To Bite the Fruit: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, March 1, 2020 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary texts cited are Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 (Eve & Adam’s temptation in the garden) and Matthew 4:1-11 (Jesus’ temptation in the desert). 

It is Lent, and Eve is standing in the garden. 

Eve, our primeval mother, the original bearer of our human bodies and our human longing, has paused under the leafy boughs of a tree laden with promises; the tree that offers the one thing she and her companion Adam do not already have: the ability to share fully in the mind of God. The ability to understand, from God’s perspective, the nature of all things. The ability, as the serpent suggests, to not simply be in relationship with God, but to be like God.

And although in the Eden narrative we often focus on themes of wickedness and disobedience, we should not forget that in this crucial moment of decision–as her hand reaches out toward the tantalizing object of her desire–Eve still loves God. She loves God so much, in fact, that she wants something beyond intimacy, something that can never be taken away. As she and Adam bite into the ripe flesh of the fruit, they are hungering for God’s very being to become part of them. They are seeking a perfect, indissoluble union with their Creator. 

There is a problem, though, with trying to consume the things we love: they tend to get destroyed in the process. And in a flash of insight, all too late, Adam and Eve realize a fundamental truth: loving God is not the same as possessing God.

How often we confuse these two things: loving and possessing. If we are to speak of original sin, we might consider it as the seemingly irresolvable void between the two—the former being the dynamic truth of a relational God, and the latter the constricting delusion of the crafty serpent.

I think of the people in my life whom I have loved most deeply and enduringly, and I realize that one common thread in those relationships is a certain sense of freedom—a freedom to be myself, and for the other person to be themselves. No agenda of control imbuing our time together. No manipulation masquerading as affection. Just two people, supporting one another in our mutual growth and inevitable failings.  And, sometimes, parting ways when life makes that necessary.

To love like this is harder because it is far more uncertain. We can’t control its outcome. And I would be lying if I said that I had never seen fruit on the tree and longed to devour it. We are all Eve and Adam on some level; we are all caught in this tension between the need to love and the compulsion to possess.

This is partly what makes Lent so valuable. We enter into this season and we are invited to take a hard look at all the relationships that comprise our lives: our relationships with people, with things, and with habits. And in each instance, we might consider this question: where am I practicing love, true, selfless, life-giving love; and where am I merely trying to possess, to consume, in order to satisfy a deeper, insatiable hunger within myself? 

It is with these questions in mind that we must journey into the desert alongside Jesus in today’s Gospel, out to the place where the devil awaits him. 

When we hear the story of Christ’s temptations: to turn stones into bread; to throw himself from the pinnacle of the temple; to trade his relationship to God for earthly power; I think we would do well to picture him also, standing alongside Eve at the tree in the garden, as the eternal, fundamental questions reverberate between them and down to us through the ages:

Do you love God, or do you want to be God?

Do you love the world, or do you want to possess the world?

And maybe, just maybe, in his hunger and his isolation, Jesus saw the fruit of the tree, and perceived how good it would be to bite it, to possess it, to rule the world on his own terms, to be a king like other kings, to feed people with the bread they already knew.

Perhaps for a moment he, like Eve, thought that loving God and claiming God were the same thing. 

And perhaps, for a moment, every creature in the garden held its breath, waiting for a recapitulation of the original mistake.

But then, he speaks:

       ‘One does not live by bread alone,  but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’

        ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’

        ‘Worship the Lord your God, 

        and serve only him.’

With these ancient words, drawn from the depths of the Law, Jesus is saying: It is in relinquishing power that I find true strength. I only need to trust, and to serve, for this is what love looks like: mutuality, freedom, vulnerability. A hand outstretched, not to take, but to offer itself. 

He says: I do not need to control the world in order to love the world; in fact, loving it means the exact opposite: it means accepting creation in all its finitude, serving humanity in all its frailty, and giving my life for its healing, and its redemption.

And in that moment the devil departed, for he knew that that this time the fruit would remain on the tree. This time, this Son of Man, this Firstborn of All Creation, had made the proper distinction between love and its counterfeits. 

We are, each of us, through our baptism, both children of Eve and Adam and children of God. That ancient temptation still pulses in our veins every time we feel the longing of desire and reach out to grasp at things not meant for us. And in today’s world, with its many promises and perils, giving into this impulse can feel quite natural, acceptable, even noble.

But in Lent, at the edge of Eden and deep in the desert, we are invited, instead, to let go. To leave the fruit untouched. To let the stones remain stones. To turn and face the world in all its terror and promise trusting in God alone. And trusting that somehow, at the end of our long journey, we will be ushered into someplace altogether new.  Another garden, perhaps, but one with an open gate, and an empty tomb. The garden where Eve stands once more, singing a song of redemption, basking in a love that feels, finally, like freedom. 

