Monday, June 7, 2021

The Choice to be Very Good

Proper 5 / Year B

With the easing of Covid restrictions we are learning again what it is like to live in a world with options… plenty of options.  Will I eat out or stay in?  Go to the movies or read a book?  Take in a baseball game or go for a walk?  The truth is we had plenty of options during the height of the restrictions, but with so many things being taken off the table at times it felt as if we had no choices at all.

I grew up in a faith tradition that flirted with the doctrine of Predestination: the notion God foreordains those who will receive the saving work of Christ and those who will reject it.  Taken to its extreme, this teaching implies free choice is merely an illusion.  God’s plan, set in motion from the beginning of time, is unalterable.  How unalterable?  I had a college professor who told the story of the time he tripped and fell down a flight of stairs in his home.  Bruised and dazed, he collected himself, stood up, and said, “Well, I am glad that is behind me!”  

The Creation stories in Genesis hint at something different.  They suggest God has woven options into the very fabric of all that has been made; options which are open and free possibilities which actually alter the course of history on micro and macro levels.  Recall how God entrusts Adam with the task of naming each animal.  The choices are completely out of God’s control and entirely Adam’s to make.  By including the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the serpent as elements of creation, God opens the world to be a place where God’s will is honored or ignored or misunderstood.  The Genesis stories tell us we live in a world where we have choices and that our choices have consequences.  We have some ability (but not complete ability) to determine how we will impact the world for good or for ill. 

This past week I read a commentary on the creation story of Adam and Eve whose author encourages readers to step back from a strictly literal interpretation of the text in order to see something more sweeping at work.  So rather than focusing on the Tree as a tree, the apple as an apple, and the serpent as a snake, let’s consider the bigger picture being portrayed by this story.  The commenter suggests we see in it a metaphor for the pattern of every person’s life. 

We are born into a world marked hopefully by nurture, safety, and care.  Childhood, for the most part for most of us, is an Eden-like experience – innocent, carefree, and cared for.  It does not last.  Our experience of the world changes with the onset of puberty and adolescence.  We become self-aware, which often is associated with a sense of shame and hiddenness (as we see in this morning’s first reading).  We rebel (sometimes in relatively inconsequential ways, other times in significant ways).  We gain new knowledge about good and evil, which, while positive and necessary, has the effect of shattering the innocence of childhood.  Like the curses meted out by God in today’s reading, we come to know limitations, frustrations, and humiliations.  The world becomes a more demanding place and our place in it becomes uncertain.   In adulthood we accept our responsibilities and the embrace the consequences of our decisions and our actions.  We experience the world as a place of both opportunity and challenge.  We learn no one gets through life unscathed.  Still, most of us manage to find happiness and purpose and a measure of peace.  This is the path walked by Adam and Eve.  In general terms, it is the path each of us is walking on.

As with the doctrine of Predestination, most church teachings refer to this morning’s Old Testament reading as story of “the Fall” – how the first humans lived in paradise, but lost it all through the act of tasting the fruit of a single, forbidden tree.  “The Fall” implies we are living in a world where all God intended is crashed and gone.  Adam’s sin is our sin.  Adam’s curse is our curse.  Adam’s loss is our reality.  Deal with it… unless you have been preordained to accept Jesus’ saving death on your behalf. 

One of the things I love about the Anglican tradition is how it understands the meaning of these first chapters of the bible.  Yes, we say, the world is not as God dreams it would be.  But no, we are not so completely depraved as to not be able to respond to God’s will and to follow God’s way.  We have the possibility, the ability, and the opportunity to make choices for better or for worse, for right or for wrong, for faithfulness or for falling into something less.   

At the completion of every stage of creation God looks at what has been accomplished and calls it “good.”  And when God speaks of the newly created humans, God calls them “very good.”  While it says something significant about our elevated place in the created order, recognize being created as “very good” is no where near as demanding as being created to be “perfect.”  If God had created us “perfect” than even the smallest slip would destroy our identity (just as a lone walk changes in baseball a perfect game to a no-hitter).  The calling to be “very good” implies striving and intentionality, while making room for coming up short now and again.

Which brings us back to our world of options and the choices we make.  And it brings us to Jesus.  In today’s reading we find him making a choice to conceive in a new way the notion of “family.”  He expands it from the old standards of kindred and clan to include anyone who strives to do the will of God.  Notice he does not restrict it only to those who are perfect.  Jesus welcomes into deep relationship everyone who is oriented toward God’s dream for this world.

Jesus uses this vision to incorporate an incredibly diverse group of men and woman into his fellowship.  They have different backgrounds, come from different communities, hold to a variety of religious traditions, agree not on the politics of the day.  Jesus does not disown his biological family, just the opposite.  His brother James becomes the leader of the Church in Jerusalem after Jesus ascends to the Father and it is from here a missionary zeal emerges to invite every person in the known world into the Jesus movement.  Jesus makes the consequential choice to embrace every person, not on the basis of perfection, but rather on each person’s stated intent to do God’s will.  “Very good” is his standard, not gender, nationality, or race.  It is not your political affiliation which determines if you are Jesus’ brother or sister.  It certainly is not your socio-economic level.  It definitely does not matter if you are a Hokie or a Hoo.  And whatever your position on the doctrine of Predestination, ultimately what matters to Jesus is how you attempt to do God’s will, to live into your “very goodness.” 

“Very Goodness”, goodness gracious, this can be a challenge, can’t it.  Unlike Adam and Eve, who received the initial commandment – “Don’t eat of that fruit” – yet receive little guidance and only sketchy commentary from the serpent, we are blessed to possess the Scriptures: the stories of God’s interaction with God’s people, the insights of the Psalmists, the words of the prophets, Jesus’s own teachings and example, and the wisdom of the early Church.  And we are blessed with the gift of God’s Holy Spirit who abides deep within us and directs us when we are open to hearing this Voice. 

Today, tomorrow, and every day hereafter we have choices to make.  God’s Spirit in our lives does not mean we will be (or will have to be) perfect.  Our aim always is to be faithful.  “Very good” is our benchmark and, high as it is, with God’s help, it is attainable.