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Friday, 7 March 2014

You stole my apples I believe?

(NAPIER, NEW ZEALAND: first cathedral to see the sun)
 FIRST SUNDAY OF LENT (9th March) 2014

Readings:       Genesis 2.15-17, 3.1-7
                Psalm 32
                Romans 5.12-19
                Matthew 4.1-11

We are probably all aware of the metaphor of the frog in warming water, slowly boiling to death as it fails to notice the temperature transitions going on around it. Scientific analysis demonstrates that the story is not rationally true (and rational truth is a whole different story!), but it is a useful metaphor by which to illustrate human beings’ failure to respond to calamity slowly growing around them. In our society we might point not the slow creep of the mercury upwards in the world’s climactically changing thermometers, but also to the slow inuring of humanity to dark attitudes of racist, sexist, culturist, and other forms of oppression and alienation
Examples of the collective cauterizing of conscience in human history are innumerable, but the rise of Hitler in the inter war period of last century remains one of the most chilling and instructive examples. Most frightening of all is the realization that the rise of Hitler is not something that merely happened (relatively) long ago and far away, but something that can happen in any society at any time, as disenfranchisement and hatred of “the other” in a community grows, as outsiders are blamed for wrongs real or imagined, as we dismiss others as not like us and as responsible for any sufferings, real or imagined, we might experience. The rise of Hitler was enabled by a host of economic and political and military planets falling into alignment, but it is ever thus: as people flee the hatreds of the Middle East and Africa to Europe and Australia – and in New Zealand we are complacently quarantined from the world’s suffering so far – the general population finds more and more reason to generate hatred and ostracism of the hurting.

Which may seem far removed from Eve and Adam and a snake in the garden, or from Paul’s spontaneous, passionate dictations about sin, or Matthew’s and Luke’s stylized stories about a tempted Saviour. But is it? The stories of Genesis were of course never supposed to be post-Enlightenment, factual narratives about the actual facticity of events. They are profound analyses of the human state. In a moment after the closure of the Genesis story as we read it this morning we will find Adam and Eve blaming anyone else but themselves for all that has happened. The woman made me do it says the newly ashamed Adam. The snake made me do it, says Eve. The refugees have taken my jobs, the multinationals are destroying the earth, this racial or socio-economically defined group is responsible for whatever discomfort I may be feeling. The reasonably unambiguous demand of Jesus that we treat others as we would have them treat us is squashed out of existence. Anne once was lectured on a bus as to how we should bring “back them biblical teachings: do unto others as they done unto you.” Adam, Eve, and most humanity enter into the unbreakable cycles of blame and repayment that dwell at the heart of a broken, “fallen” world.

We could read on in the Adam and Eve narrative and find that God punishes all three players in the story; is punishment not just one more cycle of revenge? Not so: in a few verses we would find God effectively kneeling in the dirt, making clothes for the now knowingly naked primordial couple. It will not be the last time in the biblical story that we find God immersing fingers in the dirt of human existence, as we shall be powerfully reminded in Holy Week, as our Lenten journey reaches its nadir and we descend into the tomb of human darkness.

Adam and Even should know better than to engage in a blame game. In the glorious negro-spiritual telling of the story the lies are succinct:

You stole my apples I believe
Dese bones are gonna rise again
Oh no Massa Lord I 'spect was Eve
Dese bones are gonna rise again

On the whole it is better to ’fess up than to run labyrinths of lies. God in any case spends little time negotiating:

Well out of this garden you must get
Dese bones are gonna rise again
When you're livin' by your sweat
Dese bones are gonna rise again

But as we read on through the story of the people of God – our story, eking out an existence east of Eden – we find that God has left in us, as it were sewn into the fabric of our clothing as we left Eden, the gift that eluded the primordial pair. Over and again we find characters in the Hebrew scriptures niggled at by the small voice that, by the time of the New Testament, has come to be known as “conscience.”

From the much needed pricking of King David’s conscience as he is confronted by the enormity of his sin against Bathsheba - or, more technically, against God, for the apples are always God's apples)through the hints of an inner voice in the teachings of Jesus – “the light that is in you” of which we read later in Matthew’s gospel-account, there is a sense that, while we are expelled from Eden, we are not expelled from the knowledge of good and evil. Nor are we expelled from responsibility to respond to that knowledge: “They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them ...” wrote Paul. He is describing the human condition shortly in the same letter in which he addresses the questions we read just now of sin and redemption.  

Conscience becomes a major theme of Paul, always with the reminder that we can deaden its voice, that we can choose deathwards life rather than lifewards life. He reminds us always, too, that “lifewards life” is available only as we turn and turn again to the Christ who alone lifts us from death to life. We can deaden conscience, as Adam and Eve did from the start, but to do so is to kill the humanity in us, to turn those we hurt or ignore into mere objects, to end up where we began this sermon, in the frog ponds of growing social hate or disinterest, looking only after ourselves, forgetting the message of the martyr Bonhoeffer, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” We too easily forget to love and treat others as we would wish to be loved and treated. We are challenged to live as a people contrasting with the frogs in the warming water for whom “treat others as we’ve been treated” or even “treat others before we get treated” is the dominant paradigm. We are challenged and helped by God’s Spirit to live as a people who speak and act for compassion and justice wherever there is need. We are challenged to be a contrast society of Jesus.

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