Pilgrimage: Beginning, and beginning again
Texts: Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Matthew 4:1-11
Speaker: Joel Miller
In the last two decades geneticists have confirmed the sublime dream of poets and prophets: That the human family really is one family – we all come from the same lineage, descendants of Africa.
And when it comes to our differences, the anthropologist Wade Davis is fond of saying something like this: “The other peoples of the world are not failed attempts at being you. They’re not failed attempts at being modern. Every culture is a unique answer to a fundamental question: What does it mean to be human and alive?” (Quote from The Tim Ferris Show #652, podcast interview)
It’s a big question: What does it mean to be human?
It’s hard to know what’s going on inside the heads of animals, but it’s very possible we’re the only species bothered by the question of what it means to be ourselves. It’s not the kind of question easily answered in a few sentences, or a few books or documentaries. It is the kind of question we inevitably answer simply by living, by being human. However many years old you are is how many years you’ve been logging time giving your own answer to this question.
It’s also how many times you’ve lived through a season of Lent - observed or not. One of the things I’ve come to appreciate about Lent is that it’s something like an annual check in on that very fundamental question: How are we doing at being human?
How are we doing?
Rather than searching for answers by doom scrolling the headlines of the day, not an especially enriching liturgical experience, our lectionary points us back to the beginning. Or, rather, beginnings. If life is a pilgrimage, expectant wandering through the unknown, it helps to know where we’ve been if we are to have any idea of where we are.
In light of Wade Davis’s observations, we can keep in mind that the Garden of Eden story is one origin story among many. Uncounted numbers of cultures have their own story of beginnings – how we humans came to be, alongside the gods and nonhuman world. And in light of evolutionary science, there is no single point at which to begin the story, unless we go as far back as our models can yet imagine to that singular, immeasurably dense point 13.7 billion years ago from which all known things have come. Trace it back far enough and every human, bird, planet and star is part of the same family – we all come from the same cosmic lineage.
The Garden of Eden is not the only story of human beginnings; it’s not even the only one in the Bible.
Genesis begins, as the Common English Bible translates it: “When God began to create the heavens and the earth – the earth was without shape or form, it was dark over the deep sea, and God’s wind swept over the waters – God said, ‘Let there be light,’ And so light appeared.”
Water, wind, and Word compose the poetry of creation. From these elements emerge all things.
An essential gift of the Bible’s first creation story is that all things, every combination of matter, including the late-arriving humans, is declared to be good, verse 10. It’s the recurring refrain throughout Genesis 1. In case we didn’t hear it the first time, in case it didn’t sink in, it’s repeated again, “God saw that it was good,” v.12, and again, “God saw that it was good,” v.18, and again “God saw that it was good,” v.21 and again, “God saw that it was good,” v. 25. Like waves of water that keep washing over the shoreline. It is good. It is good. It is good. And just in case we’re still looking on from a distance, unconvinced, there is a final towering wave, sure to bathe everything in sight: “And God saw everything that was made, and indeed, it was exceedingly good.” Genesis 1:31.
What does it mean to be human? If nothing else, it means that we participate in this original goodness, original blessing. The problem with the theology of original sin isn’t that there’s no sin, it’s that sin isn’t original, it isn’t baked into the fabric of creation, not according to Genesis 1.
If that’s all you need to take away from today’s service, you can let that settle in your heart and ignore everything else I’m going to say. You, as a member of the human family, as part of the body of creation, participate in original goodness.
The Garden of Eden story is a second story of beginnings. Rather than being one of the final acts of creation, the human being, in this story, is formed from the soil before the plants and animals. The human is placed in a beautiful garden with fruiting trees, all of which are given for food, except one, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Aside from all this abundance, the human is alone. So from the same soil God forms the animals, and then from the very body of the human, God forms another human.
If the first creation story is about the poetry of creation – the dance of water and wind, the celebration of goodness and blessing; the second is about the practicality of existence. To be alive and stay alive one must eat. Food is a main character in the drama. To be alive and stay alive one must have companionship. We are not self-sufficient, self-contained beings. We can’t even photosynthesize.
What does it mean to be human? It means we are utterly dependent on otherness to be ourselves. We must metabolize and incorporate into ourselves something other than ourselves in order to keep being ourselves. There is, in fact, far less a distinction between ourselves and others than our modern minds like to tell us.
