Sermon Seeds: And So It Begins

First Sunday in Lent Year A color_purple.jpg

Worship resources for Women’s Week are at UCC Women’s Week 2017
2017 Reflection on Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 for UCC Women’s Week
Worship resources for the First Sunday in Lent Year A are at Worship Ways

Lectionary citations
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Psalm 32
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

Sermon Seeds

Focus Scriptures:
Matthew 4:1-11
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 (2017 Reflection for Women’s Week in the United Church of Christ)

Additional Reflection on Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
Additional reflection on Psalm 32 by Lizette Merchán-Pinilla

Weekly Theme:
And So It Begins

by Kathryn Matthews Kate_baptizing_Avery_SS.jpg

In “Lenten Discipline,” her sermon on Luke’s version of the temptation of Jesus in the desert, Barbara Brown Taylor gives a wonderful description of how Lent came to be. After all, Lent’s not in the Bible–it’s really more of a “church thing.” Many years after Jesus had not returned as quickly as expected, Taylor explains, the followers of Jesus had learned to accommodate their own lives to the surrounding culture, finding “no contradiction between being comfortable and being Christian.”

So much for martyrdom, bold witness and challenging the powers that be, speaking out or standing up for the poor and the marginalized. Instead, Taylor says, our ancestors in faith “decided to be nice instead of holy and God moaned out loud” (Home by Another Way).

Finding a connection with our tradition

So the church dug deep into its faith story, recalling the time (always with the number forty involved) that Israel, Elijah, and Jesus each spent in the desert, wandering and suffering, longing and learning: hungry. In response to this hunger, this emptiness, this longing, the church, Taylor says, created Lent as “a springtime of the soul.” (In fact, the English word “Lent” comes from the word for “spring.”)

Like our own urge to clean house in the spring, the church recognized the need for a spiritual spring cleaning as well and offered “[f]orty days to cleanse the system and open the eyes to what remains when all comfort is gone…to live by the grace of God alone and not by what we can supply ourselves” (Home by Another Way).

What does it mean to be human?

Then as now, folks had their “pacifiers,” Taylor calls them, all the things and ways that we keep ourselves from feeling what it means to be human, even if that means being in pain or being afraid. Our pacifiers can convince us that we don’t really need God. In fact, Taylor believes that just about all of us struggle with an addiction to what we need “to fill the empty place inside of us that belongs to God alone,” a space that we can’t possibly fill on our own, by our own efforts and wits. Alas, we seem unable to recognize that deep hunger for what it is, “the holy of holies inside of us, the uncluttered room of the Lord our God” (Home by Another Way).

So here we are, at the beginning of another season of Lent: it sometimes feels like “[groan] Lent Again,” but Taylor’s account of its origins is fresh and strangely inviting, if one can find the desert inviting. In another sermon, actually on this Matthew text, Taylor recalls her own time spent in the desert, a place “so big, so quiet, so empty that you cannot help noticing how small and perishable you are. You remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. You wish you had someone to distract you from that fact, or at least someone to talk to about it. Anyone but the devil, that is” (Bread of Angels).

A long way from that scene at the river

This lonely struggle in the barren wilderness follows immediately, the very next verse, after the amazing incident down at the river when Jesus was baptized and the sky opened up, and the Spirit descended, and the voice of God pronounced him God’s Beloved Son. It’s striking, if you read everything that leads up to this desert time, that the dramatic moment at the river is the only indication that Jesus has received so far in the Gospel that he is someone special. He actually accepts baptism, humbly, from John, in fact, he insists on it “to fulfill all righteousness.”

So we might wonder if Jesus was so affected by that dramatic revelation that he felt driven by a need to be alone and figure out what all of that exactly meant, what God was calling him to be and to do. That’s one way of reading that “the Spirit” drove him into the desert. Taylor says that out there, Jesus may “have wondered if he had imagined the whole thing.”

Feeling the pressure

The way Matthew tells the story, Jesus experienced not only hunger and loneliness and perhaps doubt but also the temptation to relieve his suffering by turning stones into bread (just for himself, of course), and by testing God (just to make sure what he had heard down by the river was really true), and by grabbing power and glory even if it cost him his loyalty to the one true God whose Child he was. Again, Taylor describes the pressure from the devil, who tempted Jesus and continues to tempt his followers even today with the belief that being Christian should somehow make life easier and better (Bread of Angels).

Seriously, we really should pause and wonder whether easier and better is really what “blessed” means. It’s a huge challenge to reconcile the spirit of this kind of Lenten reflection with the spirit of many of today’s theologies that seem to skip over the part our spiritual journey that demands sacrifice, taking a detour around Calvary to enjoy the sweet, comforting time in the garden, alone, with the risen and glorified Jesus. But that’s getting ahead of the story.

