Sunday, March 13, 2011

The questions

Two weeks ago, my wife and I were walking when we looked across the street and saw a hen run out into traffic. We immediately were filled with questions. Would the hen make it? What was it doing here. Whom did it belong to? Would there be a car accident? Would it make it past that jeep? Past that VW? Why, why, why was it in the middle of traffic? And then, with palpable relief as it emerged unruffled onto our sidewalk, we turned to each other and laughed as we simultaneously voiced the question we had suddenly come to truly get for the first time in our lives? Why DID the chicken cross the road?
Sometimes our moments of clarity aren't answers; they're just a newfound appreciation of the question.
There's an image of a person making a moral decision that's popular in cartoons: a little angel perches over one shoulder, urging a person to do good, while a little devil perches over the other shoulder, urging the person to do evil. The two make their cases, and then the person decides whether to do good or to do evil.
In reality, though, it's rarely like that. People, I believe, do a pretty good job choosing good over evil. When there is a clear choice between right and wrong, people tend to do what's right. Where it gets more complicated is when there's a choice among goods. It gets more complicated when there is a choice among options that all have good to them, but none of them seem quite perfect. That's when moral decision making gets harder.
In our first lesson today, God tells Adam "if you eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, you shall die that day." Our reading skips a few key verses after that, when Eve is created. At some point, either Adam or God must have shared the message with Eve, because when Eve is talking with the serpent, she says "if we eat from that tree or touch it we shall die."
Like a game of telephone, the message changes as it gets passed along. Now the serpent says this is all nonsense. "You won't die," he says. "If you eat from the tree, you will know about good and evil, like God does." Eve touches the fruit. She eats the fruit. Guess who was the only one telling the truth? That's right, the serpent. Humankind acquires knowledge of good and evil. They are expelled from the Garden. But did they die that day? No.
In the garden of Eden, when it was a choice between obedience and disobedience, there was never any struggle. Obedience equals life; disobedience equals death, and Adam and Eve stayed away from the tree. Indeed, it seems that Adam amplified God's original prohibition on eating from the tree so it included not touching the tree just to play it safe.
But then the serpent enters the mix, and makes the situation more complicated: it's not a choice between obedience and disobedience. It's a choice between obedience and wisdom. Wisdom is a good thing, right? Adam and Eve never embraced disobedience for its own sake. It was only when Eve observed that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that it was to be desired to make one wise that she and Adam touched and ate the fruit of the tree.
Did they make the wrong choice? Even that isn't an obvious call. The highest feast in the Christian year, the Great Vigil of Easter, begins with a song known as the Exsultet that proclaims the feast. The song is ancient, and the 1979 Prayer Book reintroduced it to the Episcopal Church. The version we use, though, is shortened in a few sections from the original. One of the parts we omit begins "O felix culpa" -- Latin for "O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam which gained for us so wonderful a Savior." Christian tradition often refers to the story we heard from Genesis as "The Fall": the introduction of sin into the world. The serpent represents the devil, the fount of temptation. Adam and Eve did wrong, but by doing so, they set the stage for Christ's redemption of the world later, so perhaps they did the world a favor. Jewish tradition rarely refers to the events in today's story as a "Fall" at all. In this telling, Adam and Eve's actions are not sin (indeed, story of Cain and Abel contains the first sin in this account) but rather a coming of age: Adam and Eve, in choosing wisdom over blind obedience, move from an infantile relationship with God to a more mature one.
Choosing between obedience and disobedience is easy. Choosing between obedience and wisdom is a much more ambiguous choice. Millennia later, we still don't have it all sorted out. Our Gospel today tells of Jesus in the wilderness. He faced three temptations. In each case, the answer wasn't obvious. With wealth, with fame, with power, Jesus could have done a lot of good. The tempter didn't offer Jesus obvious bad things.
Turning stone to bread could feed many hungry people. And later on in his ministry, Jesus did miraculously produce food in the wilderness. Moses and Elijah miraculously produced food. What made it right in those cases, but wrong when the tempter asked Jesus to? Yes, 'One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God,' but the offer from the devil wasn't to ignore God's word; it was to produce bread, too. And on other occasions, Jesus was quite willing to offer both bread and words from the mouth of God. The second temptation, to leap from the pinnacle of the temple, knowing that his fall would be cushioned by angels, would look to the assembled crowds like he descended from the heavens in glory. With a miraculous entrance like that, he could have surely attracted a greater following. More people would have heard his Sermon on the Mount. More people would have the chance to be his disciples. More people could have drawn near to the Reign of God earlier. This is a good thing. But Jesus replied that it wasn't the right thing. Counting on God to keep him safe through these apparently unnecessary theatrics would be putting God to the test. Relying on God's miraculous help would have its time, and that time wasn't to be rushed. Finally, the devil offered him power over all the kingdoms of the world if Jesus would just bow down and worship the devil. Just some mere words, and Jesus would have the power to end all sorts of wrongs and injustices. Untold human suffering could come to an end, for all the kingdoms of the world would have a wise and just ruler in the Prince of Peace. And offering worship to the devil wouldn't change the fact that splendor and honor and kingly power all belong to the Lord God, who created everything that is, and by whose will they have their being. A few mere words of flattery, and Jesus could have the power to make all kinds of changes in the world.
