Sunday 9 March 2014

Flopsy Gets It!

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church - 9th March 2014 11.00am

Genesis 1:20 - 2:3  And God said, "Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky."  21 So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good.  22 God blessed them, saying, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth."  23 And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.  24 ¶ And God said, "Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind." And it was so.  25 God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good.  26 ¶ Then God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth."  27 So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.  28 God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth."  29 God said, "See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.  30 And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food." And it was so.  31 God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.  NRS Genesis 2:1 ¶ Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude.  2 And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done.  3 So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.

Genesis 2:15-17  The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.  16 And the LORD God commanded the man, "You may freely eat of every tree of the garden;  17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die."

Genesis 3:1-7   Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God say, 'You shall not eat from any tree in the garden'?"  2 The woman said to the serpent, "We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden;  3 but God said, 'You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.'"  4 But the serpent said to the woman, "You will not die;  5 for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil."  6 So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.  7 Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

Genesis 3:20-24   The man named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all living.  21 And the LORD God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them.  22 ¶ Then the LORD God said, "See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever"--  23 therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken.  24 He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.

Matthew 4:1-11   Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.  3 The tempter came and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread."  4 But he answered, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'"  5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple,  6 saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'"  7 Jesus said to him, "Again it is written, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'"  8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor;  9 and he said to him, "All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me."  10 Jesus said to him, "Away with you, Satan! for it is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'"  11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

A few years ago now, Liz and I became parents for the first time...
     But, before any of you start to get too excited about this, I ought to clarify.
     We aren't biological parents - we're God-parents.

The young daughter of some good friends of ours
     was baptised in the Methodist church that they attend,
     and at her own request, she’s now our God-daughter.

Some of you will have met her,
     as she comes to worship here with us sometimes.

When we asked our friend what being God-parents involved
     - having slightly worrying visions of us suddenly inheriting a small girl
          if anything were to happen to our friends
     - we were assured that this wasn't what they were expecting at all.

Actually, they put it this way:
     When she’s 18, pregnant, and wondering whether to have an abortion,
          they want her to have someone to talk to
          who they can trust to give her sensible support.

Part of me wondered whether promising to take her in in the event of tragedy
     might prove a more straightforward path,
but anyway, God-parents we became, for better or for worse.

Actually, the task of being moral and spiritual guides to this particular young woman
     has been a challenging and demanding assignment;
          but not because of any misbehaviour on her part.

You see, from a worryingly early age
     she has become something of a theologian,
     not to mention a fairly sophisticated ethicist.

At a very young stage she decided to join her father in his vegetarianism,
     eschewing the occasional chicken-burger and bacon sandwich
          which keep her mother and brother off that particular wagon.

But this love for animals and respect for all living creatures
     took something of a turn for the worryingly extreme
     not long after we began our stint as her God-parents.

What happened was that she contracted conjunctivitis
     - never a pleasant illness at the best of times,
and a trip to the doctor resulted in a prescription for antibiotics and some eye-drops.

Well, the antibiotic tablets were duly if reluctantly consumed,
     but her parents faced enormous difficulty getting the eye-drops in.

It became clear that this was more than the normal dislike
     for having things put in one's eye, that we all share,
and eventually her mum exclaimed in exasperation:
     "It's almost as if you don't want the eye drops to go in!!!"

Well, she went silent at this point...
     And, it turned out, this was exactly the problem.
She didn't want the eye-drops in her eye.

When asked why not, she replied that it wasn't fair...
     Fair on who?
     Fair on the bacteria causing the conjunctivitis, that's who!

The bacteria, she said, have as much right to life as any other living creature,
     and it’s not right of us to take action which would kill them.

So, there followed an explanation about the role of the human immune system,
     and the fact that the bacteria are going to get it in the long run anyway.

But, she said – that’s fine, no problem, that’s nature.
     And this is where it started to get interesting…

She would happily watch David Attenborough’s nature documentaries,
     with lions killing and devouring Bambi-like gazelles,
and that’s fine, because it’s nature.

But the idea of a human taking a wilful action to kill an animal – any animal –
     from cows and chickens to, it seems, bacteria,
posed, for her, a fundamental ethical problem.

Death isn’t the problem. Killing isn’t the problem.
     This is no child-like attachment to the cute and the cuddly.

Rather, I think our God-daughter
          was trying to get to grips with something important,
     something which we might call
          the fundamental nature of human fallenness.

Why was it that, in her childish ethical world,
     it was OK for a lion to kill and devour a gazelle,
     but not for a human to kill and cook a chicken?

Why was it OK for the human immune system to destroy pain-causing bacteria,
     but not for a human to put antibiotic cream in her eye to hasten the process?

