The Abundance of Grace?
| Genesis 2:15-17
|Sun, February 21, 1999
Rev. Ed Searcy
|"East of Eden". That's where we live. Or do we? Notice that when Adam and Eve are banished from God's idyllic paradise ... the garden that grows up around the place where water springs up from the earth ... they are sent to the east! Ever since then we have been looking west ... heading west ... dreaming of Eden that lies to the west. Is it any wonder that so many travel west ... travel here ... is it any wonder that we have come west ... longing for, hoping for a return to the garden ... the place where the earth is watered and nourished ... and so, we pray, are we. Maybe Thomas Mann was right when he said that a story like the one about Adam and Eve and the serpent in the Garden "is, it always is, however much <we> try to say, it was". In the novel 'East of Eden', set in the Salinas Valley south of San Francisco, John Steinbeck puts similar words into the mouth of a Chinese presbyterian cook named Lee. Sitting there with the new father of twin baby boys, trying to think of names, the men find themselves talking about the story of Adam and Eve and their sons, Cain and Abel. And Lee says: "... here I make a rule - a great and lasting story is about everyone or it will not last. The strange and foreign is not interesting - only the deeply personal and familiar ... I think this is the best-known story in the world because it is everybody's story. I think it is the symbol story of the human soul."(1)
Everybody's story. The tale of Adam and Eve is everybody's story. John Steinbeck makes it everybody's story by weaving together the histories of two families: the Trasks and the Hamiltons. The Trasks are a fictional family ... a family in which there is an Adam and an Eve, a Cain and an Abel in every generation. They are a mythic family. But the Hamiltons are nonfictional. They are John Steinbeck's maternal family. They are real people with real names and their stories are 'true stories'. Steinbeck writes the novel for his own children, as a way of passing on the stories about the family. But he can not pass on the true story about the real people without Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel. For the stories about temptation and disobedience, violence and guilt tell the truth about every generation's struggle in - and east of - Eden.
Temptation. Jesus teaches us to pray: "Lead us not into temptation". He knows how difficult temptation is. Adam and Eve ... tempted to play God, find the temptation impossible to withstand. Jesus ... tempted by a devil who can quote scripture like a preacher (let that be a warning to us all) maintains his humanity. In the season of Lent we tend to imagine that the most difficult and dangerous temptations are those that make us less than admirable human beings. In the words of an episcopal preacher from Georgia named Barbara Brown Taylor: "Lent comes along and we give up things that are bad for us or take on things that are good for us, as if the most serious temptations in life were to drink too much scotch or eat too much fat or stay in bed on Sunday morning. But I do not think that is what these stories are about. I do not think they are about the temptation not to be a good human being. I think they are about the temptation not to be a human being at all. As far as I can tell, what Adam and Jesus are both tempted by is the chance to play God ... One trespassed; one stayed put. One tried to be God; one was content to remain a human being."(2) This is always the great temptation that lures us as a society ... and as a church ... the temptation to believe that we can be more, know more, do more than is humanly possible. "Lead us not into temptation" we pray ... because we know that, given the option, like Adam we will choose knowledge, power and control over obedience, trust and servanthood most every time. We want to be the creator ... not the creature.
Lent lasts for forty days. It is modelled after the first temptations of Christ in those forty day of fasting in the wilderness. But it is also a reminder of Eden, of the way in which even Eden ... especially Eden ... is a wilderness of terrible temptations. Christ is not alone in being tempted by the promise and possibility of playing God. He is not the first one to meet the wily serpent who can twist scripture in such a beguiling fashion so that the disobedience sounds, instead, like faithfulness. This is the human condition ... and no matter how hard we pray "lead us not into temptation" we are not spared. Before, during and after lent we are tempted by dreams of grandeur ... by the prospect of a glorious society or of a spectacular church, which meets every need and fixes every problem. We are Adam. We are Eve. In every generation we bite the bitter fruit of temptation.
Too often and from too many pulpits, I fear, Lent is portrayed as a season in which we are encouraged to stop being like Adam and Eve and to start being like Christ. Jesus' triumph over the temptation to be 'like God' becomes the model which we are to follow ... as if it were that easy! But John Steinbeck is right ... it is not that easy. The Garden of Eden is not some ancient oasis somewhere in the heart of Asia Minor ... and the serpent is not some mythic character of ancient lore. We live in Eden ... and are tempted every day to believe that playing God is not only possible ... it is practical ... natural ... within our grasp. Never mind forty days of temptation ... we must endure a lifetime of temptation. And, to be honest, John Steinbeck is right. The true story about every generation in every family includes Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel. Disobedience. Over-reaching. Shame. Violence. Guilt.
But an "abundance of grace"? If it were left to us ... to a 'good, civilized, free and democratic society' ... or to the church, a good and faithful church ... it would be hard to point to an abundance of grace. Some here and some there, yes. But an abundance? We know too much about history ... have experienced too much violence and grief ... to believe that. Yet here lies a great mystery. In reading these two stories of temptation the apostle Paul does not see gloom and doom but, instead, discovers, he says, an "abundance of grace". Paul is utterly convinced that, in Christ, God offers this fallen world a "free gift" (Romans 5:15-16). It is not something that must be earned by being good people ... by not 'falling into temptation' during the season of Lent and beyond ... by somehow rising above the Adam and Eve in all of us. No. Paul sees something far more incredible than this. He sees that in Jesus, God gives us back our humanity. And not just for some ... not just for 'the righteous' as it were ... but for "all": "therefore just as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man's act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all." A people who have played at being God ... and who find that in doing so they have opened a "pandora's box" of trouble upon the world ... cannot possible fix everything. It is too late for that. In Christ, God says to the world, "trust me ... I have given you back your status as creatures ... humans ... my very own beloved children. It is a gift ... a free gift ... for all."
In the upcoming Sundays of Lent we will hear of this free gift again ... and again. In 'rebirth from above' offered to Nicodemus and the 'living water' offered to the Samaritan woman at the well ... in sight offered a man born blind and in life given back to the dead man Lazarus. Free gift ... it is all a free gift ... to Adam and to Eve, to you and to me. And the gift is here ... here where we are invited to eat ... to be nourished and sustained at the banquet table of God ... here, east of Eden. We who have tasted the bitter fruit of temptation ... we who share the fruits of human pride and greed, of violence and of apathy ... we who hunger for abundant grace in a wilderness of tempting voices that are without substance ... we, of all people, are invited to eat the bread of life and to drink the wine of God's new covenant. And not we alone. For this is God's abundant grace ... and it is for all the world. Thanks be to God!
1. John Steinbeck, "East of Eden" (part two, chapter twenty-two, section four) 2. Barbara Brown Taylor, "Remaining Human" (The Christian Century, February 7-14, 1996), p. 127.