Lent 1A: Well, As Tempting As It All Is…

cropped-deserted-road-dtf1973219.jpgOLD TESTAMENT:  Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7

Read the passage from Genesis

The Genesis that we know of today was not, obviously, written as a cohesive volume, but rather a composite of various stories from the oral tradition.  Contrary to many people’s belief, it is very, very doubtful that it was written by Moses, but rather many persons that came much later than he did. Most scholars believe that it is a composite of three traditions—Yahwist and Eloist (probably 1000-800 BCE) and the Priestly tradition, which was probably woven together about 587-500 BCE, right in the middle of the world of exile and restoration.  The importance of Genesis is that it makes the first claims about God’s character, God’s relationship to the world, and about God’s relationship to humanity.  It is, then, the very foundation of our beliefs.  Genesis reminds us that God’s work does not occur in a vacuum, but is shaped by the world and the historical setting.

The passage that we read is part of what is called the “second Creation story”.  This is probably written by a Yahwist writer, which recognizes God as God and Creator.  The “first Creation story” is probably a Priestly writing, filled with order and ritual.  The two are not competing but actually function together to provide our account of Creation.  The first account deals with the whole cosmic order of things and the second account deals more with humanity and humanity’s relationship to God.

In our reading, God places humanity in the garden to work and serve the ground and care for it in fulfillment of the command to subdue the earth.  The role given to humanity is a part of the creative process.  But to be a creature entails limits and to honor limits is imperative for the creature to develop as God intends.  There are two trees in the garden, one representing life and one representing death.  To be separated from the tree of life represents the broken nature, which means that death is inevitable.

Then in chapter 3 (we skipped a whole lot of chapter 2 in what we read), the serpent (who, remember, is something God created and that humanity named) is represented as “more crafty”, implying that humans will sometimes be exposed to crafty elements in the world.  And the world’s first temptation occurs…”come on,” the serpent says, “you won’t die…that’s all a farce.  If you eat this, you will be like God.”  Don’t we all want to be like God?  Then the blame game—it was her fault…it was his fault…it was, well there is no one there, so it must be God’s fault.  Notice that the word “sin” doesn’t even appear here, but apparently we humans are beginning to realize what it is!

It’s interesting that we read this passage the first Sunday of Lent.  We just had Ash Wednesday.  We were just reminded that we are dust.  But from dust comes life.  Perhaps this is as much a story about life as it is about death and sin.  After all, as the story goes, they didn’t actually die from eating of the tree.  Or did they?  What was gone was innocence.  What was gone was that unblemished connection to God.  What was gone was that childhood view that nothing could ever go wrong.  There are those whose faith understanding is that we are called to return to the Garden.  Hmmm!  Why would God create this whole incredible universe and then expect us to stay locked in a garden?  The truth was, they did die—they died to themselves.  And God began to show humanity the way home, the way through temptation and exile and wandering in the wilderness.  God began to show humanity what it was like to return.  Our whole faith journey may be more about returning home, returning to God, than about anything else.  Perhaps that’s the point.  I, personally, don’t think we’re headed back to the Garden; I think that was only the beginning.  God has a whole lot more in store for us.

The apparent inevitability of Adam and Eve’s decision makes their story even more compelling.  If God did not want them to eat from the tree, then why did God put it there in the first place?  And who dreamed up that talking snake?  If it was all a test of the first couple’s obedience, then why didn’t God let them work up to it a little?  You know, start off with something less significant, such as “Don’t call me after 9 p.m.” or “Remember to feed the goldfish”?

Adam and Eve were still trying to remember the names of things when they were presented with their first moral choice.  Their skin had barely dried off yet.  They made the wrong choice, but there is hardly a human being alive who does not understand why.  Innocence is so fragile, so curious, so DUMB.  Choosing God cannot be the same thing as staying innocent.  If it is, then, there is no hope for any of us.  (Barbara Brown Taylor, in Speaking of Sin:  The Lost Language of Salvation, p. 46-47)


  1. What does this passage mean for you?
  2. What part of the responsibility in this tale’s IS God’s?
  3. What does the word “sin” mean to you?
  4. What do you think is the point of this story?



