It is good to be here. I feel that nearly every time I enter this place. I feel it even more strongly on Sunday mornings when we gather for worship and community. This is a place where good people gather to celebrate, learn about, and share what it means to be God’s people. This is a place where disciples gather to consider what it means to care for one another, our neighbors, and the earth, to serve and spread the good news of Jesus Christ, to deepen and broaden spiritual interconnectivity. This is also a place where the wider community gathers to teach, to sing, to dance, to eat, to heal, to work for peace and justice. On most days, this is a good place to be. The catch is: is it enough, is it ever enough?
Moses goes up on the mountain to encounter the Holy One in a more intimate manner than most people ever conceive of. He takes the time to sit patiently on that mountainside until God is ready to speak; then he takes the risk of entering into the glorious mystery, the shekinah, the cloud of unknowing, trusting that God has a word for him that he needs to hear, not just for himself, but for his people. How many of us would be willing to go that far for an encounter with the holy, for instruction on what it means to be both God’s person and God’s people, for a vision of righteousness and right-relationship?
I’m pretty sure all of us have had some experience with parenting. Either we’ve been a parent or we’ve been parented. That is surely one frame we can use to consider today’s text about Adam and Eve in the garden. I imagine it is a frame we have heard or used before. Doesn’t the story sound like more than one familiar family drama that focuses on trust and obedience, freedom and disruption? Dad says, “No,” and Junior asks, “Why?” Mom suggests caution and her little one says, “I can take care of myself.” How many times have you either used or heard the expression, “It’s for your own good”? And how many times have you disbelieved, felt the need to test, struggled to let yourself or your children spread wings and reach for freedom?
The grounding place in this story is still goodness. Remember we have spent the last three weeks considering the goodness of creation and the goodness of the generous Creator who not only has blessed us with all we need but has invited us to share in the care and nurture of that creation.
Today, continuing in Genesis, we consider the drama of desire. Desire – “a strong feeling of wanting to have something or wishing for something to happen; a sense of longing or hoping for a person, object, or outcome.” Among the many synonyms are “aspiring, craving, hunger, wanting, yearning, longing, wishing for, desperate for, coveting, sought after, must-have.” What do you know of desire? Do any of those terms ring a bell? Can you tell us anything about your own experience with desire?
In thinking of the drama of desire, I was reminded of two great American plays – Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms and Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. I’m sure there are many others but these two classics dramas name desire in their titles. In Desire Under the Elms, we see a family torn apart by desire for land and heritage, for power and control, for lust and love. The desire for what is forbidden and what is ultimately beyond the characters’ control leads to death of the infant heir and destruction of both individuals and the family.
In Streetcar, the characters and setting are different but the dramatic outlines are similar. Blanche’s desire for what is gone and cannot be recovered leads her through a slow descent into madness. Her own desire to forget through alcohol and sex are crucial to her undoing. The desire of the other characters, with differing motives, to tear away her veil of unreality and expose her to the harshness of their own world results in painful suffering and loss for each of them. Desire is a dangerous, even deadly, thing.
Today’s text tells the classic tale of an overreaching desire for what can neither be contained nor controlled. The result is a disaster of epic proportions. It foreshadows the trajectory of human existence. In some sense, it becomes the story of all our lives. “I’ve seen you eyeing that forbidden tree over there,” says the snake. “I know God said, ‘This restriction is for your own good,’ but aren’t you just a little curious? Surely one small bite won’t hurt you.” Such lovely temptation. It didn’t take a lot convincing for them to give into their desire.
Now before we go any further, it is important to acknowledge that desire is not all bad. Brian McLaren writes of our text, “…there’s nothing wrong with desire. The question is, whose desires are you imitating?” This is the crucial question that this story raises and addresses. We all develop and move through this world through imitation. We begin to learn through observation and mimicking from the very first moments of life. So which desires and whose desires we imitate are vital to the kind of human being we become. McLaren continues, “To be alive is to imitate God’s generous desires…to create, to bless, to help, to serve, to care for, to save, to enjoy. To make the opposite choice – to imitate one another’s desires and become one another’s rivals – is to choose the path of death.”
