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Sermon – March 13, 2011 – Understanding

Sermon for March 13, 2011                                           The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Understanding
Psalm 32,  Genesis 2:  15-17, 3:  1-7,   Romans 5:  12-19,  Matthew 4:  1-11

Goldilocks is a character who from the start lacks appropriate boundaries.  Presumably she has a home of her own , but for some reason she isn’t in it, and instead intrudes into another household where she has to solve the simplest problems of daily living–eating, and taking her rest– by experiment.  She tries every bowl of porridge in order to find the one which is most palatable, and every chair and subsequently every bed to discover which is most comfortable.  In this unfamiliar universe, where she is so disoriented that she can’t even size up her opportunities but instead has to live through each of them until she learns whether or not it is a good fit for her, she ends up being wasteful and destructive.  It comes close to costing her her life, when the proper inhabitants return and are angered by her trespassing and careless squandering of their resources.
Goldilocks seems to embody that frustrating but unavoidable principle that experience is the best teacher.  There is no grown-up in the story to tell her to stay out of other people’s property, so in a sense she can’t help it.  Not only is there no authority to discourage her from helping herself to others’ food and furniture, but obviously nobody has successfully shown her how to feel the outside of a bowl or a spoon dipped in it to gauge the warmth of porridge, or encouraged her to notice what a chair looks like that is the right size for her, or how to press on the end of a mattress to figure out if it will offer the resistance one prefers.
The little girl in the story is remarkably ignorant of her self, apart from her appetites and immediate desires.  She must be able to see the difference in the size of the three chairs, but somehow doesn’t know which one will be the best fit for her until she tries sitting in all three.  She doesn’t seem to have the least concern about consequences, neither worrying about sampling food and then leaving it to go to waste nor seeming alarmed at breaking the little chair.  She goes to the bedroom to lie down and risk being caught unconscious despite having left a trail of invasion and virtually of vandalism, which shows how out of touch she is with what we would regard as reality.
The human child, despite her pretty hair, is the wild animal in the story, and the wild animals, when they show up, represent the law and order of daily domestic life.  Their own world has been carefully arranged so that everything and everyone has a proper place, and it is their dismay at the heedless violation of this tidy, civilized world which puts  Goldilocks in danger.  When they menace her at the end of the story they are scary because they are bears but the person hearing the story recognizes Goldilocks’ predicament as one she has brought on herself by ignoring boundaries and failing to understand consequences.
The reversal in the story, the bears representing human life and the girl behaving like a wild creature, is necessary to raise questions about what is proper for a person to be and do.  If the story were told, and it could be told here in central Pennsylvania, of a golden-haired woman going to the cabin on the weekend to open it up and prepare for a couple of days’ leisure and country life, and discovering that a little female bear had been in the place and gotten into stuff and made a mess, what lesson could be learned from that?  By making Goldilocks the human who has only attained to natural instincts and keeps doing whatever comes to hand without reflection or recognition of its meaning, the story offers a moral for the children who enjoy it.
We all start out ignorant and untamed and gradually are socialized and civilized by our interactions with others.  We seem to have temperament and personality from the start, but we achieve character, and we settle, sometime after childhood, on our identity.  As we grow older we not only hunger and fear and things like that, but we notice that we are hungry or that we are afraid–we become self-reflective.  We distinguish between what is immediate to our senses and the self experiencing sensations.  We have memory to give a context to the present, and we have intentions and expectations which may or may not engage the future.
We don’t always notice how large a part religion offers to play in the formation of persons.  Some parents send their children to Vacation Bible Schools or to weekly Sunday Schools because they see it as constructive instruction in morals and having a conscience and navigating, in broad terms, society’s notions of good and bad behaviors.  If in the long run their offspring see that they regard religion as something for kids, the kids will expect to leave it behind with their childhood;  But the understanding is there that having a relationship to God will affect who a person becomes.
This morning’s scriptures are about identity.  They all consider the question who it is we are, and why.  They all take for granted that our nature comes both from what God has made us to be and from our own efforts at making ourselves.  From the start they include the element which Goldilocks is missing in her story, and that is the existence of boundaries.
When I say that boundaries are missing for Goldilocks I mean she doesn’t recognize them, either through ignorance or indifference.  In the story of Adam and Eve the boundaries are set by God.  The human beings know what the rules are, and the existence of the rule is part of the temptation–you can’t be tempted by what is blameless.  The logic of the Adam and Eve story often is explained in terms of everyone inheriting Adam and Eve’s inability to follow God’s rule, their restless desire to see for themselves.  I don’t think that’s right.  The logic is not that we have inherited Adam and Eve’s disobedience, it’s that Adam and Eve represent who all human beings essentially are.  Our nature is to have exchanged the innocence of animal creation for the moral discernment of a Divine being, without entirely having left an animal nature or attained completely to a godly nature.  The whole story of Adam and Eve is about the contradictions and compulsions we embody, which is a nature consciously in relation to God but also eager to please itself.
If anyone is in Christ, the apostle Paul writes, that person is a new creation.  The old has passed away, behold! the new has come.  One way Paul conceives our being made different is by regarding Christ as a Second Adam, an intervening prototype for what it is to be human.  The first Adam was incapable of being responsible before God, because the first Adam’s self-will overruled his desire to please his Maker.  Christ, however, wills himself to accept the will of God.  Our coming after Christ offers us the hope that this new representative model of humanity, Jesus as true to God, even to the point of self-sacrifice–has liberated us from the limits defined by Adam.
The Adam story alone would have been good for Goldilocks, as a cautionary tale.  It defines persons as responsible to a higher power, and shows that persons who violate boundaries suffer.  Could Goldilocks have become self-aware enough to recognize her own identity as an Adam-like identity, she would have had some grasp of why she felt drawn to enter the home and eat the porridge and try out the chairs, and she would have had the chance to ask herself whether that were permitted.  Were she unable to resist the temptation of crashing the Bears’ home, she would acknowledge that she was behaving in a way which was all-too-human.
What would accepting the Second Adam story mean to Goldilocks?  Would it make a difference for her to assert a self not only responsible to God, but capable of preferring pleasing God to pleasing self?  Were she to resist temptation, could she conceive that not in terms of surprising personal power but in terms of a reassuring reliance on being Christ’s person?  I’m not saying that failure is become impossible, just that failure is not inevitable.  There’s still a place for forgiveness and its renewal.
Would the belief that Christ has come to give all human beings new and great potential have made her consider the feelings and expectations of the absent inhabitants of the home?  Paul believes in the world-changing effectiveness of Christ’s transforming incarnation not because he wants to say that Christians have a special nature which makes them better than anyone before.  He wants to say that the world is made better by Christ, and Christian’s recognition of that is a source to them of hope and of a deeper sense of responsibility.  We are not slaves to selfishness.  We can be tempted, as Jesus was tempted after identifying himself through baptism as a servant of The Almighty.  We can and will be tempted as Christ has been tempted, but we have the possibility of remaining true.  Christ has changed things.  Christ informs who we are, so that when we dare to be brave or to be generous, it may well be to the glory of God.  Knowing this is who we are is important, and should we doubt this new potential Christ has come to provide, we must pray that God persuade us that it is so, that we live as the children God has created us to be in Jesus Christ Our Lord.

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