Sunday, March 9, 2014

Phil Kniss: The church east of Eden

Lent 1: Encountering God in temptations
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Matthew 4:1-11

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This is a Sunday I look forward to every year.
    It’s a Sunday we, together,
        begin a very intentional journey.
        A 40-day journey called Lent.
    Lent has such a clear and deliberate biblical and spiritual map.
        We know where we’re headed, and why.
            And exactly what we will encounter along the way.
        And no matter how many years we’ve done it together—
            this is the 18th time I’ve done the journey with you—
            it never gets old.

    It doesn’t get old,
        in the same way that taking a shower every morning or evening,
            doesn’t get old.
        We all have treasured daily rituals—
            like taking a shower,
                going for a walk,
                reading and praying,
                exercising and stretching,
            and for me, hand-grinding and brewing a cup of coffee—
            that never get old,
            no matter how many thousands of times we have done it,
            in precisely the same way,
                same routine, same order, same physical motions,
                same sights, sounds, and smells.
        These ritual actions, or ritual journeys,
            when done with purpose and understanding,
            help to center us and ground us,
                when other things may be shaking around us.
        They help to refresh us, keep us healthy, keep us engaged.

    The same thing is true with this annual ritual journey of Lent.
    This, and other seasons of fasting and feasting in the church year,
        help to center and ground us in God’s story.
        They are opportunities to rehearse the narrative
            that gives our lives meaning and identity.
        We retell the stories again,
            because they are defining stories for us.
        These stories shape who we are,
            and who we see ourselves becoming,
            because of God’s saving action, then and now.
    Specifically,
        Lent is a fasting season,
            a time to empty ourselves before God,
            to lay our lives open for examination by God,
            to repent,
            to turn back toward Christ and the cross.
    We need these yearly cleansing seasons,
        even more than we need a daily shower, walk, or cup of joe.

Lent is a season to embrace emptiness, as a spiritual posture.
    In fact, I think that lying at the root of all sin,
        is this failure to admit and to embrace,
        a state of emptiness before God.

In Jesus’ parable of the two praying men in the temple,
    one man bowed low, crying,
        “God, have mercy on me, a sinner!”
        and he went home reconciled with God;
    the other stood tall, full of himself,
        thanking God he wasn’t empty like that poor man,
        and he went home still carrying his burden of sin.

I think this same failure to embrace emptiness before God,
    is what caused all the trouble in the garden of Eden.
    We heard the story again this morning.

God put Adam and Eve in the garden to care for it,
    on God’s behalf.
    They were told to be God’s servants,
        utterly dependent on God.
        In themselves, empty.
    The temptation, presented them by the servant,
        was to reject emptiness.
    The serpent said, “You can be like God.”
        That sounds good. To be like God.
        Better than being empty,
            and having to depend on God for everything.
    The tempter dangled that idea in front of them.
        And they bit on it . . . sorry.

Then their eyes were opened.
    And they realized they were empty—
        that is, naked and vulnerable before God.
        And that made them uncomfortable,
            so they sewed up some fig leaves.
    This is a story to explain the root of a basic human tendency,
        that we carry on to this day—
            to cover up before God,
            to hide our vulnerability,
            to deny our emptiness and need,
        and therefore act in all kinds of sinful ways.
    We get full of ourselves.
    We orient our lives around us and our own interests.
        Protecting. Guarding. Securing.
        Employing force, if necessary.

Lent is a season we desperately need, spiritually—
    as individuals, and as a community of faith—
    to force us to face this lie we’ve been living:
        that we are self-sufficient.
    Lent shines light into our sinful shadows.
        and reveals us to be what we really are—
        loved by God, but needing to be redeemed,
            forgiven, offered grace.

