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Congregational Hospitality: The Risks and Rewards of Hospitality

 

Genesis 45:1-15
Psalm 133
Acts 10:23-48
Matthew 15:21-28

 

10: 23The next day he got up and went with them, and some of the believers from Joppa accompanied him. 24The following day they came to Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. 25On Peter’s arrival Cornelius met him, and falling at his feet, worshipped him. 26But Peter made him get up, saying, ‘Stand up; I am only a mortal.’ 27And as he talked with him, he went in and found that many had assembled; 28and he said to them, ‘You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. 29So when I was sent for, I came without objection. Now may I ask why you sent for me?’ 30 Cornelius replied, ‘Four days ago at this very hour, at three o’clock, I was praying in my house when suddenly a man in dazzling clothes stood before me. 31He said, “Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God. 32Send therefore to Joppa and ask for Simon, who is called Peter; he is staying in the home of Simon, a tanner, by the sea.” 33Therefore I sent for you immediately, and you have been kind enough to come. So now all of us are here in the presence of God to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say.’ 34 Then Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. 37That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; 40but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, 41not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’  44While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, 47‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ 48So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days. (Acts 10:23-48, NRSV)

 

 

This is the third sermon in the series on Hospitality.  Today we have a couple of long readings form the New Testament.  This sermon will focus on the reading from Acts and more specifically the movement that takes place in this scripture passage.  Peter moves from Joppa to Caesarea, he also moves from clean (Judaism) to unclean (Gentile), he moves from guest to host and from risk to reward.  Cornelius, another character in this story moves from a position of power to a position of powerlessness, from host to guest and from outsider to insider.  There is also another much more subtle movement that is deeper and behind this story; it is the movement of God.  As we have seen throughout this sermon series God is active and on the move throughout the Bible and the world.  God is active and on the move spreading his love, grace and mercy through individuals and communities and through the offer of hospitality.  Specifically in the book of Acts we learn that the gospel spreads from the Jewish world into the Gentile world and on to the ends of the earth. God’s activity continues today and sometimes it happens through our sharing hospitality.  We the church bear witness to God’s hospitality when we share God’s welcome with others who may be new to us.

 

Let us pray: Holy One of Israel, covenant-keeper, you restore what is lost, you heal what is wounded, and you gather in those who have been rejected. Give us the faith to hear your word and to live it out so that all may be welcomed and all people may be blessed. Amen.

 

Darla and her daughter were living in their car, because they had been evicted from their apartment.  They came to the church for worship one Sunday, and they were welcomed and respected and a relationship was started.  Without going into all the details of how it transpired, and it took several years for the outcome.  Darla became an active member of the church, she sang in the choir, she has a job and home.  No one person did all of this, but rather a community of people extended the hospitality of God and together with the work of the Holy Spirit, Darla and her daughter found a church home.

 

Mike and his wife and daughter were new to the church.  Mike was raised in the faith but never really “bought into” the church and its teachings.  Over time he became more inquisitive and, through what can only be the work of the Holy Spirit, he recently asked to be baptized.  Again it is hard to quantify how this transformation happened in his life.  But I cannot help but point and affirm the work of the Holy Spirit and the hospitality of the congregation in sharing the transforming love of God with Darla and Mike.

 

These are but two examples, among many, of how hospitality changes lives. The lives of both the ones receiving it and the ones extending it.  The point of hospitality is to invite others to experience the living, welcoming and transforming God.

 

But sharing God’s gracious hospitality is not without risk.  I shared two positive stories of sharing hospitality but I could share more stories than I care to count of hospitality being extended in honest, faith filled ways, and the outcome not being so positive, happy, and fruitful.

