1st Sunday in Lent
Texts: Matthew 4:1-11;
Gen 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Rom 5:12-19
YouTube version: https://youtu.be/xyL8dzsEI0A
EATING THE FRUIT OF THE TREE OF US-VS-THEM THINKING
Two weeks ago, I told the story of my grandfather’s and father’s alcoholism. For my grandfather, it was something he never recovered from. Through most of the years I knew him, he was a shell of a person descending ever deeper into his disease. My father, I’m glad to say, had a happier ending at least. He remained a decent provider and a loving parent through my years of growing up, but it was painful to watch him slowly withdraw from the world and fall far short of the potential he had to contribute the world. It wasn’t until he was my age right now — 66 on the verge of being 67 — that he finally took his last drink and lived more fully into sobriety the final 21 years of his life, dying at age 87. Tragically, with my Dad whom I loved so dearly, he had missed out on generally the 25 most productive years of one’s life, the 25 years leading up to retirement. He had spent those years gradually withdrawing from the world around him, his disease preventing him from doing more. (When he tried to do more, I watched with embarrassment and sometimes shame, how he would fail.) In his retirement years, he could at least be a more sober dad and grandpa, but the pattern of withdrawing was difficult to reverse at that point. Except in the community that saved his life, Alcoholics Anonymous. It was the taking the Twelve Steps of A.A. seriously which had finally led to his being able to be and remain sober for the last 21 years, and so he continued to participate in A.A. throughout those 21 years. He didn’t necessarily need it all those years for himself. After the first ten or so years, he could reasonably manage the urge to drink without A.A. But he stayed engaged to help others — the ‘thirteenth step.’ He stayed as a mentor to the younger folks there, so that they might have the hope of not missing out on the most productive years of their lives.
I tell this story here for all of our sakes. Part of my reasoning involves my basic message of the need to revitalize the Good News from an overfocus on the afterlife, as we’ve talked about, to passionate belief that God’s salvation in Jesus Christ took permanent root in this world on the first Easter and so gives us a real chance to participate in that newness of life, that “new creation,” here and now, not just mostly in the afterlife.
I think that the church message we grew up with failed my Dad in that respect. With its focus on the afterlife, it didn’t give him the hope that his new life of sobriety could begin to happen in this life. It was in the faith community of Alcoholics Anonymous that he came to experience real change. He came to experience healing in his life. How many addicts have needed to leave the church for A.A.? In the church they found condemnation; in A.A. they found acceptance, and healing, and real change. They experienced salvation in their lives in ways that truly mattered, in ways that truly saved them from the deadly clutches of substance abuse? Our church life together here should make a difference in people’s lives in the way that A.A. does. Perhaps not to replace A.A., because there’s something definitely helpful about addicts helping each other, being accountable to each other, that is specific to A.A. and could never be duplicated in the wider church community. Perhaps it is at least a hopeful sign for the church that many congregations have at least opened their doors as a place for A.A. to meet and given their support.
But I think that my Dad’s experience with his personal struggle with alcoholism is also instructive for our wider mission as the church — to help us address those things we’re ‘addicted’ to. In the third temptation of today’s Gospel reading, Satan takes Jesus up a high mountain to show him the kingdoms of this world, and says, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Notice that Jesus does not challenge the premise of Satan’s offer. He doesn’t challenge whether or not the kingdoms of this world are Satan’s to give away in the first place. I propose to you that Jesus in fact agrees with that part of Satan’s offer. Satan does ‘own,’ so to speak, the kingdoms of this world. He has them in his clutches. It is his way of doing business which the kingdoms model, and not God’s way of doing business. Jesus, in fact, has come to show us another Way. He came to bring God’s reign into the world precisely so that we have an alternative from which to choose.
Notice I didn’t say that Jesus brought God’s reign into the world to conquer the world’s kingdoms — at least not in the conventional sense of human conquering. We conquer things with armies and superior firepower. As Jesus stands before Pilate, about to be condemned to the cross, he explicitly explains to Pilate that his kingdom, God’s kingdom, doesn’t involve followers who fight like soldiers (John 18:36). Jesus’ will bring God’s kingdom precisely by submitting to our usual human violence — on something like the cross — in order to begin curing us for our most deadly disease, our addiction to armed conflict and war.
Two thousand years later, that obviously hasn’t come to fruition yet. But the reason it hasn’t isn’t because God’s reign has not come into the world. It has come into the world through the events of Good Friday and Easter. That’s our Christian proclamation! But it hasn’t yet come to complete fruition precisely because it refuses to use the same way of force as human kingdoms. God isn’t going to make us change and send armies if we don’t. This is not the way of being human which Jesus brings us. He brings us God’s power of love, which the apostles immediately began to see is the power of life itself. They put Jesus back to the beginning at creation. Jesus is the power of love through whom everything has been made — all life. God’s kingdom refuses to use force. Jesus brings us God’s power of love, which is the power of life itself, in order for us to be able choose the better path to being human, the way that most truly leads to life, not death. He comes to help us to begin to more readily choose the path of love — a love which extends to one’s enemies — not the fallback position of human history to rely on the power of armed forces.