Adam and Eve’s punishment, later in chapter 3,
    for this sin of refusing to empty themselves before God—
    was that God sent them out of the lush garden of Eden,
        and into the wilderness beyond the garden,
        and God placed a team of cherubim on the east side of Eden,
        to keep them from coming back in and eating of the tree of life.
    So in this primeval story, Adam and Eve began to live
        not in Eden, but east of Eden.
        And that is where all their descendants remain.
            Figuratively.
    Today we still live, all of us, East of Eden.
    Not in the garden, but in the wilderness.
    Not where the fruit of the earth springs up spontaneously
        by the hand of God,
        but where we have to toil, to fight against natural enemies—
            thorns and thistles, insects and disease—
            and produce our food by the sweat of our brow.

So where has God been,
    since Adam and Eve, and their descendants, were sent East?
    When they were in the garden,
        God came to them, and walked and talked.
    Where is God east of Eden?
        Are we destined to wander alone in the wilderness?

That is the big question that humanity has wrestled with,
    ever since the cherubim took up their stations at the garden gate.
The whole story of God’s people,
    throughout the Old and New Testaments,
    and throughout the history of the Christian church,
    is a story of seeking God in the wilderness.

Sometimes we remember and embrace
    this place of emptiness and barrenness before God,
    and we look to God in deep trust,
        ready to risk and obey.
    And God blesses us
        with love and joy and peace . . . and presence.

Other times we stubbornly cling to this deception,
    that we can do this alone, on our own strength and wisdom.
    And we walk away, as did the man in the temple, in Jesus’ story,
        still carrying the burden of our sin.

Where is God east of Eden?
That is precisely the question Jesus had to face,
    at the beginning of his ministry.
In today’s Gospel from Matthew 4,
    Jesus was led by the Spirit—
        right after his baptism,
        right after God publicly declared him to be God’s beloved son,
        right after Jesus’ mission was made clear to him,
            and he was filled with the Holy Spirit—
        the Spirit led him into the wilderness.
            I like to think it was east.

    At the very moment of Jesus’ greatest clarity,
        at the spiritual pinnacle of his life thus far,
        Jesus found himself east of Eden.
        Alone in the wilderness, same as Adam and Eve.
        Like Adam and Eve,
            Jesus was sent there to encounter his own vulnerability.

40 days of fasting laid him bare in body and spirit.
    In his desperate need, in his utter emptiness,
        the tempter met him,
        just like the serpent in the garden,
            and fed Jesus the same attractive lies.
    You don’t need to be empty like this!
        You don’t need to be content with this position
            of dependence on another.
        You can take matters into your own hands.
        Why wait on God? You have what you need.
            Use it for your own benefit.
        Turn the stones into bread, and eat!
        Jump from the pinnacle of the temple, and be saved!
            and draw a following!
        Own all the kingdoms of this world,
            and seize the power that is yours!
    You have it! Use it!

In other words,
    “Skip the wilderness. Live in the garden . . . now.”
I doubt we can fully appreciate,
    how powerfully Jesus must have been tempted
        to take this short cut back to Eden,
    rather than seek the face of God in the wilderness.

That is the basic temptation we all live with.
    To skip the wilderness.
    To reject the empty place
        where there is suffering without relief,
        violence without a path to peace,
        questions without answers.
The basic temptation is to usurp the place of God in this equation,
    to take matters into our own hands.

The temptation that Jesus faced,
    that Adam and Eve faced,
    and that we face every day,
    is to reject our identity as God’s servants,
        and become God’s competitors, instead.

And when I say “we” face this temptation,
    I don’t only mean the plural “we”—all of us individuals.
    I also mean the singular, collective “we.”
        Us. This body of Christ. The church.

    These are not just temptations that plague
        the deep inner recesses of the human heart.
    They plague the communities, the corporate bodies, the institutions,
        that human beings make up.

The church, too, is constantly tempted to be God’s competitor,
    rather than God’s servant.

The church is also tempted, like Jesus, to turn stones into bread.
    We are tempted to turn inward.
        To focus on our own needs.
        To feed our own appetites,
            for growth, for success, for relevance,
                for the respect and admiration of others.
    Rather than embrace our true identity and purpose, which is . . .
        to give our all for the reconciling mission of God in the world,
            even when it hurts,
            even when it brings conflict and resistance,
            even when it threatens our budgets and membership stats;
        to sacrifice ourselves, if called upon in the service of God.

