"RESPONSIBILITY" - Genesis 3:1-13; Genesis 12:1-3; Matthew 5:14-16
A Sermon by Alex Evans, Pastor
Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA
From Sunday, October 28, 2018
Genesis 3:1-13; Genesis 12:1-3, Matthew 5:14-16
When a national and horrific tragedy happens (mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh) on a Saturday, it is especially hard for the preacher. We’ve planned and prepared for worship, and then, at the late hour, things change. But what I had prepared, I hope and pray, with God’s grace and help, does speak to us today. Bear with me and let’s be open to God’s presence, God’s promises, and be led as God’s people.
Let us pray: In these trying times, O God, show us your mercy; guide us in your way. We seek to live as disciples of Jesus Christ and toward his promised reign of peace. Amen.
The day was quite memorable. Our oldest child, our son, was getting his driver’s license. That rite of passage always generates both excitement, . . . and fear; both joy, . . . and concern, as many of you know.
We lived at that time in Blacksburg, in Montgomery County. This is how it worked for 16 year-old kids excited about driving a car and moving into this realm of freedom: you took the driver’s education course; you did your driver training in one of those cars with the “student driver” sign on top; you filled out the proper papers; if you passed all of that, THEN, you were given a time and date to show up at the courthouse, sit WITH YOUR PARENTS in a courtroom before a judge, (a requirement), and hear a nice talk from the judge, who then released the license TO THE PARENTS, who could, or could not, give it to the 16 year-old.
So, Ginger and I went with our son, Sandy, after he had met all the requirements, and we sat in the courtroom for this ceremony. The judge came in – we all stood up. He wore his black robe. He sat down and he gave an eloquent speech to a courtroom full of kids and their parents, elaborating on the motto of Montgomery County. The motto could be found on the plaque on the courtroom wall: “Freedom Increases Responsibility.”
The judge’s important message: you may have earned your driver’s license, you may have moved into a new stage with new freedoms, the skills and right to drive a car, but all of this comes always with increased RESPONSIBILITY! And he made it clear – just because you can drive a car, does not mean you should drive a car – it depends on RESPONSIBILITY. Just because you have a license, does not mean you are responsible – each parent in the room could decide that – because he was giving the new license to the parents.
It was a nice speech. It was a memorable moment. It was, remains, an important point: Freedom Increases RESPONSIBILITY!
In our first lesson, Adam and Eve had a Judge to remind them going into the beautiful garden full of lush trees and vegetation. They still messed it up. They gravitated to the freedom, leaving responsibility behind. Surrounded with abundance, God instructed them – they could eat of the trees in the garden, except for one tree – in the middle of the garden. God gave them freedom – blessing them with so much – but with limits – not everything is permitted. There are RESPONSIBILITIES.
But you heard and remember the story – the woman, lured by the serpent, “saw that the tree was good for food and a delight to the eyes, and the tree was to be desired to make one wise; she took of the food and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, . . . and he ate.”
And we heard the rest of that story: God comes around: Adam, “where are you?” . . . . Adam blames Eve, and by implication, blames God – “the woman you gave to be with me, she gave me the fruit and I ate.”
The first encounter between God and God’s people reflects the human tendency to denial. And what he is saying so clearly – I am NOT RESPONSIBLE. I am not to blame.
This is how it goes so often: the fault may lie in the stars, in the way we were raised, in the configuration of our genes, the result of some incident or trauma in our life, in some other place. We become so adept at denying personal RESPONSIBILITY.
Adam denies personal RESPONSIBILITY. Eve actually echoes the refrain – she blames the serpent, saying “the serpent tricked me.”
This is a story about freedoms, . . . and limits, and how freedom increases RESPONSIBILITY. It is a story that wants to teach us that we are in trouble when we live freely without RESPONSIBILITY. Freedoms always have limits. We cannot just live – we live with God. We cannot just live, and deny responsibility; we live responsibly. We live ethically.