The words of that voice were true

According to David Bartlett, just as the time in the wilderness recalls the wanderings of the people of Israel during the Exodus, Matthew’s Gospel will “echo” these three temptations later on, in the feeding stories (both bread and the Word feed us), in the taunts at his crucifixion, and in the authority he has after the resurrection, “the authority of his presence” (New Proclamation Commentary on the Gospels). When Jesus does claim the power that is his, it’s exercised on behalf of others, to feed the hungry, heal the sick, and give glory to God. And as he exercises that power, it begins to dawn on those who are watching that the words of that heavenly voice at the river were true.

Richard Swanson always gives an interesting perspective on the text: This “examination” of Jesus “begins with a ritual weakening of the candidate” caused by forty days of fasting. Swanson sees hunger as something that’s not just a physical condition but a measure of “what it means to be a human being.” He remembers that God breathed into Adam and made him “a desiring being” subject to everything that “(hunger) brings to life” (Provoking the Gospel of Matthew).

Faithful to the task

So the test is about Jesus’ faithfulness to who he is and what God is calling him to do: not to ask for special privileges or place or relief, but to enter fully into this human condition of want and need and pain. The temptations attack him in those places, F. Dean Lueking writes, “where humans expect the best: daily bread, sacred spaces, the devotion of the heart”–in other words, at his core. Lueking suggests then that we focus not on the sins and weaknesses of others but on our own “inner places of the soul, where the real and daily struggle becomes absolutely personal” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels). 

Perhaps that is a good way, then, for us to approach Lent: as “a reflective examining of the inner places of the soul.” According to Thomas Long, Jesus, like Israel, is tempted in ways that “symbolize all of the possibilities for doubt, misdirection, faithless choices, and unholy distractions” (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion). Like those earlier Christians who settled into a comfortable faith, we’re tempted today to turn away from the suffering of the world, tempted to build our own defenses against doubt and risk, tempted to concentrate not only on our own needs but also our wants, before thinking of others. In doing so, we forget who we are, too, and fall prey to the tempter.

The possibility for so much pain

It’s not unusual for our focus to be limited, and perhaps it’s understandable when the world holds so much possibility for pain on the other side of our defenses. We’ll take care of ourselves, and our family, and maybe our church, and perhaps the neighborhood around it, but we really don’t have time or energy or ability to reach beyond those narrow lines drawn protectively around us and our loved ones, the people we “know.”

Thomas Long sees the first temptation that way, when the devil suggests that Jesus keep his own vision “too small–satisfying hunger–and the recipients of his work too few–only one, himself.” Of course, we know that Jesus’ mission was anything but small, and that God’s love was reaching out to the whole world through him, as it continues to do today. Long connects this to the situation of the church today in a powerful way, for we are often tempted to focus narrowly on our own needs, our own beliefs, our own plans. “Jesus is hungry, very hungry,” Long says, “but he will not allow the devil to restrict his diet, or ours…Jesus resisted the temptation to make the gospel too small” (Matthew, Westminister Bible Companion).

The devil is all talk, empty talk. Perhaps we need to spend some time in those empty places within us that belong to God alone, listening instead to a gospel larger than we had ever considered, and opening ourselves for what is yet to come.

The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews retired in July after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.

You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.

A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.

For further reflection:

Henri J.M. Nouwen, 20th century
“Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection….When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions….Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the ‘Beloved.’ Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.”

Jonathan Martin, 21st century  
“But that’s one way we can identify the devil’s voice: It always plays to our fears. It is the voice that tells us we must do something to prove who we are, to prove that we’re worthy, to prove that we are who God has already declared us to be. When we know we are loved by God, we don’t have to prove anything to anyone. There is nothing we can do to make ourselves more beloved than we are.”

Billy Graham, 20th century
“The devil doesn’t need to invent any new temptations; the old ones work as well as they ever have.”

N.K. Jemisin, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, 21st century
“We can never be gods, after all–but we can become something less than human with frightening ease.”

Winston Churchill, 20th century
“One ought never to turn one’s back on a threatened danger and try to run away from it. If you do that, you will double the danger. But if you meet it promptly and without flinching you will reduce the danger by half. Never run away from anything. Never!”

Oswald Chambers, 20th century
“God never gives strength for tomorrow or for the next hour, but only for the strain of the minute.”

C.S. Lewis, 20th century
“How little people know who think that holiness is dull….When one meets the real thing, it’s irresistible.”

Christopher Morley, 20th century
“The enemies of the truth are always awfully nice.”

Billy Graham, 20th century
“It is unnatural for Christianity to be popular.”

Bill Watterson, 21st century
“Calvin: Do you believe in the devil? You know, a supreme evil being dedicated to the temptation, corruption, and destruction of man? Hobbes: I’m not sure that man needs the help.”

