What do you expect it to be like when you meet Jesus?
And then: what is it like when you actually meet Jesus?
We are early on the Gospel of Mark. Mark is the shortest Gospel, it is probably the oldest, and it is the one that tells the story of Jesus with the most urgency. It has this driving, and then, and then, and then quality to it. Mark does not give us a nativity, he does not give us a genealogy, he does not give us the cosmic preamble that we have in John.
What Mark gives us is John the Baptist foretelling Jesus and then baptising Jesus; Jesus being driven by the Spirit into the wilderness; Jesus calling Simon and Andrew and James and John; and then the scene that we witness today. (We’re still in the first Chapter!) This is a scene that offers a possible answer to our opening questions: What do we expect it to be like when we meet Jesus? And what is it like when we actually meet Jesus?
Jesus is teaching in the synagogue. If we feel like imagining this scene in the present day, maybe we can picture him standing at the front of our church. He is teaching. And people are amazed – because, the text says, he has authority. There is something about his words, his stories, just who he is, that tells people that he is telling the truth.
And no sooner has Mark set up this scene than conflict or crisis shoots into the middle of it like a lightning bolt. Someone with an unclean spirit shows up. Unclean spirit is a category that we don’t know much about in 2021. It assumes a fundamentally different worldview than I have and, I’m guessing, than you have. If you haven’t seen the person who lives next to you for a while and you ask another neighbour what happened to them, you’d probably be surprised and confused if your neighbour said, “Oh, Doug has an unclean spirit.”
Even if we don’t have a common vocabulary, however, we do know what it is like when someone is in distress. And this man person shows up all of a sudden in this scene is in profound distress. They are hurting in a big way.
Something fascinating happens then, something that will repeat throughout Jesus’ ministry: the hurting person or, to use the language of Mark, the unclean spirit within the hurting person recognises Jesus right away. Sometimes the disciples are slow to figure out who Jesus is and what he must do. And someone like Pilate never figures out who Jesus is. But this unclean person, this hurting person has no question:
I know who you are,
You are the Holy One of God.
And maybe this makes sense. Because it is often in our distress, in our pain, in our loneliness, in our lostness that God shows up to us most clearly. When I speak with people in hospital or hospice beds, they will regularly tell me that their prayer life, that their conversation with God, has a clarity that it never had before. I don’t think that’s because God is any more present when we are suffering than when we are washing the dishes or when we are in a moment of jubilation. But I do suspect that, in our suffering, it’s sometimes easier for us to notice God.
Now, pay attention to what else this hurting person says next:
Have you come to destroy us?
While being possessed by an unclean spirit may be outside of our experience, I want to suggest that this next part is not, that these words are not. Many of us have inherited this idea that, when we stand before God, what we will encounter from God is disappointment, condemnation, rejection, and the harshest kind of judgment. Many of us suspect that when we arrive at the gates of heaven, Saint Peter won’t have a room ready for us. We wonder, we fear, in other words, that what we can expect from God is violence.
We ask Jesus:
Have you come to destroy us?
But what Jesus offers is healing.
Come out of him! Jesus says to the unclean spirit. And the man is healed, he is set free. And maybe – I don’t know if this is a weird idea – the unclean spirit is also healed and set free. The two are no longer bound together in pain.
If your answer to the question, What do you expect it to be like when you meet Jesus? Is I expect pain and rejection and violence then this story is for you.
There is an old and beloved hymn called There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy. The words were written by a guy by the name of Frederick Faber. And one of the verses goes like this:
There is no place where earth’s sorrows
Are more felt than up in Heaven;
There is no place where earth’s failings
Have such kindly judgment given.
That hymn is about the whole earth. And it is about you in particular. We all fail. I sure do. And what we can expect from Jesus, what Jesus promises, is kindly judgment. Again, Alleluia.
What do you expect it to be like when you meet Jesus?
And then: what is it like when you actually meet Jesus?
Whatever you may expect from Jesus, know that meeting him is always, always a joy that is more than we can ask or imagine. Know that when you meet him you will find kindly judgment, you will find freedom, you will find love.
My public school career began a handful of years before the video cassette became commonplace. And so my early experience with watching films in a classroom featured a member of the AV Club rolling a cart with a projector on it into the room. Those projectors had a particular smell: cellulose and frayed vinyl and burnt dust. And they made a particular sound they made as they fired up.
A second or two after that sound began images would flash onto the screen, the first few featuring numbers, some of which counted you down into the film and others of which served a purpose that I have never learned. The numbers were accompanied by holes burnt into the film by misadventures gone by.
And then the film began.
Some of the films were educational: here’s what it’s like to work at a factory where they manufacture a certain kind of product; here’s what it’s like to be an Olympic-level swimmer or diver; here’s what it might have been like to live in a cabin in the 18th Century. As many or more were whimsical or goofy. I remember a film that featured a bear chasing a bunch of people (I don’t know any more why the bear wanted to catch them; it wasn’t especially angry). It included a scene in which the bear strapped on a pair of skis and followed its chasees down a ski slope.
It was after the film ended, however, that the part that my classmates and I really looked forward to began. We would beg our teacher to play the film that we had just watched backwards. I don’t know if you can play a videotape backwards; I imagine that there is a button or an app that would let you play a YouTube video backwards. But with classroom projectors it was easy. The teacher would turn a switch and:
Boom – reversal!
Back at the factory, the product would get unmanufactured, so that the finished items were unsealed from boxes, workers undrilled holes in metal, and a saw took two pieces of wood and cut them into one. At the pool the water started to boil and then a diver went ballistic, shooting feet first up, up, up thirty feet into the air until they came to rest on the diving board. And the bear – wonder of wonders – skied backwards up the ski slope.
My classmates and I laughed hard.
I’m not exactly sure why we found these backwards movies so wonderful. I guess that we loved them because they broke all the rules of the world in a delightful and mischievous and freeing way. I guess that we loved them for the same reason that folks love Lewis Carol and Gilbert and Sullivan. Here was a world of topsy turvy. And, like a lot of things that make us laugh, we sensed something holy in it.
When I first started reading the Bible one of the many things that drew me to it was that this too was a place where I found holy reversal. Jesus is constantly telling stories and creating miracles in which the first are last and the last first, in which those who mourn are blessed, in which there is a divine undoing of what was done before.
A particularly profound example of this reversal is to be found in Jesus’ death and resurrection. In Jesus’ passion, Peter denies Jesus three times, even though he has promised to follow Jesus to no matter what. It is one of the most painful moments in scripture. So what happens in the resurrection when Jesus and Peter meet on the beach? Jesus gives Peter three opportunities to say I love you.
In the resurrection, the film gets played backwards.
Jesus is rooted in what we call the Old Testament. For Jesus and his friends, the Old Testament as we more or less know it is the Bible in its entirety. The Old Testament is the well that waters Jesus’ theological imagination.
And so I guess it ought to be no surprise that holy reversal is found there too.
