On Otters and Fruit and Messy Houses: A Lenten Sermon

Oh, Adam and Eve. You had it all. You had good food, a wonderful garden, each other, and all those delightful animals on top of it. You’d think the river otter and giraffe would have been enough, but clearly they weren’t. You needed more. That one last thing God held back from you—that fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. You decided you had to have it all in your grasp, in your control. So when encouraged by that tricky serpent, you ate from the fruit of that tree, and the consequences were far reaching. There’s no need to ask if it was worth it, because we know. That’s part of that knowledge we all gained from what you did. We lost our innocence too, and we learned that the freedom to choose given to us by God comes with a steep cost, one that we often don’t realize until it’s too late, although God gives us a warning.

A Sermon based on Genesis 2.

“You may freely eat of every tree of the garden,” God said, including, presumably, that other tree that emerges later on in the story, the tree of life offering them immortality. “But of the tree of knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

“Did God really say that,” the serpent queries Eve. “Did God really say that you shall not eat from any tree?” Oh, the tempter is cunning when it wants to be. The exclusion of a single tree has turned into the exclusion of them all—“You cannot eat from any tree?”—and the tempter intends with this “to make the command of God appear arbitrary and unreasonable,” as Theologian Allen McSween put it. Eve responds to the question, embellishing a bit by adding in that you weren’t even allowed to touch that one tree, and then the serpent craftily strikes. “Come now, surely that won’t happen. In fact if you eat of it, you’ll become like God and your eyes will be opened knowing good and evil.” And then Eve took a long look at the fruit on that tree, and saw that it looked pleasing, and she took it and then brought some to Adam. They both ate it together, thinking that they would rather not be constrained by God. Wanting that knowledge that eluded them. That knowledge of what was right and what was wrong.

And they immediately saw that that decision was entirely wrong.

Hindsight, they say, is 20/20. Looking back on things allows you to see clearly, to pass the chart in the optometrist’s office with flying colors after you’ve already looked at it up close. While most of the time there are hints about what could happen before we make our decisions—the letters on that supposed chart appear a bit fuzzy, that “P” could very well be an “F”—but we think it’s close enough, that we have enough information to plod ahead. And then we see clearly, or—mixing my metaphors a bit—we hit the third rail. We recognize the mess we’ve made by pushing further than we should have. We did that thing we know we shouldn’t have done.

Author and poet Kathleen Norris occasional works as an artist-in-resident in parochial schools. She likes telling the students that the psalms they sing in chapel services are among the greatest poems every written. And, she says to them, the psalms express nearly every emotion we can feel: sadness, and joy, sorrow and delight. She tells them that the poetry is a safe haven to express all that they are feeling, including anger and vengeance, much like the psalms found in the Bible. She then invites them to craft their own. One elementary school child titled his psalm “The Monster Who Was Sorry.”  Norris describes the poem in this way: “He began by admitting that he hates it when his father yells at him: his response in the poem is to throw his sister down the stairs, and then to wreck his room, and finally to wreck the whole town. The poem concludes: ‘Then I sit in my messy house and say to myself, “I shouldn’t have done all that.”’”

I know the feeling, young man, wherever you are. And I suspect I’m not the only one.

Because what happens when we eat the fruit, or make a mess, or hurt those we love, is that we find ourselves disconnected and alone. We think that something will lead to our freedom—the freedom to choose our own way, or to uncover some desired wisdom—when in fact it does just the opposite. Perceived constraints placed on us by God make us bristle, and so we push back. God desires for us to live a life defined by love for both the Almighty and one another, and we tend to respond, “But what about us?” God hopes that we see that the limits placed on us are there only to help us live a life that will bring us deep contentment. Yet we hear the words of the tempter, and we do the very thing we don’t want to do.

Kathleen Norris suggests that the imagery of the messy house not only helps the boy admit “the depth of his rage,” it also gives him “a way out.”  She imagines him speaking with the monastic Fathers out in the desert during the 4th century.  She writes, “His elders might have told him that he was well on the way to repentance, not such a monster after all, but only human. If the house is messy, they might have said, why not clean it up, why not make it into a place where God might wish to dwell?”

Too often we believe that once we make a mess of things, the jig is up. That the whole thing is finished. That second chances aren’t offered.

Death is what Adam is told is coming if he eats of that particular tree. (And to be clear, Eve wasn’t around when God gave that instruction, so it’s a bit easier to understand where her confusion might have come from: Adam did a poor job explaining it to her.) God says to the man, “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.” Allen McSween writes, “Despite the brokenness that results from our defiance of the good and gracious limits that make for the flourishing of life in community, there is already in the story a note of the gospel that echoes throughout Scripture. As the narrative unfolds, God does not carry out the threatened sentence of death ‘in the day that you eat of it.’ In God’s sovereign freedom, God responds to human disobedience not with the full weight of judgment, but with unexpected mercy.”

Mercy is not what we often think of when we read this story, and yet, there it is hidden in plain sight. God said they would die on that day, and then God choose to offer them another chance. An opportunity to grow and learn and repent. To clean up that messy house they’d created. To make amends. To work toward change.

Far too often we see God—and especially the God we envision in the Old Testament—as harsh and punitive, seeking only to make us feel badly about ourselves and then heaping even more guilt on top of that. Instead God showers us with mercy, encouraging us to choose the way that leads to life. Like Adam and Eve, we know the commands of God are meant for our benefit. They are meant to help us flourish. So let us choose this Lent to clean up our messy houses, to set things right, and invite God to come and dwell within us. The way of life is set before us this day. Will we choose to walk that path back to God? Or will we listen instead to the tempter?

Image by Dušan from Pixabay

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