Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Apple

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Genesis 3:

In his memoir Teacher Man, Frank McCourt, who was a high school English teacher, recounts some of the excuse notes he would receive from his students.  The ones he always appreciate the most were the ones that were clearly forged and told such outlandish stories as to cease being credible.  The notes sometimes got so good, that he began keeping the best of them, and what he found was that the forged excuse notes exhibited the best of American writing.  They were, in McCourt’s words, “fluent, imaginative, clear, dramatic, fantastic, focused, persuasive, useful.”  He began to wonder why it was that his students whined and complained about getting any writing assignment, and tried to avoid them for as long as possible, and when they did them put so little effort into them.  But when it came to forging excuses they suddenly became brilliant and creative.  And to try and capture this untapped potential, he decided to give them an assignment to write an excuse note from  Adam to God or from Eve to God.

“They didn’t look around,” he said.  “They didn’t chew on their pens.  They didn’t dawdle.  Pens raced across paper.  They could do this one… with their eyes closed….  The bell rang,” McCourt says, “and for the first time in my three and a half years of teaching, I saw students so immersed they had to be urged out of the room by friends hungry for lunch….  [The] next day everyone had excuse notes, not only from Adam and Eve but even from God and [the snake].”  And it was then that McCourt said he realized “there was enough material in human history for millions of excuse notes.  Sooner or later, everyone needs an excuse.”

That is most certainly what we find in today’s story, which may be one of the most famous not only in the Bible but even in Western culture.  While it is a story of beginnings that seeks to explain why things are the way they are, such as why snakes crawl and why women experience pain in childbirth, the story is also really about human nature, about who we are at a fundamental level and who we are today is not really all that different from who we are told that Adam and Eve are.  God has created this garden for humans to exist in, and in the garden are trees that of which they can eat, but there are two other trees in the garden as well.  First there is the tree of immortality, and it’s not really clear what this tree does.  Is man in the garden mortal or immortal?  The tendency has been to say that we lose immortality when we are expelled from the garden, but if Adam, and then Eve, are immortal to begin with why is that tree there?  That is a question that is never really answered.

But in addition to the tree or immortality is also the tree that is referred to as the tree of good and evil, which really is seen to encompass all knowledge.  It has been argued that the first temptation, a word not used in this passage, is not the snake tempting Eve, but in fact the first temptation is God putting this tree in the garden in the first place, and notice that God does not just put the tree to the side, it’s right in the middle of the garden where you can’t miss it.  My daughters love Oreos.  Now if I was to put a bag of Oreos on the kitchen table and tell them not to touch them, and if they did they would die, and then I was to turn my back, what is the first thing they are going to do?  They might not immediately open the bag and take a bite, but they are certainly going to go check them out, and touch and hold them, and probably talk amongst themselves about what they should do, but sooner or later, probably sooner rather than later, they are going to give in and eat one of those Oreos.  It’s just inevitable. 

We don’t really like boundaries.  We like to be able to pick and choose.  We like to have our own sense of freedom, and maybe even choose to do or not do things not because someone has told, but instead because we chose it ourselves.  And this is really what separates us from the animals, or at least as far as we know.  Animals are drawn do to things, or not do them, by instinct not because they rationally think about what to do.  But we as humans do things by more than just instinct, and we all have the Oreo cookies that we crave.  Did God know this? Did God know that humans would take of the fruit, or did this come as a surprise?

But the next question is why is this tree there at all?  It is the question that we invariably ask, but the author or the story does not seem to be concerned about it at all, and of course we could speculate on the question until the cows come home and probably never come to a satisfactory answer.  But what it does seem to establish is that there are limits and boundaries that are just part of the creation, and God seems to be saying these are not to be crossed, such as don’t eat the fruit for if you do you will die, although the Hebrew really says something like if you eat it you will drop dead.  We might speculate as well about why there are boundaries in the creation, why god would do that, but again it would probably be pointless.  Instead we must simply recognize that there are boundaries that God has created and we are to respect and keep those boundaries. (Difference between our boundaries and God’s – sound barrier – Chuck Yeager, 4 minute Mile – Roger Bannister)  And yet.  And yet, there is also something about who we are as humans that makes these boundaries hard if not impossible to keep, which is something about what I think we are hearing here, but we do know they take the fruit and they eat.