Today we hear from the Book of Jeremiah. It’s a book that we don’t read from too often in church. Jeremiah these days gets less time in the pulpit than his fellow prophet, Isaiah. And maybe that is because Jeremiah is one of the most difficult books to read in all of scripture. Scholars reckon that it was written over as long as a 200-year period. It contains this jumble of ideas – at times you have the sense that the pages that make up this book were accidentally knocked off of a table and hastily reassembled in random order by a guilty student. And many of Jeremiah’s ideas concern loss, self-doubt, and grief.
Jeremiah centers around Israel’s defeat by the Babylonian Empire, by this time in which Jerusalem was sieged and destroyed and an enormous number of its citizens were sent into exile in Babylon. It is a time of massive society-wide trauma.
And in the passage we hear today, God promises reversal. In words that perhaps inspired the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ promise that those who mourn are blessed for they shall be comforted, God says:
With weeping they shall come,
and with consolations I will lead them back
The weeping is reversed.
To those who are exiled, God says:
See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,
and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth
The exile is reversed.
And one more:
They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion,
and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord
The fear that, maybe, the people have been abandoned by God is reversed.
Here’s the thing about reversal, about the film being played backwards. It’s something different than the things in the film never happening. There is still the work in the factory, still the pool and the diving board, still the bear on the skis. There is still the exile, the suffering, the grief. God doesn’t make these things go away.
What God does it to transform them.
Remember the story of the bereft disciples meeting Jesus on the road to Emmaus. The two friends are gutted by what they have just witnessed in Jerusalem. And Jesus doesn’t make anything that they have seen or endured vanish. What he does is something harder and more complicated and more beautiful. He explains what they have endured – he takes them back through it, here’s that reversal – in a way that makes it new, that invites them into resurrection.
If you’ve ever heard me speak at a funeral, you have probably heard me say that the more I live the less time that I have for the notion of closure – closure being this strange modern idea that we can just seal grief away in a box or in a closet. It doesn’t work. It never works. And so we listen to talk of closure and feel confused and maybe even guilty that our own grief has not been sealed up, that it is still with us day after day and year after year.
We feel this way because closure is a lie. It was never possible. Our griefs don’t go away like that. And God has never promised that our griefs will go away like that. What God has promised is that God will be with us in our grief and that God will, in the fullness of time, transform our grief into resurrection. The grief, the presence of absence, remains. And something new and holy abides there with it.
How much grief and loss and loneliness and disappointment have we endured this past year? If 2020 were a movie it would be a kind of awful one, one that get one star out of five, one that would get destroyed on Rotten Tomatoes.
And so as it ends, we say, Please.
Please, we all say to Jesus, please play this film backwards! After this year we need your holy reversal.
Thankfully, this is the sort of request to which the Son of God always says yes. The old projector is sparking into life once more. And something new is beginning.
Of all the stories that Jesus tells, there are few or maybe none that I find more confusing and more troubling than the one that we just heard. This is the story that is sometimes titled in Bibles: The Parable of the Talents. And I reckon that it troubles me so much because, here in the West, here in 2020, it is so, so easy to read it as an allegory – an allegory that functions as a celebration of individualism, of the wild accumulation of wealth, and of God’s love as something that you and I must earn. And indeed, an allegory for how God will punish us if we do not earn God’s love.
In other words, it is so easy to read this story as an allegory for a very particular, very Western, and very modern way of living your life.
Within this allegorical understanding, the guy with the money is clearly God.
The story goes like this:
Once upon a time, a CEO went on going on a long business trip. And he summoned three senior managers into his corner office, high, high up the in sky. To one manager he gave five billion dollars, to another two billion dollars, to a third one billion dollars.
The first senior manager took the five billion and bought Amazon stock. And he doubled his money. The second took his two billion and bought Home Depot stock. And he doubled his money. The third took his one billion and bought a term deposit. And his investment didn’t even keep up with inflation.
The third senior manager was a total loser.
One day, the CEO came back – the managers knew the time and the hour when the CEO would come back because the CEO’s personal assistant texted them ahead of time – and the CEO summoned the senior managers into his corner office. The first senior manager said, You gave me five billion dollars and I made five billion dollars. Here is ten billion dollars. And he handed over the money. And the CEO said, Well done, good and faithful senior manager. You too shall have a corner office. The first senior manager said, You gave me two billion dollars and I made two billion dollars. Here is four billion dollars. And he handed over the money. And the CEO said, Well done, good and faithful senior manager. You too shall have a corner office. And then the third came forward. (Remember, in jokes and in parables, things happen three times: twice to establish the pattern, a third time to break it.)
Before the third senior manager handed over his money, he made a speech. He explained his actions. He said:
Boss, I know that you are a massive jerk. You take things that don’t belong to you. You’ll do anything to get rich, no matter how much your actions debase you and everyone around you. And because of that I am terrified of you. My knees knock when I am in your presence, I am actively working not to wet my pants right now.
Here’s your one billion dollars.
And the CEO replied:
You know that I take things that don’t belong to me, did you? You know that I will do anything to get rich, did you? Then you should have done like the other senior managers and invested my flipping money. I’m taking your one billion and giving it to the guy with ten billion!
Hey first senior manager! Hey second senior manager! Open the window of my corner office in the sky.
And they did so.
And now grab senior manager three’s legs! Let’s throw this senior manager three out and down, down, down onto the hard pavement below.
And they did so. And as the third manager’s screams receded and then abruptly ended, the CEO looked at senior manager one and senior manager two and he said:
Well. The rich get richer. And the poor get poorer.
The Word of the Lord.
What do we think about that? Via the CEO’s behavior, have we just witnessed the actions of God?
No. No, that cannot be the right reading of this story.
While God totally gives us gifts or talents and God delights when we live into them and we thrive, God does not make God’s love is in any way conditional on what we do with our gifts. God never responds to us by sending us to a place where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. You know that from scripture and from your every encounter with God.
Here’s the good news. Jesus agrees with you.
Here are a few clues.
First, remember that Jesus is telling this story to a group of folks who are living under occupation, most of whom are of modest financial means, many of whom live in poverty. Few or none of the people listening have any firsthand experience with investing, least of all with investing at the scale that Jesus talks about in this story. (There is considerable debate, by the way, as to how much a talent is worth in modern dollars. Some scholars reckon that a talent is equivalent to as much as 20 years wages. Regardless, it is a staggering amount of money.) So, none of these three servants or slaves in the story are going to be someone with whom the listeners identify. This story isn’t a story about them, it isn’t about whether they are trying hard enough in life. Unless you are absurdly wealthy, it probably isn’t a story about you.
Second, notice who gives the moral of the story. Often Jesus will tell us a parable and then, at the end, he will share a moral with us. But that doesn’t happen here. The wealthy man pronounced judgment on the third slave. And then the parable continues. And it is the wealthy man who says, For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The wealthy man isn’t God. The wealthy man is a wealthy man.
