God, help us to be honest in this moment. Honest with You. Honest with ourselves. Honest with one another.
The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but 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.’
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden”?’ The woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.” ’ But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. -- Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Nor Shall You Touch It
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life. Words of comfort; words of assurance. It is fixed in place. This is not something to which I aspire, not a wish or a dream, but a certainty—surely—surely “goodness and mercy” all the days of my life. It doesn’t depend on me, nor on anything I may or may not do. The Lord is my Shepherd; surely goodness and mercy….
Our theme—our view of life, our motto, our orientation this Lenten season is this— “Goodness and Mercy”. What do these words mean to me, and how shall I prepare myself so that I may appreciate them as I walk with Jesus through the valley of the shadow? What shall I do with this assurance that goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life? How shall I apply them to my life in this season of Lent? Well, Sister Joan Chittister says that, “Lent is about becoming, doing and changing whatever it is that is blocking the fullness of life in us right now.” The fullness of life is found in that certainty: surely goodness and mercy….
So, let us begin this process of becoming and doing and changing—let us begin at the beginning. Genesis. Creation. The rich and powerful story of a first man and a first woman. These first three chapters of Genesis provide beautiful, rich, dramatic stories of the Who and the why of life. Generation after generation, century after century, these creation stories were passed down around the fires and over the dinners and at bedtime and upon waking in the morning as the chores were carried out. These are the stories of the Who—God—and the why—because God loves—of creation. And, in the telling of the stories of humans and our nature, the tellers found it necessary to insert a phrase to teach us, generation-after-generation and century-after-century, that dishonesty is easy and that the failure to tell the truth cheapens and endangers our lives. They are a blot on the beauty of God’s Creation.
Something happens here, in the interaction—the transaction—among God and Adam and Eve and the serpent, something very troubling and very significant, something that hardly ever gets mentioned. The truth is assaulted, without mention, without obvious consequence.
Does the truth matter? I mean it as a serious question. Does the truth matter? When did it stop mattering to us whether people speak the truth or simply—simply—don’t? When did it stop mattering whether what we say is true? When did we stop caring whether those around us are telling the truth?
Call me naïve, Pollyanna, over-optimistic; maybe you would think I am. I believe that the truth matters. I believe that, when we speak untruth—and I don’t deny that I have, at times—not only are we diminished, but others, as well. Life is cheapened. If we all told only the truth and did it forthrightly, not needing to be prodded or cross-examined, how much easier life would be. Imagine being able to take, at face value, everything that someone tells you, everything you read, all of the news, the promises of politicians, even. What is posted on social media and rebroadcast in the 24-hour cycle to which we have become accustomed? I taught my children to remember the words, “Nothing is more important than the truth.” But the words inserted into the creation story—"nor shall you touch it”—are there to warn us that dishonesty has always been part of the human condition. And, too often, we pay it no notice.
We have entered the season of Lent. It is a time of reflection, of self-assessment, of preparation for Easter, burdened by the knowledge of our own mortality, a time of penitence and repentance. Truly a time to change the trajectories of our lives. Lent is a season of forty days wrapped around six Sundays during which we anticipate but also contemplate how we got to where we find ourselves. We have chosen “Goodness and Mercy” as our Lenten theme for a reason. We must prepare, and we must remember why.
Adam and Eve are talking to the serpent. We don’t know how or why they find themselves in the presence of this tempter, of all the creatures in all the beauty of the place that God has created for them to enjoy in a lifetime without care. The serpent speaks first, with a question--clearly a test: “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the Garden?’” We—the readers--already know that God had said no such thing but, see, the serpent was trying to induce a lie, inviting Adam and Eve to tell a lie, hoping it could get them to make a false accusation against God. The serpent was hoping for dissension, chaos, and division. The serpent tempted them to separate themselves—just a sliver—from God. Just to give it—the serpent—a chance to sow discord. Eve refused the serpent’s invitation to falsely accuse God of depriving them of the fruit of the many trees, but for the one—the tree in the middle of the garden, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Eve refused the serpent’s invitation, but still, she could not resist the temptation to appear to be something more than she was. She had to embellish, to fudge the truth, to say something that might encourage the serpent to tempt her--to tempt them--just a little bit more. We can’t eat of the tree there in the center of the garden, she said, truthfully; but, then, she added, “in fact, we can’t even touch it, or we will die.” Why? Why was the truth not enough? Why did Eve tell a lie?
Or, was it only Eve who lied? Think back--go back one chapter, prior to Eve’s introduction, to the moment when God took Adam into the garden, for it was then—and to Adam, alone—that God spoke the words, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but 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.” God said nothing about touching the tree or its fruit. Eve wasn’t around—not even alive, so the story goes—when God spoke this warning not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. So, now we have to question both Adam and Eve. Adam heard God’s warning; had he shared it with Eve, and did he add the part about not touching the tree? When Adam heard Eve talking to the serpent, why didn’t he correct what she was saying? And why—if Adam was the only one who had heard God speak—why was it Eve who jumped in to answer the serpent’s question? Both Adam and Eve are complicit in this critical untruth. Both invited temptation.
Maybe the serpent would have led them further into temptation, anyway; maybe the serpent would have said, “You will not die,” and encouraged them to eat the forbidden fruit even without this little signal from Adam and Eve that they were ready and willing to play—to hear a little bit of flattery, to be teased, to be dared to challenge the authority of God. We’ll never know because the story tells us that they did lie, they did embellish, and in doing so they sent a clear signal to the serpent that they not only could be but that they desired to be, tempted. And the game was on. It was “game-on,” and they had no understanding of the action or the stakes.
