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Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7, from the Common English Bible
Matthew 4:1-11, from The Message
Perhaps the New Yorker cartoon puts it best:
Adam and Eve are standing naked in the lush garden, Eve holding in her hand a perfect apple. Adam says, “We can eat it and get thrown out of here, or . . . we can stay forever and have nothing to talk about.”
Well, we all know how that turned out. Or so this story of stories goes.
I have read more theology over the past week than I had in a long time—maybe since my seminary days. And still it seems to me that one of the only undeniably true things about this story is that it has given us a whole lot to talk about—and we’ve been talking about it for thousands of years.
We’ve talked about the roles of women and men, about blame and responsibility, good and evil, so-called original sin, the Fall, the Curse, alienation, punishment, death.
For all the talk, for all the sophisticated theological analysis and gut-level reaction to and against this story, most of the conversation has boiled down to well-meaning faithful people trying to make sense of it—sometimes forgetting that the original tellers of this story were also, in their own way, given their own history and experiences, doing what all storytellers do: trying to make sense of things, trying to understand life as they knew it and their place in it all.
This story is a most curious one.
It follows an account of The Beginning that, for all its straightforward simplicity and audacious claims, could not be more beautiful. Right?
God spoke and there was light. God spoke and the water was separated from the land and sky. God spoke and there were stars and sun and moon. God spoke and there were sea creatures and land creatures and sky creatures and, finally, human creatures made in the very image of God.
There was morning and evening and day after day after day to be fruitful and multiply, to enjoy all that God had created.
And it was all good. At every turn God pronounced creation good. Hummingbirds were good. Zebras were good. Mottled sticklebacks were good. Human bodies were good. Sex was good. Rest was both good and divine. God was the source of all life, the source of all that is good. Relations between Creator and creatures and all creation was good. All the fruit of the trees was good.
Then the humans who wrote this story, people like us who, by then, had experienced all manner of violence and death, conflict and separation, who knew full well how humans can hurt each other, made what storytellers call a dramatic turn. That’s when things get interesting, because that’s how life goes. Because that’s how we try to understand our experiences.
And so suddenly in this idyllic creation story evil appears—in the form of a snake, no less. Then the humans disobey the very One Who Made Them. The next thing you know we’ve got clothing (hand-made by a heartbroken God), exile, domination, pain, gender roles, death, the heartbreaking separation of human creatures from their Creator.
And the shorthand for it all is that nasty little word sin.
And because everyone who hears the story knows (if they are honest) sin to be an all-too-real thing, separation to be an all-too-common occurrence, and death to be the realest thing of all, the story gets written down and then handed down through the ages. It is a bad-news story that becomes still- worse news in the re-telling and teaching. It becomes, for some, a weapon used to define and oppress others. It becomes, for many, a story that makes them feel guilty, that they are unworthy and bad from the very get-go.
It becomes a bad-news story about human alienation from a punishing God that, ironically, manages to do a very good job of alienating many people from the God who is Love.
Stories are important. Stories do far more than reflect experiences of reality; they also shape reality and experience. Stories can change things. Stories can change us. Which is just one of the reasons it is so important to come back to the old stories with our new understandings and contexts, to listen to the stories of people who are different from us, and to ask others to tell us their stories.
Yesterday, the 400 or so of us who attended a meeting to learn and strategize about ways to love and protect our immigrant and Muslim neighbors heard powerful stories from some of the immigrants in our community—stories of injustice, courage, separation, determination, pain, community, and strength.
Then our Congressman, Rep. Jim McGovern, recounting all that we are up against in the struggle for immigration justice and religious tolerance, said, “We are going to win this by telling stories.”
And even as we listened, even as we gathered and agonized and organized, we were writing a new story of solidarity and hope.
How we tell our stories—and whose stories we choose to tell—are key to understanding the past and shaping the future. (This is one of the reason some of us are choosing this Lent to read a book called Better: to consider how we might re-engage with our sacred myths and re-tell some of the old, old stories in ways that foster healing and hope, to become better builders of beloved community, establishers of justice, makers of peace, lovers and sanctuary-providers of all.
About that story.
What if the deeper story is also about freedom and the fullness of life? What if we were to re-frame the old story, or simply add a new version that went something like this:
In the beginning God created choice. In the beginning God gave us freedom. In the beginning there was fullness of life. And it was good. In the beginning we were in beloved union with God. And there was morning and there was evening, and every day was a new beginning—a new opportunity to choose life, a new occasion to delight in God’s goodness, another invitation to be born again in God’s tender mercies—fresh, whole, clean, alive, beloved.
How does that story feel?
Do we not know it to be true?
Now, I want to be careful here. I am not denying the existence of evil, ignoring the life-sapping reality of sin, or making light of the countless ways we alienate ourselves from God and each other.
All I am saying is this: We have a choice. We have countless choices every day. We are both free and responsible to choose.
We can choose to acknowledge and honor a power greater than ourselves. We can choose to recognize and honor the divine image in every other person on the planet and, most important, the ones we bump up against every day. We can choose to care for God’s good creation.
Or, we can choose in ways large and small, intentional and not, to put ourselves and our desires first, above all else. We can choose to deny the Source of Life and ignore the laws of love.
We can choose to trust that our times, however awful they may be, are in God’s hands. We can choose to believe—even when we don’t feel it, even if our families, our government, our laws, and our culture tell us otherwise—that we are beloved, made in the image of God and precious in her sight.
We can choose to follow the one who showed us that it is possible to make good choices. Indeed, we can choose to understand the story of Jesus in the wilderness as a powerful re-telling of the first temptation story.
Alone and very hungry, Jesus had every reason—every excuse in the book—to give in to temptation. He had every reason to distrust the promises of God behind and go his own way. The devil appealed to his human pride, to the lust for power, and the love of possessions.
Or, as the pastor and writer Jonathan Martin says, There is one sure “way we can identify the devil’s voice: It always plays to our fears. It is the voice that tells us we must do something to prove who we are, to prove that we’re worthy, to prove that we are who God has already declared us to be.”
The devil’s voice—the devil’s choice—is the one that tells us we don’t have enough, the one that tells us we’re not good enough, the one that tells us we’re better than someone else, the one that tells us we come first.
But—back to the story—time and again Jesus responds to the devil’s taunts with the life-giving, life-grounding word of God. At every turn, Jesus chooses life.
Because “when we know we are loved by God,” Martin says, “we don’t have to prove anything to anyone. There is nothing we can do to make ourselves more beloved than we are.”
Even now we are writing our own stories. Even now we are, together, writing the stories of these times. How will they read? What will they say? What choices will we make?
Will we choose self-promotion and strategies to make ourselves first and our country “great”? We will choose to give in to anger and hatred, conflict and separation? Or will we, like Jesus, choose the transforming love of our Creator God? Will we choose God’s eternal law or our fleeting desires, the welfare of all or the illusion that our interests are separate from those of others?
And which story will we choose to tell—a story of alienation and punishment, guilt and obligation, or the gospel truth of belovedness and potential, divine image and Spirit power? Which story will we live out—the old saw of endless cycles of evil and suffering, conflict and violence, oppression and exile, or the God’s truth of a self-giving love that breaks the cycle, unlooses the bonds of evil and injustice, and conquers even death?
Since the beginning the choice has been ours. Since the beginning the enlivening Spirit and the transforming power have been God’s.
What will you choose this day? What do you choose?