Genesis 3.1-13

I Corinthians 15.20-22, 42-49

Back to the Garden

1969:  That Was The Year That Was

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

When my daughter Blythe was a junior at Syracuse, we were texting back and forth one Friday morning, and she told me, “I finally get to go off campus this weekend – some of us are going home with my friend Mindy.”  I knew some of Blythe’s college friends, but I don’t think I had met Mindy yet so I asked her, “Who’s Mindy?”  She said, “Mindy Yasgur – she’s one of my sorority sisters.”  I paused for a minute; “Mindy Yasgur?”  And I did a little mental math; “Is her grandfather’s name Max?”  I waited a minute while Blythe texted Mindy my question.  “Yeah, it is Max – why?”  So I gave her a one minute history of the Woodstock Music Festival, how it was originally supposed to be held in the village of Walkill, New York, but the town denied permission, so organizers turned to a dairy farmer in the next county, in the town of Bethel, New York.  The dairy farmer’s name was Max Yasgur, who opened up his fields and became a hero of sorts when the three day music festival was held on his land.  Blythe was going to spend the weekend with Max Yasgur’s granddaughter.

Jefferson Airplane.  Blood Sweat & Tears.  The Who.  Grateful Dead.  Crosby, Stills, Nash & Yong.  Creedence Clearwater Revival.  The Band.  Ten Years After.  Santana.  Joan Baez.  Arlo Guthrie.  Janis Joplin.  Joe Cocker.  Richie Havens.  Jimi Hendrix. Paul Butterfield Blues Band.  Sha Na Na.  Johnny Winter.  John Sebastian.  Mountain.  Canned Heat.  Ravi Shankar.  Sly and the Family Stone.  Thirty two acts in all, the Woodstock Music and Art Fair: “An Aquarian Exposition” was a three day festival of art and music that actually lasted four days – it wasn’t over until Jimi Hendrix played “Hey Joe” around 11 am Monday morning.

One of the things that has regularly been said about Woodstock over the past 50 years is, “If you can remember it, you weren’t really there.”  I take this to mean two things.  One is there were plenty of drugs to go around, and for many three consecutive sleepless nights, so the memory of some concert-goers was likely, shall we say, clouded at best?  But at the same time there were more than 400,000 people in attendance, and memory is a funny thing; most people there understood what a unique moment in time Woodstock represented.  For all the disorganization, the rain, the mud, the unanticipated crowds, the miles-long traffic jam, the shortage of food and sanitary facilities, it was a remarkably peaceful weekend.  People really did share whatever they had with others; there was a makeshift kitchen that served up whatever had been pooled together along with some wild fruit and veggies from nearby farmers.  For all the people gathered in that one place – you would have to multiply the combined populations of Chester, Essex and Deep River by 266 to get that many people - there was no violence reported.  There were two deaths, one from a drug overdose and one person who fell asleep under a tractor whose driver didn’t know he was there.  And there were two births during the weekend as well, although only one of them was documented.  Still, in all, it was a positive experience for most of the concert-goers, even if much of it is lost to the blur of both memory and the mythology that has since risen around it.  I think it is telling that the most famous song about Woodstock was written by Joni Mitchell, who was not even at the concert:  “By the time we got to Woodstock, we were half a million strong / and everywhere there was song and celebration… We are stardust, we are golden, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.”  The same imagery was coined by Hal Espen, a writer for  The New Yorker:  “[While] there had been problems and difficulties… it had also been a kind of Eden.”

“A kind of Eden…”  “We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden…”  In addition to its place in musical and cultural history, the history and memory of Woodstock also carry more than their fair share of biblical overtones.  The original Woodstock, remember, took place in a small town in New York called – not Woodstock, but Bethel, or beth-el, which in Hebrew means, “house of God.”  So perhaps the venue was blessed before the first chord was struck.  As well, as much as people differ on the “true meaning” of the Woodstock weekend, so the “true meaning” of the both the word and the idea of “Eden” is uncertain, although the closest we can come to its root meaning is, appropriately enough, “pleasure and delight.”  Both Woodstock and Eden were known for people wandering around without any clothes on, and both represent in the minds of many a time of innocence which has since been lost, to no small extent on account of the corruptibility of human desire, and the power of greed.

To a certain degree also, both Eden and Woodstock said something about the aesthetic side of humanity.  Woodstock, of course, is remembered for an abundance of music and mind-altering substances.  It was a celebration of experiences which appealed principally to the senses.  And what was it that attracted Eve to the forbidden fruit?  Yes, the serpent steered her in that direction, but there was something else about it which tempted her as well:  “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.”  The traditional interpretation of Eden was that Adam and Eve wanted to be like God.  But it is at least equally true that they were drawn by the sight, and the scent, and the taste of the fruit, as much as they were drawn to its consciousness-altering qualities.  “God knows,” the tempter said, “that when you eat… [the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.”

The memory of both Woodstock and Eden also exist in a kind of spiritual haze.  “If you can remember Woodstock, you weren’t really there.”  The other side of the coin is that there are probably three times as many people who claimed to have attended as were actually there.   Likewise, our own memory of the story of Eden remains somewhat hazy.  Most people, when asked what happened there, will respond that Satan convinced Eve to eat the apple, which is mistaken on at least three counts.  The tempter was the serpent; not Satan, not the Devil, not Lucifer, but only the serpent and nothing more; the fruit was from the tree of knowledge of good and evil – there is no apple in the story of Eden; and if you listened carefully to Deb’s reading, you will have noticed that the woman remains unnamed throughout.   What we think we know about the story comes from our reading of other parts of Genesis, and what many people remember about Woodstock is equally flavored by other, subsequent memories and experiences long after the weekend had passed.

