March 1, 2020

The First Sunday in Lent     
E. Bevan Stanley

March 1, 2020

Year A
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

               “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.” In the Name of the one, holy, and undivided Trinity. Amen.

               There are two points I want to make this morning. The first is based on the reading from Genesis. God puts Adam and Eve in the Garden. There are two trees that are worth mentioning: the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Adam and Eve are allowed to eat the fruit of every tree in the garden with one exception. They may not eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. This is a puzzle. Why would God not want us to know good and evil? Isn’t the ability to judge between good and evil a good thing? Are we not supposed to make moral judgements? How can we be good human beings if we don’t know what is good and what is bad? Maybe, all God wants is for us not to experience evil and always know only good. As soon as we eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, we know evil as well, and a shadow falls on our lives.

               But what if the story isn’t really about moral judgement, but about the tendency of our human minds to set up dichotomies? We divide everything into opposites: good and bad, light and dark, up and down, sacred and profane, sane and crazy, we and they, inside and outside, righteous and unrighteous, high church and low church, democrat and republican, capitalist and socialist. We have analytic minds. The word “analysis” comes from the Greek words “to loose”  and “again.” It means to separate things or divide them. To break them into their parts. The trouble is that we know that reality is never really as simple as our dichotomies. There are spectra where we might find ourselves somewhere between two poles. For example we may feel we are a moderate between liberals and conservatives. There are examples where two different things are held together, such as justice and mercy. Real life is far more wholistic and complicated than our dualistic thinking allows for. Furthermore, analysis involves taking things apart, and when they are apart they are very hard to put back together. The child who takes a watch apart is unlikely to be able to put it together again. The biology student dissecting a frog may learn a lot about the frog, but the frog is dead.

               One way of understanding the teaching of Jesus and his conflict with the Pharisees is that he rejected the dualistic thinking of the Pharisees. In effect Jesus says, forget the fruit of the Tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil; I am interested in the fruit of the Tree of Life. There are two trees in the Garden; on Golgotha there is only the Tree of Life.

               This brings us to the second point I want to make this morning. If this about the two trees is all sound, then it offers us a way to understand the story of Jesus’ temptations in the desert. In our dualist thinking, we see temptations as a choice between a good thing and a bad thing. If we know good and evil, then we can choose. What makes it a temptation rather than just a choice is that it is framed as a dualist choice between good and bad. What if a temptation is an opportunity for us to examine more closely how we feel about an issue and how God is present with us in our decisions? Take the first temptation. Jesus has just been told by God at his baptism that he is God’s son and beloved by God. So the tempter challenges that fact: “If you are the son of God. . .”  The temptation is not primarily about Jesus being hungry; it is about what it means to be a human being and the son of God. He was told forty days ago that he is the Son of God, but now he is pretty hungry and a piece of bread would be lovely. By turning a rock into a loaf of bread he could affirm his divinity, but he would abandoning his humanity. And to whom does he need to prove his divinity anyway? Maybe the question is more about how is it to be a human who trusts in God’s love even when circumstances seem really difficult. The second temptation, to throw himself off the pinnacle of the Temple to have angels protect, him is similar. The final temptation is to take a shortcut to the dominion that Jesus is to have over the world in the end. If he bows down to Satan, he can avoid all the pain and messiness of dying and get to the same end that is his destiny anyway. But like the first temptation, the issue is not about avoiding hunger or death, the issue is how to remain in the present moment with the presence of God.

               I met with my spiritual director this week, and we were talking about disciplines or practices for Lent. He pointed out that whatever practice I might pick, the opportunity for growth will be in observing my feelings and thoughts when I either do or fail to perform the practice. And what will be the conversation I have with God about it? Say I decide to avoid chocolate for Lent. (I haven’t; this is a hypothetical.) At the end of the day, if I have successfully avoided chocolate, I can pat myself on the back and feel virtuous. And I can have a conversation with Jesus along the lines of, “Thank you Jesus for helping me keep my practice.” Jesus replies, “That’s nice. How much did I or the Holy Spirit help you and how much was just raw will power? If we did help you, why are you feeling so good about it? And what was it like at the moment you saw the candy on Karen’s desk and you chose not to take any? Were you letting go of your desire and giving it to God? Or were you being a hero and doing a hard thing? What role was your ego playing in this? How much was it a reflection of your true self? How much do you rely on and trust me?”

               And if I did have a piece of chocolate from Karen’s bowl, the conversation might go: “I feel bad that I couldn’t even make it through one day. I am so weak.” And Jesus says, “It’s just a piece of chocolate. Do you remember what you were feeling or thinking when you took it? Maybe you took it out of habit and did not really make a decision. Maybe you were being willful and just deciding to have your own way. Maybe you had just finished a piece of work and were feeling the need for a reward. What kinds of rewards do you need? How can you experience God’s love for you? Does it always have to be chocolate?”

               The point is that the practice and the temptation not to practice it are part of a whole complicated life in relationship to Jesus, yourself, the people around us and the planet. It is about life and living, not about good and bad. It is about loving and being loved, not because of what we do, but because of who we are and who we are becoming. Ultimately, most of my spiritual issues have to do with being open and honest with myself, with the people around me, and with God. I have come to know that I can do some pretty cool things with God’s help. Without God’s help I either really mess it up, or I get puffed up about my accomplishment, and it goes sour. Lent is not about being better or stopping bad stuff, it’s about living simply with God. It’s not eating the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; it is eating the fruit of the tree of life.

Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him. Amen.