Passing the Buck (Second Sunday after Pentecost)

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Even though this is the second Sunday after Pentecost on the liturgical calendar, for WWII history buffs like me, I can’t resist thinking of today as D-Day! I’ve always been fascinated with the stories and documentaries of D-Day, and a few years ago, I even got a chance to spend a few days touring Normandy.

The Allied of invasion of Europe on D-Day was a success, and it’s remembered as a major turning point in the war.  But at the time, the planners knew it wasn’t a sure thing.  After all, nothing this big had ever been attempted, and there were a lot of logistical details that could go wrong and sink the invasion, no matter how brave or skilled the soldiers and sailors were.

And one of my favorite D-Day stories is that just before the invasion, General Eisenhower wrote out a short note that he planned to read publicly should the invasion fail.  The note talked about the great effort of all the soldiers and sailors, and how the best information possible had been used in the decision.  But in the end, he concluded, “If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.”

It was a remarkable note, that actually was forgotten about until somebody doing Ike’s laundry found it in his coat pocket a few days later.  And what was remarkable was that, if the invasion failed, Eisenhower was going to accept full responsibility for what went wrong.  He wasn’t going to pass the buck.

Especially in today’s political environment, that’s unheard of!  Everybody, of all political parties and persuasions, is only too happy to tell us how everything is somebody else’s fault.  Oh, to be sure, they tell us, I may have made a minor mistake here or there, but it pales in comparison to what the other person or group did or is doing! And indeed, not just in politics, but in many areas of life, there’s always some excuse, or some extenuating circumstance, that makes it possible to pass the buck (and the blame) to someone else.

But while it seems worse than ever today, it’s not just a modern problem.  It’s human nature to want to avoid blame and pass the buck.  Today’s first reading from the very beginning of Genesis is a story that’s intended to show us what human nature is like when things go wrong.

In this second creation story, God has created Adam and Eve and placed them in a garden that has everything they need.  They have one (and only one!) restriction – don’t eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Clearly, this irked them…! (When questioned by the snake, Eve says, “we can’t even touch it!”, which was not part of the instructions!)

So, the snake plants the idea that if they eat the fruit they’ll be “like God”, which is the little nudge Eve needs to give it a shot.  Adam sees that Eve got away with it, so he gets in on the act, too.

But then God asks what’s going on?  And immediately, they both try to pass the buck:

  • Eve says, “the serpent tricked me” – this is maybe the first ever attempt at “the devil made me do it!”
  • Adam, though, is a professional buck-passer – he has a two-fold argument – “the woman you gave me, she gave me the fruit!”; “you see God, this is really your fault – if you had planned this creation thing better this wouldn’t have happened!”

But passing the buck didn’t work for Adam and Eve.  And although people ever since have tried to make it work, all passing the buck really does is mess up relationships.

We sometimes think of “original sin” as being about eating the fruit God told Adam and Eve not to eat.  (That is, messing up one little rule.) But really, original sin is about messing up relationships.  It’s about how people inherently mess up their relationship with God, with each other, and with the world around them.

Trying to pass the buck was really what made things bad in this story, because in general, trying to pass the buck is a great way to mess up your relationship with:

  • other people … (can you imagine the conversation the next day when Adam had to figure out how to talk to Eve after trying to blame her for his mistakes …?)
  • yourself … (it’s not entirely clear that Adam or Eve really learn from their mistakes, because if you can’t admit your own mistakes, or even your own part in the mistake, you can’t possibly learn from them and grow in your own life …)
  • God … (Adam and Eve are separated from the presence of God not because they make a mistake, but because they insist that they’re right and God is wrong, and they don’t even ask for forgiveness …)

This ancient story of creation calls us to remember that, even though we’re human beings created and loved by God, we often want to be God instead of loving God.  And that tendency shows itself through wanting to pass the buck and the blame on to others for everything that happens.

Often, human beings mess up our relationships like that.  And the prescription for our sin isn’t to stop being human, or pretend that we don’t have a problem. The prescription that God gives us is forgiveness.  And forgiveness is really about renewing relationships instead of breaking them apart by passing the buck.

And so in some respects, living into that forgiveness is about:

  • seeking God’s help and guidance instead of blaming others for the problems I see around me … (other people; the devil, or even God!…)
  • taking responsibility for myself, instead of using others to make myself feel good by comparison … (that’s really what passing the buck does – it uses others to make me feel better about myself, and I feel like this is at the root of a lot of the polarization and general nastiness we live with in our society today…)
  • trusting that God is more interested in renewed and restored relationships, than he is in finding someone to blame…

The desire to pass the buck will always be in our human nature. But as Christians, we’re called to struggle to live in a way that doesn’t rely on passing the buck, but rather relies on the forgiveness that renews and restores relationships.

And when we live into forgiveness, we show the world another way. We show the world a way to live in which we take responsibility to do things which make the world more like the place God wants it to be. We show the world a way to live which no longer needs to demonize other people. And we show the world a way to live which relies on God’s help and strength instead of on our own sense of righteousness.