Stories We Tell: Adam, Eve, and the Fall

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DELIVERED AT REVOLUTION ANNAPOLIS, 23 JUNE 2019

A few weeks ago, I finished reading a book by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin titled The Heart of Everything That Is about the true story of the great Lakota chief Red Cloud and his defense against intrusion on tribal lands during the gold rushes of the 1850s and ‘60s.

redcloud

The 

The book was extraordinarily interesting, but one anecdote stood out as I was reading, and it kept coming to mind as I was preparing for the summer series we are starting today. In the anecdote, the chief Red Cloud visits Washington, D.C. in the year 1870 to make his case for tribal sovereignty over much of the Great Plains. During that visit, he meets with then-president Ulysses S. Grant for a state dinner, and at that dinner, he tells President Grant the story of the various Sioux tribes’ relationship with the Black Hills of South Dakota. He recounts a creation myth shared between the Plains tribes that begins at a place that is now a national park called Wind Cave. Wind Cave is the fourth largest cave system in the entire world, but quite unusually, it has only one entrance: a small, circular, and inconspicuous hole in a hillside.

 

windcave

The natural entrance to Wind Cave, about two feet in diameter.

Because the cave extends for hundreds of miles, and this hole is the only means of modulating the cave’s barometric pressure, as the pressure outside the cave changes, giant rushes of air move in and out of the cave so it can equalize. The effect is as if the cave is “breathing.” It’s pretty cool, really–you should visit!

But in any case, the Sioux creation myth says that the 7 tribes of the Sioux were born inside of the cave and tasked with waiting until the Great Spirit could finish preparing a world outside of the cave for them to live in. But, as we all know, waiting is the worst. So, finding the one entrance/exit of the cave, the people wait until the Great Spirit is at work and then they sneak out early. As a result, the Great Spirit is unable to finish its work, which is why–the Sioux believed–the Plains are so barren. Taking pity on the now-terrified humans, the Great Spirit scrambles for a plan and creates the bison or “buffalo,” sending great herds of them across the landscape and teaching the Sioux how they can survive in this half-finished world by using every part of this resource with great care. After telling this story, Red Cloud says to the President that the landscape is important to him because his “ancestor’s bones lie in the Black Hills.”

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The “barren” Great Plains, with scattered bison.

But Grant knows another story. He knows that the Lakota aren’t ancestrally from the Black Hills: their tribes migrated west less than 200 years earlier from the Ohio River Valley, waging war for the territory and only truly adapting to the harsh environment of the Great Plains when horses were introduced to the region. So he says to Red Cloud,

“Horse****! Your people have been there no more than a couple of generations. They come from Minnesota, and you were born in Nebraska. You took that land from the Crows. And do you know why you took that land from the Crows? Because you could. And do you know why we will take that land from you? Because we can.”

This anecdote comes to mind this morning because we are starting a series today on a topic that is both universal and surprisingly complicated: we are talking about stories. When we do this–particularly, when we talk about stories from the Bible–we often run into all kinds of trouble. One major source of trouble is the tension that I would guess every one of you has experienced before between the value of a story we tell and what we believe about its history. It can be very easy for us to assume as readers that this second concern is the only thing that matters: that the truth of a story is really a question of historical accuracy. But what I think this series–and that story about Red Cloud–can challenge us to think more deeply about is whether or not historical faithfulness is the only thing a story can be good for…and what we lose when we spend all of our energy fighting about what might be false instead of focusing in on what might be true.

Here’s what I mean: when Red Cloud tells President Grant that his ancestors’ bones are in the Black Hills, he is trying to communicate an important belief among his people, which is that the Black Hills are their spiritual center. Despite centuries of wandering, here they have found their real home. But, of course, what Red Cloud is saying, at least in the way he is saying it, can be understood as historically inaccurate.

So, here’s my big question: why does President Grant only respond to the story’s lack of “historicity”?

Grant

Civil War general and U.S. president, Ulysses S. Grant

I think the answer is because it allows him to skip past Red Cloud’s bigger point about what makes a place a home in order to justify discrediting the entirety of his argument. Grant’s logic goes something like this: because it’s not where you’re from, it’s not a place you have any more of a right to than I do.

I worry that sometimes, when we talk about the stories from the Old Testament of the Bible, we make similar mistakes: by fixating on whether or not we believe 2 of every animal on the planet can fit on a single boat or whether or not a person can live for 3 days inside of a fish, we transform our conversations into arguments about what did or didn’t happen…instead of asking a bigger and (in my view) more fruitful question, which is why have we kept telling this story? It’s not that the questions about history aren’t important. It’s that I fear we sometimes fight over those questions because the deeper questions a story suggests are ones that make us far, far more uncomfortable…no matter which side of the history debate we are on! Like Grant, we use arguments about history or mythology to bat aside the point.

Over the course of this series, we will be looking at 8 different Old Testament stories that most of you have heard before, either through popular culture or in a church Sunday School class…and our goal is not to get into a debate about the history of these stories, it is to ask: why is this story important to know? I want to reassure you that we’re not (I repeat NOT) trying to suggest that whether or not the stories are “history” is an unimportant question. Of course it matters! But what we are trying to do is spend some time asking a few other questions that, I think, can live in our minds right there alongside the question about history…and which might prove to be even more practical and useful for us in our faith: those questions are

What does this story tell us about who God is?
What does it tell us about why things are the way they are?
What does it tell us about who we’re designed to be and how to live that way?

At the end of the day, I think those are the 3 questions behind all of the best stories we tell. And they are almost always the questions that make a story worth retelling, over and over again. The stories of the Old Testament of the Bible are–at the most conservative estimate–almost 3,000 years old! I want us to study them for what they can reveal to us about our God and our faith. I want to see more than their history.

