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Our Side of the Line

President Ted Wardlaw

March 5, 2017
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Matthew 4:1-11

Readings from the Old Testament

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

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

A Reading from the Gospel:

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ But he answered, ‘It is written,
“One does not live by bread alone,
   but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” ’

 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
“He will command his angels concerning you”,
   and “On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’
Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’

 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
“Worship the Lord your God,
   and serve only him.” ’
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.


Dr Ted WardlawIn this church, as in many churches, we began Lent this past Wednesday with  sooty faces.  In that beautiful but somber Ash Wednesday service here on Wednesday evening, we came forward to receive not just Communion but the sign of the cross traced in black ashes on our foreheads.  And as we received those ashes, we were told that we are dust and to dust we shall return.  Those words were not spoken to offend or frighten us, but to give us a stark reality check when it comes to who we really are.

And those words go all the way back to that story in the book of Genesis, where Adam and Eve, our ultimate ancestors as people of faith, did not know how good they had it there in the Garden of Eden, and they got bored following the rules.  They made a big mistake and did the one thing that God had told them they shouldn’t do.  As the story has it, they ate fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the rest is history.

Before God kicked them out of the garden, God gave them quite the scolding—the promise of pain in childbearing, the cursing of the ground that they and their offspring would farm so that it would be hard work for all the generations to come, what with the thorns and thistles and sweat and snakes and fatigue, and finally there’s this last bleak sentence: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  We can practically hear the tiredness and resignation in God’s voice, as God, in an act of divine disappointment, evicts those in whom God had taken such delight.

“They might have been immortal,” as Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest and a wonderful preacher, has put it.  “They might have stayed in the garden forever, but no,” she writes, “their curiosity got the best of them.

God gave them a test, and they flunked.  ‘You are dust, and to dust you shall return.’”[i]

If that were the end of the human saga, instead of the beginning of it, those words would be unbearable words to have ringing in our ears down through the centuries and millennia.

But, by the grace of God, what we also have in our Gospel text this morning, is the story of another one who claims us as kin.  And as Matthew tells this other story, this other one was not evicted from the garden but led into the wilderness.  And not the kind of romanticized wilderness you see in one of those Jeep commercials, where the carefree couple in their Jeep suddenly veers off the highway and rides off-road across scrubby hills and up mountains to a charming weekend getaway where there’s a big porch with a hot-tub, and no phone.

No, Matthew’s talking about a different kind of wilderness—forlorn and hot and uninhabitable, filled with danger and hostility—and Jesus is there not for a getaway weekend, but to be tempted for fo[ii]rty days and forty nights.

Barbara Taylor suggests that the primary difference between Adam’s story in the garden and Jesus’ story in the wilderness is that Adam and Eve flunk their test and Jesus passes his.  “God drew a line in the Garden of Eden,” she writes, “and said, ‘Human beings on this side, God on this side…Stay on your own side of the line if you know what’s good for you’…[but Adam and Eve] decided to trust their logic over God’s command, and the next thing they knew they were looking for a new place to live.  The second story,” she continues, “has a different ending…There was a line drawn in this story as clearly as there was in the first one.  Jesus could play God or he could remain human.  He could go buzzing around in the air turning the desert into a gourmet bakery, or he could keep his feet on the ground and live with the ache in the pit of his stomach, as hungry and tired as anyone would be after a six-week fast.  Three times he was tempted and three times he said no.  He refused to cross over the line God had drawn.”[iii]

I love this image—don’t you?—of a line drawn somewhere down the middle of our life, because I believe that, truth be known, we often worry about that line.  Sometimes we’re not sure where the line is, and that produces a boatload of anxiety; but more often than not we know where the line is and we’re afraid we’re on the wrong side of it.  So, over and over again, we sense for sure that Adam’s and Eve’s temptation to step over that line is our temptation as well.

We get a chance to reflect upon that line all through this season of Lent, and we’re encouraged, frankly, into such reflection by that custom we have of thinking of what we’re going to give up for Lent.  We might give up fats or sweets or alcohol or swearing or social media; as if the fundamental temptations of life have to do with not being a good enough human being.  But Adam’s and Eve’s story is front-and-center today to remind us that the fundamental temptation of life is not to be a human being at all.

And that line that God draws across the middle of our world stakes out the distinction between what it means to be a human being and what it means to be God.  The temptation both for Adam and Eve and for Jesus was the temptation to play God.  For Adam and Eve in the garden, the temptation was to step beyond the limits of humanity and take unto themselves an arena which only God knew about.  And for Jesus in the wilderness, the temptation was to provide a whole host of good things for the world—food for the hungry, an unambiguous portrayal of himself for all the world to see, the opportunity to control all the nations and their destiny—all of them, in the abstract, good things!  And all he had to do was to cross the line.

But, as Taylor puts it, “whereas Adam stepped over the line and found humanity a curse, Jesus stayed behind the line and made humanity a blessing.  One man trespassed; one man stayed put.  One tried to be God; one was content to remain a human being.  And the irony is that the one who tried to be God did not do too well as a human being, while the one who was content to be human became known as the Son of God.[iv]

In the wilderness, what’s tested with Jesus is his ability to keep his humanity—his ability to refuse to try to be like God or to be God.  And so it is with us.  And whatever the tests are when they come before us, however large or small, what’s at stake, nonetheless, is some significant piece of our soul and our character.  Will we keep our humanity, or will we overreach in an effort to try to be God?  What’s at stake, finally, is what side of the line we’re on.

