Sunday, March 9, 2014

First in Lent

Genesis 2: 15-17; 3: 1-7

Grace and peace this First Sunday in Lent, and as we sail on ahead into this season--and to repeat again as we hear so often the invitation from the Prayer Book service for Ash Wednesday, a time we are encouraged to set apart  “by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”  And then the words we heard on Wednesday, in the Imposition of Ashes.  In the sentence prescribed by the Prayer Book, “Remember that thou art dust, and unto dust shalt thou return.”  The reminder of our mortality, from Genesis 3, the consequence of the catastrophe that we had heard about in this morning’s first lesson.  

In the Roman Catholic order the person administering the ashes on Ash Wednesday has two sentences--“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” followed by this direct appeal, “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel.”   Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel.  The hard reality of our fallen condition, but then also and I think so importantly the reminder that this is no dead end.  By God’s grace given in fullness in Jesus and in the work of his Cross, a door that swings open.  The dead end transformed by the one who is the way, the truth, the life.  Remember that you are dust.  Turn away from sin, and be faithful to the gospel.

The famous psychiatrist Karl Menninger wrote a popular book 40 years ago or so, Whatever became of sin?  It has been nearly all those 40 years since I read it, when I was in college, but as I recall what Menninger was talking about in this book was that even though the concept of sin has largely disappeared from mainstream vocabularies, certainly in the therapeutic disciplines, the traces remain primarily in a kind of disconnected sense of guilt.  That we all of us have this nagging feeling that something isn’t right, that our lives aren’t fully in alignment, that things need to be repaired and put back in order not just out in the wide world, where things are crazy enough, for sure--but also in the matters of our thinking and feeling.   Even if we’re not sure exactly what it is, something seems wrong.  Psychologist Thomas Harris just a few years before had written his famous book, I’m O.K., You’re O.K.   Two books perhaps signposts of the decades to come.   Menninger, an Orthodox Jew, suggesting that it was a mistake and even a tragic mistake to lose track of the concept of sin.  Harris suggesting that the further away humanity could get from that concept , the better.

In any event, remembering that it was back in the 1920’s that President Coolidge, known as “Silent Cal” because of his succinct way of expressing himself, was asked, when he came out of church one Sunday morning, what the preacher’s sermon had been about.  “Sin,” Coolidge replied.  After a pause, the follow -up, “Well, what did he have to say about sin?”  “He was against it.”  

These days of course the odds are somewhat long that you’d hear a sermon about sin most Sundays.  Seems kind of old fashioned, I guess, maybe even on the First Sunday in Lent.  But if the usual cluster of newspaper and television reporters are gathered outside St. Andrew’s this morning to find out what the Rector’s sermon is about this week: sin is the topic.  In case you were wondering.  I believe there is such a thing.  Absolutely, as a powerful force and an intentional force, in rebellion against God and devoted to our destruction.  Yours and mine.  For my money the one thing we really need to understand about the human condition, before we can even begin to talk about the human condition.  And just to be clear:  I’m against it.  I don’t want to turn the news on tonight and hear anything different.

I suppose the point is to whatever extent the scriptures and these ancient prayers and hymns in Lent make it possible, and perhaps flying in the face of the whole weight of Romantic individualism and all the 19th and 20th century psychological movements of Self-Actualization and Self-Esteem, we only begin to make our way forward through this once we are able to get a handle on an inversion of Harris’s thesis.  Something like, “I’m not o.k.  You’re not o.k.  Now what?”  Now what? 

In the 2006 Brian Singer film, “Superman Returns,” the Man of Steel has come back to Metropolis after a few years of sabbatical, and Lois Lane brushes him aside, actually kind of rudely, with the news that in her opinion anyway the era of Superheroes has come to an end.  We’ve grown up now, she tells him.  We’re beyond childish dependence.   We can get done what needs to be done.  She tells him, “the fact of the matter is, we don’t need a savior. We can take care of ourselves.”    Though of course even as we hear her say these words we are cringing in horror, because we already know what she doesn’t know yet, but will soon learn, which is that the inherently and thoroughly evil villain Lex Luthor is at that very moment, at that very moment, putting into motion a sinister plot that will essentially destroy the world as we know it and leave everyone cowering in slavery under his evil domination.  And the irony is that actually the evidence of this plot had been right in front of her for some time.  She had just found it easier to pretend that it wasn’t there.  To rationalize, to minimize, to look the other way.   As they say, “Denial isn’t just a river in Egypt.”

There’s a place out on Route 22 I think just beyond Blairsville where a little white frame church sits right off the highway, so that if you’re driving west toward Pittsburgh you see the front door, from far in the distance, and over the front door in brightly glowing neon red, “Jesus Saves.”  Which is of course a more-or-less meaningless message, if you don’t really feel like there’s anything you need to be saved from . . . .”  For Lois Lane, it’s just a joke.  You can see her roll her eyes as she drives by.  “We’re so beyond that.”

Amazing in a way how quickly we can skim past the account of Genesis 3.  Lots of art work of course, both serious and whimsical.   Used to be a popular story in Children’s Bibles and Sunday School curricula, though I’m not sure how most religious publishers handle it any more.  Adam and Eve, the Serpent, the Apple.  Rolling our eyes.  I mean, are we supposed to take this literally?   Forbidden Fruit.  Almost a joke, a cliché.  What in the world this strange story could have to do with me.  With us. 