NEW TESTAMENT:  Romans 5: 12-19

Read the passage from The Letter to the Romans

Most scholars agree that the Letter to the Romans was almost certainly written by Paul.  In fact, many would call it his masterpiece.  N.T. Wright makes the case that anyone who claims to understand Romans fully is, almost by definition, mistaken.  He describes it as a “symphonic composition”.  The overarching theme is essentially “God’s Righteousness”.

In the passage that we read, Paul compares Adam and Christ.  Now this probably implies that Paul believed that there literally was an Adam and Eve, who had been given a commandment by God and broke it. He depicts Adam as a “type” of Christ; essentially that Adam (literally meaning, “human”) bore at least some of Christ’s characteristics.  But, for Paul, the original Adam and this “new Adam” (this new humanity) were under two reigns—one that makes its subjects sinners and the other that makes its subjects righteous.  This passage is filled with the news of grace, the undeserved gift of abundant life. The cross is not mentioned but there is still an allusion to the atonement and Christ’s salvific reign over humanity.

This passage dismisses the implication that we are “only human”.  Christ was human, remember?  Christ came not to show us how to be divine but to show us how to be human—a “new humanity” depicted by Jesus Christ.  If the humanity of Christ was the way being human should look, then maybe our shortcomings do not make us “only human” but, rather “inhumane”, not really human at all, not really made in the image of God.

This whole journey is not about becoming God or even becoming divine.  It is not about getting some reward or arriving at some far off place to which we are destined to go.  This journey is about becoming human, fully human, the way of being human that Christ showed us.  For when we become human, then we will be who God calls us to be and we will know God as God desires.  Being human is knowing that God is God and that we are God’s creation, made in the very image of God to be a reflection of God.  We are God’s creation that God loves more than life itself.  (And God saw that it was good.)


  1. What does this passage mean for you?
  2. What does it say about sin for you?
  3. What do you think of this whole idea of the “new Adam” or the “new humanity”?
  4. What does being human mean to you?



GOSPEL:  Matthew 4: 1-11

Read the passage from The Gospel According to Matthew

Jesus came from Galilee for the purpose of being baptized and now he is led by the Spirit to be tempted.  It is all part of the divine plan, part of his obedience to God.  He goes out to prepare himself for his ministry. The period of forty days and forty nights is reminiscent of Moses’ forty days and nights.  You’ll note the tempter’s use of the word “if”. He wasn’t trying to raise doubts in Jesus’ mind.  He was trying to get Jesus to prove who he was.

Jesus is tempted where he is most vulnerable.  He is tempted to guarantee having what we need, to shift attention away from purpose.  He is tempted to possess. Think about how famished Jesus really was. All Jesus has to do is say the word and he would have what he so desperately needs.  Then, he is tempted by his desire of affirmation by God, the desire to impress.  We all want to be liked; we all want to be validated.  After all, he was just beginning his ministry…this would be a guarantee that they would LIKE him.  Finally, he was tempted with the desire to be in control or to have glory or recognition.  Think what Jesus could do if he had control and glory.  Think how much more powerful his ministry would be.  Henri Nouwen says that the temptations are to be relevant, spectacular, and powerful.

The truth is that Jesus was human and was tempted by typical human temptations.  It is what we all want.  Fred Craddock says that “temptation indicates strength”.  (Boy, I am REALLY strong!)  And, yet, we are often uneasy with the whole idea of Jesus being tempted.  After all, he was Jesus.  He should have been above all that, right?  Each temptation invites Jesus to turn away from trust in God in a different way.  So maybe this wasn’t about the temptation at all, but was rather a lesson in trust, in perseverance, in resistance of those things that will surely get in the way of our lives.  There is an emptiness in all of us that must be filled.  We are met each and every day with offerings of things with which to fill it.  Jesus affirmed that, yes, we would be met with these temptations, and, that, yes, God’s deepest desire is that our emptiness be filled with God.  To be Christian or, actually, to be human, is to realize that that emptiness will never be filled without God.  It is that for which it is made.  And, really, what good would Jesus have really done us if he had been above it all, if he had never be tempted at all?  Where would we be then?  Jesus did not come to be a superhero above all that comes about; Jesus came as a human—as a you, as a me.  Jesus came not so that we would be perfect but so that we would see what we were missing.  After all, being relevant, or spectacular, or powerful are really overrated.  Relevancy is short-lived; “spectacularness” is hard to maintain (after all, don’t you sometimes just want to go around in your warm-ups with no makeup?); and, as Lord Acton would tell, us, “power corrupts”.  Jesus wasn’t showing us how NOT to be tempted; Jesus was just putting relevancy, spectacularness, and power in their proper places.  Because, after all, when they’re gone, God is still waiting for us to return home.


