But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”Genesis 3:4-5, First Sunday in Lent
“You were a little weak on evil,” said the older pastor good-naturedly, as if the intellectual exercise were paramount. Behind the closed doors of the chapel at my home church, dozens of delegates, both lay and clergy, were discussing my ordination paper. We stood near tables laden with refreshments for the reception planned with hope of a favorable outcome. “Weak on evil,” he repeated, “and a little soft on sin.”
I had been feeling pretty good about my paper, in which I quoted a seminary professor who said, “Sin is anything that gets in the way of our relationship with God.” I wrote it down word for word when I heard it in class, and I typed it up later, so I wouldn’t lose it.
Was I soft on sin? Or hopeful about the potential for goodness in God’s creation? I preferred the latter interpretation.
Despite all this, I was approved that day and ordained a few months later. (Pictured after my ordination on 10/6/02, with my kids, in the same space at Woodfords Congregational UCC in Portland, Maine.)
Unfortunately, the ensuing years have shown me that my professor’s assertion assumes we will be able to see ourselves honestly enough to recognize disruption in our relationship with God. Since then, I have seen too many news stories and exposés recounting the abusive behavior of faith leaders who preached one way and lived another, unable or unwilling to see the contradiction between their teaching and their living. Take into account leaders in other fields who call themselves followers of Jesus, and add on professionals who carry authority over others, even parents and guardians, and we can see the picture clearly. This sin, this evil, is not a stunning exception.
I can see how soft I was on sin, that of others, and my own. Have I swung over too far? Today my distress over the world may have made me too partial to total depravity.
Even so, I don’t want to be the preacher who condemns others; Jesus certainly told us to beware of critiquing the splinter in someone else’s eye when there is a log in our own. From a homiletic perspective, it’s probably more effective to talk about temptation when engaging the texts from Genesis and Matthew this week. Even the temptation to gain something we might otherwise view as positive – knowledge – risks a behavior – disobedience – that pushes us over the boundary into sin. Here’s where I get tangled up. I go down the side paths, wondering “What is our view of disobedience?” My subjective view – does it count as disobedience if the rule is nonsensical or, worse, prejudiced or hateful? – may not be trustworthy and certainly emphasizes a suspicion of worldly systems over an emphasis on relationship with God.
On this Sunday when people will be comparing notes (or avoiding conversations) about what they are planning to give up for Lent, we could propose a season of conscious self-evaluation. We could take on a purposeful examen. What is my motivation for the choice I am making, whether it is for action or inaction? What are the ramifications of the actions I take? How might the outcome impact me, and others, and the world? And where do I experience God as I examine my actions?
Look inside, and try to be clear with yourself. Look inside, and ask:
- Why am I doing this?
- What is the potential impact?
- Who is influencing me?
- Will my action or decision exhibit love for God, neighbor, and self?
For Lent, let’s look inside.
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