Fall

File:Metz (57) cathédrale St Etienne 36.jpg

“Why does Jesus have to tell us to love one another if we have been made in the image of God whose very being is faithfulness and love?”

This question from last Sunday’s sermon led us into the narrative of humanity’s turn away from God and their plucking the fruit of the tree that brings the knowledge of “good and evil”, of life’s joys and sorrows.

What follows is the information in the booklet we handed out following worship explaining the images used in our sanctuary last Sunday. The sermon series is designed to help us understand what Jesus was telling his followers on the road to Emmaus about the fundamental witness of the scripture to the sacrificial, redemptive love of God.   (For more information about this series, see the explanation in the post for week 1.)

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Metz_(57)_cath%C3%A9drale_St_Etienne_36.jpg By Jacques CHAZARD (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Genesis 3


In the middle of the garden were the tree of life
and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.


File:Shaki khan palace interier.jpg

In the garden is the tree of life. We are mortal creatures, but we are not made for death. There is a food that grants life. The tree of life shows up in Revelation. Christ has opened the way to the tree of life. It bears fruit in every month “and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”

But there is also a tree that will give the knowledge and experience of life’s sorrows, the knowledge of what is beautiful and what is brutal, what is kind and cruel, what is joyful and grievous. Here are the tears of life from which God would protect us. And so the command: every tree but this one.

Painting of life tree in interoer of Shaki Khan palace, Azerbaijan National Art Museum, Usta Gambar Garabagi
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AShaki_khan_palace_interier.jpg By Urek Meniashvili (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 


“Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?”


File:Adam and snake sculpture, Iskola Promenade, 2016 Dunakeszi.jpg

Trouble comes already with the question. Humans are free to choose to trust God’s word or to trust their own judgment. Until now they live in a perfect trust: they are “naked and not ashamed,” vulnerable but not fearful, open to one another and to God not turned in on themselves, living in perfect love of God and one another.

But then comes the question: “Did God say…?” It is the kind of question that plants doubt and uncertainty. Instead of trusting God’s word they question it. It is like a remark to a woman or a man, “Are you sure your husband/wife is working when they come home so late?” The question plagues the hearer and the harmony of the relationship is torn.

Now comes the decision whether to abide in God’s word or turn aside. And suddenly they are listening to the serpent deny the consequences of turning away from God’s word. Now they are hearing the serpent insinuate that God is trying to preserve his privilege and position as the knower of these things. Now they are deciding for themselves: it looks delicious, it tastes sweet, and it’s good to be wise. And the deed is done. They reach for the fruit.

Sculpture group at 10-12 Iskola Promenade, Dunakeszi, Pest County, Hungary.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Adam_and_snake_sculpture,_Iskola_Promenade,_2016_Dunakeszi.jpg By Globetrotter19 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

When the woman saw that the tree was good for food,
and that it was a delight to the eyes,
and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise,
she took of its fruit and ate.


File:Adam and Eva by Eugeny Kolchev.jpg

Adam and Eve. Skulpture of Eugeny Kolchev. 2003, bronze. Gallery La-Sandr Art, Minsk.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Adam_and_Eva_by_Eugeny_Kolchev.jpg Eugeny Kolchev [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

She also gave some to her husband, who was with her,
and he ate.


Adam was with her. Though he will try to blame this on the woman – and God who gave him the woman – he was with her. He was a partner in this act.

And even if he were only a follower, there is shame here, too. It shows something dark and troubling about the human heart. We follow too easily down pathways we ought not tread. We go with the crowd. We surrender to hates and fears and wars. We yield to peer pressure and social convention. We are silent when we should speak. We go along.


Then the eyes of both were opened,
and they knew that they were naked.


File:Adam and Eve. Downfall.jpg

Their communion with God is broken. Their communion with one another is broken. They hide (vainly) behind fig leaves from the eyes of one another. They hide (vainly) in the bushes from the gaze of God. Alienation. Pretense. Secrets. Shame. They know sorrows.

Adam and eve. The fall of man. 2012. Oil on canvas. 60×60. Artist A.N. Mironov
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAdam_and_Eve._Downfall.jpg   By Andrey Mironov (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The Lord God called to the man, and said to him,
“Where are you?”


File:Adam Listening to the Voice of God the Almighty. John Martin.jpg

The first question is not asked because God doesn’t know where the humans have gone. The question is asked because they need to see that they are hiding. It is a hard question, but a gracious one. Where are you? What is the truth of your life? What has come of the human race? What sorrows do we wreak? We need to see the hammer and nails in our hands.

John Marton. Oil on canvas. circa 1823-1827. Victoria and Albert Museum – London (United Kingdom – London)
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Adam_Listening_to_the_Voice_of_God_the_Almighty._John_Martin.jpg   John Martin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“The woman you gave me…”


The finger pointing is comical, but so true about us. But God gives the humans the right explain themselves. He listens. The God who speaks listens.

Do hear ourselves? Do we recognize the human heart, willing to deflect and excuse and blame even God for our choices and deeds? Do we hear the voice of God ask that simple question, “What have you done?” not as an accusation, but an invitation to choose to live in the truth?

