Oh...the apple and the snake. Of all the texts in the Bible, perhaps none is better known, and none is more misunderstood, than the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and the eating of forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge.
It turns out though, as biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann aptly notes, that the story of the first humans eating forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge is absolutely not about the Fall of humanity. In fact, the Hebrew Scriptures do not assume there ever was a "fall" of humanity. It is also not a story about how evil came into the world. Nor is it a story about the evil wrought by sexuality. In fact, in the world of the Hebrew Bible, the Garden of Eden story of disobedience is not even a major text. It's actually very marginal.
And more importantly, the Eve-eats-the-apple text has been used to support centuries of domination and oppression of one half of the human population. Maybe you can guess which half! This interpretation of these few lines from Genesis has led to a misunderstanding that female-ness is to blame for the Fall of humanity. This is deeply baked into Western culture, and it has contributed to all kinds of misery.
And yet, here this text sits, one of our Lectionary texts for the beginning of our Lenten journey this year. And though I find myself quite cranky about how the story of "apples and snakes" has been abused over the centuries, I actually think it's a fantastic text for Lent, because it tells us something entirely different, something central to what it means to be Christian. Something very good.
Let's talk about this tree. Actually, did you notice in the first line of the Scripture we heard, there are all kinds of trees in the garden God creates for God's beloved humanity. But two trees in particular are noted: the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge. The Tree of Life: what a powerful, beautiful image that is cited across Christian traditions, and other world religions as well. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, however - definitely more mysterious - it only appears this one time in the Hebrew Bible.
The promise of this Tree of Knowledge is that the one who eats from it will know everything. Just take a minute and imagine: What would you like to know? What would you like to know how to do? I've definitely got a list. I want the knowledge to speak other languages and perfectly poach an egg, without having to suffer the work of, you know, learning those things. I want the knowledge to automatically avoid traffic between my house and downtown. Also, I suppose the knowledge of tomorrow's lottery ticket numbers would be incredibly handy. But hey, how about I expand beyond my own selfish purposes: I would like knowledge of how humanity can alter its crash course with destroying the Earth, And then, O magic tree, we request knowledge of how to convene world leaders in the right way so that we can take the right action.
So, it's pretty clear knowledge is power, and power is nice to have. What would you do with endless knowledge? Think of the good we could do, if we knew what God knows!
Hmmm...suddenly, this is seeming an awful lot like another Scripture passage today in which the Devil tempts Jesus with the chance to rule all the kingdoms of the world. And Jesus rejects the offers, because God's power belongs to God.
This past fall at my family's church, our pastor, Rev. Jenelle Holmes, made poetry the focus of our Sunday worship. We explored poetry as it appears in the Bible, and we spent time with some particular poems that were posted around the worship space. One of those poems was "Contraband" by Denise Levertov, and I've carried it around in a notebook ever since then. I will read just the first half:
The tree of knowledge was the tree of reason. That's why the taste of it drove us from Eden. That fruit was meant to be dried and milled to a fine powder for use a pinch at a time, a condiment. God had probably planned to tell us later about this new pleasure. We stuffed our mouths full of it, gorged on but and if and how and again but, knowing no better. It's toxic in large quantities; fumes swirled in our heads and around us to form a dense cloud that hardened to steel, a wall between us and God, who was Paradise. Not that God is unreasonable - but reason in such excess was tyranny and locked us into its own limits, a polished cell reflecting our own faces.
I just love that poem. The idea of holy knowledge as a spice, not a main dish. Or as toxic in large quantities. I remember growing up in Michigan, we had rhubarb plants growing along the side of the house. I loved my Mom's rhubarb crisp, and was fascinated and horrified when someone told me that the stalks of rhubarb are edible, but the leaves are poisonous to humans. I would stare at that rhubarb on the side of our house with wonder and fear. How could it be that the same plant could be both poisonous and nutritious?
And also, to me, the poem points to what happens when we gorge and gorge on a good ting, how we poison ourselves, and separate ourselves from the Good when we have gobbled up too much of a good thing.
We could stop here. We could say this Scripture text is reminding us, like kids reaching for extra candy, that we've been told "no." But if we heard only that, we would miss the amazing, liberating good news of this text.
I've learned this good news from a particular community of people. One of the deep joys of my vocation and my life has been spending time with people recovering from addiction, particularly those who have sustained recovery for a very long time. This happened for me when serving as a parish pastor, and then as a researcher. Over and over again, I've been humbled and astounded at the ability of so many people in recovery to testify about the experience of human brokenness and to testify with such rawness and humor and thanksgiving about the grace they've experienced, at how God has moved in their lives.