It strikes me that so much of life has to do with being constantly on trial.  I know little children in New York who live in a gilded wilderness and who start to feel that they’re on trial sometime around three-years-old, when their parents begin positioning them for the finest preschool programs which will get them into the finest private elementary schools which will get them into the finest prep schools which will get them into the finest Ivy League colleges which will get them into the finest law schools or med schools or business schools.  Starting at about three, in that privileged wilderness, they will be on trial.  From exams at school, to performance evaluations at work, to cameras at intersections that determine whether or not you’ve run a red-light, to check-ups at the doctor’s office; we live with the constant anxiety of being on trial, of being tested.  And most of us spend a lot of time worrying about whether or not we’re flunking the test, in whatever wilderness that we make our way through.  It isn’t necessarily that we’re offered all the kingdoms of the world, but even when the tests are far smaller than that, the thing at stake is often a significant piece of our soul and our character; and we’re driven to ask ourselves what side of the line are we on?

What side of the line are we on as a nation, as a people, in these days, when we are sorting out, in a host of public conversations, one example after another of the question, “Who is our neighbor?”

What side of the line are we on when, at work, we take part in a decision, driven by the bottom line and buttressed by the highest-sounding rationale in the world about profit margins, which will radically impact the ability of somebody else—or maybe a host of somebody elses—to make the house payment or to put food on the table?

Maybe it’s not exactly a wilderness we’re in in those moments.  But it’s not a garden, either.  And something about our character, our selves, our values, our identity, has us choosing all the time just what side of the line we’re going to stand on.

Writer Anne Lamott relates, in one of her books, of being told once by a friend, “The evidence is in, and you are the verdict.”[v]

What a sobering thing to be told.  That the evidence is in, and we’re the verdict—especially if we’re aware that we’re standing, by the way, on the wrong side of the line.  The line drawn between being human, and not being human at all.

There is, after all, a lot of Adam and Eve in us.

But the good news of the Gospel is that there is also a lot of Jesus in us, as well.  And, led by the Spirit, as Matthew puts it, he was able to face his testing by recalling that his job was not to be God but to trust God.  Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, put it this way:  “He did not count equality with God as a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.”  He did not use the power of God to avoid the painful difficulties of the path of service by somehow bypassing the trials of the wilderness.  But, in the midst of those trials, he trusted God to keep him company on his side of the line.

We are called to do that as individuals.  And friends, we’re called to do that as a church.

In these troubling times that we’re living in—not just in this nation but also around the world—one of the thought leaders whom I most enjoy reading, for his utter sanity, is New York Times columnist Charles Blow, an African-American writer who grew up in a tiny  Louisiana town called Gibsland, somewhere between Shreveport and Monroe.  In his raw and riveting autobiography that I enjoyed reading a month or so ago, there is a description of the humble little church that Blow grew up in—Shiloh Baptist Church on a country road out from town.  “It was a bit tattered,” writes Blow, “but exactly right: an imperfect outside made perfect by virtue of what was happening inside.  It was the kind of building that remembered things, deep-down things, things that rode tears into the world, telling them back to anyone old enough or wise enough to know how to listen with their eyes.

“Ushers with taut faces and white gloves held the doors like angels at heaven’s gate, directing us at the proper time…to an open pew, the ends of which had been polished to a shine by generations of hands using them for support.

“The deacon board was arrayed to the right of the simple wooden pulpit, and the mother board was to the left.  These places were reserved for the church elders—men with flour-sack bellies lapping straining belts, women with chestnut-colored stockings rolling down pecan-colored shins—most well past their allotted three score and ten.  They were our counsels and our conscience, having seen the world in all its majesty and cruelty…”

Blow goes on with this gorgeous description of those church members for a page-and-a-half, and then he concludes: “Although religion, with all its talk of dying and blood and burning, scared me, I was fascinated by God’s use of fouled-up men and fallen women to extend His message; by His liberation of the poor, the outcast and the infirm; and by His obsession with improbable transformations and inappropriate ascensions.  If ever a body needed a savior, I did.”[vi]

I love the way he put that.  If ever a body needs a savior, I do, too.  We all do.  The awareness of that need for a savior—for someone to stand with us on the right side of the line—is what marked that church as such a powerful place.  It wasn’t the power of the people who attended there—not their beauty, not their wealth, not their influence.  It was the power of the One Who worked in and through them, powerless in so many ways as they were, yet trustful—full of trust—in the One Who stood beside them on the right side of the line.

And, brothers and sisters, He desires to stand beside us, too, here in this church.  We, too, are fouled-up men and fallen women, and Lord knows that there is a lot of Adam and Eve in us.  But the Good News of the Gospel is that there’s a lot of Jesus in us as well.  Led by the Spirit, we, too, are able to face our own testing by recalling that our job is not to be God but to trust in God, to be as trusting as we can be—by relying on God’s  Spirit to keep us company on our side of the line.

In the name of God: Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit.  Amen.


 

[i] Barbara Brown Taylor, Remaining Human (Christian Century, February 7-14, 1996).

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird (New York: Doubleday, 1994), p. 46.

[v] Charles M. Blow, Fire Shut Up in My Bones (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014), pp. 75-77.