Genesis 3, John 1, Genesis 1, Acts 5, assorted verses from the Gospels, Psalm 23
Preached at Tigard Community Friends Church
September 29, 2019
Since I retired from paid employment, people have asked me how I’m spending my time. This is an embarrassing question to answer, since, after 37 years of grad school and working, I’m doing just whatever I feel like doing each day. I don’t usually feel very productive, though recently my spouse and I dug around 80 holes in order to plant shrubs, trees, roses, perennials. We unearthed rocks that were a foot across, and left some buried that were larger. Sometimes it’s easier to rethink where the plant goes. Some of the holes were nearly pure gravelly rock. So it’s been fun. I could say I’m productively working to help stabilize the climate, if I wanted to try to impress myself, but really I just wanted plants around me to make me happy.
This relates to what I’m learning about my relationship with God in these days of unpaidness. I’m learning what it means to simply be human with God and with other people. I’m learning that my being human is enough for God. And I’m recognizing that a lot of what drove me through my working life as a university professor and administrator was the desire to be a little more than simply human.
For one thing, I wanted to be tougher than the rest. So I went back to teach an hour after a root canal. I taught on crutches two days after knee surgery. I attended a facilities committee meeting the afternoon of the day my dad died. I wanted to be and to be seen as ultra committed, reliable, and tough.
I also wanted to be in charge. I liked the classroom where I wrote the syllabus and ran the agenda for each day. I also liked the challenge of managing the human beings in my classes toward learning and growing. I created open space for my students in the classes, but it was my open space. I didn’t relish the idea of co-teaching a class, with the constant negotiation of what to do each day.
I wanted to be recognized as a leader by my peers and my boss. I could be bought with promises of access to leadership opportunities. I was successful in getting the leadership openings I wanted until one time when I was spectacularly unsuccessful and some of my colleagues thought I should leave and go work elsewhere. I was devastated and resentful and angry. It was the death of a dream, only I went on living.
Now, when I look back, I still feel the sting, and I know it was an actual death for me. I did go on to be general superintendent of NWYM, but I think I would have found the job of general superintendent unbearable if I hadn’t already had my ambition and some of my need for approval snuffed out. Since leaving that superintendent work, I am finding that my spiritual task now is to learn how to be simply human.
I recently read Jacques Ellul’s The Subversion of Christianity and William Stringfellow’s Instead of Death, both books from decades ago that I find enormously relevant to where I see myself and where I see my co-travelers in our local and global cultures. I just mention these, not because I will be quoting them a lot, but because their analyses underlie my thinking to some extent, so if you’re interested, you can read them for yourselves.
I want to take us back to the Garden of Eden, and the temptation scene (Genesis 3). The setup is this: God has created the whole earth and set the father and mother of humanity in a garden where all their needs are met. There are also two miraculous trees, the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, or, as it turns out, the Tree of Death. God sets them free to eat anything in the garden EXCEPT the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God says, “In the day you eat of it, you will surely die.” So, the tempter says to the woman, “You won’t die. The truth is that God knows that in the day you eat from that tree, then your eyes shall be opened, and you shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.” The woman looks at the tree again and thinks to herself, I want to become wise. This is a temptation to which I am vulnerable. I want to be wise, to be discerning, to judge what is good and what is evil. In the terms of this story, I want to be like a god. So what might be the downside?
The downside is fear. When she and the man eat the fruit, the result is that for the first time, they fear meeting God face to face, they hide from God, God exposes them as having disobeyed, they are ashamed of who they are, human beings naked before God, and they leave the garden to enter a world of toil and shame, a world, as Stringfellow says, enslaved to death and the fear of death.
There is so much to explore in the temptation story that I will leave aside to focus on this. The woman was tempted to become like God, to be one who decides what is good and what is evil, to judge as God does. But when God judges, God knows all there is to know. Humans don’t. We are always judging from a basis of incomplete knowledge. In fact, we tend to identify the unknown as evil, and we learn to fear and even hate it. Thus the natural darkness of night becomes a place of terror because we don’t know what’s hidden by the dark; we become afraid that evil hides in dark places. We start identifying darkness with evil when, in fact, it is a part of God’s good creation.
We don’t even know everything about ourselves. Some aspects we aren’t even aware of until anger, stress or danger (names for fear) bring them to the surface. And some of what we know we don’t want to embrace as part of ourselves. It isn’t long before we are afraid to look inside ourselves; we start hating parts of ourselves that we don’t understand and we judge to be evil, and then start projecting that self-hatred onto other humans or the creation.
