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Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Yet, there is hope

I took my first preaching class this semester, and this is the sermon I preached:

“My life is a perfect graveyard of buried hopes.” – L.M. Montgomery
“The prince is never going to come. Everyone knows that; and maybe sleeping beauty’s dead.” – Anne Rice
“My beerdrunk soul is sadder than all the dead Christmas trees of the world.” – Charles Bukowski
“Life…is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” – William Shakespeare
 “This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.” – T.S. Elliot
Our passage today, Genesis 3:1-7, is one of hopelessness, or at least seems like it.
Step to the side of the pulpit, signifying a change of character.
It was really a fantastic garden. My love, Adam, and I spent our days just…worshipping. We swam in the river, feasted on the fruits, vegetables, and nuts in the garden, and just soaked it up. The animals were great friends to us, although none of them could quite understand me like Adam did. Our job was to take care of these animals and this garden, but I’ll have to be honest, it was an easy gig. I think God really just wanted us to enjoy it, and enjoy Him.
One uneventful day, Adam and I were walking past that tree again. It was right in the middle of the garden, and it was gorgeous. We used to climb it, it was so big and the limbs hung so heavy with fruit that we could easily grab hold of one branch after another until we were at the top, looking down on the garden and out into the great unknown outside of our garden. We never ate any of its fruit while we were climbing. Adam said that, before I came along, he and God had a talk and God told him never to eat from that tree. I was happy to oblige, though I didn’t understand why it would matter if we ate that fruit. Eventually, we decided that it was best to never even go near that tree, which only made me want to eat its fruit even more. It was on this day, during our walk, that a serpent approached me. Oh, how I loved communing with the animals! They all had such gentle spirits, and usually had something new to teach me about the nature of God and of the garden. The snake and I began to chat, and you know, it’s strange, but I can’t remember if that was a normal thing or not – chatting with one of the animals in the garden. We hung out a lot, but I don’t remember if they could actually talk. Anyway, this guy was definitely talking, and he started interrogating me about that tree – the “tree of knowledge” as we called it. I turned to Adam, because he was the one who had received the mandate from God about not eating the fruit, but wouldn’t you know it, that guy was nowhere to be found. The serpent and I had a nice chat – he said he was helping me understand what God meant with that law. He also said that Adam had it all wrong, and I absolutely would not die if I ate that fruit – I would become wise just like God. I looked at the fruit, and it really looked like it was at its peak. In fact, I wondered if it would soon be over-ripe. Such a waste, you know, all of that luscious fruit just sitting there, with no one to enjoy it. I really wished I’d asked Adam – or God – more questions about the tree before this moment. Oh, well, the snake seemed like he knew what he was talking about, and it didn’t seem like God or Adam were paying attention, so I took a piece of that fruit and ate it. It really was delicious, I felt like God had been holding out on me. Then, Adam showed back up, and he looked pretty upset with me, until I convinced him to eat some of the fruit, too. The serpent seemed pretty happy for us, downright gleeful. I started to not like the look in his eyes.
I don’t know if this is my memory playing tricks on me or not, but at that moment, it seemed like the sun just…went away. The usually bright and cheerful garden felt dark and desolate. I couldn’t hear any of the birds singing, and the wind that was always traipsing through the leaves just died in the air. Or maybe it didn’t, but it sure felt that way. God was approaching, and it seemed that all of creation knew what Adam and I had done.
Now, I know you want to know exactly how God approached us. Did He look like a man (or woman)? Could we see or just hear Him? The truth is, ever since that day, I can’t remember exactly. All I know is that he was there, and I knew him. I had spent every day with him, but that day, He felt like a stranger, and I learned a new word……….shame.
Adam and I both felt so…exposed. This was our first experience with this feeling, this wanting to hide – from God, from each other, and from ourselves. We inherently felt that we needed to be punished, and covered. We took the leaves from a nearby fig tree, and pressed them against our most sensitive places. The leaves itched and stung, but we felt the sting of our own shame deserved to be matched by our bodies. God drew nearer, and we tried to grow smaller. We hid behind the bushes, knowing that our God would never be fooled by such a simple ruse, but we couldn’t help it. It was in this moment that I, along with Adam and all the rest of creation, first knew the meaning of the word “hopeless”.
Step back into the pulpit, signaling the end of the monologue
