Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Vintage CC: A Tale of Two Trees

This post from May 2011 is adapted from an early sermon where I think I was trying to be too clever. I think it works much better here as a written piece than as something to preach to a gathered congregation. Realizing that it didn't really work in its original form as intended was one of my earliest lessons in what a sermon is and how to prepare it most effectively.

Two trees atop a mountain. One is said to be pleasing to the eyes, its fruit looking perfectly acceptable as something to be eaten. But it cannot be eaten. It is forbidden, for on the same day one eats of that fruit, one will die. The other…well, we don’t know much about the other. But it is somehow life-giving. And maybe that’s enough for us to know.

Two trees given to the first man and woman as we meet them. Two trees among perhaps hundreds of others. One gives life; the other, says God, death. Even still they are both available to the man and woman. We are told of no fence around them, no vault, no guards, no passcode. Only a warning: eat of the one tree, and you shall die.

Two other trees, far removed from our story. Under one tree, a young couple stood in the pouring rain one night, tenderly brushing wet matted hair from one another’s foreheads. They were nervous in this moment because of what they knew the other wanted to say, and wished that the other would say it. Finally one did, pushing the words out so that they almost fell over each other: “I love you.” Under the second tree, the bark is still healing after a young man’s car slammed into it during a night of delayed judgment. The driver would not make it. His loss would be mourned by those closest to him for years to come.

These trees are separated by distance, and separated by experiences. Under one, the potential of human life and love is anticipated. Under the other, the tragedy of human loss and finitude is mourned. But they are both trees of knowledge. Under one the knowledge of what is good, what is beautiful, what is life-giving. Under the other the knowledge of pain, suffering, and grief comes. It is too much for us to bear sitting under this tree for very long, and it would be preferable to leave this tree behind, but one can see it clearly on the side of the road, and if it weren’t for the speed limit one might pass by without noticing.

In one tale of two trees, man and woman were restricted from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, but they weren’t restricted from the tree of life. Once they ate of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, they became restricted from the tree of life. And once they obtained knowledge, their lives became harder. Innocence was lost. They realized that they were naked, that their shame was uncovered. They realized that it would be difficult to hide from their Creator when the next visit came around. And it did. And try as they might, they could not hide. They could not hide what they had done. They could not hide who they had become. The tree’s fruit had changed them. At that point they knew shame. At that point they knew disobedience. At that point they knew consequences.

Meanwhile we drive past our other two trees. On the radio we catch Don Henley singing, “The more I know, the less I understand.” Knowledge of good and evil muddies the waters. We begin asking whether violence is the best course of action in a situation, yet perhaps see no alternative if someone would break into our home. We begin wondering if illness is punishment or how God’s promises may sustain us through it. We may question the cost of the cross, or how sure we can be of the promise of resurrection. What is good? What is evil? And through it all can we be sure in every case?

What will become of our young couple? Will their relationship survive long enough, be strong enough to reach marriage? Where will they live? How will they pay their bills? One jokes to the other, “I guess we’ll have to live on love and canned soup for a while.”

Meanwhile, another young man sits on the edge of his bed, images of the crushed car still haunting his thoughts and dreams. What could he have done to prevent it? What would life be like now without his friend? He holds his head in his hands, whispering into them so only he can hear, "I miss you."

“The more I know, the less I understand.” The song ends. But it must be a double play kind of day as the former Eagle begins singing again: “This is the end of the innocence.”

It is the end of the innocence for the man and the woman. They are discovered hiding in the brush. It was easy for the Creator to find them. All that had to be done was to call out and they came. "I hid, because I was ashamed," the man said. "You ate of the tree, didn’t you?" the Creator inquired. "The woman took the fruit, and I ate," said the man. "The serpent tricked me," said the woman. It is the final grasp to regain what they had lost. Surely I am still innocent. After all, the other made me do it.

It would not work out that way. Knowledge of good and evil had been attained. For the whole of creation, life would be different. "Now that you know good and evil, your pain will increase," said the Creator. "Life will be more difficult, more taxing. It will never be as it was, for you know differently now. You will toil. You will know suffering. You will work for your food. It will never be easy for you again."

Life will never be easy for our young couple. They know that their future plans will have to be pursued through some rough times. But they carry with them the memory of that night under the tree. They carry with them the memory of a night where they felt no pain, no stress, nothing but the excitement of being with each other. They carry with them love in their hearts and a desire to strive for the best for each other always. They remember their tree, and it carries them forward.

The young man remembers his friend’s tree. He pays tribute to it every year on the anniversary. He also remembers the many moments before he knew the tree. He remembers laughter. He remembers the grass stains from wrestling on the campus lawn. These memories carry him away from the tree again this year, toward further healing and back to a life more complicated yet less painful to deal with.

The man and the woman had to leave the garden. They left in shame. They left in disgrace. They took one last look before departing, back at the tree that they could have eaten, back at the tree that they were not supposed to eat. They left, their heads bowed, wondering what the future would hold.

The Creator went with them in this new chapter of their lives. Their lives would never again seem ideal, would never again be as simple as they once were. But their lives would still be guided by the One who made them. Even in their new and less certain reality, they would be cared for, just like before.

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