  1. What does this passage mean for you?
  2. What meaning does this shed on temptation for you?
  3. What light does this bring to the whole idea of being human?



Some Quotes for Further Reflection:


All sins are attempts to fill voids. (Simone Weil)

While we exert ourselves to grow beyond our humanity, to leave the human behind us, God becomes human; and we must recognize that God will that we be human, real human beings.  While we distinguish between pious and godless, good and evil, noble and base, God loves real people without distinction. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

Lent calls each of us to renew our ongoing commitment to the implications of the Resurrection in our own lives, here and now.  But that demands both the healing of the soul and the honing of the soul, both penance and faith, both a purging of what is superfluous in our lives and the heightening, the intensifying, of what is meaningful. (Joan Chittister)



Blessing for Ash Wednesday

So let the ashes come as beginning and not as end;
the first sign but not the final. Let them rest upon you
as invocation and invitation, and let them take you
the way that ashes know to go.

May they mark you with the memory of fire and of the life that came before the burning:
the life that rises and returns and finds its way again.

See what shimmers amid their darkness, what endures within their dust.
See how they draw us toward the mystery that will consume but not destroy,
that will blossom from the blazing, that will scorch us with its joy.  Amen.

(Prayer by Jan Richardson, in “The Memory of Ashes”, March 6, 2011, available at http://paintedprayerbook.com/, accessed 8 March, 2011)

Proper 14B: Transcendent Bread

BreadinOven_croppedOLD TESTAMENT: 2 Samuel 18: 5-9, 15, 31-33

Read the Old Testament Lectionary Passage

Absalom is dead. The Kingdom is again secure and, yet, David pours out his grief. This is the anguished cry of a father who has lost his son. Absalom was known as David’s third son with Maachah, daughter of Talmai, King of Gershur. According to lore, he was David’s most beloved son. But surely he also sings out of guilt at the role he played in Absalom’s death. When he arranged the murder of Uriah, husband of Bathsheba, he consoled Joab, his partner in the crime, by saying that “the sword devours now one and now another”. Those words came back to haunt him when the prophet Nathan announced the consequence of David’s taking of Bathsheba: “the sword shall never depart from your house”. Nathan’s words have come painfully true, and David has borne ongoing responsibility for them.

David served as a kind of accomplice when his son Amnon raped Absalom’s sister, Tamar. Even after the rape he did nothing to punish his son. Absalom seethed at this injustice. Eventually he set a trap and killed Amnon. Then he fled, and David refused to see him until Joab and a wise woman from Tekoa worked a kind of reconciliation. Shortly after this moment of reconciliation, though, Absalom started positioning himself to supplant David as king. He won the favor of the people, ascended to the throne, and then continued his war against his father, raping his father’s concubines in full public view. David’s beloved son had turned against him.

David’s guilt comes from his role in these larger processes of violence. And yet, he did beg for a gentler handling of Absalom. What would it mean to “deal gently” with the young man? Would it mean to capture him alive? To let him go? To kill him quickly and painlessly? David’s words are open-ended, and Joab does not necessarily misinterpret them when he leads a gang of men in executing Absalom. David has a history of speaking in a code that only Joab can understand. When David wants Bathsheba’s husband killed, he sends a cryptic note to Joab. Joab knows what to do.

The story of David and Absalom (like many stories) can be looked upon as a kind of mirror to society. As this story shows, rivalry often drives humans to destroy one another, even those to which they are related, and we often bring others down with us. In fact, this family argument turned into an out and out slaughter between armies. Usually our grief and guilt linger just under the surface, festering and unnamed. Acknowledging this grief and guilt is difficult, because its exposure threatens so much of how we understand ourselves and the meaning of our lives. Once again, David’s power had been threatened and once again he chose to deal with it in a violent and murderous way.

