The Serpent Enters

Genesis 4:1-16
Sept 2, 2018
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

As I have mentioned before, I maintain a database of all of the sermons I have ever preached and sometimes when I’m preaching on a certain theme or scripture, I’ll search through that database to see what I’ve said about that topic before.  Usually I conclude that I didn’t say anything helpful at all (!) but every now and then I come across a sermon that even I enjoy re-reading and that is what happened to me last week.  Last week, I preached about envy, apparently for the first time because my database search yielded no results, but when I broadened my search to the more general topic of sin, I found a sermon I preached one Boy Scout Sunday when my oldest son, John, was in the Scouts.  Because it was Boy Scout Sunday and I knew I would have a lot of restless boys in the pews, I had written the sermon in story form, using the story to tell what I thought, and still think, was a very good lesson about sin and temptation.  The sermon had nothing to do with envy so I put it aside but I thought of it again this week.  Because of the sadness of the last couple of weeks in our church, I thought we could all use a more light hearted sermon and so I am going to present to you this sermon in story form from February of 2000. 

Genesis 4:7   God saw Cain’s anger and jealousy, and God warned Cain saying, “Beware, sin lurks at your door.  It wants to enter but you must master it.”   (My paraphrase)

One summer afternoon, when my son John was the tender age of ten and I could still look over the top of his head, he and his cohort Neal McDowell decided to earn a few dollars by stacking wood for me.  Actually, they were getting paid to unstack wood as much as to stack it since I had an elderly pile of firewood stacked in my yard that I wanted to have moved into the shelter of my shed’s interior before winter, and if there’s anything worse than stacking wood, it’s un-stacking a perfectly well-stacked pile simply because it happens to be stacked in the wrong place.  I was quite willing to pay good money to have someone else do it for me, and since a ten year old’s idea of good money is enough to buy a Super Size meal at McDonald’s, it seemed well worth the price.

On this fine summer day, then, I explained the job to the two enthusiastic ten-year olds who threw themselves into the work, sure that in less than an hour they would have the five cords of wood torn down and re-stacked neatly in the shed and be on their way to McDonald’s.  Not one to stifle children’s optimism, no matter how unrealistic, and wanting to seek safety from the logs that were now flying through the air, I went into the house and busied myself washing the upstairs windows.

I had barely wiped down one window when I heard the tromping of ten year old feet running into the house.  John’s voice called up the stairwell: “Mom, Mom, come look!”

“What is it, John?” I yelled back.  “I’m right in the middle of something.”

“Come look,” he called again, and I heard him start up the stairs.  “Come here and look!,” and then, “Whoa! …..” followed by a most ominous, “Uh-oh.”

“Uh-oh?” I called back suspiciously.  “What was ‘uh-oh?”

There was no answer to my question, just the sound of frantic scrambling from below.  Perhaps the most disturbing words a parent can hear a child utter is the phrase, “Uh-oh.”  A single ‘uh-ho’ ignites the parental imagination with visions of broken things and unthinkable disasters.  Suddenly my window-washing felt much less urgent than whatever was happening in my living room below, and throwing down the sponge I dashed to the stairs, hesitated for a moment unsure of whether I really wanted to know what was going on down there, and then bracing myself for the worst, I leaned over the open railing to take a peek at the living room.

I was just in time to see the tail-end of a very long and very large garter snake disappear under my stereo cabinet.

Now, I have always prided myself on my lack of timidity around all creatures of the forest but that’s when they are in the forest in their proper place, and my living room is definitely not the proper place for a garter snake.  From the relative security of the stairway, I called out with great conviction to John and Neal who were peering uncertainly under the cabinet, “Snakes do not belong in the house!  Get it out of here right now!”