 

Some of these outcomes were rejection. “What if we offer a warm welcome and hospitality, and it is rejected?” “What if they don’t come?” Jesus own life and ministry was an invitation to new life, and it ended on the cross in the ultimate act of rejection by those he came to serve.  Another risk of offering hospitality could be we get no return on our investment? “We did all of this work, and we have gotten no new members?” There is a danger of seeing hospitality as a means to gain new members or more “pledging units,” and we miss the point of God’s hospitality all together.  Another potential risk could be our gracious hospitality works and it works well but we have welcomed “the wrong type of people”? In the biblical sense this is what I believe God’s hospitality challenges: a welcoming of all. “What will we do with those who don’t fit in?”

 

Offering hospitality or inviting someone into your life can be difficult.  It is much more than what we think of today as having family or friends over for a meal or hosting guests in our home for a night or two.  Luke, the writer of Acts, and the other writers of the New Testament, had a very different understanding of hospitality.  The ancient custom of hospitality revolved around the practice of welcoming strangers or travelers into one’s home and providing for them provisions and protection.  Hosts were also obligated to meet their guests’ needs by supplying them with meals, water for cleaning their feet and with new clothes if they needed them.  When the guest was ready to leave the host would also “send them off” with enough provisions for at least a day’s journey and where possible they would provide a guide to accompany the guest until the guest traveled safely out of the region.  Over time, this biblical understanding of hospitality has become skewed.

 

In the Greco-Roman world, citizens lived with a great fear that the stranger requesting help on their journey could be Zeus, the god of hospitality, in disguise presenting himself as a test of one hospitality.  There was also a strong desire to create political alliances with others by offering them hospitality on their journeys.

 

In Hebraic and Christian contexts, however, the motive for hospitality more often grew out of the desire to please God by showing love toward a fellow worshiper. The Jewish and early Christian followers of God showed their love for God and others by extending hospitality to complete strangers.  Then in the New Testament we read of Jesus turning the concept of hospitality around as he commissioned his followers to minister to their host families and communities. Rather than merely receiving provisions and protection, the traveling missionaries were to meet the needs they encounter along their journeys and to proclaim the Kingdom of God.

 

In our passage today from Acts, Peter accepts the hospitality of Simon the tanner in Joppa.  This is quite remarkable because tanners work with leather, animal skins.  Tanners were thought to be extremely unclean and one would not interact with them.  For Peter, a good Jew, to stay in the home of a tanner was unheard of.   Then when Peter is invited by messengers to come to the home of Cornelius Peter extends hospitality to them.  He accepts their invitation and travels to stay at Cornelius’ home.[i]

 

Once Peter arrives at Cornelius home he explains the good news of Jesus Christ to him and the gift of the Holy Spirit falls upon Cornelius and the other Gentiles gathered there.  Through this wondrous act of God Cornelius and the members of his household who are also Gentiles asked to be baptized.

 

These stories of hospitality become the vehicle through which God acts to open up the church to the Gentiles and from there to the ends of the earth. Hospitality throughout the book of Acts functions as the bridge through which Jewish Christians are able to see Gentile converts in a new way — no longer as “profane or unclean,” but rather as partners in the community of faith.  If ever so slowly the extension of hospitality is the bridge that covers the gap between people of different regions and cultures and their being integrated into the life of the Church.

 

So what does this mean for us, here today?  We do not find ourselves in the same situation as the early Christians, nor do we have as many barriers but we still very much live in a world of insiders and outsiders. It is vitally important for us today to offer hospitality to one another.  We must keep risking, even when all signs say it won’t make a difference.  We must share hospitality not because we will be able to get new members or because God will smile upon us or because we will get another pledging unit.

 

And we don’t do it to put another notch in our belt of conversions or increase our number of baptisms. No!

 

We offer hospitality because it is who we are as Christians.  We do it and we trust in God because it is God at work in and through our lives and our hospitality. Sometimes it won’t work.   People won’t respond to even our best efforts.  But sometimes it will.  But not because of us for we are mere mortals, but because of God, the creator of heaven and earth, and all that is, God is the one who can change hearts, transform lives and even raise the dead! So let us trust in God and share God welcome because you just never know what might happen.

