Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
March 26, 2017
“Who Can We Find to Blame”
John 9: 1-41 - Text is from New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) with some adaptations from The Message
As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind since birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, [causing] this man to be born blind; him or his parents?”
When a little boy brought his “My Lil Pony” backpack to school, administrators in Ashville, North Carolina, told him he couldn’t because it “triggered bullying.” And if he were bullied, it would be his fault, not those who were so threatened by the sight of a little boy with a cartoon backpack that they couldn’t control themselves. After a media storm, the school apologized and recognized that this was actually a teachable moment to address the wider issue of bullying. They came around.
But not the Christian school in Lynchburg, Virginia. They expelled an 8 year old girl because she looked and dressed too much like a boy. She was not upholding “biblical standards.” When confronted, they just dug their heels in deeper. When exposed by the child’s grandparents and caught by the media, the school claimed victimhood. They claimed they were being bullied by a secular society that doesn’t understand. As their lawyers explained, “Parents send their children to this School because of our Christian beliefs and standards. We have a duty to create an environment that is supportive of these Christian values. We cannot have conflicting messages or standards because such conflict will confuse students and frustrate parents who entrust their children to us.”
First, they blamed her grandparents for lying and the media for distorting the truth. Then they claimed that they did not target little Sunnie Kahle but in the same statement claimed that they must, they had to discriminate to protect parents and their kids from unchristian beliefs and standards – which apparently includes telling a girl to grow her hair longer and wear pretty dresses because Jesus said so.
White evangelicals have a persecution complex. In fact, a recent poll found that white evangelicals believe they are the most highly persecuted group in America – much worse than Muslims. Now, Jesus was persecuted. But it was for telling those who can see they are blind. But that comes later.
3 Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.
But wait a minute. Didn’t Jesus just now blame God? And make God sound awful? It sounds like God created him blind so that a miracle could be worked through him? Or was it that because he was born blind, the works of God could be revealed through him? Was this like Paul said, “God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness?” That’s a sticky issue that isn’t resolved here but is worth exploring at another time.
Again as the story began, the assumption was made that surely this man sinned. Or that his parents sinned. Surely someone is to blame. Jesus called this out as absurd. One’s abilities or disabilities are not linked in any way to sin, even though such ideas then and now still persist.
6 When Jesus [cleared up the misunderstanding about sin,], he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7 saying to him, “Now go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). So the man went and washed and came back able to see.
8 The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Isn’t this the man who used to sit here and beg?” 9 Some were saying yes, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it’s someone [who looks] like him.” The man himself kept saying, “I am the man.” 10 But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” 11 He kept answering, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ So I went and washed and received my sight.” 12 They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I don’t know.”
Did you notice how the neighbors only saw him as a blind man? And when he wasn’t blind anymore, they didn’t know what to do. When they didn’t have a category with which to judge him anymore, they didn’t know who he was. When the man could see, the public went blind.
13 They marched the man who had formerly been blind to the Pharisees. 14 Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15 When the Pharisees grilled the man on how he had received his sight, he said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” 16 Some of the Pharisees responded [well, then], “That man is [clearly] not from God, for he [worked on] the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. 17 So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” The man said, “He is a prophet.”
The Pharisees did not like that answer. Listen:
18 So then, [they] didn’t believe that he had been blind [in the first place]. They called the parents of the man 19 and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” 20 His parents answered, “This is our son, and he was born blind; 21 but we don’t know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Why don’t you ask him; he’s a grown man. He can speak for himself.” 22 His parents said this because they were afraid because the [religious authorities] had already said that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.23 His parents were intimidated, so therefore they said, “He is of age; ask him.”
The parents were afraid, so they deflected. But they were also correct. Ask him yourself. But, oh that’s right. People couldn’t see him as anything but blind. Or the man “formerly known as blind.” And when they didn’t like his answers, they kept trying to find someone or something to explain him away. They add the classic move of speaking about someone with a disability instead of to them.