The next story in Genesis, (chapter 4), goes from drama to tragedy. We touched on this story a couple of weeks ago – the story of Cain and Abel. That story is also about RESPONSIBILITY – but not just personal RESPONSIBILITY, but MORAL RESPONSIBILITY.
Cain kills his brother Abel. The Lord comes again with another probing question, to Cain: “Where is your brother Abel?” “I don’t know,” Cain replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God said, “What have you done? Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground” (Gen 4:9).
That is certain what God might be saying TODAY!
Cain does not deny personal RESPONSIBILITY. He does not say, “I could not help it,” or “someone or something made me do it.” He does not say the blame lies elsewhere, which we are so good at. He denies something different, namely MORAL RESPONSIBILITY. He acted, and acted freely, but he sees no reason why he should be held accountable. He is NOT his brother’s keeper. (See J. Sacks, To Heal A Fractured World, p. 138)
Adam, in the first story, conveyed that his will, his actions, were powerless before the world – he was not RESPONSIBLE – his wife gave him the fruit.
Cain conveys the opposite – the world is powerless before him – Cain can do whatever he wants, even kill his brother! He thinks freedom is the only thing – he has no RESPONSIBILITY to anyone. For him, there is no “ought;” only what is. For Cain, there is no sense of authority beyond what he wants to do. It is all about freedom. There is no conscience, no moral RESPONSIBILITY.
Sadly, we saw this same act play out yesterday in a synagogue in Pittsburgh – an unspeakable act of hatred and immorality. We grieve for our nation – pulled once again into unnecessary violence, grief, fear, and shame. We grieve more death from guns. We have a long way to go.
And we confront the fresh reality - these stories in Genesis remind us how quickly life goes south when we live without RESPONSIBILITY.
We are reminded again how far we are from God and God’s plans. The Scriptures are always trying to show us another way – a better way – life with God, life within God’s purposes and plans. God made us; God seeks to live in partnership with us – with both personal and moral RESPONSIBILITY.
The next story in Genesis brings us to another well-known figure, Noah. When we are introduced to him, in Chapter 6, we learn of the wicked generations around him. The verse also says that Noah was “righteous, walked with God” (Gen. 6:9).
But as the story unfolds, things do not go so well for Noah. The world around Noah has become full of selfish and immoral people who have been living out the examples of both Adam . . . and Cain – no personal or moral RESPONSIBILITY. And it says this: “the Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5). Read that again. Wow! Wickedness, evil thoughts everywhere!
The great spiritual writer and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel once asked: “who is the saddest person in the Bible?” And you ponder this for a moment. Maybe it is Moses, . . . because after all his labor and commitment, he never made it to the Promised Land. Or . . . is it Job, who suffered so much and was laughed at by his friends, only to suffer more? Is it one of the prophets who cried passionate tears over the failure of God’s people to live faithfully? Is it Jesus, who died on the cross, saying, ‘my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Who is the saddest person in the Bible?
Wiesel says that it has to be God. And it might be summarized in that verse from Genesis 6:5: “the Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, . . . every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.” That has to be one of the saddest verses in all of Scripture, reflecting a very sad God.
Perhaps this is something of what God sees and thinks in these days. So much possibility, . . . so much hatred and killing. So much wealth, . . . and so much poverty. So much advancement with healthcare, . . . and so much difficulty providing it to people who really need it most. So many resources, . . . . and so much greed in sharing them. So many desperate people around the world, . . . . and we keep talking about wars, and walls, and showing wickedness.
But, as you may recall, God calls Noah for a plan to deal with the evil and wickedness. Noah was “righteous, blameless in his generation.” And God instructed Noah – “make yourself and ark. . . . I will establish my covenant with you and your family, and every kind of animal. You shall come into the ark and be saved from the floods.”
Noah did this. It says three different times that “Noah did what God commanded.” Then the floods came. The Earth is covered. Then, in due time, the floods subside, and God gets going again with God’s best intentions for the world. But, by the end of the Noah story, Noah is not the hero. He is shown drunk on wine, naked, and bringing shame on his family.