Special 2017 Reflection on Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 for Women’s Week in the United Church of Christ:
by Kathryn Matthews

Note: This reflection is offered to provide additional material for those who are preaching on the Genesis text. My apologies for its late posting. I can only hope that readers will remember the words of Augustine, which are often in my mind: “Late have I loved thee…”  KMM

My favorite new television show this season is the very popular “This Is Us,” the story of a family over several generations, told in intriguing and often moving ways, and somehow conveying the vulnerabilities and weaknesses, the challenges and triumphs of mostly everyday, ordinary human beings (if a television star can be called “everyday”), on their journey toward maturity in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. We watch their secrets, their motivations and their deepest hopes and hurts come to light as their story unwinds in twists and turns that make us laugh and then cry, and then look forward to the next episode to see what happens next.

Revisiting the Genesis text about Adam and Eve reminded me that this ancient story (from the very first century of all), could also be titled, “This Is Us,” for however we interpret it–like the people of ancient Israel, classical Christian theologians, or contemporary biblical scholars–we sense that this is our story, too, and that Adam and Eve remind us of our ourselves in many ways. We may remember our childhood, for example, as a time of innocence and unawareness of the evils of the world, and we hear the term “loss of innocence” used to describe a first sexual encounter, or a first experience of deep disillusion or wrongdoing, perhaps something that makes us re-examine our lives and reassess who we think we are, something that changes the trajectory of our lives, just as Adam and Eve’s lives changed forever when they left the garden.

Who doesn’t know Adam and Eve?

The story of Adam and Eve is so familiar that it’s become part of the cultural water we swim in: who doesn’t know about the temptation of the beautiful, shiny “apple” offered by Satan, in the form of a hissing snake, followed by the historic act of disobedience by Eve, the temptress, who seduced poor Adam to sin–the story of the Fall of Man? Because of Eve’s willful weakness to temptation, sin entered the world, and so did death, and then God cursed them and drove them out of the garden (after making them some clothes). The snake would have to crawl on the ground and be hated by humans, the woman would suffer in childbirth but still long for her man, the man would have to continue to till the earth but now, instead of a luxurious garden, he would be forced to sweat and labor to get the uncooperative land to produce sustenance for his family. (Even if someone has never heard this story in church or Bible study, they don’t seem to be phased by the political motto, “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” I’ve never heard anyone ask in response, “Who are Adam and Eve?”)

I’ve just shared a rough recollection of the story of Adam and Eve’s “Fall,” one that I was told in every grade of parochial school, with very little difference in interpretation over the years. If I close my eyes, I can see the color images of the filmstrip lessons about Adam and Eve: it’s a Bible story that’s easy to convey in childlike images, with a handsome (white) man and a beautiful (white) woman in an idyllic garden, a petting zoo of wild and exotic animals, a verdant garden overflowing with luscious fruits (and, presumably, vegetables). None of my teachers, by the way, ever focused on the meaning of verses 1:29-30, and whether the original intent before that famous Fall was for everyone, including all animals, to be vegetarian. I imagine the nuns would have heard from unhappy parents if they had emphasized that point.

Formed by the story

We were formed by the story of Original Sin and the death that came with it, even though the words “sin” (let alone “original sin”) or “Fall” or even “apple” don’t appear in the text itself, and in fact Adam and Eve did not die “on that day” that they disobeyed God’s command to Adam. And in subtle but powerful ways, like the church and the society it influenced and undergirded, we were influenced by the role of that seductress, Eve, and what it meant for the subsequent images and oppression of women.

We absorbed the idea that we girls/women were somehow to blame for the mess the world is in, that we were weaker because we [always] gave in to temptation, but strangely powerful, too, because we could “control” the men who nevertheless ruled over us in every area of life. We were taught to read the story as literally “true,” that is, factual and historically accurate, and the patriarchal interpretations of various theologians as authoritative and binding. In the process, we seemed to miss out on its “true” truths, this remarkable story about us, about humankind.

Re-reading the story, again and again

Thirty years later and grown into adulthood, I read this story, closely, again and again, while studying graduate theology at a Jesuit university. I had already been taught, in my Catholic college days, about “myth” and the truth it contains, so I didn’t bring a literal interpretation to this closer re-reading. My assignment was an exegesis paper on those “curses” (which of course we know were on the snake and the ground, not on the humans), but the entire story set my newly forming feminist wheels spinning. This is, after all, often called the first and foundational story of who we are, and lots of claims have been made, based on its characters and plot, so it no longer feels like a nice little Bible story for children; it seems to me that the story itself has often been used, however unintentionaly, for harm and not good, to lay burdens on people that they should not have to bear.

My professor noted the etiological aspects of the story, reading in it the explanation of the origins of things; he used to say that, in putting together the Primeval Saga, the ancient writers looked around and wondered, how and why did this and that happen? And they told the story to explain why men had to work so hard to till the land, women had to suffer in childbirth and obey their husbands, and the snake had to crawl upon the land and incur the hatred of humankind.

