March 5, 2017

1st Sunday in Lent, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling

Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7, Matthew 4:1-14

About a year ago, we visited the Grand Canyon.  If you’ve ever walked along the South Rim, you know how beautiful it is, AND how close you can get to the edge.  The railings are really just suggestions if they’re there at all. The best pictures, of course, are when you stand as close as possible to the precipice.  Darin kept telling me to back up one more step.

As I forced my smile, with hundreds of feet of drop behind me, you know what I thought about?  Seriously, I thought, “I could just jump.  Right now, I could jump.” For the flash of an instant, I lived on that razor edge, feeling my own power to do something destructive.  I wouldn’t do it, but it made me suddenly a bit sick to my stomach that I could.

When we think of freedom, we generally think of being free from restraint.  In America, we talk about freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to pursue happiness.  “It’s a free country,” means we can do what we want.  But the story in the Garden of Eden, which by the way is more poetry than history, points to another dimension of freedom:  freedom to choose things that bring suffering and pain.

For many of us, this part of the Genesis tale was called “The Fall,” but there’s no indication in the text that this wasn’t a natural outgrowth of the creation.  Rather than some epic mess-up, the story describes that moment we all experience when limits and freedom collide.   This is simply a fact of life as we grow and mature. We all end up at the tree of good and evil.  By the way, don’t get too hung up on why God created the tree.  Remember this is poetry, not literal history.  The story is trying to answer some questions about our universal human experience. In a sense, the tree points to the truth that there are some boundaries, if crossed, bring things death.[1]

When you hear the phrase “good and evil” in the Bible, it’s a way of saying “everything.”  What Eve and Adam wanted was to know was everything.  They wanted to see the big picture AND every detail.  They wanted to know what lay ahead of them.  Ironically, by wanting to know everything, they chose to take control of their destiny in a new way.  In a sense, they’re doing what humans are meant to do, which is take responsibility, to choose to move forward boldly into the future.  Eventually, God would send them out of the garden, to be fruitful and multiply, to leave their paradise to enter the world with all its danger and risk, to fill it with blessing, to tend it as they had been created to do.

The serpent, who is not the devil in this story, only a crafty creature that God had made good, lays out the problem for them.  He identifies the limits of their knowledge, although he’s tricky because he begins to speculate as to why there are limits.  God never says, “Don’t eat of the tree because you’ll be like me.”   God simply says, “There are limits in the garden.  You should know that.  Be careful with them because they bring death.”

The serpent brings them to that place where their limits and their freedom come together.  It’s a painful place. It’s the place where we begin to speculate.  It’s painful because there are times when we do not understand the limits.  We don’t understand why good people suffer.  We don’t understand why death comes.  Or more likely we chafe at the boundaries.  We want to do our own thing, and we don’t want to recognize that our choices have implications for others.  We don’t want to believe that others die because we want to have everything.  Even the desire to know everything, to know how things are going to work out, often springs from nervousness and anxiety about where we are.

This Bible story makes us grapple with the reality that so often our desire to do our own thing comes in conflict with the implications that choice may have for ourselves and for the world around us.

It’s asking us to face up that moment when our angry words have the power to destroy.  We face that moment when the freedom to be me creates difficult and anxiety in the those who depend on me.   We face that moment when we make choices about the earth’s resources, what can I take for myself and what should be left for another that comes after me. We face that moment when we recognize our embeddedness in stereotype and privilege and cultural assumption.

We come to those moments as individuals, and we come to those moments as groups.  How will we move forward, make choices, risk being human, carrying our mysterious and awesome power to do good and to do evil.

Walter Bruegemann suggests that the problem in Genesis isn’t that Adam and Eve ate from the tree.[2]  The problem is that they eliminated the participation of God in their decision.  They took the future upon themselves.  They chose to live in that awesome and terrifying moment without God.  They did it alone.  They were Frank Sinatra, “I did it my way.”

Without God, they experienced themselves as powerfully vulnerable, naked, and they were ashamed. Shame comes when we don’t allow God to be a participant.  Some think that God brings shame.  It seems that the Bible suggests the opposite.  Without God, we end up experiencing our bodies as shameful, our future as frightening.

This is the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness.  To do it without God. At each step, Satan, who does appear in this story, tempts Jesus to make a decision without the presence of God.  He urges Jesus to take on the future by himself.  He asks him to use his own power to serve himself.  He asks him to take up the strategies that humans use to impose their will on another.  By quoting Scripture, Jesus indicates that, at no time, does he make a decision without the awareness that God was with him.  In a sense, he never chooses to be alone, but chooses to make God his partner.

Perhaps this is the task of Lent, not to pretend that we’ll have a life without difficulty or hard choices, not even a life where we make all the right choices.  That’s impossible. Some choices don’t even have right answers. But perhaps, Lent is the time when we all call God back into the conversation, when we bring our pain and our suffering, our limits and our fear, back into the love of God.

Our theme this year is Reformation 500 as commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation.  The little devotional booklets, are called “Free Indeed,” which ask for a two dollar donation, by the way.  I get a kick out of that.  The devotions aren’t about the freedom to do anything we want.  It’s about the freedom to choose God; the freedom to serve our neighbor. Not because we have to.  God loves us no matter what, but God made us with the ability to choose love. It’s when we are most human. In all of it, God is the reforming and loving conversationalist, walking next to us, just like in the Garden of Eden or on the road to Emmaus.

We may be standing at the edge.  We may be forcing a smile. We may be struggling to refrain from jumping into a world of hurt, or we may be invited to jump into a new future where we do life differently.  Either way, between us and the leap is the cross, the Christ who stands with us, luring us into a paradise that we didn’t see coming.

[1] I’m indebted to Walter Brueggemann’s commentary on Genesis throughout this sermon.  His insights about the Genesis narratives are amazing.  Brueggemann, Walter, “Genesis: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching,” John Knox Press, Atlanta, 1982.
[2] Ibid.