This week, we are starting this series in a pretty logical place: the very beginning. Specifically, we are going to look at the story told in the second and third chapters of Genesis about an event called The Fall. There are perhaps no stories more important to any group of people than the kinds of stories we tell to help explain why the world is the way that it is. Even as children, two essential truths about the world are inescapable: 1) there is a “right” way for things to be and 2) things are not, generally speaking, that way. So, for all people, the stories of why things feel…broken…are essential to our understanding of the world.

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Thomas Cole’s “Expulsion from the Garden of Eden” (1828)

In the story we have inherited as Christians from our Jewish ancestors, the story begins in a place called the Garden of Eden with the first two people God created: Adam and Eve. In the beginning, God made Adam and Eve and placed them in a garden where they had work to do and all of their needs were met. He cared for them, protected them, and even walked with them in the evenings each day. They had perfect relationships: with God, with one another, and with creation. And then, one day, a snake, which the Bible says was 

Genesis 3:1-21 (excerpted in this and subsequent quotations)

“more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made […] said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

Now here, the snake is referring to one tree in particular: the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. This tree was placed in the middle of the garden, and Adam and Eve were instructed never to eat from it, or (God said) they would surely die. But the snake says to Eve,

“You will not certainly die […] For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”

He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”

And [God] said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”

The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”

Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”

The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

After this, God curses the serpent, and then he passes additional consequences on to Adam and Eve. To Eve, he says that from now on, she will experience great pain in childbirth and be subject to oppression from her husband. To Adam, he says that the earth will no longer produce food for them with ease and plenty: instead, planting and harvesting will be hard and inconsistent. He says,

By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”

And then, finally and with the punishments handed out, the Bible says,

The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.

For the Jewish people–and for us, as Christians–this is the story of why the world is broken. Our lives are difficult–we experience pain; we work hard for little gain–because sin was ushered into the world through our own actions. This is the account that explains why creation seems to point towards goodness…but still somehow fall short of it. It’s because it–and we–are “fallen.”

But behind the history of this story, what else can we see about our other central questions: who God is, and who we are designed to be? What has made this story important to tell and re-tell for thousands and thousands of years?

Once upon a time, when I was a teacher at a Christian school, my students would ask me all the time why I believed what I believed. And the answer I would always give them is that the Bible is beyond human in its understanding of being human. In particular, I would talk about this story of the fall as an example of a moment when the stories of the Bible seem to know who we are so deeply and so critically that I simply can’t imagine any one person writing it down without God’s direct help. The story impresses me so much that I have a tattoo about it right here, on my left arm. Here is what I think we can learn about ourselves, our world, and our God from this story:

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“See! Proof!!”

The root of all sin–the reason things are broken–isn’t disobedience..it’s rejection. More specifically, the rejection of a relationship with God.

When Adam and Eve lived in the Garden, they were in perfect relationship with God, walking with him every evening. He provided for them and even went one important step further: he allowed them to know him. That word (and that idea) are at the center of this story, I think: what does it mean to know? In the Garden of Eden before the Fall, knowledge was something that unfolded over time and through relationship: it was a word that referred to the fullness of understanding; to wholeness or (as we have talked about before) shalom.

But there is something strange, then, about having a tree of knowledge, isn’t there? What would it mean for there to be a tree? Why does God use a tree as a symbol for this?

My understanding of this story begins with that question about what a tree is: a tree is a living thing, composed of roots that dig deep into the ground to draw water, leaves that spread out to catch sunlight, and a trunk that helps move what is important in the water up to the leaves, and what is important in the leaves down to the roots. It’s an organism, whole and complete, and yet–even though it is a thing unto itself–even it only exists in relationship to its environment. If I take a tree and pull it out of the soil…it dies. If I plant a tree out of the sunlight…it dies. It exists–and grows, and flowers–when it is healthy and living and connected.

For me, a “tree” makes perfect sense as a symbol for relational knowledge: to know a tree would mean more than just being able to diagram it…it would mean understanding it as a thing tied to a whole system of other things.

And this makes what happens between the snake, Eve, and Adam incredibly interesting to me: what the snake tempts Eve to do isn’t to know this super-important tree, or even to consume the whole thing…but to do one simple, small, and completely insufficient thing: in order to have knowledge of all things…he tells her to just take a bite of one piece of fruit. It’s true, of course, that the seeds of an entire tree are contained in a single piece of fruit…but eating it is in no way the same as knowing it.

I know I’m off in the weeds right now, but stick with me. Here’s where I’m going with this: man, if I could boil down the mistakes I have made in my life to one single, symbolic explanation, I could never do any better than this: I sin…when I confuse taking a bite of something with having a full understanding of it. I treat people poorly when I see one small thing about their lives…and tell myself I know everything I need to know about them and who they are. When I see a person fly by me on the highway and give me the finger, I think to myself: oooohh, I know you. You are the worst. When I see someone with too fancy of a car doing it, I think: oooh, I REALLY know who YOU are. YOU are the worst. When I see someone in worn out clothes holding a cardboard sign on the side of the road, I know the score: you’re just looking to get high. You get the point: the root of my dismissal and mistreatment of other human beings is arrogance. It’s the belief I hold that because I know some of their story, I have knowledge of them. I take a bite of the fruit…and think I’m eating the whole tree.

snaketree

For Adam and Eve, this is the point of what happens in the Garden: they live in routine relationship with the God of the universe. They are living knowledge, and not just knowledge of trees, but of good and evil, because it is God’s character that determines the difference between those two things! Things that are like God are good–that’s what the word means!

But instead of being satisfied with a living relationship, they chase a temptation to have the knowledge now, apart from the daily walks with their Creator. So, they eat a seed.

Why are things the way they are? Why do each and every one of us come into this life hungry for love and connection and then so often grow into people who bicker, fight, and distrust each other? Because there’s a temptation seeded deep inside of us–it’s okay with me if you think of it as the whisper of a snake–saying, you don’t need to LIVE in relationship in order to know things, you just need a few facts…and then you can pass judgment yourself! And we all listen to that snake. And we all pass judgment without having the full pictures of each other, or of our world, or of our God. We get content eating seeds.

