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Monthly Archives: February 2014

The Right Sermon on the Wrong Day

It’s been a while. I’d say, “I’ve been busy,” and I have, but that’s not an excuse. The truth is I’d rather engage in craftwork than write about it. Not that I’ve gotten that much done. I did finish the double weave pick up that was on my large loom. And I have started winding a new warp. On the spinning side, it’s still cotton, cotton, and more cotton. Lucky for me I like spinning cotton.

What’s really had my brain occupied is work. I work for a middle judicatory – in church speak, that means I work for the body one higher than the local church. I am, officially, a bureaucrat, and I mostly enjoy it. However, we had a very difficult, but necessary, decision to make, and in the process, we pissed a lot of people off. I respect the anger, but not the way it’s being acted out. People who disagree are publicly vilified. It’s not necessary, and it’s not helpful, for either the angry people or the community they claim to belong to.

I preached today. When you work for a judicatory, it’s easy to lose track of the church year. We have our own schedule to keep up with, regardless of the church year. So when I decided what to preach, I got my dates wrong. I thought it was the first Sunday in Lent. Actually, the first Sunday in Lent is not for another two weeks. Of course, I only found out my mistake two days ago, when it was too late to change the sermon. And I didn’t want to change the sermon. Not only did I like the sermon, the sermon said things that needed to be said. The church that heard the sermon, other than being normal, and therefore fallible, human beings isn’t guilty of what I’m preaching against. But they appreciated the sermon anyway.

Time to share the sermon. Preaching is a craft, too. The title is “Risky Business,” and the scripture passages are the story of Adam and Eve, as told in Genesis 2: 15-17 and 3:1-7; and the temptations of Jesus, as told in Matthew 4:1-11.

RISKY BUSINESS

         Let me make one thing absolutely clear from the get-go. Women – original sin is not Eve’s fault. Allow me to expand on that statement. Women, even unoriginal sin is not Eve’s fault! I don’t care if your sins are dull or interesting, hackneyed or creative, vanilla bland or spicy, hot, and juicy. It just flat out ain’t Eve’s fault. As a card-carrying member of the female species. I am sick and tired of being blamed for the failings of the universe. It ain’t our fault! Oh, by the way. Men, don’t worry. It’s not Adam’s fault either.

So who’s fault is it? I mean, if we’re going to blame somebody for the fact that the human race seems to be made up of a bunch of selfish, persnickety curmudgeons, who do we blame here? Adam and Eve had it so darn good in Eden. All they had to do was till the garden and keep it. A little light gardening, no big deal. They were young and healthy. Church authority tells us that Adam and Eve walked around naked because they were innocent. Let me add that they also walked around naked because their metabolisms burned calories like a bonfire. Which was a good thing, because just around the corner from the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was the tree of chocolate. Milk chocolate, white chocolate, dark chocolate, chocolate mint truffles with pecan and caramel innards and a touch of hot pepper – yep! Adam and Eve had it all. They were in Eden.

And they blew it. When temptation fluttered before them, when the snake hissed his sibilant question, Adam and Eve blew it. Now Jesus stood up to Satan without breaking a sweat. Jesus was cool like that. But Eve and Adam? What did they do? You tell me. (They blew it.) Yep. They blew it. And popular Christianity has been blaming Adam and Eve – especially Eve — ever since. The serpent hasn’t looked too good, either. But then what do you expect? The serpent didn’t have a leg to stand on.

I’m getting ahead of myself. Before we look at the choices that Adam and Eve made, let’s look at the choices that Jesus made. The devil dangled three significant temptations before Jesus. Jesus turned them all down. There’s something to be learned here.

First there was the matter of turning stones into bread. Jesus was famished. But Jesus’ hunger was the least of Jesus’ problems. The devil didn’t say, “if you’re hungry eat.” The devil said, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” There’s something sly about that word, “if.” The original Greek is slippery. It can be translated as “if you are the Son of God,” or it can be translated as  “because you are the Son of God.” Just what was the devil hinting at here? Was the devil was offering Jesus an easy way to prove his identity? Or was the devil inviting Jesus to explore the perks of this Son-of-God job? “Jesus,” the devil said, “as long as you’re the Son of God, why not take advantage of family connections?” Either way, Jesus took a risk and turned the devil down. “Human beings do not live by bread alone,” Jesus replied.

Then there was the second temptation, where the devil took Jesus to the holy city, to the pinnacle of the temple and invited him to jump. I’m not sure anybody quite knows what the second temple looked like. I’m pretty sure it didn’t look like a traditional white clapboard tall steeple church. But let’s do the tall steeple thing anyway. Let’s imagine Jesus with his arms wrapped around the highest point of a traditional tall steeple tower, hanging on for dear life. The devil, perched jauntily on the weather vane, leaned over and said, “Go ahead and jump, Jesus. Let go and let God. If – or because – because you are the son of God, you’re perfectly safe. You can trust God. You can trust the Bible.”

Clearly what’s at stake here is the fundamental human need for physical safety. Jesus was as scared of dying as we would be if we found ourselves surrounded by thugs armed with guns and knives. Of course we would want God to rescue us, to send holy angels to protect us. We might even feel that God owes us protection — which is part of what the devil was implying. “If – or because – you are the son of God, you can let go.” Had Jesus accepted the devil’s temptation, he would have made himself eternally safe from suffering. What an incredible temptation, when the end of your journey is the cross!

The last temptation, though, must have been the hardest temptation of all. The last temptation was the temptation of power — of control. When I say control, of course, I’m not speaking of mere political power. Neither was the devil. Instead, the devil offered instantaneous total control over everything. This is not the mixed bag of ordinary political leadership. It is not the great power of the presidency or the even greater power of evil dictatorship. It is the all-consuming power of divine totalitarianism.

