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Posts Tagged ‘Faith’

Why did God put the tree of knowledge of good and evil right in the garden? And, why did God draw attention to it by telling the man not to eat the fruit because on the day that he did, he would die? Who was the serpent anyway? Why did the woman eat the fruit then give it to the man. Why did the man accept it so passively? Finally, is this a lesson about the choices we make and their consequences? Or, is it about something more?

So many questions to ask. Seemingly, so few answers to receive. However, I think there is a fundamental lesson resting, simply and plainly in this scripture, which becomes clear when we compare the man and woman’s story with the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.

You recall, the man and the woman are in the garden God has created as part of the whole of creation. God created the man and the woman for a purpose- a vocation. They are to keep and till the garden. They are to be God’s stewards of creation and exercise care and concern in preserving creation as God created and ordered it. God, also, created them to be companions for each other. They were to live together in a relationship of mutuality; helping each other, caring for the other and working with the other person. They will be a community together. There is no hierarchy or relationship of superior to inferior. Neither person is more important than the other person because both are created in the image and likeness of God, so they stand together as one in the same way that the trinitarian God is one. This is the vision of community no matter how many people reside in the community. All are to be one. Now, God gave them gifts for this vocation- food for their physical nourishment. They could eat the fruit of any tree of the garden and pleasure in their work. God, also empowered them for this task with the freedom to carry it out, and with authority to act in a sustainable manner for the best interest of creation.

But there was a limit to their freedom and authority. For God told the man, “of the tree of knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat because on the day you eat the fruit of that tree you will die.”

Well, one day as the woman and the man are busy working in the garden, the serpent comes to the woman. Now the serpent is characterized as the craftiest of wild animals God created. However, being crafty does not necessarily only mean being sneaky, conniving, or diabolical. It does mean those things, yet it also means skillful, ingenious, or dexterous. So, the serpent can be deceitful or the serpent can be ingenious depending upon how the serpent chooses to use its crafty character.

On this particular day, the serpent asks, “Did God really say, ’you shall not from any tree in the garden?” A simple question. No hint of untoward motive on the part of the serpent. Just asking what God’s word was regarding the fruit of the trees. Actually, the serpent is really wondering how much freedom God has given to humans. What choices do they get to make if indeed they get to make any choices at all. A clever question because a yes or no response is impossible. By the way, just for the record, the serpent is asking both the man and the woman the question. The “You” in Hebrew is a plural, so both of them are asked the question. The man remains silent while the woman answers the question.

“We, “said the woman, “can eat the fruit of any of the trees in the garden, except God said ‘you shall not eat the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you will die.”

Fairly straightforward answer. She does add a prohibition God did not give the man earlier, but the man may have added that to God’s word when he re-told the command. “Nope, can’t eat it or you’ll die. As a matter of fact you can’t even touch it. Touch it and you’ll die too.” We really don’t know where the extra bit of command comes from, but the woman is pretty sure about the command and what it means and the man is too, since he remains silent.

“Did God really say that to you?” the serpent asks. “C’mon, you want the truth. You won’t die. God just said that because God knows when you eat the fruit your eyes will be opened and you’ll be like God. You’ll know what God knows. You’ll know about good and evil.”

Well, the serpent’s response jolts the man and woman’s reality. The seeds of doubt are sown just by the serpent’s words.  The serpent doesn’t “do” anything, but ask a question and offer a different version of why God doesn’t want them to eat the fruit of that tree. I can almost hear the questions going back and forth between them. “We won’t die if we eat it? Can the serpent be telling us the truth? Why would God say such a thing if it wasn’t true? And, what’s this stuff about being like God. It’d be good to be like God. Look, at all that God can do! Does it just come from knowing good and evil? Will we see the world and ourselves as God does?  Does God not want us to be like God? Is God holding us back from realizing our true potential?”

The serpent seems to be telling the truth. Yet, is he? Is death only about physical death or is there a broader definition of death that they don’t know about? Has the serpent held out the possibility of something more for them? Something that will enable them to transcend who they are, where they are, and their limitations. “The serpent calls God a liar,” says Leon Kass, a professor of ethics, “and the serpent undermines God’s authority and offers what seems to be an exciting new possibility.” The serpent, actually, reminds me of my friends when I was a child, who wanted me to do something I knew was wrong and who challenged me with the same kind of questioning. “C’mon, it’ll be fine. Your parents will never find out.”

