Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The First Sunday of Lent – March 9, 2014
The world is often found by passing through the wilderness, but we go there in courage because Christ has walked that way before us. Amen.
I just heard about a new bumper sticker: “Eve was framed!” Funny, but it makes a good point. Poor Eve has gotten a bad rap throughout the ages. We’ve placed the blame at her feet for having to live in a world full of evil. If only she had resisted, the good sisters told us in grammar school, we’d all be living in Paradise. Of course, our eight year old minds translated that to we wouldn’t need to go to school.
And as sophisticated as we may think the world is today, that error in interpretation still lurks in the hearts of some preachers and biblical literalist denominations. So I thought today we might talk about a very popular subject: Sin!
The lectionary gives us two stories about temptation and fasting. The first of these is the very familiar one of Adam and Eve in the garden. No need for me to retell it. We’ve heard it loud and clear. The devil tempts Adam and Eve. They fail the test. They get exiled from Paradise. But nowhere in the story is the word “sin” mentioned, much less the concept of “original sin.”
The second is the temptation of Jesus by Satan at the conclusion of a 40 day period of fasting in the wilderness. Jesus passes the test. Angels come to his aid and probably bring dinner with them. After all, he is famished.
For me a common denominator in the two stories is not only the testing, the temptation, but the experience of wilderness, wasteland, and desert, rough and wild country. It is a place of contradictions. It is bare and arid and hostile. People hungered there and bandits hid out there. There were scorpions and vipers and other wild animals. In the wilderness, one was unprotected and exposed.
It was also a place where people took refuge and where sometimes people even encountered God. The children of Israel were guided through it and fed Manna by God. It was in the desert that God gave them the Ten Commandments.
The wilderness could also be a place of renewal and where hope was born. After the rains of spring arrive, this parched land brings forth the green of earth and covering of flowers. The prophet Isaiah tells us that “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom.”
The wilderness is a strange place where we can face the very worst and at other times find the very best. We might encounter our demons there and we might find God. So it is understandable why, on this first Sunday in Lent, we are pointed by God’s Word in the direction of the wilderness.
For Jesus, the testing did not end in the desert. Nor did the temptations. His friend Peter told him to avoid the cross and death and we know what happened in the garden the night of his betrayal. For us, the story is the same: testing never ends. That is why we pray the words, “Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil.”
When I say the word “sin,” I wonder what images come to mind for you? The stolen candy bar, the concealed crib notes used to pass an exam, the questionable deductions on a tax return, brown sludge pouring into a once pristine lake, war-torn countries in the Middle East, the brutal murder of a young gay man in Wyoming, homeless people sleeping under a bridge trying to keep warm on a frigid night. I suspect we all get a different picture.
It’s hard to preach on sin. Either we can use it to bully the congregation or dress it up in finery and sugar coating. Let’s be honest about it. It is difficult to speak about sin in church because we know what a turn off it is and because we have our own baggage around the language of sin instilled in us from childhood and maybe from our affiliation with other churches and denominations.
There is a story about a mother who took her nine-year-old daughter, Jenny, to an early morning Ash Wednesday service many years ago when the 1928 Book of Common Prayer was still in use in the Episcopal Church. The language of that service was extremely penitential and tedious. It talked about the “vile earth” and us “miserable offenders.” If you didn’t feel convicted of your sins before the service, you certainly did when it was finished. In the hushed silence of the church, Jenny turned to her mother and said in a stage whisper, “Mom, I know I’m bad, but I’m not that bad!”
Lent is a good time to look hard at our world and recognize that sin and evil are not the fault of a woman in an ancient story about creation—it’s the fault of us all every time we fail the test and ignore God’s command to love.
Enlightened people might say that the story of Adam and Eve is a myth. Joseph Campbell, a famous authority on American mythology, says that myths are stories of things that never happened but are always true. Theologian, Frederick Buechner says that the Bible is not first of all a book of moral truth. He calls it a book of truth about the way life is.
Truth about the way life is. The truth is there is something hugely wrong in the world—on a global level, in our cities and neighborhoods, and I think we’re all looking for ways to make sense of it and even in some small way to make it better and more godly.
God’s Word for us today is that we really are free to make disastrous decisions and those choices do have consequences. Consider the situation unfolding in the Ukraine.
Whether or not it comes in the form of a talking snake and crafty slithering serpent, temptation is real and may seduce us to choose things that we know are ruinous for us and for the whole creation. God has given us both permission and prohibition, gifts that are most fully experienced in community. We have purpose, we have freedom, we have limitations, and we need each other to find the proper balance between them. Each of us faces the Catch-22 of learning how to do that.
Author Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Christian theology is neither no-fault nor full-fault. We do wrong, but we do not do wrong all alone. We live in a web of creation that binds us to all other living beings. If we want to be saved, then we had better figure out how to do it together, since none of us can resign from this web of relationship.”
So we gather in this Lenten wilderness as the community of faithful ones, God’s people, to hear these stories and those that will be told throughout the next five weeks and garner as much as we can from these ancient texts—stories that are not about the temptation not to be a good human being but rather about the temptation not to be a human being at all.
Sin may be our new best friend, because the recognition that something is wrong is the first step toward setting it right again. We can’t expect to repair something if we don’t admit that it is broken. There is no hope that we can change what is wrong in the world if we accept that it is irreversibly damaged.
Avoiding sin is not merely about doing things that make us less admirable. It is about the reordering of our hearts, allowing God to meet us where we are, and claiming our true identity as an extension of God’s love in a tortuous world.
If we’ve opted to do Lent this year in whatever form that may take for us, we will certainly find ourselves navigating the wilderness—a strange place where we can face the very worst and at other times find the very best. Yes, we might encounter our demons there, and we might just find God—or let God find us.