The root of all sin–the reason things are broken–isn’t disobedience..it’s rejection. More specifically, the rejection of a relationship with God.

There’s a thread throughout all of Scripture that we should go ahead and introduce now, since we are here at the start: over and over again, the consequence of what the Bible calls “sin,” which is a word that simply means “to miss the mark,” isn’t some abstract punishment. It’s true that sometimes God is angry, but there are fewer stories of God inflicting suffering on people in the Bible than you might think. Instead, almost always, the consequence of sin…is getting what you want.

If, at the root of the story of the Fall, is a choice human beings make to choose independence and arrogance over a living relationship with God, the punishment God gives to them is truly telling. What happens to them? God lets them go. The intimacy of their relationship has been damaged, and so they can no longer live wholly in God’s presence in the Garden. Suffering is introduced into their daily lives, as well as unfairness and cruelty: again, these are logical consequences of people who confuse knowing something about one another for truly knowing one another.

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And then, at the end of the story, I think we see one more important thing…one which, perhaps above every other detail, amazes me about it: the Bible says, then “the Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.” Another consequence of breaking their trust with God was a loss of trust with one another and even unto themselves. The Bible says that they realized they were “naked,” or exposed and vulnerable. And rather than abandoning them to those feelings, God makes clothes for them. He cares for them; he sends them out of the garden in some small way protected.

 

 

And to do that…the Lord God had to kill his own innocent Creation. The garments God makes are garments “of skin.” They are made from an animal.

To cover the guilt and shame of Adam and Eve’s sin, God sheds innocent blood and clothes them.

If you’re a Christian, or even a person here today familiar with the Christian story, this detail might be causing just a bit of tingling somewhere in the back of your mind. And no matter who you are or what you believe, I want to invite you to at least share my awe at the richness of this story: from the very beginning, God is telling the people he created and loves that he will pay the price to make things right again. The fullness of what that means won’t be clear for literally thousands of years. But between this moment and that one, when God’s own Son sheds innocent blood to cover the shame of God’s people, a thread is going to be developed in the stories shared by generations and generations of Adam and Eve’s descendants that the solution to the problems we make out of our own arrogance isn’t a one-time miracle or magic bullet but the knowledge of a relationship with God. According to the Jewish people, this is the arc humanity is living out:

  • we rejected the fullness of a life with God
  • as a consequence, we have gotten just what we thought we wanted: independence, and all the pain that comes with it
  • but God has never stopped pursuing us, and inviting us back into the wholeness of living relationship.

As we close today, I know that this message hasn’t lent itself to a tidy set of action steps for your week. But I hope that’s okay. I hope that instead, you start this series with me by simply dwelling on or meditating on the wonder of a God who writes stories more rich than the stories we write on our own. Who, perhaps, calls us to storytelling because telling stories is, itself, an echo of who he is and who he has made us to be.

And maybe, as you think about this this week, spend some time thinking about your own story: what is the arc you are on? Have you walked roads of rejection–of God, of others–and felt the pull to relationship on the other side? Are you walking one of those roads now? How can we all repent–or ask forgiveness–for the times we confuse knowing something about someone for knowing enough about them?

And how can we let go of that desire for control and rest in our relationship with a God who not only leaves the door of relationship open for us, but clothes us while we wander away from it?

I’m excited about this series, my friends. I am eager to walk through it with you.

Malachi, Week 4: On Judgment, with Help from ‘Weekend at Bernie’s’

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DELIVERED AT REVOLUTION ANNAPOLIS, 9 JUNE 2019

This week, we are continuing in the 4th week of our series on the book of Malachi, which has been all about a core problem, first, for the people of the nation of Israel some 2500 years ago, and second, for us, as we seek to see ourselves in their story. That problem has been forgetting–hence, the title of this series!–and not just forgetting in general, but forgetting specifically that, even though we can all sometimes look around at the state of the world we live in and come to believe any just and good God has forgotten us, the truth is that if God is really who he says he is, the most important thing about him is that he does not change. The God who cherished his creation enough to love, find, and deliver it from the damage it has done to itself in the past–damage we remember through histories and stories of miracles and deliverance–that God is still, somehow, in love with us, and his faithfulness to us is visible…if we can remember how to look for it. To this end, the key promise of the book of Malachi comes from the book’s third chapter, when God says to the people he loves,

Malachi 3:7b

“Return to me…and I will return to you.”

His point isn’t that he has withdrawn from us, and we have to do some magic series of rituals to get his attention again…it’s that we have wandered from him, and if we go back to our memories of who God is, we will discover that one, key thing about him: that he is still who he has always been.

We’re going to dig a bit deeper into this in a few moments, but I wanted to start this week with an illustration of sorts. It goes like this: do any of you, by some crazy chance, remember the 1989 cult classic Weekend at Bernie’s?

bernies

That is both sad…and a relief, because if you didn’t this thing was going to fall apart quickly!

So, as a reminder, Weekend at Bernie’s is a fairly stupid movie about two up-and-comers at a big company who discover a problem in the company’s books, and as a “thank you,” they get invited to their boss Bernie’s island getaway. It turns out, Bernie has invited them there to have them killed–they weren’t supposed to find what they found–but before that can happen, Bernie gets killed…and as other guests start to arrive for a weekend party, the two guys–fearing they will be blamed for the murder–decide to sort of…pretend Bernie is still alive. They put sunglasses on him, carry him around like he’s drunk, and in general, get into a bunch of hijinks as people keep almost finding out that Bernie is a corpse.

The key word in most reviews of the movie is “tasteless.”

But in any case, the key mechanic of this movie–two guys, scrambling to make Bernie seem alive before each interaction someone else has with him–reminds me of a fairly common tension we have all probably experienced. I remember when I was in 8th grade, I was in charge of an art project for a big event in our town, and it was not going well. That project was the construction of a dining room table-sized cardboard train, covered in hand-painted copies of works by Georgia O’Keeffe.

