September 10, 2017 – What it Means to be Human
“What it Means to be Human: Getting Our Story Straight” Pr. John preaches on Genesis 2 & 3.
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What it Means to be Human: Getting Our Story Straight
A sermon by John Strommen on Genesis 2 & 3 Sept. 10, 2017
Some of you may know Larry Anderson, a member here who has health issues and hasn’t been in church for a while. So, I’ve visited him a few times and spoken with him on the phone. Now Larry is one of those guys who kind of preaches a sermon every time you see him. And every time we talk, mixed in with his little sermons and reflections on life, is a phrase he keeps repeating, unsolicited: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. This is what gives him strength, to review this three part story over and over again: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. But you see, it’s not just someone else’s story, it’s his. You see, whatever goes on in Larry’s life, with all its ups and downs, Larry places his own narrative within the larger narrative of the life of Christ. It fits there. Larry is a part of God’s story in Christ. For him, the meaning of life can’t be described without reference to Christ.
What’s your story? The story that defines you and gives you meaning?
This year in worship and in our congregational life, we’re going to be asking about stories a lot. What is our story at Mt Carmel? What are our individual stories? What is God’s story?
It’s no secret that people come to church to be a part of a story bigger than themselves. The world has other storylines that engulf us daily, but we know deep down that if they define us, we’re in trouble: Whoever dies with the most toys wins, get what you can while you can, make a name for yourself, it’s a dog eat dog world, us against them.
So in Christian worship, we gather and we review our story, we rehearse it for everyday life. Confession of our brokenness, forgiveness and restoration of our relationship with God, dying with Christ, rising with Christ, bearing witness to the new creation, being sent to love our neighbor. Without this rehearsal, we forget who we are. Like Larry, we need to say it over and over again and participate in it.
The story we read today from the Garden of Eden is an essential starting point for our story, and although it’s not history, it is a story about what it means to be human, who we are at our core. It’s God’s story, but Adam and Eve(and us) are a part of it, as they are asked to play the part of creatures who are in the creators’ story. So they must be able to trust the one who made them and accompanies them in his garden. Or not. The Garden is a story about relationships and about trust.
And for some reason there’s this tree in the garden, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. “Don’t eat the forbidden fruit!” God said. “Well, God what did you think was going to happen here?”
I remember when my oldest, Thomas, was a toddler. He was discovering more and more things in the house to explore and ways to flex his toddler muscles. One day, he expressed a fascination with the large potted plant we had over by the picture window. Naturally, Heidi and I made it clear to him that he was not to touch that plant. We didn’t want him mauling the poor plant or tipping it over or something.
I remember vividly standing in the living room, watching Thomas make his way over toward the picture window. I knew he was headed to the plant. I said, “Thomas, NO.” He stopped, looked at me, processed what I had said, then continued to make his way to the plant. I said it again more emphatically, “Thomas, NO!” Brief pause, and again he start moving. So I said it a third time. “Don’t do it, Thomas.” By this time he was right next to the plant. He looked at me with a little bit of a smile and a twinkle in his eye, turned around toward the plant, reached out with his finger, touched one leaf, then walked away. He simply had to make a point, you see.
So knowing the way people are, why did God put the tree in the Garden? I have no idea, really. Why did we put the plant on the floor where Thomas could reach it? But one thing I do know: the whole forbidden fruit thing is much misunderstood. It doesn’t mean God forbids us from gaining knowledge. It’s not a prohibition on exploration and self-discovery. Scholars tell us it’s not exactly about moral consciousness itself and understanding the difference between good and evil.
No, it’s really quite personal. The story in the garden is a story about trust and then broken trust. It’s about relationship, then fracture in the relationship between God and humans. For Martin Luther, the founder of the Reformation 500 years ago, this was the crux of the matter – relationship and broken trust. So, for Luther, when we get to Jesus, it’s all about relationship being restored and trust re-established.
