Sunday, March 26, 2017

Fourth Sunday of Lent

Ephesians 5
8 For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light 9 (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) 10 and find out what pleases the Lord. 11 Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. 12 It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. 13 But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light. 14 This is why it is said:
“Wake up, sleeper,
rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”

It’s very humble as tourist attractions go, but folks say it’s still worth a visit.

Over at the Fire Station #6, in Livermore, California, you can stop in and visit the Centennial Bulb. According to Guinness, it’s the oldest lightbulb in the world, burning since 1901. It’s a little dim with age, but still burning, all these years later.

Of course, people ask about the secret of the bulbs longevity, much in the way you would ask a person at 116, and the answer has to do with something that goes by the innocuous name “planned obsolescence.” You know it: it feels like you just bought that dishwasher, and already it’s making strange noises and bits are coming off.

Well, the Centennial Bulb was created to last. Leaving it on helps, they say, because the biggest threat to an incandescent bulb is turning it on and off. And the second biggest threat to an incandescent bulb is inefficiency and waste, unless the bulb is being left on as a museum piece, like the Centennial Bulb.

So having passed through the compact florescent period (ugly light, contains mercury) we have entered the age of the LED. The light is more pleasant (more like an incandescent bulb), the power usage is lower, and the implications are only now coming into view.

You see, nearly two billion people live “off-grid,” something that might sound desirable down at the Cottage Life Show, but is a serious problem in the developing world. People need light, for safely, for comfort, and for learning (if you hope the read at night).

The old bulbs need traditional power, from a diesel powered generator, or from a bank of batteries filed with harmful acid. Failing that, people turn to kerosene lamps, with the fumes, smoke, and the danger of fire. Sam Goldman, a former Peace Corp volunteer saw this first hand in West Africa, when a neighbour suffered serious burns from the household kerosene lamp.*

This started Sam on a quest to find an alternative, and he founded a social enterprise that has since brought light to 65 million people. They started with simple LED lanterns and have since created entire power systems, for radio, cell charging and, of course, a light for each room. And without starting a coffee hour debate, Sam’s company does this using a for-profit model, convinced that investors will see the potential of bringing low cost light to those two billion people.

I share all this because our passage, while seemingly figurative, is also literal:

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light 9 (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) 10 and find out what pleases the Lord. 11 Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them.
13 But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light.

Until just about 100 years ago—so for the proceeding million years of human consciousness—we lived nearly half our lives in the dark. We learned to sleep through most of it, but the threat of darkness remained. If you were predisposed to making trouble, you soon learned that “fruitless deeds” were best done in darkness.

So light and dark inevitably moved from lived reality to metaphor. “Children of light” lived lives of goodness, righteousness and truth, while those “in darkness” did things “too shameful even to mention.” We follow a Lord who described himself as “the light of the world.” And when God created the heavens and earth the very first words spoken were “let there be light.” God saw that the light was good, and separated the light from the darkness.

Now, metaphors tend to take on a life of their own, and the direction these metaphors go isn’t always helpful. When an seasoned NPR journalist used the phrase “dark continent” a while back, referring to Africa, it caused more than a bit of the controversy. “Political correctness!” some cried, but NPR apologized and acknowledged that the phrase is pejorative, and carries racist overtones. Using darkness as shorthand for “undeveloped” or “primitive” belongs to a colonial past and ought to be set aside.

Back to our passage, it seems to fit in the overall theme of Ephesians, that is ‘how then shall we live?’ Having accepted Christ, and joined a Christian community, how should the believer function in the day-to-day? And Paul gives the first instruction at the beginning of this chapter: “walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.” (5.1)

But that seems more confessional, like the first step a believer might take in this new life with Christ. After the initial excitement of this conversion, what next? How does the average Ephesian follow the way? And this is where ‘goodness, righteousness and truth’ come in. It’s living the spirit of Christ at home, in the marketplace, at work and so on. And it all seems rather straightforward in an encouraging sort of way.

Looking deeper, I wonder if there is some of Paul’s own story in this passage. In our Bible study this week we spend much of our time on Acts 9, the story of Paul’s conversion. Recall that Paul (then known as Saul) is among those persecuting the nascent church, looking for believers to turn in to the authorities. He sent to Damascus, and on the way a bright light and loud voice knocks him to the ground. “Saul, Saul,” the voice says, “why do you persecute me?”
“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”

Paul is blinded by the experience, and led into the city to be given to the care of Ananias, who has also had a visit from the risen Christ. Ananias knows of Saul, and his reputation, and is reluctant to help. But the Lord is insistent, and he seeks out the man from Tarsus.

Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again.

On Thursday, Audrey called this “spiritual blindness,” the implication of the life Paul was living and the very thing Christ heals as the scales fall from his eyes. A flash of light, temporary blindness, and new sight, all in a matter of a few short days.

Back to our passage, I wonder if this experience might explain the fragment of verse we heard, that short poem Paul shares after his meditation on darkness and light:

“Wake up, sleeper,
rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”

Darkness, spiritual blindness, sleeping, all seem to sum up the life that Saul/Paul was living before he met Christ on the road to Damascus. This little fragment of verse may have been an ancient hymn, or part of a liturgy, or just something Paul sang to himself in the darkness of those days waiting for Ananias.

For Paul, the darkness and the sleeping meant actively tormenting the church, but for others, the people at Ephesus, for example, it was certainly something far more banal. Imagine people going about their lives in the figurative dark, looking after themselves without a thought for others, surrounding themselves with things, generally living in a world of exchange where I will do for others what they first do for me.

I say pick your metaphor, but we seem to be surrounded by people (including ourselves, if we’re honest) who are sleeping, or dwelling in the dark, or spiritually blind to the reality that God sets before us. We don’t have a lock on living in the light, but we do have the lessons and the teacher. We can live it and show it or we can do that other thing Jesus warned us against: hiding our light under a basket.

May we continue to seek the light as the days lengthen and the nights lead us closer to Gethsemane, Calvary and the empty tomb. Amen.


Sunday, March 19, 2017

Third Sunday of Lent

Exodus 17
The whole Israelite community set out from the Desert of Sin, traveling from place to place as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2 So they quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.”
Moses replied, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the Lord to the test?”
3 But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?”
4 Then Moses cried out to the Lord, “What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.”
5 The Lord answered Moses, “Go out in front of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6 I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.” So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7 And he called the place Massah[a] and Meribah[b] because the Israelites quarreled and because they tested the Lord saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

Forget the cute children, colourful houses, funny and heartwarming place names, and the ads that are filmed on the two or three nice days each summer in Newfoundland.

We’re Ontarians, and we have our own funny and heartwarming place names. Take Tiny, Ontario, as an example, named for Lady Maitland’s dog, Tiny. Or Happyland, near Orillia. How could you fail to be happy in Happyland? Or Bright, or Eden, or Precious Corners? And then there are a series of names that seem to promise something, like Fruitland, Cheeseborough, or even Pickle Lake.

Finally, there are the candid names. Are the people of Sparta, Ontario really tough, or is the place really spartan? Can anything good come from a visit to Pain Court, Ontario? And what about Sour Spring? They’re not really selling it, are they? On one level, you have to admire their honesty—if you travel to Sucker Lake, I think we know how they will take you. It’s in the name.

I share all this because we find ourselves this morning in the naming phase of the Israelite story, where each new episode and each new experience seems to elicit an new name. Some are place names, like the two Jenny shared a moment ago: Massah and Meribah, quarrelling and testing. And are some have an element of fun, like the manna that fell from the sky a chapter earlier. Manna literally means “what is it,” which is something straight out of Abbott & Costello.

“What is it?”
“Yes, please.”
“No, what is it?
“Yes, can you bake some up for me?” (Ex 16.23)

And this, of course, is just one example where some meaning is translated into a name. You will recall that a number of people in the Bible get their names in precisely this fashion:

Exodus 2.10: When the child grew older, she took him to Pharaoh’s daughter and he became her son. She named him Moses, saying, “I drew him out of the water.”
Exodus 2.22: Zipporah gave birth to a son, and Moses named him Gershom, saying, “I have become a foreigner in a foreign land.”

And then there are times when the whole naming thing just gets out of hand, such as the story of Jacob wrestling with God in Genesis 32:

But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
27 The man asked him, “What is your name?”
“Jacob,” he answered.
28 Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”
30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”

My friend Wanda is the minister of Peniel United Church, on the Peniel Road, between Cannington and Lindsay. Drop in, if you’re driving by, and say ‘hello.’

So back to Massah and Meribah, quarrelling and testing—a couple of place names in Israel’s unfolding relationship with God. Actually, let’s unpack that a little further: A people whose name means “you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome” paused in a place called “quarrelling and testing” and asked the rather pointed question, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

I think you see a theme developing here. While the Israelites were wandering and being quite literal in their naming habits, they were also engaged in rather tense relationship with a God determined to save them. From yearning to return to the supposed “fleshpots” of Egypt, to manna each morning, and water from the rock, the pattern is the same: God saves, the people complain, God responds, the people complain, God enacts a little discipline, the people complain, and on it goes.