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I remember this painting, in particular. Oh man, do I ever remember it…

I cannot imagine why in the world I was asked to do this thing, or what the connection between O’Keeffe and locomotion was…but every time I did one thing on this project, something else would come undone, and as the deadline approached, it was becoming increasingly clear to me that this whole thing was a big mess. And I just kept thinking: this thing only has to look good for about 5 minutes. It can be a mess before that; it can fall apart right after it…but if I can just hold it together until the after the judges come by, I’ll be okay.

That art project was my “Bernie.”

This situation also reminds me of something perhaps more relatable: have you ever tried to take a group picture with young children? This always plays out the exact same way: the other adults have to stand as still as possible, with smiles frozen on their faces, while the parents scramble to try and just…get everyone to look at the camera at once, and if not smile, at least look normal for a split second. Things can be a total mess before the photo, or immediately after the photo, but for that fraction of a second, can we just…hold it all together?

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Internet gold.

Here’s where I’m going with all this: as we look back over the book of Malachi, the theme seems to be that the Israelites have very much started to treat their faith as their “Bernie,” or their collapsing art project, or a family photo. They just want to look righteous for a split second, when God pays attention to them. On their equivalent of a Sunday morning, they want to suck in their gut, get the offering on the altar, smile for the camera, and then–whoosh!–let everything go back to being a mess. And the key part of their struggle–their key frustration–isn’t with themselves, or with the way things in Israel actually are…it’s with God, who won’t just take the picture! Who won’t come by and evaluate the art project! Who won’t look over at just the right moment, when the corpse is posed with a drink in his hand, sunglasses on his face, and looking more or less like a living person.

They say they want judgment. But what God says to them, through the prophet Malachi, is that this is a really bad idea. Because he doesn’t change. He hasn’t been absent: he’s still there, seeing everything. He knows about the mess. And he also knows that, if judgment came now, it wouldn’t go the way the Israelites think it would. And this makes God…sad and tired. Malachi writes,

Malachi 2:17

You have wearied the Lord with your words.
“How have we wearied him?” you ask.
By saying, “All who do evil are good in the eyes of the Lord, and he is pleased with them” or “Where is the God of justice?”

I’d like to pause–just for a moment–and give us a chance to really take in what the Israelites say here. A few months ago, when the preaching team and I were starting to put together this series, this is the part of the book that dug into me the deepest. Even from a distance of more than 2,000 years, something in me resonated with the frustration the Israelites are experiencing. I’ve felt this way, too. I’ve thought to myself, “All who do evil are good in the eyes of the Lord, and he is pleased with them.” And, I imagine just like the Israelites, I know how this sounds and all the reasons why it’s probably not true. Do I really believe that God is pleased with people who do evil? Probably not. But man, I feel this way sometimes. It seems this way. I, too, have cried out, “Where is the God of justice?” And never have I imagined that God’s reaction to that would be…weariness. Anger? That would make sense. Defensiveness? I could see that. Silence? That’s…probably what I would expect. But weariness surprised me and stuck with me. Weariness suggests something really important: it suggests that not only is God paying attention to me…but he has been, for a long time.

God goes on to respond to the Israelites, saying,

Malachi 3:1-5

“I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the Lord Almighty.

But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the Lord, as in days gone by, as in former years.

“So I will come to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me,” says the Lord Almighty.

What can we see here? I think the first thing we can note in God’s response is how he–once again–cuts right to the root of the problem in the Israelites’ situation. If the Israelites are trying to Weekend at Bernie’s this thing–if they are trying to just hold everything together, so God can swoop in, judge them, and then move on–God’s plan is not what they are hoping to hear. Instead of coming in a moment, God says he is going to send a messenger, who will prepare the way before me. To my ears, this sounds a lot like, “we’re gonna send someone down from corporate to observe the office for the next 2 months.” It sounds terrifying, and not at all what I would want, if what I’m trying to do is simply give the appearance of having things in order! For the Israelites, this must have been frustrating…but in reality, what God is doing is a kindness. It turns out, God isn’t looking to catch them by surprise. He’s not hoping for them to fail, or for them to still be a mess when judgment comes. Instead, he wants the way prepared, and the messenger embodies God’s desire not to come and punish, but for things to actually be made right.

Second, we see an interjection from Malachi, who wonders,

“who can endure the day of his coming?”

This is the place where the foolishness of trying to catch a snapshot of everyone on their best behavior falls apart: God’s justice isn’t something that can be tricked by a photo. God sees us for who we are…and knowing that, Malachi has a perfectly human response: he is afraid! After all, who can possibly stand when God appears?

Which leads to the third part of the passage, where God gives Malachi two metaphors to help explain what God is really after, what his love really accomplishes, and why there is still hope.

First, he says that God’s coming will be “like a refiner’s fire.” So, what is that, exactly?

crucible

A “refiner’s fire” is the fire used underneath a crucible in the process of smelting, or heating a raw piece of metal ore until the metal becomes a liquid (which will sink to the bottom of the crucible) while the impurities that were mixed in with the ore–like other bits of rock–rise up to the top where they can be skimmed from the surface. The end result is the creation of an ingot of pure metal. The fire is the key part of this process: it has to be extraordinarily hot, and the ore must be left over it for a significant amount of time. And although this process radically transforms what is put into the crucible, the key is that it is only through this transforming process that the impurities in the ore can be removed.

It is incredibly significant that God uses this image to help the Israelites understand both his judgment and his patience: what God is trying to help them understand is that his ultimate aim isn’t their destruction–which is what the experience in that crucible must feel like for that piece of ore!–but their refinement. He wants them to be fully who he made them to be, instead of something less.