Thanks be to God.

 

Let us pray:

 

[i] Reverend Dr. Andrew Arterbury the Ancient Custom of Hospitality, the Greek Novels, and Acts 10:1-11:18. Reverend Dr. Arterbury is Assistant Professor of Christian Scriptures at George W. Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

Congregational Hospitality: God’s Welcome

August 3, 2014 (Ordinary 18)

Genesis 18:1-16
Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21
Matthew 14:13-21

 

18: 1The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. 2He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. 3He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. 4Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. 5Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” 6And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” 7Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. 8Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.

9They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.” 10Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. 11Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. 12So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” 13The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ 14Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.” 15But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”

16Then the men set out from there, and they looked toward Sodom; and Abraham went with them to set them on their way. (Genesis 18:1-16, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: God of grace, you have given us minds to know you, hearts to love you, and voices to sing your praise. Fill us with your Spirit that we may celebrate your glory and worship you in spirit and in truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

Did you notice in the midst of the story of Abraham and Sarah receiving news that they will have a child that something else was going on?  It is often overlooked. Abraham and Sarah may be the first example of offering hospitality in the bible. Standing at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day he sees 3 strangers walking toward him and he and Sarah offer them hospitality.

 

In the Jewish and Christian traditions, hospitality to strangers is never a random act.  Ever since we human beings became wanderers, we have had to rely on the goodness of others for survival.  We have had to learn to be both guests and hosts to one another providing for and receiving from others the necessities for life.

 

Throughout the Bible, story after story teaches this practice. Beginning with Adam and Eve when they were cast out of the Garden of Eden we have been a wandering people. Then Abraham and Sarah, then their descendants, then the Israelites who moved from being slaves in Egypt to their long years of wandering in the wilderness. The biblical story is one of a journey and in this journey the people of God had to rely on the hospitality of each other for survival.

 

The New Testament is much the same as Jesus and his followers were dependent on the hospitality of others for survival.  Story after story as the disciples traveled they were welcomed and nourished by the goodness of others. But perhaps the most important act of hospitality took place on the night of Jesus’ betrayal when he was gathered in the upper room with his disciples and he invited them to share in his body broken and his blood shed.  The ultimate act of hospitality Jesus gave of himself so that we might have life.  So, we, like the disciples, are still invited to receive the hospitality of Christ.  But times have changed.

 

Hospitality is no longer a necessity in our world.  We seem to believe that we can live on our own and get by on our own strengths and abilities.   So much so that this biblical sense of hospitality is lost on us and it has been replaced by a whole industry that makes money and lots of it off of offering hospitality to those with the means to afford it.  This became clear as I began putting together this sermon series: our common conceptions of hospitality are something very different than what the Bible describes as hospitality.

 

There are so many different images of what we call hospitality.  There is a whole cottage industry built around our concept of Hospitality from popular magazines devoted to home and garden, food and drink, and even television networks like HGTV and the cooking channel that pump up or sense of hospitality.   They display homes that are beautifully decorated, with everything tastefully chosen and perfectly in place.  The tables are stunningly set, the cuisine exquisite, and the wine a perfect complement to the meal.  The gardens are lush and colorful. These are the images that fuel our current definition of Hospitality.  Our definition of hospitality been taken over by fine food and furnishings that it is impossible to live up to such high standards. No longer can a simple meal, on a plain table, served with loving hands, and a genuine heart, be a true representation of genuine hospitality.  Hospitality has become so over the top.  It must surely have some deeper dimensions than what we see on the front cover of Southern Living Magazine or I guess I should say Mid-West Living or when we are welcomed at Wal-Mart by the greeter.

 

So, I would like to go back to our scripture lesson for today as Abraham and Sarah welcome these three strangers and offer them Hospitality.  It will set the foundation for what I see as a biblical definition of hospitality.  My working definition of biblical Hospitality: is a life of openness to the presence of God and, unconditional openness to every human life.  This understanding of hospitality is a thread that weaves its way throughout the Bible.  It is the recognition that the presence of God pervades the world, and that God may come to you and me at any moment.  To be truly hospitable, we must live in an open readiness to experience the presence of God at any moment, and in any human life.