Third, Jesus constantly contrasts the Kingdom of God with violent human kingdoms. Jesus consistently says: God’s Kingdom isn’t like Caesar’s. Be not afraid. Do not worry. You don’t have to earn your way in. You aren’t going to get punished if you do it wrong. Remember just a few weeks ago the Parable of the Vineyard. The laggards, the latecomers get paid the same. Jesus tells us this persistently through his teaching. And he tells us most emphatically via the cross, whereby he refuses to respond to Empire’s violence with violence of his own. And notwithstanding his refusal to pick up a sword or a gun or to drop a bomb, he wins anyway. Love wins anyway.
In the resurrection, the Kingdom is victorious. And the only blood that is spilt is that of God’s.
The cross tells us this story ain’t an allegory, that it cannot be an allegory. And I wonder if what I talked about earlier – how this story leaves me confused and troubled – isn’t actually a deliberate choice by Jesus. I wonder if he is saying, through this tale, the same thing that he says when he declares that the love of money is the root of all evil. If you love money, this story says, you will end up doing evil things, things that leave you confused and troubled, things that leave you ashamed and hurt and that leave people around you ashamed and hurt.
Don’t be the sort of person who loves money so much that people fear you: don’t be like the boss. Don’t be the sort of person who loves money so much that you need to be afraid of your boss: don’t be like the servants.
Money’s a tool, sometimes a necessary one. But money is totally unworthy of your heart, of your fidelity, of your worship. So choose the Kingdom. Choose love. Be not afraid. Instead, be free.
 This sermon draws on the work of Sarah Dylan Breuer and Paul Nuechterlein.
If you are listening to this sermon from California or the middle and southern part of Cascadia – Cascadia being that the massive watershed that extends from British Columbia down through Oregon – you have spent a good part of this week underneath an orange and terrifying sky. Folks have described this sky as apocalyptic, as the unveiling of the end of the world. And I get why. The sight would be distressing enough in any year. But then you drop it into 2020 – into the middle of pandemic; into the middle of wildly polarized election; into an economy filled with chaos and loss that we haven’t seen since the end of World War II; into the struggle against police violence and for black dignity – and that orange sky feels like a perverse sacrament, an outward and visible sign of everything that is hurting and broken and wrong.
Underneath that sky, in the middle of all of this turmoil, there is the wee corner of the world that we call Grace Memorial. And in this wee corner, our ministries continue. We continue to worship, to feed the poor, to work towards redeveloping our campus.
And my question for us this morning goes like this: given the enormity of the world’s hurts, do these little things matter?
You don’t have to spend long on Twitter or on TV to encounter folks making that argument about this moment.
Sure, Portland City Council has banned the worst kind of tear gas from our streets, but if a police officer is inclined towards violence they still have rubber bullets and truncheons and other flavours of gas. It doesn’t really matter. Sure, solar panels are nice, but the oil barons are belching smoke into the atmosphere at a pace that we cannot even comprehend and so the forests will keep on burning. It doesn’t really matter. Sure, we could put 80 or 100 units of affordable housing on Grace’s block. But the people living in cars and tents and on the pavement are beyond counting. It doesn’t really matter.
What does Jesus have to say about that?
Today Jesus tells a folk tale about this question. It goes like this.
Once upon a time, there was a man who was heavily in debt. And the person to whom this man was in debt was his boss. He owed his boss ten thousand talents. There are varying estimates as to how much ten thousand talents in today’s dollars, but all of them have a lot of zeroes in them. Folks doing the math reckon that this guy owed his boss somewhere between 3.5 and 9 billion dollars. That’s a lot of talents, an inconceivable amount of money. It would be a defensible paraphrase of Jesus’ story to say that the man owed his boss a gazillion dollars. So, more money than he could pay back in a lifetime, more than he could pay back in ten lifetimes.
The man fell on his face in front of his boss and he made a promise that both of them knew he could not keep: Have patience with me, he said, have patience with me and I’ll pay you back.
What did the boss do then? Did he set up a payment plan? Did he ask for something awful, the way that bosses do sometimes in folk tales? I want your soul? Or I want the life of your first born.
No! The boss forgave the debt in its entirety. He tore up the 4.5 billion dollar promissory note, the pieces of paper fell to the ground like snowy possibility.
The newly forgiven man left high-rise tower where his boss lived, a spring in his step that had not been there in years. I’m free! he sang. Listen birds in the sky, I’m free! Listen trees in the field, I’m free! Listen ground underneath my feet, I’m free! Listen guy I know from work –
But then the man stopped. And looked hard at the guy he knew from work. Wait a minute, he said, Guy from work: you owe me money. You owe me a hundred denarii.
(A hundred denarii, again depending on who you ask, being worth maybe $8700 in today’s dollars.)
The Guy from Work said, Have patience with me. Have patience with me and I’ll pay you back.
This is the same scene that we saw a moment before, except that the man is now in the role of the boss.
No way, he said. You’re going to jail!
And he got out the handcuffs and called the paddy wagon, and things were looking good until his boss came out of the high-rise tower and saw him.
The man stared at his boss in horror. And like a child with his hand in the cookie jar right up to his elbow, he said,
It’s not what it looks like.
And because this is a folk tale gives Jesus gives it an ending that the Brothers Grimm with their love of slapstick violence would approve of. The boss said to his employee:
To the dungeon with you. Where you will be tortured!
What is the moral of the story?
Here’s one possible answer to that question.
Let’s assume that the boss is God. And the employee – that’s you and me. And we owe this debt to God, we owe God a gazillion dollars. This body to walk through the world: God gave it to us. This mind to think: God gave it to us. This heart to love: God gave it to us. The stuff to use, the money to spend: God gave it to us.
We go to God and we say:
I’ll pay you back, I promise. I just need ‘til the weekend.
But God says:
Forget it. Your debt is forgiven.
It is a cosmic, earth-shaking, impossible act of generosity. A debt that we couldn’t pay back in a lifetime, in ten lifetimes: gone.
Now, in addition to all of the other stuff that God has given us, God has given us one more thing. And that is the opportunity to be generous, to give stuff away, free of charge. To imitate God. Now, the stuff that we have to give away isn’t on God’s scale. God has $4.5 billion to forgive. We’ve got something more like $8700.
But here’s the thing that Jesus sure seems to be saying in this folk tale. Even though what we have got is tiny, even though it is a drop in the proverbial bucket, being generous, giving as we have received: this matters. It matters to God. And it matters for our souls. Not because God will torture us if we don’t – that’s a folk tale ending, God is not in the torture business, God never was – but because there is holy freedom in this generosity.
To go around with clenched fists saying, this is mine and you can’t have any: it distorts our souls, it holds us back from the joy of being people with open hands. There is a kind of torture in selfishness. But we are the ones torturing ourselves.
We have the opportunity to be generous. To create just a little housing in a city that needs it so badly. To create just a little community in a city that needs it so badly. To create just a little beauty in a city that needs it so badly. It’s tiny what we can do, tiny compared with what God has done for us. And it matters. It matters to us, it matters to our neighbours, it matters to God.
