Thursday, February 14, 2008

Our Inner Fish, Our Inner Christ

Sermon preached February 10, 2008
Themes: Evolution, Adam and Eve, Temptation
Scripture: Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Matthew 4: 1-11

Many of us have heard the story of the 4 year old boy who was overheard speaking to his newborn baby brother. Mom and Dad have just come home from the hospital with their brand new baby, they place the newborn in the crib and step back to give their 4 year old son a little time with the baby; they watch as the boy leans into the crib and whispers, “Tell me about God – I’m starting to forget.”

Probably an apocryphal story; but a good one nonetheless... and I am reminded of it as we read this story from Genesis – Adam and Eve and the fateful bite from the forbidden fruit – because this story is like an answer to that question – "Tell me about God -- I'm starting to forget." Because this is a story that comes to us fresh from the very dawn of human consciousness.

We lean into this story like the boy leaning into the crib.

This is a story that traces its roots way back into our primeval memory; it is a story that has shaped our sense of who we are for thousands of years

It speaks to us from a time when humans were just beginning to ask the big questions about our place in this whole scheme; and how we got here.

I imagine the ancient people who began to piece together the elements of this story; huddled around campfires for generation after generation, staring up into the brilliant stars, straining to remember where they came from

They had this memory -- vaguely, in their bones – a memory of a kind of lost paradise; that time before the blessing and the curse of human consciousness

A book came out recently by the Paleontologist Neil Shubin called Your Inner Fish

Shubin demonstrates how our bodies are a living record of our evolutionary history

He shows how different parts of our bodies still reveal our earlier history – he shows how our fingers and arms, for example, evolved from the fins of a fish; how the structure of our brains resemble a shark’s brain. He demonstrates how the inner ear shares the same bones as a fish; he even traces our tendency to hiccup to a time when we breathed through our gills through a kind of spasm in our glottis.

And just as our bodies contain a physical memory of the time when we were just animals, so do our minds, too, contain that memory – the memory of that primordial time before we were human; before we started asking questions; before the Fall.

For hundreds of millions of years, we were simple organisms; immersed in the flowing sea of impulses and drives and that constant brutish struggle for survival

For millions of years – that was us. We didn’t just used to be monkeys. We used to be amphibians; we used to be fish; we used to be jellyfish and worms. Our very genes carry that history inside us.

We carry a memory of that time

and we call it paradise... lost.

We remember that time;

before we knew how to name things

before we had the capacity to choose

before we had categories of good and evil

before we became conscious of our suffering

That was our paradise

we were nothing but animals

we didn’t know any better than to survive and to fight; to eat and get eaten; to procreate and to die.

and because we didn’t know any better; we didn’t know there was anything better; we just lived and died in a unity with nature

and we were innocent.

Here’s a poem I discovered recently:

The Wind, One Brilliant Day

by Antonio Machado

The wind, one brilliant day, called

to my soul with an odor of jasmine.

“In return for the odor of my jasmine,

I’d like all the odor of your roses.”

“I have no roses; all the flowers

in my garden are dead.”

“Well then, I’ll take the withered petals

and the yellow leaves and the waters of the fountain.”

The wind left. And I wept. And I said to myself:

“What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you?”

(translated by Robert Bly)

“What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you?”

on one level, of course, this is God’s question to us,

on another level, it is our question to ourselves,

the first accusing voice that rises within us when we first come to terms with our separation from the creation:

“What have we done?”

The story from Genesis represents our first awakening; our first awareness of that separation from the creation; and in the process, our guilt

The story says that God appointed us to till the soil and keep the garden

this is not something that animals do

It’s one of the dreadful differences between us and the animals -- that somehow got put us in charge of it all:

God charges us with being good stewards;

this responsibility is an essential feature of being human

and of course this responsibility is the source of such great sorrow and grief

Just as our bodies contain the physical record of our evolution from animals, so do our minds:

our passion, our diversions

We seek the sweet release of pleasure and distraction;

we see it in the behavior of young people: the constant pursuit of sports, promiscuity, drinking and dancing into the night – lost in that never-ending quest to lose their self-consciousness:

seeking that primal moment when their bodies and their environment are one:

finally freed from the monkey mind,

freed from regret or guilt or loss

throwing ourselves completely into the material moment

Behaviors that might look hedonistic to us, can actually be driven by that pursuit for a lost innocence, the innocence of animals at play in the world.

We go to the zoo and watch the animals and we might envy their innocent unity with nature

we envy their freedom from the tyranny of propriety and guilt;

I imagine a pride of lions on the hunt,

they are prowling, plotting, picking their prey, on signal they make their move, rush the herd, separate the slower and the weaker from the rest; they take down a juvenile antelope

they are innocent; without self-consciousness, living beyond any sense of right or wrong, living in the immediacy of the moment;

innocent, and yet unspeakably vicious

If the animals are innocent, and yet vicious,

what makes us so guilty?

why are we so ashamed of our nakedness?

at what point did we start covering ourselves?

This ancient story from the Bible tells us it must be at that point that we stopped being animals

when we started asking things like,

“Why does life have to be so hard?”

“What is the point?”

I met a man a few days ago who despite a good education and an intelligent mind and a gifted ability with others could not for the life of him stay out of the clutches of the creditor

after talking to me about his debt and his struggle, he asked me, “What’s the point of it all?”

What is the point? Are we nothing but animals? Is this all we can expect from life – a brutish dull existence, the spoils go to the strong, and in the end everyone becomes weakened by age and eventually dies? Is that it?

The answer of course is not found by looking backwards into the dictates of our evolutionary past

the answer is found by looking forward – into our gospel reading

When Jesus was tempted in the wilderness he was offered the elements of evolutionary advantage: material goods; food; power; strength to dominate.

If we were mere animals, these would be the natural choices we would make

We would seek more strength; more power; more resources; we would seize the advantages and opportunities offered to us by our superior powers

But we are called into a new place

Jesus is showing us a different path for our evolution

an evolution toward the place of angels

we choose compassion over ruthless competition

we would rather fast for the sake of mercy and compassion

than eat like an animal whatever food is offered to us

we would rather serve humanity than dominate it

These are not choices that an animal would make

these are the choices that a god would make

as we are called to follow Jesus; we are called into the perfection of our humanity

we are called into a new paradise: made real through him

a paradise in which the sum total of all our vain striving

the sum total of all our evolutionary struggle

is brought to fulfillment and perfection

in love

Now our purpose is no longer merely to survive

our purpose is to love

our purpose is to serve

and to that purpose we dedicate our lives

our hearts, our souls;

even our genetic heritage

We stand before God and we say yes to our humanity

and declare that in Christ, the new creation is fulfilled

to use Paul’s language, the new Adam has arrived

and this is what gives us the courage to defy millions of years of self-serving behavior in order to say, We no longer live for ourselves, but for him who died and was raised from the dead, that we may find our perfection in him, who lives and reigns, now and forever.

Somebody say, Amen.

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