Tuesday, March 11, 2008

THE CURSE - A Sunday Paper Editorial

(A sermon preached on the First Sunday of Lent, Year A. The First Lesson was extended to include the words of the curse.)

The LORD God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, you are cursed above all cattle, and above all wild animals; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”

To the woman he said, “I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”

And to Adam he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

The Church is a community that tells stories; part of what makes this place holy ground is that in this place, week after week, we gather to tell stories. This morning’s story has a special familiarity to this community, because it forms the opening scene of our Christmas Pageant. We can hardly listen to it, especially in this place, without our minds filling with images from our family album: pre-teens standing up here in leotards, flanking a tree; the Angel of the Lord pacing majestically in; Adam pointing accusingly at Eve; the human pair going down the steps, heads bowed, side by side, as the LORD God strips the tree and stands, arms outstretched, barring the way to the tree of life. This is the story we tell about “in the beginning”—the story that explains who we are and how we got that way ... what kind of choices we have ... what lies ahead for us.

Yesterday in this same place, some of us gathered to tell and watch another story-a puppet opera of The Wild Swans, a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. As with so many fairy tales, The Wild Swans tells of a young princess with a wicked stepmother who is jealous of her beauty and throws her out of the palace. The “in the beginning” of fairy tales looks back to a time long ago, before the good queen died and the stepmother came, when the princess was cherished and treasured and loved, and had no cares and no worries; or a time when Jack and his mother were never hungry or ragged or cold. And always, the story tells us that that time is gone.

That time is gone, but we are haunted by its memory. Stories all over the world struggle with the bitter realities of the human condition: hardship, loneliness, fear, loss, pain, anger, guilt, waste, aggression, sickness, death. And central to that struggle is our persistent conviction that it shouldn’t be like this. This is not what we were made for; this is not what the world was made for. The world is a good thing that has been spoiled. Irresistibly, the stories press forward, to imagine a long-ago time when it had not yet been spoiled.

Fairy tales are stories for children—one commentator has called fairy tales “a love gift to a child”—and they exist to give children hope, as the children struggle to cope with their own powerlessness and the work of growing and discovering who they are. So the fairy tales’ “once upon a time” is always a time long ago in the hero’s or heroine’s infancy, when the family unit was unbroken and the parents’ love for the child was complete and unclouded—before there was jealousy or worry or hard work or the need to break away from parents and make one’s own fortune and choose one’s own mate. In fairy tales, the terrible calamity that breaks up this safe world is never the hero’s or heroine’s own fault. It always just happens: the good queen dies—a wicked sorcerer casts an evil spell—a famine comes in the land. Without it, there would be no story: the hero or heroine would remain forever a baby, cocooned in a world that was completely safe but completely static.

But the Bible story is more complicated.

The Bible story is the story of a primal disaster—and unlike the fairy tales, the story tells us that the disaster didn’t just happen, we made it happen. It is our fault. We ourselves broke the love relationship between ourselves and our Creator; worse, we chose to break it, after fair warning as to what the consequences would be. We spoiled God’s plan. And the result is not just that we are no longer safe, happy, cared for and appreciated. The result is a curse.

Someone once asked me, years ago, why our Christmas Pageant begins with this story, since it so obviously blames the human condition on the woman, and isn’t that embarrassing and sexist and outdated. And even though the pageant script leaves out the gender-specific curses—the sentence of painful childbirth and sexual submissiveness for the woman, of hard labor and scarcity for the man—still, the image of Adam standing there, pointing at the woman (“it’s her fault”) may make us want to stop here for a minute and look at the part that sex has played in our understanding of this story.