This is what Jesus does across his life. He lives under brutal occupation, and maybe he is tempted to say that healing a handful of people doesn’t matter. But he heals them anyway. He lives in a time when hunger is known by so, so many, and maybe he is tempted to say that healing a few doesn’t matter. But he heals them anyway. He lives in a time, just like now, when there is no shortage of religious authorities insisting that God is petty and small, and maybe he is tempted to say that telling a story of freedom doesn’t matter. But he tells the story anyway.
Here’s the thing about this folk tale that Jesus tells us today. Jesus gives it an unhappy ending. And in doing so, Jesus is inviting us to rewrite it, to create our own happy ending.
The man comes out the front door of the high-rise door. I’m free! he sings. Listen birds in the sky, I’m free! Listen trees in the field, I’m free! Listen ground underneath my feet, I’m free! Listen guy I know from work… who owes me money.
The two of them look at each other for a second.
And then the man says.
Forget it. Your debt is forgiven.
And The Guy from Work smiles and says thank you. And they he goes on his way. And maybe, he forgives someone else, and maybe they forgive someone else, and maybe they forgive someone else. Maybe this act of generosity begins a virtuous cycle, a holy cycle. But we don’t know about that. Because the camera stays on the first man, the man who owed his boss a gazillion dollars and now owes him nothing. The man who a second ago, was owed $8700, and now is owed nothing.
You’d think it would sting to be out that money. $8700 isn’t $4.5 billion. But nor is it nothing. But the man realizes that in forgiving this debt, there is, somehow, impossibly, even more spring in his step than there was a second ago. He goes on his way whistling a tune. He goes on his way, free.
Just before the climax of a great many books and movies and plays, there is a speech that changes everything.
The speech comes at halftime at the big game or on the eve of the final battle or as the ragtag bunch of misfits are about to descend into the cave or the dungeon or the sewer and face the monster. Morale is low, our protagonists are figuratively and sometimes literally on their knees. And the speech – given by the coach, the queen, the least socially awkward of the misfits – is what allows them to get up and continue.
Jesus gives a speech like that today. There are twelve people in Jesus’ gang of misfits, twelve people plus Jesus himself to make a Messiah’s Dozen. Let’s imagine that you and I are each one of the twelve. Jesus gathers us in the locker room – if you’re following along at home, we’re at the very beginning of Chapter Ten in Matthew’s version of this story – and he stands up on one of the benches, he takes a breath, and he proceeds to give us a speech so alarming and strange and beautiful that it would get a lesser coach fired, fired even before he stepped down back onto the locker room floor.
The speech begins this way, with two instructions:
First, Jesus says, you have authority. You have authority to cast out demons and to heal everything and everyone and to raise the dead.
Maybe we look at each in confusion. Do we have that authority? These kind of seem like varsity level miracles. But before anyone can put their hand up to ask a clarifying question, Jesus keeps on going.
Second, do not get ready. Don’t take money, don’t take a change of clothes, leave your smart phones at home.
Now, if any of you were Boy or Girl Scouts you will know that even though the speech has barely begun, Baden Powell is audibly grinding his teeth right now. Do not be prepared, Jesus says. Not even a little bit.
Unprepared, Jesus says, you are to go. You are to leave this building, go outside, go into the community, and there you are to proclaim the good news. You are to say:
The kingdom of heaven
has come near.
Now, if folks welcome you, let your peace be upon them. But if they don’t welcome you…
And maybe some of us start rubbing our hands together now, because if Jesus has given us the authority to heal and cast out demons and raise the dead, then Jesus must also be giving us the power to destroy anyone who crosses us. We’re waiting for him to give us laser vision and Spiderman webs enough strength to lift someone in the air and huck them into next week. We are going to mop the floor with these suckers.
If folks don’t welcome you, Jesus says, then clean off your shoes. Shake the dust off of them. And then keep on going. There will be judgment. But that is God’s work. Not yours.
And then Jesus keeps on going:
You are going to be handed over, Jesus says – handed over meaning being put into the back of the truck or the train or into the room without windows, the bolt in the door sliding hard into place behind you. Handed over meaning that control over your life belongs to someone else. You will be beaten and dragged before the authorities.
And then Jesus repeats the instruction:
Do not get ready. Do not be prepared. You might want to prepare a defence, but don’t.
You don’t need to. The Spirit of your Father will speak through you.
Do not be afraid, Jesus says.
But then he adds something that, maybe, sounds less than reassuring.
Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, nothing is secret that will not be known.
Again we look at each other: Nothing? Including that time that I…
Jesus, Is this good news?
And Jesus says: Do not be afraid.
You might think I have come to bring peace. I haven’t. I have come to bring brass knuckles, a gun, a sword. I have come to set son against father, daughter against mother, daughter-in-law against mother-in-law. If there is a relationship in which one person has power over another, I am going to turn that into a fight.
This is the part of the speech that changes everything in which Jesus’ voice is getting louder, his gestures more animated, the spit leaving his holy lips with greater velocity.
Take up your cross.
Take it up. Whoever welcomes you welcomes me and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward. Whoever welcomes a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward.
And then, after all of that, here comes the climax of the speech. Jesus says this part quietly.
Whoever gives a cup of cold water to one of these little ones – they will never lose their reward.
These are the orders. This is the end of the speech.
This speech is alarming and strange and beautiful. It is so, so confusing. And here at the end, it is so, so simple.
Could it possibly be that simple?
Could it be that the test for whether or not you and I are following the Gospel is really as simple as the question: Did we give a cup of cold water to the little ones? Did we give a cup of cold water to the ones who thirst?
Jesus steps down off the bench and walks out of the room. He leaves us there with the echo of his words. Jesus has given the speech that changes everything. And now. Now you and I have to decide if we will do as he has told us.
I don’t know about you, but I am exhausted.
I am physically exhausted, emotionally exhausted, spiritually exhausted, full of grief. There has been so much loss and hurt and anxious uncertainty during this pandemic. To use the particular example of church, the appearance of Covid-19, partway through this past winter, forced us radically reinvent our models for community. Suddenly, without really any runway to work with, Jeanne and you and me were asking the question: what does being church right now look like? It’s been cool to answer that question with you. And it’s also been one of the most intense things that I have ever done, certainly the most intense thing that I have ever done in and around a church.
And then the reappearance of the America’s ancient pandemic, which is racism or white supremacy, added another layer. Well, that last sentence is probably inaccurate, because reappearance implies that white supremacy went away for a while. And it did not. What we had was a forceful reminder of America’s ancient pandemic via George Floyd’s murder, via the subsequent protests, and via the violence which so many of those protests have been greeted.
I’m going to admit that I am a little nervous about sharing my exhaustion with you, my grief with you. I am nervous because I am someone who really likes to appear to be calm and in control, and to visibly be neither of these things is hard. And I am nervous as well because I hear and applaud the activists who say: White people. Don’t you make this moment about you. Amen. Folks like me mustn’t do that.
