Rector's Ramblings March 8, 2017
For a variety of reasons I don’t have a new Rector’s Rambling for you. But, given the response to Sunday’s sermon I decided to share the text of that sermon instead – something I don’t do very often. But, you’ll hear from me later this week on a couple of other exciting items, so until then, this will have to do!
Sermon for Lent 1, Year A, 2017
Christ Church, Frederica
Some of Donna’s extended family hails from the Virginia hills, just north of the North Carolina border. Until recently, there was always a large reunion on the farm that her grandmother grew up on. The family would circle their campers on the side of a hill where a pasture had been smoothed flat. That side of the family has a number of characters in it.
One, in particular was always my favorite – her great Uncle June. June was always pulling people’s legs and teasing, and he made everyone laugh, but best of all, June had a huge heart. He remains one of the finest men I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. One year, June had gotten a brand new heavy duty Ford pickup with all the bells and whistles to pull his fifth wheel. It was only a couple of months old if that.
To be honest, I can’t remember the details of who was driving what, but someone at the reunion hit June’s new truck and smashed the lights on one side. Now, I don’t remember the particulars of the hit, but I do remember how June handled it. The driver apologized profusely, but June waved them off, smiling. He simply said, “It’s ok. If you’d a known you was gonna’ hit it, you wouldn’t have done it.” At first I thought he was being funny, but there was a deep sincerity in his words. I heard him use a similar phrase another time years later when my brother-in law’s dog got ahold of one of June’s Chihuahua’s and tore him up enough that it needed to go to the vet. Of course my brother-in-law was upset, but June just assured him, “It’s ok, if you’d a known it was gonna’ happen, you wouldn’t have let it.” June died in the last few years, but that response has always stuck with me.
I think about June when I hear the story of Adam and Eve in the garden. I’m pretty sure Eve didn’t know what was going to happen when she took that apple, or she wouldn’t have done it. But she didn’t know, so she took a bite, and the rest is history. We knew what was going happen, so we shake our heads at Eve, and we blame Eve for all the problems we’ve had since. We were fine, everything was Eden until Eve did what she did. This story is how the church came to explain the doctrine of Original Sin – Adam and Eve started it and passed it along to us.
Well, the church’s acceptance of the idea of Original Sin has ebbed and flowed over time. You can hear Paul wrestling with concepts of sin and this garden story, but it wasn’t for a few generations after Jesus that we heard about the teaching. Augustine gave it a big assist in his writing. The reformers tended to highlight it – Calvin loved it. But it has ebbed since. Right now many Anglican theologians tend to think Original Sin isn’t God’s truth, so much as a theological concept we use as a story to describe a truth about human nature. The Church softened its understanding of Original Sin back in the 1980s. Even so, we’re still using an ancient story to make sense of the concept.
Frankly, I don’t think that’s what the story of Adam and Eve is about. We must remember that first and foremost it IS a story. A story our ancestors made up to try to explain how it was that humans came to sin, since sin has been an important part of our religious reality from the start. But no one was taking notes in the garden. That story was passed down orally for many generations before anyone wrote it down and we don’t know with certainty exactly how and why it came to be, although we have our assumptions. Clearly, it has been teaching us truths for a long time.
If, however, Original Sin is a doctrine that describes our inherent wickedness as a primary reality, we must reject that as our starting point. We must remember that the story didn’t start with sin, it started with something else. When God created humans, when God formed Adam and saw what he had made, he called it what? Very good. That’s where we started. We are very good by virtue of the way God made us and sees us. But because of the gifts that God gave us, including free will, although we are good, we can make wrong choices. That’s just part of being human. We all have to learn as we go. The story of Adam and Eve is not so much about falling but about learning; about that moment when our naiveté and innocence disappear. When we are young we can do things wrong without knowing they are wrong. In time we come to understand the consequences of our choices. We have to learn such things.
My mother tells a particular story every so often when the family is gathered – it’s almost family lore at this point. But stories like that have to be true even if we can’t remember them, right? Well, the story goes that when visiting my grandparents, they had a fire in their fireplace, as they often did in the winter. The fireplace had glass doors. Apparently, when I was still a toddler I was told to stay back because it was hot. Hot! I knew hot, so I said, “hot, hot, hot,” and I walked right up to the glass and burned both of my palms. I learned about consequences that day. Sometimes we get burned. But we learn in the process.
Adam and Eve’s garden experience was a story about learning consequences. They learned what it meant to lose innocence. They learned, for example, that to eat, one had to work hard. They learned a lot that day, and we are still learning. It’s not about being bad; it’s about learning that choices have consequences.
I share all of this because this is the first Sunday in Lent. We start our Lenten journey with these lessons because we focus on the reality of sin throughout the season. If you came to the Episcopal Church from another tradition, you may have noticed that we don’t talk about sin a whole lot. Not compared to some traditions that play the sinner’s greatest hits every Sunday morning and every Wednesday night (if you’re not so sinful that you miss Wednesdays). But we don’t get hung up on it the way some Christians do. Because we don’t think God is hung up on it.
Now, that doesn’t mean we don’t take sin seriously – we absolutely do. It’s why we have the season of Lent. It’s why we have the confession of sin every day in the Daily Office, and every Sunday with the Eucharist. It’s important that we can name our sinfulness, the places where we fail in our faith, where we miss the mark, and where we do fall. It’s important we name it and repent of it for a very important reason. It explains why Easter Day is what it is when we can acknowledge our sin and then acknowledge God’s grace. It’s what makes Jesus’ sacrifice and the new life we find in his resurrection so powerful. We are reminded that God knows us for who we really are, and loves us anyway.
Jesus’ whole ministry conveys this. You won’t find a miracle story where he asked someone to confess their sins or their faith before he helps them. Sometimes it comes up afterwards, or sometimes someone’s passive faith is rewarded, but it is never a prerequisite. Not even once. Even at his death he asks God to forgive his executioners for they don’t know what they’re doing. Had they known, they probably wouldn’t have done it.
June’s theology of grace is alive and well in God’s narrative. There must be times when God wishes we could hear something along the lines of, “It’s ok – had you known what would happen, you probably wouldn’t have done it.” I hope June’s theology of grace is alive and well in our narrative too. This season is a way for us to learn, to be open to know how our actions have consequences, to understand that some of our choices do miss the mark. We can learn to live differently. We can admit that sometimes we do know what will happen and we do it anyway. Knowing what we know of ourselves, we can’t help but be moved by the gift of God’s grace and love that is ours in spite of ourselves.
As we journey through Lent, we know that we have an assurance of God’s forgiveness. It’s not as though when we say the confession that there is a moment of uncertainty between the conclusion of our prayer and when the priest offers the absolution where it might not go our way. We’re not unsure about what’s waiting for us on Easter and what it means. It went our way a long time ago as God knew that it always would, even as far back as when Adam and Eve first lost their innocence. God has known all along. If only we had known…