24 So for the second time the Pharisees called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give [your] glory to God! For we know that this man [who allegedly healed you] is a sinner.” 25 The man answered, “I don’t know about all that; whether or not he’s a sinner. But one thing I do know. I was blind, and now I see.” 26 They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 27 He answered them, “I’ve already told you, and you wouldn’t listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples too?”
Good come back!
28 They [were repulsed] and reviled him, [indignantly] saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29 We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man [referring to Jesus], we don’t know where he comes from.” 30 The man replied, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31 We know that God doesn’t listen to sinners, but he does listen to anyone who worships him and obeys his will. 32 Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33 So, if this man were not from God, he could do nothing, right?”
You can just see their blood pressures rising. Their minds working overdrive trying to figure out how they can spin this. Finally they sputter:
34 “You were born entirely in sin, and you’re trying to teach us?” [How dare you.] And so they drove him out.
The blame game. If you don’t want to believe someone, throw sin around as a label. Then claim you are the real victim. We have to discriminate against you. It’s straight out of press-secretary school.
When their point of view is not validated, by most especially Jesus, they claim to be shocked. They’re taken-aback, insulted, and lash out: “You’re the law-breaker. You’re the sinner.” Pharisees, then and now, persist in their assertion that things they disapprove of equal sin.
Like Christians today who blame everyone else for having bad morals because we can’t rely on societally-reinforced approval for discrimination anymore. They feel persecuted so we have to discriminate against you. And then like the man born blind, the marginalized are further marginalized.
The UCC aired some TV commercials about ten years ago. They were so controversial that many networks refused to play them. In my favorite, the scene is of two bouncers at the door of a church – complete with red velvet ropes – keeping some people out and letting other people in. Christian conservatives like Albert Mohler cried foul. They claimed we were depicting them in a negative light – calling them discriminatory. “No one has bouncers at their door keeping gays, the disabled, and people of color out.” Those critics never once cared that this was it felt like, this is what it feels like, to many people. Instead they made it all about themselves and cried victim. And in the debate about people who feel invisible, they were made invisible. Stigmatized. Marginalized. Victimized.
35 Jesus heard that they had driven the man out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36 He answered, “And who is he, sir? Point him out to me, so that I may believe in him.” 37 Jesus said, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” 38 He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. 39 Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” 40 Some of the Pharisees overheard him and said, “Surely [you’re not saying] we are blind, are you?” 41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But [because] you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.
Jesus said, “My judgment is for those who do see.” In the Kingdom of God the humble are lifted high; the powerful toppled from their throne. The blind see. The hungry eat. And yes, in the Kingdom of God, boys can carry whatever backpack they want. And girls can dress and look any way they feel.
Jesus was persecuted. It was for exposing the hypocrisy of the religious and elevating those like this man and the Samaritan woman at the well last week who had had five husbands. Some so-called scholars called her a “five-time-loser-tramp living an ‘aberrant lifestyle’ of sin.” They saw sin where none existed. Jesus said nothing of sin. He saw only a woman who had had a hard life and a bunch of men who had taken advantage of her. Jesus saw her and elevated her by confiding first to a woman “I am he.” And then to the man formerly known as blind.
Yet, the blame game persists. We recognize it so well because the country has just gone through another week of it. It’s not my fault. It would be funny if it weren’t so tragic. And while everyone points fingers, real people suffer. Victimized, stigmatized, marginalized so we can ask “Who is to blame?” Or better yet: “Who can we find to blame?” That’s much less complicated.
But back to the man born blind. He ultimately said, “I don’t know about all that. All I know is that I was blind and now I see.” This is who I was. This is now who I am.
We can easily lose sight of this important statement – tempted to go off into our own distractions about whether or not mud can heal, or whether Jesus can heal. What can we find to explain this? Not to blame it, but explain it away. As a progressive Christian I can fall into the same game of not listening when someone says, for example, Jesus healed me. Surely that is too simplistic. Surely there is another explanation, preferring to credit medical science. Instead, I should say, “I don’t know about all that, but I believe you. I rejoice with you.”
