Homily for Lent 1, March 9, 2014
Our theme for Lent this year is transitions, and you will be able to see each week how much our scriptural tradition focuses on movement, departure, journey, pilgrimage, change, and transformation. Each Sunday, the designated preacher will draw out the theme of transition in the scriptures, and then identify the implications for our own community. After each service, there will be opportunity to discuss these implications as we move forward on our own journey of two communities becoming one.
Countless parents have said to one of their children: “This is for your own good.” It’s interesting looking at the readings for today to note that God has a strange way of tossing his beloved out into the wilderness. That is how we may feel each year as we enter the season of Lent, but it’s meant to be a time when we take significant steps forward on our faith journey.
Genesis, a book that tells a story about human origins, points, in the Garden of Eden story, to a major development in the way humankind relates to God. “The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” The episode begins with God placing the man in the garden, as though he were a puppet, and programming him to work in a certain way. But we know that human beings don’t tend to operate well when treated as puppets or as possessions. The text almost suggests that at this stage, God is in an “I – It” relationship with humankind – not very mutual — and that is about to change.
At some point, the story says, all people must get to a point where they challenge the authority of their parents, their society, even their God. In our innocence and even into our adolescence, we can manage to ignore those voices that tell us there is no such thing as the tooth fairy, that our parents are all-powerful, etc., but we all know that at some point, the voice of worldly experience reaches us, and then we step out of childhood and into the reality of the adult world and our innocence comes to an abrupt end.
Transitions are painful, as the story tells us. There is loss, there is disillusionment, there is sadness and regret; transitions involve conflict and confusion, but there is also a whole new realm of possibility that opens up that would not be possible if we stayed in the womb or in our mommy’s arms or at our Daddy’s knee.
We all know that people can’t actually converse with snakes. In ancient times and even in scripture, the serpent was a symbol of wisdom, and not merely a symbol of evil. Jesus himself referred to serpents in that way. The serpent could be seen to represent worldly wisdom, which Jesus suggested is needed to balance our naiveté – “be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.”
The serpent has Adam and Eve begin to assess their situation and to speculate, “What’s the worst that could happen?” As children find out when they take those first steps into the adult world you won’t die if you kiss a boy, or step on a crack, or if you take the bus downtown. I read recently about a psychologist who successfully treated phobic and anxious patients by having them do the very things they were terrified of, whether it was riding in a car or standing near a high drop off. In this case, Adam and Eve, who represent humankind in general, are about to discover that God won’t abandon them if they make a mistake. Their relationship with God is about to change, certainly, but it needs to.
“Your eyes will be opened . . .” The story suggests in a coy way the discovery of our sexuality – the sudden awareness that we are boys and girls – the awkward transition into a new way of relating — and so Adam and Eve are portrayed as sewing fig leaves, which could be seen to represent self-knowledge, awareness, coming of age, and a sense of differentiation.
Blind obedience is no better than total anarchy. To a mindset that says obedience is everything, the serpent represents evil, rebellion, and betrayal, and so to some, the story portrays a disaster, often referred to as the Fall, or Original Sin. This approach has led to a lot of bad theology. Yet questions go begging in the story, such as why did God create the serpent in the first place? And why did God endow human beings with minds that question and want to explore and develop? And why would a God who knew the human capacity for curiosity, and who created human beings in the divine image, plant such a tree?
We can debate for years about what the tree or the serpent represent, but clearly, the Eden story is a story of transition, describing how people see possibilities that make them risk what they have in order to experience and embrace something new and possibly better.
Our early parental authorities tell us “Don’t go there!” about a whole variety of subjects, and studies are indicating that today’s “helicopter parents” have jacked childhood anxiety up to a whole new level, so that we have a whole generation terrified to leave the nest.
Leaving Eden is about leaving innocence, leaving the womb, leaving the protected place; it’s about testing and even venturing outside the rules, leaving what we knew in order to journey beyond the parental restrictions and taking on the big bad world as adults as equals and no longer as children, and accepting the consequences and accountability that go with it, and not having mommy and daddy hovering about to deal with it.