In my own life, I grew up utterly confused about this: as I was raised in the church as a teenager, I thought of my religion as the constant reason why I always had to say “no” to things. Christianity made me miss out. It made my life less. But what God is saying is that our relationship with him isn’t meant to restrict but to bring out the fullness of our life. When we see God as merely restrictive, that’s because we are confusing the valuable parts of us–the truly human parts of us–for the dross, or that dirt and rock mixed in with the ore. I don’t see the ways those things actually pollute who I am: I’m trying to pose a dead man for a photo, and I’m irritated God won’t be quick about it! But what God wants is for that dead man to actually be alive again. What I hope this passage challenges all of us to think about this week is this:

If the dead man was alive; if the art project was actually finished; if the smiles on our faces weren’t pretend, but actually happened because we were happy and whole…would we still be so anxious about a quick judgment?

What if the truth is that we are fighting…with the one person in the universe who is actually trying to help us?

The second metaphor we see in this passage is that the arrival of God’s messenger will be “like a launderer’s soap.”

fulling

A “fuller” uses their feet to scrub raw cotton with lye soap in a wood-filled pit.

This one took a bit of digging, but it turns out that this phrase is also sometimes translated as “a fuller’s soap,” and a quick investigation into what in the world a “fuller” is turns out to be the key to the whole thing. A “fuller,” in the ancient world, is someone who takes the wool once it has been sheared from a sheep and scrubs, scrapes, and washes it clean. It’s a demanding, physical, and difficult job, using your whole body…but it’s a key step in preparing a fabric that is eventually soft and (more importantly!) pure. The “soap,” in particular, is a kind of lye that we might think of as a predecessor to “bleach.”

So, what does it mean that God’s coming is like a “launderer’s” or a “fuller’s soap”? I think it means that God actually wants to do the work of making us wholly and fully what we are meant to be. It’s a hard job; it takes a toll on the hands and feet and muscles and skin. But this is what his messenger is here to do.

This is, of course, one of these moments in the book of Malachi where the people of Malachi’s time were being faced with a riddle that we, some 2,400 years later, have the answer to. For them, this “messenger”–who would refine them of their impurities and bleach them white as snow–was a mystery. But for us, he isn’t. Some 400 years later, Jesus of Nazareth would lay claim to this title, and even remind his followers of Malachi’s prophecies. John’s Gospel says that Jesus was that purifying fire and all judgment belonged to him. In Mark’s Gospel, the disciples see Jesus–for just a moment, on a mountaintop–for who he really is, and Mark notes, above all, the whiteness of his clothing, as if it had been recently scoured pure white with a launderer’s soap.

The people ask God for Justice. And he tells them that they’re not ready for it: it would lead to their destruction. So, he will send a messenger to them first, to refine them into who they are made to be, and to purify them, so they are bright and shining on the day the Lord’s judgment comes. It’s all a bit abstract and even apocalyptic…but really, I think it can be distilled down into something deeply personal and convicting for us, too:

We don’t have to fake it. We don’t have to dress up a corpse. We can live again.

At the end of the passage we looked at earlier, God says something else that is extremely important, and–again–seems to understand the way any of us might feel if given the news that what we really need is to be refined with fire and scrubbed with soap in order to actually be who we have been pretending to be. He says,

Malachi 3:5

“So I will come to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me,” says the Lord Almighty.

(A quick aside: I’m not going to expound on these things God chooses to point out as the kinds of behaviors that are offensive to him…but I suggest you read it, maybe twice, and think about what the implications are for how God expects us to treat the people in our society who are most commonly forgotten by people like us, who live in wealth and privilege.)

But on the heels of those thoughts–and those words from Scripture–what God says is profoundly important: he says, “but do not fear me.” And in the verses after this–which we looked at in the first week of this series–he continues:

Malachi 3:6-7

“I the Lord do not change. So you, the descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed. Ever since the time of your ancestors you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you,” says the Lord Almighty.

So much of how we often think about religion is rooted in fear: it’s based in places we don’t want to go, eternities we don’t want to endure, punishments we don’t want to experience. But God says that all that fear ever gets us is something like living out a real-world version of Weekend at Bernie’s: fear leads to us panicking and fretting as we try to make something broken–in this case, us–look whole. But that scenario depends on a mistake in the way we think about God, which is that he’s not paying constant attention. That he’s not around. And the reason we think that is because we are confusing God’s patience for God’s absence. This is incredibly ironic, because when we do this, we are looking around at a world where judgment is being withheld and taking that as proof that God doesn’t love us. When in reality, it proves the opposite: God’s patience is the evidence of his love, not just for the few of us who can pretend to have things together, but for all of us. God wants us to be transformed. A better word would be restored to who he made us to be. He wants our best, our fullness, our righteousness, our everything. Because he loves us unfathomably. And we, confusing his love for hate, reject him for this. We rage against him. And–for the millionth time–he knows the roots behind our behavior. He knows, in our deepest hearts, we behave this way because we are afraid: of failure; of feeling worthless; of meaninglessness; of judgment. And so he says, do not fear me. Return to me…and I will return to you.

We started here three weeks ago, and it is fitting that we are now looping back. God reminds the people that his love has always been patient, and it comes with a promise: Return to me–remember!–and I will give you life again. Stop running, hiding, ignoring, forgetting, deceiving…and let me love you.

Please listen to this today: God wants to give you life. Let him.

We don’t talk about this every week at Revolution, but if this is resonating with something inside you this morning, what all of this points to is a moment of surrender that God is asking for: he wants you to surrender your worry and fear and anxiety, as you scramble around, trying to pretend to be someone you’re not, and to accept, in place of those fears, his leadership in your life. To put that in the language of our passage from today, he wants you to allow him to do the work of refinement, the work of restoration, that he is capable of doing in you. That process–that moment of surrender and commitment–is ritualized in Christian faith through the act of baptism. Baptism isn’t a moment when things are finished: it’s not the end of a person’s process of becoming a Christian. Instead, it’s the beginning of that process. It’s an act that symbolizes that acceptance of God’s control over things, and it’s the starting point for a life of active faith, where we commit to chase, pursue, question, learn, and grow in our relationship with God. And it’s also an act God honors, too: God promises, when we are baptized, to see this work of transformation through to its full completion, which is sealed–we believe–by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

As you can see, we don’t have a big tub set up this morning to ask you to jump into. The reason for that isn’t that we don’t think baptism is important or even that it’s urgent…it’s that we do believe baptism is your choice, and you should make that choice not based on our timing, but based on yours.