As much as this story is about sin and blame and hypocrisy – topics that are very real and relevant today – the real inspiration to me is the man’s statement. Beyond all the attempts at distraction, his testimony remains: This is what I was. This is who I am. I was blind but now I see.
Lent invites the practice of self-examination, looking for our own blind spots. We can make it about everyone else, but who or what do we refuse to see? What judgments do we make? As I kept engaging the story all week, the question I kept seeing was “how am I a hypocrite?”
How am I a hypocrite? How are you? Those words can really sting. But we all have blinders on. And yet we need be not afraid or offended by such suggestions. In fact, as people of faith, we invite questions like these because we believe that honesty leads to truth. Self-reflection leads to growth. And confession leads to transformation. Transformations like: This is what I was. This is who I am.
Keep pushing aside the distractions and accusations and hold on to hope for the day when, as the prophet Isaiah proclaimed:
the eyes of the blind opened,
and the ears of the deaf cleared.
6 when the lame will leap like deer,
and the tongue of the speechless will sing.
Because, yes, the day will come when our long national nightmare will be over. And on that day
Waters will spring up in the desert,
and streams in the wilderness.
7 The burning sand will become a pool,
and the thirsty ground, fountains of water.
Certainly blind now, I pray, let our country see again – the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to be free. The wretched refuse, tempest tossed of our world.
Will you join me in the act of audacious hope to believe that no matter who we are right now, God imagines who we can and will be?
Born male or female, black, white or brown, blind or sighted, hearing or deaf, gay or straight – these are not the source of sin. But what we do with our abilities and wealth and education and our privilege does matter. So I invite you to turn to the insert in your bulletin as we engage in the Lenten practice of self-examination.
Prayer of Confession
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive our transgressions and cleanse us from any unrighteousness. Sisters and brothers, let us ask for the forgiveness we need.
Have mercy on us, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out our transgressions. Wash us thoroughly from our iniquity, and cleanse us from our sin. Create in us a create heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within us. Cast us not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from us. Restore to us the joy of your salvation, and uphold us with a willing spirit. Amen
 Rev. Emily Heath wrote a beautiful letter to her: http://emilycheath.com/2014/03/25/an-open-letter-to-sunnie-kahle-and-christian-tomboys-everywhere/
 2nd Corinthians 12:9
 Anna Carter Florence, “Homiletical Perspective on John 4: 5-42.” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2
 Isaiah 35: 5-7
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
John 4: 5-42 – The woman at the well. See the end of this document for the text.
Last week in the story of Nicodemus, he came to see Jesus under the dark cover of night. But he couldn’t understand what Jesus was saying. He couldn’t comprehend the idea that he must be born from above or anew or again. He didn’t get it. And walked away, back into the night.
By contrast, in the bright light and intense heat of the noon day sun, a woman with a “dark” past got it. She understood. This woman of Samaria experienced a sudden reversal of fortune – just like Mary said would happen. While she was still pregnant with Jesus, Mary sang:
God has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.
God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.
God has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.
Nicodemus is an insider with a name. To be fair, by consorting with Jesus, he had everything to lose – the respect of his peers, his influence on the Sanhedrin... And eventually he did get it, ultimately offering his own grave as the place of Jesus’ burial.
But, in this story, by contrast, this woman of Samaria is an outsider with no name who had everything to gain by listening. And she did. Jesus gave her respect. He engaged in serious theological conversation with her. He answered her questions and then revealed, for the first time to anyone, “I AM he.” Not even his disciples understood this yet. And then she ran to share the Good News.
It’s important to understand the detail of the time of day when they met. Most women came to get water early in the day, in groups, laughing and sharing stories, in the cool morning air. She was there during the hottest part of the day – alone.
Why? We imagine it is because the villagers treated her like an outcast; we imagine it is because of a checkered past.
In fact, a shocking number of biblical commentators sound exactly like Rush Limbaugh: describing this woman just like he called Sandra Fluke a slut in need of birth control because she has such “uncontrollable whorish” ways.
