Rev. Ellen Jennings
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
I love Ash Wednesday. I believe it’s one of the most meaningful services of the church year. But it happens mid-week, on an evening. Which means it doesn’t draw a large crowd. So, every year, I think: I should share the Ash Wednesday message on a Sunday. Which is, in part, what I’ll be doing this morning, the first Sunday of Lent. But, first, a short primer on Lent, itself.
The word, “Lent,” comes from the Anglo Saxon, lencten, meaning “lengthening (of daylight hours)” or “spring.” But the Season of Lent typically coincides with the northern hemisphere’s late winter, making it a good time for going deep and quiet, for reflection and self-examination. It traditionally includes the forty days before Easter, not counting Sundays, which are Feast Days. And it’s a time for humility, for understanding and accepting our mortality, and for acknowledging we are creatures of the earth.
Ash Wednesday begins the Lenten journey by honoring both our life and our mortality. In the words of the first chapter of Genesis: …from dust we come and to dust we shall return. This is neither a bad nor a scary thing. It’s a fact. We come from the earth and to the earth we shall return. Our creation story emphasizes this, giving the first human creature a name that comes from the Hebrew for earth, adamah. There’s an implied humility here: we are not immortal, we are not divine, we are not God.
We’re good, for God calls all creation “good.” But we’re not God. And, this is the message of Ash Wednesday: We are but mortal creatures, human beings, who sometimes get it right and sometimes, as the Hebrew word for sin can be translated, “miss the mark.” We don’t need to take on the burden of being more than human. Our job is simply to be human, to be real, to be the person we are meant to be in this world.
So, on Ash Wednesday, we confess the ways in which we have not been the person we are called to be. And we say to God, “we are truly sorry; transform us with your love.” During the time of silent reflection and examen, we listen for the voice of the Still Speaking God (who wants nothing more than our wholeness!) and ask:
- What might I need to release this Lenten Season?
- What might I need to retain or renew?
- And what might I be called to transform completely as You lead me toward a greater wholeness and holiness of life?
Finally, we receive the “imposition of ashes,” the cross of ash mixed with oil that both anoints us with and reminds us of our mortality. For it’s both a blessing and a challenge! On the one hand, we are but dust, mortal, human. What a relief! We don’t have to take on God’s burdens. On the other hand, we are but dust, mortal human. We aren’t God, and we’re not supposed to pretend like we are. We are simply called to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God.
“Remember, from dust we come and to dust we shall return.”
So, we enter Lent both reminded of our mortality and blessed by it, by the knowledge that we’re merely human, not God. We are earth creatures, adamah, and it is there we’ll return in the end. And then we hear this morning’s story: the reading from the second and third chapters of Genesis about the first Adam and, later, his companion, Eve, a story about the struggle between our desire to know and our desire for peace. Hence this sermon’s title. Though I confess I came very close to calling it: Ignorance Is Bliss.
In this story, God puts the earth creature, adamah, not yet male or female, in the garden to serve and protect it. At this point, the creature is an integral part of this garden, seeing itself as neither more nor less important than any other part. Then God tells the creature it can eat of any tree therein except for the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad. Or it will die.
Now, why would God tell the adamah not to eat of Knowledge? What is Knowledge? Well, in this story, it’s many things: self-awareness (meaning, distinction between self and other), information about the wider world, and the ability to see binary difference and make comparisons (to judge, if you will).
Later in the same chapter, in a portion we didn’t hear, God separates Eve from Adam, creating two genders. And then, in chapter three, the serpent, symbol of temptation, offers the fruit of the one tree that’s forbidden. For whatever reason, God was already distinguishing and differentiating! Of course, humans, curious as cats, cannot resist that which is forbidden, especially when no reason has been given, so Adam and Eve eat of the fruit. And, suddenly, their eyes are open. They see themselves as separate and distinct from the garden and realize they’re naked, vulnerable. And they’re ashamed. Not so much for eating the fruit, but for being human. For being themselves.
Having eaten from the Tree of Knowledge, Adam and Eve did not die, but their innocence did. And, along with it, their sense of oneness with the garden— and the peace that comes from living in harmony with one’s world. With the death of ignorance, so, too, died bliss. God didn’t need to cast them out of the garden: that happened as soon as they opened their eyes.
