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

Sermon: Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 5:17-20,38-48

You will recognize the story from the beginning of the service as being almost the same as one told in Matthew 22:
34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ 37He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’

Except that Jesus put some God into it, which makes Jesus better right? Not so fast.

You have heard it read, from the Book of Leviticus, in the very heart of the Torah, in the very heart of the Law, in the very heart of the establishment of the presence of God with the people of Israel: Love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord.

Those two things cannot be separate. The people of Israel will love their neighbours because they are the people of God. They will continue to be the people of God if they don’t love their neighbour, BUT their connection to God is through these teachings, this Torah, at the heart of which is Love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord. It’s kind of like first you breathe in and then you breathe out: you can hold your breath for a while but eventually you’ll start breathing again.

Now loving our neighbour – individually or collectively – is as Jesus pointed out not very hard and very hard. Because our neighbours can be annoying or spiteful or ignorant or any number of things that make them hard to love.

So we can love most of our neighbours most of the time but accept our imperfection in not loving some of our neighbours when there is good reason not to, right?

Of course. But. The instruction to love our neighbour as ourself is right there in the middle of the center chapter of the center book of the books of God’s Teachings. It is in a chapter crammed with rules for worship, for relationships, for business practices, for animal husbandry, for farming, for courts of law, for respecting the elderly, for dealing with migrants and immigrants, as well as rules against shaming or harming others, and adopting foreign religious practices.

All punctuated with “I am the Lord.”

The instruction to love our neighbour is right there in the middle of all the messy, everyday things of life, all the little things that can tempt us to fudge the edges and maybe love ourselves and the people it’s easy to get along with a little bit more.

But “I am the Lord” says God and I love you even when you dump me for golden calves or cheat a little on your taxes or sass your mother or embarrass someone else or hold onto a grudge. So you can love your neighbour or friend or co-worker who doesn’t always seem respectful or parks in your parking spot or butts in front of you in line or doesn’t get stuff done on time.

And if you want a shortcut to doing that, pretend when that person doesn’t have their stuff ready or cuts you off in traffic or gets into your lane at the pool, pretend that they’re doing the best they can. Because maybe they are. Maybe they were up all night with a sick child or hot flashes or anxiety about money. Maybe they got a text that the dog was throwing up or the child or they’re hoping that the very important thing they forgot is easy to find – but it’s not.

And maybe they are just a self-centered jerk. But I lose nothing but pretending that they aren’t and I’m probably more right this way. I’m certainly more loving.

It doesn’t mean being taken advantage of. To say “this is the wrong change” is not to accuse someone of stealing. It’s just to acknowledge that a mistake has been made. We do that sometimes.

It means trying to support, not judge. It means taking the risk of trusting. It might mean accepting that their ways are different from our ways – but still perfectly valid and worthwhile.

You may have already spotted the snag in all of this. We are to love our neighbours as ourselves. And that -shockingly – could mean assuming that we are doing the best we can right now. It might mean accepting that we make mistakes. It might we trust ourselves. It might mean doing things differently and not judging ourselves. It might mean a lot of things that are not the way we’re used to.

And in all of that it most definitely means remembering that this is a part of holiness. This is integral to being the people of God, a God in whose image we are made.

And as Dorothy Day put it:
If each of us could just remember that we are all created in the image of God, then we would naturally want to love more.

Our neighbours as ourselves. Because we’re all doing the best we can.

February 23, 2020

Rev. Shannon Tennant