The story has often been read—with satisfaction by arrogant males, with dismay by feminists—as a story about sexual temptation, in which the woman entices the man out of freedom and autonomy into sexual bondage, and in return God says to women, “From now on you’ll have to suffer in childbirth and be kept down by your man; you deserve it, it serves you right for what you did.” But this is a misreading on both counts. There is plenty of misogyny in the Bible, but it doesn’t come from this story. The woman’s sin is not that she has been a temptress; the man’s is not “uxoriousness” or failure to govern his wife rather than be governed by her (as the medievals and Milton had it). The sin itself isn’t sexual at all, and it doesn’t matter who started it; the curse extends to much more than sex and gender, and the story shows no more satisfaction at the fact that women suffer in childbirth than it does at the fact that men sweat in the fields.

The story exists to account for not just one evil but a whole complex of evils. Scarcity, hard labor, the inhospitability of nature, and the frequent dangerousness and difficulty of childbirth are obvious parts of human life, and obvious evils, that any society will have myths to account for. The story identifies these evils and associates them with sexual embarrassment, clothes, waste, and death itself, as all stemming from the alienation from God and our true selves that the Church has called the Fall. Less often noticed is the way this story, coming out of a heavily patriarchal society, also associates patriarchy with the Fall. The ancient mythographers looked around them and saw a society in which women not only suffered pain and risk from giving birth; they also suffered from their own self-destructive sexual desires and the abusive sexual desires of men who held power over them. But instead of saying, “This is how God made the world to be,” the ancient writer said, “This too has come about because of our abuse of our freedom, our spoiling of God’s plan.”

“In pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” Only after the human pair have made outlaws of themselves by reaching for knowledge before God’s appointed time does God pronounce that the man will rule over the woman and the woman be captive to her desire for him. She can’t live without him and she can’t live with him. The sin itself is not sexual, but its results have massive implications for sexuality.

From it, the myth says (with enormous intuitive insight), come rape, sexual abuse, sexual manipulativeness, machismo, sadism, masochism, you name it-but most typically, most often, heterosexual bondage where the woman “needs” and wants the man, and he uses that to put her down, representing her as a temptress and a whore (“the woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me the fruit, and I ate”) or merely as a something-different-from-human who is all very well in her place but certainly not his equal in competence and value.

And from this, Christ came to set us free.

No wonder, as Dorothy Sayers remarks, “no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man—there has never been such another. ... There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything funny about woman’s nature.” Nor would they guess that there is anything corrupt or dangerous about woman’s nature: in marked contrast to the old prophets, Jesus never uses the imagery of harlotry or female uncleanness when he is denouncing sin of any kind.

For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.

The story tells us what we already know: that we are tied and bound with the chain of our sins. But the story is able to help us believe that God did not create us for such bondage, and to grasp the hope that in God’s own coming to enter our pain and humiliation, we may even now begin to see the chains grow loose and fall from us. With the story’s help, we can envision a world where our response to seductive temptation is not to lie and sneak and hide, to turn each other into objects for manipulation and power plays and blame, but to hold up our own freedom and the freedom and goodness of all other selves, and to stand joyfully and without shame before our Creator.

We are embarking today on the Lenten journey whose goal is no less than complete liberation from sin and death. The stories that we will hear on our journey leave no doubt as to the cost of that liberation: to us, and also to God. It is a tremendous business we are about in this holy place: there is no more important work to be done anywhere, by any of us, than what we do here each time we gather to hear the story. At the end of this year’s Lenten journey, we will assemble here on the eve of Easter, in the dark, to enter the heart of our story, and we will bring forward three of our own number—a baby, a child, and an adult—to be baptized into the death and new life of Jesus. They and their sponsors will renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God. They will renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God, and the sinful desires that draw us from the love of God. They will turn to Jesus Christ as their Saviour, put their whole trust in his grace and love, and promise to follow and obey him as their Lord. Can we even begin to realize how the world will be changed if we really believe these promises—if we really act, day by day, as if this is what is happening in our lives and in the life of this community?

The devil took Jesus to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them, and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Begone, Satan! for it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’” Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and ministered to him.

The curse that binds us is lifted; the chains are loosed; we are free. We have only to believe it, and claim it, and live it.