The image of Absalom hanging “between heaven and earth” is interesting. Walter Brueggemann sees it as a depiction of a sort of liminal status: “Absalom is suspended between life and death, between the sentence of a rebel and the value of a son, between the severity of the king and the yearning of the father. He is no longer living, because he is utterly vulnerable, but he is not dead.” (Brueggemann, Interpretation: First and Second Samuel, 319)  It is the story of us all.  We live suspended between brokenness and wholeness, between sinfulness and the very image of God in which we were created, between who we are and who we are meant to be.  But, in the midst of it all, is the God who both judges us and saves us.  And it’s a good reminder that there are no absolute victories in this world.  We are all winners and all losers.  We are children of God but children with limitations.  Maybe loss reminds us of our deep need for God, of our deep need for true redemption and restoration.


  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What do you think of David’s show of grief over Absalom? What did guilt have to do with that?
  3. What does this say about human nature and about how we treat each other?
  4. How does this speak to our win-lose culture? Is there a positive side to failure?
  5. How does this passage speak to redemption and hope?


NEW TESTAMENT: Ephesians 4: 25-5:2

Read the Lectionary Epistle Passage

The verses leading up to this passage, which are not part of the lectionary, calls the Ephesian converts to discard their old nature and don a new one. Beginning with the part that we read this week, the author of the epistle insists that we need to speak truth because we actually are all part of one another. Not speaking truth to each other is the same as not speaking the truth to ourselves, and vice versa. Throughout the passage, the author sets up contrasts: avoid destructive behaviors and do edifying ones. Discard spiritual clutter. To imitate God, only one thing is needful: kenotic love, the love that sacrifices for the good of others.

In all honesty, this passage contains exhortations that resemble moral prescriptions that are present throughout the world’s religions and cultures. But if we read it as merely a “morality check” or a sappy vision of all of us singing “Kum ba yah”, we have missed the point. This is not just a vision of good behavior. Rather, the author wants the Ephesians to make the connection between this new life in Christ and these new behaviors. This is deeper. It is about being rather than doing. Essentially, we are called to BE something different now. No longer can we dismiss our shortcomings as “only human”. Being fully human, becoming Christ-like, means entering that love of humanity itself, a love that exists in the midst of our diversity and even in the midst of our disagreements. That is the way we show our love for God. Ephesians immerses us in truthfulness and Truth. Truthfulness is necessary for pure love in Christ.

Notice that the writer doesn’t say “don’t get angry” but, rather not to sin when one is angry. In other words, don’t let it get away from you. Anger has its place. It can effect change or improvement. It can effect justice. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that “to ignore evil is to become an accomplice to it.” Perhaps it gives us the reminder to deal with our anger in a loving, but truthful, way and not let it get away from us. The passage does not call for us to BE God, to be perfect; the passage calls for us to imitate God, to BE the image of God that is revealed for each of us. Maybe even conflict somehow reveals that for us. We just can’t let it change us into something that we’re not meant to be.


  1. How does this passage speak to you?
  2. What does this passage say to you about truthfulness and truth?
  3. What about anger? Is there such a thing as “righteous anger”?
  4. What does this have to do with discarding the old nature (or even our old views)?
  5. What does it mean for you to imitate God?


GOSPEL: John 6: 35, 41-51

Read the Lectionary Gospel Passage

This week’s reading begins with the final verse from last week’s reading: “I am the bread of life…” The emphasis through John’s Gospel is essentially on eternal life, but this is not merely living forever, but, rather living in connection, in the household of God the eternal. It is about sharing in God’s life. While much of John’s Gospel tends to almost sound anti-Semitic, it reflects on the relationship with God and the shedding of one’s old life. (And to be honest, this should not be read as “The Jews”; rather this was a particular group in a particular time. It would be no different than someone referring to a fundamentalist right wing notion of Christianity as “The Christians”.)

