Lent 1A: So What’s This Deal With the Garden?

garden-of-edenScripture Passage:  Genesis 2: 15-17, 3: 1-7 (Lent 1A)

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.  And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden;  but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”…Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘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.’“ But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”  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; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

So at the beginning of this year’s Lenten season, the Lectionary propels us back into our somewhat sketchy past.  St. Augustine and myriads of theologians to follow would have called it the “original sin”, as if it is the cause of all other sins that follow.  Now, admittedly, I don’t like to get stuck on that idea of original sin.  In fact, I think the notion compels us to sin again by refusing to admit that we just messed up!  And I’m pretty sure that if the first humans had not messed up, someone soon after would have.  But this is the story we have.

So we have images of humans walking in a beautiful garden hand in hand without a care in the world.  We can imagine babbling brooks and peacocks and calla lilies and llamas (I’ve just always liked llamas.) And then we have some sort of talking (and at that point walking snake) that pulls them away from who they are and who they are meant to be.  You can hear it…”oh, come on, it’s not going to hurt you.  There is no way that you’ll die.  In fact, your life will be better.  Your life will be grand.  Your life will be perfect if you just do this one thing.  God won’t mind.  God really didn’t mean what God said.” (And for only $19.99, you can have TWO pieces of fruit if you do it RIGHT NOW!  It sort of does sound like an infomercial when you think about it!)

And they give in.  They give in to the first temptation to be someone they are not.  Or perhaps they are just trying to pad themselves a bit against fears and insecurities to come. Then they realize their mistake much too late to change the course of their action.  They are left hurt, vulnerable, and alone.  Well, we know the story.  (Oh, who are we kidding? We’re LIVING the story!)  They are no longer innocent and the beauty of the garden is lost forever.

This has always been an odd story to me.  Now, admittedly, I’m sure it is of no surprise to most of you that I tend to assume that this is fable rather than a literal historical account. But just because it probably isn’t “true” does not mean that it is not full of “Truth”.  In some respects, this is the rawest, most profound, most human Truth that there is.  After all, we all wander down the wrong road every now and again and some of us do it daily without even intending it.  And we all live with consequences of trying to overreach, trying to be someone we’re not, trying to assume things that are not ours to assume.  We all live with consequences of, essentially, overstepping and overreaching and trying to be the god of our own life.  And we all lose that innocence that we once had.

But, really, does God want a bunch of mindless innocents walking around in this world?  If that were the case, then God would never have shared the part of the Godself with us that is known as free will.  You see, God in God’s infinite wisdom gave up omnipotence for relationship.  God doesn’t want a bunch of robotic beings (innocent and well-behaved though they may be) following the Great Divine because they know nothing else. (I mean, that would get downright annoying!)  God created us to desire, to choose, to follow God of our own volition.  Innocence is way overrated.  You see, if God wanted us to stay in some sort of garden, fenced off from the rest of the world, I guess God would have left us there, protected from the world and, mostly, from ourselves.  I really don’t think that this journey we’re on returns us to the Garden, whatever that was.  That was our beginning.  The journey returns us to God, to who God envisions that we can be.  Think of the Garden as our womb, the place that protected and shielded us until we were ready for the journey, until we found that part of ourselves that chose to follow, that chose God.

So what do we do after the garden?  We follow where God leads us; we follow that innate sense that all of us have to return to God and to whom we are called to be.  You see, we have no more excuses.  Read the end of the passage.  Our eyes have been opened.  We know where we fall short; we know that we cannot do this by ourselves; we know that God is God and we are not.  And in that is our beginning.  Thanks be to God!

Sin is our only hope, because the recognition that something is wrong is the first step toward setting it right again.  (Barbara Brown Taylor, Speaking of Sin:  The Lost Language of Salvation)

So on this Lenten journey, open your eyes.  Open your eyes and take a good hard look at yourself.  What do you need to choose to leave behind?  Where do you choose to go? What does your beginning, your escape from innocence, look like?

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

 

Oh, All This Talk About Sin!

flower_ashes_by_dennisallendorfScripture Passage (Psalm 51: 1-3, 7-13)

1Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. 2Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. 3For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me….Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. 8Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. 9Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. 10Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. 11Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. 12Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. 13Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.

 

 

I know, we’re not really ready for Lent yet. (I saw a Christmas tree still up less than two weeks ago. That was a whole lot more festive.) This season has come WAY too fast thanks to an apparent impatient spring on the calendar. So, the pancakes were all eaten last night and the masks have been removed and put away. We are ready to begin the journey again. It is a journey of giving up and giving in, of wandering in the wilderness, of stopping or at least slowing down enough to let God’s Spirit begin once again to seep into our being. But first, first, on this day of dust and ashes, we have to talk about sin.

