Sunday, March 13, 2011

The First Sunday in Lent [Year A] - March 13, 2011 (Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 and Romans 5:12-19)

It was supposed to be an idyllic setting. The spot of earth they had come into was almost perfectly flat, ringed by just enough tall oak trees to provide comfortable shade but containing enough open space for them to till and work the earth in a small vegetable garden. And it was a sufficiently wild but never hostile environment. Animals like squirrels and raccoons and even deer often scampered across the lawn in a somewhat friendly manner, and the woods that abutted the back of the property were home to all kind of birds.

The wildlife teemed there, but the backyard was primarily idyllic because of what it offered the children. The instant they looked at it he and his wife could see their two young girls growing up in it. First, a small sandbox. Later would come a play house in the back corner. In the summer, a pool of water would offer refreshment from the heat and the lack of a slope made rolling snowballs for snowmen easy in the winter. But always: nature’s harmony. It was a place the two of them could envision the innocence and happiness of childhood taking shape.

Until the dead bird last week. It was a Hermit Thrush, white breast feathers belly-up for who knows what reason, right in the middle of the path to the shed. I, of course, had become somewhat hardened to such a sight, but how would I explain this to my daughter as she rounded the corner? Had she encountered something this disturbing, this out-of-the-ordinary before? Would it scar her? What kind of questions might she ask that I wouldn’t be able to answer? I found myself wanting to shield her from it, as if its very presence had marred the whole backyard experience, transforming it into something less-than. At first I tried to convince my wife that maybe I should have found a way to chuck it into the bushes before it was discovered by innocent eyes. But in the end, we confronted its reality head-on, but still not 100% satisfied with their explanation.  How does one really make sense of death? There is always a tendency to shield oneself from these awful realities.

The same can be said for other far more idyllic surroundings that have been marred with far worse: the pristine and picturesque Pacific coastline of northern Japan, the war-torn villages of Libya, the poverty- and AIDS-stricken villages of sub-Saharan Africa. We are speechless at the brokenness of creation, the brokenness of our lives, and we come up with any number of ways to rationalize it, or numb ourselves to it, or stitch together fig leaves to cover it up. One of the parishioners in the first congregation I served is the world’s oldest living hypnotherapist. One of his early assignments as an Air Force officer in the Pacific theater of World War II was to hypnotize soldiers who had served at Iwo Jima who were mentally and emotionally paralyzed by the gruesome carnage they had witnessed there. Wracked by those horrific scenes amidst what should also have been an idyllic setting, they came to him for a last-ditch fig-leaf shield. His hypnotherapy could never erase or undo the atrocities, he always acknowledged, but it offered some kind of relief, some kind of shield.

In a sense, this is what we all do to our gruesome human condition, a condition put into remarkably accurate and perceptive language by the ancient Hebrews thousands of years ago. The first man and first woman, set by God’s grace in the garden of Eden, transgress the law—the one law had been issued intended to keep appropriate and life-giving boundaries between the roles between Creator and the created. Tantalized, and also swindled by the tempter, that crafty spreader of lies, they seek God’s private knowledge, some false form of freedom, and they reach for power—they reach to occupy the role that the Creator fulfills.

And at that moment, as the apostle Paul explains, sin comes into the world. A force enters the idyllic backyard that immediately transforms their surroundings into something less-than. It is a force that has somehow both been unleashed by them and caught hold of them. With sin now free to spread its lies, things will never be the same. And the immediate effect is that their eyes are opened, but only to see their vulnerability. The immediate result of their temptation to sin is not wisdom or power, but shame and, eventually, fear…fear even of the one who created them.

For the apostle Paul, and for countless other people of faith, this story in Genesis explains with perfect truth the story of the human condition. “Sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin…and death spread to all because all have sinned,” he says, tracing our condition back to the near-beginning, to the very first humans, but never taking us off the hook, either. It attempts to tell us something that we all know and feel from our own observation—by that inner sense implanted by the Creator—but that can never explained by even our best science; namely, that we look around and find ourselves in what should be an idyllic place, with life in full communion with God, with creation, with each other, and with ourselves—but which isn’t.