Complaining seems to the constant here, along with God’s determination to save, provide, chide, and generally endure these creatures God made. You wonder if there is a measure of regret on God’s part, either in creating these ungrateful creatures or making that outrageous rainbow promise that ties God’s hands forever.

But a promise is a promise, and therefore God is stuck with a tribe of people who complain. And while our capacity to complain is constant, our relationship with God is not meant to be static. It was (and is) an unfolding relationship, one where we’re meant to be candid in our prayers and open in our approach. In other words, don’t hold back. The same God with ‘mighty hands’ and an ‘outstretched arm’ also has broad shoulders that can manage whatever complaining we can send God’s way.

“So what’s the point,” you might ask, “perpetuating this cycle of complaining and generally bending the divine ear?” Well, it does a few things. First, it gives us an opportunity to vent, to get things off our chest, to surrender to God our frustration and dis-ease and know that it joins a rather large well of human discontent that God is willing to hold. It begins at Massah and Meribah, the quarrelling and testing that God endures. There’s no anger or regret in the names—not even much irony—just a God who is willing to put up with us for the sake of our well-being.

Next, complaining gives others and opportunity to respond—not to defend God but to offer us perspective. This has to be done with some care, of course, since “c’mon, it can be that bad” is really bad pastoral care. Nevertheless, there are moments when the people around us can answer our complaints, and where appropriate, give voice to a response that God might make.

This came up in our study on Thursday, in a manner of speaking, with the old story of the man in a flood: The flood waters are rising and the man scrambles on to the roof of his house. Someone comes by in an awesome pick-up and the man says “I’m okay here, I have faith and I’m waiting for God to save me.” Next a boat comes by, same answer, “waiting for God to save me.” Then a helicopter that the man refuses to board, and of course he dies and complains bitterly to God about God’s failure to save him. “Hold on,” God says, “ I send an awesome pick-up, a boat, and a helicopter.”

Finally, we complain to God because we’re in a relationship, and in the healthiest relationships there is complaining, truth-telling, feedback—all shared in the most loving way possible. Now, I don’t want to hear some time next week “Well Michael said I could complain about this, so here goes.” Not what I meant.

What I meant (mean) is that the back-and-forth we experience in a healthy relationship, the ability to be candid and still experience love and affection, should extend to our relationship with God. This is, in fact, the basis on all the confessing we do at the beginning of the service: “There were times I doubted you, God, and your ability to forgive even me. But now I see that your love and mercy extends to me, and I can extend this to others.”

Maybe through Lent we should be busy renaming things: the table is now called “quarrelled over dinner but were friends again my dessert,” or renaming my car “foolish man refused to ask for directions.” And following that logic, we could rename all our congregations Peniel: “It is because I saw God face to face, and still my life was saved.”

And as we pass the midpoint of Lent, and the end of the season comes into sight, we remember that even God complained to himself from the cross, asking “why have you forsaken me?” And yet the the answer remains the same—forgive. Now and always, Amen.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Second Sunday of Lent

John 3
Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.[a]”
4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit[b] gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You[c] must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

If the end of faux-spring and the return of winter has you dreaming of summer plans, let me suggest beautiful Kingston.

Take the Wolfe Islander—it’s free—and it affords you a lovely view of the city as you approach Wolfe Island, recently ruined by the appearance of 86 windmills. On the way look to port, and you will see Point Frederick, home to the Royal Military College, and then a flag, familiar but unfamiliar, all at the same time.

What you are looking at it is the flag of the college, two red panels on a white background, with the symbol of the college in the centre. The late Dr. George Stanley, Dean of Arts was so fond of the flag that he replaced the symbol with a maple leaf and submitted it to parliament in 1964, the parliament that was tearing itself apart over the adoption of a new flag.

The debate over the flag had raged for years. Officially, Canada’s flag was the Red Ensign, Union Jack in the upper left and our coat of arms in a sea of red. It served us well, generally—except that the Dominion Government had this habit of reverting to the Union Jack as flag whenever imperial sentiment was high. In this sense we had two flags, and by the 1960’s there was some call for a unique flag.

The story of the flag debate is too long to recount here, but the RMC-inspired compromise carried the day. The acrimonious debate spilled over to the provinces, as two provinces (Ontario and Manitoba) adopted their own version of the Red Ensign as their provincial flag. But in the end we got our new flag, and in February 15, 1965, it flew over parliament for the first time.

