Monday, March 10, 2014

Lent 1 A - Mar 9, 2014

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Robert James Magliula, OHC
Year A - Lent 1 - Sunday, March 09, 2014

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11
Till and keep the Garden

When we hear the familiar story of Adam and Eve in the Garden, we are tempted to think of it as a story of sin. Hearing the story at the start of Lent makes the connection to sin all the stronger in our minds. A careful reading of this passage, however, reveals a surprise. The word “sin” never appears, and there are no synonyms for sin either. The rest of chapter 3 does not talk about either “punishment” or “the fall.” “ The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (2:15). This isn’t just a statement of location where God moves the first human from one place to another. The verse concentrates on the purpose for the human: to till and keep this garden. Human purpose is the focus and it forms the backdrop for what happens in the story.

Many other creation stories of the ancient world depict the creation of humanity as a by-product, an accident, or even a mistake of the gods. Genesis makes it clear that God intended to create people, not on a whim, but for a reason. We are designed and fashioned with something in God’s mind to do. In our day we think of humanity as the apex of creation. We emphasize another part of this story, like having dominion over creation or being fruitful and multiplying, assuring us that we are God’s greatest. We humans have a God-given purpose. We were not created for ourselves, but in order to till and keep the garden.

The phrase “till and keep” may be familiar, but this is not the best translation of these two Hebrew verbs. The first usually rendered “to till” is abad, more often translated as “to serve” or “to be a slave of.” The second, “to keep,” is shamar, which means “to preserve” or to protect.” Being a servant or slave of the earth moves us from the center of God’s creation. God makes us in order to take care of the earth itself, and to look to it’s interest instead of our own. We are responsible for it now and in the future so we must protect and preserve it. Care of the garden, of all God’s creation is not just a purpose, but also a mission as we articulate it in our baptismal covenant. Caring for creation means doing God’s work in the world. This is no pastime, nor is it a strategy for us to feel good about ourselves. Even though this mission is compelling and should be all consuming, we share a human propensity for distraction.

For people of faith, distraction may prove more frequently troublesome than temptation and is most certainly the precursor. This story of mission and distraction begins our journey through Lent. For the Church it is a time of penitence, of recognizing, being mindful, of the ways we have let ourselves be distracted from the identity and mission God intends for us.

In C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, the author, Screwtape, writes to a junior tempter-in-training named Wormwood. He instructs him that his task is to darken the heart, to train “his patient” to love things worldly and reject God by keeping him self-involved and clueless about who he is. He advises him “to keep him spiritual and not practical, as it is the practical that often brings people to God. Encourage him to pray for tangible, desired ends and so direct his prayers to objects and not to God. Allow him to be oversensitive until everything grates on their nerves. Keep his prayers formless, as they are easier to manipulate. Turn his gaze away from God toward himself. “

The aim is to create a generation of people who are defined by selfishness and insincerity, pettiness and pride, fear and a need to control the things of this world. None of us, especially monastics, are strangers to the temptations Screwtape offers: pride, vanity, selfishness, and apathy---all flowing from distraction from God’s purpose.

We turn the expansive freedom that is ours in Christ into ideologies of freedom that keep self at the center. What we conveniently forget, or mightily repress, is the subtlety of distraction this Genesis passage narrates. Where there is no realistic acknowledgement of our immense capacity for self-centeredness and our ability to rationalize whatever we desire, the result is not human flourishing but brokenness. Yet even then, God responds not with justice but with unexpected mercy.

Lent is the time for adopting and practicing the disciplines of prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and study as avenues of loving more fully with heart, mind, and strength. Closeness to God involves conflict and struggle that will lay bare our deepest passion and loyalty. All have within us a yearning—no matter how much we’ve resisted it or had it socialized out of us---to be in union with God. There are so many detours on this journey into desire. How we long to be seen, known, entered----to come to that place of abiding---of coming home. Some actively respond, others run away for a time, yet the yearning for God enlivens all of us. When we are not afraid to enter into our own center and concentrate on the stirrings of our own soul, we come to know that being alive means being loved.

Matthew considered Jesus’ intentional confrontation in today’s Gospel to be instructive for us. Central to each of the challenges that Jesus faces in his struggle is a single question: To what extent will he trust God to be God and so be himself? In our wilderness, our place of struggle, the question is the same for us. To what extent will I trust God to be God, and so be myself?

Temptation comes to us when we look at others and feel insecure about not having enough for ourselves. It comes in judgments we make about strangers or friends who make choices we don’t understand. It rules us when we look away from those in need and live our lives unaffected by poverty, hunger, and disease. It rages when we allow our temper to define our lives, when addiction to power, influence, vanity, or a need for control defines who we are. Temptation wins when we get so caught up in the trappings of life that we loose sight of life itself.

Lenten penitence engages the dark places of our lives that we may come face to face with them, name them, understand them, and seek forgiveness for them. It is not about guilt. It is about freedom from the control that our fears and insecurities have over us all. It’s about amendment of life and new beginnings. +Amen.

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