There are three reasons that I am choosing to fight through my nervousness and name my exhaustion with you. First, my sense from talking with so many of you is that this exhaustion is something in which a lot of you share. One of you this week, when sharing with me about the experience of watching the police raining tear gas down on protestors, described your feelings of helplessness. I know about that helplessness. Another one of you spoke of the fear that you are feeling. I know about that fear. Still another one of you spoke of your grief. I know about that grief. Many of you have spoken about your anger at watching still more violence against black bodies. I know about that anger. And equally many of you have told me about the loss that is to unable to touch, to hug friends or children or grandchildren. I know about that loss.
We have a deep need as human beings to know that our hurt is seen. And I see your hurt. I see you.
Second, if my experience is anything like what is typical, you may be feeling confused or conflicted or even embarrassed about your fear or your grief or your helplessness. My colleague Sylvia is an inveterate youth minister, and she spent a number of years working with youth in a thoroughly privileged context. And what Sylvia says is that a number of the youth with whom she worked became depressed and they had this double challenge that not only did they have to battle depression but they had to battle the shame that they felt about their depression. They were aware that they were privileged and, indeed, radically privileged, that there were millions if not billions of people in the world who did not have the resources that they had. How silly, how pathetic, they thought to themselves, that I have all of this and I am depressed.
Maybe, if you are like me, you are experiencing something similar now. I am well fed, I am financially stable, I am about as safe as it is possible to be. Is it pathetic or unworthy of mention that I am exhausted, that I am encountering grief and anger and helplessness? Maybe this is stuff about which I should just put away, that I should just keep to myself.
Except – and I say this at just about every funeral at which I have the privilege of serving at – trying to put away grief never, never, never works. The idea of achieving closure on grief is one of the most destructive notions circulating in our culture. You cannot close a box on grief.
Perhaps you had the experience as a child of being at a swimming pool or in a lake or the ocean and trying to hold a ball underwater. It takes all of your effort, all of your concentration, to hold that ball down. And the instant that either your focus or your grip slips, that ball will go ballistic and smack you in the face. Trying to deny our exhaustion, our grief, our anger – trying to achieve closure on it – is just the same. We will end up a prisoner of our exhaustion and our grief. What if, therefore, naming our hurt is not an impediment to participating in working for justice but is actually a prerequisite for it? What if doing the work of grieving is what is going to permit us to let go of that ball, let it float to the surface, so that we can focus on what matters, which is declaring and insisting that black lives matter.
Third, and last of all – and here I am drawing on the wonderful Jesuit Priest, James Martin – what if our anger, our sadness, our grief, our exhaustion is something holy and, therefore, something worthy of our attention? What if what we are hearing through this emotion is our conscience speaking or, if you prefer, is the Holy Spirit speaking, is God speaking?
When you see something deeply unjust, it is a risk that we will slip into despair. But what if the heavy emotion that you feel – and that millions and millions of other people feel – is the emotion of God. What if that is evidence that God is with us?
There is a famous icon of the Trinity. I’ve shared this with you before, but it bears repeating on this Trinity Sunday. It is an image of three people, all but identical. In some understandings or readings, these are the three who visit Abraham and Sarah in their tent. In every reading, these three are the Trinity: Creator, Redeemer, and Friend; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Infinity, Immanence, and Intimacy.
In the lower part of the of the icon there is a patch of what some folks think is glue. And there is a guess that what was glued upon it was a mirror. If that’s right, then there is a fourth member to the Trinity. And that is you. And me. And everyone else.
Look into that mirror and see. That God is with us. That God shares with us in our exhaustion and grief. That our divine shared hurt is evidence of God’s longing for wholeness, for love, for justice, for what the Kingdom. That they are proof that God is with us and that, as we act to bring justice nearer, to bring the dignity of every human being closer to reality, to insist that black lives matter, that God will act with us.
It is the Feast of Pentecost and it is an overcast day in Portland, Oregon. The sermon that you are about to hear is one that I recorded several days ago and that I wrote several days before that. And while there is lots that is awesome about pre-recording things – as you will see in the sermon, you can do things when you pre-record that you can’t do in real time – there’s also some limitations built into it. And one of the big limitations is that you are preaching from the past, you are not speaking in the present moment.
And because in the sermon I am preaching from the past, I do not explicitly mention the murder of George Floyd, nor do I explicitly mention the subsequent protests against police violence, against white supremacy in our culture. And that’s something that I would do if I were giving this sermon in real time with you this morning, I’d make some real-time edits to it to speak to those subjects that are so much on my heart and so much on so many of your hearts right now.
I think in many ways these subjects are present in this sermon: it’s a reflection about trauma and about loss and about grief and about injustice and about how God is present in these things. But it doesn’t speak to George Floyd explicitly or police violence explicitly, and I wish that it did.
One of the great prophets of or time is Austin Channing Brown. A prophet being, in the Biblical sense, not a fortune teller but a present teller. And she shared something recently that I’d like to share with you this morning. It’s a little reflection called Trouble the Narrative. And it goes like this:
If you think all we need for this moment in history is to ask “What would MLK do?” It’s time for you to trouble the narrative. It’s time for you to move beyond simplistic, convenient narratives and wrestle with complexity and nuance. It’s easy to believe that the 1960s had only one leader, MLK, and that he led the perfect protests and that those protests are what led to change. And as much as I honor King, that is entirely ahistorical. The 1960s were filled with protests like King’s but also rebellions (riots) like the ones we’ve seen over the last few years. Both forms of protest put pressure on politicians. Both forms of protest were covered by media. Both forms of protest were in a tug and pull with one another. Both forms of protest were met with violence. Both forms of protest have always existed- together, in one exhale of the Black community. It is, quite frankly, lazy to accept child-like answers to questions like “what would King say?” Or “what would Jesus do?” Or “but isn’t violence always wrong?” Or “does the gospel have anything to do with race?” Or “but aren’t we all just human?” Or “but why can’t they just xyz?” TROUBLE THE NARRATIVE. King was human- growing, learning constantly. And since MLK was assassinated we have no idea what he would think about the fact that cops are still killing Black civilians in 2020. Trouble the narrative. Jesus held a one man riot over capitalism in the temple, but you think he’d be calm about George Floyd? Trouble the narrative. You find violence intolerable when it’s poor Black folks, but not when it’s white folks after a football game? Not when it’s America’s wars? Not when it’s stand your ground? Not when it’s ICE or patrols at the border? Trouble the narrative. History, Scripture, Social Revolutions, Black Struggle cannot be boiled down into one convenient sentence. It’s condescending, lazy, and uneducated. It’s thoughtless. And thoughtless isn’t what we need right now. Trouble the narratives of white supremacy and anti-blackness. Or else we will keep repeating this cycle.
[A pause. Then.]
In the list of universal, or close to universal, human experiences, lying on your back in the summertime has got to be somewhere near the top. The warmth of the ground, the hum of the afternoon, the song of the birds, the buzz of insects. Maybe, if you listen closely enough, even the heartbeat of the earth, far below your body.
Sometimes, when I do this, when I lay on my back in the summer, I imagine that I can actually feel the spinning of the globe. And so I hold on to the sod, lest the centripetal force hurl me up, up and away. Even in the stillness of the grass, this holding on is just a little bit thrilling.
