First Sunday of Lent
Good Morning Saints!
Good Morning Sinners!
Good, we are all present and accounted for. That’s important at the beginning of Lent.
As I was preparing for this morning – I came across an author who said that only the slipperiest of liberal preachers could take these texts and not talk about sin. Well – I am a lot of things, but I am not slippery. So let’s get into it – and there is no better place to start than with Genesis 2 – a text which has inspired 2000 years of negative self-talk in the world, a text essential to the doctrine of original sin and the opinion that humanity is foundationally depraved.
The story from the Garden is probably only second to the nativity story, in that people think there are more details to the story than are actually in the text. Like – Adam and Eve don’t eat an apple, just fruit. The words ‘fall’ or ‘sin’ are not in the text either. The serpent is not known to Adam and Eve as some sort of evil creature – crafty is even too strong a word – the description clever or astute is a better translation of the Hebrew. And of course – the text does not describe Eve in disparaging terms either, even though there is a long and sad history of describing women as weak and evil based on the text – that judgement isn’t there…history has put a lot into the text that isn’t there.
But of course there is plenty left to digest – and I would like to pull out one theme for us this morning – that I think helps us look at this text as well as the story of Jesus’ temptation. Genesis 2 begins with humanity invited to eat freely from the trees of the garden, in order to live – they can depend on God to provide. There is work to be done too, tending the place –keeping it up – but there is also a lot of freedom . The serpent does not argue that God’s provision is a lie, but what does happen is the focus of the conversation changes. The serpent through inviting a debate – opens up the idea of other options than the program God had set out. God has created a world where the option exists to not choose God’s will and human choice matters. So the serpent’s questions tempt humanity to let scarcity – what God withholds, the limits God set in place – to inform and determine their next steps – rather than God’s invitation to tend the bounty of what has been created to sustain life.
So we have on the one hand – leaning on God’s promises and living into God’s preferred future – and on the other hand – the temptation to let something else be in the driver’s seat of life. It is also important to mention – that we do not always choose the circumstances that take our attention away from God’s intention – life happens, we get blind-sided, surprised – the experience of oppression and injustice can monopolize our choices as well.
So let’s carry this forward to Jesus emerging from the desert in Matthew. On the one hand we have Jesus saying:
One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.
Do not put the Lord your God to the test.
Worship the Lord your God and serve God alone.
And the alternative focus:
To use his power to satisfy himself.
Pushing God into a corner, and coercing God to save him.
Or to align himself with evil, and its efforts to control the world.
Here in Matthew we have Jesus tempted to let something else be in the driver’s seat of life, rather than his best understanding of what God would have him focus on. Like Genesis, this is also a text that does not contain the word sin, but it does look at the human dilemma of considering options which exist within the freedom God has given – and how humanity is tempted to move in a direction of alienation from God’s purposes.
‘The sad thing about sin’ in a lot of Christian history, recent history even more so, is that sin is mostly identified as negative personal and individual failings. Through the lenses of individualism, one can look at Jesus, Adam, and Eve – and have that view reinforced. Many North American Christians have lost sight of the fact that in much of scripture and the history of the church, sin is not an individual problem but concerns families, households, communities, cities, and nations. Words of judgement are spoken by the prophets of Israel against the People of God. Paul addresses churches, as they struggle with the challenges of choices and options. Third World liberation theologians have attempted to help us recognize this. Gustavo Gutierrez wrote that “Sin is evident in oppressive structures, in the exploitation of man by man, in the domination and slavery of peoples, races and social classes.” Alienation from God is very much a corporate experience, a societal concern – of which we are all a part and bear some responsibility.
In this discussion then – North Americans – feel caught. There has been such an intense evangelical interest in individual sin in our experience, and it has been legalistically enforced – such that we don’t even want to hear the word sin. On the other hand, borrowing the words of Ched Meyers, in the book “The Other Side of Sin” – the more North Americans are faced with the overwhelming presence of sin that wages war on other nations, or economic systems that destroy the land, exhaust its resources and alienates and exploits human labour. Or the restructuring of social and economic systems abroad and at home to benefit capital – at the expense of the workplace, the neighbourhood, and the home – increasing the alienation of humanity from God’s intentions – the more First World churches are whelmed seem to retreat into our little theologies of sin and an obsession with personal sins. So what are we to do?
David Radcliff is a favourite activist and peace promoter of mine, he works on behalf of the Church of the Brethren around the world promoting peace through justice. He always has plenty to teach about the impact of societal trends on our global and environmental neighbour.
Due to global warming – the flowers of northern Alaska – amongst which the caribou herds have given birth, and feed upon to store of the fat reserves needed for the winter ahead – these flowers are blooming two weeks early and the caribou are finding their food source significantly having bloomed and wilted by the time they arrive.