In fact it would not be too much to say that the conventional wisdom about both Eden and Woodstock is a bit wide of the mark.  The traditional perspective of the man’s and woman’s adventures in Eden is that it marked the occasion for original sin, that because they sinned, all humanity was destined for sinfulness.  This is the slant which Paul takes in I Corinthians, that sin came into the world through Adam.  I read this morning’s New Testament lesson from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.  But I love the way the King James Version puts it, probably because it is the version George Frederick Handel – who by the way was not at Woodstock – used in his Messiah:  “Since by man came death,  by man came also the resurrection of the dead.  For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.”  It is a very Calvinist interpretation of Eden.  But the story in Genesis actually puts it somewhat differently.  Genesis three suggests that one man’s, or more specifically, one couple’s disobedience led to mortality and hardship and banishment from the garden; it does not say anything about a race of sinners issuing from the primeval couple as a result.

It seems that what Woodstock and Eden have in common more than anything, is that both are open to a wide variety of interpretations, and the way you remember it depends on your point of view.  There are those who would romanticize both experiences, seeing in them an original purity which has long since been corrupted.  For the first man and woman it was the serpent who came along after they had been living happily and innocently, and spoiled the whole experience for them.  By the same token, what is called “the spirit of Woodstock” lived but for a brief while, until less than four months later the Rolling Stones performed at the Altamont music festival in California, where right in front of the stage one of their fans was stabbed to death by a Hell’s Angel, and the mystique of music festivals as one great big love feast was lost forever.  Although, the comparison of the serpent with Mick Jagger deserves some thought for a sermon at some future date, don’t you think? 

Still, as idyllic as the Woodstock weekend may have appeared, it remains that it took place in the shadow of the pall cast over the nation by the Vietnam War.  It was a reality that was never far from anyone’s mind, and more than a few musicians placed it front and center.  For Joan Baez, it was a deeply personal reality.  There she was up on stage, six months pregnant, and her husband, David Harris, had already been in a Texas jail for two and a half weeks for resisting the draft.  He and 42 others were in the throes of a hunger strike.  So it only stands to reason that much of her music that weekend was about social justice and conscientious resistance.  Among her set were such songs as “I Shall Be Released,” “Joe Hill,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and “We Shall Overcome.”  Many others followed suit.  Richie Havens sang “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” which he rechristened “Freedom.”  Bert Sommer sang Simon & Garfunkel’s “America.”  Tim Hardin sang “Simple Song of Freedom.”  Arlo Guthrie sang “Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep.”  Canned Heat sang “A Change is Gonna Come.”  Mountain sang “Dreams of Milk and Honey.”  Jefferson Airplane sang “Uncle Sam Blues.”  Crosby, Stills and Nash sang “Find the Cost of Freedom.”  And in probably the two most-remembered sets, Jimi Hendrix put a revolutionary electronic twist on “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which, if you listen closely weaves “Taps” in and out of the melody; and Country Joe and the Fish performed their “Feel Like I’m Fixing To Die Rag,” which included the words, “And it’s one, two three, what are we fightin’ for?  Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn, next stop is Vietnam.  And it’s five, six, seven open up the pearly gates – well, we ain’t got time to wonder why – whoopie! We’re all gonna die!”

So it wasn’t all Eden.  It was a weekend of great music in a time of great peril, combined in myth and memory to become one of the cultural touchstones of recent American history.  There has been a lot written about it in the past month, so let me just offer my own takeaway.

What Woodstock and Eden demonstrate is that experience is one thing; our interpretation of that experience, as well as the meaning with which we imbue it, is often something quite different, generally better recalled and usually more pertinent.  As people of faith, we recognize that our experiences are endowed with purpose, not by our rosy remembrances which so often prove faulty, but by God.  Whatever meaning you and I find in life, whatever significance is lent to who we are and to what we do, has its source in the God who created us, and who takes care of us, and who has planted a sense of purpose in each one of us.  Toward the end of the story of Eden, God provides a reason why people and snakes don’t get along all that well anymore; God provides a reason why childbearing is such a laborious endeavor; God provides a reason why we earn our keep by the work of our hands and the sweat of our brows.  And when Paul reads the story of the garden, he finds a reason why God sent Christ into the world as the remedy for human rebellion. 

The stories of our lives are precious to us because they have been endowed with a sense of meaning and purpose.  And if there is a lesson in the midst of all the music and all the fun and all the shenanigans that took place on that farm in central New York fifty years ago this weekend, it is in part because of what Woodstock has come to mean to people of many different generations.  And in this sense, it turns out that Woodstock is not all that different from the stories of our faith, and the stories of our lives, because what we get out of them has everything to do with the meaning we have put into them.

Amen.

sermons

events

lifegroups

Join Us!

Sunday worship

is at 10 A.M. 

 

Worship and

Church School 

Handicapped Accessible 

Nursery Care Provided 

Office Hours

Church Office:

Monday - Friday

9 am - 1:00 pm

 

Minister's Hours:

Wednesday - Friday

8:30 am -12:00 pm

 

Mailing Address:  

Post Office Box 383, Chester, CT 06412

 

Physical Address:  

29 West Main Street, Chester, CT 06412

 

Telephone:

860-526-2697  

 

Email Address: 

unitedchester@uccchester.org