 

Sin? Who wants to talk about sin? I mean, I’m Methodist. We are “grace” people, after all! We are forgiven people. Isn’t that what we’re told? God’s mercy is infinite. Jesus took care of all that, right? Really? So, you have no part in this? You just want to go on your merry way? The truth is, what relationship with God would we have if we truly thought we were either sinless or our sins were just hosed off of us without us even knowing what had happened? I mean, what in the world is forgiveness if there’s nothing to forgive? But the fact that God loves me not just in spite of me but BECAUSE of me is a much deeper understanding of God. This is a God who is not waiting for me to clean my act up so I can get on the yellow brick road toward a grace-filled life. This is a God who walks with me down this rocky, sometimes steep and treacherous trail through a wilderness I do not understand and showers me with grace even when I am muddied and worn by sin. This is a God who doesn’t just wait for me to return but takes me by the hand and leads me home even when I sin.

 

There I said it—sin, Sin, SIN! Hmmm! Steeple didn’t fall off, stained glass windows still there, me, still standing. (I just went and looked—yes, the sign out front still says United Methodist!) On this day of dust and ashes, it is our time to acknowledge that yes, we mess up; that yes, we make the wrong choices (I’m hoping God doesn’t yet regret that whole free will decision way back when!); that, yes, we sin. But this day is also the day that we choose—we CHOOSE to follow God on this journey. Now, at the risk of speaking for the Great I AM, I would much rather have a relationship with one who CHOSE to follow rather than one who knew nothing else. Choosing God and being innocent are not the same. This day, we acknowledge that we are both in need of God and that God loves us more than we will ever fathom. Now, you would think those two scenarios would fit together rather well. But somewhere along the way, we have somehow replaced our need for God with our need to be perfect. Albert Outler called it “overreaching”, getting in God’s business. See, God doesn’t need us to be perfect, or sinless, or innocent. God desires us to choose to follow. God desires us to be who God calls us to be.

 

And so, the pathway looms ahead. It’s not always familiar territory. And, in fact, we usually have to leave part of what we carry and hold so tightly behind. We usually tend to travel too weighted down to notice where we need to go. So, give up what you need to give up or take on what you need to take on. And feel the ashes on your skin to remind you who you are and also whose you are. Let them be a blessing and a beginning. And know that God calls you away from the self that you have imagined. And begin to walk. It is a journey that is hard and difficult and takes you through darkness. But it is a journey that leads to life, that leads to beginning again.

 

Meanwhile, sin is our only hope, because the recognition that something is wrong is the first step toward setting it right again. (Barbara Brown Taylor, in “Speaking of Sin”)

 

Thank you for sharing your Lenten journey with me!

 

Grace and Peace,

 

Shelli

Return to the Waters

man under waterfallScripture Text:  1 Peter 3: 18-22

18For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, 19in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, 20who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.

21And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

In this season of returning, here the writer of this general letter known as First Peter dispenses with any talk of being “saved” as it relates to salvation.  Instead, the promise lies in our re-creation, our renewal, our resurrection (the “little r” one), our being made into a new Creation.  It is a reminder that in our baptism, in that moment when the waters covered our body, or covered our head, or when drops of the stuff clinging to another’s hand somehow, some way, landed on our head and brushed our forehead and became the sign of a cross, in THAT moment, we were made new.  It wasn’t just washing away of sin and it certainly wasn’t some sort of something that made us sin no more (although, let me tell you, that would have made this life thing a little easier!)  In that moment as the waters touched us, we were made new, suddenly swept into a new way of being, and our life in Christ began.

Now baptism is not some sort of magic potion that makes everything perfect.  After all, we are not robotic churchy beings.  We are human–messed up, sometimes sinful, sometimes without hope, sometimes without direction, sometimes overwhelmed, but always, always, Beloved children of God.  For those to whom this was written, the words were a reminder that whatever chaos and peril life now holds, it is not permanent, that beyond what we know, beyond what we can imagine, the God of all Creation is working on us even now, creating molecule after molecule, so that when the flood waters of life finally subside, we will remember who and whose we are, a Beloved Child of God with whom God is well pleased.  And no matter what we do, no matter how much we mess up this life that we’ve been given, no matter how much the world’s chaos swirls around us beyond our control, the promise is true.  God is always there beckoning us to return to the waters, to return to where we began and begin again.

This season of Lent is not a season that merely calls us to clean up the mire and muck of our lives.  It is not a season to finally become good and obedient boys and girls.  It is not a season that promises to get your life together (or organize yourself or lose weight or some other thing you think you need to do disguised as a Lenten discipline).  Lent is a season that calls us to return–to who we are called to be, to what gives us life, to God.  It is a season to return to the waters of your baptism, not just for 40 days, but forever.

Do you remember the old version of the Apostles’ Creed, where we proclaim that Jesus descended into hell?  Well, this is the passage from which that notion may have started.  It claims that Jesus proclaimed to those imprisoned spirits; in other words, Jesus entered hell and blew the gates off.  See, you can always begin again.  You can always return to the waters. You just have to be willing to try out some newness.

One cannot step twice in the same river, for fresh waters are forever flowing around us.  (Hereclitus of Ephesus, 535-475 BCE)

FOR TODAY:  Remember your baptism. Now begin again.

Grace and Peace,

Shelli