And then there is the sky above. Our ancestors – some of them – anyway, reckoned that they were looking at a great body of water in the sky, an ocean above them. This is why the creation story at the start of Genesis speaks of the waters above in addition to the waters below. The waters above are held in place by a great dome. Except sometimes, the dome leaks a little, and rain falls upon us.
Every day at dusk, the waters drain out of the sky, and the sun, maybe in a chariot, rides to the far side of the mountains and the far side of the waters below. And we are left with the new mystery, which is the night sky and the stars.
But right now it is neither raining nor nighttime. Right now is the warmth and the still of the summer day.
Underneath the dome but still above you and me are the clouds.
That one looks like a dog.
The one looks like a dragon. You can see the scales on its tail.
If I am right in guessing that this experience is universal or almost universal, then Jesus did this very thing, lying on his back in the grass looking up at what are sometimes called the heavens. And Jesus’ friends did it too: Peter and John and James, the sons of thunder, and Martha and Mary and the other Mary. Up they looked. Together.
Until one day, after the resurrection, all of the friends looked up and, as they looked, they realised that Jesus was gone from their peripheral vision. The indentation that he left in the grass was still there, but Jesus was not. Had he gone for a drink of water? Gone for a walk? Or just plain old gone, disappeared the way that Jesus sometimes did.
He had been disappearing a lot since the morning when they found his tomb empty.
But then one of them spotted him.
At first he was just a handful of yards up in the air. But then more, and more, like he was holding onto those great cluster of helium balloons like they have in comic books. As he rose, Jesus didn’t talk and his friends didn’t talk. His friends lay there and they watched him get smaller and smaller and smaller until, maybe, he was even with the clouds and then passing through a cloud, slipping out of vision and then back into the blue again. Until finally they could not see him at all.
In music, they speak of the reprise of a theme. Sometimes the reprise has variations. One of my favourite pieces of music is Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini. Do you know it?
It goes like that. The theme is simple enough. But then the piano and the wider orchestra does one amazing thing after another with that first handful of notes. These variations are beautiful and new again and again and again. The original theme is always preserved – the variations are like turning a crystal in the sun and seeing light upon light.
The Ascension of Jesus followed by the coming of the Holy Spirit is a kind of reprise or variation on the cross and the resurrection. In both Luke and Acts – two books that are written by the same person, Luke being the only of the Gospel writers who felt that the Gospel needed a sequel – the same sequence or pattern takes place around both events.
In both cases, Jesus has this conversation with his friends in which they ask when he is going to restore Israel’s fortunes, when he is going to put things right, when he is going to lead a revolution. In both cases, Jesus replies with a mystical and a strange and an unsatisfactory answer. Jesus is then lifted up – first, onto the cross, second into the air – as his friends watch in confusion and horror: We can’t be losing him. In both cases, the friends in their grief focus on the place where they last saw his body: the tomb, the sky. In both cases these two men in white robes appear. And they say: Why are you looking for him here?
And in both cases, a little time passes then. Until one day, not so long after Jesus left and the men in the robes appeared, Jesus’ friends encounter God in a new way. First in the raised and contradictory body of Jesus – murdered and yet alive, instantly recognisable and yet not recognisable at all, eating and drinking and yet passing through doors. And then second in the coming of the Spirit. The Spirit which is like a violent wind, which is like fire, which is like being filled up, which is like being able to communicate without limitation, which is like blood and fire and mist, which is like prophecy, which is like dreaming dreams, which is like being drunk at nine in the morning.
The Spirit which is like holy possibility.
But the Disciples don’t know any of that as they look upon the cross and then look up into the empty sky. On these moments, all that they see is loss, all that they know is grief.
Very truly, I tell you,
Jesus once said to them,
unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain;
but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
So much has changed. We have lost so, so much. What if this moment, as we look into the blue emptiness, is when God is doing a new thing? What if we will look back on this day and we say, that is the day when the wonder began, that is the day when the Spirit came among us?
Jesus heard that they had driven the man out, and when Jesus found him, he said,
Do you believe in the Son of Man?
The man answered,
And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.
Jesus said to him,
You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.
This year in Lent, the lectionary – the schedule of readings that we follow across the year – gives us a series of questions posed to Jesus. Two weeks ago, Nicodemus came to Jesus in the dark, in the night, and asked:
How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?
One week ago, the unnamed woman at the well came to Jesus in the day, at high noon when there is most light, and asked:
Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?
Next week, as Jesus gets ready to go to Bethany, where Mary and Martha and Lazarus in his tomb await, the disciples will ask Jesus:
Rabbi, the crowd was just now trying to stone you. And are you going there again?
And today, the disciples ask a question with which you and I may be familiar:
Whose fault is it?
Whose fault is it? being an ancient question, a question as old as human beings and as old as language. This time, whose fault is it? takes the form of a question about theology and about disability:
Who sinned? This man or his parents, that he was born blind?
Given that whose fault is it? is an ancient question, given that it is wired into the human condition, I’m going to venture that every one of us knows a bunch about this question, that every one of us has asked it more than once.
I grew up in Canada and, therefore, I am constitutionally required to dream of playing professional hockey. Whose fault is it that I have neither the skill not the physique for that dream to ever come true? I spent high school secretly in love with Christy Crookall. Whose fault is it that we never went out on a date? (Well, maybe that’s a bad example. I have some idea whose fault that is.) When I started as Grace’s Rector almost five years ago, I thought that I would have access to all of these mentors, all of these elders who had been in my life for years and who had shared their wisdom and experience with me for years. But then one after another of them died: my friend Chris; my father-in-law, Bob; my teacher, Don. Whose fault it is that they died?
Or to choose the example that we are, all of us, living right now: Whose fault is it that we are enduring a global pandemic?
The disciples come to Jesus and they ask: Whose fault is it? Who sinned? And Jesus says:
Nobody sinned. Neither the man nor his parents.
And then having answered the question in with these words, Jesus goes on. He says something more and he does something more. He says:
The man was born blind so that God’s work might be revealed in him.
And then in a startlingly intimate gesture, one that is probably shocking in our regular, 21st-Century understanding of germ theory and that is especially shocking during these days of social distancing, Jesus makes a paste out of dirt and his own spit and massages it with his fingers onto the man’s eye. Go and wash, he says (just like past two weeks, here is water: remember Nicodemus and the water of birth, remember the Woman and the water in the well) and when the man comes back, he can see.
The end. And they lived happily ever after.
Except that isn’t the end. Unlike the Gospel of Mark, where the story tends to move on from miracle to miracle in an almost breathless way, John keeps the camera lingering on this scene. And as John does, we see that the follow-up to the man’s healing is hardship, it is scepticism and accusation. The man gets cross examined, his parents get cross examined. The religious authorities can’t believe or, maybe, they can’t tolerate that Jesus has performed an unscheduled and unauthorized miracle.
Even though there is healing, even though Jesus is present, brokenness and hurt remain. Jesus gives us something more difficult and more complicated than a happy ending.
What if we decide that this story is about us right now? We come to Jesus, and we say:
Whose fault is it?