 

Most of all of the stories of biblical hospitality take place in ordinary places with ordinary people.  Abraham is at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. Lot is sitting by the city gate in the cool of the evening when two strangers arrive.  Gideon is at work in his wheat fields when a man sits down under a nearby oak tree.  The mother of Samson is sitting in the field when an angelic man approaches her with a message.  These stories begin in ordinary places, but end with extraordinary messages that ordinary people need to hear from God who enters into these ordinary scenes.  What the biblical sense of hospitality insists is that God may come to us at any moment in our lives.

  • Who knows when you may come upon someone who is bearing a message from God for your life or mine?
  • Who knows what experience may be a revelation of God in my life. All of this, sounds wonderful, such pious sermon speak and spiritual terminology, but how do we do it?
  • If we are to treat every person we come in contact with as if they are God in disguise, isn’t that going to be exhausting?

 

So what does this mean for the church the gathered community of faith? Does this mean that every person who walks through the doors and into the sanctuary is God in disguise? I sure hope not.  What are we to do with the undeniable truth that every church is made up of all kinds of people, some of who are impossible, others are just plain odd, or weird, others are pure phonies, and many of them you don’t really want to be friends with? Do you? How are we supposed to be hospitable to people like that?

 

I recently read the words of C.S. Lewis, written in 1942, from his essay entitled, The Weight of Glory, in which he talks about how we should live our lives with this Biblical understanding of Hospitality in mind.

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may be a messenger of God…It is in light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the alertness…that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal…But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit…This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our play must be of that kind which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption…Next to the (Blessed Sacrament) Holy Communion itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”

 

There are no ordinary people. Because of God’s love in Jesus Christ this is true.  Every life has extraordinary possibilities because of the presence of Christ in our world.  True hospitality, unconditional openness to every human life is based upon that truth and, once we accept that truth, the world will become full of opportunities where we can encounter the divine in each other.  At any moment, something wonderful may happen.  Carry that truth with you into the week ahead.  Let the truth of God’s welcome transform your life, your home, your friendships, your work, our church, and our world.

 

We are a month away from kicking off another church year, September 7, with Rally Day it is a wonderful opportunity to invite someone to church and practice our hospitality. I remember you just never know who you might be welcoming.

 

Let us pray: Life-giving God, heal our lives that we may welcome your wonderful deeds and offer hospitality to those we meet. We pray through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Details, Details, Details

 

July 27, 2014 (Ordinary 17)
Genesis 29:15-28
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

 

13:31 “He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32 it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” 33 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. 45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46 on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. 47 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; 48 when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. 49 So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50 and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 51 “Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” 52 And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” (Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: Spirit of the living God fall afresh on us. Spirit of the living God fall afresh on us, melt us mold, shapes us use us. Amen.

 

I heard a story this week about a colleague in ministry who is serving a church in Southern Middle Tennessee. He was telling about his call to ministry. He had a sense of being called into the ministry while he was in college. When a professor he had said to him that he should consider a call to ministry.  My colleague said it really meant a lot for him to hear that affirmation from a professor, someone he looked up to and he respected but it wasn’t the moment that he felt called. His story continues a year later while he was on a short-term mission trip to New York City. He and other college student were working with the homeless and the hungry and the least, the last and the lost.

 

One evening he was riding on a subway going to meet a friend for dinner and he was very sad and hopeless. He was overwhelmed by the massive needs of the people he was working with. Overwhelmed by the fact that he felt so helpless and useless by all of the suffering around him. He looked across the aisle of the subway car and his eye caught the eye of a homeless man, who was staring at him.  When the homeless man said to him, “What’s happening?”