You could say it was a form of rebirth, one in a long series of measures that made us distinct from the mother country. We still share a head-of-state with Britain, something that looks cleverer and cleverer compared with our southern neighbours experiment in electing a head-of-state. So reborn, with a good sense of who we are and where we came from. Sounds familiar:

Nicodemus came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.

Our passage is one of those extended conversations found in John, who takes his time to reveal the secrets of the Kingdom to anyone who will listen. Nicodemus is a member of the ruling council, a religious conservative who promoted adherence to the law of Moses. He comes to Jesus at night (in secret) to try to understand the Jesus-movement and what it means.

He begins with a concession, admitting that Jesus obviously comes from God. And Jesus doesn’t disagree, but adds the caveat that one must be born again. Of course Nicodemus struggles to understand, positing the semi-serious response that someone old can’t re-enter the womb. To this we get Jesus’ very philosophical response, a response to launch a million sermons, that goes like this:

5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit[b] gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You[c] must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

I might add to that number in a moment, but first we should talk about born again. Now, I was forced to learn Greek, so it’s only fair I share the pain with you. In John 3.3 Jesus utters the famous phrase γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν (gennēthē anōthen) which we traditionally translate “born again.” γεννηθῇ is an easy one, since born means born and there is really only one meaning, and that’s born.

ἄνωθεν is trickier, since ἄνωθεν appears in scripture as "from the top" or "from the beginning" or "from above" and of course plain old "again."* Suddenly we can sense the terror in the mind of the biblical scholar who is busy translating one of the most important lessons in scripture and can’t decide if we are supposed to be born again, born from above, born from the beginning, or born from the top. They all seem equally incomprehensible, especially born from the top, which sounds a bit like Reach for the Top.

And there is another problem. When I was a lad, I knew nothing about the Christian faith except that I was going to hell. My Pentecostal cousins were mostly kind about it, but I was going to hell. Me, my brother, mom and dad, all on an express train to a fiery end. We were the lost branch of the family, treated kindly enough, but regularly reminded that we were lost. You might say I got the last laugh standing here, but I’m still lost according to my cousins, but that’s another sermon.

So biblical scholars, for the last 100 years or so, have approached the translation of this phrase with the additional baggage of US-style evangelism, where the need to be “saved” meant that “born again” was an important catch phrase. And catch phrases are the enemy of good translation, since they take you out of the text and locate you at the local crusade rather than first-century Palestine.

So various translations have tried on “born from above” or the novel “born anew” but we know and they know “born again” sums up the meaning. Nicodemus proves this when he makes his tongue-in-cheek comment about re-entering the womb. So we’re ultimately talking about rebirth, rebirth with a strong sense of where we came from, not unlike the new flag.

And how appropriate that we’re having this conversation in Lent, another season of preparation and contemplation, another season that anticipates the outcome while pausing to make some room for it in our hearts. But unlike Advent, that other season of preparation, this one seems to require rebirth. Advent is the birth of hope and the birth of the new thing God will do in the world, and Lent is rebirth, setting aside the former in favour of the latter.

So what is former and what is latter? Maybe the easiest way to get at this is through Luke 17, another conversation with another Pharisee:

20When asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God will not come with observable signs. 21Nor will people say, ‘Look, here it is,’ or ‘There it is.’ For you see, the kingdom of God is in your midst.”

Ah, more Greek. ἐντὸς (entos) means “in your midst” or “inside” or “within.” So, the Kingdom of God will not come with observable signs, the kind of sign Nicodemus was seeking, but ἐντὸς, from within. The Kingdom of God is inside you already, trying to get out, trying the enter the world once more. That’s the meaning of born again, allowing the Spirit of God that is already inside you to get loose in the world and do stuff.

So the former is a search for signs and an adherence to rigid formulas like demanding that people be born again. That style of faith is inward looking, focused on the individual and not the wider community. The latter is Kingdom of God that’s within you, aching to get out and transform a hurting world. When we are truly born again, my bit of the Kingdom meets your bit of the Kingdom and the outcome is limitless. When God is unleashed, anything is possible.

This is not to say rebirth is easy, since rebirth requires a sober look at what was—before we can see what can be. Born again means setting aside as you take up, leaving behind as you move forward. And it falls to each of us to decide what that means, the leaving behind and the setting aside. And then, having done the work of Lent, that we can find the Kingdom inside us once more. Amen.


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.