First Sunday in Lent (March 5, 2017)

February 24, 2017 | by David Grant Smith

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Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 Psalm 32 Romans 5:12-19 Matthew 4:1-11

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

Houston, we have a problem.” These infamous words from the space capsule of Apollo 13 have rung through history since they were uttered by one of the astronauts after some of their equipment failed. From that point forward, the astronauts on that space mission, as well as all the ground crew in Houston, were doing everything that they could to see to it that they got home safely. The calamity which happened on Apollo 13’s flight could have easily cost the men inside the space capsule their lives. They were vulnerable in the face of the disaster that had befallen their equipment. And they had to rely on the guidance of others in order to make it home to earth safely.

The story of the woman, man, and snake in the garden of Eden rather resembles the incident on Apollo 13’s spaceflight. The story is often reduced to a he-said-she-said snake-said scenario of blaming and shaming — blaming the early couple (and the snake) for the woes we all endure as part of the human experience, and shaming all of humanity for being imperfect people even before we’ve had the experience of making our first mistake. The concept of original sin, or the so-called “fall” promotes the idea that each of us are morally flawed simply because we are descended from this pair of ancient humans. But another way of looking at the story (and ourselves!) would be to frame it as an awakening.

When the crew of Apollo 13 realized that something had gone wrong and that they were in peril, they got on their radio and stated the obvious: “Houston, we have a problem.” But by stating the obvious, they also did something else: they affirmed their unbearable vulnerability. When the first humans, as recorded in the myth-like narrative of Genesis, ate the forbidden fruit, they had an awakening — they suddenly knew that they were naked. They were vulnerable. They were mortal. And they quickly covered up that awareness by sewing fig leaves into clothing.

The metaphors that make the creation myths of Genesis so compelling are themselves a garden of plenty, with much fruit to be harvested. But the portions of the story which have been selected for this week’s lectionary text provide us with great material for reconsidering how we speak of this story in relation to our own condition as human beings in this present century. The story is timeless, which makes it so compelling in any era. But the story has been misused in so many ways that it has become a difficult story to engage as modern people of faith.

At the outset of this passage, God tells these human beings that if they eat the fruit of the forbidden tree, “in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” Yet, though they ate it, there wasn’t any record of their death — at least not in the usual sense that we think of death — because these characters went on to bear names, bear children, and share in other stories for a few more chapters in Genesis. But in the instant that they ate the fruit, they did have an awakening to their utter vulnerability. In a sense, they did suffer a death — the death of their own sense of security, or the death of their own ignorance. In short, they instantly became aware of their own humanity and their own mortality.

The centuries of damage that has been done in the name of the “doctrine of original sin” because of this story are behind us. We can’t change what has already happened. But we who are process theologians are uniquely poised to help frame this story for more creative (and better?) outcomes. In process theology, we believe that the past is always part of who we are presently, and that it will be with us in every future moment. But we do not believe that the past is deterministic of our future. With that one assertion alone, we can begin to creatively transform the idea of original sin into something more constructive. Since the dawning of the evolution of the human species, we have had awakening after awakening, and epiphany after epiphany, much like the archetypal awakening of Adam and Eve. And those awakenings and realizations have been getting bigger and better.

Anthropologists and psychologists tell us that the human species began its development of reason and self-awareness at whatever time we first became aware of our own mortality — the reality that we would one day die. Our ancient forebears in the trajectory of the Abrahamic faith traditions seem to have intuited that this awareness of our eventual death had a significant role in shaping who we are as people, and as people of faith. And this is, perhaps, one of the reasons that this story includes the assertion of certain death as being part of the founding of who we are as people. The loss (or death, if you will) of our ignorance about our mortality has shaped and impacted the way that we have behaved for eons.

The “Houston, we have a problem” moment for us as a species happened when we lost our ignorance about our own mortality. And this archetypal awakening which happened in the ancient mists of long eons ago has been with us ever since, pointing out our vulnerability to no one but ourselves. And it also points us toward the awareness that all of us who are human beings share the fate of our eventual demise. In other words, it helps us to see our interconnectedness because we are all in this mortal life together. And, ultimately, this awareness of our vulnerability may well fuel the fire of our relationships with God who has created us to be vulnerable.

