The Adventurous Lectionary – The First Sunday in Lent – March 1, 2020
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11
Lent is a complicated season. It is a time of reflection and penitence, of giving up certain goods for greater goods. Lent is also the season of simplicity. The season of getting back to basics, to going from the worship of many things to the worship of the One True God. Purity of heart is to will one thing, as Kierkegaard asserted. This unity of spirit is also the invitation to experience and respond to God in all things and constantly ask at life’s intersections, “What would Jesus do?” or “How can I add to the beauty of the world?” or, in worst case, “How can I mitigate the ugliness perpetrated by nations and their policies?” Lent is a season of mindfulness, in which we are invited to practice our own form of the Ignatian Examen or examination of conscience. Lent invites us to ask whether our values and actions are moving us closer or further from God’s vision for our lives and the world. On that note, Lent is also the lengthening of days in which we commit ourselves to God’s Green New Deal, to becoming God’s companions in healing the earth.
The heart of the Genesis passage involves the twin realities of mortality and decision-making. Mortals are limited and finite in space, time, and influence, and need to recognize our limitations for our own and our planet’s well-being. There is no reason for us to literalize this story. The legendary couple live, as Paul Tillich says, in a world of “dreaming innocence” and then are thrust into the world of ambivalence and ambiguity. Their lives evolve from being “naked and unashamed” to recognizing the vulnerability of nakedness. This “fall” makes their lives more complicated; yet, the complexity opens the door for new possibilities. The story of Adam and Eve describes our own journey from childhood to adulthood and the evolution of the human race which is not only a fall into sin but a fall upward into
freedom and creativity.
Though both Adam and Eve try to abdicate their responsibility, blaming the woman and the snake, respectively, they must take ownership of their actions from now on. Neither the snake nor the woman or man can be blamed, despite their culpability; we have made the choice, and we still make the choice -for life and death for us and the planet.
Yet, God still makes a way when there is no way. They must leave the garden of ease and innocence, never to return again. There is grief in this departure but also adventure lies ahead. Adam and Eve become civilization creators. They start over, plunging themselves now into the novel ambiguities of history, and bring about new creations.
The Psalmist is aware of the need for self-awareness on the spiritual journey. Lack of mindfulness, revealed in covering up her or his own sin, leads to psychosomatic illness that can only be addressed through confession. Confession is not a matter of ritual or even guilt, but recognizing the heights and depths of human experience and our own complicity in the pain of the world. An honest look in the mirror delivers us from defensiveness, delusionary thinking, and projection of our faults on others. Confession is not a quid pro quo transaction nor does it ensure a return to health. Rather it reconnects us with God and our neighbors.
In the last several weeks, we have come to realize how important confession is for persons and nations. Grandiose leaders, inflated by their own self-importance and need to win, make fool-hardy decisions that put their nations at risk. When we look in the mirror of our lives, we recognize the wonder of our being but also our tendency to self-justification and self-interest at the expense of others.
The passage from Romans speaks of the universality of sin and grace. Though sin and death are real, and touch everyone, their power to dominate is finite. We were are the sinful children of sinful parents growing up in a sinful world. This is not an apology for a literal doctrine of original sin, which is neither biblical (first we begin with the goodness of creation) nor theologically appropriate (God seeks to heal not punish despite our waywardness). Grace abounds, and in its universality provides hope for even the “worst” of us. In Romans, sin is not “original” but part of the human condition, shaped by the ultimate – and prior – love of God. Sin is also not biological or communicated through sex, but a social realities, which we must seek to eradicate to lessen the impact of inherited sin. We are also, when we turn to Christ’s way, “little Christs,” as Luther says, who mediate grace and healing to one another.
Jesus’ journey into the wilderness points to the importance of mindfulness in the spiritual journey. Fresh from his mystic experience following his baptism – and the affirmation “you are my beloved child” – Jesus goes into the wilderness for a retreat to discern his vocation. He is God’s beloved one, endowed with much power and energy. Like the primordial couple, his power can create or destroy. Jesus is tempted by valuable and worthy things – power, security, and sustenance – all of which can destroy us if we turn from God’s vision for our lives. Jesus’ response to the temptation is an exercise in simplicity and mindfulness. He is aware of temptation, but he takes it to God in prayer. He places God’s vision at the heart of his decision-making and is able to use his temptations as a way of finding his true vocation.
The question of Satan is an important one. Although most readers of this commentary don’t believe in a personal Satan, the powers of evil are real and destructive. I have for decades counseled persons to stay away from Ouija boards, Satanic rituals, and the “dark side.” We need to be on guard for the evils that can take over institutions and persons, often unknowingly. Still, though we don’t affirm a literal Satan, we can recognize satanic personages, both spiritual and political, whose work promotes chaos, division, and destruction. This challenges us as citizens to examine, challenge, and critique the evils of our own Empire.
Lent reminds us of the need to put first things first, and the first thing is God. When we seek God’s realm first, we cultivate simplicity and self-awareness and awaken for God’s way amid life’s many possibilities.
Bruce Epperly is a Cape Cod pastor, professor, and author of over 50 books, including “Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed,” “Angels, Mysteries, and Miracles: A Progressive Vision,” “Finding God in Suffering: A Journey with Job,” and “Become Fire: Guideposts for Interspiritual Pilgrims.”