Theologians have long plumbed this story of man and woman’s fall to find the root cause or the main character of our sin. Is it, for example, a sense of rebellion, an urge of disobedience, as when woman and man willingly went against the law that had been established? Or is sin best described as disordered desire, a sense that we want the wrong things and turn away from the very things that are good for us? This would be suggested by the fact that woman sees the tree as good for food, a “delight to the eyes,” rather than as the deadly fare that God had maintained it was. So much of our brokenness is brought about by wanting and seeking the very things that do us in. Or is sin, at its root, pride, a craving to be like the Creator in all the Creator’s power? “When you eat of it,” the serpent promises, “you will be like God,” an offer that was—and still is—too good to turn down.  

Or, as Martin Luther and the other reformers proposed, is our sin rooted in our contempt for God’s Word?  When the serpent presses the woman about what God said, she incorrectly quotes what God originally said.  As Luther noted, man and woman were unable or unwilling to cling tightly enough to God’s Word, and there sin has its opening—with all of us (see typescript The Faith of the Christian Church, part II, David S. Yeago, pp 42-43).

"Adam and Eve" Albrecht Duerer, 1504

Perhaps, though, sin is something so insidious that it defies a tidy explanation. Try as we may, we can never really perfectly point at what has gone wrong. Nevertheless, the fact remains that when we open our eyes wide enough, we realize that things are not as they should be. Things like greed, vanity, and selfishness rule our hearts and our relationships far more than they should. Yes, this Genesis story is the story of our condition. From Adam and Eve to Moses, it is the story of you and me. From Moses and the prophets through the wayward years of Israel, God’s people, who tried to live by earthly definitions of power and who grasped after worldly riches and who lived by testing God’s faithfulness, this brief episode tells the story of our condition. From the blood-drenched shores of Iwo Jima to the awkward conversation about a bird’s death between a father and his daughter, this is the story of our condition, the story that something is not right. This is the story of us.

But—thanks be to God—it is not the end. For now there is the story of Jesus, the free gift. Now there is a new Man among us, one who comes to begin a rescue mission that will not just hypnotize us to sin’s effects, or erase the scars it leaves, but that will that will, in fact, miraculously undo its power. There is a new Man among us, born of God himself, yet clothed in flesh like one of us, who will triumphantly withstand the guile of the tempter and unravel his lies, one who will, on our account, cling to the Word of God so tightly that he will become inseparable from it. Now we have the story of Jesus, the free gift, and he will bring about a new birth that will give us new eyes that, when opened again, will see a world with limitless potential for service and love.

And, foremost, Jesus will prove God’s love for us. His rescue will focus on our hearts, to unspoil that which we have ruined, to put back together that which we have helped tear apart, to forgive that which we could never imagine being forgiven, to raise our blessed dead.

Now, my friends, there is the story of Jesus, the free gift, and it assures us that our story does not have the final word. I suppose this is what the American theologian Frederick Buechner meant when he said, “The gospel is bad news before it is good news,” that it is tragedy before it is comedy (Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale, Harper SanFrancisco, 1977, p7).  We first must encounter our state of vulnerability, our state of being lost—in short, the fullness of our sin—before we realize we have been saved. We must come to terms with our need for redemption before we hear the good news of our redeeming. We must first recognize the totality of our filthiness before we hear that God loves us anyway, loves us to the core. We understand that we are wounded, and then we realize that this Jesus is also wounded for us.   
It is not just the season of Lent that asks us to grapple with these two stories—the story of us and the story of Jesus. Our entire faith is based on it. Too often we are lulled by the crafty tempter into thinking that nothing is really wrong with us or the world, or, at best, that death and sin are just a permanent part of the picture. Too often we are lured into thinking that belonging to the church or participating in congregational life is simply a way to get some good values and morals, or an avenue for serving others. We must never forget that Jesus’ life and death is not, at its core, about values or morals or even serving others. Jesus goes out into the wilderness to rescue us. He endures the cross to save us, to put a different, beautiful ending on the story we keep writing.

And, in the surprising way God would have it, it is not really a new ending, but, rather, another beginning. It is a beginning that goes on and on with the power to transform creation and our lives, once more, into something good. The challenge of our faith, rooted in baptism, is to see ourselves written into Jesus’ wonderful new beginning, to take hold of this free gift, to cling to his Word that transports us to the idyllic setting of grace that God always intended. 

It is about the challenge of knowing that, yes, we are lost.

But that we also have been found.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.         

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