You wouldn’t believe how many so-called scholars try to delegitimize this women by writing such things as – she obviously had a “dubious lack of morals” and exhibited “aberrant sexual behavior,” (what?!!). There are “scholars” who actually call her a “5 time loser” and a “tramp…” “Mixed up with the wrong crowd.” These men reveal much more about their own attitudes toward women than anything found in the text itself.
Karoline Lewis is a biblical scholar who said “too many commentators are preoccupied with sex and the woman’s so-called ‘sin’ and how Jesus ‘forgave’ her. The text itself says nothing of any sin she has committed, nor does Jesus ever forgive her. Jesus’ question about her husband is not a [judgmental dig about] her marital status.” We may hear “Go, call your husband and come back” as a judgment. But why would we hear that and think ‘sin?” That’s not even something she could have controlled anyway – which, of course, doesn’t stop judgers from judging. And haters from hating.
After all, remember that women were the revolving property of men – of fathers and husbands and sons. In fact, if her first husband died, in the custom of levirate marriage described in the Bible, she might have had to marry his next available brother, and so on, one after another. No choice involved. Maybe “like Tamar she had been trapped in the custom of levirate marriage and the last male in the family line refused to marry her.”
And yet these scholars persist. She is worthy of Jesus’ attention, if she promises to repent. Or they preach that we should “love the sinner but hate the sin.” As though that looks anything like love. But, as Lewis writes, “sin in the Gospel of John is unbelief.” It is about hearing and then doing nothing with the grace of God. It is seeing people who are thirsty and claiming they wouldn’t be thirsty if they didn’t buy so many iPhones.
Sin is whining and complaining to Jesus, asking but:
"Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?" ,
But I tell you, what is sin?
Lord, when did we see you? Shrug…
What “sin” is this woman accused of? Jesus’ retelling of the fact that she has had 5 husbands was simply a statement of understanding. She’s had a hard life. She’s been judged for having a hard life. For whatever reason, she’s been shut out, left out, and put out of the community. And that is precisely why Jesus sought her out. It wasn’t just a coincidence that they met at the well. She illustrates one of the points of Jesus’ life and teaching – healing divisions among people. Divisions between enemies.
The fact that this woman is from Samaria illuminates the point made only a few verses before – that God so loved the world. Even those dreadful Samaritans. What is all that about anyway?
The feud between Jews and Samaritans was really a family affair between people of the same religious heritage. Among their issues, in the time of the exile, 500 years before, Judeans were carried off to Babylon. Samaritans were not. Jews accused the Samaritans of taking advantage of them in their absence. The Samaritans accused those who returned from exile of having altered and amended the religion of the ancient Israelites – and so therefore, the Samaritans were the defenders of the true religion.
Jesus chose to pass through Samaria. It would make geographical sense to travel through Samaria when going from Judea up to Galilee, but due to their long standing feud, Jews took the long way around instead. Imagine driving to Limon to get to Colorado Springs in order to circumvent driving through Castle Rock – to avoid those people.
Jesus passed through Samaria, when, like many of us, we might prefer to take the long way around. Avoiding one another.
Samaria represents God’s love for the world. But the woman of Samaria is a representative of many of us. We can see her in our own stories.
Maybe we get her because we’ve been judged too as religious outcasts – because we’ve been divorced, or for our identity or orientation. Skeptics. Maybe you know what it feels like to be disowned by your family. Or what it’s like to be left out and put out. Cut off from community.
Maybe we understand her because we too are stuck in a place we don’t want to be in the hot sun – trapped in a miserable job, a failing relationship, or fighting a frightening disease.
Maybe we get her because we too know the loneliness of not trusting another living soul, not daring to share, for example, that we love someone who is an addict, or that we know abuse. Caring for someone who doesn’t care about us.
Maybe she wasn’t shunned but she chose to keep to herself. Going to the well at noon by choice. Unable to bear the pain of sharing our failures and disappointments with another person – so we avoid other people altogether.
Her story is big enough to include all of us it in somewhere. And she shows that the kingdom of God is big enough to include all of us in it too.
