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Sermon – “Covered” – March 9, 2014

Sermon for Sunday, March 9, 2014

First Baptist Church of Lewisburg


Genesis 2: 15-17, 3: 1-7; Psalm 32; Matthew 4: 1-11

Who hasnʼt had a dream in which graduation day arrives, or one is to stand before a large crowd and deliver a speech, and one realizes that one isnʼt dressed decently? One seems doomed to cross the graduation platform, or stand at the podium, uncovered.

Exposure and embarrassment are a motif in this morningʼs scriptures, and speak to the difficulty of being human. Lacking clothing symbolizes lacking essentials which give us confidence and permit us blamelessly to be in the company of others. When it happens in a dream, as when being unprepared for a test at school is the central drama of our nighttime narrative, it expresses anxiety.

Why are we anxious? Why, as Pascal saw, canʼt we find contentment simply in being? We have, in the story of Adam and Eve, a consideration of the quandary of combining the qualities we possess, some of which always are in tension with others.

Divine wisdom is apprehensive about human beings gaining the knowledge of good and evil, and the best guess why is that God would spare us the complication of separating from the natural life of our fellow creatures and entering a moral universe. For us the glory of the divine capacity to distinguish right and wrong carries the heavy price of an uneasy conscience connected to self-consciousness.

In cartoons the useful skill of cats at catching smaller creatures and destroying them makes them into foes to be overcome by the cleverness of mice or Tweety-Bird. In the real world, however, cats are not condemned as cruel or heartless because they will seem to torture their victims as well as kill them. It is understood as the nature of the beast, which, excluding choice, sets aside moral possibilities.

I want to think about the Bibleʼs consideration of what distinguishes human nature by beginning with a proverb about a cat. The saying is that a cat may look on a king. The cat is chosen as the permitted glancing, or even staring, animal, because its gaze has none of the eagerness to please of a dog–for what king would object too much to being looked upon the way a dog gazes at its master? A cat, however, is by nature its own master, and its gaze might seem bored, or insolent, or critical, all of which would be offensive gazes to direct at royalty were they to come from the face of a fellow human being.

Which is to say that animals can get away with things that human beings canʼt. In an episode including Mickey Mouse and Pluto, Mickey is enough of a humanized character that he wears pants, whereas Pluto, like all dogs, wears his own skin without our thinking twice. The animal kingdom is one of moral innocence– even if it is “red in tooth and claw.”

The story of Adam and Eve examines the difference between human nature and whatʼs true of other creatures. It tells us how and why we at once belong and donʼt entirely belong to the animal world; and how and why we belong, while not entirely belonging, in the company of God. The story explains that being human has a burden of moral consciousness which carries with it the possibility of shame, and accountability before other creatures with a moral sense, whether thatʼs God or our fellow human beings.

All the other creatures are produced by fiat, by declaration, and God endorses the way they are. Itʼs all good. Human origins, in the Adam and Eve story of clay formed and then animated with divine breath, and a rib being removed and being modeled into the right companion, are there not as biology, but as psychology. Our experience is that we have a creative, self-aware, discerning spirit, that gives us freedom to determine something of our own nature in a way which other creatures lack. They are defined by nature, while we have some potential to defy nature. We can figure out how to live in inhospitable environments, or adapt our diet, or store water or food better than other creatures, and in fact we have changed the nature of our lives a great deal over time, while our fellow creatures continue to live, at least in the natural world, in the same way theyʼve done for as long as we can tell.

I mention the divine breath being bestowed because that, and neither temptation nor disobedience, is the source of our distinction. The bounds for other creatures are built in; Godʼs breath animating us means that our bounds must be be established through a relationship, and that of course creates the chance for overreaching.

Many people who read these first chapters of the Bible react to them as if they were concerned with the nature of God. Why did God make us this way? Couldnʼt God have done something different? Why is the serpent in the Garden if God really wants things to work out?

The story, however, is not about how things are not, but about how they are. It has action and motives and so forth, but itʼs not to be understood as something that might be rewritten and get us a different outcome. Itʼs not particularly interested in illuminating the nature of God. It is a way to identify complex and unchangeable qualities of what it is to be you and me, and one of the things it describes is the way a knowledge of good and evil connects to self-consciousness, shame, and blame. This gets a little complicated with the distinction between us and animals because some animals seem to have a moral sense, too, but the ancient Hebrews were more concerned to notice the special burden of the knowledge of good and evil which goes with being human.

There is self-interest and willfulness before there is insight into right and wrong. By the time distinguishing right from wrong is part of human nature, disobedience has happened– in fact, it has been the source of moral insight. This, like the circumstance of nakedness, is part of the complexity of our nature. To focus on the test and failure is to miss the point. Instead we are to recognize that we have, by our nature, consciousness of our unworthiness to appear before holiness. At the same time we canʼt help aspiring to be more like God, and to feel that we should be in relationship with God. Some part of us retains the instinct that all our effort is not just about us, but also is about our connection t0 God. This larger aspect of our nature makes it into many of the remaining stories of Genesis, the way humans try to build a tower to heaven, or the way human vice corrupts and dooms the whole world, including all creatures innocent of moral reckoning, or the way a fair-minded or a faithful person can influence Godʼs relationship with others.

For this sermon I want to stick with the metaphor of vulnerability and exposure which is the nakedness Adam and Eve discover and seek to escape. They canʼt escape it– their fig leaf garments donʼt keep them from hiding, because itʼs not just whatʼs visible. Itʼs their sense of being fit to be found by God.

Psalm 32 has a couple of the themes in it. One is the necessity of being covered by God, and the other is the advantage human beings enjoy of having the capacity to receive Godʼs instruction. The lack of moral consciousness of animals is not envied here, but accepted as part of the burden of their limitations. We surpass them– we donʼt have to be like animals which must be bridled in order to be controlled by anotherʼs will. We are not senseless. We have the potential to listen, and learn, and live the way which has the best results.

The story of Jesusʼ temptation is offered as a counterpart, in the selection of scriptures, to the temptation in the story of the origin of our nature. What has happened in the Psalm, however, enters into it. God has indeed found a way to provide instruction which will permit good choices. Jesusʼ knowledge of the scripture will provide him ways to reject the things he recognizes as illegitimate options

Instead of a Garden, itʼs a wilderness. It is the human condition that Genesis acknowledges, a rift between the bounty of nature and the vulnerability of our species. The first temptation is to get food by something other than human nature, otherwise than by sweat and suffering. In fact all the temptations are to rely on supernatural help to overpower the way things are, instead of relying on supernatural help to do oneʼs best to live in the world as it is. Death, the ultimate kind of uncovering, the abandonment of personal dignity, is part of what life contains, and Jesus recognizes as temptation the hint that he prove Godʼs love by dodging it. Again, every consideration which is perceived as fickle to the purpose of God is countered, by Christ, with scripture. Godʼs own teaching secures Jesusʼ path, and will result, at the end, in his being true to his calling and accountable to God.

Jesus doesnʼt enter Lent without entertaining the feeling that heʼd rather not go, that he would prefer something else. Perhaps we enter as reluctantly, discontented that our duty to God exposes us to suffering and injustice. How do we go on? What fits us for our future, which will be like the life of our Lord, with its ups and downs, kindnesses and cuts, elation and humiliation? The Word of God, as the Psalmist saw, is what is suited to us and our need, and what will enable us to endure, and be Godʼs child, despite everything. Scripture, which so often for us raises questions, is presented in these accounts as the source of answers, answers we require because Godʼs spirit within us is also who we are.

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