 

My colleague responded, “Nothing, nothing is happening.” That was what he felt in light of the overwhelming needs all around him. The homeless will continue to be homeless, the hungry will still be hungry, and so he felt that nothing was going on.  The homeless man replied, “Well make it happen!” Then the subway car stopped and the homeless man got off and the door closed. My colleague said that was the moment he was called to ministry.

 

Jesus was a good story teller. This particular story or parable is a shocking one – the parable of the mustard seed would have caused his listeners to drop their jaws. It would have been one of those stories that those who heard it would have been desperate to tell others, it would have been one of those stories that they would begin by saying…“did you hear what that man said?”

 

It is just a story about a mustard seed, a harmless little seed.  Well, it is a parable, a metaphor that was a direct contradiction of part of sacred Jewish law.  In the book of Leviticus there are some farming rules and one of them is that, on pain of death, you must not sow more than one type of seed in a field.

 

The purpose of the law was to protect crops but it was also an acknowledgment that in those days grain was absolutely precious – and back then, what you grew was your very means of survival.  So to give the grain the absolutely best chance of survival, weeds or competing crops were not allowed. The mustard seed was actually the seed of a shrub that was considered a weed and next to useless.  So, the thought that the farmer would have allowed it first to grow and then to actually continue to grow until it reached the size of a tree would have been unheard of – and in fact could have got the farmer into a huge amount of trouble.

 

But there was something else. Since the time of Leviticus something else had happened. The Romans had invaded – and conquered their land. The Romans were ruthless. They taxed everything – including crops and at least fifty percent of everything that a farmer grew was taken for the benefit of the Rome. So, for a farmer to deliberately allow something to grow instead – especially a useless weed like the mustard seed was an act of sedition – it was stealing from Rome. So, it would have been shocking to the hearers of the day to hear this story.

 

Jesus has been upping the ante in each of his descriptions of the kingdom.  For three weeks now we have heard Jesus describe the Kingdom of God in the Gospel of Matthew, the thirteenth chapter. We have heard about the gardener (the sower) who extravagantly throws seeds out on all types of ground. Last week Anne preached about the wheat and the weeds and how there is good and evil in all people and it is not our job to judge. And then we have today’s passage. Jesus is no longer telling interesting stories, it is almost as if he gets into a hurry as he in rapid succession tries to explain what the Kingdom of heaven is like:

  • A mustard seed
  • Like yeast
  • Like a buried treasure
  • Like a fine pearl
  • Like a net cast into the sea

 

Bam, bam, bam. One after the other without time to think in between. What is Jesus trying to tell us? The parable begins small, “the smallest of seeds,” and ends up growing bigger.

 

So, Jesus says that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed?  Yes, mustard plant is an invasive species, dreaded by farmers in the same way today’s gardeners dread kudzu, or crabgrass and other weeds. The mustard plant is a weed that was against the law to sow it in a garden, but that it is foolish to do so.  Because it would germinate very quickly and then grow out of control. And before long it has taken over your yard, your garden, your field.  The mustard plant is an annual, which grows wild and can reach four feet in height. Once it has been sown it is nearly impossible to get rid of it.

 

Yeast was much the same, when added to flour it would take over.

 

And Jesus is comparing the kingdom of Heaven God to a malignant weed and pollutant? Because both mustard seed and yeast have this way of spreading beyond anything you’d imagined, infiltrating a system and taking it over.

 

It is an odd parable, the seed starts small, it ends not in glory, but with a suspicious, often rejected weed, despised by the farmer.  The farmer does everything to try and kill it but can’t. Might God’s kingdom be like that – far more potent than we’d imagined and ready to spread to every aspect of our lives?

 

God is at work in people, events, situations we regard as insignificant and God’s actions have results wildly beyond our expectations. God is at work in people, events, situations widely regarded as subversive of the status quo and counter to standards of worldly success. Like my colleague on the subway, he was so caught up in his own sadness and hopelessness that he could not “see” that God was at work in him, around him and with the homeless man. Silently, ever so slowly, growing, changing, working, and transforming the world. That is what the Kingdom of God is like.