This is a story with which we are all painfully familiar. I think that, at some point, we all have a conversation with ourselves that goes something like this: “Stupid Adam and Eve. I wouldn’t have eaten from that tree. If I had a time machine, I’d go back and chop that tree down and use it for firewood. Why did they have to go and mess everything up for us?” Of course, we know that we all have our own “fruit” that we return to time and again, even after it has rotted in our bellies.
The problem with this story is that it is so familiar. We start hearing it as a bedtime story before we are even old enough to understand the words, and it’s the first story in the Bible, so every time we resolve to read the Bible through, we at least make it through the Adam and Eve narrative. I don’t know about you, but I was well into adulthood before I understood that I am Eve, and, yes, this story is devastating. Yet, there is hope.
The first thing I notice when I read this story is the innocence of Adam and Eve. Indeed, they made the decision to disobey God’s orders, and bore the consequences of that sin, but I also have to give pause and remember, they had never known anything but good, and that innocence is what made them easy targets for the serpent, the true villain in this story.
*short pause* Statistics say that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 20 boys will experience sexual abuse before the age of 18. Often, this abuse can trigger the onset of addiction, mental illness and even perpetration of abuse later in the life of the abused, creating a devastating cycle. As ministers, we cannot ignore these statistics, because they represent people who sit in our pews week after week after week. One would hope that we, the Church, the hands and feet of Christ, would be a place of healing for these men and women, but often, church is just another place for them to go and face judgement for their bad decisions. When the snake enters the scene in verse 4, he is targeting an innocent bystander. She had not yet known sin and brokenness, not been ripped from the comfort and safety of the garden and her place in it. When I read this passage, I see words of comfort for these survivors of sexual abuse – you were victimized, targeted, and broken in a way that has affected you every day since. Your original abuse has led you down new paths of pain that are perhaps partially of your own creation, but are not entirely your fault. Keep reading the story, because for you, there is hope.
When we read the dialogue between the snake and Eve, the snake refers to the law given in chapter two verses 16 and 17, and I notice something – Eve hadn’t been created yet. I wonder if Eve got her information about the tree second hand, and for that matter, how much of God she knew of second hand through Adam. While some would say that Eve was targeted because women are the weaker sex, or that women are placed in subjection to men because Eve sinned first (ahem…Paul), some scholars propose that perhaps the snake targeted Eve because, having received her information by way of Adam, she would be easier to deceive.
I think about my own faith walk, and how this is also true about me. Theologians abound to tell us whatever it is we want to hear, or just as often, what we don’t want to hear. They often contradict each other and most even have scripture to validate their beliefs. It is very easy to be led by the hand into all kinds of crazy beliefs about God, ourselves, and our relationship to this world. This can be incredibly disorienting and damaging.
Are you ready to hear the secret to preventing this from happening?.............
Me, too. Because I don’t know it. I do know this, though: I am far more likely to find myself spiritually upside down and sideways when I’ve been experiencing God primarily second hand. Some of us may have been taught that we cannot trust our own instincts when it comes to knowing God, that we had better listen to our “superiors”, the “trained experts” to teach us about God. Don’t get me wrong, we are not meant to make our spiritual pilgrimage alone, and the discipleship of those wiser and more learned on that journey is absolutely priceless, but at the end of it all, they…we… are all fallible and bound to lead you astray at some point. I am much less likely to buy into a false teaching about my God now because I know God for myself. I can hear someone shouting hate, or whispering to me that I am less than, worthless, useless, and I can shout or whisper back that my God tells me it isn’t so, and that my God not only invented love, but is the manifestation of love itself.
How do you get to know God? I do it through meditation, prayer, silence, solitude, time in nature and a host of other practices. The older I get, the more I learn about learning about God. For you, the list may be different, but the key is to never stop pursuing. Never stop chasing hope.
When I was preparing this sermon, I read the story to my children out of our children’s Bible, and asked all three of them individually what they would say to Adam and Eve when they were kicked out of the garden, and here are there replies:
o   Izzy, age 6 - “You still have your whole life to be happy and not sad, so it’s not the end.”

