Sunday, September 25, 2016

In the Middle of It All

Look at all this beauty! “You may eat freely,” God said - consume freely, take it all in, make it a part of you -

So you accept this gift of unguardedness, wandering freely. You open your heart to receive the world, using the fullness of your senses; feel the warmth of the sun on the back of your neck, say thank you for the blessed choice of the mosquito to take her meal elsewhere; enjoy the taste of water when you scoop it to your mouth, know the particular scents of the morning and evening, hear another creature’s movements somewhere in the garden, your soul enlarging with each particle of creation -

And then your eye settles on the tree. You remember the word, “except.”

It’s all yours, except for that one tree.

A curious word, except. Here we are, so close to the beginning of Creation, and there is already an “in” and an “out” group, what’s ok and what’s not. “In” and “out” makes the possibilities feel a little more limited.

In the fertile land, the story says, God grew every beautiful tree with edible fruit, and also the tree of life in the middle of the garden and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Go about your business. Enjoy the expansiveness of God’s garden. Delight in the diversity of creation. Wander freely and let your senses absorb the richness which surrounds you. Care for all of it. Eat your fill, except – see that one, there, right in the middle of everything? Eat from that one, and it’ll kill you. Have a nice day. Enjoy your freedom. Try not to think about the tree.


That not-insignificant limit might have been easier to take if the tree were at the edge of the garden instead of If it took a day trip to get out to the tree; if you had to go out of your way to see it, a bit of thoughtful tourism perhaps, a diversion. Somewhere in the corner, or on one of the side paths you didn’t travel every day, where you could credibly pretend it didn’t exist, now and then, instead of constantly catching glimpses when you were vulnerable and unprepared to deal with it.

But most of us are not landscape designers and none of us were the planners of Creation and God knows God’s business. So the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is planted in the very center of the world, just where God intended it to be.

This is the very axis upon which the world spins. God fixed it in its proper place.

When we allow God to take God’s proper place in our lives, we pass very close by the Tree. We can’t help but notice it, as much as we might try to avert our gaze.

The Tree is as close as your neighbor’s pain. It is as close as Facebook or Twitter, Tumblr or text message; the television, WPR, locker room and hallway and waiting room conversation. The Tree bears witness. It carries knowledge of Good and Evil, Compassion and Willful Ignorance, Justice and Injustice. The tree is as close as the food pantry and the free clinic, the beaches where refugee boats land and the international newspapers that still print the pictures. The Tree grows at the immigration desk where asylum claims are processed, and in every grief-stricken neighborhood that is protesting the loss of a black or brown son or daughter in an encounter with police. If you have been keeping up with the news, you know: the tree keeps developing fruit week in and week out, a strange and bitter crop.

We have been conditioned to hear this particular story in particular ways: It has seeped into our consciousness, somehow, through teaching or Western culture, that at the beginning everything was perfect, BUT they made poor choices. The snake’s all sneaky and manipulative, Eve gets greedy and coerces Adam into sinning, and it’s her fault (maybe, if we’re being feminists their fault) that everything is messed up from here on out. Received (so-called) wisdom tells us we can blame them for everything that’s wrong in the world.

We’re quite good at the shame and blame business. We’re human. Dust infused with divine breath, as our story goes, earth-creatures, naked and vulnerable. We learn a little and withdraw in pain; we hide from ourselves and one another and God. Then we try to find someone to blame for it because it’s all a little embarrassing to have been vulnerable in the first place, to have had a gap in knowledge, to be (heaven forbid) WRONG about something!

Let’s not blame the fruit incident on a wily snake, or Eve who has carried the burden of it for all these centuries, or Adam. Really, it isn’t a matter for shame or blame at all.

Here’s the thing: the word “sin” doesn’t show up anywhere in this story.

This story may a tale of the beginning of Creation, but let’s not call God naive. This story will influence everything that comes after.Surely God knew what God was doing when God put the tree in the middle of the action, when the Creator said, “everything except,” and then shaped observant humans with free will, and also created Snake to ask clarifying questions. I do not think that situation happened by accident. Surely God had an inkling that Holy Wisdom would disturb the status quo.

There is some comfort in the ability to turn off the news, and meander further from the tree: focus on our families, manage the daily logistics of the soccer carpool and scheduling doctors’ appointments. It is a privilege to enjoy the warm fellowship of friends we know well, who do not challenge us overmuch; to surf our favorite sites, clicking links, nodding in solid agreement as we scroll down the page. To program our devices exclusively with the music that makes our hearts sing.

So every time we face the choice - “do I turn back to the relative comfort of the familiar? do I leave the Tree of Knowledge to its own devices? do I accept at face value the exception?”, we meet up with an emissary of divine wisdom.

No doubt, we will encounter our intelligent friend Snake, and we will face a reckoning.
Snake will remind us - “Is it true that you were settled in the garden to farm and take care of it?” And with that timely reminder, we may remember this agricultural truth: if fruit is not harvested - if it grows overripe, falls from the tree, and rots — it will cause new difficulties for the gardener.

Our Bible stories help us grapple with complicated truths about God, and the world as it is, and the world as it might be. What do we put at the center of our lives, as individuals, as families, as public citizens, as Christ’s church? Is it pain avoidance? Is it rule-following? Is it niceness? Is it something else?

Which fruit are we willing to pluck from the tree? Which fruit do we let drop? What makes us run and hide?

There is no culture on earth which would tell you wisdom comes without cost. God knows, on the day you eat from the tree, you will see clearly. Consider again the course of wisdom, and attend to the tree.


A sermon on the Creation stories told in Genesis 2 and 3, preached September 25, 2016 at McFarland UCC

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