First Sunday in Lent

Sermon for First Sunday in Lent, Sunday, March 05 2017, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Gen 2:15-17,3:1-7; Ps 32; Rom 5:12-19; Mt 4:1-11

The people who put together the lectionary had, it seems, a fairly clear narrative in mind for the first Sunday of Lent. A primal act of disobedience leads to the severing of our relationship with God, a relationship restored for us by Jesus’s perfect obedience to God’s will, foreshadowed in the temptation narrative, but fully enacted in the crucifixion. This probably doesn’t sound very surprising as a reading; it’s the standard way of handling these narratives within the church, and it makes a certain kind of common sense. And yet, that way of reading does rather leave us with the image of a God who values obedience, even unthinking obedience, above all other things—and while it surely captures some of the meaning of these strange texts, I don’t think it exhausts them. I think there are more layers of meaning here, more possibilities.

Both the Genesis reading and the Gospel have about them something of the quality of folk tale; especially Genesis, with its talking animals and arbitrary food taboos and sudden doom when mysterious rules are broken. When you try to read a folk tale as either history or an instruction guide for life, things tend to go wrong, and they have done in this case; it’s turned into a moral exhortation always to follow the rules even if they don’t make sense, with some extra layers of sex-guilt and woman-blaming thrown in for good measure. And yet, it’s a resonant text, a haunting story, and one that people keep going back to again and again, because it’s really an attempt to address, in its fairy tale form, some deep human dilemmas. We believe, or say we believe, that there is a good Creator God, and that we are that Creator’s good creatures. And yet life is full of pain, illness, cruelty and loss, and ends in death. And we, probably alone among all creatures, are consciously aware of this, we experience pain not only in the present, but carried with us from the past and projected into the future. We grieve our dead, and even in the midst of life we know that we will die, and that those we love will die, and that knowledge marks us.

The knowledge, too, that we are born into systems we did not make, and those systems are full of wrong; that we are born into a world of exploitation and injustice, and from our first moments we are implicated in that system. I was born to white, educated parents in a wealthy colonized country, and all my life I have benefitted, like it or not, from the sufferings of others, and if original sin means anything at all, that is a large part of what it means. We know this, at least in part, and we suffer from that knowledge too.

And we, again probably alone in creation, can and do choose to do ill ourselves. We make choices, deliberate choices, which will harm other people and ourselves. We are selfish, competitive, indifferent, anxious, angry. We do things we do not want to do, we are at war within our beings. We have the knowledge of good and evil, and it is a terrible thing to have. And yet, it is also, in many ways, the image of God in us. Because we have the ability to choose evil, we also have the ability to choose good, not by instinct or nature, but by our own deliberate will. It hurts to have this ability. It throws us into a world of responsibility and decision and the frequent knowledge of failure. But it is only this ability which allows us to be moral adults, to create ourselves as selves.

Somewhere behind the fairy tale God of arbitrary taboo, I believe, lies a God who wants us to grow up. God tells these primal humans, and tells them truly, that when they eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil they will die—meaning, perhaps, that they will know that they will die, and they will be unable to live in peace of the birds and the animals, who do not know, who do not choose. We are, as humans, expelled from that place of peace, and we may be angry about that, and we may transfer that anger onto God and imagine a flaming sword barring us from innocent goodness. But that flaming sword sends us into the world to create ourselves and our lives, to make choices, to learn about the forces which have shaped us and to try to struggle with them, to live in conflict and uncertainty and to reach, within all that, for love and justice and kindness.

Matthew’s temptation story, I think, might help us understand a bit about what that process of struggle and choice involves. Because the temptations presented to Jesus in the wilderness by Satan—this particular story’s fairy tale figure—are really rather subtle, and not so terribly different from what Jesus will eventually do. And yet, it will all be reversed. Everything which Satan challenges him to do as an act of power, Jesus will reclaim as an act of offering.

He will not make stones into bread, but he will cause bread to be present in the wilderness, not for himeslf but to feed a hungry crowd; and finally, he will become himself the bread of the world, offer bread as his body and his body as bread, and go on doing so even here, today, as we come to the altar to be fed. He will go to a high place outside the city walls, and fall unresisting into the depths, and angels will not come to save him. And where the church, all too often, seems ready to take that final deal with Satan in exchange for power over the kingdoms of the world, and has taken and used that power to do great damage; where all of us, all too often, have believed that the rightness of our cause excuses collaboration with violence; still Christ goes into the broken places, into the rejected ones, the victims, and the story lives there and rises, over and over, despite all that the institutional church may do—when Black people sold into slavery or confined by racist systems have seized the Gospel story of freedom as their own; when Christian base communities in Latin America realized that this was their story too, and created the movement which would be called liberation theology; when queer Christians have claimed the Christ of the disdained and rejected; when all those who resist the powers of this world have stood with Jesus on that high mountain and joined him in saying no. The real and living kingdom.

God in Jesus is not a God of coercion or magic, a God who will force stone away from its own being to satisfy some divine hunger. Instead, Jesus hands himself over the world, comes into the world of matter and lives within it, lives without power or status, renouncing magical bread and all the kingdoms of the world, and even renouncing the help of God, handing himself over to be put to death by power, empties himself into the world. The same world into which those primal human figures are sent, out of their fairy-tale garden, into the world of stones, of power, of suffering. We cannot make it otherwise. We cannot make this a world in which we do not die. We cannot free ourselves by a miracle from the social and political forces which shape and misshape us, which met us at our birth; we cannot free ourselves from the circumstances of our bodies and our histories and our conflicting and conflicted desires. And we cannot save those close to use from suffering and death, and that may be the worst pain of all. But we can seek, as much as lies in our power, to meet this world with love.

This is obedience, then; not the compliance with an arbitrary set of rules about what you may or may not eat, but the measuring of all doing—and that includes, of course, our eating and drinking, what we consume and who we feed and how we share—against the overarching call to love and serve the world and those in it, in their reality and their truth. Our restoration lies there. And it may happen—in moments, perhaps, it may happen—that as we empty ourselves into the world, suddenly, the flaming sword is lifted, and the angry folk tale God steps down, and we find ourselves, instantly, amazingly, at home; the tree of life, the rivers of life, returned to us, at the end of the whole long story. The beloved children in the wild green wood, as we have always been. As we will always finally be.