While the woman and the man do not voice their questions or their ponderings out loud, we get an inkling of their thinking as the woman judges the fruits beauty, its goodness as food, and its desirability to make one wise. All of which combine to tell us they have decided to trust the serpent and their own decision making abilities rather than God’s word and the boundaries and limitations God placed upon them. Indeed, the question about whether knowing everything God knows is a good thing or not never comes along. After all has our own knowledge of good and evil worked out well for humanity and creation?

Now, compare the woman and the man’s actions with Jesus’ actions in the wilderness. Just as with the man and woman, God had a purpose for Jesus. Jesus came to save people from their sins and to be Emanuel, “god with us.” God empowered Jesus for this vocation with the words God spoke at Jesus’ baptism, “This is my Son, the beloved with whom I am well pleased.”  Then, Jesus is led out into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit before he begins his ministry. For forty days and nights Jesus fasts- a real Lent- and he is famished. Can you imagine fasting for forty days and nights? It’s tough for most of us just to go a few hours without eating! But, Jesus does it for forty days and nights. He is famished and, perhaps, weak.

At this moment of vulnerability, enter the devil, in Greek the word is diabolos and comes from the verb to separate or to cause conflict. This is what diabolos, or Satan in Hebrew, is about doing. The goal is to separate human beings from God by offering an alternative reality and questioning God and God’s ordered reality. So, here comes diabolos aka the Tempter with what Henri Nouwen calls the three compulsions of this world.

The first, to be relevant. “Hey, if you’re the Son of God turn these stones into loaves a bread. That’s what the people are expecting from the Messiah. C’mon, if you’re really the Son of God it’ll be easy. C’mon, I dare ya. I double dog dare ya. C’mon turn the stones into loaves of bread. It’ll remind people about how God provided manna in the wilderness for the people. C’mon.”

Jesus simply says, “bread is important for nourishment, but one does not live only by eating bread and food, but every living creature has life by every word that comes from God’s mouth. God creates life by God’s word and I’m not here to do miracles for the sake of proving who I am or by giving people an amazing, entertaining experience. Nor, am I here to serve myself. That’s not God’s purpose or plan for me.”

The Tempter comes back with the second compulsion, to be spectacular. “Okay! Well, lets see if you really trust God. Jump off the pinnacle here of the Temple and see if God sends down angels to catch you.  Remember scripture says, “He will command his angels concerning you, on their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”

“Yes,” Jesus said, “But it is also written, ‘do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Don’t see if God really will do what God promises to do. Realize that God’s promises are real promises and that God always does what God promises to do. That is what trusting God is about. And, God has given me a path to walk and I will be walking that path. I am to be obedient only to God’s will. Not mine. Not yours. Not anyone else’s. Only God’s.

Then, the Tempter retorts with the third compulsion, to be powerful. “Yeah, yeah. Look, I will give you all the power, wealth, and kingdoms on the entire earth. Everything you see here. All you have to do is bow down and worship me. That’s all. Do it and you get everything. Power. Wealth. Kingdoms. Servants. The whole enchilada. Huh. Huh. Huh What d’ya say?”

“Away with you Satan!” Jesus says, “It is written, worship the Lord your God and serve only God.” This last response ends the tempting challenge, for the time being.

What is clear is that  Jesus is tempted with the same temptation as the woman and the man, to be like God. “if you are the Son of God, “ says the devil, “then act like it. Use your power to create food, orchestrate a spectacular miracle, and rule over all the kingdoms of the world.” But, Jesus doesn’t give in to the temptations. Rather, he chooses to live as God has created him to live, doing what God has planned for him to do, and trusting God completely.  The man and the woman do not.

“You ask what did Adam and Eve do wrong in the garden, “said Marianne Thompson a professor of New Testament, “they fail to trust God-that what God says will happen, will happen, or that what God prohibits is for their own good.”