Let’s stop and pray a moment and then let’s consider the consequences of the game, and what we should do in this time of preparation.
God, help us to be honest in this moment. Honest with You. Honest with ourselves. Honest with one another. Honest in confessing our sins—even in confessing our dishonesty—and honest in turning ourselves away from untruth and directly facing the freedom that honesty brings. Set Your will before us, that we might know and rejoice, for it is in pursuing what You have in store for us that we find true joy, and set our feet on the path that leads to life. And remind us, no matter the words and the music and the silence, no matter the lights and the motion and the colors, no matter what is in sight and what is still around the corner and out of view, that the glory of this time and of these words is Yours, alone. Amen.
They had no idea of the action or the stakes. Why wasn’t the truth enough for Adam and for Eve? Couldn’t they just say exactly what God had said? Someone added the words, “Nor shall you touch it,” to God’s admonition, God’s warning; who were they, and why would they choose, to add to the words God had actually spoken? Don’t eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; God said nothing about touching it.
Be still, and know that I am God. The Word of God from Psalm 46. Be still. Know that I am God. And, if I am God, then you are not God. You are not God. You—we—do not have the burdens of being God, of sustaining life, of continuing the ongoing task of Creation, of holding in our hands the troublesome world which we have sworn to love and which, yet, rejects us. Be still, and know that God is God, and we are not. So, we must not pretend to be. We have a purpose—we have a purpose—and, as our lesson last week taught us, Jesus’ call to “Be perfect” means for us to be what we are made to be. We are to be the best “us” we can be.
Lying is always the cheap way to be more than we really are. The cheapest way. I do nothing, yet claim I did. I go nowhere but claim to have been. I learn nothing but claim to know more than I do. I take the name of the Lord in vain, certain that no one will ever dispute my claim of knowing God’s will. I insist that I am a Christian, and yet I know that I have refused to follow in the footsteps of Jesus when I have had the opportunity to be faithful. Lying convicts us, leaving us open to extortion and blackmail. That’s what the serpent did to Adam and Eve in the story, extorting them, blackmailing them, knowing their willingness to deceive. Lying creates, in the revealed truth, a death sentence. Lying creates, in the revealed truth, a death sentence.
Why wasn’t the truth enough? What did they gain—Adam and Eve—by their fabrication of a false warning, the false claim of a prohibition that God had not, in fact, spoken to them? What were they seeking to gain through their deceit? Whom were they trying to impress? Certainly not God! Why this strange creature? Why did its opinion of them, its plans for them, its words about them matter to them? They sought to impress. Why the serpent in that moment, and not God?
The serpent was dangerous. Oh, I’m not suggesting that the serpent was ready to strike and bite and inject its venom; no, this serpent’s poison was in its ability to lure the weak and unsuspecting humans into temptation. Perhaps the serpent knew—by instinct--that humans like to be tempted. After all, the Scripture warns us that the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that God had made. Crafty. Clever. Dangerous. Tempting. And, so, Adam and Eve sought to impress the serpent and, by their falsehood, played right into the creature’s hands. Metaphorically, of course. Serpents don’t have hands. Neither do they have warm hearts, but only ice-cold blood in their veins.
If the Lord is our Shepherd—if we acknowledge that God is God and Jesus is God’s incarnation, present with us here on the earth—if we say that we desire to be led by the Holy Spirit as she wends her way through the world, then why do we seek to impress anyone else? Why do we aspire to appear to be something different, something more, someone other than what we claim to be? Why, in this walk of life, do we lack integrity? Why do we lack integrity? For integrity is more than just speaking truth, and the lack of integrity is more—much, much more—than merely indulging in falsehoods and embellishments. Listen to this, from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
…integrity is a matter of persons integrating various parts of their personality into a harmonious, intact whole. Understood in this way, the integrity of persons is analogous to the integrity of things: integrity is primarily a matter of keeping the self intact and uncorrupted.
Intact and uncorrupted. One harmonious, intact whole. Life as the person God has made us to be, life spent fulfilling God’s purpose for us. Can we do that, in following Jesus, in trusting God, in allowing the Holy Spirit to be our guide, the Lord our Shepherd? Can we do what Adam and Eve failed to do in this story? Can we be true to God’s purpose in our lives?
It isn’t easy. The Apostle Paul wrote a letter to the Christians who had gathered in Rome, and even he confessed the difficulty of following Jesus as Lord, as Shepherd:
I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin. -- Romans 7:14b-25
Lent is a season of preparation, of contemplation, of introspection and penitence and repentance, of becoming, doing and changing whatever it is that is blocking the fullness of life in us right now. Not a time to beat ourselves up. Not a time to beat ourselves up. But a time to be honest—as honest as we can be with ourselves and with God and, hopefully, even as honest as we can be with one another. Confess our sins and apologize for the harms we have done. See where we have failed today and commit our lives to new ways and words and works to succeed tomorrow. Look to the story of the palms and the passion and, once we have accepted their truth, look to the story of Easter and the Resurrection, and appreciate that it is all for us that Jesus was born and lived and suffered and died and then rose once again. God offers us purpose and, as we fail to pursue it, we die—we lose our integrity—day by day, year by year, lie by lie, and failing by failing and—and-- yet, we are alive, still, by God’s grace. Goodness and mercy follow us, though we have not earned them and do not deserve them. We have failed so far and, still, God calls to us and offers us life—life in God’s purposeful plan. Goodness and mercy follow us. It is because the Lord is our shepherd. Goodness and mercy abound.
Amen, and amen.