But there’s more. There’s an addiction of ours which is prior even to our addiction of relying on force. It’s our addiction to Us-vs-Them thinking. The stories in Genesis 2 through 4 show us Adam and Eve falling prey to Us-vs-Them thinking before it shows us (in Genesis4) their son Cain using force against his brother Abel. The two are intimately related, mind you, but the one does come before the other. So let’s spend a few minutes with our First Reading this morning. (Note the following reading is especially indebted to Jean-Michel Oughourlian‘s The Genesis of Desire, chapter 2, “The Creation and Fall.”)
First, let me note that, even though I may use the names Adam and Eve, I don’t read these stories literally in terms of a first man and woman in history. No, I read these stories as powerfully symbolic of our human origins, the story of our anthropology, if you will. That’s what St. Paul does with it in our Second Reading this morning. He says Adam is a type, is a symbol, and he sketches out for us a fallen original way of being human, represented in Adam, and the new way of being human, represented in Christ, which is the way to true life. So I read these stories as powerfully symbolic of our human origins. Even the names Adam and Eve are symbolic — Adam coming from the Hebrew word meaning simply human being; and Eve from the word for life. And so instead of reading a talking snake literally, the serpent is a powerful symbol of human desiring — what I find helpful to name as “mimetic desire.” We catch our desires from each other. After more than a year in Confirmation Class, our confirmation students are learning this term. I hope you are, too. Mimetic desire points to the fact that we human beings desire as a function of subconscious imitation. We catch our ‘desires’ from others; they don’t just pop up inside us as something wholly personal. We suddenly have a desire for a pizza. Well, it’s not actually so sudden. Subconsciously, there’s a lot more behind that — why a pizza, for instance, rather than, say, lutefisk, which is only cultural among Norwegians and Danes.
Our desires, in short, are not just personal; they’re interpersonal. That’s why in Genesis 3 the desire for the forbidden fruit doesn’t just pop up inside the woman one day. The serpent, as the symbol of mimetic desire, suggests the desire to her, and then her eyes are so-called ‘opened’ to the desire. And then she suggests the same desiring to her husband. I say ‘desiring’ because what the serpent has passed on to them is not just a simple desire for the forbidden fruit. In the economy of the symbolism, the serpent has passed on the entire fallen way of human desiring — the way our human desiring so easily falls into rivalry and then conflict. The serpent has spun what we may consider as the first and original conspiracy theory. He convinces the first man and woman — without any evidence to back him up — that God is holding out on them. ‘That’s what’s really going on here.’ Instead of a God who models a perfect loving desire to them, the loving desire which is the foundation of all healthy human desiring, the serpent convinces them that God is somehow their rival. ‘God is holding out on you. God has forbidden the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil because God wants to keep it for himself.’ After gifting us with such a wondrous creation for us to help care for, God has become a hoarder, I guess — at least, according to the serpent.
And here’s where the symbolism of this story becomes even richer. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is basically a symbol of our addiction to Us-vs-Them thinking. Good equals Us. Evil equals Them. This is no longer the way in which God actually sees the creation as it simply is — as good and evil in it, yes. But God is able to see even those who have fallen into evil (all of us!) as children of God and continues to love them, and continues to offer them forgiveness and grace and the opportunity for new life. We cease to do that when we fall into the shortcut of Us-vs-Them thinking, where we lay our lens of seeing the world in terms of Us-vs-Them as justification for, ‘We’re right and you’re wrong’ — and then proceed accordingly. From our human beginnings we have fallen prey to a fallen desiring that gets us tangled in webs of rivalry and conspiracy, of Us versus Them. The first man and woman get tangled in a rivalry with their very creator, for heaven’s sake! And then it’s a short distance to using that Us-vs-Them thinking as the justification for deadly violence. Their first son kills his younger brother. The rest, they say, is history. The deadly story, that is, of our human faith and reliance in violence and force to enforce our sense of rightness, our version of good and evil as interpreted through the lens of Us-vs-Them thinking.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, we look at our world right now, and it’s still apparent, right? The Us-vs-Them thinking, the Culture Wars, the division all around us. And now the call to political violence once again in the name of Us being right. I’m afraid that if Satan were to take Jesus up on a high mountain today, it would be the same story. ‘Here’s the kingdoms, Jesus, that I control. I’ll give them to you, if you worship me.’ And Satan wouldn’t be wrong. But the thing which has changed is God’s reign coming into the world to give us an alternative, to be able to choose a path to real life — through the hard work, the spiritual struggle and battle, of seeking healing for our addiction to Us-vs-Them thinking. That’s what we’re going to focus on in our Sunday morning bible studies after worship, using the Twelve Steps of A.A. as a model (using Richard Rohr‘s Breathing under Water).
In many ways, our struggle in the church is like my Dad’s, who took nine years of ups and downs before he finally was able to quit drinking for good. And I’m afraid that when we look at the history of the church we see the same thing. We see relapses — especially beginning in the fourth century, when the church decided to ally itself with the Roman Empire. We experienced relapse into the Us-vs-Them thinking of empires. And we’re still struggling to get out from that. There’s a process we can go through in that spiritual struggle that I plan to talk about. We will unpack this a bit more each Sunday on our Lenten journey, especially in our Gospel readings, to see how Jesus came to bring us an alternative, to choose life and healing. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethlehem Lutheran Church,
Muskego, WI, February 26, 2023
YouTube version: https://youtu.be/xyL8dzsEI0A