Note that the snake here is never ever described as being Satan, or even one of Satan’s minions.  Satan is a much later developing idea than the time this story was written down, and most of what people think about the devil is not even biblically based.  But that’s a different message for a different time.  All we know is that the snake is said to be more crafty than the other wild animals, all of whom were created by God, and who were named as good by God.  And the snake asks the woman what God said to them about what they could and could not eat in the garden.  Now in some ways this is a trick question because as far as we know God has never said anything to the woman.  And what she says is that God has told them they can eat of any fruit except from the tree in the middle, and not only can’t they eat of it, but they can’t touch it either, or they will die.  Eve has added this little piece about not touching it.  We don’t know who told Eve the rules about the tree because that information is not recounted.  Did it come from God? If so then we would assume that God told her the same thing God told Adam.  But perhaps it was Adam who told Eve and he added this little piece of information, and how can we really trust Adam he was literally born yesterday.

Some have said that in this addition of information that Eve has really become the first theologian, in that she has taken something God said and reinterpreted it for a modern understanding.  Possibly.  Others say that sin begins with a distortion of the truth, and that Eve distorts it here.  What she also does is to make the rule even harder to obey, and thus easier to break and once it’s broken, by just touching it, what’s the difference in eating it as well.  But there are several things that get overlooked in this portion of the story.  The first is that Eve really considers what she is doing and what she was about to do, whereas Adam just acts impulsively and eats.  The other thing is that we sort of imagine that the snake approaches Eve all by herself, when Adam is not around, knowing that he can entice her, and the church has typically interpreted this as meaning that women are more gullible and more easily coerced to doing bad things then men are.  Of course it has been men who have made this interpretation.  But this is not what the story says.  In fact we are told that Adam is there with her the entire time.  He was there when they were approached by the snake, he was there when Eve and the snake are talking, and he was there when she first takes the fruit, and he does absolutely nothing, instead he just takes the fruit from her.  It’s not that Eve later tempts Adam with an apple, or even with her pink Cadillac as Bruce Springsteen famously sang.  Instead Adam was there the whole time, heard everything that was said, and he takes the fruit from Eve and eats of it.  And then all hell breaks loose.

We are told that when they eat of the fruit they knew that they were naked.  This is the second time this has come up.  The first was right after they were created, and we are told they were naked but were not ashamed, but now they know they are naked and seek to cover themselves.  The knowledge that they gain really is a loss of innocence, which includes removing the veil from their eyes about sex, and throughout scripture knowledge will take on both connotations of head knowledge, but also sexual knowledge, in knowing someone biblically.  What also happens is that they then hide from God.  Their relationship with God has been broken, which is the nature of sin, although sin is never mentioned in this story at all.  Sin is not mentioned until the story of Cain and Abel which we look at next week.

But their relationship with God is broken and their relationship between themselves is broken too.  God asks the women what she has done, and she blames the snake.  God asks Adam what he has done, and he blames Eve.  I wonder if God has asked the snake if the snake would have blamed God, bringing the cover-up full circle.  I also wonder what would have happened if they had just taken responsibility.  If they had simply said to God, we did this and we’re sorry, forgive us, would we still be in the Garden of Eden?  God also loses relationship with humans, who now hide from God, and God also breaks relationship with the creation, as God takes the skins of animals, assumedly animals that had to be killed in order to provide them, to give clothing to Adam and Eve.  The entire creation is now in disorder, chaos is back in the creation.

And so God issues the punishments.  The snake is cursed to crawl on its belly and eat dust, unlike other animals that have legs, even if they’re really short.  The woman is cursed first with pain in childbirth, and there is something different about human childbirth from other animals, as well as how we care and out attachment to our children.  Once animals are weaned there seems to be no indication that animal mothers know their offspring as their any longer, which means that there is a lot of pain in raising children just beyond the moment of birth.  Naomi Rosenblatt has said that “nobody can give us the kind of pain that our children can.”  Of course we see some of this pain immediately after this in the story of Cain and Abel, and I think that this pain of childbirth also entails the pain of knowing, or of seeing a child die.  And yet the pain of childbirth also brings tremendous joy and also hope, which to jump ahead just a little bit, is where Eve gets her name.  After the curses are laid out, we are told that Adam gives Eve her name because she will be the mother of all who live.  There is a note of hope in this story as they move out into the world, that with the pain of childbirth comes the joy of being able to have and raise children, and perhaps then also the joy of seeing them have their own children and receive the payback for all the things they did to their parents.

