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Being Human

March 15, 2014

“Being Human” Genesis 2:4b-9, 15-17, 2:25-3:7; Matthew 4:1-11 © 3/9/14 Lent 1A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

It was no exaggeration to claim these were glory days. The nation was larger than ever before. The economy was booming, boosted by active foreign trade. Religious life flourished, especially in the new building in the capital city. Insights from other lands were appreciated and taken seriously by the thinkers of the time. And, perhaps making all this possible, the country was at peace.

But there were shadows on the sun. The leader who more than anyone was responsible for the good fortunes of the nation had been involved in an adulterous affair and cover-up that resulted in the murder of the woman’s husband. There had been turmoil in the palace after that, as sons and their advocates struggled to succeed their aging father. Now, the king who had won out, Solomon, was beginning to forsake the God of Israel for the deities of the women in his huge harem. His policies were becoming increasingly tyrannical, and his lust for power insatiable.

Some of the writers, poets, and sages of the day were deeply concerned for the future. They felt they had to lead the nation, and especially its king, back to the truth of Israel’s faith. But how? None of them was a Nathan the prophet, who could just walk into the throne room and confront the king with his wrongdoing. Yet somehow the call to a better way, indeed, a more human way, had to be sounded.

One author decided that the way to do that was to tell the story of Israel’s beginnings, a tale of failure and of faith, of promises kept and commitments ignored, of dashed hope and fresh possibility. To do that, he had to go back beyond Abraham and Sarah and their offspring, back to a land a long time ago and far, far away, shrouded in mystery and myth. He had to imagine what it was like before he and the king and everyone got to be the way they were, when people walked with God in the cool of the evening, communing as friend with friend. There was a paradise, he said, in a land called “Eden.”

In this idyllic place, God put human beings that he had made, a man and a woman. They were created from the same stuff as everything else, plain old ordinary dirt. So people didn’t start out ruling nations or plotting how to have someone else’s spouse or the latest and most expensive commodity. Their beginnings were more humble than that, their purpose much more closely tied to their identity. They were what the author’s language termed “adam,” “earth creatures,” sprung from “adama,” the dust.

For this author we call “J,” that was the first reality about being human: our beginnings are humble, and we owe them to God, whose breath enlivens and empowers us. We acknowledge that fundamental fact about ourselves on Ash Wednesday and throughout Lent. We are connected to everything around us, made of the same elements like carbon and metals and especially water. “Humble” has the same root word as “humus,” the soil. Even if we agree with the late Carl Sagan and say we are made of “star stuff,” we are still talking about consisting of the basic elements of the universe. We may be the height of creation, as some say, but we remain creatures. There are in reality no “self-made” men and women.

When we forget such basic realities and break the connection with the earth and with other creatures, we fall into sin. We become arrogant and harm the world and each other and ourselves. We start to believe we can do anything, and because we can do something, we should. There are no boundaries, and we are accountable to no one. But when we affirm our creatureliness, admit in humility that we are interdependent with everything else, we will realize that the good of the planet and the good of our neighbors is in our interest. That when the most vulnerable have what they need to live, the strongest may live in security. When the air and water are clean, all thrive. When we know who and whose we are, we will seek healing for creation and for our relationships, harmony among nations and peoples, and act with compassion in our dealings with our neighbors. The simple acknowledgement and living out of a basic reality about ourselves can and will change the world.

But there is another fact about who we are, whether we are David and Bathsheba or Solomon or the myriad unknown men and women who have lived through the ages. Whether we are male or female, black, white, Asian, Hispanic, younger, older, richer, poorer, gay, straight, conservative, progressive, Presbyterian, Pentecostal or pagan, it belongs to us all to live in this world as God’s stewards. God put the humans in the Garden to “till it and keep it.” Being human is to have a task, a vocation. It’s to be a co-creator with God. All of us are called by God. As someone has observed, humans have a responsibility not merely for maintenance and preservation of the world, but for bringing that world along toward its fullest potential. “God creates a paradise, not a static state of affairs, but a highly dynamic situation in which the future is open to various possibilities.”

The Creator is passionately interested to see that humans carry out their vocation. As scholar Terence Fretheim has said, the first speech of God to humans does not center on God’s place in the world. Rather, it’s about the place and role of men and women and their gifts. The amazing reality is that God trusts his human creatures, with broad freedom to dare, to do, to observe, to create, to try, to fail, to learn to split the atom and fly to the stars, to climb the heights in magnificent music and descend to the depths in the most heart-breaking poetry, to experiment with ways of governing and methods of manufacture. All of that and more is there in the simple phrase “to till and to keep.”