Accounting for the way things are

As Gene M. Tucker has put it more recently, “Taken as a whole, the purpose of Genesis 2:4b-3:24 is to account for–to explain and interpret–the present circumstances of human life, and in particular its brokenness. The first couple, and all their successors, carry with them the memory or vision of the way life could or should be, but they face the future with ambiguity and tension. A major purpose of the story, then, is to account for human evil and suffering, and it does so mainly in moral terms, by showing the effects of disobedience.” Tucker notes that the man was placed in the garden to take care of it, so he always was a farmer, but now his relationship with the soil would be more adversarial than easy; and like other scholars, he notes that it was not death itself but the knowledge and fear of death that now entered the human condition (Preaching Through the Christian Year A).
The insights of modern biblical scholars, including feminist theologians, turned my childlike understanding of the story on its head thirty years ago, and now I approach the story as a text for preaching on this First Sunday in Lent 2017, also the beginning of Women’s Week in the United Church of Christ. While most preachers may be focusing on the Matthew text about Jesus facing temptation in the wilderness, the lectionary provides this story as well, with humankind presented with enticing possibilities in a garden, not a desert. While Jesus successfully counters the seductive offers of Satan, Eve engages an earthly creature, the snake (not Satan, scholars emphasize) and, the story tells us, sets herself and Adam and all of their descendants on that journey from the garden to the consequences–and, some say, even blessings–we have experienced ever since.

A moment of transition

Many different perspectives enrich the conversation about this story, including those that consider social/historical possibilities. James L. Kugel shares the theory that “this story seems to reflect on a particular moment in the development of civilization” when people were transitioning from hunter-gatherer societies to more stable, agricultural ones. Toiling by the sweat of one’s brow, wearing clothes and even making the connection between childbirth and “an act of ‘planting’ that takes place nine months earlier,” along with the resulting formation of “a new social organization” and “a new division of labor” are all reflected in the story, which Kugel suggests is “a speculative reconstruction” of our earliest human development (How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now).

Of course, the traditional interpretations are present in many commentaries: the story of creation, command, the temptation and then the sin of disobedience rooted in pride, followed by serious consequences. William J. Danaher, Jr.’s reflection could perhaps be summarized in his six words: humans went from trust, obedience and intimacy to temptations, disobedience and estrangement (Feasting on the Word Year A, Vol. 2). These themes and their progression fit well with the lessons I learned in school.

Digging deeper into the ever old, ever new story

But what if we revisit that traditional interpretation and dig deeper? I agree with William H. Willimon, who writes that the Yahwist (J), ten centuries before Jesus, is telling a story about “the nature of humanity,” and this “story is old, very old, going back deep into human consciousness. The story is new, contemporary, giving explanation for why we are in the fix we are in today” (The Lectionary Commentary: Old Testament and Acts). Or, as Madeleine L’Engle observes, “Story, unlike theories of science which are always open to change, is timeless. The story of Adam and Eve may have different things to say to different generations in different places, but it always has something to say” (“And It Was Good” in The Genesis Trilogy).

What might this story say to us today, in the place we find ourselves now? More than one scholar, of course, writes about the sin of pride, of seeking not just to be “like” God but to actually be gods, what several curiously call “autonomy.” Madeleine L’Engle’s beautiful reflection considers the goodness and then the brokenness of creation: “The problem is not from without; it rose from within. And we have within each of us some of this wrongness, and too often we refuse to see it, and don’t understand why we are not happy, nor why our faith seems a dim thing, nor why our prayers are like dead ashes.”

There’s a problem, she notes, in our drive to know it all, as seen in our scientific/technological progress that has been both a good thing (solving problems, easing suffering) and a curse (enabling us to destroy ourselves and our planet as well). Still, she says, “for every question we have answered, a hundred new questions have been uncovered.” Most of all, she emphasizes the joy and wonder at creation, especially at being created in the image of God, and she contrasts this joy to the sin of indifference: “When we take things for granted, then what we have is not enough, and we are rendered vulnerable to the wiles of the tempter” (The Genesis Trilogy, “And It Was Good”).

How things might have been

Much has been written about the question of death in this story, as if immortality had been a given; many scholars focus instead on the awareness, or knowledge, that they would die, as well as the fear of death, that entered human experience because of the sin of disobedience (Susan Marie Smith notes that the word “sin” is not used here; in fact, it isn’t used until Cain murders his brother Abel in Chapter 4; New Proclamation Year A 2011). W. Sibley Towner has a lovely interpretation of “what might have been”: “In their state of innocence, they would have died as other creatures do, going gentle into the good night, perhaps curled up in final peace under the tree of life.”

On the other hand, like several other scholars, Towner appreciates the ironic blessings that flow from that awareness and fear, the gifts of creativity and building and art, of procreation itself, expressing humankind’s longing and striving for immortality (Genesis, Westminster Bible Companion). (However, John Goldingay writes, “There is no fear of death in the Old Testament”; Genesis for Everyone Part 1).