Unfortunately, in many ways, the Church has told the story in such a way that it encourages people to remain as children – obedient, unquestioning, naive – looking at the world in stark and absolute terms as black and white, good and evil, never getting past the affiliative or mythic-literal stage of faith development.* The attitude was, “If you break from the tribe or the norm you must be punished.” The wisdom of the serpent is that growth and change do not mean death, and the story of Adam and Eve thus becomes a story about making a choice to step out into the unknown.
People stuck in the “must-obey” or “The Bible tells me so” mode perceive people who question and change as failures, or as threats or traitors, when the reality is that it is the ones who dare to question and explore that are succeeding in moving forward on their faith journey, while the others, like the older brother in the Prodigal Son story, simply stay stuck in the familiar (and I am sure you could portray the father in the story saying to his critical, complaining, stay-at-home son: “So move already!”).
I credit the Anglican Church for encouraging and challenging people to grow and not stay stuck in the nursery. To be an adult is to begin to wrestle with God, and to embrace the ambiguities and questions of life, which we see illustrated in the biblical stories of Jacob and Job and many others. Anglicans embrace a comprehensive approach which includes Scripture, Tradition and Reason, which entails knowing what scripture says and how it has been interpreted historically, aware of precedents but not being stuck in the past, and willing to figure out how to apply it in our own circumstances (“sanctified common sense” as it has been called).
The time in the wilderness recalls another time of transition for God’s people – the departure from slavery in Egypt and the painful journey to the Promised Land. And isn’t it interesting that in the encounter between Jesus and Satan in the wilderness, the Devil plays the role of literalist, quoting scripture and using it to try to convince Jesus to remain small and ineffectual.
The devil says, “Command these stones to become loaves of bread.” It’s a reference to Israel’s spiritual heritage in the desert, but it’s like he’s twisting it to say “be like a petulant child and demand that everything come your way — get and take what you want. Follow your whims. It’s all about you.”
And Jesus responds that life is more than immediate gratification.
Then the devil dares Jesus: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down (from this height), for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'”
Again, Satan is quoting the Bible, and again Jesus counters by reminding Satan that our relationship with God is not meant to be understood in that way.
Then the text says: “the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”
The devil again sees things in literal terms – look what you can have! But Jesus as a mature man of faith already has a much larger, universal, even cosmic vision of how things are – he has seen the kingdom of God — and he is not about to trade that vision for a few acres of land.
The devil urges Jesus to adopt a “prosperity Gospel” which wrongly suggests that if you are a true child of God, then wealth and success and power will automatically come your way. Millions of American evangelicals have fallen into this trap, but Jesus counters with a greater wisdom, expressed as, “’Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him,” which suggests that we aim for the highest and greatest form of service possible, and do not give way to preoccupation with self-aggrandizement.
The devil comes across as something of a Bible-thumper, using the scripture in its literal sense to challenge Jesus, with Jesus countering by saying it’s not enough to know what the Bible says – you have to know what it means. Scripture can be used as a weapon; it can be used to manipulate; it can be used to justify abuse. There are various kinds of wisdom in the world, and not all of them are necessarily helpful.
The devil urges Jesus to see God in a certain way and to interpret the scriptures in a certain way and Jesus is saying authoritatively, God is not like that and that is not what the scriptures mean.
Satan here seems to symbolize the ego, and the confrontation suggests the way we all have to struggle to make the transition out of a self-centered and immature stance toward life, and into a more God-centred and global sense of life’s meaning.
Today’s Psalm says, don’t be like a horse or mule, which require a bit and bridle (external restraints) or else they don’t know what to do or how to behave. Mere obedience is not enough; part of being a mature Christian means having the courage and capacity to interpret scripture to apply to one’s own circumstances, and adapt and improvise, instead of taking a simplistic, legalistic and literal approach. We can’t just stand there pleading, “Please, someone, tell me what to do!” Mature spiritual life is much more complicated and difficult than that and that is why it requires courage and wisdom and discernment, as well as the willingness to act in faith.
