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Paradise Lust: Searching for the Garden of Eden

Roland P. Perdue, III

November 13, 2011
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:6-7, 20-24; Romans 5:18-21; 6:23

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  NOTE: I preach without the manuscript or notes (with the exception of poems or songs). Therefore things get added or left out during the actual sermonic event. In other words, what you read is not exactly what you heard.

As soon as the man and the woman were kicked out of Eden, the rest of us started looking for it. As soon as Eden became Paradise Lost many of us developed an insatiable hunger, a lust really, for Paradise Found. Our tireless search is chronicled in a new book by Ms. Brook Wilensky-Lanford, the title of which is the title of this sermon.  

She tells us little armies of Eden chasers believe they have found Eden and in the strangest of places. Would you believe the North Pole; Serpent Mound State Memorial, Peebles, Ohio; Santa Clara, California; Independence, Missouri; a valley in Venezuela; Berlin, Germany; China, and, of course, Iraq, Ethiopia, Syria, and Jerusalem among other places?

I have not found it in any of those places. But I continue looking.  Don’t you? Oh, I think you do, for we are here this morning because something about the Garden pulls us on and draws us in. But let’s get back to the beginning, or perhaps the end, of things in Genesis.

What did we lose when we lost Eden? When Paradise became Paradise Lost what was lost?

Simply put, we lost home. Home is that place where the chaotic world is held at bay a bit. “Home,” suggests Robert Frost in The Death of the Hired Man, “is the place where, when you go there, they have to take you in.” And we lost it.

When we read the story of the Gardener crafting the Garden, it becomes clear that God intends for us to live in Paradise and to lovingly care for it and the river whose four branches water the Fertile Crescent. Eden is our home; the very place God has prepared for us. And we were locked together in an embrace of solidarity, well-being and trust. The drama reads, “The Lord God took the human and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.”

Hema is a character in Abraham Verghese’s novel Cutting for Stone. She works in a mission hospital in Ethiopia. “Her skills were so rare, so needed for the poorest of the poor, and even at times in the royal palaces, that she felt valued. (She asks herself) Wasn’t that the definition of home? Not where you are from, but where you are wanted?” (Amazon kindle e-book, location 1469). We were valued in Eden; placed there and valued there. We were trusted to preserve and protect Eden, to till and keep it. It was home.

The Charlie Daniels Band used to sing back in the 1980s:

We had it all one time

We tasted life’s sweetest wine

Wherever the trail would wind

Was all right by me

Once this whole world was mine

We had it all one time

Yes, any old hill we’d climb

Was all right by me

We had it all one time.

We tasted life’s sweetest wine

Wherever the trail would wind

Was alright by me

Once this whole world was mine

We had it all one time

Yes, any old hill we’d climb

Was alright by me

We had it all one time, and we lost it We lost it all that time in the Garden with the man and woman. All: the overwhelming sense of solidarity, the feeling of well-being and trust. We were in the truest sense “one flesh.” We were one with the Divine Other One and one with one another. Home, not where you or I are from, but where we are wanted. That is what we lost when we were kicked out of the Garden of Eden. We had it all one time.

All, that is, but with just a single simple exception: the taste of the fruit of the Tree. We could not trust that we would be satisfied without tasting of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. We had to know what it was like to experience that taste. And, Lord God, we still taste it! We can’t get the taste out of our mouths. Sweet and, oh, so sour; sweet with the knowledge of what good and wonderful things can be done and how beautiful the world can be; and sour with the taste of brokenness and wreak and ruin.

I read the daily paper, watch the latest news on the internet, I have come to believe the Tree is not merely a metaphor for our rational knowledge of good and evil, but a “knowing” as an intimate awareness and deep experience of good and evil. We will know, really know personally and up close and intimately the whole range of life’s good and evil experiences along with all the other slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

I think that interpretation rings true, at least to my experience. For instance, Zach is a character in Benjamin Saenz’s Last Night I Sang to the Monster, a hauntingly beautiful yet brutal novel. Zach is a young addict whose home life was one of loneliness and loss. No one has taken the time to till and keep his garden. A patient in a rehab center, he is talking to his therapist about how his native language, Spanish, got lost in his family. And he adds, “Yeah, well, a lot of things got lost in my family” (amazonkindle e-book, location 165). Things do get lost in our homes; things like love, affection, kindness, each other. Things got lost. We know about that, don’t we?  We “know” in a Biblical sense that Tree into which we have carved our initials of pain and shame.