But we are also told that the woman’s desire shall be for her husband.  The other pain of childbirth is knowing the pain of death that can come from giving birth.  Although the incidence of women dying in childbirth has dropped dramatically in the industrialized world, it is still not unknown, and not all that long ago would have been a major concern in any pregnancy.  And yet even knowing this, women still seek the companionship of males knowing that that companionship could result in their death, and we need look no further than later in Genesis when Rachel says to Jacob, give me children or surely I will die, and then, of course, she ends up dying in childbirth.  And finally the woman is told that her husband shall rule over her.  To modern ears this doesn’t sound very good, or very egalitarian, and again it’s sort of been interpreted by males to fit a male understanding of how this should be.  But the Hebrew word for rule here is the same one used in referring to good kings, who rule over the people justly and rightly.  This clearly says that the curse is for husbands to be in charge, but in a kinder and gentler manner, and we can certainly debate whether this injunction still applies today, and most of you can probably guess where I come down on the subject.

Then there is the final curse, which is not given to the man, but is instead given to the ground, and because of this man’s work will be hard, and he will be separated from the dirt, the very thing from which he was made, and thus the fruits of his labor will no longer come easily. All of this happens, because Adam, as God says, “listened to the voice of your wife.”  Later this phrase will come up again, which we will see when we get to the story of Abraham (Hagar and Ishmael), as this story really in many ways sets up a lot of the stories that will continue throughout scripture.  And then Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden, and to stop them from going back God puts an angel with a flaming sword at the entrance.

There is so much going on in this story that we could spend weeks digging through it and would never get to everything.  It’s about our desire for freedom and autonomy, in spite of other things, like relationship with God, it’s about broken relationships with each other, with the creation and with God, it’s about violations and about forgiveness, it’s about making excuses and it’s about the desire to go back to the good old days, which is what the angel with the flaming sword keeps us from doing.  We want to go back to the time when everything was good, before we had lost our innocence as it were, even if that innocence never existed, we want to go back to our own gardens, and yet we can’t.  We can’t go back to the garden, or we can’t go back to Egypt, or we can’t go back to the 1950s, or we can’t go back to pre 9/11.  We can only be where we are today.  Later in scripture we find out this is the nature of God as well.  When Moses asks God for God’s name, God says, “I am,” or “I will be what I will be.”  God’s name is present or future tense, it is not past tense.  Or as Jesus says, “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.”  We can’t go back to the garden, to the time of innocence, we can only be where we are.

But here is the core message of this passage.  God tells Adam and Eve that if they eat from the tree they will die, but they don’t die, and yes I know some of you will argue that by eating it they become mortal, but that’s not what the story says nor is it what God says.  The words used says they will literally drop dead, but they don’t.  God extends mercy and grace even at this beginning of mankind, and then when they leave the garden, God does not send them out into the big wide world all by themselves.  Instead what happens?  God goes with them.  God offers them mercy and grace for what they have done, although there is still punishment, and God goes out into the world with them seeking reconciliation and restoration, and mankind begins their journey which will continue to play itself out throughout scripture, leading to the coming of Jesus, and a situation that still plays itself out in all of our lives, for as Paul says, we all fall short of the glory of God.  Even today we can see the story of Adam and Eve being played out.  The temptation of the fruit, the blaming and scapegoating, and also of God’s mercy and grace, and of God walking this journey with us.  This isn’t a story for onetime, it is a story for all time, which is why we continue to hear it and to tell it, because it speaks to the heart of who we are and also of who God is, that God does not respond to transgressions with the weight of justice and punishment to the fullest extent of the law.  While the wages of sin are costly, God meets us with grace and with mercy and with a desire to restore the broken relationship God has with us and that we have with each other.  May it be so my sisters and brothers.  Amen.

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