And I personally think that was the hardest temptation to turn down. Of course Jesus was no Stalin, no Kim Jong-un, no Adolph Hitler. Jesus would never have used his power to degrade or make slaves of people. Jesus would have used his power kindly, to protect people from evil. It was a tough dilemma. Given the horrors of bigotry and prejudice, genocide and terrorism, was Jesus ever sorry that he turned down the devil’s deal, when he could have stopped all evil before any one got hurt?

Jesus made some pretty risky choices when you think about it. One might even call them imprudent. Remember that word – “imprudent.” Jesus turned down the opportunity first, to prove himself, second, to save himself, and third, to save everyone else. Think of how easy human history would have been if Jesus had said yes to even one of the temptations. Food galore, personal safety, peace and security – why, we’d still be living in Eden!

Which brings us back to the Garden. Now if the Greek in Matthew is slippery, the Hebrew in Genesis is even more slippery. Biblical Hebrew is naturally a slippery language. Just about every Hebrew word has a double meaning, positive or negative, depending on the context. Take the word, arum, that’s used to describe the serpent. “Now the serpent was more arum,” says the Bible. Most translations give the word a negative twist. The serpent was crafty, clever, cunning, subtle, and shrewd, a devious manipulator. But arum can also be positive. It’s often used in the Book of Proverbs to describe the behavior of the wise, the ones who, by doing the prudent thing, prosper and get ahead in life. Now in Proverbs, prudence is legitimately a good thing. But in life, many of the – ahem – “prudent” people we know are self-serving and manipulative, subtle, shrewd, and sly. Hebrew made that word double-edged for a reason.

Our subtle serpent twisted God’s words. “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” No, that wasn’t what God said. Only one tree was forbidden. But then, Eve got it wrong, too. She quoted God: “’You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” God did not prohibit touching.

Her attention captured by the fruit, her will distracted by the her own exaggerations Eve proceeded to rationalize, to actively talk herself into tasting the fruit. “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate.” It was the – ahem — prudent thing to do.

As for Adam, well there’s not much to say about him. Adam was as passive as Eve was active. She rationalized. He took. Adam knew better. He knew the fruit was forbidden, but he took it and ate it anyway. Every time I read this story, I imagine Nancy Reagan hiding behind a bush, hollering out, “Adam! Just say ‘No!’” But, well, prudent people know that to get along, one has to go along, and that’s what Adam did. The serpent tempted. The humans took and ate. Their eyes were opened. They saw that they were naked. So they did the prudent thing and put on some clothing.

The rest is history. God caught Adam and Eve in their skivvies, and asked what happened. Adam was shrewd. He blamed Eve. Eve was shrewd. She blamed the serpent. God, not having any other choice, removed the two of them from the garden.

Or rather, Adam and Eve wrecked their stay in paradise by blaming each other for their failings instead of facing up to what they’d done and accepting responsibility. Adam and Eve wanted the benefits of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Who wouldn’t? But what Adam and Eve didn’t want, what Adam and Eve refused to accept, was responsibility for their actions. So they scapegoated instead. Can people who deal with their actions by scapegoating ever live in Eden?

What an irony. The most common interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve says it was God’s will that human beings live in paradise. Everything was great and wonderful until Adam and Eve – well, you know what they did. They blew it. Human suffering is all their fault. For the first 1500 years of Christian history, the church, run by celibate males, pointed mostly to Eve and blamed human suffering on women and sex. We’ve gotten a little more inclusive since then, and a little less anti-sex, but still, the most common interpretation of Genesis 2 and 3 still blames Adam and Eve for our present circumstances. Or if we’re not blaming Adam and Eve, we’re blaming that crafty old snake. Either way, we’re finding someone and something else to blame for our problems. Either way, we are scapegoating as surely as Adam and Eve were scapegoating.

Let’s face it. Adam and Eve aren’t two historical or even mythical figures who lived at the dawn of time and blew it for the rest of us. Adam and Eve are us. We are Adam and Eve. I don’t know about your sins, but when I sin, its either because I talk myself into something I shouldn’t, actively rationalizing, like Eve did, or because I mindlessly go along with something when I know better – like Adam did. And if I’m caught, I can usually find someone or something else to blame. The story of Adam and Eve isn’t a story about original sin. It’s a story about universal sin. In the immortal words of Pogo, “we have met the enemy and they are us.”

God caught Adam and Eve in their fig leaves. When God asked what happened, they did the prudent thing and scapegoated. We don’t know what would have happened if they hadn’t scapegoated. We don’t know what would have happened if Adam and Eve had done the risky thing, and accepted responsibility for their actions, apologized, and repented. We do know that doing the prudent thing got the two of them into deep, deep trouble. It fractured their covenantal relationship with God, with each other, and with all of nature. Adam and Eve, by choosing prudence over risk, ejected themselves from Eden. And when we’re prudent – which is to say, when we are shrewd and subtle in our own self-interest – we, too, break covenant and eject ourselves from Eden as surely as Adam and Eve did.

We have an alternative. Jesus did the risky thing, foregoing prudence and trusting God, even at the risk of the cross. We are not asked to face the cross, at least not the way Jesus did. But we are asked to face our complicity in human suffering and evil, to repent, and to recommit ourselves to walking with God in the garden. The path that Eve and Adam walked only offers trouble. The path of Jesus, by contrast, promises salvation, transformation, healing, and resurrection.  We can return to Eden, if we’re willing to forego prudence and take the risk. It’s never dull. Amen.