The man and woman try to reach beyond the limits of their being, to transcend creation, but they cannot. They have knowledge of good and evil, but it is knowledge limited by the contingency of human life. All we can know is the past and the present. We cannot accurately see into the future, nor do we completely comprehend the impact down the road for the choices we make today. The woman and the man didn’t know that their choice would lead to a death that is defined in Scripture as separation from God. The breaking of their relationship with and their separation from God becomes a physical reality when they are expelled from the garden. Yet, they broke not only their relationship with God, but with each other as well. When God asks the man how he knows he is naked then tells him what he has done and God asks why he did it. The man blames the woman. “It’s not my fault, She gave it to me!” Then, the woman blames the serpent in turn. Both fail to take responsibility for their own choices and actions. As they blame each other, conflict ensues and their relationship is damaged. I doubt they saw all of these consequences coming from that one choice. But, how many of us do? Test this out by reflecting about any choice you have made at any point in your life. Look at the impact of the choices you’ve made have had on your life. Look at the impact of choices made fifty years ago by chemical companies to dump waste into rivers and land. Look at the choice to enslave other people. Look at the choice to create nuclear weapons or even nuclear power plants only to realize there may be a storage problem with the waste from those plants. We can’t know what God knows because we do not have God’s perspective on the entire created order. We can’t be like God, exercising God’s authority or claiming God’s wisdom because we are not God.

In resisting the temptation to be like God, Jesus countered every word of the tempter with a word of God. By doing this, he proved himself to be the Son of God and accepted the limitations of power and authority imposed upon him. As Paul wrote to the Philippians, “though Jesus was in form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”

The question for all of us in this season of Lent is whether we will be followers of Christ by doing what God challenges us to do, “listen to him” or will we continue listening to the questions the serpents surrounding us ask us. Will we choose trust, choose faith, or not?

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The light was so radiant and so bright it overwhelmed everything. No longer were the tops of the other mountains or the valleys stretching out from the mountain visible. Even the dark brown ground and rocks and crags were hidden from sight as the entire mountaintop was bathed in warm radiance.

The light shone with an intensity the three of them had never known before in their lives transforming the dull cloth of Jesus’ clothing a dazzling white that was sparkling like diamonds sending shoots of light all around him. Even transforming his face into an iridescent glow…

Then, in the midst of this wondrous light Moses and Elijah appeared! And, they were speaking with Jesus! Here were the two advocates for Torah and the covenant. Here were the two prophets from old. The prophets the people rejected, but whom God vindicated. The prophets who performed miracles and who had been taken up into the transcendent glory of God! Here were Moses and Elijah who had both spoken to God on Mountaintops. Who had been in the presence of the Lord of the universe, the creator of life and had spoken to God directly just as they were now speaking to Jesus directly. This was not simply an echo of the Exodus and the still small voice on the mountain; it was the continuing conversation with God.

This conversation will lead us down a path of sustainable living as a community of God’s people, if we would only “listen to him, God’s beloved.” Yet, it is precisely in listening where we fail because listening, true listening requires us to be attentive to the words spoken, to repeat them back, so they other person knows they have been heard, not interpreted, and that we have comprehended what was said, then we are to engage the conversation about the deep meaning of the words and the direction God’s beloved would have us sojourn. Also, “listen” means in the ancient biblical Hebrew to faithfully and obediently act on what was heard, not on what we wished we heard. This is, of course, the struggle for followers of Christ because it means we will have to let go of our own self-centered agendas, so we might center our lives in God and seek to love the other person by seeking their well-being, their health, their wholeness, which is a complete turnaround from our contemporary society and our contemporary church.