In hindsight, it was rather odd of me, in the midst of this reptilian crisis, to instruct the two boys on the proper habitat of snakes.  What possessed me to remind Neal and John that snakes belong outdoors rather than under stereo cabinets?  I don’t really think that I thought that John and Neal had welcomed the snake into our home for a sleep-over and that the matter simply needed to be cleared up with the profound insight that snakes do not belong in the house after which the boys and the snake would say, “Oh, sorry to have bothered you.  We’ll just be about our business then.”  I believe that the reason I stated the obvious was because it was better than saying what was really going through my head, words that were clearly not appropriate for ten year old ears.

Regardless of my careful choice of words, John and Neal must have heard my unspoken thoughts in the tone of my voice because they quickly bustled over to the cabinet and shoved it away from the wall, successfully chasing the snake from its temporary lair into a new refuge behind the television set.  As I watched them run this way and that while the snake eyed them disdainfully from his sanctuary, I realized in despair that Neal and John were pretty amateur snake-handlers, clearly not ready for the revival circuit, and that if I didn’t take some action soon, their hand-waving and shouting was going to convince the snake to seek quieter waters under the couch.  I had once spent thirty minutes retrieving an escaped guinea pig from its hiding place under the sofa and that is an animal that I don’t mind reaching for blindly in dark spaces.  There was no way I was going to reach under a couch to haul out a snake.

“All right, guys, let’s think this through for a second,” I said, reluctantly relinquishing my perch on the stairs and entering the snake wrassling arena.  “What were you doing with the snake anyway?

“We found it in the wood pile when we moved the logs,” John explained innocently, “and thought you’d like to see it.”

Well, now I was getting a good look at it, all three fat feet of it, as it curled restlessly among the cables behind my television set.  My biology professor in college had been a snake enthusiast, and I remembered him telling of his days overseas in the army when he collected snakes by running them down and placing a heavy-booted foot just behind their heads to pin them to the ground.  But I also remembered his story of the day he trapped a snake under his foot only to have it raise its head and slowly spread its hood; there he stood, he told us, his foot on a live cobra.   He may have trapped the cobra but the cobra had him just as trapped, ready to strike the moment he moved his foot.  My professor had to wait fifteen minutes for another soldier to bag the snake before he was freed from his predicament.

This might only be a garter snake in my living room but I decided to forgo the foot technique and try something that would put a little more distance between me and the serpent.

“Neal, you stay here and guard the snake.  Don’t let it out from behind the T.V., and John and I will go and see if we can find a forked stick to pin it down with.”  Neal took up his position, and John and I went in search of forked sticks.  Sacrificing a branch of my flowering crab apple, I was stripping it down to a sturdy V when John bounced back into the yard waving a twig all of six inches long – “I’ve got one!” he yelled confidently.

“John, you couldn’t even safely pin down a marshmallow with that stick, let alone a three foot garter snake,” I pointed out but not wanting to leave Neal undefended any longer I decided that Neal and John could share herding duties while I alone went for the “pin”.

“Now the most important thing,” I instructed my two snake-herders, “is to keep the snake away from the couch.  When I say ‘go’ chase it out from behind the T.V. and I’ll pin it down with my stick.  Then one of you can grab it.”

Now only among ten year old boys would a debate then ensue as to who would get the privilege of actually trying to grab the snake, but they soon settled on Neal doing the honors and we were set to go.

“O.K.,” I ordered, “Drive it out.”  With a lot of whooping and stomping, the boys chased the snake from its hiding place into the open where I thrust my stick at its neck– or the place on a snake where a neck would be if it had one.  Now snakes are amazingly strong and fast when they want to be, and this snake wanted to be.  While I jabbed and parried, it writhed and squirmed and slithered, throwing off my stick so many times that we chased it clear across the room and under the dining room table before I got a good enough hold on it to pin it to the floor.  By now the snake was really angry, and when Neal dashed in to grab it, the snake spit and snapped with snakish venom daring Neal to touch it.  I moved the stick closer to its head to try to shorten its striking capabilities, but when Neal went in a second time, the snake yanked its body through the fork enough to strike again and succeeded this time in biting Neal’s hand.

“Youch!” he yelped.