As human cultures, we make systems to protect ourselves from the unknown, and these systems end up enslaving us. So we cannot stop stockpiling retirement resources, we cannot stop building more efficient ways to kill our enemies, we cannot risk losing the opportunities that higher education opens up, we cannot run up outrageous medical costs without insurance, we cannot admit that other persons or nations have the same rights we do. We are in bondage to all the ways we protect ourselves from what we fear. And we turn what we fear into an evil, whether God considers it thus or not. This is the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. And ultimately, the fear of the unknown is the fear of death, the great unknown.
We humans are already like God in one way: we bear God’s image, as the earlier creation narrative says. “Let us make humans in our image,” say the Trinity to each other, “male and female.” So in a fundamental sense, to be human is to be made in God’s image. All humans, everywhere. As the gospel of John says, nothing was made without God’s Word, which lights up every person who comes into the world. And the Word became flesh, and lived among us, and we saw his glory, the glory of God’s only begotten Son, full of grace and truth.
So the riddle is, why do humans, who are from the start made in God’s image, feel the need to become like God, judging and separating good from evil? Why do humans not just live in close relationship with God and let God judge and guide? Why do humans want to prove they are tough, in control, and able to lead? Why not pay attention to the one who is full of grace and truth? Why would any of us, when facing the choice, prefer to decide good and evil ourselves rather than to live receiving God’s judgment of good and evil? I think it is because we have a hard time with how God judges. We judge God’s judging, and God is either too harsh or too lenient.
As a child, I always liked the Bible stories where God wipes the floor with those who sin. I used to ask my sister to read me about Ananias and Sapphira when I was under 7 years old. For those who don’t remember, they lied to Peter the apostle and to the Holy Spirit of God about how much of their money they were giving to the gathered church, and they fell down dead. I think this must have operated like a horror movie for me, because I was always afraid of God’s judgment, based partly on that story and others like it and on my own tendency to run into trouble with my parents or other adults.
But now, as I am gradually learning in fits and starts how to be human in relationship to God, I am grateful for the patience of God, God’s long-suffering, and the mercy of God, God’s loving-kindness, and the grace of God that puts all of God’s resources on my side.
Jesus shows us how God judges when he says, “He causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” When he says, “You work so hard to have your outside self appear right and perfect, but God sees the dead bones and rotting flesh in your hidden life.” When he says, “O Jerusalem, how I long to gather you to myself like a hen with chicks, but you do not want that.” When he said, “You will deny knowing me. The accuser has desired to grind you up like wheat, but I have prayed for you, and when you return to knowing me, strengthen your fellow travelers.” When he said, “Where are your accusers? Neither do I condemn you. Go and don’t do this again.” When he said, “I came into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world through me might be saved.” When he said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” (I suspect Jesus prays this for us every moment of every day.)
I remember reading a poem by Robert Browning where an outsider to Jewish society meets the resurrected Lazarus and is astonished at his mixed up priorities. The traveling doctor cannot understand why Lazarus has no interest in the coming confrontation with Roman armies but concerns himself about trivial actions of his child. For those who don’t know, Lazarus has died and been brought back to life. The most feared unknown of all, death, has conquered him and then been conquered, and nothing is the same for Lazarus after. Browning imagines him observing the world with the eyes of a child, full of wonder and awareness of glory. He imagines him as especially characterized by “prone submission to the will of God, seeing it, what it is, and why it is.” Lazarus seeks, as the outsider puts it, not to please God more than as God pleases. In other words, his zeal to obey doesn’t outrun God’s word to him. He does no more and no less than God asks of him.
[Lazarus] loves both old and young,
Able and weak, affects the very brutes [animals]
And birds—how say I? flowers of the field—
As a wise workman recognizes tools
In a master's workshop, loving what they make.
Thus is the man as harmless as a lamb:
Only impatient, let him do his best,
At ignorance and carelessness and sin—
An indignation which is promptly curbed…
Robert Browning, “An Epistle Containing the Strange Medical Experience of Karshish, the Arab Physician”
This is a picture of how we can be human in relationship with God. Loving God’s creation, including ourselves; loving other humans, no barriers; living as obediently as we can in response to God’s conversation with us; resisting the urge to judge; seeing clearly and without fear; being “pleased to live just as long as God pleases, and living just as God pleases.” Jesus showed us how to live with absolute trust in God, and when we know that the great, glorious God has given us the gift of love and God’s self to love, we can also trust God with our days and our nights, we can trust God when we can see and when we are in the dark. God will lead us in right paths for God’s own sake. Let’s be who we are and let God be who God is.