How we came to consciousness

This story of the first command given by God (according to Jerome M. Segal, “Be fruitful and multiply” was a blessing, not a command; Joseph’s Bones: Understanding the Struggle between God and Mankind in the Bible) and the first theological debate that followed it (the snake and Eve were, after all, discussing God) can also be read, according to Willimon, “as a story of emerging human self-consciousness” (The Lectionary Commentary, OT/Acts). Sibley Towner quotes Richard S. Hanson (in The Serpent Was Wiser), who describes it not as “a Fall narrative but a story of maturation, of risk-taking and adventure” and adds his own summary, that “life is a pilgrimage from innocence to maturity through a land fraught with the dangers of loving and hating, growing powerful and cowering in humiliation, living and finally dying. It is a story about God, too…” (Genesis, Westminster Bible Companion).

Making women the scapegoat for human sin

These words about maturity seem to go well with the reflections that focus on Eve herself, whose decision to eat the forbidden fruit led to such profound consequences for her children down through the generations. But in these contemporary writings, Eve is not seen as weak, or conniving, or even proud (that all-important sin). Writers like Barbara Essex call her a “seeker” who “wants to be better, wiser than she was created to be….She eats because the tree is beautiful and she seeks wisdom, not because she is willful and wicked. She is an adventurous risk taker–just like God! She is courageous–she eats the fruit without knowing what the future will hold.”

This “first act of human independence,” Essex observes, made Eve, our mother, and women through the ages, “the scapegoat for human sin.” It seems that Essex would agree, then, with the theme of “maturing” being at the heart of this story: “Mature faith and understanding come from having unsettling experiences and surviving them. In other words, we do not know we are strong until we have been tested. We do not know we believe until we have wrestled with doubts. The kind of faith that some want Eve to have can come only after she has been evicted from the garden” (Bad Girls of the Bible). These words are actually quite excellent for the beginning of our Lenten journey, and go well with the story of Jesus in the wilderness as well.

Wise and wonderful questions

By far my favorite reflection on this text is by Miguel A. de la Torre, who echoes these thoughts about maturation: “What parent does not want to train their child to discern between good and evil? Is partaking from the tree how humans move from childhood to adulthood? If so, could it be that God wanted humans to partake of the fruit to gain wisdom? If humans were indeed intended to eat from the tree of knowledge, did God play the trickster?” And “is God teaching us that the pursuit of widsom is always a painful course fraught with frightful consequences?”

But de la Torre also re-examines the teaching of original sin as pride, and here he sounds very much like the feminist theologians I read thirty years ago, who opened my eyes and my mind to a new and even thrilling way to read the Scriptures. He draws on the works of scholars like Valerie Saiving Goldstein, who assert that teaching the marginalized (in Goldstein’s case, women) not to be proud is effective in keeping them in their place. When those with privilege decide what is sin and what is not, and which sins are the worst, when those on the margins are told not to assert themselves but to deny themselves and submit to the powerful, well, we see how well that turned out.

The Magnificat is helpful here (as always)

“The human condition of the marginalized is nonpersonhood, making salvation the transformation from nonpersonhood to personhood. This explains the Gospel’s Magnificat, ‘[God] pulled down the powerful from their thrones, and exalted the humble ones….'” (The Magnificat is such an important yet under-examined text about God’s intention for the world.) But de la Torre powerfully takes this reflection to the next level: “To justify the subjugation of women through an apologetic reading of Genesis 3:16 goes beyond some ignorant sexist interpretation of the biblical text. It provides us with a blueprint on establishing racist, elitist, classist, and imperialist structures through the advocacy of sexist paradigms” (Genesis, Belief Series). Now, there are two weighty and thought-provoking sentences for our Lenten reflection.

All of this, and more, and ending with words about the purposes of God, for in the end (as in the beginning), the Bible is all stories about God. Jon L. Berquist reminds us of God’s purposes for Eve and Adam and all of their children, and the “possibility for human dignity, because we are designed and fashioned with something in God’s mind for us to do….We were not created for ourselves; we were created in order to till and keep the garden” (Feasting on the Word Year A, Vol. 2).

And so it begins…again

Years ago, when I was working in stewardship ministry, I read that to have dominion meant to have responsibility for the care of something, not to have power to use and control and destroy. Alas, we have chosen too often to use the second interpretation to justify what we have done to Mother Earth, God’s beautiful, abundant creation, the garden in which we have been placed in order to take care of it and one another.

As we set out on the journey of Lent this year, we have so much to consider when we return to this story about all of us, when we return to our roots, to the very beginning, and to the blessings and challenges and promises gently showered upon us by the One who holds us close and continues to call us to new and deeper and more mature lives of trust, of care, of grateful obedience and the courageous seeking of wisdom. Let us, then, begin again.