As Genesis 2 and 3 tells it, the human pilgrimage begins in a garden, surrounded by everything we need to flourish. Everything we need to flourish, plus a little extra.
My preferred interpretation of the meaning of the tree of knowledge of good and evil – the one tree God told the humans not to eat – differs from the idea that the fruit of this tree imparted knowledge about good and evil. One of the nuances of the Hebrew language is that naming opposites can imply that everything in between is also included. It doesn’t mean this and this. It means from this to this. It’s a range, not a list of two things. Eating the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil would give one knowledge of things good, all the way to evil. Kind of like we might say someone knows things A to Z. In other words, pretty much everything.
In the garden of abundance, the serpent entices the human that they can be like God, knowing all things from good to evil, from east to west, from A to Z, and having eaten, we proceed from the garden with god-like knowledge, with god-like powers We are not merely the created, we are the creators of worlds that may or may not lead to flourishing, that may or may not impart blessing. In a creation of original goodness, it’s possible to twist the goodness out of shape to cause harm to oneself and others.
How are we doing at being human?
The question in the garden about that tree of knowledge is a question that has followed us ever since. Just because we can eat it, have it become part of us, should we? Just because we have it within our power, will it be beneficial?
If you’ve seen previews for the movie Oppenheimer, which will be released this summer, you see a portrayal of the man behind the Manhattan Project, the building of the atomic weapons our country eventually used on Japan toward the end of World World II. You see a portrayal of a man utterly haunted by these very questions, stretched to the extreme. Just because we can, should we? Just because we have it within our power, will it be beneficial?
Questions that have only become more pertinent since the Garden, now in our tech driven world. A troubled Oppenheimer says: “I don't know if we can be trusted with such a weapon,” even as its unfathomable power is being confirmed in the New Mexico desert.
The first Sunday of Lent gives us another story of beginnings - well after the garden, and well before the dawning of the nuclear age. It’s the story of Jesus in the wilderness, after his baptism and before his public ministry. It’s a pilgrimage, but not the kind with a clear geographic destination. It’s a pilgrimage into the heart of how to be human.
This is an origins story for the kind of person Jesus chooses to be, facing those same questions of how to use power in a way that builds up rather than tears down. It’s the story that captures what Lent can be for each of us. In order to better know what forces are actually driving our lives, it’s good to step away from time to time and go out into the wilderness, even if the wilderness is a corner of your couch with a pen and journal. The wilderness is the place we go not so much to learn, as to unlearn. There’s no uneating from the tree of knowledge from good to evil, but there is the examination of what we’re doing with the fruit.
Jesus makes the pilgrimage out into the wilderness and faces down the voices that emerge when there’s nothing else to hold his attention. Turn these stones into bread. Leap from this height and God will save you. Adopt the ways of domination, and all the world will be yours.
It’s a Christian innovation to link the voice of the devil in the wilderness with the voice of the serpent in the garden, and there are indeed echoes from one story to the other. What will you do with all that’s in front of you? How far will you go with your god-like powers to create and destroy?
To these questions, these temptations, Jesus chooses to sit in the discomfort of his humanity. The discomfort of hunger – not turning stones into bread; the discomfort of potential suffering – not believing God must save him were he to throw himself off a great height; and the discomfort of choosing the kind of power that can persuade, but not coerce others.
Jesus sits in the discomfort of his humanity in the wilderness even as he begins to peal back the layers of what have made us less human. And thus begins his project of pointing the way back to original goodness.
Wherever you are on your pilgrimage, I encourage you to risk asking the kinds of questions Lent presents:
How are we doing at being human?
Are there ways I’m using power that harm rather than bring life to others?
Are there things I’ve picked up along the way that I should lay down?
Are there things I’ve let slip from my hands that I should pick up?
It’s OK to sit in the discomfort of not having ready answers for any of this.
Most of all, I encourage you to let the Spirit peel away whatever layers may have accumulated over time so that the primary voice you hear over and over again isn’t the voice of the devil in the wilderness or the voice of the serpent in the garden, but the voice of the Creator affirming the goodness of your humanity. The utter delight of your existence. The gift you are as a companion on this pilgrimage. It is good. It is exceedingly good.