So, if you are feeling drawn towards baptism this morning…or if you have questions about it, or even doubts about it…your next step would be to talk to someone. You can check the box on your Connect Card, and all that does is let me know to reach out to you this week myself to see if I can help answer any questions. It’s not a commitment to be baptized…it’s a way of saying, “I’m curious about this. I’d like to know more about it.” If that’s you, I would love to help you, if I can.

If that response doesn’t work for you, you can also talk to me, or anyone you have seen up front today, before leaving this morning: we would all be happy to help answer any questions we can.

Or you can reach out to me directly any time this week. I’m here to help you think about your faith and act on what the Holy Spirit is doing in your life. I’d be happy to talk with you more.

For all of us this morning, I want us to be challenged by what God is telling his people here: I want us to ask ourselves this week, am I afraid of God? Am I afraid of judgment? And if so, what does that say about where my trust really is?

Is that where I want it to be?

Malachi, Week 3: On Divorce, Faithlessness, and the (Problematic?) Appropriation of John Donne’s Poetry to Illustrate Covenantal Relationships

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DELIVERED AT REVOLUTION ANNAPOLIS, 2 JUNE 2019

donneIn the year 1611, the Englishman John Donne wrote a poem for his wife, Anne, as he prepared for a trip to Europe. That poem–titled “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning”–attempts to explain how physical distance could never break the spiritual bonds that held the two of them together, no matter how far away he traveled. It’s a beautiful poem, and in its last 3 stanzas, Donne uses a metaphor that has stuck with me for a long time. He writes,

If [we] be two, [we] are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fix’d foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if th’ other do.

And though it in the centre sit,
Yet, when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th’ other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just
And makes me end where I begun.

Have any of you ever used a compass like the one Donne refers to here? The kind with a pointy end, and a pencil end, and a hinge in the middle? I am old enough to remember when a “compass” was a mandatory back-to-school supply (not that I ever remember having to use it for an assignment).

What Donne says here is that his relationship with his wife is like the relationship between the two “legs” of a compass: his wife is the “pointy end,” which sticks in one place and fixes the compass to a spot. And he is the “pencil end,” which stretches out and draws the circle. In the poem, Donne says that his wife’s stability is the thing that guides him back home in his circuit. It’s a lovely image, I think (even if the gender roles here might strike us as a bit problematic!).

compassBut part of what makes an “extended metaphor” an extended metaphor is that it makes a comparison between two things that is useful in multiple ways. The other element of this image that matters to Donne is what happens to the two legs of the compass when they part from one another…which is that they lean towards one another. That leaning–fixed by the hinge–is what Donne is talking about when he says “They soul, the fix’d foot, makes no show / To move, but doth, if th’ other do…Yet when the other far doth roam, / It leans, and hearkens after it.” For me, this is the part of the poem that I often think about, and here’s why: because of the hinge.

Not to overcomplicate things, but in almost the same year Donne writes this poem, a Puritan American poet named Anne Bradstreet writes another poem for her own husband, and in it, she says that the key to their marriage is their shared religious faith. She writes that as they each pursue their own relationship with God, because God is a fixed point, they will inevitably be drawn closer together.

bradstreet

 If you look up “pining” in the dictionary, I imagine you get this illustration of Anne Bradstreet.

In my own mind, I can’t help but blend these two metaphors together: I can’t help but think of my own relationships–first, with my wife, and second, with any and everyone else I share religious beliefs with–as similar to the relationships we see here. When I think of Meredith, I don’t think of her as the “fixed leg” of a compass, but I do think of her as someone my faith and my commitment have hinged me to…and even when we sometimes drift apart, as I think all couples sometimes do, what secures me to her is my confidence that she loves God, too. I know, deep in my bones, that she is pursuing him…and that if I do that, too–if we both pursue our common faith–the legs of the compass that is our relationship will draw closer together, and our marriage will strengthen.

I wanted to begin this morning with that image because I think it will help to ground our discussion today, which comes from the second half of the second chapter of the book of Malachi. Over the last two weeks, we have explored God’s complaints against the Israelites he had delivered from exile and returned to their ancestral homeland around Jerusalem, but who nonetheless had seen their faith in God erode as–in their view–they waited fruitlessly for God to give them the full blessings he had promised them. For his part, God confronts the Israelites for their own half-heartedness, turning their criticism of him back on them by saying that it was their attitude towards worship that was the problem: they had allowed the joy of their religion to become a chore, and they encouraged one another to try and “skate by” in their faith by doing as little as possible.

This week, that theme continues as God (and Malachi) confront the people about faithlessness as it relates to their marriage vows within their own community. It’s a hard teaching, and I joked to several people this week that I am now only one controversial topic away from “Pastor Bingo,” having taught on money, church attendance, and now divorce for 3 straight weeks! But the truth is that once we choose to go down a road with a particular book of the Bible, we have an obligation to wrestle with what it says, no matter what. That’s not always easy…but my hope is that we are all still able to find both challenge and encouragement here, because I believe it’s there for us, and that wrestling matters.

So, as we get started, what is the historical situation we are facing?

jerusalem

A scale model of Jerusalem during the Second Temple period, following the return from Exile in Babylon in the fifth century BCE and leading up to the time of Jesus in the first century CE.

As we talked about before, the people have become apathetic towards God: they hold to the rituals of their faith begrudgingly, and they are envious of their neighbors, whose religions seem less demanding to them. Now, at this point in time, one of the most practical and common ways to build peace between different tribes was to engage in intermarriage with them, which tied the fortunes of two groups together and helped to blur the lines that allowed bitter rivalries to develop. However, for the Israelites, this had been specifically disallowed since the time of Moses: God had always been clear with them that they were a people “set apart,” not only for their own good, but so the Hand of God upon them could be made evident to all, and God’s Name would be great the world over. God is clear: you are set apart as a blessing for everyone. But as nice as all that sounds, the reality for the Israelites is that this law complicated their tribal relationships.