I remember causing the EfM students I was mentoring years ago a lot of anxiety when I resisted being the answer man for all their questions. “What do YOU think?” was already central to my approach to adult learning, and though they resisted at first, eventually they began to trust their own questions, perceptions and insights, rather than just automatically bowing to authority.
Children demand certainty and control and guarantees of safety. Adults know better. Children want magical and instant solutions to things. Adults know you have to work at it.
Adam and Eve are portrayed as not really knowing who they are and they are easily influenced by external forces. Jesus, by spending time in the wilderness – going within – coming to know himself from the inside out – has become capable of walking the path he is meant to walk, and will not be deflected from it – even if someone is quoting scripture to persuade him. Jesus emerges from the desert not merely a “son” but as a man – as a force to be reckoned with.
So the journey into the wilderness is the journey of becoming the full person God called us to be, which may mean departing from old ways of understanding scripture, church, worship, ethics and even God.
Lent is a time when we allow the Spirit to lead us into the wilderness – into encounter with our own demons and temptations and false gods. Letting go of certain habits and worldly signs of status or power is a good way of engaging the challenge of transition from child to adult, from bystander to disciple, victim to victor.
As we engage in our Lenten disciplines, may we be led to a deeper understanding of our true nature, and a closer relationship with the true and living God.
The Ven. Grant Rodgers+
*FOWLER’S STAGES OF FAITH (simplified version by M. Scott Peck)
Stage 1 Intuitive-Projective
This is the stage of preschool children in which fantasy and reality often get mixed together. However, during this stage, our most basic ideas about God are usually picked up from our parents and/or society.
People stuck at this stage are usually self-centered and often find themselves in trouble due to their unprincipled living. If they do end up converting to the next stage, it often occurs in a very dramatic way.
Stage 2 Mythic-Literal
When children become school-age, they start understanding the world in more logical ways. They generally accept the stories told to them by their faith community but tend to understand them in very literal ways. [A few people remain in this stage through adulthood.]
Stage 3 Synthetic-Conventional
Most people move on to this stage as teenagers. At this point, their life has grown to include several different social circles and there is a need to pull it all together. When this happens, a person usually adopts some sort of all-encompassing belief system. However, at this stage, people tend to have a hard time seeing outside their box and don’t recognize that they are “inside” a belief system. At this stage, authority is usually placed in individuals or groups that represent one’s beliefs. [This is the stage in which many people remain.]
At this stage people rely on some sort of institution (such as a church) to give them stability. They become attached to the forms of their religion and get extremely upset when these are called into question.
This is the tough stage, often begun in young adulthood, when people start seeing outside the box and realizing that there are other “boxes”. They begin to critically examine their beliefs on their own and often become disillusioned with their former faith. Ironically, the Stage 3 people usually think that Stage 4 people have become “backsliders” when in reality they have actually moved forward.
Those who break out of the previous stage usually do so when they start seriously questioning things on their own. A lot of the time, this stage ends up being very non-religious and some people stay in it permanently
It is rare for people to reach this stage before mid-life. This is the point when people begin to realize the limits of logic and start to accept the paradoxes in life. They begin to see life as a mystery and often return to sacred stories and symbols but this time without being stuck in a theological box.
People who reach this stage start to realize that there is truth to be found in both the previous two stages and that life can be paradoxical and full of mystery. Emphasis is placed more on community than on individual concerns.
Few people reach this stage. Those who do live their lives to the full in service of others without any real worries or doubts.
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.'” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.
Psalm 32 Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Happy are those to whom the LORD imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you; at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them. You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance. I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you. Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near you. Many are the torments of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the LORD. Be glad in the LORD and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.
Romans 5:12-19 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned — sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come. But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.
Matthew 4:1-11 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”
But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'” Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
Questions for discussion:
What are some of the major transitions the Church has been through in the last 30—40 years?
What has been the most challenging for you?
What was your most difficult life transition?
How did you feel?
What helped make it possible?
How would you describe the transition we are undertaking now as we leave the old St Margaret’s and St John’s behind in order to become a new parish?
What do you find strange about the new place we’re in?