But back to the garden! Our relationship with God goes like this: God creates and we are created and given life. God breathes into us with the sustaining breath of God, and as Luther suggested, continues to speak us into existence moment by moment. God gives us a garden, which is creation. What did we do to merit this? Nothing. The beauty, the food, adventures in the garden, are all free gifts. God gives us a purpose: to till and keep the garden. We are stewards of creation and each other, representatives of God on earth. I’d say that’s pretty cool. And important! Do we have work to do here? God gives us each other, and even animals. The gift of companionship, community.
And so, out of this relationship that God established, we are invited to trust: that God will continue to give life, breath, blessings, food, purpose, companionship and love. And that God knows what’s best for us, so do as he says.
And so when Eve told the snake, this mysterious questioning creature, that God told them to stay away from that one tree, the snake said, “Did God really say that? He just knows that your eyes will be opened and you will be like God.” And now the door of distrust is wide open. In other words, the snake was saying, God just wants to control and limit you. You can’t really trust God. Better that you take things into your own hands and be self-sufficient. You can do just fine on your own. Don’t be a part of God’s story. Create your own. You can be at the center of your world. You define what is right and wrong – for you.
What’s happening in the moment of the eating is redefining what it means to be human and completely denying the core of our identity as human beings. We are creatures called into a trusting and dependent relationship with our creator, who is trustworthy.
Luther had a certain way of putting it. He believed our identity is based on two kinds of righteousness, or goodness. Passive and active. Passive goodness comes from our relationship with God. It includes everything that we receive without any effort or merit of our own, that is, passive. That is our core identity. Does that sound weak? It’s not. It’s who we are when we are the most real and the most wise. We’re creatures and we’re blessed.
What does it mean to be human? We can’t possibly understand who we are without considering who the creator is. What we believe about the creator and the creator’s relationship with us will tell us about the core of our identity, passive goodness. Whatever we do in life comes out of our core.
Active righteousness is what we do with and for each other. This is fundamental to who we are also. It’s about our relationships with each other. We were made to be in community with each other and to love each other and take care of each other, as a gardener would a garden.
So when we eat from the proverbial fruit, we are denying this passive goodness and the very core of our identity, opting for active goodness – only half of our true identity. Instead, we think we are self-sufficient, we can create our own meaning because we can kind of, sort of, play God.
Here’s why Luther’s insights are so important for today: as creatures of the enlightenment for the past several hundred years, we have fooled ourselves into thinking that science and technology can save us, or that political systems, or psychology or medicine. No, as we’ve seen, none of these things can save us from what ails us most: we have forgotten passive goodness. We have forgotten that we are made to be dependent on our creator as a child is on his/her parent. And this doesn’t limit us, it frees us for our neighbor and for our natural world.
Here’s why Luther is important for today: in our culture, we think passive goodness is weak, that everyone has to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. And this means we don’t see ourselves as a part of God’s unfolding story. We’re more interested in creating our own story apart from God’s. So instead of asking, “What is God up to in the world and how can I be a part of this movement of life and love?” I’m asking, “What can God do for me?”
You mean apart from giving you life, breath, food, beauty, companionship, purpose and even God’s own self? Yes, we’re skipping ahead in the story, but it’s true: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. Now that is passive goodness. We receive it. It’s free. It’s given in love. And all we can do is say thank you and live lives of generous gratitude.
I close with a brief anecdote: I went to a funeral of my friend’s mom a couple weeks ago. The pastor read a verse about the righteous getting rewards in heaven and he asked, “Do you think she was a righteous woman?” Everyone nodded. Of course they had to. And he went on to describe what a wonderful woman she was. And she was, for sure. The pastor finished by saying, my friend’s mom spent her life chasing God and that we should all be “God-chasers.” And I thought to myself, “no.” we are not good God chasers. We are good at fleeing from God. God chases us with life and breath and hope and purpose. This is what made my friend’s mom righteous. God loved her. And it was passive. Amen.