But it may begin to haunt us a little, around the edges, even so--even when we can’t look at it straight on.  Just to let it percolate.  Pick up the morning newspaper.  Horrible murders in the Ukraine and South Sudan and right around the corner on Chislett Street.  Horrible.  Respected law enforcement officials convicted of stealing public funds.  Politicians lying.  Heartless drug dealers marketing the latest lethal blend.   Athletes mainlining illegal performance enhancing substances.  Or of course we just take one long look in the mirror in the morning.

The shadow of that Tree in the Garden, which is a long shadow indeed, and a very dark shadow.  Very dark.  Every lie, every betrayal.  Even the little lies and betrayals that don’t make the front page.  Fudging “just a little” on the old 1040.  Every intentional wrong.  Every theft.  Every infidelity.  Every degrading thought.   Every broken promise.  Every false god.  Every act of violence.  Every hatred.  Greed.  Lust.  Gluttonous consumption.  The classic “deadly sins” that never go away.  The kind of self-indulgent pride that wants to flourish in the diminishing of others.  Every act of abuse and assault, every cynical strategy.  All right here for us in Genesis 3 this morning.  

Every mean-spirited and cutting e-mail and Facebook post.  So easy to write, and click, and then move on.  No big deal.  Self-aggrandizement.  Bullying and unkindness.  Jealousy.  Murder.  All here in front of us, in the ruins of the Garden.  And very relevant to your life and my life.  Very relevant.   As we know sin.  As it grinds down our lives, and the lives of others, those around us.  Twists us into contorted parodies of what God created on the afternoon of the Sixth Day.  We look like people.  We talk like people.  But it’s a superficial resemblance.  Skin deep, if that.   If you’ve ever been betrayed, or lied to.  If you’ve ever been the betrayer, or the liar.   Distorting the image, damaging us in such profound ways spiritually, morally, emotionally, even physically.  We might try to minimize.  “There are of course a lot of nice things you can say about us too.  Why emphasize the negative?  I’m certainly not that bad, compared to some others.”    Actually, I’m pretty o.k., it seems to me, and if I say you’re o.k. too maybe we can just leave it at that and move along.

But then again.  A sermon about sin, after all, and I hope with clarity a sermon against sin.  Remember that you are dust, and that your destiny is to be dust.   That in the between-time the shadow of death is all around, permeating every cell of our body and every corner of our heart and soul.   Who the enemy is, his best instrument and weapon.   I’m not sure it’s exactly what she meant, but as Lady Gaga reminds us: we were born this way.

And if we have at least a hint of self-recognition this morning, in all this grim Lenten preachifying-- if we watch Eve and her Adam and their collapse before the assault of the Enemy and suddenly realize that this is in some real way about us, about who we are,  and if our heart begins to sink, that is all goodness and grace.  Be thankful for that.  Be thankful for not missing it.  For not succumbing to the temptation to sweep it under the rug.  If we hear in the distance on this first Sunday in Lent the ringing metallic sound of the hammer pounding in the nails, through his flesh and into the hard wood of the cross, and if we even for a minute take a deep breath and begin to understand that we’re the ones swinging that hammer, that’s grace.  Be thankful.

Perhaps an echo of the First Step of the Twelve Step movement.  “We admitted we were powerless, that our lives had become unmanageable.”   Looking at sin straight on, if only for a moment.  No easy grace of course.  No cheap grace.  It happens when you hit bottom.  But that’s good news.  First step in a new direction, which we can only take because he chooses to lean down and pick us up and carry us forward.  Our East End Preaching series this year, beginning this coming Wednesday.  “The Journey of Lent.”   In our Lent, the journey toward Holy Week, and to catch a glimpse of the One who put down the enemy, who overturned the old order of brokenness and crushed the Serpent’s head once and for all.   Who is holding us up even when we aren’t sure he’s there.

It has been his plan and intention from the beginning to reveal himself to us, to be for us everything that was lost in the Garden.   That’s the promise to hear when we leave this devastated garden in Genesis 3 and move forward to the new Garden, where as the women come on Sunday morning they find that the Stone has been rolled away from the Tomb.  To be here for us as we know ourselves to be trapped in the dead end, and hitting a brick wall, something more.  If we just take an honest look at ourselves, an honest look, and to see how bad things have gotten, then that gives us something to look forward to.   A reminder through Lent and Holy Week and Easter of his promise, and why he came.  In John 10, once we discover that we’re at a dead end.  “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door.  I am the door of the sheep.  All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not heed them.  I am the door; if any one enters by me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture.”  We might say, through him, by way of his cross, a return to the Garden.  To rest in the rich pasture of God’s love.   The door that swings open for us.

It is good news, in Lent and Holy Week and Easter.  As the old hymn had it: “Blessed assurance.”   All good news for us.  It is the good news that begins with sin, the battle that begins when we know and really understand who our enemy is, what power he has over us, and what the stakes are.  And how victory is won.

As we continue to wrestle with the ongoing story of what is bad in us and in our world, the Open Door.  An encouragement every day, is what it can be.  Remember that you are dust.  And that you must return to the dust.  I’m not o.k.  You’re not o.k.  But it’s o.k.: Turn away from sin.  Be faithful to the gospel. 

Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.

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