And yet despite all this Jesus said no. How do you know when you're rejecting temptation and when you're missing out on an opportunity? Is it only temptation when the devil offers it? And if so, how do you know when it's the devil talking? In our lives, the tempter rarely has horns, a red cape, and a pitchfork. The angel giving good advice doesn't wear a white robe and a halo. Like Adam and Eve, like Jesus, we're faced by many decisions where good and evil are far from obvious. As I said earlier, sometimes our moments of clarity aren't answers; they're just a newfound appreciation of the complexity of the question. The disposable diapers send more waste to the landfill, but the cloth diapers pollute more water. Stopping to help the person whose car broke down aids someone in need, but it means being late for your niece's violin recital. Volunteering to organize the dinner for the homeless shelter feeds the hungry, but takes time away from caring for your own family. In all manner of things large and small, we face decisions on a daily basis where there isn't just one clear good choice and another clear evil choice. How can we hear the word of God in the midst of all this?
What hope do we have of finding which way we should go? If good masquerades as evil, and evil as good, how can we mere mortals hope to recognize, let alone do what is right? Jesus in the wilderness gives us a threefold example of how to listen for the still, small voice of God amidst the fever of life: fasting and prayer, scripture, and the community of God's followers.
Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness fasting. He removed himself from the busy-ness of his life. As we observe a holy Lent, by self examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self denial; and by reading and meditating on God's holy Word, this should sound familiar to us. By making more places for God to enter in to our lives, by silencing some of the distractions, and by spending more time in prayer to listen to God, Lent offers us a chance to listen for God's words to us. Lent gives us an opportunity to try to discern what God is calling each of us to do. To pray over what are the temptations and what are the opportunities.
Jesus' second example from today's lesson is scripture. How can we know what God is calling us to do? We have an amazing gift: holy scripture. Now it might be nice if we had all the answers bound together in one neat volume. And at first glance, the bible looks like it might be a book full of answers. There's all those laws in Exodus, and Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. There's all those pithy sayings in Proverbs and Wisdom. There's all those stories with morals, from Genesis to the Gospels. There's letters giving instructions to various churches. And there's visions of direct encounters with God, from the prophets to the Revelation to St. John. Lots of people look to the Bible as a book of answers. How do we know whether something is a temptation or an opportunity to serve God? Look to the Bible and see if it has the answer. The trouble with the Bible as a book of answers is that its answers aren't terrible consistent all the time. Isaiah 2:4 calls for the faithful to beat their swords into ploughshares. Joel 3:10 calls for God's people to beat their ploughshares into swords! Mark 6:9 calls for Jesus' followers to wear sandals, while Luke 10:4 prohibits their use. Matthew 5:44 calls God's people to love their enemies, while Joshua 6:17 calls for their swift slaughter. The Bible as a book of answers can be disappointing and contradictory.
But Holy Scriptures are an even greater gift than that: Just as Adam and Eve had to move past an infantile relationship with God in the garden and had to discern good from evil without simple commands to guide their every step, so our faith matures also. If Holy scripture is not a book of answers, it is, even better, an account of thousands of years of humanity wrestling with the questions. We are not alone in our struggle to discern the will of the divine. The scriptures contain a treasure trove of accounts of humans wrestling with God. By reading the accounts of those who have gone before us, we can better listen for God in our lives.
Finally, our testing of God's call to us can be confirmed by the community of believers. When Jesus rejected temptation, the angels came and ministered to him. Likewise, when we try to listen for God's voice in our lives, we are not alone. We have the witness of those who have gone before us, yes, but we also have those who struggle alongside us today. We can help one another listen for the voice of God in our lives, and help each other tell temptation from opportunity.
Perhaps the greatest gift, though, is to live with the certainty of uncertainty: to recognize that listening for God's voice is always an ongoing process. That however sure we are of who are the good guys and who are the bad guys, where we hear angels and where we hear demons, what is opportunity and what is temptation, we never know the answers for certain. We need to always stop and listen and pray to find how God speaks to us. Which may be why the Church has this gift of the forty days each year. May we all have a blessed, quiet Lent to listen to God.