“Maybe you should put on some gloves,” John suggested, and the two left me holding a fuming snake under a stick that was feeling shorter by the minute while they searched the house for gloves.  Returning with his hands swathed in cavernous leather work gloves, Neal made another attempt to take hold of the snake but this time the snake had worked itself into such a fury that it threw its entire body off the floor, wrenching the stick aside and lunged full length at Neal who jumped back with a startled cry, echoed by John’s and my exclaimed, “Watch out!”

Quickly I thrust my stick at the snake again and managed to pin it once more, but even as I did, I saw a new problem enter the scene from the stairway.  All of our commotion had finally woken my dog Brontë who decided to come down from the bedroom where she had been snoozing to see what the excitement was.

Brontë was a Springer Spaniel, bred to hunt pheasant and grouse, but she spent most of her time hunting smaller game like mice and was certainly not above tackling a garter snake if one was handy.  This snake was definitely handy, and already pinned down for her no less, so as soon as Brontë saw what it was that we were hunting, she dashed across the living room, anticipation lighting her face, ready to lend a helping paw.

That’s just what I needed – a wrestling match with two ten year old boys, a garter snake, and a dog thrown in for good measure.  As Brontë streaked by on her way to the attack, I grabbed her collar with my left hand, while still holding the snake pinned down with the stick in my right hand, and for a moment everything froze in an impossible tableau.

“And what,” I said to the boys as I crouched with a feverish dog on one hand and a furious snake on the other, “and what have we learned from this?”

They responded in unison: “Snakes don’t belong in the house!”

Since the snake-wrangling was clearly not working, I came up with a new plan of action.  I directed John and Neal to guard the couch and the refrigerator – both appealing places of refuge for a battle-weary snake – and when they were in position, I let the snake free, but before it could evaluate this change of situation (and while still dragging poor Brontë by the collar), I ran to the front door, swung it wide open, then darted back to the table.  At my return, the snake shook off its surprise and was on the move again.  Circling slowly and cautiously, I began to drive the snake toward the door.  As the snake passed beyond the reach of couch and refrigerator, the boys joined me, dancing across the snake’s path every time it took a wrong turn.  Soon it had slithered its way across the living room, and catching the scent of the fresh breeze beckoning over the threshold, the snake literally sprinted the last few feet through the hall, out the door, and onto the front porch, where it glided smoothly over the edge and disappeared underneath.  I could almost hear its sigh of relief and I’m certain the snake hunkered down in the dark secure earth for a good long while catching its breath and reflecting on the same lesson the boys had articulated, “Snakes don’t belong in the house.”

But the moral to this story is not just the obvious statement of a harassed parent that snakes don’t belong in the house.  The real moral to the story, and the lesson that I learned that day, is that it’s a lot easier to let a snake into the house than it is to get it out again.

Which is why God said to Cain as the young man was facing temptation, “Be careful Cain, because sin is crouching at your door.”  God warned Cain not to open the door to sin because it’s a lot easier to let sin into your heart than it is to get it out of your heart once it’s there.  Once we open the door to anger, it settles down into the dark corners where its not easily removed.  Once we open the door to hatred or spite, it hunkers down inside our hearts where it is hard to dislodge.  It takes but a moment to let doubt, resentment, jealousy, or bitterness enter our hearts, but once they are there, they delight in the darkness, and are reluctant to leave.  That sin stays and drains us of love and joy and eats away at our relationships, turning our lives and homes into places of constant battle instead of peace.  Cain ignored God’s warning and let his envy of Abel enter his heart and once it was there, it simmered and grew until it could only be satisfied with blood.  How different things would have been for Cain — and for Abel — if Cain had only listened to God when God told him, “Snakes don’t belong in the house.” 

Let us all take a lesson from Cain and Abel — from John and Neal — and think carefully about what is crouching at our doors and before we open our hearts to those temptations, remember, it’s a lot easier to let a snake into your house than it is to get it out again.