Now the fact there there was a temptation in the story, as well as a blatant disregard for God’s instructions to not eat from a particular tree, certainly remains as a key element to the story. But it isn’t the central element. The story is, more than likely, included in this week’s set of lectionary readings to go along with the story of Jesus’ temptation as found in Matthew (see below). But on this First Sunday in Lent, we as process preachers can hold up something other than the problems of temptation as being what the Season of Lent is about. If we recall the words traditionally used when ashes are placed on the foreheads of Christians as Lent begins — “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” — our evolving awareness of our mortality is also what the Season of Lent is about.

Psalm 32

Psalm 32 seems to be a hymn which celebrates simultaneously the author’s deliverance from illness and forgiveness of sins. In the ancient world there was a belief that there was a direct relationship between sinful behavior and one’s health; if you sin, God will make you get sick and die. Though we don’t traffic with that kind of thinking any more, both doctors and psychologists have affirmed that there can be a relationship between profound human guilt or remorse and one’s wellbeing. Though God and sin may not be the cause of our illnesses, our dwelling on guilt, shame, remorse, and the like, can have physical and emotional consequences on us. Though this psalm is riddled with dark imagery, it is a hymn which sings of the hope we find in careful self-examination and repentance.

The spiritual discipline of repentance is often neglected in contemporary Christian contexts. We tend to associate it with sack-cloth, ashes, and groveling. However, the act of repentance is, in its truest biblical sense, nothing more than taking a close and careful look at our lives to discern if there needs to be a change in our direction. It is important to, on a regular basis, look at our outer lives and see if the way we are living matches the core values of our inner spiritual life. If they seem to be in sync, we know that all is well. But if there is dissonance between our inner spiritual core and the way we are living outwardly, we know that we need to change direction. If we don’t change direction, we can become like the psalmist who wrote, “While I held my tongue, my bones withered away… my moisture was dried up as in the heat of summer” (vs. 3-4, The Book of Common Prayer translation). A refusal to reorient ourselves, though we know we are on the wrong path, can be devastating to us — spiritually, emotionally, and physically. And it can wreak havoc on all our relationships with other people, too.

In process-relational theology we often speak of God’s lure toward creativity and best possible outcomes. The psalmist speaks of God’s lure toward repentance and reorienting one’s life in poetic terms by putting words into God’s mouth: “I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you…” (vs. 8, NRSV). Having a secure relationship with God will help us—individually and collectively— to be able to discern “the way [we] should go” in our daily living. In our ongoing work of self-examination, we all find that at times what we are expressing and doing outwardly in our lives doesn’t align with our inner core and spiritual values. This is normal, of course, because we are human beings; we occasionally make mistakes, lose track of our trajectory, and act irrationally rather than mindfully.

Romans 5:12-19

As was alluded to in the commentary on this week’s Genesis reading (see above), the notion that all human beings are sinful simply because they were born as descendants of Adam and Eve is problematic for process (and other progressive) theologians. However, we can affirm the reality that human beings can easily develop erratic and disagreeable behaviors as they engage (or refuse to engage) with the reality of their mortality and vulnerability. This vulnerability is part and parcel of the way that we were created to be as human beings. As we awaken to, acknowledge, engage, and share our vulnerability, we come to understand the preciousness and fragility of life — both our own and others’. And, because we are created to be imperfect beings, not created to be perfect beings, we sometimes fail to live into the sacredness of the reality of our mutual vulnerability. In other words, we are guaranteed to sin — it’s as much a part of our life as anything else is.