Who sinned that there is a pandemic rewriting our economy and our lives?
And Jesus replies:
Nobody sinned. Not you, not your parents. This happened so that God’s work might be revealed.
And then he heals us.
And then, notwithstanding the revelation and the healing, things stay difficult and complicated.
What might that mean? How might that be good news?
Now, two caveats before I go on. First, there is no question that there are things our leaders could have done better, things that we as a society could be doing better right now. Our response has been too blasé and too selfish for too long. For five Senators to be briefed on COVID-19 and to use that information to sell their personal stocks – well, that is pathetic and selfish and unethical in equal measure.
Second, I don’t want to suggest that God caused this pandemic, that God dropped COVID-19 upon us like frogs onto Egypt. God does not introduce suffering into our lives. But, as Richard Rohr said just a couple of days ago, I am convinced that God does use our suffering to teach us.
Those two caveats named, this whole thing is no one’s fault. As far as we know, there is no Pandora who found a can labelled COVID-19 with big red letters on the top that read, Do not open, and said to herself: I wonder what happens if I open this?
Nobody sinned, not you nor your parents.
Here is how, maybe, Jesus is healing us and will heal us, how God’s work is and will be revealed in this time of crisis, and how things will remain messy and complicated anyway. I’m going to focus on five heavily overlapping categories. Let’s call them justice, humility, lament, community, and sabbath.
Justice. As with so many crises – think of the hurricane that hit New Orleans fifteen years ago – the crisis that is COVID-19 is most magnified for those whom Jesus calls the least of these, our siblings. To have access to health care is a privilege. To have the kind of job, as I do, in which working remotely is possible is a privilege. To have a home and to be able to stay in it when I feel sick is a privilege. Many people have few or none of those privileges. And one of my hopes for this time is that we will remember our duty – and duty is an old-fashioned word, but it’s the one that fits right now – to those with few or no privileges.
I am enormously encouraged that, after being stalled out for 16 years, the federal government has passed legislation mandating sick leave for employees. Now, those who study legislation say that it doesn’t go far enough, that there are too many exceptions. But it remains a meaningful step closer to justice. And even if you don’t particularly care about justice, it remains a meaningful step closer to a less icky world. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be at a restaurant in which the chef is there and cooking even though they have a gastrointestinal complaint because they can’t afford to stay home.
In a similar vein, I am so heartened by the sudden and radical reduction in pollution above the factories of China, a change that we might call justice for God’s creation. What if this whole thing were a reset button and we decided that we didn’t want to go back to frantic pollution? What if this whole thing were an invitation into deeper justice, into remembering the dignity of every human being and of all creation?
Humility. As Paul famously says, there is a deep temptation to look upon those outside of our family or city or state or country, maybe even those outside of ourselves, those who aren’t me, and say to them:
I have no need of you.
I can do everything I need on my own. And by that what we generally mean is that there is credit limit enough on our Mastercards to pay our bills. And so we move through the world a little bit like gods, independent and in no way interdependent, in no way reliant on one another or on God.
A crisis like this one reveals that such a story was always high fiction, that autonomous individualism was always a God damn lie. We are here for our sojourn on this earth thanks to God’s pleasure and thanks to the cooperation and support and generosity and kindness of our neighbors.
May we humble enough to recognise that and say thanks for that.
Lament. We live in a culture that is profoundly uncomfortable with grief. That is in a mad hurry to get over loss, to get back to mandatory optimism. And there is a huge cost to living in this way. We are deprived the gifts of grief.
Our own John Hammond, who is one of the kindest and happiest and most loving people I know, describes himself as being in an apprenticeship with grief. I want to suggest that his apprenticeship correlates heavily with his kindness and his happiness and his loving nature. By giving full expression to his tears, John is able to give full expression to his joy. The two: they are inseparable. Grief is the price of admission for love.
The ancients new this. A full third of the psalms are psalms of lament. These are psalms in which people of deep, deep faith say: why? Why is the world like this? Why, God, aren’t you doing your job? What if we could express that kind of lamentation? Maybe we might discover a little bit of the joy that John knows.
Community. And this one overlaps pretty heavily with justice and humility – what if we rediscovered that we live in neighbourhoods? What if we rediscovered our vocations as neighbours? Here at Grace, we have created Circles of Caring, inviting us into to stay in community and to move deeper into community as we weather this storm. It is my hope that some of the friendships that we discover during this crisis will remain come its conclusion. And where we live, what if we found deeper relationship with the people who live next door and down the street? What if, both inside and outside of church, we asked the questions that my colleague Alissa Newton crafted and that Jeanne shared with us this past week:
- How is the Physical Health of your Household?
- How is the Mental Health of your Household?
- What do you need?
- What can you offer?
Sabbath. There is a beautiful poem that more than one of you have sent my way. It is by Lynn Ungar and it is called Pandemic. It begins this way:
What if you thought of it as the Jews
consider the Sabbath— the most sacred of
I’ve lost track of how many people have told me across the years that some unwelcome and unchosen event – a car accident, an illness, a job loss, some other tragedy – was the first time that they had slowed down in years. I didn’t want it to happen, they say, I wish it hadn’t happened, but in a funny way, that time in the hospital bed was a gift. I was still enough, silent enough to understand things about myself and about the world andabout God.
What if this unwelcome and unchosen event were something that kind of gift, if it were something like a sabbath for our whole culture? An opportunity to be still and to know God?
So: justice, humility, lament, community, and sabbath. Five ways, maybe, that Jesus is healing us and that Jesus will heal us. Five ways, maybe, that God’s work is being and will be revealed. The messiness remains, the hurt remains. But even in Lent, Alleluia, Jesus is in the middle of it. Even in Lent, we kneel before him and say, Lord, I believe.
This is the story of the man, the woman, the snake, and God.
God has set up this garden, this paradise. In it, there is everything a human being could need, everything that a human being could want. The weather is so pleasant and the conditions otherwise so favourable that it doesn’t even occur to anyone to wear clothes. And the food! If you want a carrot, just pull it out of the ground. If you want a smoothie, pluck a mango and turn on the geothermic-steam-powered blender. If you want a BLT, go to the bacon bush.
But God says: Do not do one thing. Everything but this one tree you may touch. This tree, you must leave alone.
But our heroes can’t do it, won’t do it. In what is officially a staple of folk tales and horror movies – don’t look in the room in the back of the house, don’t open the box, don’t read out loud from that alarming leather-bound book that you found in the cabin’s basement – the delay between God’s command and humanity’s breaking of that command is measured in minutes.
The serpent shows up and says: God doesn’t want you to touch that tree, to eat of it, because God knows how awesome it is. And God doesn’t want to share that awesomeness with you. Which is totally selfish of God.
To which the woman replies,
But God said that if we ate of that tree, we would die.
The serpent smiles in a serpent-like way. You aren’t going to die.
You’re just going to know things.
And so the woman eats. And she gives the fruit to the man and he eats.
Thanks to oil paintings, this is the moment in the scene when we maybe hear the crunch of apples. But actually, the text just says fruit tree. If you want to imagine the man and the woman peeling oranges or the juices of cherries running down their chins, you totally can.