 

So look closely— at the tiny mustard seeds in your life— they may be God planting something in your heart that is going to grow into something beyond your imagination. Listen for the small things…

Look at the insignificant events….

Pay attention…

For God the creator of all that is is at work in you and in me and in all the world brining about his kingdom.

 

Let us pray: Seed-planting, fish-netting, bread-baking, pearl-hunting God, you shape us into living parables. We pray that your spirit would fill us so that we may understand our experiences as healing metaphors, and become creative and abundant stewards of the environment you entrusted to our love. Amen.

Journey to the Cross, step 1: The Fall

March 9, 2014 (The First Sunday of Lent)
Service for the Lord’s Day

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7, Matthew 4:1-11
Reverend Stephen Caine

2:15 “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16 And the LORD God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17 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.”

3:1 “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’?” 2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; 3 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.'” 4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; 5 for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 6 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. 7 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.” (Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: God of wilderness and water, your Son was baptized and tempted as we are. Guide us through this season of Lent that we may not avoid struggle, but open ourselves to blessing, through the cleansing depths of repentance and the life-giving words of your Spirit. Amen.

 

Today is the first Sunday of the Journey of Lent.  The season of Lent is the forty day period of the Christian year that began on Wednesday (Ash Wednesday) and runs until Easter Sunday (April 20).  During these forty days we are asked to reflect on our humanity and renew our commitments to living as people who belong to God in Jesus Christ.  We enter this season with a brutal reminder of our humanness.  It is the story of the fall, the story of Adam, Eve, the Snake, Sin and God.  It is a reminder that we are more than just biologically related to Adam and Eve but we are also heirs of their sin and brokenness, even today.  We, like them are tempted by the serpent and we too are guilty of eating forbidden fruit.  So, it is my hope this Lenten Season that we will also learn that we are also heirs of Jesus and his grace.

 

We begin with the first step of the journey of Lent by starting at the beginning, Genesis.  It takes place in the Garden of Eden soon after God created the world.  The story – “The fall,” you see, didn’t happen just once.  It happens again and again and it still happens today, as you and I continue to repeat its vicious cycle as we stumble through life.  It is a story of disobedience and rebellion against God, it is not a story of the woman who alone was tempted.

 

It is a story of Adam and Eve who were not satisfied.  They were not content living with God in paradise. They were created in God’s image, with all the gifts, privileges and potential that God could give them, but they wanted more.  They wanted to be like God.  That was the temptation that the wily serpent offered them. The serpent gift wrapped the temptation, to eat of the one tree that God told them not to eat from, in a lie that they really shouldn’t trust God and that he the serpent knew better.  So he played on their sense of trust or their lack of trust and they were all in, apple, sin and the fall.

 

Adam and Eve believed the serpent because they wanted more.  They wanted to forge their own identities “over against,” God.  It is like a child who is desperate to break away from her parents and become her own person, with her own identity.  This story tells us so much about God, the snake (tempter), Sin and humanity.

 

This story tells us so much about God. God is generous and creative, loving, and genuinely interested in being in relationship with Adam and Eve, but they just couldn’t see it.  God is creative.  God makes the world and everything in it.  God is generous.  God creates Adam and gives him everything he needs; food, drink and a lush garden to live in.  God is caring – when God commands Adam, “Eat freely of all this beauty, except that one tree.”  God is relational and does not want to be alone, and thinks Adam shouldn’t be alone either.  The animals were nice but they aren’t really companions for Adam.  So God uses one of Adam’s ribs and creates Eve.