That is the experience of the Tree most of us know firsthand. We have become old familiar friends with being lost and out of touch with one another, of being ill at ease and lacking in trust. We are somehow comfortable hiding behind trees wearing fig leaves as we try to avoid the Voice of One calling for us. The man and the woman have let dis-trust snake its way between them and God. And they who had it all one time stumble out of Paradise.

The drama reads on: “‘See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil’… therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden.” John Calvin believed that in solidarity with us, God shares our pain and weeps when we weep. Can anyone doubt that God cried when we were expelled from the home made for us to till and keep, to provide for and protect? Paradise Lost and Lust is our story.

What if we have it a bit backwards, however? What if Eden is not only the narrative of our beginning, the place from which we started and were expelled? Could The Garden of Eden be, do you think, the new direction home, the place where we end up rather than only the place from which we began?  Oh, I think so! Oh, I hope so! Those old hackneyed lines from T. S. Eliot catch the sense of my thought:

What we call the beginning is often the end

And to make an end is to make a beginning.

The end is where we start from.

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding (No. 4 of “Four Quartets”)

A few decades after Jesus’ life and love, Paul writes to the church in Rome and compares Adam and Christ. He writes that as humankind suffered Paradise Lost because of the transgression, or lack of trust, of Adam, so we have Paradise Found secured for us  through Jesus Christ (Romans 5:12-21). In other words, what was lost in Adam when we were kicked out of the Garden of Eden has been found in Christ’s gift of grace.

In this sense, the Garden of Eden is, rather than that place from which we start, that place where we are headed, where we are going, where we will end up.

So where is Paradise Lust leading us? It is leading us right here, right now. If the Garden of God’s future is reflected or foreshadowed anywhere, it is here; here at the corner of 22nd and San Antonio Street. Paradise Lost is always found here at University Presbyterian Church, Austin, Texas  and in those other places where God’s compassion and justice are being demonstrated, where people are experiencing solidarity, well-being and trust, all mixed up of course with an intimate awareness of our good and evil.

In Last Night I Sang to the Monster, the teenager Zach is talking to his roommate, Rafael, a much older man, at the Drug and Alcohol Rehabilitation Center. They are talking about the good and the bad they have experienced, about their own deep knowledge of that metaphorical Tree. Zach is awakened each evening from his nervous sleep by terrible dreams. Like so many of us, he labels the dreams his “monsters” or “demons” with which he must deal. Zach asks Rafael, who has known the monsters much longer, “Do we all have monsters?”

“Yes.”

“Why does God give us so many monsters?”

“You want to know my theory?”

“Sure.”

“I think it’s other people who give us monsters.

Maybe God doesn’t have anything to do with it.”

- (Amazon kindle e-book, location 1201)

Right! And it is other people who also help us get rid of our monsters. UPC has always been larger than her actual numerable membership because she reaches out to future city, state, national and international leaders who come under the impact of her ministry. God continues to reach others through UPC and counts upon you and your faithfulness to “give that you may receive.”

Abraham Verghese’s, Cutting for Stone has a scene with says it for me. Most of the of the book takes place in Ethiopia at a mission hospital. One of the twin brothers, Marion, decides to be a surgeon because – well, listen to him explain it:

I choose the specialty of surgery because of Matron, that steady influence during my boyhood and adolescence. “What is the hardest thing you can possibly do?” she said…

I squirmed… “Why must I do the hardest?”

“Because, Marion, you are an instrument of God. Don’t leave the instrument sitting in the case, my son. Play! Leave no part of your instrument unexplored. Why settle for ‘Three Blind Mice’ when you can play the ‘Gloria’?”

“But, Matron, I can’t dream of playing Bach, the ‘Gloria.’…, I said under my breath. I’d never played a string or wind instrument. I couldn’t read music.

“No, Marion,’ she said, her gaze soft, reaching for me, her gnarled hands rough on my cheeks. “No, not Bach’s ‘Gloria.’ Yours! Your ‘Gloria’ lives within you. The greatest sin is not finding it, ignoring what God made possible in you.”

Surgery was the most difficult thing I could imagine.

And so I became a surgeon.

- (Amazon kindle eBook, location 145)

University Presbyterian Church has played her “Gloria” for decades.  And this is not the time to stop!

Amen.


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