They finish eating. They look at one another. And everything changes.
The serpent was telling the truth. But he wasn’t telling the whole truth or nothing but the truth. Our heroes do indeed know things now. And they don’t die, not this instant. But they do know about death and they know that it applies to them. And this knowing itself is a kind of death. And they know as well that they are naked. And so they sew themselves clothes out leaves.
This is the beginning of fashion. It is the beginning of shame.
What is the moral of this story?
Here are three possible morals.
One. This is a story about the origins of sin.
Maybe you know how this one goes. This is the moral that you will get if you are hearing this story while sitting on Saint Augustine’s knee. In Uncle Auggie’s telling, this is when sin shows up, even though that word appears nowhere in the text. Even more specifically, this is when original sin shows up.
Things were perfect. And then through our sin we ruined it. Or if you’re feeling misogynistic (and let’s tell the truth, the institutional church knows a thing or three about misogyny), things were perfect and then the woman ruined it. Either way, God leaves this wonderful tree, this dessert, in the middle of the garden. And like a kind of crappy, passive-aggressive parent setting a test-slash-trap, God leaves the room and says:
Don’t touch the dessert.
But they do touch the dessert.
And because we are reading this story paired up, thanks to the lectionary, with Paul talking about sin and with another story in which Satan tempts Jesus, we get point and counterpoint. Adam and Eve, the dessert eaters, are the problem: Jesus is the solution.
Now, lest we be too, too hard on Augustine, there probably is something to this reading. (Not the misogyny part but the sin being loose in creation and Jesus being the solution to that part.) This world is not as it ought to be. Most of us, maybe all of us, sense that. I was in a waiting room on Thursday morning and I glanced at a newspaper, the headline of which announced that there were children fleeing Syria who were freezing to death in refugee camps.
That kind of horror: it ought not to exist.
And maybe we need a story that explains how the selfishness and violence that makes that horror possible came into being. Augustine has an answer for us: the very first people broke things and their very first sin is still echoing through the world.
Whether or not we need that explanation, we assuredly need to know that Jesus is present in that refugee camp with those children. We assuredly need to know that Jesus is, indeed, the solution, that as Jesus’ hands and feet in this hurting world, we can change things. There is something unexpectedly and profoundly moving about that old icon in which Jesus, who has descended to the dead just like the creed says, is grabbing Adam and Eve by the wrists and pulling them, like two people on the verge of drowning, out of death and into life.
But let’s also acknowledge that this reading is a huge trip hazard for a whole lot of folks, that for many people this is the reading that makes Christianity incoherent. Why did God put this tree in the garden which, as the text tells us, the man and the woman desire? And what does it mean that once they eat they discover nakedness? Throw into the mix Augustine’s understanding of sin, and many people’s understanding of sin, which is to say that sin overlaps heavily with sex, and you can see how God and God’s church don’t come out of this story looking very good.
As the wonderful singer-songwriter Josh Ritter puts it:
Eve ate the apple because the apple was sweet
What kind of god would keep a girl from getting what she needs?
That’s a fair enough question. And if Augustine’s moral is right, it may be a question that proves the antitheists right when they say that we should shake off the handcuffs that are belief in God so that we can get on with enjoying our lives and enjoying our sexuality in particular.
Two. This is a story about God, about the one whom Jesus will one day call Father, acting like the most loving of parents.
There is probably nowhere in the Bible where God is more like a human being than God is at the beginning of Genesis. Later on in the Bible, God is a pillar of cloud, a burning bush, a whirlwind, a still small voice, a sound from the sky that might be words and might be thunder. But at the beginning of Genesis, in one of the most beautiful images to be found anywhere in scripture, God walks through the garden in the cool of the day, just the way that you or I might. God is enjoying God’s creation, with all of its beauty and wonder.
And God, for reasons that make sense to God and may or may not make sense to us, God has allowed danger into creation, evil into creation. And into this world, God has brought children.
To bring children into the world is to have no fewer than two goals in tension with one another. The one is that you want your children to have a good and a complete life, full of love, meaningful challenge, friends, learning, and so on. We want, in other words, our children to know the world, know themselves, know God. The other goal, the one in tension with the first, is you don’t want your kids to get hurt, whether hurt means the bruising of their bodies or the bruising of their hearts.
And so we try to insulate our kids from hurt or, at a minimum, to delay as long as possible the time when hurt will come. We try to see if we can postpone the day of disillusionment or disappointment. That’s because we know that, when that day comes, something breaks. When the day comes, for instance, when a child understands that their parent cannot solve every problem there is, it is the end of a kind of beautiful innocence.
What if that is what God is doing when God says, Don’t touch that tree, the one that will tell you about death? What if God is saying to the man and the woman, I just want childhood, your childhood with its fleeting, fragile innocence, to go on a little longer?
Three. This is a story about the importance, the holiness even, of accepting boundaries and limitations.
Earlier, we talked about how the man and the woman desired the tree – or, in the strange, passive voice that the New Revised Standard Version gives us, that the tree was to be desired. But here’s the problem with reading stuff in translation. The very best translatuins give us, maybe, 85% of the sense of the original text. The English translation of this story doesn’t let us know that the Hebrew is full of puns, so that this story in origin has a whimsical, playful feel to it. And other nuance gets lost: the word that the NRSV renders as desire in this passage, nehmad, is precisely the same word that in the final of the ten commandments, it renders covet. As in:
You shall not covet your neighbour’s house. You shall not covet your neighbour’s spouse, nor their servants, nor their animals, nor anything that belongs to your neighbour.
You shall not nehmad these things.
The tree was nehmad.
So, if we are going to use the same translation here in Genesis as in the tenth commandment, the tree was coveted. Or, in less awkward English, maybe something like: The man and the woman coveted the tree.
God says to the human beings: Here is paradise. Here is abundance. Here is enough.
And then God adds: But if paradise is going to work, if you and everything else are going to thrive, you must be content with enough. You must not take too much. You must not cross the boundary into covetousness. You must not nehmad.
Suddenly, this is a story for our time. For you and me, right now. Because there is enough on this earth for everyone to live, for everyone to thrive. Be content with that, says God. Be happy with that. Because what there is not are the resources for everyone to have too much. Do not nehmad more than you need. Or you will bring death into this world.
But the snake, who these days goes by the name consumerism, smiles and says: God is just kidding. God knows how much fun it is to nehmad. And God doesn’t want you in on that fun. Go ahead and eat. And if you break the tree or something else in the process, never mind. You can always buy another one. It might even be covered by warranty.
And we have eaten. And we have brought death into this world by doing so. We are perilously near to breaking this earth and breaking ourselves. It is not too late to make a different choice. But it is dangerously close.
Three possibilities. A story about sin, a story about love, a story about healthy limitation. Probably a story about still other things. Assuredly a story about us. A story about how God has given us paradise and said, This one tree you must not touch or you will die. A story that offers us a choice between the advice of God and the advice of a snake. A story that asks you and me the question, whose advice will we take?