Sermon on Genesis 3, the expulsion from Eden
There’s a lovely story of a priest doing his visiting one morning, and when the women who assured him would be in did not answer the door, he rather smugly scribbled a bible reference, psalm 22 v 2, and put it through the door. The woman looked it up. I call out to you in the daytime but thou hearest not. The next Sunday, the lady in question pressed a piece of paper into the priest’s hand, with another reference – our first reading, Genesis Chapter 3, verse 10. I heard you walking in the garden, but I was naked, so I hid.
I’d like to focus on this Genesis story this morning, because jokes aside, it is a beautiful and powerful story – the poignant moment when God walking in the cool of the garden, discovers Adam and Eve, suddenly ashamed of their nakedness.
This reading, contrary to the claims of creationists, says nothing about historical fact, but it says much about the human condition.
The banishment fromEdenprovokes in me a sort of gut feeling of being a little lost in the world. There is a prayer I used to sing, called the Salve Regina, written by a twelfth century monk, called Hermannus Contractus, Hermanus the cripple. To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve, he writes. And sometimes I know how he felt. Sometimes, we feel banished, exiles from Eden, sojourners in the land, never quite finding our home.
It’s a story which leaves us with many questions. For instance, God sort of lies. He tells Adam and Eve that if they eat of the tree of knowledge, they will die. And that’s not true. It’s sort of true because he makes them mortal as a result, but not really.
It’s a bit like what I said to Gavin yesterday. Rude boys are unhappy boys. That’s sort of true, but only because I tell him off when he’s rude, and that makes him unhappy.
This story is God as the new parent of disobedient children. I know how that feels, and it puts you on morally ambiguous ground. At what point does God keep the children safe in ignorance, or give them the freedom to make possibly dangerous choices?
The serpent, by contrast, actually tells them the truth, albeit an irresponsible truth.
You see there were two magical trees inEden. The tree of eternal life, and the tree of knowledge. They could eat only one, and God, their parent, their creator, wanted them to be safe inEdenfor ever. But Adam and Eve chose knowledge. They chose to be like God.
Eternal and ignorant, or wise and mortal? Which tree would we choose?
We sort of want both – that is what feels so true about this story. Sometimes we feel like Adam and Eve did, vulnerable, like children in the face of a harsh world. And we yearn for our refuge. And sometimes people want the church to be that, an echo ofEden, a safe place, a protection.
Which tree would we choose? Eternal blissful ignorance, or mortal insight into the mind of God?
It has been called original sin, the sin of Adam and Eve, disobeying God. But there is also virtue in that choice. O felix culpa the early church sang, O necessary sin. You see, disobedient as it was, Eve picked the right tree. Because as well as possessing original sin, we also possess original virtue. We may be from the dust, but we are also little lower than the angels.
I don’t know if you ever saw the film, Pleasantville. It’s about a deeply unhappy boy, David, who, like so many people, deals with the chaos of the world around him by escaping into the fantasy world of a black and white 1950’s TV programme called Pleasantville.
Pleasantville the TV series is a town where nothing bad happens, there are no divorces, no drugs, no quarrels. The fire service is there only to rescue cats from trees, the basketball team never misses a hoop, everything is in order and black and white. And the poor lost boy David yearns for this world.
And one day, he and his sister are magically transported to Pleasantville. And he finds that there is a cost to such ordered existence. There is no freedom in Pleasantville. The books are all blank, no dangerous new ideas. There is no ambition, no passion. In every sense the world is monochrome.
And David and his sister become the serpents of that world. Because of them, people become creative, they fight, they fall in love, they learn, they change. Pleasantville starts changing. The flowers are no longer grey. People are no longer grey. Everything becomes vibrant, and real, and beautiful, and complicated and unpredictable.
Sometimes we want God, and our churches to be a bit like Eden, or Pleasantville – a comfortingly innocent place, a safe place, free of the slings and arrows of real life. Sometimes, when we are feeling like lost and helpless, we want to climb back intoEden, to retreat into a mythical past. But we cannot. And our churches must not be like a nostalgic black and white tv series, innocent, and in the past, and monochrome. Because we are followers of the God of love. And Love is always real, always present, and is never safe.
But this is not a story of abandonment. After Adam and Eve were expelled fromEden, God made clothes for them, and put them upon them. Expelled fromEdenthey may have been, but they were still his children, still his beloved.
Which tree would we choose? Immortality or Knowledge? I think Eve made the right choice. We have eaten of the tree of knowledge, and the fruit is good. We live in a Universe where nothing is hidden from us. There is no deceit, no ignorance, no lies about our world. God gives us a Universe with the stabilizers taken off. He has given us a world, where we can make decisions and learn and grow and love and suffer.
As we pray for those who have gone before us, we look forward with hope to a return toEden, to paradise, and as Augustine said, our hearts are restless until we find our rest in God. But when we return,Edenwill be changed, because we are changed.
Until then, let us be who we are, possessors of original virtue. Let us be restless, passionate, experiencing joy and sorrow and every emotion. We know good and evil, and it is our joy to choose good. This is the world of truth and love, for here, just as in heaven, we have life, and have it in abundance. Amen.