February 10, 2008
Edwards (Knox) United Church
First Sunday of Lent
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The Rev. Dr. George Hermanson
This morning we are dealing with what is called a master story - and we have two of them. A master story is one that is foundational to all stories about how we understand our experience. These are stories that get reworked in many different versions over time.
We hear hints of the Genesis story in Joni Mitchell’s songs - “we have to get back to the garden” or “we paved over paradise.” Then in Matthew have story of forty days and forty nights and overcoming temptations. It is a metaphor of desert times and introspection to resist the temptations that are destructive to our well being and the common good. This is the Lenten journey.
The Genesis story gets retold in many ways, and this morning I want to use it the way it has been understood within Judaism. It is a story about coming to consciousness and our acceptance of the responsibility of knowledge. A sub text is the tendency to project blame on others, rather than taking responsibility for our actions.
The story is about growing in knowledge. It is the need to leave innocence to be a fully functioning human being. One of the gifts of leaving the garden is we have wisdom. The question for us is how do we use that wisdom? All humans ask existential questions about the meaning of existence or ultimate meaning. We ask why are we here? Can virtue triumph? Do our actions count? These questions are based on the idea that our thinking leads to actions, and our thinking is necessary to the aim of God. If we had not left the metaphorical garden, God would not have had the enhanced experience God has because of us.
The story tells of a growth in understanding and that is affirmed. It reminds me of a family story. I had a bunch kids in my van and they were noisy as kids can be and distracting. So I stopped, and said this behaviour is inappropriate. Then I thought do 6 year old kids know that word? So I asked. And Craig said “you don’t say f***k in front of your teacher.” I said yes you know the meaning of the word. He had grown in wisdom and understanding.
The second point of the story is take responsibility for our wisdom. The metaphor of the snake tells us that. For humans were to take care of the animals and direct them, not the other way around. Yet when confronted the man first blames the woman. Then the woman blames the snake. Given the story tellers world view we know that this blaming is the problem not the knowledge. Knowledge brings with responsibility and the first act of human’s with knowledge is run from responsibility and blame others.
We see this in all sorts of conflicts. A friend has a saying, “I will take my responsibility for the trouble if you take responsibility for your part.” This is to counter all blaming strategies. Blaming is to look for the problem in the other but never in oneself. While it is true that others can and do fail, when we blame them as the sole cause we get off the hook from dealing with how we can repair the situation - we become the innocent party and wash our hands of our part in the breakdown. This is called scapegoating which the tradition of the cross rejects.
Given we have wisdom the story shifts in Matthew to how we use it. For the temptations are about the proper use of wisdom for the common good.
The first is about believing that materialism is the goal of our living. The temptation is to give up all for the sake of some monetary goal. In doing so we diminish our humanity. Greed is the force that causes devastation to others and to our environment. When we see others as objects to be used for our benefit, we are diminished as we trivialize the other.
This is the temptation to reduce human interactions to self interest and selfishness. This is the refusal to see gifts in others and to determine that my goal ought to be what they ought to do. This is when we make lists to judge others and then impose those lists as meaning and worth of the other. When they fail to meet our arbitrary lists they are considered worthless and thus we can deal with them in inhumane ways. It is a refusal to see our reality as relational and we live in a society of mutuality. To see mutuality is crucial if the common good is to be achieved. The temptation is ask first, and as the ultimate goal, is this good for me. The answer of Jesus was, the good of me is achieved when the good of all is achieved. Humans flourish when they begin in the character of God who loves all of creation. Begin in God and things fall into place.
The second temptation is to misuse the spiritual. This is the use of prayer and faith to get our way. We hear hints of this misuse in the locker room of sports when some one says “Thank you God.” This is said as if God was on their side and jumped to their bidding. Lincoln said something like this in response to God is on our side. “It is not a question of whose side God is on, are we on God’s side?” Too many use spirituality as an enhancement of materialism rather than understanding true spiritual is a practice of opening ourselves to the beauty of the world. The end of faith is an experience in ourselves that drives, connects us to solitary to the world and others. Faith is not a private thing to be manipulated for our ends, but a wisdom that connects us to others and their needs.
This temptation is to reduce faith to magic and magical thinking. This is the manipulation of God to achieve our preconceived outcomes. It is to reduce questions of what makes us human, what are our ultimate ends to what benefits me, reducing wisdom to temporal and perishing reality.
The final temptation is to forget that the source of our ultimate questions and actions is grounded in the aim of God. This is to move to understand human wisdom for what it is: important and growing but not the final word about the nature of reality. The temptation is to make human shaped institutions, like our political understanding, the way we organize power as the ultimate. It is to accept our knowledge for what it is: important but there is still more to be known. It is to say that all the abstractions - our theories - must be held as humble, for they too will change. And when we cease to see our projects as the truth, and listen to other world views, our society will grow in wisdom and we will learn to speak in appropriate ways given the context.
The method of desert times, of Lenten reflection is a time to sort through our belief systems. It is a time to open ourselves to the in-breaking aim of God, calling us to expand our wisdom. To expand our wisdom so we go beyond our small world to open space where the enchantment of God lights up our reality.
Reflection in lent is a time to listen for the wisdom of God. It can be found in the ways we have constructed knowledge, and we can go beyond to open our ears and eyes to beauty that calls us to leave the garden, to let the wisdom of God help us inform our wisdom. This time is preparing us for a journey into the beauty of God on earth.