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The Second Sunday after Pentecost
June 7, 2015
The Old Testament: Genesis 3:8-15
The Very Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles
Watch the complete video of this service on our YouTube Channel
The Old Testament:
The man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and they hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, "Where are you?" He said, "I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself." He said, "Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?" The man said, "The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate." Then the LORD God said to the woman, "What is this that you have done?" The woman said, "The serpent tricked me, and I ate." The LORD God said to the serpent,
"Because you have done this,
cursed are you among all animals
and among all wild creatures;
upon your belly you shall go,
and dust you shall eat
all the days of your life.
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will strike your head,
and you will strike his heel."
Bob Kaylor, a Writer, recently shared this story from his childhood. "When I was a kid,” he writes, “I used to spend part of every summer at the farm my uncle and aunt owned out in rural Western Pennsylvania…Those were some great times -- drinking ice cold whole milk straight from the dairy barn, riding the tractors and taking a dip in the river when it got too hot.
"My cousins liked an evening activity that I never quite understood, however, and that was hunting raccoons at night. [Essentially] you run at top speed, chasing a barking dog through the woods while shining a flashlight until the dog stops at a tree and barks madly into the darkness where you see ... nothing. We never bagged one. In fact, I'm certain I never saw a raccoon on those hunts (and I'm not sure to this day why we were hunting them in the first place, or what we would have done had we [got] one). It was great fun for my country cousins, though, and completely pointless to me! Those dumb dogs were constantly barking up the wrong tree, and I think about those nights running through the woods every time someone uses that familiar idiom to describe a fruitless search."
In our Old Testament lesson from the third chapter of Genesis, this morning, we come upon another story with similar results. It’s a story that is also about humans following an animal into the trees for an exercise in futility! This is, of course, one of the foundational stories of the whole Bible and of our whole human existence, but it's often among the least understood.
The reason for this lack of understanding is that we tend to externalize this story much like we do the whole creation story. We turn it into a flat text that has theological or scientific implications without seeing what it's actually telling us about ourselves and about God. Questions about talking snakes and which fruit Adam and Eve actually munched on are ridiculous exercises in missing the point. This story is not about literal interpretations. This is a story about humans barking up the wrong tree; something we've been doing from the beginning.
So, let’s back up just a bit, to get all this in context. Trees come into play in Genesis 2 where God says, "You may freely eat of every tree in the garden" (v. 16). Every tree! Adam and Eve are given a forest full of freedom to enjoy the fruits of divine creation! Everything is provided for them, and they are free to eat as much as they want.
Every tree except one! One tree is off limits. Of it God says, "But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day you eat of it, you shall die" (v. 17). A forest of freedom with a small boundary: eat all you want, when you want; except this one tree.
So, why is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil forbidden to Adam and Eve? After all, it seems like that knowledge would be a good thing. Consider how it might help us in those morally ambiguous dilemmas to be able to munch on a piece of that fruit and know what we ought to do. But it's not the choice between good and evil that's the point here. The real choice is whether these humans will trust God. Do they want the world God has given them, or do they prefer a world of their own making?
We know what happens. The result is nothing less than the unraveling of God's created work. What was in order, what was "very good" will now begin to run backward from the way God intended it, and it's been running that way ever since. This story reminds us of the way things are when we choose to run the world on our own; when we can’t see the forest for the (one) tree. The rest of the chapter is all about what happens to humanity and to all of creation as a result. When Adam and Eve choose to break the covenant with God, the whole creation project starts falling apart as the trees we should be tending begin to wither and die.
What other trees reside in this forest of freedom; this gift of good things from God? Let’s look! First, there’s the "tree" of human relationships. This "tree" totally changes. Genesis 3 tells us that when they ate the fruit of the wrong tree, "their eyes were opened." They see something, no doubt. They see that they are vulnerable, out of place. So what happens? They begin comparing themselves to one another, and start playing the blame game. The mutuality, equality, and partnership for which they are created suddenly becomes competition. Instead of ruling together (v. 16), humans will come to rule over each other. Instead of their sexuality being used as part of God's creative plan, it will instead become bound up in self-seeking desire.