The Bible is not Luddite. You may know that movement from the early 19th century. They were artisans who destroyed machinery that they felt was taking away their jobs. The term has come to be applied to anyone opposed to new technology. But especially texts like Job 28 affirm what humans can do. Technological advancement, from better plows and axes to faster computers to more fuel-efficient cars to less invasive surgery, is not necessarily a bad thing. Most tech, I would say, is morally neutral. It’s the use it’s put to that determines how we judge it.

But the author does not limit his approval to technology and science. He celebrates all human achievement. The political skill of King David. His imagination. His daring. The building projects of Solomon. His patronage of learning and his belief in a broader human community through cultural exchange. The writer would applaud the wonderful art and music and architecture that have arisen from our creativity and our drive to make the world better.

Yet having approved such accomplishment, he would then sound a cautionary note. The freedom we have is freedom under God. It is within limits that are not arbitrary, but for our human good. “You may freely eat of every tree in the garden.” That’s freedom and trust of humanity. “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat.” That’s prohibition, that’s limit, that’s a boundary on human autonomy.

J saw that although David had so much, he wanted the very woman who was not his to take, namely, Bathsheba, and he committed terrible acts and paid a horrific price that were the consequences of his sin with her. Solomon was hungry for more and more, never satisfied. He never had enough women, enough money, enough power. And the author said this is how it is with all of humankind. We always want the very thing we can’t have, even though there are so many options available to us. Unless we can have it all, we feel cheated, restricted, robbed. Somehow or other, we never can quite grasp that boundaries are put there for our welfare, rather like a fence in a backyard protecting a child or a pet from wandering into the street.

The conversation the woman had with the serpent illustrates our tendency. The forked-tongue reptile had a point, you know. God could have been trying to keep the goodies for himself, playing a game of competition, of “I’ve got it and you can’t have it,” holding desirables just out of reach while he sang a children’s taunt. He could have been fearful of what the humans could do if they got the fruit of that one special tree, even usurping God as sovereign. At issue was one word: trust. Whom do you believe? God, when he says the boundaries are there for our good? Or the inner voices that lead us to be tempted to power, to commodities, to overstepping our creatureliness? What God wanted with the humans was partnership; what the serpent led them to believe was that they could do just fine on their own. And in falling for the line, in failing to trust God, in deciding not to partner with him, they also lost something crucial in their humanity. Because humanity is about relationships, interdependence, and those things don’t happen without trust. And love.

Which means they don’t come about without vulnerability, openness to another. That was gone too at the bite into the delightful-looking, wisdom-giving fruit. The note about knowing they were naked is about the loss of vulnerability. It’s seeking to hide ourselves, what’s really going on with us, what’s most private about ourselves, hiding that from others, from ourselves, even from God. It’s about trying to deal with human issues by technology, sewing fig leaves and making aprons, saving ourselves by covering up our insecurities rather than admitting them and turning to others for help.

So, that’s how it was with the royal court—full of possibility, but blowing it for what could not be had. Achieving so much, but also sinning greatly. And setting events in motion that eventually led to the downfall of a great nation, first in civil war, then with chronic and widespread injustice and income inequality, and finally by invasion and exile.

The temptation story of Jesus needs to be read, or at least can be read, in light of J’s creation tale. Our Lord, too, was tempted to have it all. The line of Satan was that the realms of the earth could belong to Jesus easily, without sacrifice, without pain. He, too, is called on to test the limits God has imposed by throwing himself down from the highest point of the Temple. He, too, is asked to trade his soul and ignore his most fundamental values for something good to eat. But the issue is whose will has precedence—his own or God’s? Will the Messiah be a dominator, a power-broker, an aggressive force, or will he be a servant, a steward, God’s own person? Who will have his worship?

We believe that Jesus exemplifies and embodies what it is to be truly human. He makes choices among options and chooses for God. He rejects the false notion that power equals autonomy and domination. He brings life by his obedience. And his grace comes to you and me, overflowing and free, when we are tempted to commodities, tempted to blow our good thing for a bite of a piece of fruit, for the hope that we can have it all. Our sin takes us into the wilderness, but the grace of Jesus Christ brings us back to Eden.

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