Sermon: Biblical Migrations: Exile from Eden

2019 October 13
by Rev Ana Levy-Lyons

Biblical Migrations: Exile from Eden

Ana Levy-Lyons

October 13, 2019

First Unitarian, Brooklyn


Part 1

Adam and Eve are alone in a vast and beautiful garden. It is lush with every kind of fragrant fruit tree and edible plant, all that they need and more. It’s a paradise. Maybe there’s a pizza tree and an ice cream tree and cotton candy bushes. Adam and Eve just lie around all day in the leafy shade. It’s almost like they’re part of the garden. It says they are made of the same clay earth that surrounds them; saturated by the water of the four rivers that flow through the garden. They nest in the warm arms of their creator. They have nothing to fear. They want nothing; they judge nothing – experiences wash through them; they receive, they participate. They are children, wide eyed with wonder at their world.


This is the opening scene for human life on this planet as it is described in the Torah – the Hebrew Bible (maybe without the pizza trees and stuff). It’s a static, humming, forever state of being until it’s not. We’ve heard about the forbidden fruit and how the first couple is soon forced out into a different place and into a different state of being. This is the first great migration of the Bible – it’s a physical migration and it’s a spiritual migration. Adam and Eve stand for all of humanity. You may not believe that this is exactly how life began but I want to invite you to go on a journey of imagination with me and with the Religious Education community this year.


This year we’re going to share with you a series of services on the theme of migration in the Bible – people leaving home and traveling to foreign lands, sometimes by choice, sometimes by force, sometimes by faith, sometimes by fate. Most of these ancient stories are myths in the sense that, although we don’t know if these particular stories “really happened,” these kinds of stories happen all the time. They are archetypes for a human experience that we know deep in our bones. All of our ancestors, if you go back far enough, migrated from one land to another. Some of us may have personally immigrated to this country in our lifetimes. And each of us has made spiritual journeys – transformations that rocked our world and landed us in a new place from which we could never go back to where we came from.


But why the Bible? – you might ask. Of all books, for goodness sake, why that one? It’s so full of violent, oppressive, old world ideas. This is all true. And it’s also full of stories of love and courage, people wrestling with our own humanity, the pain and joy of family, the presence and absence of God, and concepts of caring for the earth and redistributing wealth and power that were radical then and would be radical today. This tradition is the theological great-grandparent of Unitarian Universalism and it is marbled – which means it’s like a marble, not all one color or one thing good or bad, but many colors and many things at once.


The challenge, as I see it, for us is to hold all of it. One of the things I love about these myths is that they resist simplification. When you try to say, “It’s simple; it means this,” the myth says, “Ouch! Stop! Don’t do that to me!” The characters make mistakes, just like you and me. They learn and grow through their travels, just like you and me. The texts themselves were created by flawed humans who were products of their place and time. I hate to tell you, but we also are flawed humans who are products of our place and time. When we can hold these stories gently, with compassion, humility, and open curiosity, it helps us hold ourselves in this way as well. If there’s one thing that we all take away from this series this year, I would like us to be more able to lovingly embrace the marbled complexities of who we are. I would invite us to honor our own private stories of migration.


So back to Adam and Eve. They begin in this state of union with the natural world and with God. It’s a state of bliss where they receive all that they need, like they’re nursing from the Earth herself. They are in an enlightened state. And then the story zooms in and double-clicks on two particular trees in the middle of the Garden of Eden: the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and bad. Eat the fruit of the tree of life and you become immortal. That means you never die. Eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and bad and you descend from the Zen state of floating equanimity into the tousle of human likes and dislikes, judgements and discernments, problems and solutions. Dissatisfaction now enters the picture, as well as desire for things you don’t have.


It’s as if God presents the luminous souls of Adam and Eve with a red pill/ blue pill choice. Take one and you stay in a state of existential infancy forever, one with all the universe, in bliss and utter dependency. Take the other and you precipitate out of the cloud into the realpolitik of human experience with all its joys and pain. You’ll be separated from the divine oneness, yes, but you’ll get to go on all the rides.


In the story, of course, it’s not presented as a choice. God says nothing to them about the tree of life and just prohibits them from eating the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and bad. But in fact it is a choice. God doesn’t prevent them from doing it, God just describes the consequences: “Of every tree in the garden you are free to eat, but as for the tree of knowledge of good and bad, you must not eat of it; for as soon as you eat of it, you will die.”




Part 2

Well, so you’ve heard how the story goes. God tells Adam and Eve that they’ll die if they eat the fruit from the wrong tree and the snake comes along and says, “What a load of crap. This fruit is good to eat. You’re not gonna die. It’ll just open your eyes. Here: take the red pill.” And the snake is right. Adam and Eve don’t die from eating the forbidden fruit. But God is right too: because they now become creatures who die. They could have eaten from the tree of life and stayed in the garden forever. But instead they become mortal humans who suffer and have to meet their own needs. God’s punishments are not really punishments – they are what some parents call “natural consequences.” The humans’ eyes are opened to adult knowledge. Their blithe, carefree innocence is lost. They have to work now. They realize they are naked. They become sexual beings with all of the pain and joy that comes with that, including the pain of childbirth and the complexities of desire and power.


Childbirth is, in fact, painful because of the knowledge and extravagant intelligence of our species. Did you know that a newborn human’s brain is 47% bigger than a newborn gorilla’s brain? Human babies have giant heads to enfold all that we learned from eating of the fruit of the tree. We now need this knowledge for our survival but boy, does it make for a painful transition into this world. Every soul when it is born as a human baby makes the red pill choice: in real time, in a replaying of the drama of the Garden of Eden, the baby separates from union with God and enters the roller coaster of this world. It’s a painful moment and an ecstatic moment; a rending and an embrace.


Did Adam and Eve know what eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge would mean? Did they know it would transform them so profoundly, to the depths of their being, that some part of them really would die, and they chose to do it anyway? Did they know that they would be expelled from the Garden of Eden never to return? I like to think that they did. I like to believe that they weren’t tricked by the snake; they were inspired.


Every one of us makes this journey in our lives. You may or may not believe that our souls immigrate from another dimension to have a human experience on earth. But each of us makes choices at some point to leave behind the known for the unknown; the safe for the risky. We push off from the shore not knowing where our boat will wind up. We push off from the shore even after having been warned not to. Every one of us loses our innocence in some way. Like Eve, we humans commit acts of creative defiance and rebellion. Can you think of a small way that you’ve done this – when you’ve left something comfortable for something new? Maybe you were even told not to do it, but you did it anyway. And maybe it turned out well, or not so well, but now it’s an experience that you’ve had. It’s there in your book of experiences.


Sometimes we make youthful, impulsive choices that wind up defining our lives. And we may be tempted to think that it was just random chance; just a flip mistake; an accident caused by ignorance. But on some level I believe that our souls know what they’re doing. We received the gift of boldness and adventure from Adam and Eve. And ever since, we humans have gotten ourselves kicked out of the Garden over and over again. It’s because of this that we are human. We have experiences good and bad, we make messes and we grow. If we’re wise, we make the most of it and go on all the rides—the fast ones and the slow ones, the scary ones and the weird ones, even the ones that spin you upside down. And sometimes we’ll be sad that we’re no longer naked in paradise with the divine. It’s okay to go on that ride too. We are life-giving; we are flawed; we are beautiful; we are marbled. May each of us honor our own red pill choices and the grief and the thrill of our exile from the Garden of Eden.

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