Sunday, September 13, 2020

Phil Kniss: Falling toward redemption

“The relationship begins”
Genesis 2:4b-7, 15-17; 3:1-8; Matthew 6:9-13

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We’re delighted to begin a year
working our way through the biblical narrative,
in a sweeping arc from beginning to end.
And we’re delighted to do so
with other congregations in Harrisonburg and the surrounding area,
of various denominations,
and 100s more around the world,
who follow the Narrative Lectionary.

We begin the narrative today with a story everybody knows—
the creation and fall of humanity.
A lot of people are a little fuzzy on the details,
but most people know something about a snake that
tricked Adam and Eve into eating an apple,
which ruined everything for everybody,
although we’re not quite sure why.

The text doesn’t actually contain the words snake or apple,
but that’s beside the point.
We know this story,
and it’s gotten into our everyday vocabulary.
We use the phrase “forbidden fruit”
for just about anything we should keep our hands off of.
And the little bump that sticks out in our neck,
we all know as the “Adam’s apple,”
I guess because when Adam got caught by God,
he must have choked, and it got lodged partway down.
That’s also not in the text.

Everybody knows the Adam and Eve story,
but we don’t spend a lot of time thinking or talking about it.

I think it’s one of the most important stories in scripture—
I don’t even want to rank it.
Because along with some other Bible stories,
this one is essential for faith.
We should know it in a deeper way than we do.

And here’s a clue.
It has nothing to do with biological human origins.
So forget any argument you’ve ever heard about that.

This is about who we believe we are,
in relationship to who we believe God is.
This is where the story of our relationship to God begins.

And the relationship did not get off to such a great start.
God created us humans to be collaborators in creation.
Turns out we were more interested in being competitors.

See, the role of collaborating with God in creation—
or in the words of our text,
“to live in the Garden and work it and take care of it”—
that role of steward or keeper or caretaker
is a limiting role.
We are limited by the owners’ values and priorities and intentions.
We are limited by the owner’s definition of good and evil.
We don’t create our own morality.
We don’t get to invent our own reason for existence.
Those were all given to us by our Creator.

But due to God’s generous gift of freewill,
we are also not puppets.
We have the capacity to think for ourselves,
and choose for ourselves.
And when given the choice,
we tend toward wanting to take over God’s role
of judge,
of being the arbiter of good and evil,
of bending the world toward our desires.

And as soon as we take on the mantle of judge,
we notice our nakedness.

That’s what this wonderfully symbolic part of the story is all about.
It’s not about how human beings invented the first fig-leaf suit.
It’s about how we came to be ashamed of vulnerability.

Once we embrace the universal human temptation
to judge others and ourselves,
then we can’t tolerate our own nakedness anymore.
We realize we have something to hide.
Our own vulnerability is exposed.

Adam and Eve had no reason to hide from God
before they ate the fruit.
They walked with God in the garden in the cool of the day,
Naked and unafraid.

But once the fruit of judgment was tasted,
they learned to fear.
Intimacy with God now felt like a risk.
God became a threat.
So they hid.

That story gets lived over and over again in our daily lives,
to this day.
We human beings have learned the hard way
that vulnerability and baring our souls with others,
doesn’t always end well.
Because of the evil that resides in us all,
there is a temptation to take advantage of another’s weakness,
and use it for selfish purposes.
We have all been on the receiving end
of someone taking advantage of us, when our guard was down.
And we have all, at one time or another,
used that same power over another,
to our advantage.
So we have learned, correctly,
that it is safer to wear lots of armor.
Fig leaves make life easier.

And in our Narrative Lectionary this year,
we will see this story repeated over and over and over
on nearly every page of our Bible.
God’s people did not trust God with their nakedness,
with their vulnerability.
They weren’t comfortable being overly dependent.
They got self-protective, self-oriented, and self-determined.
Instead of basking in God’s love and provisions,
they instead struggled to control and manage,
and usurp God’s rightful place in the order of things.

Abraham passed off his wife as his sister for economic gain.
Jacob cruelly scammed his older brother out of his inheritance.
Jacob’s sons sold off their privileged younger brother into slavery.
And newly-freed Hebrew slaves
tried to turn back to the food security they had in Egypt,
instead of depending on God for daily manna in the desert.
The nation of Israel rejected the rule of God,
and asked for a human king like the other nations,
. . . and the stories go on and on.

And still today,
we keep falling for this ancient and perennial temptation.
For control over unpredictability.
For full-body armor over nakedness.

The temptation always comes in the form of
some variation on the words of the serpent—
“You . . . can . . . be . . . like . . . God.”

In the Lord’s Prayer, our Gospel text this morning,
Jesus wisely taught his disciples to
acknowledge the rightful rule of God,
and to conclude this model prayer with,
“And lead us not into temptation, 
but deliver us from the Evil One.”

So did Adam and Eve die after eating the forbidden fruit?
The punishment was, in fact, a sort of death.
What died was a life of sustained and relaxed intimacy with God.
They were banished from Eden.
In the verses that follow today’s reading,
they were sent out of the garden through the eastern gate,
and cherubim took up flaming swords to guard the gate,
and keep them out forever.

“East of Eden”—is not just the title of a John Steinbeck novel.
It’s a metaphor for life in a wounded world.
We are still in the wilderness east of Eden,
needing to fend for ourselves,
tilling the land by the sweat of our brows,
having to continually fight against our enemies to survive,
thorns and thistles,
poisonous creatures and . . . deadly viruses.

If ever our lives were “East of Eden,” now would be that time.

Where is God East of Eden?
When we were in the garden,
God came to us, and walked and talked with us.
Are we destined to wander alone forever in this wilderness?

That is the big, vexing, existential question that
humanity has wrestled with
ever since the cherubim took up their swords at the garden gate.
The whole story of God’s people,
throughout the Old and New Testaments,
and throughout the history of the church,
is a story of seeking God where God is often hard to find.

Sometimes we remember why,
and we embrace the wilderness long enough
to look to God in deep trust,
ready to risk and obey, for the next step.

But other times we stubbornly cling to this deception,
that we can do this alone, on our own strength and wisdom.

We are still tempted to usurp God’s place in the equation,
and we still fall for it. We still bite the apple.
But this ongoing rebellion is only one part
of this big biblical narrative.
The other part is what God does—
continually reaching toward God’s people,
even when they fail to reach toward God.
In our survey of the biblical story,
there will be many more offers of redemption and forgiveness.
And many more falls.
And many more reconciliations.
God does not, and will not, give up on us.

We fall.
And we will keep falling.
But the end of this biblical arc is pointing toward redemption.
We are falling toward redemption.
Not because of our efforts, but because of God’s.

We need not despair. Ever.
God is still with us.
Even east of Eden.

I invite us into a response of confession,
since we know the sin of Adam and Eve is also our sin.
Let us, together, bring our confession to God.
You may follow along, and read along with us on the bold print.

one Creator God, you made us and all things for beauty and harmony.
        You put your trust in us as partners 
        to carry out your good purposes in the world.
        Yet, we have often squandered that trust, 
        and turned away from our calling,
        and have sought to replace or usurp 
        your role as sovereign in this world.
        We have hidden from you in shame.
all We repent of our sinful rebellion.
        Forgive us for trusting you less than you trust us.
        Hold fast to us in your everlasting love.
one Our God remains with us in patience, love, and mercy.
        Our God generously extends forgiveness, 
        restores the relationship,
        and invites us to continue the journey.
        Thanks be to God!

—Phil Kniss, September 13, 2020

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