For us as process-relational people in the Christian tradition, we affirm that the supreme human embodiment of God’s initial aim, luring us toward beauty, truth, adventure, zest, peace, love, and justice, can be found in Jesus of Nazareth. And in his teaching and ministry we can find a great deal of material describing how he affirmed the spiritual life of acknowledging, embracing, and living into one’s awareness of our vulnerability in life. But it’s also true that Jesus went beyond simply acknowledging the human reality of our vulnerability; he went so far as to suggest that our vulnerability is something which we are to offer to each other, and that it is in the offering of our vulnerable selves that we are most able to be part of what he referred to as the kingdom/realm of God.

It’s important to keep in mind that disobedience, sin, and death aren’t the only things we as human beings have inherited from the mythical archetypes of Adam and Eve. We have also inherited from them the capacity to love, the ability to join with God in creative endeavors, the ability to experience the broad spectrum of human emotions, the capacity to bear the image of God, and so much more. In Paul’s writings about Adam (and implicitly Eve, too) and Jesus, he seems to be on the slippery slope of making both the first human(s) and Jesus into one-dimensional characters. And, by extension, following his parallels to their ultimate conclusion, could also characterize all humanity as as being one-dimensional. And this isn’t helpful at best; and it has great potential for being harmful at worst.

Another way of framing what Paul is pointing to in this passage — that is, a way of looking at it through some lens other than that of original sin — would be to affirm the work of both Adam/Eve and Christ as being much-needed steps in the ongoing evolution of humanity. The story of Adam and Eve in Genesis is an affirmation of the importance of how the earliest humans (or pre-humans) came to be aware of their own vulnerability, and the implications that has for how we form and develop relationships with others. And the Gospel of Jesus is about how humanity is being called by God to not only embrace our vulnerability and mortality, but to share it, and to use our vulnerability for the sake of others.

The main thrust of Paul’s argument in this passage is that more people will benefit from what Jesus accomplished in his life — the offering of himself and his vulnerability — than from what was accomplished through the efforts (both intentional and unintentional) of the earliest humans. The offering of one’s self for the sake of others (whether it involves death or not) is one of the most universally affirmed actions in all the world’s spiritual traditions. By turning our vulnerabilities outward from ourselves for the sake of others, we are more likely to facilitate and bring about creative transformation of the world. It helps us to partner with God in seeing the world the way that it is, and helping it to become what God envisions and hopes for it to become.

Matthew 4:1-11

In 1986, an Anglican priest from Zimbabwe was living in East Lansing, Michigan, with his family, while his wife was in graduate school at Michigan State University. On the First Sunday in Lent of that year, the Rev. Chad Gandiya (who is now the Bishop of Harare) was invited to preach. After the Gospel reading about the temptation of Jesus had been read, Chad began his sermon by saying, “In my country there is a saying that, when you baptize someone, it is like stirring up a hornets’ nest!” The story of the temptation of Jesus, in all four Gospels, immediately follows the story of his baptism. It seems to be that there is a definite cause-and-effect relationship between the two incidents. In one, Jesus commits himself to God’s realm of justice and righteousness; and in the other, his commitment to God and God’s purposes is put to the test. It was only after both his baptism and subsequent temptation that Jesus began his ministry.

Much has been made of and said about what the various temptations were that were posed to Jesus, and what the various theological implications were behind both the temptations and Jesus’ responses to them. And much has been made of and said about what this story (and its detailed components) does or doesn’t say about Jesus, the devil, and/or God. But in the end, what we know about the story is that Jesus took on the spiritual disciplines of fasting and prayer, he faced his demons (so to speak!), he resisted temptation, and then he began his ministry.

As much as this story is about Jesus and what happened between his baptism and his ministry, it’s perhaps even more so a story about each of us and what happens between our baptism and our ministries. Most Christian traditions affirm the idea that baptism is the sacramental rite by which we recognize someone’s initiation into the Church. Whether it’s a baptism that is done for infants and children who are going to be raised in the Church or if it’s a public profession of faith for those who have reached an age of accountability and can now speak such things for themselves, baptism marks a beginning for us. And the thing which begins after baptism is our becoming a member of the Church — it is our joining the Body of Christ here on earth in our own day.