As we approach Malachi’s time, some hundred years after the Israelites returned from exile and well past the time they expected to see God’s promised blessings for them, doubt has set in among them about whether or not it is worth continuing to irritate their neighbors in order to please a God who doesn’t seem to be paying attention. So…they change the rules. The men of Israel either take additional wives from among the neighboring nations, or they cast their Jewish wives aside and marry again.

This creates a very practical problem: once Jewish wives and children are “divorced” from their husbands, they become outcasts, unfit for honorable families and functionally wards of the state. They live either by charity, or by working at jobs outside the law. This contributed to the pitiful state of Israel as a whole, and although their sin was behind all of it, the men of Israel not only refused to fix things…they kept complaining to God that God wasn’t being faithful to them.

So, Malachi writes to these men,

Malachi 2:10-16

Have we not all one Father? Has not one God created us? Why then are we faithless to one another, profaning the covenant of our fathers? Judah has been faithless, and abomination has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem. For Judah has profaned the sanctuary of the Lord, which he loves, and has married the daughter of a foreign god. May the Lord cut off from the tents of Jacob any descendant of the man who does this, who brings an offering to the Lord of hosts!

And this second thing you do. You cover the Lord’s altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor from your hand. But you say, “Why does he not?” Because the Lord was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth. “For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.”

Here, Malachi accuses the men of Israel of 2 crimes: the first crime is that they have been faithless to one another. Specifically, the men have broken their vow within the Jewish community, causing all sorts of problems between Jewish families and for the nation as a whole. But the second crime is even more severe: the men have done violence to their relationship with God, too…and that crime has caused God to stop listening to them or accepting their offerings.

Where can we, in good conscience, see ourselves in this? When it comes to the first allegation Malachi makes–that the people have become faithless to one another–I think we can see ourselves making the same essential mistake. Malachi frames this problem as one of forgetting: in this case, forgetting that we all have one father and one creator. No matter your views about creation (perhaps “views of creation” can be next week’s “BINGO”??), we can all agree that we human beings have common ancestry: we all come from the same people and the same place. So, no matter who we are, we have a common bond to one another. We are family with each other. We are kin.

Awhile back, I preached a sermon here about kindness, and I pointed out that the root of the word “kind” is kin, or family. To be “kind,” then, is to treat someone as kin, or as family. Malachi says this relationship defines all of us. And so, if we are bound to one another, we have an obligation to trust one another and to be worthy of others’ trust. We are family.

When the people of Israel divorce their wives, they are inescapably casting aside a promise they made not just to their wife, but to the entire community that surrounds them. They damage everyone’s reputation; they open the door to faithlessness everywhere.

I have a version of this debate on a near-daily basis with my daughter, Cecilia. Cecilia is 4 years older than our youngest child, our son Graham. And if you have ever wondered, I can scientifically verify that 4 years is the exact age gap that generates the most loathing between siblings. Not 3…that’s too close to being a peer. Not 5…that’s far enough away to be a pseudo-parent. It’s 4: a 4 year gap is unforgivable.

In any case, Cecilia and Graham have the kind of relationship where Graham is an incessant pest to her…and she is a bully to him…and he is the hero fighting against her bullying…and she is the hero protecting her independence… It’s an endless cycle, and they are both always right in their own eyes. But here’s the thing that drives me most crazy as a parent: every single aspect of being a pain that Graham has learned and then inflicted upon his sister…is something she showed him how to do. She taught him to pinch. To do the “I’m not touching you, I’m not touching you” thing. To drop dirty clothes off the landing on her as she comes up the steps, shouting “Bombs away!” To splash water. To steal toys. Everything she does to get back at him, he turns into something to annoy her.

Here’s where I’m going with this: the root problem in their relationship is that when you have a younger sibling, it’s easy to feel like they get all the attention, and no one is paying attention to you. That’s how Cecilia feels. And she feels that so acutely, that when she mistreats her brother, she cannot imagine that he might copy her. That he might even look up to her. She thinks no one really sees her…but in reality, everyone sees her…especially her little brother!

When the men in Israel allow their belief that God has stopped paying attention to them to crack open this door for them to walk through, where they shrug off God’s imagined disappointment and do what they want to do to benefit themselves…they don’t recognize that everyone sees them. That when one man does it, others will feel emboldened to follow. That the family of the wife they are divorcing sees it, and is angered by it. That the children see it, and learn something about the value–or lack thereof–of commitment in their community. That the neighboring tribes see it, and realize there is nothing different or special about Israel.

Because they feel invisible, they begin to believe they are invisible. And they aren’t.

Although divorce is the issue we are looking at today, it’s not the subject: faithlessness is. When we break faith with one another, we are falling into the oldest trap there is, which is believing that we are alone. No one is looking out for us but us. No one cares about us, so we need to care for ourselves. But the great truth of the human race is that we are all so, so, so connected. You can’t pull on one thread in this web of humanity and not cause ripples in thousands of others. If you think about the friends you have who have gone through a divorce, or think about this in your own story, you know this is true: the hurt goes beyond two people. It matters to an entire community.

sroka

That speech was from this guy, Matt Sroka, who used to be a colleague of mine at AACS, who has always been quite the Orioles fan, and who also hosts a Baltimore sports podcast that seems pretty fancy. (photo stolen from the Internet)

I once heard an unforgettable graduation speech from someone who said that when they were young, they dreamed of having an impact on the world…but now that they are older, they realize that the issue isn’t whether or not you will make a difference, but being responsible with the difference you are already making. Breaking faith with one another matters. It hurts. It does damage. And Malachi writes that the consequence for breaking ties with others…is having those ties broken. He says, “May the Lord cut off from the tents of Jacob any descendant of the man who does this.” If the Israelites are going to choose to act as if they are alone in the world…God will ultimately give them what they ask for: they will be alone.