Well, in response to her reluctance, her mother told her, with great clarity,
     that what she needed to do was to ask Simon and Liz!

Talk about a pastor never being off duty!

It seems that the role of God-parent
     construed as ethical and theological consultant
     is far from straightforward!

Well, what answer would you have given, I wonder?
     How would you have explained to a small child
          that while Eden-inspired vegetarianism (1:28-29) might be an acceptable choice,
          refusing antibiotics simply isn’t an option?

I think that what we’re coming down to here, as I have already hinted,
     is something profound about the fallenness of creation.

Let’s think for a moment about David Attenborough…
     I’m sure you know his style of wildlife documentary.

The viewer is taken on an emotional journey upwards through the food chain,
     from the small and cuddly to the large and predatory.

We begin with the fluffy bunny, innocently nibbling the grass in the field.
     But then along comes the fox,
          silently and swiftly stalking up behind our little furry friend.

Suddenly Flopsy realises she’s in danger, and tries to make bolt for the burrow,
     but evil fox is far too fast, and the bobbing tail seems more like a target than ever
          as the fox gets his jaws firmly round the bunny’s neck.

But then our focus shifts, as we follow Mr Fox stalking off with the prey in his mouth,
     and we realise that he is taking it back to feed the young cubs in his den.
The camera magically tracks him and we see his little cubs,
     who would certainly die without their meal,
     and we start to feel that maybe the rabbit didn’t die in vain.

So, the fox-cubs grow in strength,
     and in time they venture outside of the den to frolic in the woods…
but then, on the horizon, we spot Wily Coyote, waiting to pounce,
     and so the cycle of death continues.

And what is interesting to me in this presentation of nature
     is that we are all the time being invited
          to pass moral and emotive judgements on the natural world.
The rabbit is cute but the fox is evil,
     the fox-cubs are innocent but the coyote is wicked.

We find ourselves naming evil and good in the created order.

And here’s the question…

Just as Schr√∂dinger’s cat is only known as alive or dead when the box is opened,
     might it not also be the case that the natural world
          only takes on characteristics of evil or good
          when we observe and name it as such?

A fox killing a bunny isn’t an act of violence until we name it as such.
     Watership Down only works because we have the capacity
          to endue the created world with the characteristics of good and evil
                that ultimately exist only within ourselves.

A natural disaster is only a tragedy when humans name it as one
     – without our presence on the earth,
          events such as earthquakes, tsunamis, and hurricanes
          are simply natural phenomena which result in the death of some animals.
They only acquires moral significance because we invest them with such.

It is our capacity to name and comprehend good and evil within ourselves
     that results in our understanding and naming
     of the natural world as good and evil also.

Without our intervention, nature is just nature.
     Good and evil in nature are human constructs.

And so, the fallenness of humanity results in the fallenness of creation.

We who consume the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil
     have acquired the capacity to become like God,
and so we both create and destroy the goodness of creation
     through our very understanding of it.

Just as in the Genesis creation story
     God gave humanity the ability to name every living creature on the earth,
so also, after eating the fruit of the tree,
     humanity acquired the ability to name creation as good and evil.

And so we see creation inexorably falling along with its keeper.

The innocence of God’s creation is named as evil,
     and that which was created good is re-interpreted as tragedy.
The goodness of creation is undone,
     as evil enters the world through the human thirst for knowledge.

It was Francis Bacon who asserted that ‘Knowledge is Power’,
     and in saying this he struck the heart of the Genesis fall narrative.
Of course, what Bacon said so succinctly,
     the Wisdom Literature of the Jews had already hinted at:
Proverbs (24:5) warns that, wise warriors are mightier than strong ones,
     and those who have knowledge [are mightier] than those who have strength”

This human search for knowledge gives us so much power.
     Power for good, but also power for evil.
     Power to kill, but also power to give life.
No longer are illness and death simply a part of the cycle of life,
          a part of the goodness of creation
     – they are instead understood as enemies to be fought.

The death of a friend of mine to meningitis at the age of 21
     can only be understood by me as a tragedy – as something wrong in the world.
And of course, had his illness been diagnosed sooner,
     and had antibiotics been administered earlier,
     his survival would have been a cause for rejoicing
          – an unambiguously good thing.

And yet when an animal dies unwatched in the forest to an unknown virus,
     this is simply nature taking its course – it is neither wrong nor a tragedy.

The difference between the two lies in our capacity
     to understand and name good and evil.
As we name it, so it becomes.

This is what distinguishes us from the rest of the animals in Eden
     – we are the only created being with the capacity to eat the fruit of the tree.
This is what makes us human.

And having taken the knowledge,
     having acquired the power,
we also, of course, assume the responsibility.

