The First Sunday of Lent

Genesis 2:15-16, 3:1-7; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11

The people who do experiments did an experiment. They took some books, dressed them up as library books, and asked students working in the university library to help them out with a prank on a friend.The prank involved writing the word “pickles” in pen in the margin of a library book. The students who were approached said things like “That’s wrong” and “You shouldn’t write in it” and “It’s library property”. But 64% of them wrote the word “pickles” in pen in the margin of what they thought was a library book. 64% of those people who knew it was wrong did it anyways.

Why? Because – and this is what the experiment was about – they didn’t want to judged by the person who asked them to write “pickles” in the library book. They didn’t want to be thought prissy and no fun and too uptight for a good hearted joke.

Normally when we think of asking people to do something we think of it from the point of the view of doing the asking – like asking someone to give up a seat on the bus. We don’t want to be thought of as lazy or demanding or entitled. But if we ask (and the person who started the experiment was pregnant and decided to see what would happen if she did) people will because they don’t want to seem lazy or demanding or entitled. Or just plain rude.

The serpent was the most cunning of all the beasts of the field that Lord God had made. And he asked. The woman apparently hadn’t read the study and didn’t want the serpent to think she was the kind of person who wasn’t interested in knowing good and evil. Or being like a god. So she took and ate and she gave it to the man and he ate and there was no going back.

We read this story with 2000 years of interpretation behind it most of it going back to St Augustine who invented the idea of Original Sin – that we are all born with a strong tendency to evil and it’s all because of the fruit of that tree. But that’s not in the story.

None of the things we associate with The Fall are in the story. Even the Fall isn’t in the story. Sin isn’t there or Original Sin. It’s not about obedience. It’s not about women being prone to temptation and men not even asking what’s going on.

What’s going on in the story is the human beings develop the capacity for desire and the capacity for wisdom. They begin to want what they haven’t got. And they know good and evil. And the upshot of that is that they leave the Garden of Eden with a conscience.

A conscience, it turns out, that we aren’t always very good at paying attention to. Like if you’re a student minding your own business when someone asks you to write “pickles” in a library book.

And I wonder if that goes back to the part where the woman and the man saw that they were naked and sewed fig leaves together and made loin cloths. Because when they saw they were naked, they realized how exposed and vulnerable they were and they understood how risky that could be and that some of what might happen to them was good, but some was evil and they needed to cover up to protect themselves from that sense of exposure.

Now 6000 or so metaphorical years later we want to cover up our desire not to break rules, or vandalize books, or ask for help, so that others will not see our good hearts, or neediness, or love of peace and order, which seem un-cool, so we write “pickles” in the margin of a library book.

[If equating “naked and ashamed” with our modern concept of mental, emotional and spiritual vulnerability, I can make a pretty good case for it using Leviticus 18, Noah and his sons and a couple of stories from the chronicles of King David. To “uncover someone’s nakedness” was to expose them in a way that was not appropriate for them in the context of who they were to you.]

They would lose their dignity. Just as we might be concerned with not seeming cool and fun and a little bit of an anarchist – it’s a different world out there these days – or of being judged to be no fun or stupid or lazy or incompetent – you probably know what pushes your buttons when it comes to finding yourself doing what you know you shouldn’t.

So take heart and be of good courage: these are the same tricks the devil tried to play on Jesus. The Greek word for “devil” by the way means slanderer and Jesus called him “Satan” which means adversary. It’s probably easier to say “no” when the one trying to push your buttons is called “Pusher of Buttons” so that it’s right out there.

No one will follow you, said the Adversary, if you don’t make them happy with lots of food.
No one will pay attention, said the Slanderer, if you don’t show them your super powers.
No one will care what you say, said the Pusher of Buttons, because why should they? You’re nobody in a backwater province of the greatest empire ever. Be important.

But Jesus, we know, doesn’t care. He won’t write “pickles’ in a library book no matter who asks or why. He will tell the powers of the Roman Empire that they are wrong and show people that they can know good and evil and choose good. Even when it’s hard and risky and dangerous and so can we.

Like the man and the woman who left the Garden of Eden, we have wisdom and we have desire and we have a conscience. Lent is a good opportunity to pay attention to those things. What desires tend to lead us away from good? What wisdom can we bring to bear on understanding why we are drawn away from good? Where do we feel most vulnerable to exposure and how can we avoid sewing together fig leaves to protect ourselves at the risk of losing our connection to wholehearted living?

Because really the trick is to simply know that it’s wrong and to refuse to write in the library book. Simply because it’s the right thing to do. And that’s what matters.

Rev. Shannon Tennant

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