“What’s Your Excuse?”

Scripture – Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-13

Sermon preached by Gregory Knox Jones

Sunday, March 17, 2024


Author, Frank McCourt, had a stint teaching English at a tough, blue collar high school in Staten Island. Without fail, each time he gave a writing assignment several students would not complete the homework on time. However, on the day the paper was due, students did not show up empty handed. They would bring a note explaining their reason for not completing the assignment. The notes were supposedly from a parent, but they were clearly forgeries.

He held onto the notes because they were always well written. In fact, they were better than any other writing his students did. He writes, “If [their parents] could read the excuse notes they would discover that their kids are capable of the finest American prose: clear, dramatic, persuasive and especially imaginative.”

Here are a few of the excuses he collected: “The stove caught fire and the wallpaper went up in flames and the fire department kept us out of the house all night.” Don’t you just hate it when that happens?

“Arnold doesn’t have his work today because he was getting off the train yesterday and the door closed on his school bag and the train took it away. He yelled to the conductor who said very vulgar things as the train drove away. Something should be done!”

Here’s a beauty: “A man died in the bathtub upstairs and it overflowed and messed up all Roberta’s homework on the table.” You can’t argue with that, right?

Last one: “We were evicted from our apartment and the mean sheriff said if my son kept yelling for his notebook he’d have us all arrested.”

McCourt reflects, “Isn’t it remarkable how they resist any writing assignment. They whine and say they’re busy and it’s hard putting two hundred words together on any subject. But I have a drawer full of excuse notes that could be turned into an anthology of Great American Excuses.”

As he pondered how skilled they were at concocting excuses, an idea struck. The next day he wrote on the board: Write “An Excuse Note from Adam to God or from Eve to God.” He told his students that they could start their essays in class and finish them at home. He says, “The heads went down. Pens raced across paper. They could do this with one hand tied behind their backs…The bell rang, and for the first time in his three and a half years of teaching, he saw high school students so immersed they had to be urged out of the room by friends hungry for lunch.”

That assignment elicited the most imaginative and expressive writing he had seen. The students came up with brilliant excuses for Adam and Eve.1

As is apparent from today’s Scripture, from the very beginning, humans have cooked up excuses to explain their errant behavior.

God confronts Adam in the garden, “Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” God is looking for a simple “Yes” or “No.” But Adam replies, 1“The woman whom you gave to be with me, gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” Ahh, it’s all her fault. Or, possibly even God’s fault.

So God turns to Eve and says, “What is this that you have done?” And she replies, “The serpent tricked me.” Of course, this story is not really about the first humans. It’s about all humans.

Since the dawn of the human race, whenever people have been called to account, they have displayed a remarkable capacity for concocting excuses. Perhaps you know someone who has difficulty accepting responsibility for his actions? No doubt this does not apply to any of us because we have solid justifications for those times when our behavior is out of bounds.

Although, I wonder if God is collecting our rationalizations and preparing to publish a collection of The Best Alibis Ever. I hope God gets an occasional chuckle from our imaginative excuses, because God likely despairs over our reticence to own up to our failures.

It is imperative that we engrave “Image of God” on our foreheads before venturing into today’s story. It is a symbolic story – a profound story – of how the first humans barely have their feet on the ground in the breathtaking garden God has provided – think Longwood Gardens times 10 – when they are thrown out and the gate is slammed behind them.

Adam and Eve had it made. They had each other, a garden paradise, and meaningful work – to care for the garden. They were surrounded by trees that were pleasing to their eyes and plentiful with food.

God announced that they could munch on the fruit from every tree in the garden – except one. They were not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

What typically happens when we are told we may have all of this, but not this? A voice whispers in our head: “Why can’t we have it?” And a force lures us to crave the one thing that has been named “Forbidden.”

In the creation story, the serpent serves as the shadow voice that entices us to do what God has warned us not to do. The serpent tells Eve that if they eat from the tree it will not result in anything negative. Rather, “it will open your eyes and you will be like God.” Don’t you want to be the master of your destiny?

God creates the world, including humans, and declares it all “very good.” People are created in God’s image and declared to be just a little lower than God. Further, our Creator knows that life would be meaningless if we were unable to act and choose, so God gives us freedom. It is the enormous risk God takes.

If we choose well and live as God wants us to live, life can be paradise. However, if we place ourselves in the role of God, rejecting divine wisdom and deciding for ourselves what is good and what is evil, all hell can break loose. If we give in to lust, trust is destroyed; gluttony, we self-destruct; envy, we shatter our relationships; anger, we abuse and oppress; greed, the natural world is polluted; neglect, people who are hungry face starvation.

The Lenten season – the 40 days leading to Easter – is to be a time of personal introspection; a time to wrestle with our faith by asking ourselves questions – tough questions. We are to wade through all of our personal justifications that lead to dubious thoughts and actions, and we are to strive for an honest conversation with ourselves. Lent is not a time to tiptoe around our personal demons. It is a time to confront them and to conquer them!

Lent is not a time to batter our egos nor a time for false humility: “God, I’m such a mess that there is no hope for me.” Lent is not a call to grovel and despair. Rather, it is a challenge to look into the mirror and have a direct discourse with ourselves about the way we have missed the mark.

However, it is never a time to blot out the essential fact that you are a child of God who is created in God’s image. Lent is a reminder that we will never experience the joy God intends – nor become the full, thriving human being we can become – if we ignore the dark thoughts and actions that lure us away from what is right and true and good.

Some avoid self-examination because they know that there are parts of their character that are far from noble and they want to avoid feeling guilty. But in light of God’s grace, coming clean is the first step in our challenge to become healthy and robust.

Sin can never be reduced to a simple checklist because it is larger than that. In both Hebrew and Greek, the root word for sin means “missing the mark.” Instead of being spot on, we are off target. Sin ruptures relationships; it torpedoes our ties with each other, and it alienates us from God. It does not separate us from God, because nothing can separate us from God. But it drags us out of sync with God.

Episcopal priest and professor, Barbara Brown Taylor says, “Sin is a name for the experience of being cut off from air, light, community, hope, meaning…There are a thousand ways to turn away from the light…The point is to know the difference between light and darkness, and to recognize the pull of darkness when it comes.”2

Many Sundays we include a prayer of confession in our worship service. Its purpose is not to whittle away at our self-esteem. God does not call on us to confess our sin in order to obliterate our egos. Rather, confession is a way of overcoming denial and opening ourselves to God’s forgiveness.

But forgiveness is not the omega point. God does not forgive us simply to wipe away our guilt. God forgives in order to transform. Forgiveness opens a door that allows the divine image at our core to blossom.

If we make excuses and refuse to admit what is wrong with us, we remain stuck where we are because we block God’s power to transform us. That is why confession should never be approached with despair, but with hope. God forgives us so that we become free; free to live the beautiful and abundant life God intends for us to live, and free to become partners with God in striving for a world that is much closer to paradise.



  1. Martin Copenhaver, “Excuses, Excuses, Excuses” July 31, 2011.
  2. Barbara Brown Taylor, Speaking of Sin, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 2000), p. 63.