The church is also tempted, like Jesus, to jump from the temple peak.
    That is, we are tempted toward the  spectacular,
        the big and grandiose,
        whatever is attention-getting and publicly praise-worthy.
    God could be calling us down a path that leads not to fame,
        but to obscurity.
        Would we take it?
    Mennonites could be more prone to this temptation than we think,
        given our long history of being obscure and persecuted.
        When our Anabaptist theology starts getting some respect,
            or when our good works get good press,
            how do we respond?
    Churches get downright giddy when there is good press,
        when the public notices what they are doing.

    I read in the news this week
        about a well-known evangelical church
            led by a big-name pastor-author,
        who took one of their pastor’s books
            and essentially bought their way
                onto the NY Times bestseller list for one week,
            by giving two-hundred thousand dollars of church money
                to a firm who bought
                11,000 copies of the book in a single week,
            so they could achieve the status of #1 bestseller,
                and thereby sell more books.
    That may be a glaring example.
    But before we get too incensed about it,
        consider that nearly every church, including ours,
        is tempted by our appetite for good press and public acclaim.

The church is also tempted, like Jesus,
    to engage in political power and empire-building.
    If we have access to enough political power,
        and could use it to push a certain agenda,
        we are likely to do that . . .
            instead of doing the harder and more tedious work,
            of sitting down at a table with our opponents,
                and listening deeply, and speaking honestly,
                and slowly building friendship across our differences.

These three basic temptations—
    to take care of our own needs and appetites first,
    to seek public favor and fame,
    to use the power we have to advance our own agenda—
        these were real temptations for Jesus of Nazareth in Palestine.
        They are real temptations in our personal lives.
        And they are real temptations for the church.

In each case,
    we are given the capacity to resist,
    when we embrace our true identity
        and live into the name God has already given us.

The world around us, on this side of Eden,
    would have us believe we belong to ourselves.
    That by sheer act of the will,
        through the power of positive thinking,
            and savvy maneuvering,
        we can become the people we want to be,
            no matter what.

That’s the story most people live by East of Eden.
    But that is not God’s story.

God’s story is that God has an exclusive claim on us.
    We are always free to choose,
        free to accept or reject this claim,
        free to take our lives in our own hands.
    Nevertheless, God’s story says I am God’s child . . .
        we are God’s church.
        We are loved by one who willed us into existence,
            and whose love continues to draw us in.
    All that we are, and all that we possess . . .
        all that we ever will be or ever will possess . . .
        is owed entirely to this lover-creator God.

The season of Lent is a golden opportunity for us,
    for all of us individually,
    and for us as the community of Christ,
        to repent from our orientation toward
            feeding our own appetites,
            seeking glory and fame,
            and embracing the violent power of empire,
        and instead to invite God to find us in a state of holy emptiness.

And God will find us there, in the wilderness east of Eden.
    Because the answer to that burning question—
        “Where is God east of Eden?”—
            is “right here.”
        With us. With us in the wilderness. We are not alone.

    The emptiness we hold before our loving, redeeming God,
        is an emptiness God is prepared to fill.
    Not, perhaps, with the food and drink our culture values,
        but with life everlasting.
_____________________

I invite us into some moments of reflection.
    Turn, if you will, to STJ 57 – Mayenziwe (Your will be done)
    For the first few moments,
        you will hear the song being played instrumentally,
        then sung in Zulu by an ensemble.
    During this time, before we are invited to join, in English,
        reflect on what sort of emptiness
            God is putting you in touch with right now.
        Where, in this wilderness east of Eden,
            are you being sent?
            or is the church you are part of being sent?
        And what kind of response might God be calling for,
            as we find ourselves in this place of emptiness,
                and vulnerability,
                and barrenness?
            Is it waiting?
                Repentance?
                Risk-taking?
                Listening?
                Forgiving?
            What is God up to in this wilderness?

        Are you . . . are we . . . ready to say, with sincerity of heart,
            “Your will be done on earth, O Lord”?

—Phil Kniss, March 9, 2014

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