For further reflection:

Walter Brueggemann, 21st century
“Lent is a time to sort out the voice of life and the countervoices of death.”

William H. Willimon, 21st century
“Once G.K. Chesterton was asked to contribute an essay to an English journal on the theme, ‘What Is Wrong with the World?’ He sent back to the editors a two-word essay: ‘What Is Wrong with the World? Chesterton’s answer: I am.’

Madeleine L’Engle, 20th century
“If I discover that my concept of God is becoming limited, then I am beginning to shut myself off from revelation. And if I assume that my concept of God is final, I have fallen for Satan’s temptations, because if I decide that my concept of God is final, then I am falling into hubris.”

Abraham Joshua Heschel, 20th century
“The surest way to suppress our ability to understand the meaning of God and the importance of worship is to take things for granted. Indifference to the sublime wonder of being is the root of sin.”

Abigail Adams, 19th century
“Well, knowledge is a fine thing, and mother Eve thought so; but she smarted so severely for hers, that most of her daughters have been afraid of it since.”

Additional reflection on Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 and Matthew 4:1-11:
by Kathryn Matthews

Two stories of temptation, two stories with very different responses, are told in today’s readings. One is a story of surrender, and the other tells of resistance and triumph. We live in a world that emphasizes freedom, options, choices, and “no limits.” And yet, this freedom and this boundary-less existence comes at a great cost, whether we are conscious of it or not. What was the cost to Adam and Eve when they refused to honor the limits set by God?

The Genesis narrative draws a foundational picture of God for us, a God who puts humans in a beautiful place, with a role, and provides expectations along with abundance. Even today, we experience God’s provision for us, and God’s expectations as well. And yet there are other voices, voices that draw our attention to things that have the power to seduce but not to bring life, and bring it more abundantly, as God does. What does this ancient story tell us about the foundational relationship of God and humankind? What does it invite us to consider about our relationship with the earth itself, with God’s good Creation?

“Serpents” in our lives

There are, of course, “serpents” that slither into our lives, voicing discontent, cynicism, doubt, and death. Out of that doubt and discontent are born many fears, and we are tempted to weaken as well. How easy it is to give ourselves over to voices of despair rather than turning toward the voice of the still-speaking God, the God who provides not only a beautiful earth but a role for us within it. What is that proper role, and how does our faith inform it?

In the Gospel passage from Matthew, Jesus’ own role is twisted and distorted by another voice of death and cynicism. Jesus stands firm, and Satan is driven away. When have you been shaken by doubt, and uncertain because of the voices that compete for your attention? Perhaps there have been times when you didn’t even realize that you were being tempted, but rather that you slipped quietly off center, away from the proper role and place, the promise that God has given you. When have you allowed yourself to be not just distracted but diminished by such temptation?

Shame and innocence, weakness and trust

Shame and innocence, weakness and trust, all play a role in these stories, and in our own as well, as individuals and as a community of faith. At times, the church has regrettably succumbed to temptation in claiming power and place, or even worse, safety and security, by accommodating the powers that be in society. Perhaps, at those times, the church listened to the voices of doubt, cynicism, and despair that assailed it. Perhaps it listened to voices of pride, power, and place. At what moments has it found its way back to its proper place and its proper role in the world that God loves? When and how has it listened for God’s voice, still speaking today? 

Most of us find the character of the serpent “creepy” and sinister (so obviously evil!) in the story of Adam and Eve, but perhaps Adam and Eve found him not so much creepy as marvelously attractive. And so, it could be that the voices that try to tempt us today are not so obviously repelling; maybe they come to us in much more attractive packages that are harder to recognize and to resist.

The snake doesn’t do anything but talk–and how often we find ourselves drawn to the non-productive, slick-talking agents of nothingness! Worse: the agents of shame and fear. This foundational story, here at the beginning of Lent, turns our attention to our most basic story, to our most basic realities. What are our worst fears, our worst shame, and our greatest hope? Where is God’s place in our lives, from the very beginning? What is the word of hope in this ancient story?

Additional reflection on Psalm 32:
by Lizette Merchán-Pinilla

Abundant Grace

Lizette.jpgThis is the First Sunday of Lent, the first for right now and for the Abundant Grace that we bring into our midst–to be explored and reencountered in a new light, a new way to live out by oneself and with those with whom we share this world of ours as well.

Psalm 32 is described by James L. Mays as “the second of the seven psalms designated as penitential psalms in Christian tradition. The psalm may have been an instruction at the Temple, composed by an individual whose spiritual and physical life changed as a result of a confession of sin. Once the psalmist stopped dissimulating and covering up, God extended a cover of forgiveness over the sins” (The HarperCollins Bible Commentary).