She represents all the people who are the “other.” People who are misunderstood. Of whom leaders can make us frightened – to label as sluts or whores or terrorists or takers and slackers. Jesus treated this woman as equally worthy. And it shocked his disciples. But the truth is that, if we really take it seriously, the grace and love of Jesus is a scandal that should shock us too.
Remember: Jesus didn’t just stumble upon this woman. She was exactly the kind of person with whom he wanted to share this news, this hope – to symbolize that it’s the least-likely in the eyes of those who judge who personify the kingdom of God. For lack of a better word – the least of these who are hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, or in prison.
Jesus restores the long standing divisions between people, some whom we would go so far as to call enemy – conflicts often started by small misunderstandings. And he starts by asking for a drink of water to quench his thirst. Starting a conversation.
I’m thirsty too. My soul is parched. To that, Jesus seems to suggest that I dare ask a drink of someone on “the other side.”
Jesus was supposed to hate the Samaritans. It is what his people had been taught for hundreds of year. To be afraid of them. Jesus was supposed to avoid speaking to a woman, let alone one of “those” women, and avoid the intimate act of asking to drink from her bucket. Jesus was supposed to… avoid, fear, judge…
It makes me wonder: What are you and I “supposed” to do? Who are we supposed to avoid? Or maybe more to the point, who do we try to avoid? Shut out, keep out, put out…
Who do you demonize? I do it. I hear something and shake my head and call them stupid or idiots. I heard the comment about surveillance microwaves and said something very unkind about that person. I’ve thrown epithets and cursed at people with whom I disagree. What if, instead, I went to places I’m not “supposed” to go, people I’m “supposed” to avoid, and simply said, “I’m thirsty. Would you give me something to drink?”
Like, I’m thirsty for our feud to end. I’m thirsty for our family to be restored. I’m thirsty to be your friend again. I’m thirsty for our country to be reunited again.
And yet, I’m not so thirsty as to paper over all our differences or accept excuses because I’m also thirsty for justice. I am thirsty for justice to roll down like water, and righteousness like an everflowing stream. When “let’s all get along” means “let’s leave some behind on the other side,” then that is not acceptable. I couldn’t meet Jesus at the end and answer "Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?" I couldn’t answer, I sacrificed you in the name of getting along.
Perhaps what I am most thirsty for is civility. Respect. Truth. Compassion. What are you thirsty for?
More importantly, what drink might we offer a parched world?
And so we gather, in turbulent times, Thirsty.
Thirsty for connection to our deepest self
Thirsty for real connection to others
Thirsty for a greater connection to the universe and our purpose in life.
Give us this Living Water, our Creator God.
We pray to drink only of love,
that all who gather here may be filled:
Filled with courage and hope
Filled with compassion and a passion for unity.
So that we may pour ourselves out
for the sake of the world, for justice.
For the poor, the immigrant, the refugee, the misunderstood, the abused, the lonely and afraid.
In Jesus’ name, we pray, give us such abundant Living Water that we may forever live in harmony with nature, your people, and you.
Our thirst quenched, ironically, only in giving drink to others. Amen
John 4: 5-34, 39-42
5 So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8 (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)[b] 10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” 17 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” 19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you[c] say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I am he,[d] the one who is speaking to you.”
27 Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” 28 Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29 “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah,[e] can he?” 30 They left the city and were on their way to him.
31 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” 32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” 33 So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” 34 Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.
39 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. 41 And many more believed because of his word. 42 They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”
 Luke 1: 46-55
 Karoline M Lewis, “Exegetical Perspective on John 4: 5-42.” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2, page 93-95
 Gail O’Day, “John,” The Women’s Bible Commentary, page 296. The story of Tamar is in Genesis 38
 Matthew 25: 31-46
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
March 5, 2017
“Let’s Live a Life that’s a Little More Pointless”
Matthew 17: 1-9 – The Message
The Lord God took the human and settled him in the garden of Eden to farm it and to take care of it. 16 The Lord God commanded the human, “Eat your fill from all of the garden’s trees; 17 but don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, because on the day you eat from it, you will die!”