Even though I myself am not recovering from a substance use disorder, I have learned so much from people who are. For me, the greatest privilege of being a pastor is being allowed into the sacred moments of people's lives, whether those moments be celebratory, suffering, or somewhere in between. That holy ground, take-of-your-shoes feeling is what I experience so often when I attend any sort of 12-step meetings, which are considered spiritual fellowships.
So, how widespread are spiritual approaches to recovering from addiction? Last year, a team from Baylor University released findings from a large-scale study showing that 73% of addiction treatment programs in the U.S. include some spirituality-based element. So, even by the most conservative estimates, given the severity of addiction as a public health crisis in our country today, we can still conclude that a lot of Americans are working the 12 Steps first established 85 years ago in Alcoholics Anonymous. Just right now in metropolitan Atlanta for example, in one week, about 1200 Alcoholics Anonymous meetings will convene; and that's just one type of program - so many Americans gathering together, helping each other recover.
Many years ago, one of the first times I accompanied a parishioner to a 12-step meeting, a woman I will call Latrice raised her hand and said, per tradition, "My name is Latrice. I'm an alcoholic and I'd like to share." "Hi, Latrice." Latrice nervously cleared her throat, fiddled with the tissue in her hands. "I am 50 days sober today," she said. "I've been talking to my sponsor a lot about Step 2, I keep coming back to it." On the wall above her was a large poster of the steps. Step number two read, "Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity." Latrice said, "I...I need to announce that my Higher Power is this group." Reassuring "mmms" and "okay!" filled the room. She continued, "I'm having trouble with this God thing. I know that understanding that I am not God, and that the booze is not God, and that my work is not God, I think it's helping. So...y'all. Y'all, this group, is my Higher Power."
I looked at the floor and tried not to frown too obviously. What in the world was happening? The next day, I called a pastor colleague who knew a lot more about recovery than me. I told her my horror about what I'd witnessed, "I mean, this poor woman, if her God is the group, then...is she supposed to pray to a group? This 12-step model seems like it helps a lot of people, but...". My colleague laughed and said, "So, I guess you haven't heard the doorknob thing?" "No, what doorknob thing?" "There's an old 12-step saying, 'You can have even that doorknob be God, it just can't be you!'" "What!?" I said, "That's even worse!" My friend said, "Well, think about this though: The best thing about having a doorknob as your god is that it is probably the first god you've had that wasn't trying to kill you."
In other words, the lie of addiction is that I, the addict, have God-like powers. I have control. I can stop drinking or using anytime.
The leading historian of American 12-step programs writes that the most critically important singular message of 12-step programs can be summed up as: Not-God. As in, I am not God. Consider that for a moment. Now, my point here is not to uplift 12-step programs as a solution to addiction, because actually, plenty of folks have found other pathways more helpful in their recovery. Like any human institution, 12-step programs certainly have their flaws. But my point is that, if we can agree addiction is arguably the biggest public health crisis of our time, and if such huge numbers of people do the monumentally difficult work of overcoming addiction by practicing a spiritual principle, that seems worth our attention!
Before I spent so much time with folks in recovery, if you had told me all this, I would have said, "Okay, that's great. We Christians have go that covered. We know we're not God."
But do we? I can say that I struggle with all kinds of attachments, all kinds of ways that I reach for God-like knowledge and God-like power. For instance, I'll confess right now, I think it's fair to say that I'm addicted to approval. I really, really like being told that I was helpful, that I did a good job, that I get a gold star. When I feel like I really get approval, in that moment, I feel like I don't need anything else. It just fills my tank. Until I need that approval again, only now I really need it worse than ever, because without it, who am I?
The truth is that God is always trying to give us good things, an entire Garden of good things, but so often, our hands are too full to receive them. And if our hands are full, they are full of the things to which we are attached, or even addicted. The good news of today's scripture, as we begin our Lenten journey, is not merely that we are having our hands slapped, being told, "No, you cannot have the most delicious stuff." Rather, the most delicious stuff, the greatest freedom is waiting for us—and God is waiting to give it.
Let us pray.
Gracious God, as we begin this Lenten Journey, give us the courage and comfort, that comes from knowing that indeed, we are not God. Instead, we are the Free Children of a Loving God who seeks to give us all we need. May we keep our hands open for all you want to give us. This we ask in Christ's name, Amen.