But nevertheless, the action has consequences.


“I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers.”


File:Crotalus atrox diamantklapperschlange kopf.jpg

Enmity. It’s not only the relationship between God and humans, and the relationships between humans, that have been disrupted; humanity’s relationship with the natural world now involves fear. There are snakes. Where we lived in harmony with the natural world, now it is a stranger. There are things that creep in the night. There are lions that roar. Dogs that bite. The deer turn back into the forest and the turtle pulls into his shell. There is fear.

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake, Ulm, Germany, Zoological Garden.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Crotalus_atrox_diamantklapperschlange_kopf.jpg By H. Krisp (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken.”


File:Schweissdissi.jpg

Sweat. What was work now becomes labor. What was good becomes mixed with struggle. Childbirth is now labor pains. The ground gives weeds with the wheat. There are worms in the apples and crows in the field. Gentle rains become storms, and an unseasonal freeze can kill the oranges. The joy of work remains, but it is mixed with sweat. The joy of childbirth remains, but it too is mixed with sweat. We turned from trusting God’s word. We chose to know sorrow.

And ultimately the ground from which we came will take us again.

Parc Tivoli, Mulhouse: statue of a perspiring worker (1905)
Cropped version of https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASchweissdissi.jpg By M.Strīķis (Parc Tivoli) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

At the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim,
and a sword flaming and turning
to guard the way to the tree of life.


File:The Expulsion from Paradise. Christian Rohlfs - 1933.jpg

“The serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die.’” It was a lie, of course.

Yes, death didn’t come immediately. God didn’t strike them down. But death came. They lost the garden. And with the garden they lost the tree of life. Now the death-free life that had been provided for them is lost. They go out into the world of sorrows.

There is grace here, however. It is a kindness not to live forever in our sin. Imagine if every Hitler and abuser were eternal? Imagine if we lived forever knowing betrayal? Or infirmity? Or shame? There is a hidden grace here.

And there is a visible grace: God clothes them in animal skins. There is no killing, yet. Leaves and grass were all they would have had as they went forth from the garden. But God provides them with clothing to keep them warm, to protect them, to provide some cover to soften their shame.

There is a curse on the land and the serpent, but not on the humans. Life has been thrown off kilter, but the rivers still flow to water the earth. There is sorrow – and more sorrows to come – but God continues to care for his creatures. There is still goodness. There is still beauty. We are not cursed. Innocence is lost, but we can still choose faithfulness and love.

The Expulsion from Paradise. Christian Rohlfs – 1933
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Expulsion_from_Paradise._Christian_Rohlfs_-_1933.jpg   Christian Rohlfs [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Cover Image: misericord from St. Etienne cathedral of Metz (France)
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Metz_(57)_cath%C3%A9drale_St_Etienne_36.jpg By Jacques CHAZARD (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
© Text by David K. Bonde, Los Altos Lutheran Church, 2017
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The song lingers

Sunday Evening

Isaiah 51 (as sung in the psalmody today)

File:Western Meadowlark.jpg

Western Meadowlark. Kevin Cole from Pacific Coast, USA

11 “The ransomed of the Lord will return,
They will enter Zion with singing;
everlasting joy will crown their heads;
sorrow and sighing will flee away.”

The hymns from this morning linger in my mind. I find myself humming or singing or just hearing in my mind the words “A-a-a-le-lu-u-jah, A-a-a-le-lu-u-jah, A-a-a-le-lu-u-jah, Christ the-e Lord [something] comes to reign.” (I had to go find my hymnal and look it up. That uncertain line is “Christ the Lord returns to reign.”)

At different times in the day different phrases from that hymn has rattled through my mind.

Lo! He comes with clouds descending,
Once for favored sinners slain

But, since I don’t know this hymn very well, after these few words I resort to the “dah, dah, dah”s. Still, the music of the hymn, the majesty and – not quite joy, but ‘uplift’? – of the hymn I remember. It is like an echo coming back across a broad valley, or the aroma from yesterday’s bread that reveals itself when I return to my apartment.

Worship is meant to do this, to linger. The words spoken, the readings, the songs, the prayers, the actions of standing and sitting, giving an offering, and coming to the table, the sharing of the peace – they are all meant to work not only on our conscious mind but our subconscious. The peace is meant to linger. The sense of our lives being connected to something greater than ourselves is meant to ripple through our day, our week. A warmth of human connection, a hug, a smile, a gesture as simple as sharing a bulletin, may waft through our day with positive emotions. Of course, a harsh word, a cold shoulder can also haunt the day. This is the risk we take in being with others.

The liturgy didn’t go smoothly this morning. It was storming outside. Between the storm and the holiday weekend, the gathered community was small. The Assisting Minister didn’t show up, nor the acolyte. I had forgotten I agreed to get someone to sing the verse of “Oh, Come, Oh, Come, Emmanuel” that transitioned us from announcements into the lighting of the Advent Wreath before the entrance hymn. And I didn’t know who, if anyone, was prepared to light the wreath – the person assigned to that task was late arriving. Then the printer wouldn’t work for my sermon. We weren’t quite prepared for the beginning of this Advent season that is about preparation. Ah, well.

