right to Eros and dignity. Here lies wisdom: that the people may live.






A benediction is, literally, a good word. Author Adrienne Rich has written many good words, among them these:


My heart is moved by all I cannot save:

so much has been destroyed

I have to cast my lot with those

Who age after age, perversely,

With no extraordinary power,

reconstitute the world.


May we unite, joyously, in such perversity.


NOTE: The contemporary sources of quotations used in the sermon are as follows:


Marge Piercy, Stone, Paper, Knife, Knopf, 1983 (paperback)


Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, Harper Colophon Books, 1980 (paperback)


Matthew Fox, Original Blessing, Bear & Co., Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1983 (paperback)



Prepared for web page display on April 1, 2006