The snake was the most intelligent of all the wild animals that the Lord God had made. It said to the woman, “Did God really say that you shouldn’t eat from any tree in the garden?”
2 The woman said to the snake, “We may eat the fruit of the garden’s trees 3 but not the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden. God said, ‘Don’t eat from it, and don’t touch it, or you will die.’” 4 The snake said to the woman, “You won’t die! 5 God knows that on the day you eat from it, you will see clearly and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 6 The woman saw that the tree was beautiful with delicious food and that the tree would provide wisdom, so she took some of its fruit and ate it, and also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. 7 Then they both saw clearly and knew that they were naked. So they sewed fig leaves together and made garments for themselves.
The Book of Genesis is full of attempts to answer such questions as, “Where do we come from?” “How did the world begin?” “Why is life so difficult?” “Why do we blame women for everything?”
Here’s a story that didn’t make it into the Bible.
In the beginning, God created lots of people – not just one or two. Lots of us. And we spent all of our time playing. All day and into the night.
We splashed in rivers.
We rolled down hillsides.
We ran with the wind.
And then we’d lie down and eat from this beautiful garden to refresh our bodies and stay up late to watch the stars fly by in the night sky. It was good. It was very good.
Until one day when a snake came by. At least they said it was a snake. It might have been a guy in the three piece suit on his iPhone. Or it could have been a theologian with a big fat book. In any case, this thing called a snake told everyone who was rolling on the hillside and splashing in the water, and playing and frolicking and tumbling: “That’s foolish. You’re wasting your time. At least, unless you’re keeping score.”
We had no idea what the snake meant. What’s keeping “score?”
He told us, “Whoever gets the most points will win and get this apple.” But we had no idea what “points” were. Yet, we were curious. So the snake offered, “I’ll teach you.”
The snake taught us how to keep points for our running and our jumping and our climbing, so that whoever climbed the highest got points, and whoever ran fastest got points, and whoever could roll down the hill farthest got more points.
That wasn’t so bad, but some things, like frolicking, were too hard to score. So we stopped doing that.
Soon we were keeping score for everything we did. We started to keep points for who sang the “best;” for the best whistling and humming and even who was best at beating sticks on a rock.
We kept track so that we would know who had the most points because, surely, we all wanted to win that apple. Even though all the oranges and bananas and kiwis and raspberries and watermelon and… literally, everything else we wanted to eat was free.
Soon we were spending so much time keeping score that nothing was for the sake of simple play anymore. And that made the Creator very sad. Very disappointed. And very concerned.
So God said, “Please, at least take one day, a Sabbath day to rest, to play, and to pray. If you don’t, you’re going to die of exhaustion.”
We hadn’t heard anything about this thing called “dying” before so we tried to pay attention. It sounded pretty serious.
But we just couldn’t stop thinking about that shiny red apple. The snake had done such a good job convincing us how much we wanted it. More than anything else. So we kept trying to win more points.
God kept trying to get through to us that we didn’t need any points. But by this time, I was up to 12,263. And I wanted my children to get even more, so I used every hour of every day, every day of every week, teaching them how to accumulate points, learning strategies to get more points than anyone else. Because that way you’ll, you know, “win!”
We wrote pages and pages and pages and pages and pages of rules. That way it was much easier to keep track of who had more points. We could even write rules so that we could earn more points than other people.
And then we came up with another brilliant idea. Whoever broke the rules we wrote – we could take away their points. And then eject them from the game.
We came up with another idea using points to keep score. Keeping points against other people – lists of slights and flubs and irritations that grew ever longer.
But we even better, we came up with something we named hell. Soon it became more important to stay out of hell than it was to rack up more points. It was working out wonderfully for us.
So God said, “At least don’t forget those without any points.” But the snake said all those people were “pointless.” They’re just losers.