The idea of the Gospel was that everyone inherits eternal life, this sharing in God’s life. Sticking to the old rules, sticking to the old boundaries will not get us there. It is more about newness than about wrongness. It is about transcendence. Jesus challenges the people to let go of wanting a God who can give them what they need and to create space for something more. He urges them to let go of the image of God that they have created. He invites them to take on his values as the bread of life. If prayer is only focused on needs, there will be no space to be drawn to God.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta tells of how she came across a Hindu family in India that had not eaten for days. She took them a small amount of rice. She was very surprised at what happened when she did so. Very quickly the mother of the family had divided the rice into two halves. Then she took half of it to the family next door, which happened to be a Muslim family. Mother Teresa asked, “How could you have any left over? There are many of you.” The woman simply replied. “But they have not eaten for days either!” “That” says Mother, “takes greatness. Her greatness consisted in her ability to transcend her own need, a greatness that is often found in the most extraordinary places.”

In a sermon on this text, Rev. Dr. Wiley Stephens says this:

The way we view the world can limit our horizons or expand them to eternity. The crowd that surrounded Jesus in our Gospel lesson in John became angry at what they perceived as arrogance, if not blasphemy, on his part. How dare he call himself the bread of life? The way they saw him–wasn’t this the kid that grew up down the street? Was he not the same one I used to have to run home when it was supper time? You know, the one who was so smart. Wasn’t this that carpenter Joseph’s son? How can he satisfy us? Do you remember that time he got lost in Jerusalem? How is he making such a claim? After all, he is one of us…

If they had seen more than the carpenter’s son, they might have heard the depth of the good news, but when we limit our world to what we know or have experienced, we can miss the vastness of God’s grace. Karl Barth wrote, “Were we to hear only of a god who measures up to our rule and is able to do what we can also do for ourselves without him, what need have we of such a god? Whenever the church has told man of such a tiresome little god it has grown empty. That radical daring, our yearning for the living God, will not be denied. (Rev. Wiley Stevens, “Living in Love”, August 10, 2003, available at http://day1.org/503-living_in_love, accessed 8 August, 2012)

But, when you think about it, bread is pretty basic, pretty ordinary. Maybe that’s why Jesus used it. After all, all it takes is a little flour, a little salt, a little water, and a little yeast. It’s just ordinary. (Although, a buttery cinnamon swirl never hurt anyone, right?) Every culture has bread in some form. People have been baking bread for 6,000 years. That’s the point. There’s nothing out of this world about it. It’s here. Flour, salt, water, and yeast—all ordinary offerings of the earth—vegetation, sea, water, and fungal microorganisms. Nothing is too big or too small for God. Eternal life is not something that is “out there” for us when we get to the end of what we know. It is here, right under our noses, the very ordinary offerings of life made sacred by the Presence of God. Here, now…right now…no waiting, no wondering, just something that requires that we step out of where we are.

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. Once again, what does the term “I am the Bread of Life” mean for you?
  3. What is the dfference between a “needs-based” faith and a “God-centered” faith?
  4. How does our view of “eternal life” change or affect our understanding of God?
  5. What stands in the way of our own transcendence, of our own seeking God?



Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

We must love them both, those whose opinions we share, and those whose opinions we reject, for both have labored in the search for truth, and both have helped us in the finding of it. (Thomas Aquinas, 1225-1274)

Good and evil, then, cannot be a pair of opposites like right and left or above and beneath. “Good” is the movement in the direction of home, “evil” is the aimless whirl of human potentialities without which nothing can be achieved and by which, if they take no direction but remain trapped in themselves, everything goes awry. (Martin Buber, 1878-1965)


At the age of ninety-three, the cellist Pablo Casals explained how, for the past eighty years, he had started each day in the same manner. He went to the piano and he played two preludes and fugues of Bach: ‘It is a sort of benediction on the house. But that is not its only meaning. . . . It is rediscovery of the world in which I have a joy of being a part. It fills me with awareness of the wonder of life, with a feeling of the incredible marvel of being human.” (Pablo Casals)




Only this:  That I may never hunger for that which is not your bread.  Amen.

(Jan Richardson, In Wisdom’s Path, 118.)