They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’ He said, ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.’ He said, ‘Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?’ The man said, ‘The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.’ Then the Lord God said to the woman, ‘What is this that you have done?’ The woman said, ‘The serpent tricked me, and I ate.’ The Lord God said to the serpent, ‘Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.’ To the woman he said, ‘I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.’ And to the man he said, ‘Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, “You shall not eat of it”, cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’
Have you ever seen the movie “Matchstick Men”? It stars Nicholas Cage as a con man with a unique personality quirk – he’s an obsessive compulsive cleaner.
To dramatically illustrate this, at one point during the film, there is an extensive montage scene of him performing a thorough cleaning of every square inch of his home. The camera zooms in on him as he lies on his back carefully dusting beneath his living room table with a rag and cleaner.
It’s a convincing performance. And I have to confess to you that I secretly envied him while watching him there on his back.
You see, while I don’t mean to treat mental disorders lightly, part of me really wishes I could be that obsessed with cleanliness. As I sat there watching his absurd devotion to this perfection I couldn’t help but think, “Oh, if I only had the time and energy. Wouldn’t it just be great to live in such an impeccable home?!?”
Part of this desire is the recognition that I simply do not live up to this standard – by any stretch of the imagination. Anyone who has visited our home knows that it is a chaos of children and pets and laundry and dishes.
This felt absence of achieving a standard drives a subconscious sense that if I only could all would be well. I would be satisfied and whole.
The flip side of this, of course, is my continual failure to succeed means that I can never truly feel satisfied and whole. All is not well because I simply cannot arrive at this level of purity and perfection. And we’re not talking about the whole world here, but just the small space of my own home.
I have waged mini-wars against dust, but I always lose. Changing furnace filters, cleaning ducts, washing fans, vacuuming, wiping down walls and window sills…nothing ever seems to end the cycle.
Worse, at a deeper level there is the real disappointment that it’s not just me. Even Nicholas Cage and his dust rag can’t keep something perfectly clean forever. A well-cleaned home today will need to be cleaned again tomorrow.
This is due to a fact of life – dust is everywhere, unavoidable. Have you ever paused for a moment to look at a sunbeam shining through a window? What do you notice?
The air all around you isn’t just oxygen. There’s a glittering, swirling mass of visible particles floating all around us that we don’t even notice or think about until it stares us right in the face.
And I know I add to the problem with my nasty human habit of constantly shedding skin and hair particles. Just like that house, no matter how long I spend in the shower today, I’ll still need one tomorrow.
You shed dust, you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
This is the reality of our human condition. I think that’s perhaps why it’s such a foundational part of the narrative of humanity we find in Genesis. And I think that this very intimate and personal cycle of creation, consumption, and dissolution that connects us to all others and the world in its wholeness, its past and its future, is described here in this passage at this moment in this text for a reason.
This break with God’s will, this action or failure to act WELL, is tied here to our birth, and life, and death, and it applies to us all.
Yes, I’m talking about the “s” word – sin. I’ll just come out and say it. Like dust, it exists all around us close to home and far away. And we participate in it, and it is in us, personally, corporately, globally, from the sneer and the turning aside to the torture and the distant bomb dropped in our names.
The fact is that no matter how hard we try, you and I cannot extricate ourselves completely from this all-encompassing, all-pervasive reality.
And yet, and yet, while not discounting or dismissing this reality, I believe Scripture does not make it the focal point. In fact, quite the opposite.
Let’s take a moment and reflect on this. To whom does Jesus reserve his harshest rebukes, for example? For the most religious members of the community. Why is this?
Why would he call them whitewashed sepulchers? Why would he tell us to hide our prayers rather than say them in public?
Why does Paul carry this forward with lengthy arguments against law over faith in letter after letter?
I think at least part of the answer has to be that they recognized that a desire for purity and perfection can consume you.
It’s an impossible standard – Paul in Romans, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
An argument can be made that this is one of, if not THE central theme of the New Testament.
In the book Viral, George Fox University professor Leonard Sweet explains it like this: “Christianity is a wabi-sabi religion.
“Wabi-sabi is the Japanese tradition of celebrating the beauty in what’s flawed or worn, decrepit or commonplace. I call it the art of imperfect beauty. Wabi-sabi offers an inspiring new way to look at your home, your life, your ministry, your church…”
“To discover wabi-sabi,” says Sweet, “is to understand God’s hallowing of hollowed-out, broken people to bless a harried world. Wabi-sabi understands the singular beauty of wetlands, the raw richness of repentance, the tender acceptance of another day lived with all its marvels and mistakes.”
“A wabi-sabi home does not confuse godliness with cleanliness and is at peace with the dirt of its surroundings.”
“Christianity is a wabi-sabi religion.”
In contrast, an overly zealous pursuit of cleanliness – moral or otherwise – can turn a person into a moral monster, robbing both themselves and others of peace and blessing and grace.
One that scolds another for bringing healing at the wrong time or the wrong place, for spending time in the wrong places with the wrong people, for neglecting “holy” purity in order step off the road and into the gutter to pick up and care for a wounded stranger. One that, for whatever good reason, confuses following the letter of the law with its spirit.
So I don’t think Scripture gives us an image of humanity absent a tremendous capacity for evil, but I also don’t think it denies us the opportunity to be a part of its tremendous capacity for good.
Jesus doesn’t deny the sin of adultery, he just says to go and do it no more. And where the overwhelming weight of our own and the world’s sin could lead us to despair, bitterness, rage, or paralysis, Paul says “No, you no longer have to be consumed by obedience and disobedience to the law.
“Instead, strive toward the finish and the fullness of Christ. Run the good race in spite of the thorns in your flesh.”
To me this means two steps - first acknowledging the reality of sin – its hold on us, and our embeddeness and participation in it.
But then it also means not letting that sin be our master – to strive but not be overcome. To hold onto that reality, but to hold it lightly.
This leads to a potentially profound turn. I think it may be part of what Jesus and Paul tried so desperately to get across.
When we take seriously both the reality of our place within sin as well as our freedom from its choking hold, this places us in a very different relation to those around us, those whom we might be tempted to judge or scorn.
We can be humble before God and before our neighbor. We can be broken people blessing a harried world.
When we make this move, we can finally let go of the rocks we hold so tightly in our hands…and let them fall away like so much dust.