This is how the sages reflect on the Noah story: he may have been righteous in himself; he may have been righteous among his generation, which was especially wicked, but he had no impact on his contemporaries. He simply built the ark, by himself. He does not think about anyone else, or urge anyone to mend their ways, nor does he pray for them, or question God for the justice of the flood, as others do later in Scripture. Noah may be righteous, blameless in his generation, but he is not a hero – he denied collective RESPONSIBILITY. He worked in obedience for himself and his family. That is it! He ignored the community, the call to be in service to God together with others.
Adam denied personal RESPONSIBILITY – someone else was to blame. Cain denied moral RESPONSIBILITY – he was not his brother’s keeper. Noah denied collective RESPONSIBILITY.
This is a way to think about collective RESPONSIBILITY. There are two ways of keeping warm on a cold night: buying a fur coat and building a fire. Buy a coat and you keep yourself warm. Light a fire and you keep others warm also. Noah, the righteous man in his generation, failed to live faithfully in collective RESPONSIBILITY. (see Sacks, p. 141)
You cannot survive while the rest of the world drowns, and still survive. Individual efforts and individual righteousness are never always enough. That is a message for our times, and always. To be moral, to be RESPONSIBLE, is to live with and for others, sharing in the joys and burdens, the losses and blessings, participating fully in community. As the saying goes, ‘no one is an island.’ We are part of society. Collective RESPONSIBILITY is our way.
Or as Jesus says, when you seek to save your own life, you will lose it. When you lose your life for Jesus, and others, then you find life.
We have two other lessons today. In Genesis 12, we discover how God finally seeks to redeem the world inclined toward evil and selfishness. The story shifts totally to Abraham and his descendants:
Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’
Then we have a few verses from Matthew and Jesus:
14 ‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden.15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
In Genesis 12, God initiates a new plan. Abraham and Sarah are called and blessed – for ONE purpose – so that they may be a blessing in the world – “that all the families of the earth might be blessed.”
We have those early stories. They show us so much about ourselves. We are still trying to learn those lessons. But then with Abraham and Sarah, and all that follows, through Moses and life in the land, and the prophets, and the teachings of Jesus, we keep learning that we are called to be a blessing – that is OUR RESPONSIBILITY. This is one of the greatest themes of the whole Bible. We are God’s people. God’s people live with RESPONSIBILITY – to be a blessing and to bear light.
God made the world and makes us. God wants to move the world toward the kingdom of heaven. We are created in God’s image. We know so well that there is a gap between the “is” and the “ought:” what is and what ought to be according to God’s purposes and plans. Not everything that is, is good. Not all that is done, is right. With God’s help, we can imagine a world different from the way it is now and has been in the past, and because we can imagine it, we can decide to act in a way that works with God and seeks to bring it about. We are to live with RESPONSIBILITY – working with God for the redemption of the world. This is the over-arching story of the Bible – to show us our calling – to be a blessing, to live with and for God. We want to align our lives with the purposes and plans of God.
It matters, therefore what we do. We give our lives, our gifts, to God’s work for the healing and the redemption of the world. “Let your light shine before others.” It is all about RESPONSIBILITY.
We cannot be just nominal Christians with a thin religious veneer covering our motives and impulses that are so far from faithful RESPONSIBILITY. There is enough of that around. We cannot just strive to do a little bit and call it godly. We have been given life and freedom – but it means RESPONSIBILITY – doing justice, loving kindness, walking humbly with God. Does your heart break for those who suffer? We have work to do! Do your actions reflect compassion for the less fortunate? We have work to do! Are you working for change that lines up with God’s healing love for the world? That is RESPONSIBILITY.
As God’s own person, as a disciple of Jesus, how will you be a blessing? How will you bear God’s light in your family, in daily encounters, in this city, in the world in these days? This is how we live. RESPONSIBILITY.
What we have is for God. What we do is always for God. May it be so. AMEN.
Prayer of Commitment: Bless us, Lord. And show us, today and always, how to be a blessing in our hurting world, following Jesus. Amen.
Alex Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during Sunday morning worship on Sunday, October 28, 2018. This is a rough manuscript.