It is the age-old choice set before people of every age and time. Will we choose life or death? The choice is not always an easy one. In our limited human understanding we as often choose the fruit from the forbidden tree as we do that from the tree of the life. We think, if we just had a little more power or control or knowledge or money or land or armaments, we could eliminate all our anxiety and fear and live securely on this earth. The problem is it was never meant to be that way. In our reaching for that little bit more, we fall off the ladder or out of the tree or over the cliff or into constant conflict and war. The effects are disastrous and the consequences deadly.
In his commentary on Genesis, Walter Brueggemann tells us that “the God announced in this story is not a petty god who jealously guards holy secrets or who eagerly punishes the disobedient.” He argues that “This story is, rather, the anguished discernment that there is something about life which remains hidden and inscrutable and which will not be trampled on by human power or knowledge. There are secrets about the human heart and the human community which must be honored, bowed before, and not exposed. That is because the gift of life in the human heart and in the human community is a mystery retained by God for himself. It has not been put at the disposal of human ingenuity and human imagination.” Brueggemann asks, “So what is urged, if not knowledge? Ignorance? No, not ignorance but trust.”
We may not be quick to embrace such an affirmation. It may be challenging for us – especially with our relative privilege and affluence – to acknowledge that we are creatures, that we have inherent limits, that the exercise of our God-given freedom comes with limiting responsibilities or consequences. We have an insatiable curiosity, an unbridled desire to know. Can we then live with limits? Being such mature and sophisticated adults, can we embrace old-fashioned, child-like qualities like obedience and trust?
More than one commentator argues that this is not a text to explain the origins of sin, sex, evil or death. As you will have noted, no mention is made of “the Fall” or “Original Sin.” What this is is a story about obedience and trust. As we say here, with some regularity, God is “the More.” There is knowledge, wisdom and understanding in the Godhead that will always be “above our pay grade.” The snake challenges the humans to test that faith statement. “It won’t kill you. In fact, it might open your eyes enough that you’ll be just like God.” And you know, the snake was partly right. It didn’t kill them and it did open their eyes, but it didn’t make them gods. They were still human beings, only now their lives were distorted by what they could see and feel. Their eyes were opened alright, opened to shame and guilt. Their desire cost them the beauty and the innocence of Paradise. All they needed to do was trust and obey, but that desire to be little gods, or maybe just like God the Creator, was more than they could resist.
Brueggemann’s comment makes me think of the story I’ve told before from the television series, Joan of Arcadia. Remember, Joan is the teen-aged girl living in a mythical suburb in southern California. Out of the blue, God appears to her with tasks for her to do in her family, school and community. Each week God appears in a different form – a classmate, a small girl on the playground, cafeteria worker, homeless man on the street, trash collector, etc. and the task provides the drama for that week’s episode. Eventually Joan comes to the place where she asks God for a glimpse of the future. For just a moment she wants to see into the future, to see what God sees. After much dissuasion, God gives in and grants her desire. The revelatory scene takes place in a church sanctuary. In the moment of revealing, we see a kind of psychedelic light show on the small screen. When it is over, we find Joan lying on the floor, unconscious. Even the tiniest glimpse of what God sees and knows is more than a human can handle. There are mysteries far beyond our comprehension nor were we made to unravel them, regardless of the depth of our desire.
When we come to question the eternal goodness of the garden, when we turn our backs to Paradise, we find that the consequences are harsh and certain. But this God we serve is still, above all, gracious, tender-hearted, characterized by steadfast love. In spite of grasping desires, even with our turning away, and far beyond our insistence that we can do it ourselves, there is the waiting One, waiting for us to come to our senses, to see the wisdom of obedience and trust, to recognize that some limits really are for our own good, to come home to the garden. Whether or not our disobedience deserves the death penalty, we encounter a God who does not operate that way, whose love for creation and for us is also beyond our understanding. Indeed, in the fullness of time and need, that same creating, loving God took on human form to draw us close and show us the way back to the life intended for us from the beginning of the world. That life is still rooted in goodness and is always available to us.
Today’s Words of Preparation reiterate McLaren’s belief, “To be alive is to be mindful that we live in the drama of desire. We can imitate one another’s competitive desires, and so be driven to fear, rivalry, judging, conflict, and killing. Or we can imitate God’s generous desires…to create, bless, help, serve, care for, save, and enjoy. At this moment, let us turn toward God, not as rivals who want to play God, but as image bearers who want to imitate and reflect God.” Amen.