A rewarding yet challenging journey

On this Sunday, take the time for a unique opportunity to read this lectionary text. Start the rewarding yet challenging journey to interpret and apply its wisdom within at a time when judgmental ways are found right and left, with little to no room for grace and/or dialogue. Be the best you can be, regardless of what the world around us tells you not to be. Peter C. Craigie calls Psalm 32 “a fundamental psalm, illustrating powerfully the prerequisite of spiritual health, namely a self-conscious awareness of one’s sinful life and of the necessity of acting upon that awareness in confession before God” (Word Biblical Commentary).

The world’s intolerance presents to us the vestiges of ways passed down from generation to generation, ways of comfort that were taught by reading and interpreting Bible passages in a specific context, those which have brought positive or negative reactions into people’s realms. All of this is a sample of various religious experiences–tumultuous and joyous, past and present–those experienced today and yesterday with religion, with God. “Cada pueblo o comunidad lee la Biblia en su context,” Alicia Vargas writes: “Each society or community reads the Bible in their context” (Como leer la Biblia: How to Read the Bible).

A song that sings to you

“Happy are those…while I kept in silence my acknowledgment…at a time of distress, you surround me…the torments…I shout for joy.” Psalm 32 is like that song that sings to you and evokes the memories of both past and present situations, life happenings that may have made you stronger, may have challenged you, may have gone right or wrong, or may simply be new to your experience.

Decisive moments in life mark the ways we experience joy, frustration, slavery within or by others, silence from pursuing one’s own truth, and then they lead us to hopefully reaching spiritual health and peace within ourselves and the desire to move forward. All of the many journeys, feelings, realities, and challenges have taken us on varied trips of the soul while keeping alive the song of relief and hope within our beings. So, how is there life after all? Life continues because one keeps stubbornly struggling, falling, and trying, succeeding and learning along the way. “Psalm 32 is a prayer of thanksgiving,” Fred Craddock writes, “offered by individuals after the forgiveness of sin and the experience of healing” (Preaching through the Christian Year A).

Shades of meaning in our observances

Holidays are opportunities of commemorations, times of remembrance, times of healing, of challenge, of change in the making. Consider the holidays and political events that have already occurred in the first weeks of this year: they include Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Women’s Week, Valentine’s Day, Chinese New Year, Black History Month, President’s Day, Mardi Gras, First Sunday of Lent, and Ash Wednesday (with St. Patrick’s Day coming up soon), just to name a few. These events present many shades of meaning for words, events year after year, commemorations that mark our lives through happenings that hurt, challenge, and help us move forward from within. Some events cause literal pain of the heart, body, and/or mind; other events cause pain by association with the world.

Days of celebration and remembrance are important in our midst and the world around us. How many times have we encountered life, messy with its challenges and conquests that take us away from our true selves and bring out our most challenging characteristics from within, rather than experiencing life as we believe it should be? Fred Craddock observes that the psalmist understood our need to recognize and take responsibility for our sins, even as part of the process of coming to understand who we are (Preaching through the Christian Year A).

A time for introspection and discernment

This year, like every year, Lent is a time for introspective discernment and challenge to oneself rather than selfish, individualistic, or communal liturgical, repetitive rituals of the season. As Christians who put their faith into action, this is the chance, the time to observe and practice the traditional Lenten practices such as prayer, fasting, and giving to those in need. Especially important is to perform these practices with the intent to seek justice for oneself and one’s neighbors. In my work for justice, facing ministry in the world “as is” instead of as one hopes it should be, the journey helps me see the bigger picture, and I try to understand how to convey to others the many “messy-yet-hopeful” real human experiences we all endure.

Psalm 32 presents the pain, the baggage and the potential from within that enables us to identify, define, and to warn each other about what it really means to miss the mark. To also empower us beyond our misses, and to commit ourselves in the ways to confront, assess, learn, and come closer to coping with our actions or lack thereof.

Brokenness and wholeness

Just last week I reunited with two of my dearest friends to celebrate one another! Three women–from two countries, two languages, two continents–shared our unique yet universal life stories of individuals in the 21st century. Our stories reminded me that the world, whatever one’s personal context may be, presents itself “as it is.” This is where we find the brokenness and wholeness of relationships, the challenges of location, and the differences in speech and languages.

My friends–mis amigas–gathered around food, stories, and laughter as well as tears. Some tears were visible, and others hid inside as constant reminders of the ways of the world. Tales of our lives are stories of joy mixed with struggle and survival. These are the verses of the most interesting Latin-American, North American, and worldly tales–of real people with real life issues. The only difference is that these women–my friends with their bones, flesh, brains, and actions–have learned to straddle the expectations of society and its ways that have been established of what should matter most, and not necessarily what is right.