Knowledge, you see, brings its own consequences.

It was only after eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil
     that man and woman gained the capacity to comprehend shame.
Up until that point, they walked naked in the garden – innocence personified.

They weren’t shamed in their nakedness
     – because without the knowledge of good and evil,
          their nakedness wasn’t shameful.
After all, when did you last see an animal try to cover itself in shame?

Just as the goodness of creation was named as evil by humanity
     – so also the state of human innocence is ended
          with the consumption of the fruit of the tree.

Knowledge begets not just power but guilt.

And as we take God’s good creation and name it evil,
     there is much to be shameful of.

We have placed ourselves at war with God’s good creation
     and in the fighting of this battle,
          we damage the created order irreparably

Instead of living in harmony with nature
          – part of the God-given cycle of life and death –
     we rather find ourselves toiling to survive
          fighting disease, afraid of death
          determined to overcome creation at all costs
          determined to exercise dominion in our own interests.

The state of humanity in our present is experienced,
     as a time of innocence lost.
This is what the Genesis narrative is seeking to explore.

We may occasionally catch glimpses of innocence within ourselves,
     but our overriding experience is of shame, and loss,
          and of far, far too much knowledge to ever go back.
The flaming sword behind us makes sure of that.

And so we find ways to cope.
     We make clothes to cover our shame,
          we construct ways of containing our knowledge.
Household codes, the Ten Commandments, the Levitical law,
          habeas corpus ad subjiciendum…
          (You should) have/produce the body to be subjected to (examination)
     All attempts to put clothes on ethical nakedness.

And this unlocked human thirst for knowledge is so inexorable,
     and the power and the guilt that it unlocks are so pervasive,
     that we have to find ways to contain our lust for knowledge.

We have to find ways of not always seeking an answer to the question of
     “What will happen if I push this boundary?”
We have to find or impose limits on human inquisitiveness.
     We have to find ways of recognising that with the knowledge comes power,
          and with power comes responsibility.

Jesus recognised this power and responsibility
     when he twice said to Peter and the disciples,
whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven,
     and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matt 16:19; 18:18).

And he faced the temptation to misuse great power for his own purposes
     when he confronted Satan in the wilderness.

It really does seem that we have become like god’s
     with the power to name good and evil.

The solution suggested by Jesus to this quandary
     lies in giving back to God
     the authority that is truly his alone.
It lies in taking a step back from idolatry,
     and giving God his due.

As Jesus said to Satan in the wilderness:
     'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'
And as he said to the scribes and the Pharisees:
     Love your neighbour as yourself,
     Love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength.

Worship, you see, isn’t about making God feel good about himself
     – it is about undoing the fall,
          it is about recreating a new humanity
                where once again God is in his rightful place.
     It is about restoring order to creation.

There is no going back to Eden of course
     – as Genesis puts it, the flaming sword behind us bars the way.
But there is a journey forwards into new creation,
     and it is the role of the church to lead humanity in that journey.

We are those entrusted with the task of binding and loosing in a Godly way.
     We are those entrusted with pointing to love of neighbour and love of God
          as the clothing for human ethical nakedness.
     We are those with the message of God’s intervention in the person of Jesus,
          who died to redeem death, and rose to restore creation.
     We are those who live the assurance
          of a renewed heaven and a restored earth.
     We are those who, with John,
          hear the voice from the throne in heaven saying:

Rev 21:3-4
See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’

So, where does all this get us with the problem
     posed to us some years ago
     by our then eight-year-old God-daughter?

Part of me wondered whether, given time, she’d just grow out of it
     and that in a few years she’d be popping antibiotics
          without so much as a second thought

After all, it’s inevitable that she will mature
     from her child-like understanding of the nature of the fall
     and of the relationship between humanity and the created order.

Sadly, in due time, each of us must grow from the childish innocence,
          which so closely echoes the innocence of Eden,
     into a more adult, fallen, responsible, expression of humanity.

And once we get there, there can be no going back;
     the innocence of childhood is remembered as a golden age
     with a flaming sword between there and now

One of the great disappointments of growing up, it seems to me,
     is the realisation that Eden is behind us,
     the realisation that innocence doesn’t last.

One of the tragedies of maturing
     is the recognition that all is not right with the world
     and that we ourselves have played our part in that tragedy

The growth into guilt and shame, into toil and responsibility
     is part of the human condition
We each of us eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil
     we each of us find ourselves naming God’s creation as evil
     we each of us find ourselves at war with nature
     we are each of us complicit in creation’s fall
It comes to us all, in the end.

And so, with some sadness,
     we simply ended up saying to our friends about our God-daughter,
     ‘Don’t worry – it’s just a phase - she’ll grow out of it’

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