We do enter God’s presence stumbling. We do not arrive with manicured nails and tailored suits; we arrive as we are: frail in our best times, capable of great ugliness in our worst. We come as representatives of a humanity that is rioting in Ferguson, shooting children with toy guns in the assumption they are criminals; bombing cities, kidnapping children, assaulting women for indecent clothing. We come disillusioned by fallen heroes – the world has lost some of its remaining innocence with the revelations about Bill Cosby. And the missing football player is added to a tragic list of suicides. We come as members of a human community that has profoundly betrayed our creator’s intention for us – and yet also as members of a human community capable of remarkable generosity. Who could imagine Bloods and Crips standing together to protect another’s property? For every one who throws a rock there are others helping to clean up. For every killing marred by racism there are acts that transcend the most fundamental human divides. For every act of violence, manifold kindness.

We come together to sing our frail song and, somehow, God in his infinite grace transforms our song into true praise – into a meadowlark’s evening call, into the sound of wind in the aspens, into the harmonies of the spheres.

Our small words become vessels of God’s words, our bit of bread a vehicle of Christ’s presence, our prayers draw eternity to us and us to the eternal.

It is truly wondrous. And, in spite of ourselves, the tune lingers.

Sabbath

Thursday

Isaiah 58

13If you refrain from trampling the sabbath,
from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;
if you call the sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the Lord honorable;
… I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth.

English: the 4th Commandment on Nash Papyrus &...

English: the 4th Commandment on Nash Papyrus “Remember the Sabbath” row 9, words 5-8. in Hebrew script: “zahor et yom ha’shabat”. similar to Exodus 20:7 Egypt, 2nd century CE עברית: הדיבר הרביעי מעשרת הדברות בפפירוס נאש, “זכור את יום השבת” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Keeping Sabbath is one of the ten words.  For those who would boil the rich and wonderful legal codes of the Torah down to ten commandments, the Sabbath is one of these ten essentials.  No matter how you number them, breaking Sabbath is in the same select list as murder, kidnapping, elder abuse and violating another’s marriage.

At first glance it doesn’t seem to match up.  Keeping Sabbath looks to us like a ritual obligation.  All those that follow are filled with deep ethical dimensions that affect the well being of society by governing the way we treat one another.  Keeping Sabbath seems like an obligation towards God.  In our society, such a religious obligation seems clearly secondary to the “higher” ethical norms concerning the treatment of others.  Why then does the prophet equate keeping Sabbath with such fundamental humanitarian concerns as feeding the hungry and caring for the poor?

For most of human history we have enslaved one another.  Binding another to serve one’s will seems endemic to human nature.  There have been formal institutions of slavery, encoded in law, and many informal and indirect ones.  There is a serfdom that binds you to the land, but also a serfdom that binds you with debt – the coal miners living in mining towns paid in script only good at the mining stores.  There is the slavery that binds by law, and the enslavement that binds by fear we see in human trafficking and the conscription of child soldiers (join us or we kill your family).  The bent woman before Jesus in Sunday’s gospel is spiritually enslaved.

It is easy to hear the exodus story as God’s triumph over the mighty empire of Egypt, but why then would God need ten plagues?  Wouldn’t one or two massive exercises of power have sufficed, just as the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought Japan to surrender?  Why start with a silly trick of turning your staff into a serpent?  Why begin with a few days of polluted water?  Because this is not about power; it is about redemption.  The Nile was the source of life for Egypt and God is declaring that he is the author of life.  The serpent was a symbol of royal power in Egypt and God is the one who holds Pharaoh and his kingdom in his hand.  God’s purpose was not just to save Israel, but also to save Egypt.  It didn’t take ten assaults to break Israel free; God provided ten opportunities for pharaoh to repent, to turn away from the prison of slaveholding.  Pharaoh behaved like us all: only as the price became more and more unbearable did he finally relent.

With the Sabbath command, the God who delivered Israel and Egypt from the house of bondage takes his stand against all enslavement.  The commandment isn’t just that I should rest on the Sabbath, it is that I must give rest to others.

Humans were not created for work.  In the Babylonian myth, humans were created to serve the gods.  In the Genesis narrative humans were created to walk with God.

When I “trample on the Sabbath,” I trample on my neighbor.  If I cannot turn off my wants and needs, if I cannot for one day set aside my “own interests” for the sake of others, then the life of all is degraded.

I understand the “modern economy,” but when I want to be able to go to the grocery store in the middle of the night, that choice affects not only me and my household, but all who must work in order that the store might be open at my convenience.  And when the demands of work encroach ever further into our lives, children and families and neighborhoods are undermined.  It may be the way of the world, but the way of God gives Sabbath.

So the Pharisees were right – Jesus needed to honor the Sabbath.  They just didn’t understand that is exactly what he was doing: the woman was being set free from her bondage.