Over and over again our Creator tried to get our attention. Keep it simple, God told us. There are only two rules in, if you must call it that, the “Game of Life:” “Love me and love your neighbor. You can have a lot of fun just doing that.”
But, we said, “Who on earth wants to play a game with only two rules?” It’s too hard to score.
And yet, I started to get tired. We all got tired. We yelled at each other a lot more. The points we held against each other kept growing almost as fast as the original point of keeping points. Instead of yelling for each other, shouts of enthusiasm and encouragement, we yelled each other. We argued over silly, arbitrary rules. We devolved into groups of us vs. them. I’m right. You’re wrong. Friendships became fractured. Families didn’t know what to do – because we had never considered such an idea before. That anything could come between the love God first implanted in us at creation.
By the time we started to question whether all those points were really worth it, I wasn’t about to just walk away from 12,263 points. Nobody was. I wanted to get to at least 15,000.
I just hoped I didn’t die first.
What if I die before I can win that apple?
What would have been the point?
What did you hear in that story? How did it speak to you?
There are lots of snakes trying to get us to think we need something better, or we need more, or we need something else… anything that keeps us striving to get “it.” Whatever that “it” may be. Cunning, seductive, conniving... there are a lot of snakes out there wearing three-piece suits working overtime to get us to “need” something. Plus snakes that will convince us it’s someone else’s fault, egging us on to remain stubbornly certain that “I am right.” Find someone you can blame – whether it be the generals or the fake news or the judges or even the weather. Rather than look inward. Rather than take responsibility for our own faults and failings. And that’s one of the gifts of Lent.
One of the lines in our prayer of confession later in the service says: “It’s not so much that we have chosen evil but that we have often pursued little goods and lesser gods, until we have lost our way.”
In Lent we can pause to ask such questions: Am I too quick to blame or find fault with others? What has been my own part? Have I been seduced, not by some snake, but by my own ego? Am I keeping points – who has done what to me? A list we can pull out anytime we need to score points in an argument.
Lent is a time to pause, to be honest. And to return. Confessing when what we have done or not done has taken us from the path of peace and compassion and justice. Sometimes so far that we have completely lost our way and even betrayed our own values. Whether intentionally or unintentionally.
After all, if there is to be peace in the world and the nations and the cities and the home – there must be peace in my heart. Peace that at least in part comes from being honest with ourselves. Truth. Those with privilege are not without responsibility.
Lent is one of those attempts by God to get us to slow down and breathe and remember what is important. To reconnect; recommit to that which is really important. To ask, is this what I want to be doing with the life God gave me?
Because the ultimate purpose in Lent, more than anything else, is to reclaim that the grace of God is always greater than our sin. Lent may have a dour reputation, but its goal is that we are able receive and sustain real and lasting joy. And to spread that joy through our acts of mercy – just like God’s mercy upon us. Therefore, that’s why we pray to cast aside every weight and heavy burden. It is to receive with gratitude the invitation to start again – not from the beginning, but from the spot where we are today.
We don’t need a “do-over.” We just need a “start-again.” Wherever it is that we left off. Maybe to tell a hard truth we have been avoiding. Or accept one. Maybe to offer long-delayed forgiveness – or receive it. Might we have to ask, who wrote the rules that told me I have keep separate from…(fill in the blank). Perhaps it is to listen more carefully. Or speak more carefully. Maybe it is re-commitment to keep Sabbath again.
Always it is to ask: am I on the path I would choose? Or God would choose. And if not, to begin practicing again those two rules in the “Game of Life:” the love of God and the love of my neighbor – those with points and especially those with fewer or none.
This Lent, I suggest that perhaps we all try to live a life, in our relationships, in our striving and through our choices… that we all try to live a life that is a little more “pointless.”
 Adapted from Barbara Lundblad’s “You Don’t Need Points: The Creation;” which she adapted from Dan Erlander’s “The Pointless People;” who was inspired by Ann Herbert’s retelling of the creation story.
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My three loves are being the Pastor of Park Hill UCC in Denver, Hiking in the Colorado Foothills and Mountains, and Travelling around the world