Genesis 3:6-7, 23-24
… 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.
Then the LORD God said, ‘See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever’— therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.
And so we enter that winding, meandering path known as Lent. Not all of us grew up observing Lent, and so there may be a bit of unfamiliarity to the season. It’s a strange territory we’ve entered ... but I’d suggest that it should be ... for novice and veterans of Lent, alike. Our own inner selves ... our minds and motives ... our wishes and our wills ... are all so labyrinthine, so full of twists and turns and switchbacks and blind corners, that were every season a Lenten season, there would still be more discovery to do, more miles to log and paths to tread.
Lent is, perhaps blessedly, a finite season ... a season with an end ... getting lost in the inner labyrinth will not do ... and besides, the end of Lent, the end of this seasonal journey is this fabulous explosion of life and hope that we call Easter and resurrection. Who among us, if we cherish life at all, would want to miss that? If we stick to our Lenten paths for the season, then our celebration at season’s end can be quite extraordinary, quite life-giving, quite “life-saving”.
Just as any journey worthy of the name begins with a single step, the Lenten journey from a Biblical perspective begins with our beginnings. We begin in Genesis with the ancient tale of creation that speaks of God’s loving work of crafting heavenly bodies and somewhat less than heavenly beings. And, of course, we’ll never want to forget that the storyteller repeatedly reminds us that with every creative step, God pauses to wonder at the goodness of God’s own creating. Not even earthquakes and tsunamis nor humanly created blights like war can change this essential truth that creation is fundamentally good. That’s not all there is to say about creation, but to fail to say at least this much would be to forget that creation and our very lives are inseparably intertwined. To know and say that creation is good is to know and say that our life on this earth—our corporeal, bodily existence is good, as well.
The Lenten journey begins in Eden, this wondrously mythical garden of delights. But before Adam and Eve even have a chance how to learn how to cook a delicious pie from their new pickings, they are thrust from the garden with only their hand-sewn fig-leaf outfits to protect them. Is it any wonder that the very first Lenten reading of the three-cycle of readings is a not-quite-reachable garden that ends up being a fast-track to the wilderness of real life.
The now former residents and caretakers of God’s holy garden are left to wander and wonder ... perhaps we can think of Eve and Adam as the first observers of the season of Lent. One would like to think that after a full day of hunting and gathering that these two primordial parents sat in the light of the night’s fire pondering where they went wrong.
Of course the story is not really about two “original” human beings, per se. It’s a much bigger story than that. The story is about the difficulty of life in general—its toils and troubles ... and the story is about the difficulty of living “up” to the high vision of God’s original creative intents for us.
In part, the story simply offers an explanation for why life can be so incredibly challenging ... so gritty and grueling. In ancient narrative style, it was common to create stories that explained known, observable realities. If a story could be told of earth’s first parents wherein there was a fatal tendency to disobey divine orders and the punishment for disobeying was the difficult lives known by the listener, then the listener could do the genetic math and conclude that the real trouble was in their DNA ... and there’s not much a poor, toiling farmer can do about that.
But the other part of the story is that God’s original purpose for God’s human creation was to serve and preserve the garden ... or, translated, to serve and preserve creation. It was when the first couple decided to live outside of God’s wisdom and purposes that they were no longer deemed worthy of such a high calling and such a high creative intent. But that is a part of our spiritual DNA as well. Not only can life be hard work and painfully gritty and real, but somewhere within these lives that experience all of the “trouble and strife” there still exists the awareness of that inordinately higher calling.
The journey of Lent, that begins with these creatures created from the dust of the earth, is a journey to rediscovering our own highest calling ... for each of us, no matter how that calling gets defined exactly, it still comes back by one means or another to serving and preserving God’s creation ... ALL of God’s creation including the earth and every creature, human and otherwise, that lives upon it.
One of the steps that is intrigue-ingly implied by this story, is the journey to the knowledge that we are “naked”. It is choosing to live outside of God’s wisdom that reveals to Adam and Eve that they are naked. One of the ways I have come to understand Adam and Eve’s “nakedness” is their human awareness that they were fallible, finite and mortal. Within the context of the story, once they are aware they are naked, they can already see beyond the gates of Eden where they will spend the remainder of their lives.
So when did you come to know you were naked? That is, when did you come to know you were fallible, finite and mortal. Most of us cruise through life a good long time before we come to this knowledge ... this awareness. I spoke with Katherine Crow about the death of her daughter, Barbara, who passed away on Friday. This is the second child Katherine has lost in four months. Which side of the gates of Eden do you think Katherine feels she lives on? As we spoke about these losses, Katherine mused out loud about these women who had, not so long ago it seems, been these heedless, devil-may-care kids who lived as though they’d never die ... as though nothing could ever touch them. That’s how I was, certainly, at that age ... I didn’t know my own nakedness ... my own real finiteness.
I can’t help but wonder about the 16 year old boy from Windsor who this week jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge and survived. NOW does he know that he is “naked”? Have his eyes been opened? What does it take to open our eyes to this essential truth.
One of the “blessings” of this truth is that we learn to properly cherish life—to cherish our lives and the lives of others. It is to truly learn for the first time that life is sacred—and in no small measure because it is not guaranteed. Life is a gift and knowing ourselves “unwrapped” is to see and appreciate the gift as fully as we are able.
Of the many reasons we go to Mexico for our annual mission, one of the most important is for each participant to be stripped for a time of her or his comforts and to be pressed up against naked human need. There is an enormous sense of vulnerability that can be experienced by those of us who come out of our hyper-clean, hyper-organized middle-class culture. We cross the border as well-dressed, confident, cocky suburbanites with our pockets full of money and our heads full of illusions about the work we are doing, and we find ourselves driving on unpaved streets surrounded by extraordinary need. And there’s no place, really, to hide. And when we get out of our air-conditioned vans and put our feet in the dust that the peeling and stripping begins. And even if we come back home with a fig leaf or two in place, we know that the suburban suit of armor we went down with no longer fits very well.
Sometimes it is a “life-changing” mission journey that can strip you naked ... and sometimes it’s the sheer power of words.
[READING ... Buechner]
One of the great challenges of both life and Lent is to allow our times of nakedness to soften us ... to soften our hearts, our motives, our way of being in the world. The alternative, of course, is to allow ourselves to withdraw and to become hardened until we can no longer be stripped and can no longer feel our own life and needs and pain and no longer feel the life and needs and pain of another. To allow ourselves to live for a time in that undressed, vulnerable state is to offer ourselves a wonderful opportunity to know the sacredness of our lives and every life.
I have spent enough time with enough of you to know that you are no stranger to vulnerability and nakedness and pain. And I trust that in the paths and footsteps and journeys ahead that you will accept your vulnerability as a gift ... and in that gift you will rediscover your own sacredness, and in that gift you will rediscover the sacredness of others and all life, and in that gift you will continue to discover your own truest self and your own highest calling as sons and daughters of God, as the handiwork of God’s own good creation, and as servers and preservers of God’s Shalom.
Shalom to you.