Scripture – Genesis 2:4b-7, 15-17; 3:1-8 – Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
For the life of me, I could not understand the fascination. Maybe it was the shiny bottom. Or the hissing sound it made. Or the long cord connected to it which would sway when it was in use. For some reason, when my son Rob was a toddler, he was utterly fascinated with the iron. (I can tell you his mother certainly wasn’t!) Every time I used it, he would point and lunge closer and really want to touch it. My memory is of my constantly saying “No. No, Robby! Hot! Hot!” We both had to be content with his playing underneath the ironing board while I stood there above him applying hot iron to clothing with a constant nervous eye on his whereabouts.
I really don’t remember how it happened. It had to have been my own carelessness; you know, that taking my eye off of him for one second. But somehow he touched the bottom of the iron and I’ll never forget the surprised and shocked look on his little face as he wailed loudly enough for them to hear him in the next town. In my own panic, I shouted: “I told you it was hot!” But of course, in the same second I lifted him up in my arms and tended to his little hand, cooing and kissing the whole while.
I understand better now that having this tempting applicance right in the middle of our daily midst and my dramatically and frequently calling attention to it made it even more fascinating. Kind of like having a forbidden tree right in the middle of the Garden of Eden and hearing God’s warning not to eat of it “for in the day that you eat of it you shall die”. We don’t know how long the newly created man and woman had been tilling and keeping the garden before the serpent came along. We don’t know how soon the man told the woman about the tree after her arriving on the scene. We don’t know if they passed it every day as their curiosity grew and grew and the fascination mounted or if it was just part of the daily landscape. But we do know from the story that one of the other inhabitants of the garden came along and piqued their interest and it took very little nudging for them to succumb.
My friends, this story, as theologian William Joseph Danaher writes, “perhaps more than any other part of the Old Testament” comes to us today accompanied by a long historic accrual of layer upon layer of interpretations and meanings and ensuing Christian doctrines, all of which, Danaher says, have a claim on us as valid as any reading of the text : Augustine’s doctrine of original sin, our history of the position of women in marriage and culture, the nature of humanity, the nature of God, the origin of evil, free will. We could go in dozens of directions this morning, but let’s do our best today to stick with the narrative and perhaps discover something about ourselves, the impact of our surrounding culture and, of course, the good news.
The Lord God gave us a job, gave us freedom and gave us limits. The job of the man and his partner was to till and keep the garden. Humankind has a purpose. I love what Presbyterian Pastor Allen McSween says: “The Creator who gives life also gives meaning and purpose to life. We are called to serve as caretakers in God’s good creation – stewards of a world we did not make and can receive only as a gift held in trust.” With this responsibility also comes incredible freedom: “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden.” Every tree! As much as you want! But not that one. God gave us limits: we are made in God’s image, but we are not God.
This “knowledge of good and evil” can be interpreted a number of ways, but I think it’s safe to say it’s pretty much the same as judgment. By attaining that knowledge, our eyes are opened to the existence of differences between good and evil and we think we are able to judge the difference. By eating from that tree, we might think we don’t need God any longer – we have that knowledge now and are able to judge for ourselves and judge everybody else for that matter. We know what’s good for us.
The “sin” of the story (and you’ll notice that the word “sin” is never mentioned) is the disobedience – eating of the tree God said not to. But the heartbreak of the story is the resultant separation of humankind from God. As their eyes are opened, the first thing they do is judge themselves and they’re filled with shame. Their shame cause them to hide from God and later, when questioned, we find that not only have they separated themselves from God, they have separated themselves from each other. Double heartbreak. He said-she said becomes banishment and rigid roles and all kinds of pain.
The consequence of ignoring the limits, of forgetting that our God-given freedom comes with responsibility for ourselves and for others and for God’s creation, is separation and heartbreak. The limits of the marriage covenant, the limits we place on our children, the limits to protect natural habitats, the limits, we pray, ensure solid relationships and safety and the flourishing of all of creation.
But, my friends, I’m afraid we are infested with snakes. Infested with temptations to be rich and smart and beautiful and powerful and the best or the most efficient or the most well-read or the best informed, in the know, in control, in the right group, on top of everything. And the more we pursue, the more we keep picking from that forbidden tree, the higher we climb to get to the top branches, the further from God and each other we get. Worse than that: the further from ourselves we get. The further we get from the beloved children of God we really are.
Our striving, our self-medicating, our obedience to the ungodly messages we receive daily to look a certain way, to make a certain amount of money, to drive a certain car, are not who we are. We suffer from a case of mistaken identity. Not only when we judge ourselves, but when we judge others. We are not our titles. We are not our accomplishments. We are not our material possessions. AND we are not our mistakes and God knows, literally, God knows, we make plenty of them. So I invite you to take another look at the Lord God’s instructions to the first man and woman: “…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.” God did not destroy the man and the woman any more than I slapped little Robby’s burned hand. There was pain; there was a death to innocence; there were consequences; there was separation; but the man and the woman did not die by God’s hand.
That’s good news, but it keeps getting better. God came to us and dwelt among us in the person of Jesus, reminding us of God’s love, God’s mercy, God’s forgiveness, God’s cherishing us as the Creator’s children we are, God’s understanding our propensity to succumb to the myriad of temptations which come our way on a regular basis.
But in response to that love and mercy, my friends, we need to know our limits and to respect them and to stick with them: praying as Jesus taught not to be led into temptation, remembering that we are not God, either when it comes to our own unrealistic expectations of ourselves or the judgment of others. Let us not hide ourselves when we hear the Lord God walking in the evening breeze, but let us come out from among the trees and greet our Creator-Redeemer-Sustainer with humility and gratitude. We may find it fascinating. Amen.