 

This story also tells us so much about the snake, the tempter.  First, the serpent is the craftiest creature and there is no way to outsmart him.  The serpent is a very clever and talkative animal “that the LORD God had made,” who simply asks some questions concerning God’s motivations in creation for Adam and Eve to consider.  At any point in the conversation, the humans could have told the serpent that he was full of it and to please slither off to someplace else.  Never try to outwit temptation because you end up making a “deal with the Devil” that can truly cost you your life!  Second, the serpent lies.  Jesus calls him “the father of lies.” But, the serpent tells lies we want to hear—why else would they be so tempting!  “You will not die; you will become like God, knowing good and evil.”  The serpent tells lies we want to hear and want to believe!   It is part of his diabolical plot.  Third, the temper’s lie always plays to our desire to be more than we were created to be.

 

This story also tells about sin.  Sin is a mysterious force that arises from within God’s “good” creation.  The serpent, the embodiment of sin, is simply one of God’s creatures.  And the yearnings and suspicions of the humans about God and his motivations are somehow already in Adam and Eve’s DNA and only needed to be teased out by the serpent to be put into action.  Sadly, as we all know all too well, this trait has been passed down throughout human history, to every one of our fore mothers and fathers of the faith.  There is no doubt that we are their off-spring because we have inherited the same wants, desires, and sin that we are not content to be with God.

 

This story also tells us about ourselves: it reveals that since the beginning of time we are competitive by nature, we look at the other and we want to beat them.  So when the snake comes along and tells Adam and Eve the lie that God is not who God is portraying himself to be, Adam and Eve took the bait because they wanted to be like God.  From the very beginning Adam and Eve have been given work to do and responsibilities to tend too, when God places them in the garden “to till it and to keep it.”  The Garden of Eden is no Caribbean vacation in Paradise!  From the beginning, humans are made for a regular rhythm of doing meaningful work for the good of creation.  Along with the meaningful work they are to do they are also to take regular periods of Sabbath rest and enjoyment.

 

Finally, this story describes the reality of what it is to be human and our mysterious human tendencies to rebel against God, to resist God’s gracious boundaries and the limitations that God has placed around us for our own good.  Our sinful nature arises from our desire to be like God rather than thankful, trusting and faithful creatures of God.

 

Sin is our problem, what should we do about it?  We start by owning up to it, naming it, confessing it.  That is why we confess our sin each Sunday in worship even if we did not do those things we pray.

 

After we acknowledge and confess our sin, that which separates us from God we don’t resolve to try harder, to do more good; instead we throw ourselves at the feet of God and beg his mercy and forgiveness.  That is our hope; God’s grace and forgiveness.  Only with God can we hope to turn our lives around.

 

Our hope begins with the grace of God in Jesus Christ.  Whatever or however we define sin, it begins and ends for us Christians with the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

 

People come to church on Sunday with disappointments in their hearts—in life itself, disappointed in government, disappointed in our health care system, disappointed in our sports teams, disappointed in our role models, disappointed in ourselves, some of us come with an acute sense of failure and inadequacy.  Some are ready to give up.  We come to church with fresh memories of wounds in our hearts, our emotions, and our spirits that each of us has experienced.  We also come aware of the wounds that we have inflicted on others.   People come—we all come—in spite of our confidence and can-do attitudes we come questioning, wondering, and unsure of our standing with God.  What we do is read this story and remind ourselves that, yes we have all sinned, we have all fallen short of the glory of God, we confess, we repent, God forgives us, God loves us, God wants to be in relationship with us, God wants us to live fully, and to leave behind the load of guilt we are all carrying. God has forgiven us! God wants us to move on and live as the faithful stewards of creation that he created us to be.

 

It begins not by working harder, being better or trying harder to be good – instead it starts in your heart and in mine when you and I allow ourselves to be loved and forgiven by God, washed clean, healed, refreshed and claimed by him.

 

Let us pray:

Lord God, our strength, as the battle of good and evil rages within and around us, and our ancient foe tempts us with his lies, deceit and empty promises.  Keep us steadfast in Your Word and, when we fall, raise us again and restore us through Your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. AMEN.