Saturday, March 4, 2017

Longing for Eden

Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
First Sunday in Lent (A)
March 5, 2017
William G. Carter

In his book on biblical characters, this is what Frederick Buechner writes about Adam:

He let the Times fall to the carpet beside him. It was the usual recital – a new tax plan, the danger of oral contraceptives to women over forty, the mayor’s special committee on child abuse. He posted his glasses back on his forehead and with his thumb and forefinger massages the loose flesh under his eyes. Through the club window he could see a fat woman in slacks waiting for a bus, a boy with a pony tail walking a dog. Somebody had the TV on in another room, and he could hear the rise and fall of canned laughter. He lit a cigarette and the let the smoke drift out of his mouth without exhaling it. The city sky was turning brown with the approach of dusk. Then suddenly, as if it had been only yesterday, he remembered Eden.

The leopard… the starling… the rose – he remembered giving each its name, remembered the green river, the shy, green girl. He could no longer remember why it was he had felt compelled to leave it except that it had something to do with asserting his independence. Beyond that, he had only the dim sense that somehow a terrible injustice had been done, or possibly a terrible justice.

He saw the flame of what must have been the sunset flash like a sword in the upper story windows across the street. When the old steward brought him his third martini he called him Pete. Actually his name was Angelo.[1]

  And just to provide equal opportunity, here’s the first thing Buechner writes about Eve:

Like Adam, she spent the rest of her days convincing herself that it had all worked out for the best….

It was only once in a while at night, just as she was going off to sleep with all her usual defenses down, that her mind drifted back to the days when, because there was nothing especially important to do, everything was especially important.; when too good not to be true hadn’t yet turned into too good to be true; when being alone was never the same as being lonely. Then sad and beautiful dreams overtook her which she would wake up from, homesick for a home she could no longer even name...[2]

Homesick. Homesick for Eden. Have you ever been homesick?

Homesick is the kid on the second night of summer camp, lying in an unfamiliar cot, listening to the owls, longing for the security and protection of some place better known.

Homesick is the freshman on the eve of fall break, wanting to be back in a setting where there are no midterm exams, no sloppy roommates, just familiar faces and home-cooked meatloaf.

Homesick is my mother on her wedding night, at least that’s what she confessed sixty years later. By the time she was sixteen years old, she had lived in sixteen different houses. And the first time she was ever homesick was the first night she was away from her parents’ home.

We know how it feels. It’s the risk of stepping out beyond familiar landmarks, dependable relationships, and recognizable food. Remember back to a time when you felt it. Chances are it’s a glimmer of what it’s like to be homesick for the Garden of Eden.

That ancient story was written down by people who were far from home. I hope you don’t think it was an eye-witness account. Oh no, Adam and Eve are remembered centuries later by people who had nearly forgotten the Garden of Eden. Some scholars think it might been written during the days of King Solomon. There’s evidence that the story was edited in the years after the Babylonian Exile, when the Jews lived in a foreign land. And one of the ways they could make sense of their homesickness was by remembering Adam and Eve.

Most of the time that we remember Adam and Eve, we recall the forbidden fruit, the talking snake, the taking of what they were told not to take, the hiding, the blaming. But frankly, the Jews never spent much time revisiting that part of the story. They knew that they had already been expelled from Eden. Now they had to make their way in the world with the knowledge of good and evil.

It was Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor, who said that this is what makes human beings different from other animals: we have the capacity to make moral choices. And we have to make the choices, because it’s no longer Eden, where all the choices were made for us.

Maybe, as some of the Jewish sages have suggested, Eden was never intended as our long-term home. After all, goes the reasoning, if God did not want us to have choices, then God would have implanted an obedience chip in our hardware. We would be good robots who colored within the lines and always did what was respectable.

Like the story Bill Moyers tells:

My mother used to leave her freshly baked sugar cookies right in the middle of the table, warm and inviting but forbidden until supper was over. If she meant the temptation to be a test of discipline, to build character, my brother and I often flunked. I think of this when I hear the story of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. Why didn’t God place the forbidden fruit on the very top branch, beyond the reach of innocence?[3]

The truth is we make choices all the time, sometimes by animal impulse, rather than by logic or congruity or faithfulness. Consequently, once again, we find ourselves far from home. The ancient story speaks of this. God gives us room to choose between good and evil. There is no heavenly hovering, no warning sirens when we get too close. God entrusts us with the ability to make good decisions.

And whether or not each decision is good, it comes with natural consequences. So the Lord says, “So Adam, you want to go it alone? Well, here’s your hoe and there are the fields. Eve, you thought you could be fruitful by yourself? Guess what; when you get to be fruitful, childbirth will be no picnic.” Up until now, she hasn’t had to worry about that. Life outside of Eden is going to be a lot of hard work.

So this isn’t a biology story or a science story. This is a diagnosis of our human condition. We are given great choices, in great freedom, and they come with consequences. More important than some philosophical notion of original sin as our genetic condition, there is also a residual homesickness. We have all these choices, that’s what makes us human. And we also long to be united with God. That’s the homesickness.

Jesus points the way. As we heard in the Gospel story, Jesus is pushed by the Holy Spirit to enter the desolation of the wilderness. In his humanity, he has to make his way through a series of risky decisions.

The Tempter plays on his divinity to say, “Why don’t you turn stones into bread?” Not only could he satisfy a hungry belly after forty days of fasting, he could use the trick to feed multitudes of hungry people. But he knows this is not the path for him, for “We do not live by bread alone, but by the Word that God speaks.”

In another minute, he is tempted to impress the crowds, to win them over by leaping from top-most tower of the Jerusalem temple, to do a swan dive and command the angels to catch him. It says that in Psalm 91, you know. But his way forward is not the way of being impressive. It is the way of self-sacrifice and self-giving, all the way to the cross and through the cross. So he rejects the temptation to be impressive.

Then there’s the third temptation. In the twinkling of an eye, if only Jesus will bow down to a foreign power, he will gain authority over all the nations. Without any cross or suffering, he could win over every heart and bend every knee. All it would take is for him to give in to the Devil. And that is not the way of God, either. You love God, and God alone. So Jesus chooses that.

The right decisions take wisdom. They require clarity. They need courage. Because the only way forward is forward. If there is a longing for Eden, it is a desire to be restored and brought back to God. It’s to be at peace with God, and through that, to be at peace with one another.

And there is no greater peace to stand before God guilt-free, and say, “These are the decisions that I have made. I could do no other. I own them and I offer them as the best acts of faithfulness that I can do. God, finish and heal what I cannot.”

That’s why the Table of Christ is such a compelling invitation for us today. It is a way station on the road to the Great Banquet, when all will be restored. When the New Jerusalem comes down for us as a gift, it will come not because we are righteous, not because we are good, but because God is better at goodness and righteousness than we can ever be.

And God is so good to stay with us, and stay after us, until that final day appears. Did you notice the end of the Garden story? I was well into my 30’s before I heard what my Sunday School teachers neglected to point out. After Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden, God stitches their first set of clothes. Can’t go walking around out there in those stupid, little fig leaves! So God says, “Here are some real clothes.” That’s unexpected grace. They don’t have to fend for themselves. They are provided for.

Then the grace continues through the ages, as God keeps speaking, offering even more guidance after the very first commandment is ignored. For we do not live by bread alone, but by the Word that God still speaks.

And I’ll tell you the very last words God speaks: “Welcome home.”

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who (New York: Harper & Row, 1979) 6-7
[2] Ibid, 35.
[3] Bill Moyers, Genesis: A Living Conversation  (New York: Doubleday, 1996) 39

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