President Richardson Preaches in Paris

On June 7, President Richardson preached at the American Cathedral in Paris:

Mark Richardson preaching in Paris

The story of human origins in Genesis is one of the most often read scriptures in the Bible. It is an ancient people’s understanding of moral awakening, the joy and sorrow of coming into our humanity as moral and spiritual beings. We in the West turned it into a story of rebellion against God so grievous as to cause a fall, a fall so deep it ruptured the harmony of creation altogether.

But if we look at the story with fresh eyes what do we really see? It is an account of the transition from innocent dependence on the gods (in ancient polytheism), to acting on the basis of meaning, and pursuit of the knowledge of good, with all its attractions, dangers and confusions.

If we enter the story once again through contemporary eyes, knowing our evolutionary roots in the story of the natural world’s unfolding, then we see ourselves as built upon the shoulders of millions of year of life and death and extinction. We are not actors on nature’s stage, we are fruit on nature’s tree. And we arrive with a certain kind of moral innocence but certainly not immune to the hardships of sheer existence. Wouldn’t this feel more like the complexity of an entangled jungle than an ordered garden?  The beginning of our moral and spiritual capacity that defines us as human beings must have been fragile, and in a complex environment already containing life and death. Adam and Eve do not appear deliberately to thwart God—through trial and error they are experiencing the confusion of moral awakening as mere children of a species coming into its own.

Imagine, just to illustrate, a 3 year old child momentarily alone in the living room; the child goes over to the fish bowl, sticks a hand in to grab the gold fish, wanting to see how the fish lives outside the water.  The child is not rebelling against the parent who most certainly had said on occasion ‘careful with the fishbowl;’ the child is exploring. But the action still has consequences because the fish most likely dies.

So let’s look at each character in this Genesis story. We encounter a deity who knows in advance the risk of creatures growing into a capacity for meaning making, which so easily twists into orienting all value into self-concern. Innocent obedience seemed safer to the deity than risking a creature liberated to connect desire and attraction to the discerning of the moral good. 

But now picture curious Eve: she hears the voice of the serpent, and is enticed by the possibility of merging her desire (this apple is edible), her attractions in the world (it is beautiful), with a pursuit of wisdom will knowledge of good and evil. Is it worth the risk? What would it be like if I were empowered by the capacity to know the good, she wonders? Will I really die? She is confused by the mixed messages the world outside herself is giving her. So she acts at a cost, but she acts.

The serpent urges Eve to take the risk—to explore—but it’s voice is deceit by half truths for the serpent does not communicate the cost. “You won’t die,” (which ends up being true to a point), but the serpent is silent on the matter of consequences, the danger of a spiritual quest, the risk of distorting good and bringing pain.

Then finally there is the simplest character, Adam, who just doesn’t want to wake up morally, preferring to pass the moral question backward onto Eve: “She gave it to me.  I didn’t do it. I’m a victim here.”

Coming into a capacity for moral and spiritual engagement with our world was a breakthrough, but it was a bumpy road, a risky undertaking even as it is exhilarating. No wonder Eve tried but in the end felt tricked, and Adam wanted to walk away from the prospect of good and evil altogether.

We have wrestled and conversed with the text and it raises a fundamental question: How do we keep our eye on the true Good, the reality of God, in the process of coming into the knowledge of moral and spiritual possibility? How do we move from innocent obedience to our own consent to the way of God?

Spiritual Awakening and Rite 13

This Sunday we celebrate Rite 13, the onset of adulthood in our young people.  And I wonder whether we might find analogy in what we have said so far as we think about what lies ahead for our youth.  And adults, take a moment to remember your own pathway in life along with them.

The church as a community wants our young people to find their own spiritual ground; we launch them into this venture not on their own but surrounded by a community that prays for them and encourages them spiritually. We know there will be trial and error in the quest for finding the good, coping with the awakening of attractions of many kinds along side the awakening of moral wisdom, and our obligation is to be with them when they stumble and fall.  In fact one of the charisms of the church community is being a place of grace in difficulty.

I think about this and recall a childhood experience. Our home in Oregon was on the edge of a forest, and as I walked up into the wood one day I spotted a tree on a high point, and wondered what the view would be like from the top.  The climb would be risky but I decided to go up the 20 ft tree to get the view from above. Suddenly as I reached the spindly top I lost my grip and began to tumble backward, each bow of the tree softening the fall, one by one, until I hit the ground. Without the branches my fall might have been life threatening. Our church community, an extended family, can be like the branches of the tree that bear the tumbling we go through.

From our experience of adulthood we can say we do not expect this day to mark your perfection, Mathilde, Samuel and Quinn—it is not magic, and Dean Lucinda does not take a wand and strike you with a new power. It is an important moment along the way between an earlier life of innocent dependence, on the one hand, and your own accountability as a human being on a spirit filled journey, on the other hand. You will explore and grow; you will be excited and sorrowful along the way. We want you to recognize and learn from the sadness and joy alike, and to know that God’s spirit is in you to hold you up.  It is all part of discovering freedom to be not unlimited choice, infinite possibility, but rather freedom as consent to the good.

The gospel story presumes that God desires creatures capable of responsive love, capable of finding the will of God in one another. Oh, most likely you will be like Adam in my story telling—who isn’t sure he wants to claim his adulthood yet, and you will be at other times like Eve who wants to connect curiosity about the attractions of life to knowledge of good and evil, and sometimes misreads the context and consequences.   The only way freely to give ourselves to the will of God is to risk this moral agency and to live into our humanity.

The new human family

Now as we close, fast-forward from Genesis to the story of Jesus in Mark’s gospel. We began with the family of our human origins set in ancient Mesopotamia, and now we turn to the refashioning of family on wholly other terms as the family of our destiny.  It is a radical message, it is Mark’s insinuation of Pentecost wherein the new global reality that is anticipated will be formed by those whose freedom is turned toward consent to doing the will of God.  

When Jesus’ family called upon him as he was out with the crowds and they passed on the message that his family was outside asking for him.  He turned to the crowd and replied:  “Who are my mother and my brothers? Whoever does the will of God is my mother and brother and sister.”

Notice there is no belief orthodoxy, no biological or tribal orthodoxy, no socio-economic, territorial or language orthodoxy in this reply.  Family consists in those who do the will of God, full stop. It is those who consent to this ultimate Good. Like the Pentecost spirit reaching out to all nations, the family Mark’s gospel envisions is potentially globalized through the key of grace found in doing what Jesus is modeling when he cares for the neighbor with his whole life, through healing, casting out demons of distortion and confusion, and feeding the hungry. This is the interpretive key to knowing what it means to will the will of God.  So, for example, when Trinity Cathedral offers hospitality and a meal on Fridays it is a sacrament in action of doing the will of God.

On the other hand, when we treat with indifference the suffering of others, from travails at home and wars that plague so much of the world, we place at risk our very humanity.

Jesus advocates for us by pioneering, inspiring and encouraging a different way into the experience of grace. He is the moral high point of our humanity by being his brother’s keeper, keeping watch over the neighbor, gathering as family those who would take this to be the will of God.

And now in this Pentecost season we expect to find him not in Jerusalem or Galilee, but in his spirit everywhere God’s will is sought and done on earth as in heaven.  This prayer in action becomes the mark of Jesus’ family.  Amen.