Baptism not only brings us into the Church, but it empowers us to join in the work of the Body of Christ — it ordains us into ministry. A few of those may be ordained into the ministry of being pastors, priests, deacons, bishops, etc. But all of us who have been baptized into the Church have been called and empowered to join in the mission of the Church, which is to partner with God in really seeing the world as it truly is and working with it to help it become what God believes that it can be.

So this story about the temptations which Jesus endured between his baptism and his public ministry is really a story for us, and for how we can see ourselves as being strong enough to be committed to fulfilling the ministries to which God is calling us. The temptations which Jesus had were simply interruptions and distractions which had the potential of keeping him from fulfilling the initial aim which God had given him. And the temptations which we face at any moment in our lives are the same — they serve as potential interruptions or distractions from what God is calling us to do.

For the sake of looking at the temptations of Jesus through a process-relational lens, it may be easiest to summarize them in thematic terms, rather than by the content spoken by the tempter. The first temptation is about trust: Do we trust God, and do we trust that God will continue to guide us and provide for us? Though Jesus taught us to pray for the physical sustenance we need (“our daily bread”) in the very next chapter, the issue of trust is about much more than food. Do we rely on ourselves, instead of relying on God, to provide us with inspiration, direction, and strength? If so, how does that usually turn out? Once again, we come face to face with the need to acknowledge and affirm our vulnerability. We can’t do everything ourselves — ultimately, we need to learn to rely both on God and on the community of faithful people in order to keep ourselves moving forward as we work to serve God and God’s purposes in the world.

The second temptation is about being passive aggressive: Are we going to behave as attention-seekers? Are we going to put our own self-interests in front of other peoples’ needs, or even before what we know to be God’s will for us and others? When we live our lives creating more drama than outcomes, we know that we are yielding to the temptation to be passive-aggressive; and we aren’t serving God or anyone else. If we find ourselves wanting to put ourselves into the center of everything, it’s time to take a step back and to reevaluate our motivations. In the prayer which Jesus will soon teach his disciples to pray, he instructs us to pray that God’s “will be done, on earth and in heaven” rather than praying for a rubber stamp for our latest brainchild. Humility is the spiritual practice which can guide us best away from this kind of temptation.

The third temptation is about idolatry: Do we value worldly/imperial power more than we value the kingdom/realm of God? Do we find ourselves wanting people to flock to us and our ideas more than we want to give ourselves over to God and God’s purposes? Throughout his life, Jesus provided numerous teachings on this topic; and they all point to the spiritual power of vulnerability, which is a greater power than that which is wielded by empires, armies, oppression, injustices, domination, and so on. We’ve all known someone who has had a high opinion of themselves and their ideas — and most of us have been that person at one time or another, if we’re honest. But when we, like Jesus, learn to embrace our vulnerability and openly share it with others, we find that there is a holier kind of power that is brought to fruition in the world because of our shared vulnerability — a powerful form of creativity that works to gently and lovingly transform the world according to God’s vision.

If we, as people who are, in every moment, living between our baptism and our God-given ministries, learn to keep our eyes, ears, and hearts open to an ongoing self-examination, we will readily be able to identify when some kind of temptation is brewing. We will be able to perceive when and how something might have the potential to interrupt us or distract us from attending to the ongoing Divine lure in our lives. By keeping our lives open to God and God’s purposes, we will be more aware of how our lives as faithful ministers (whether lay or ordained) intersect with God’s initial aim in ongoing concrescences of creativity and transformation. In short, we will carry on the ministries to which we are called, and for which we are empowered through baptism.

The Rev. David Grant Smith is a priest in the Episcopal Church, and he lives in the village of Penn Yan, in the Finger Lakes region of New York. He has served in both parish ministry (Episcopal Diocese of Rochester) and as a hospital chaplain (Christiana Hospital in Newark, DE; and the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, MD). Prior to ordination, David worked for many years as a lay professional as pastoral associate, choir director, organist, and minister of music. In addition to his interests in weaving Process Theology in and through preaching, liturgy, teaching, and pastoral care, David enjoys travel, writing, and spending time with family & friends.