US’ers will spend $17 billion on self-storage units this year; one quarter of humanity doesn’t have a place that is nice to live in.
US’ers will spend $45 billion on diet products this year; today 29,000 children under 5 will die of preventable causes – mostly hunger related.
The average annual interest payment by US credit card holder: $1900. (60% of the world’s people earn less than that in a year)
US’ers spend $9 billion of bottled water per year. Making the bottles requires 1.5 million barrels of oil – enough to fuel 100,000 cars for a year! And we throw 40 million bottles in the trash every day. (1.1 billion of the world’s people don’t have access to clean water)
So why – David likes to ask – in a society with millions of people who believe that Christ died for their sins, who have access to the knowledge of what is going wrong, and access to technologies and practices that could make a positive impact and who know that by grace that we are called up out of the depths of self-deception, confusion, rebellion and blindness – why does this garbage go on? Oh Lord, how long will we have to wait?
It wasn’t until I read Ched Meyers on this subject [“The Other Side of Sin: Woundedness from the perspective of the Sinned-against”], that I felt I had any handles upon which to grasp and approach this questions. I have been chewing on his response for a few years now. Ched leans on Wendell Berry who says that “The problem is that society’s lifestyle demands that we rob nature, and we are internally captive to our illusions, excesses, and appetites that our God-inspired ability to imagine anything else is wiped away.” Berry however, suggests that society is using ‘the addict’s excuse, and we know that it will not do.”
So how does our conversation about sin open up when think less about waking up in the morning and by the grace of God, try to do better today, just like Jesus was able to turn Satan away – to facing the possibility that we are in part addicted to the death dealing patterns of living we are involved in, that sin can be an addiction. The apostle Paul describes the human dilemma perfectly in his letter to the Romans. ” I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” To Paul – sin and death are depicted as occupying powers, which have invaded the world and are seeking to exercise their control over humanity.” That’s captivity, a much more sinister description of the tempters attempt to lay claim on Paul’s life, to get in the driver’s seat. Jesus in the desert was up against more than an annoyance, but a spirit of oppression that wanted to take hold of him – and it used his own sacred text to try to convince him to choose death. Yes, scripture can be used to justify deadly addictions. W alter Brueggemann writes that, “Lent is a season to sort out the voices of life and the countervoices of death ….” The Genesis and Matthew texts are not only about exposing the voices that are seeking to captivate and destroy; “it is also an invitation back to the single voice that speaks the lean truth of our future.”
Sin as addiction opens up the conversation about sin:
- In that we all understand that addiction is real and serious– even though we would mostly think of it in terms of addiction to substance.
- Addiction offers a more complex view of evil and oppression, rather than the idea that every choice we make is ‘free’. We are invited to be patient in process of receovery, which is a needed reminder when garbage is being rained down on others by someone who is caught up in their addiction.
- Addiction are often formed around some sort of distress, systemic or personal – and healing requires the naming of that trauma or anxiety, but it also invites people to be oriented toward recovery – and at best we can view church as the gathering of recovering addicts.
So in this framework then, if sin is addiction, than repentance and conversion is recovery. Confessing the truth about what we have done and what we are a part of – exactly what Adam and Eve didn’t do. Congregations are needed that are willing to do the work of naming what exactly are our public addictions – and turning around and moving in the opposite direction. Radical discontinuity with the social, economic and political order that is following the countervoice of death. And as a congregation forming a community of accountability and support in sustaining resistance to the addictive system. I think we need a bunch of new small groups to start, with the expressed goal of sustaining one another in our resistance to addiction and the evil that seeks to captivate us. I know I can’t face the temptations alone. Now can I decide what in my own life is an annoying habit or deadly addiction.
I am coming to understand that one of the ways I am being energized and exhausted by the opportunity to walk with folks experiencing homelessness, is that as I am seeking to understand people’s experience and speak truth to people about their addictions, that being able to see the world more and more from their seat in the community – that my own addiction to consumption, or security, or comfort is being challenged.
Adam and Eve did not die on the day they ate, despite God’s threat. God’s mercy is evident in that Adam and Eve are sent into the world knowing they are addicts, but nonetheless still a part of God’s good creation and a part of God’s life-giving care for the world. Sin as addiction is not the end of the story. Psalm 32 opens the season of Lent – with a focus on thanksgiving for forgiveness. “Happy are those whose transgression is covered.” God is faithful and forgiving – do not hide – but speak the truth in prayer, for out of the depths love is waiting. May our Lenten journey move us towards this lavish gift offered in Jesus. Amen.