Needless to say, the symbolism of this story is ripe for our time. Last year, most of us were already overwhelmed by the 24/7 news flow that accompanies life in the 21st century. And then, November 9th, followed by January 20th, hit us like a ton of bricks. And we suddenly found ourselves not just overwhelmed by, but obsessed with, the news. Or, as Dan Sack wrote in last week’s Moderator’s Memo:
Like most people I know I have been spending far too much time reading news online over the last few months. It’s been hard not to— it has been fascinating and horrifying in equal proportions.
Can you relate? Yes, and it’s easy to convince ourselves that, to be informed and responsible citizens, we really must stay on top of the news, every day, every hour, every minute; dare I say, in some cases, every second… Even though we know this isn’t good for mind, body or spirit, we have a difficult time pulling ourselves away. Because we feel compelled: to know.
But what’s wrong with this? Well, nothing, in and of itself. Knowledge in the world outside the garden is essential for our survival. In fact, one could argue that “opening our eyes” to what’s really going on is the first step toward creating God’s Kingdom on earth. The problem is: our minds often crave knowledge, not for the sake of learning and understanding and connecting with the world at large, but for the sake of differentiating, for determining what is and what’s not okay (on our terms), what is and what’s not like us. God’s ban of the Tree of Knowledge had less to do with identifying “good” versus “bad” things in general than it did with the problem of our assigning value to things, according to our own likes and dislikes.
Remember, we’re but human. We’re not God. And the command we’ve been given is to create God’s kingdom, do God’s work. But we tend to forget this and plunge forward with our own ego centered agendas, which exhaust and deplete us. For, when “self” is our only motivation, we’ve disconnected from Source.
I think that, in the words of Joni Mitchell, “We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.” Meaning, if we’re going to do God’s work in the world (which is different from our own self-centered agendas), we’re going to need to refuel, regularly, back in God’s garden.
You know, when God threw Adam and Eve out of Paradise, She didn’t say: “don’t come back.” Which means it’s still there, waiting for us, whenever we choose to return and refresh and restore. Just as God’s Kingdom is here, whenever and wherever we live in such a way that creates it.
So, this Lent, let’s get back to the Garden. Regularly. To rest and restore and make sure our agenda is on track with God’s. Do as Dan suggested and “step out of the swamp.” He committed to avoid the comments sections of online news sites. I’ve decided to listen to audiobooks rather than NPR in the car (and let me tell you, I’ll go through my own form of withdrawal just doing that). I have a friend who’s decided not to hurry. “It will all still be here,” she says. “And I’ll have more energy for it.”
As David Sipress wrote recently in The New Yorker: I know we’ll all “remain sane” somehow—we have to, so that we can be smart and energized and fight back. But with three years and fifty-odd weeks to go, there are definitely moments when I find myself in total sympathy with this comment someone recently added to his post of my cartoon on Twitter: “My desire to be well-informed makes me wish I could fall asleep and wake up on a different planet.”
Well, David, I agree. I think we should each spend some time, regularly, on a different planet. I’m calling it the garden, and I hope each one of us will find a little plot of Paradise on which to lie down and know we are being held.
It’s not that all the urgent issues in our country and our world aren’t urgent. They are. And, though there may be no “new” issues under the sun, I think we can agree that this winter they’ve intensified. My point is not that we have the luxury of taking a break. No. There’s more than enough work to be done. My point is: if we do not take a break, we’ll be unable to keep going. If we do not take a break, we’ll forget to connect with God and God’s desire for the world. And if this Genesis story teaches us anything, it’s that, when we disconnect our desires from God’s, things do not end well.
We’re here for such a short while, my friends. And, while here, we are called to do God’s work—of love and peace and justice. To do so, we must stay strong, be brave, remain vulnerable, and act with open and loving hearts. But, we’re only human. And we get tired. We need to rest and restore, to be reminded of our connection with God and all that is. And, it’s in God’s garden that we earth creatures, we adamah, can best do that, can best remember and regain our connection, reenergizing to repair the world.