The other crime Malachi accuses these men of is having done violence to their relationship with God. He says this is the reason God ignores their offerings and their “tears at the altar” as they seek his blessing. But what does this mean, exactly? And how have their decisions to divorce their wives contributed to this?

To answer these questions, we need to return to that opening metaphor of the compass in John Donne’s poem: the Bible teaches us that a marriage isn’t just a promise between two individuals, it’s a covenant two people make not just before God, but with him. A marriage is a three-person promise: God is a part of it. If we think of that compass again, God is that hinge, and his Spirit is in the relationship. Malachi writes,

“Did [God] not make them one [flesh], with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring.”

The reference here to offspring isn’t only a way of talking about biological children, which can be the product of a union between a man and a woman…but also spiritual children, who are the product of a true, harmonious relationship between people and God. We are those offspring, both in terms of that growth towards God that brings us together (like we saw in the Anne Bradstreet poem), as well as the responsible use of that influence and connectedness we talked about just a moment ago in our interactions with others. The fruit of a Godly marriage is multiplication of Godly worship, as people who follow him and stay faithful to him become witnesses of who he is and his power to hold us together with one another. When we keep commitments, we do this not just by trying really hard…but by leaning on a God who is faithful to his own promises to us. God’s faithfulness is visible in our faithfulness, which imitates him. Can you imagine trying to use a compass without a hinge? Just by trying really hard to hold the pointy part and the pencil part together in your hand?

How precise do you think the circle you draw will be? Will it even be a “circle” at all?

compass2

When our marriages flourish, they become testimonies to who God is. When our friendships flourish, they evidence God’s love. How? Well, what keeps marriages and friendships together? I would argue it’s the times when we are able to look more like God to one another than people: it’s when we forgive what seems unforgivable; when we love through things that seem unlovable; when we stick by each other, and cherish the best in each other, and look for ways to grow, even when growth seems unlikely.

Relationships flourish when we jointly rely on the example God has set for us of what being a ‘person’ should be. It’s when we lean on this “hinge” between us.

In my own marriage, this happens when I put Meredith above myself and love her, no matter whether or not she “deserves” it, in my eyes…because she will always deserve it in God’s eyes. When I see her as God sees her, I’m leaning on that “hinge” in our relationship, and we grow.

In my relationships with my friends, or my relationship with you, I am most faithful to you when I am more than myself…or, maybe more accurately, when I am more fully who God made me to be and seeing you as God says you are. That reliance on a Godly perspective–and that recognition that my own perspective is going to be limited and flawed–is what enables our friendship to endure tough times.

But when I fail to do this–when I don’t start by leaning on that hinge, but by pulling away from it–I break faith in a way that not only damages you, it does violence to my relationship with God.

To be as practical as I can be for a moment, I am not saying that divorce should never happen. Sometimes, two people cannot coexist without damaging each other in ways that drive them away from the God who is supposed to be connecting them. They have to be separated, so that their relationship to God–to the hinge–can be restored first. But I am saying that divorce is something the Bible tells us breaks God’s heart. It’s not a part of how we are meant to live, even if it is sometimes a reality of how we are choosing–as interconnected people, affected by one another’s decisions–to live. But again, the root issue here isn’t divorce, it’s something more central and even universal than that: it’s faithlessness. And I would define faithlessness as forgetting that we are purposefully made, to live purposefully with our God, and purposefully with one another. If we abandon–or forget–that truth, we are likely to pull away from our relationships and try to live as if we are alone in the world. That will do damage to others…and, according to Malachi, it can lead to God giving us what we are acting like we want…which is to be alone.

So, who are we really in faithful relationships with? And if we recognize we are in them, how can we do what Malachi says to do here, which is to “guard ourselves in our spirit” against faithlessness?

I think that “faithful relationships” would include any relationships that the Bible says are sealed with a “covenant,” or a promise between the people involved and God. There are 3 main relationships like this:

  1. Marriages. When we choose to be married, we are choosing to enter into a covenant where “faithfulness” is expected, both between the marriage partners, and between those partners and God, who is part of that marriage. If you are a Christian, that means that you have two responsibilities: one to your spouse, to love, cherish, and serve them…and another to God, to love, cherish, and serve Him. Giving up on either of these commitments is a problem!
  2. Children. Parents and children are also tied to one another in a “faithful” relationship. That obviously applies to people who have children–they are obligated to love, nurture, and teach their children, in the same way God loves, nurtures, and teaches them! But it also applies to people who are children (which is everyone): we are obligated to be “faithful,” as best we can, to our parents. We should strive to love and honor them as best we can…and even beyond that, since we are people who are trying to imitate Jesus!
  3. The Church. We are charged with “faithfulness” inside the community of the church through the covenant of Holy Communion. When we receive communion here together at Revolution, we are declaring and celebrating being part of a church family. Again, God is the “hinge” for us: we are committing to love God, and to allow that love to pull us together as “kin.” The people around you are your people, and we should love and cherish them.

And how, then, do we “guard ourselves in our spirit” against faithlessness? Honestly, we do this through prayer: that we might be humble in the ways we talk to one another; patient in the ways we hear one another; gentle in the ways we confront one another; and loving in all. To put this more simply: we can ask ourselves–day in and day out–if we are leaning in to our relationships with the other “legs” of our compass and the “hinge” that is our God…or if we are pulling away from those things by focusing on ourselves.

Even more practically? This week, start by asking 5 questions of 5 people you are in a covenant relationship with. Ask them how they are doing, and make time for a real response. Ask how you can support them. Ask what gives them energy or rest…and try to offer it. Get outside yourself and check in: what would it mean to lean in to this person in a way that both meant something to them…and put your own weight and trust on that “hinge” holding the two of you together? It can take it. If you test it.