o   Korban, age 4 - “God is always here for you so you don’t have to be scared.”
o   Evie, age 3 - “Jesus!”
Now, I think that in this case, as usual, there is wisdom to the simple answer of a child, but I’d also like to point us to the work of scholars. Genesis 3:7, the end of our text for today, is not the end of the story, far from it. I’d like to skip down just a tiny bit further to chapter 3 verse 24, which says:
He drove out the man; and 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.
This seems, at first glance, like the saddest part of the story so far, but it also contains such hope. Is the cherubim guarding the gate so that Adam and Eve may never enter, or is he “guarding the way to the tree of life” so that we may all enter and partake of that tree when the time comes? After all, God could have had the tree cut down or destroyed the garden entirely, but God didn’t.  In other places in scripture, cherubim are symbols not of divine vengeance, but of divine mercy. In Exodus 25, they surround the mercy seat, which sinners can approach after a sacrifice is made on their behalf. Perhaps Evie was on to something – this story ends with a promise, and that promise is…. “Jesus!” There is certainly hope.
Here is the problem, though. Some thousands of years passed between the excommunication of Adam and Eve and the coming of Jesus, and redemption for us can feel just that far away. Yes, we know that we are promised a place of peace, rest, and God’s presence at the end of our lives, and that God has promised to restore all things to God’s self eventually, but I bet that every one of us in this room has at least one situation that feels hopeless, one relationship that feels beyond redemption, or one physical malady that plagues us every day. Perhaps you have all three, and more. Yet, there is hope.
I can hear you thinking, or perhaps it’s just my own spirit groaning, that redemption may be coming, but it feels eons away and provides no hope for today or tomorrow or any day soon. But I dare to ask you to hope anyway. I don’t know about you, but I frequently find myself feeling upside down and sideways. I’ve come to call these seasons my “quarterly existential crises”. It may be one of those weeks when the news is especially full of hate and hurt, or maybe the pain originates a little closer to home, with friends or family. Just as often, perhaps, it’s even closer than that, originating in my own self so that I absolutely cannot escape it. When these days come, I try to make it to the Brazos river. I take a walk and sit by the side, or if I don’t have time for that, I’ll at least go out of my way to drive past it on my way to wherever I need to go. I look at the river, and the sun passing over it, and I’m reminded of something – while my world may seem to be in complete, head over heels chaos, this river, this sun, and the God who created them have all proven steady through the ages, and will continue to do so. That sun will resurrect itself over there on the other side of the river every 24 hours, no matter how dark it gets at night.
The front door of my apartment opens into a small courtyard, and I’m so lucky to have three stately pecan trees in that courtyard. I’ve lived there for a year and a half now, so I’ve gotten to see them through all the seasons, when the branches are so full of leaves that the entire courtyard is shaded from the relentless sun, and now, when they are straggly and grey, and the last of the pecans are falling from them, thunking loudly onto the tin roof above us. It’s quite depressing, but there is one lonely branch up there that has just now put out some fresh green leaves. I didn’t even know a limb could do that, act independently of the rest of the tree. It’s reminding me of something – I saw that tree lush and green and full of life just a few short months ago, and I will see it again, though that seems impossible right now. It’s an annual resurrection.
Now, as you can tell, I see signs of God all over God’s creation, and not just in the rivers and trees, but also in the relationships I’ve been blessed with. The sad part is that I didn’t even discover this about myself and God until recently, and I don’t want to you think that you have to go take a walk in the woods to be reminded of the faithful, redemptive work of God. For you, it might be in a great movie, or an early morning cup of coffee, or a late-night conversation with a friend. It is absolutely written all throughout scripture, and celebrated in the history of our people. There is absolutely hope. Hope, by definition, is not about what we already have or see coming, and it’s not necessarily about knowing the details of what comes next, it’s about resting in the knowledge that whatever it is, it rests in the hands of a faithful, loving God.
A loving God.
My task for you is to find your own everyday resurrections, make a list of them perhaps, so that, when you find yourself dizzy with despair, you will know where to look to be reminded of the hope promised in Genesis, and all throughout the word of God.
You may lose faith for a moment, or heart for a time, but please don’t ever let go of hope.
We began the season of advent this past Sunday, and these weeks before we celebrate the birth of Christ, and I’d like to close with a verse from Isaiah 9
“ The people who walked in darkness
                   have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
                 on them light has shined.”

Though you may walk in darkness, don’t lose hope, you will see a great light.

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