So our relationships are made fragile. It takes a lot of work to hold any relationship together. And when a relationship is broken, it's hard to mend it.
Second, there’s the "tree" of creation. "Cursed is the ground because of you," says God to Adam. "In toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field" (vv. 17-18). Instead of work being a joyful vocation, it becomes a chore. Tending creation turns to toil. According to a fairly recent Gallup poll, more than 70 percent of workers in America today are dissatisfied with their jobs. Work was made to be fruitful, and rewarding; instead, it has too often become anything but. God made us to live for fruitful purpose; working to better all our lives together. Too often, we simply work to live to and for ourselves.
Third, there’s the "tree" of serenity and peace. Notice verse 19: "By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground." That phrase, "the sweat of your face" is an ancient idiom, which is less about labor than about anxiety; sweat-inducing fear. Because we have forgotten the forest for the “tree”, we now have an adversarial relationship with the world that causes us to fear that there will never be enough, that our labor will not meet our personal needs. What if the crop fails? What if the storm hits? What if there's a fire? What about groceries this week? The car payment? The tuition bill? My retirement? What if I get sick or my kids get sick?
We can have all the resources in the world and yet they do not insulate us from worry. Oddly, this lack of serenity is universal across socio/economic strata. In fact, it almost seems to be a rule that the more we have to lose, the more we feel compelled to gain even more for fear of losing it. Why else do CEO’s think they “need” 200 times the annual income, on average, of their least paid employees? Why else do Billionaires presume to “need” offshore accounts, and politicians whose allegiance can be purchased? Worry has turned the desire for the tree of peace, into slavery to fear.
Fourth, there’s the tree of life; the “tree” of immortality. In our story, humanity is meant to last forever. But the real point here is that Adam and Eve, and all of us, face a truth that we cannot escape. We are going to die! "Out of the ground you were taken; you are dust and to dust you shall return" (v. 19). Death is the curse that stalks us all. The humans who were made in the image of God will now die like the beasts of the field. As one writer grimly puts it, "The ones made to rule the … earth will now become fertilizer for it."
The last scene in Genesis 3 offers what is perhaps the most heartbreaking of all: God banishes Adam and Eve from the garden. They have tried to become like gods. The very forest they were called to protect, now has to be protected from them. We know, deep in our bones, that things aren't right with us. We know also that death isn't supposed to be our destiny. We know that there is great good in us, and a strong desire to return to tending the forest for the good of all. Yet, we also know that the world is broken by violence, pollution, disease and enmity. Despite very real human progress and the advancement of technology, we are still Adam's offspring. No matter how much good there is in us, we know where the fault lines are; where the brokenness is. The forest within us and around us is suffering. We know that we cannot fix it.
But…but! And, here is the good news this morning, Jesus can! There is one more tree in the forest; the “tree” on which Jesus died: The Cross. Jesus in us and among us can redeem the forest; the whole creation. Jesus’ life, and death, and life again, changes everything; because he changes us. Because he was born into a human family, one with its own dysfunctions and brokenness as we are reminded this morning in our Gospel reading, and yet pulled together again, the tree of relationships is restored. Because he labored and lived by the sweat of his face in his earliest years, all labor is now blessed and given purpose again by his presence in it. The trees of creation and serenity are restored. Every human endeavor is now a call to serve and has meaning. Because he died on the “tree” of the Cross, our relationship with the creator is restored. And, because, as Paul tells us in our epistle lesson this morning, God raised him to life again, we have life again, and the tree of life is ours again too. We are raised now, as we shall be raised again, to tend the forest in freedom and in life. Jesus is the new Adam, the One who gives us the life that is abundant, fruitful and eternal. He will redeem the forest through us.
Jesus restores the forest, he redeems the world, he changes us! If we will choose him, his tree, what we cannot do on our own, what we have only limitedly chosen well for all the history of our humanity, he can do and will do in us, and through us, and among us. That is our calling: to be foresters of the garden again. The forest will be restored again through you and me, in him.