The society we live within is based upon demanding we get what we want, and getting it right now, sort of like a two or three year-olds’ tantrum. This is what is happening in the politics of multi-million dollar television ad wars sponsored largely by the wealthy in an attempt to control who gets elected and controlling laws and policies that will benefit the elites at the expense of everyone else. This is at the heart of corporate mergers designed to gain control of media, so a corporation has the ability to control what is seen and heard in the homes of millions of people, which allows competing voices or disparate voices and ideas to be silenced. This is at the heart of the McDonaldization of culture designed to devalue substantive food and devalue human work and skill in the name of homogeneity and mechanization. This is at the heart of Monsanto’s drive to patent human genetics and all food genetics in the name of corporate profits and shareholder wealth. This is at the heart of the concentration of poverty in small tightly bounded neighborhoods and keeping it in place for the next generations through lack of meaningful work, inadequate diets leading to an inability of children to learn, which in turn condemns them to narrower career choices and continuing the cycle of poverty, violence and self-destructive hopelessness.

None of this is what Jesus taught. What he taught us to do was to be centered in God, to be focused on sustaining life for all as responsible stewards of life, to bring everyone into the community, so the community is whole and thriving, to care for the most vulnerable, the powerless, those who are most at risk to be abused or neglected, and to practice non-violence, forgiveness and reconciliation.

So, now the question for us in this age is, will we open our ears to listen and faithfully act according to God’s beloved or will we refuse transformation, refuse change, refuse resurrection?

Our answer comes not by the words we utter, but in the actions we do today and tomorrow.

 

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I read an observation about jazz by Wynton Marsalis, “Jazz is not just, “Well man, this is what I feel like playing.” It’s a very structured thing that comes down from a tradition and requires a lot of thought and study.” i have been pondering this and the realization about the other aspect of jazz I read about “the complex history of jazz beginning with the blending of New Orleans ragtime piano, brass bands, African folk music and the blues and gospel, which was coupled with a social context of lament, praise and yearning and hope. As jazz matured it was the seed bed for swing, Latin and Afro-Cuban, bebop, fusion, rock, and “cool” jazz. It is played by soloists, duos, trios, ensembles, quartets and quintets, big bands, now even symphonies. This diversity sprouts a diversity of instrumentation and complex range of musicianship from self-taught to highly conservatory trained virtuosos. This may explain why Wynton Marsalis is acclaimed for jazz and for classical musicianship.” Jazz is vital and alive because it improvises and gives breath to innovation and improvisation which is exactly what I and other storytellers are doing.

Storytellers often innovate and improvise with stories they tell because every time a story is told by a storyteller it is changed by the tellers’ voice, change of emphasis on a word here or there and by the perspective of the storyteller. The story might be contemporary or it might be quite ancient, but the very act of telling the story will mean that the story takes on a slightly different nuance, different meaning because of how the storyteller tells it. Also, storytellers often study the structure and traditions of stories and storytelling, so they might improvise and innovate knowing why they are moving in the direction they are moving mindfully and attentive to the act of improvisation and innovation. They are not just showing up and saying, “I just feel like saying this story this way today.” or because they forgot most of the story they were going to tell.

Yet there is one more place of congruence for jazz musicians and storytellers because both jazz musicians and story tellers know that performance is contextual and must be contextual because it happens in a particular place at a particular time and before a particular people.

I believe, as I read Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles and the Gospels, that this is how the church matured as well. The church is jazz and storytelling with a rich tradition of story and liturgy and meaning and symbols, which if handed over to each generation becomes richer and deeper. The early church matured out of a tradition already rich and deep as part of the diversity of God’s people as the apostles and members of the early church improvised and innovated led by God through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit in each of the contexts of Jerusalem, Ethiopia, Greece, Roman city states and among people who had to learn something of the old tradition along with the improvisation and innovation before they too would eventually improvise and innovate. This is what congregations need to learn as part of the story- telling nature of being God’s people called Christians. They are to be more like jazz musicians and storytellers who learn the tradition and the structure by study and by practice, so they too might improvise and innovate within their context just as the early church did. I am convinced that Christians and whole congregations need to focus their energy, imagination, creativity and resources in becoming like jazz musicians and storytellers because I believe this is how congregational growth and transformation occurs as opposed to a formulaic plan based upon the principles of McDonaldization and industrial modernity or the latest quick fix product or fad sold to denominational hierarchies as “the silver bullet” that will solve all of their membership and relevancy woes.

Additionally, this is one of the steps along the path of congregational sustainability because it encourages the folks in the congregation to do what they are naturally capable of doing-telling stories.

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