Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
“We’re going to run out – of fossil fuels, of arable land, of unpolluted waters, of clean air, of raw materials.” We hear that warning over and over again. We’re accustomed to thinking of this world as a place with limited resources that can easily be used up. So, we have to grasp what we can—quickly, before someone else gets it. How much of human history could be told as attempts to gain control over particular resources? Certainly, today’s battles are not only about ideology, but also about gaining and controlling the world’s “limited” resources. There are disagreements about fishing territories. Wars are fought over oil or other limited energy resources. We see the rain forest shrinking, and the ice caps shrinking – and know that we are losing something vital.
There's not enough. That’s the message we hear. So, some can have and others can’t. We have wealthy nations and poor nations. We have wealthy neighborhoods and poor neighborhoods. We have those who have grasped power that gives them control over our resources – and those who have no control. We have the well fed – and the hungry.
Then, stretching the idea of scarcity a little, we might think of what we think we might lack – compared to others – in terms of talents or abilities. Are we not judged? Do we not judge, others and ourselves? We’re not enough! Or they’re not enough! Something is lacking. Something is missing. Someone else has more ability!
Today’s gospel lesson is the traditional lesson for the first Sunday in Lent. Each year in the three year lectionary cycle we hear it through the voice of a different gospel writer. This year we have Matthew’s telling. Jesus, after his baptism, was led into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. I’ve always thought of this wilderness time as one of facing the temptations that Jesus would confront throughout his life – temptations that would be less obvious amidst the work that he was doing.
The devil tempted him with bread, with proof of God’s protection and with power. Beneath those three specific temptations may be the message that Jesus needed something more in order to fulfill what God had asked him to do. He needed to take care of himself by claiming the resources that the devil offered him – and him alone. Command these stones to become bread. (You can’t do God’s work if you are hungry!) Throw yourself down so that the angels will prove to you that you can do this, that you matter to God. (You can’t do this without proof that God is with you.) Finally, Jesus is tempted with power. (You can’t do this without worldly power!)
The devil’s message was that Jesus needed more in order to do God’s work. He needed bread (sustenance), he needed proof that God was with him and that this endeavor would therefore be successful and he needed the power to make his mission succeed. This message voices that deep seated fear that God has not provided everything we need – that something is missing – or that many things are missing.
I had a hard time choosing a title for this sermon. I thought about Fear of Inadequacy. It could be that the devil is telling Jesus that he will need things in order to be adequate. It may be that the human sense of inadequacy is a consequence of seeing the world as a place of scarcity. Gifts and talents are bestowed on a few --- so the rest of us are inadequate. Some people have the resources that they need in order to thrive.
Jesus responded to the devil’s temptations to see what might be missing with an affirmation that God was and would be present with him, providing what he needed to do God’s work. If he began to focus on what the devil said was missing, he would turn his eyes from God and look at himself. He would move from trust to fear.
This morning’s story from Genesis, chosen because it, too, speaks of temptation, is one that I have always found difficult. “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat,” God had commanded the man. It seems that the command has led to faith traditions that were and are uncomfortable with questioning, with pushing for knowledge – and particularly to faith traditions that have rejected science.
Now, we are told that they lived in paradise. They had abundance all around them. They could eat of any tree, except the one. They were caretakers of this garden in all its glory. But, the serpent told them it was not enough. Actually, the serpent must have tapped into what they were already feeling – that Eden wasn’t enough. They needed more. And, the only thing more that was readily available was the one fruit God had declared off limits.
I read somewhere that perhaps God intended this “sin.” It was a sign that Adam and Eve were growing up – moving from childhood to adulthood, where they would have to make decisions. Rabbi Kula writes that this thrusts them into the sacred messiness that is human existence. He suggests that the world truly begins when they leave the garden. “Now freedom and yearning will define humanity for the rest of eternity.” Kula’s exploration and explanation of this story is freeing. It suggests we shouldn’t hear it as an automatic condemnation of the human desire to push and explore this world. He looks at the Hebrew Scriptures and says, “For every moment of courage, for every time of great healing, there is a moment of weakness, of hurt or disappointment…This is exactly what makes the Bible holy. It invites us to find ever-expanding meaning in both the messy and the neat; the triumphs and disappointments; the weaving and the unraveling. It’s up to us to see the holiness in all this drama; to bring it to life with our own reading and our own living.”
Kula says that the Biblical writers were trying to wake us up, to see that we learn more from “disarray, from upset, than from placidity and safety.” Adam and Eve begin to learn about being human when they are exiled from the garden, from that place of secure boundaries. Traditionally, we hear this as punishment. They were exiled. They left that perfect place. On the other hand, Jesus went into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He left, willingly, the garden that was his family, his friends and the traditions that had nurtured him. He left that garden in order to explore what it meant to be called God’s Son, the Beloved.
How tempting it is to declare that we cannot fully be who God calls us to be unless – unless we are in a place without scarcity, unless we are completely safe, convinced of God’s protection. Now, I hesitate to speak of safety in one way. We know that there are those in our own society who are perpetually not safe. I read a white woman’s story about her black brothers. She talked about the very different society they inhabit, about having to write a letter explaining why her black brother had her white son in his car – just in case he got pulled over. The issue of safety for transgender people is before us these days. I think of my friend Jay who was kicked out of the women’s room as he began his transition. He laughed about it, but it meant that he couldn’t use either restroom. His birth certificate said he was female. He looked male (well, like a teenage boy). We would have to think about the safety needed by those in abusive relationships. Sometimes, those who are at risk can do little to challenge what threatens them.
But their safety is not only their concern. It is ours. And, oftentimes, when we enjoy relative safety, we forget that God calls us into that messiness of life, and maybe out of our own safe gardens, to work on behalf of those who are perpetually unsafe.
Do we have the resources to make a difference? Will we be fed with what we need? Will we be safe? Do we have the power? Those questions always arise. I hear congregations and individuals speak about what they would do if only they had…financial resources, the assurance that doing something would benefit them, or that they had any ability to make a difference. As individual Christians it’s easy to see what we don’t have…compared to someone else. Churches sometimes speak of their willingness to fund or do mission – after and when they have enough resources to take care of themselves. Probably one of the saddest aspects of the modern church (modern American Church) is that it has become consumer oriented and, thereby, competitive with other churches. We feed ourselves first – instead of trusting God to provide what we need. We feed ourselves with programs and buildings and worship styles that are designed to attract others. We make our churches safe gardens – and forget that the wilderness is where God calls us to be.
The story of the garden tells us that God gives abundantly. Jesus trusted that abundance even in the wilderness. He trusted that the abundance of God would sustain him, support him, and guide him in his ministry. Our sin is seeing a lack where God is giving abundance. Our sin is hoarding and grasping God’s abundance for ourselves or some, while letting others go without.
One of my favorite stories was on a Celestial Seasonings Tea Box, years ago. Someone was given a glimpse of heaven and hell. At first glance they looked the same. A group of people was sitting around a large pot of stew. One group, the group in hell, was wailing. They could smell the stew, but they couldn’t eat it. Their spoons had such long handles, it was impossible to lift the bowl of the spoon to one’s mouth. In heaven, they were laughing and joy-filled. The spoons were the same – but, in heaven they were feeding each other.
In hell, they saw scarcity where there was abundance. In heaven they saw abundance and shared it freely.