Serving as one another’s witnesses

In our particular case, sharing with one another frees us from holding it all within. We are no longer held captive or enslaved because of our circumstances. By making it known to the universe, calling evil for what it really is, we no longer keep it to ourselves. Instead, we serve as one another’s witness to choose to hope rather than to curse the darkness, and from there we move on to calmer and more redeeming hopes for ourselves and those around us.

When we gather together to share our joys, laughter, jokes, sorrows, and truth-telling stories, we continue creating a never-ending tale, woven by the threads of our experiences of love and hate, stories from within ourselves and from the outside world. We free ourselves with the exchange of such stories, exposing evil for what it is and not necessarily what society considers it should be. We are no longer prisoners of what is not ours…and we live free.

Partners in the struggle

My dear compañeras en la lucha (partners in the struggle) help me see the light we share along the journey of our many years of unconditional love, of unconditional dedication to what matters in our lives as mothers and daughters, sisters and spouses, lovers and friends, sisters by location, and other special relationships. As Ada María Isasi-Díaz observed, “Hispanic women’s experience and our struggle for survival, not the Bible, are the source of our theology and the starting point for how we should interpret, appropriate, and use the Bible” (Searching the Scriptures: A Feminist Introduction).

In his well-known work, The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart, the Rev. Peter J. Gomes, a fine preacher and biblical scholar, offered these words of caution and challenge about the book we often look to for rules and comfort: “The Bible alone is the most dangerous thing I can think of. You need an ongoing context and a community of interpretation to keep the Bible current and to keep yourself honest. Forget the thought that the Bible is an absolute pronouncement.”

Journey as opportunity

From silence to truth-telling, our journeys are opportunities to rediscover one’s true self, even after encountering evil or making poor choices along the way. From we to I, from I to me, to you and to all others, we create circles amongst us. Circles drawn of self-centered individuals to the communal and community-centered folk, from those who think locally and act globally, as well as people at the other end of the spectrum. It will be hard at times to live up to all the ideals we are called upon to fulfill in Psalm 32, and at times God’s presence will seem far removed from us. Sometimes we will feel that our only companion is our own pain, isolation, and struggle.

Many times life will come toward us in full force, with its circumstances–its messiness and stabs in the back–bringing us to our knees, knocking us off our feet, or lifting us up as high as the heavens in mind, spirit, and body. Then we gather around, and share our innermost experiences of pain, success, joys, and challenges, and open up a well of opportunity to truth-telling. It is only until then that one can start moving forward to let healing, compassion, and true self-love come in.

The Reverend William C. Green writes about community, emptiness, and grace in the UCC Daily Devotional:

“It’s the support of others that begins to get me on my feet and make me able to move again, a step at a time. That’s God enough for me, because it can be hard to pray alone and experience God’s support. I’ve come to believe that God is not known primarily in terms of my own feelings. My faith comes alive in the give-and-take of the feelings, concerns, and prayers of others, including those at church. Perhaps this is why Jesus said, ‘Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in their midst.’ I don’t believe God ever wants us to be broken and running on empty. I also believe, as one writer put it, that God’s power can only enter where there is a void to receive it–and we no longer try to fill it by ourselves.”

So here is the task ahead of us, to be and to let be. Be open to God working through you, for the journey welcomes us ahead, calling us from our present and inspiring for the days ahead. For Abundant Grace for ALL, we give thanks. Amen!

The Reverend Lizette Merchán-Pinilla, M.Div., is a Colombian minister in the Kansas-Oklahoma Conference of the United Church of Christ (UCC).

Lectionary texts

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.'” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
So 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; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

Psalm 32

Happy are those whose transgression
   is forgiven,
whose sin is covered.

Happy are those to whom
   God imputes no iniquity,
and in whose spirit
   there is no deceit.

While I kept silence,
   my body wasted away
through my groaning
   all day long.

For day and night your hand
   was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up
   as by the heat of summer.
Then I acknowledged my sin
   to you,
and I did not hide my iniquity;

I said, “I will confess
   my transgressions to God,”
and you forgave
   the guilt of my sin.
Therefore let all who are faithful
   offer prayer to you;
at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters
   shall not reach them.

You are a hiding place for me;
   you preserve me from trouble;
you surround me
   with glad cries of deliverance.

I will instruct you and teach you
   the way you should go;
I will counsel you
   with my eye upon you.

Do not be like a horse or a mule,
   without understanding,
whose temper must be curbed
   with bit and bridle,
else it will not stay near you.

Many are the torments of the wicked,
   but steadfast love surrounds those
      who trust in God.

Be glad in God and rejoice,
   O righteous,
and shout for joy,
   all you upright in heart.

Romans 5:12-19

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned — sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come. But the free gift is not like the trespass.

For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.

Matthew 4:1-11

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'” Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ

(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: “Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place” in Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)  

The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about “traditional” colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.

The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.  
Before the Reformation’s iconoclasm, and Trent’s code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of “best,” “second best,” and “everyday”–not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the “best” vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got “second best” or “everyday.”