Sunday, March 05, 2017

First Sunday of Lent

Genesis 2, 3
15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”
Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 3 but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”
4 “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5 “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
6 When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. 7 Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.

I think it’s fair to say that the serpent is presenting alternate facts.

Just to recap:

God: “Eat and you will surely die!”
Serpent: “Did God really say that?”
Eve: “Yes, God said we will surely die, but I told him not to call me surely.”
Serpent: “You will not die, but all will be revealed, like Wikipedia—along with good and evil.”
Adam: “What’s for supper?” And some time later: “Surely you can see we’re naked.”

I think you remember the rest. They invent the fashion industry and then God happens by, saying “hey, where are you?” and “who told you you were naked?” and “you didn’t eat from the tree did you?” Of course, God knows the answers to each of these questions and Adam immediately pins the whole thing on Eve.

What follows is the link to Lent and the reason this reading is included in the lectionary for the day: “Memento homo, quia pulvis es et in pulverem reverteris.” If you have a little Catholic in you, you may recall that these are the words the priest says when applying ashes on Ash Wednesday: “Remember human, you are dust and to the dust you shall return.”

Now, as former Methodists with a minor in Presbyterianism, we don’t tend to go in for such things, but the words do appear in the Commendation at the end of every funeral service, a reminder that mortality is one of those inviolable laws that even God cannot break. Nevertheless, since we’re doing Lent anyway, we can go along with this foundational myth, gleaning what we can for the journey ahead.

I say “myth” in the most positive way possible. Mythic stories are an important part of our make-up, often defining who we are and what we believe. So, as an example, Queen Victoria did not look at all the towns and cities across the Canadas and pick small logging town (Bytown) nestled between Upper and Lower Canada for the new capital. She was prompted to do this by Macdonald, since the Prime Minister knew that if the Queen suggested it, the opposition couldn’t oppose it. Still in all, we got a lovely founding myth.

As I have shared before, the stories from Genesis might best be imagined as responses to a child’s question, like the sort of question a child asks at the traditional seder meal. “Who were the first people” could prompt numerous stories like our reading today, or “why are there so many languages” could prompt a story like the tower of Babel. They convey truth about the human situation, without the burden of being factual.

I’m just going to let you chew on that idea for a moment, while I tell you about gaslighting. Gaslighting is a form of manipulation that causes people to doubt their own perception of reality. Using denial, misdirection and lying, the perpetrator will “destabilize” the truth and sow doubt. Wikipedia says gaslighting is a common tactic employed by sociopaths and narcissists, so I think you will see where this little sidebar is headed.

At least one White House advisor has been banned from various media sites based on her persistent gaslighting. By insisting that her boss didn’t say or do the very things that he said or did on camera, she is guilty of this form of manipulation. Most media outlets simply tired to having to constantly refute her words, so they stopped inviting her to speak. She still appears in Fox News.

The reason I share this is that it appears the serpent invents gaslighting in our passage this morning:

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

So it begins. And just as she begins to doubt the very thing God said, the serpent goes further:

4 “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5 “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

The serpent is on a bit of a roll here, because the last statement is a classic example of a half-truth, another standby for tyrants and con men. By pairing a truthful statement with a falsehood, people tend to accept the falsehood. They hear some truth, but not the whole truth. Here, the serpent pairs the idea of receiving knowledge with avoiding morality, and poor Eve is deceived. The rest, as they say, is history.

So why do we begin Lent with “Momento homo,” (remember human) that you are dust and to the dust you shall return? And why do Adam and Eve figure in the story, beyond having prompted these words? To answer these questions, we need to go back to myth. Remember, they convey truth about the human situation without the burden of being factual.

If some very clever child asked “why do we die” or “where did mortality come from” it might prompt a story just like this one. It would take the bulk of human history to come up with the second law of thermodynamics (that entropy, disorder and decay are constants) but the foundational myth knew this already. Despite our best efforts, we cannot defy death, even if the entire culture says we can.

Infamously, the founding myth frames mortality as a punishment for our disobedience, something theologians and scholars have been debating since we left the garden. But rather than simply rejecting this idea of “the fall of man” I think we need to ponder it, consider it in context, and maybe follow it to it’s natural conclusion.

Going back to child’s question and a mythic response, it is easy to see why the respondent might cast blame. Death sucks, and rather than say “God created entropy, disorder and decay and therefore we must die, it’s better to say our first parents screwed up and landed us in this mess. Better to protect God from our anger and direct it elsewhere than live with the idea that all the hurt we feel has a divine source. Yes, the story frames death as a God-given curse, but they did break the rule, even if the devil made them do it.

But this half-truth can only carry us so far. Eventually, we reach the conclusion that the problem is in the architecture, or the way the system is configured, or that the ordering is all wrong. Whoever’s at fault, the blame must rest with the programmer, and suddenly we’re mad. So if death sucks and someone’s to blame, it’s pretty easy to move beyond poor Adam and Eve and begin to blame God.

No doubt God feels this too. The God who sees the little sparrow fall and numbers every hair on your head was heartbroken at the idea of mortality and likely felt that nothing could be done. They God who knit us together in the darkness of our mother’s womb was wounded by our suffering until an answer presented itself—perhaps as much a surprize to God as to us.

God-with-us (Emmanuel) was going as well as could be expected. We met God in Jesus with a combination of bafflement and awe until some came to realize that Jesus really was the incarnation of the Most High. And then it happened: whatever excitement or curiosity we felt was soon replaced with very human anger. Consciously or unconsciously we began to recall that human constant and the rage and helplessness we feel. “Here’s God,” some said, “and here’s our chance at revenge.”

Yet, and yet, even as God is dying on the cross, even as God comes closest to experiencing that most human of experiences, God forgives us. God in Jesus says “you are forgiven” (Countryman) and finally puts an end to death.

We begin Lent with “Momento homo” (remember human) but we will end with this:

They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore. The sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Amen.


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