 

Poems on the Road

I’m on a night train heading through the Oregon wilderness, and I decided to share a couple poems I jotted down recently. I’ve been reflecting a lot on the spirituality of love and desire this past year, and these are small, imaginative windows into that journey, one from the perspective of Mary Magdalene, and the other from Judas Iscariot. Hope they resonate for you in some way. Peace, friends.

Magdalene

I needed you so much that
I whispered my deepest longings into a jar
And poured its dark sweetness upon your feet
Not that you would grant them, but
That you would absorb them into your self
My desire like sweat on your skin

I wept tears of love so pure and burning
that they felt like grief
Salt water sonnets
Braided through my hair like jewels or
Serpents

And just now
In the garden of re-encounter
Which never looks like the old days
When love was initial:
I saw
Briefly, ever so
The glimmer of my longing, and my tears
Transfigured into something selfless and whole
In you

Do not hold on
You said
Not because I shouldn’t love you
(Impossible)
But because my love
Reached its home in
Your heart
The sweetness and the salt are yours now
Ours now
The world’s now
Now, always
Anointing
Washing
Outpouring
Shameless
Free

 

Judas

You offered me the cup, said it was your blood.
Oh how I hated you, and loved you
For your generosity
When all I wanted was to bite your flesh and make you bleed from my desire.
You called me by name once
And I thought I loved you
Purely, selflessly
But now I know I wanted what i thought you were
What I needed you to be
Most beautiful of men
And when I realized that your inner light was as perfect as your shining face
I hated you, because I could not possess you for myself
Apple, flesh, my joy and sweet poison
They killed you and I thought I’d find relief
From your perfection
But there is no rest apart from you.
My tears are silver discs
And I weep, not for you, Who is peace itself
But for myself, because I realize
We could never have been united
Until I let you be Yourself. And I couldn’t.
My desire was misplaced.
I long for you still.
I will join you.
Beyond death, somehow, find me.

A Sermon: God, Our Lover

I preached this sermon at my home parish, Grace in the Desert Episcopal Church, Las Vegas, NV, on Sunday, September 2nd, 2018. The lectionary reading used is Song of Solomon 2:8-13. I offer it to you and to the heart of the God who loves and desires each of us.

“Arise my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.”

The Song of Solomon, a piece of which we encountered in today’s readings, has a rather controversial history in the Christian tradition. It is, on its face, an exquisite poem about the ecstatic love between a man and a woman—one that comes out of a long poetic tradition in the cultures of ancient Israel and the near east. It’s an unabashed expression of longing and desire between two people, and its heightened sentiments might sound familiar to those of us who have experienced the soul-stirring rush of romantic attraction.

At various points in the history of our faith, the Song of Solomon has also been reinterpreted as a metaphor of Christ’s love for His bride, the Church. The thought for some, I suppose, was that such a frank expression of bodily desire did not align with the sanctity and moral discipline of the Christian ethos, and so the Song was instead taught and understood as coded language that communicates God’s pure and holy desire for creation; the consummation of a bond between two lovers became an analogy for the Church’s mystical union with Jesus Christ.

So what do we do with this text, then? Do we stick with those Biblical scholars who read it as an ancient Israelite love poem, a beautiful erotic relic? Or do we cordon it off as a spiritualized metaphor, one that conveys a sanitized interpretation of Jesus’s bond with his Church?  Or is there something else here for us?

To answer this question, I want to tell you a brief personal story. Last year I was meeting with my spiritual director, a Franciscan friar, and we were talking about prayer—specifically, my prayer life while at seminary. I was telling him about the various ways that I was trying to relate to God, and how on some level I was more comfortable praying and talking to God the Father rather than directly to Jesus. I felt, quite honestly, like I didn’t know how to relate to Jesus. As a teacher or guru figure? An older brother? A King? (too intimidating) A close friend? (too familiar) As someone who is a disciple of Jesus, as someone who has pledged myself to serving this very personal God who is Son as much as Father and Spirit, I was troubled by my struggle to connect on an emotional level with Jesus, and not just a theoretical one.

And then my spiritual director said something surprising that I will never forget. He said, “why don’t you relate to Jesus as the one who is in love with you?”

I had two immediate reactions. First: my brain’s knee-jerk response: “No way! Jesus is God incarnate. I can’t think of God in the same way I would someone I am in love with. That kind of romantic love is only for human beings.”

And the other reaction, from a much deeper place in my heart: a door opening. The feeling of an unspoken, unrecognized truth suddenly brought to light: our God was also, somehow, human. Our God, in Jesus, had a heart and body like mine. And with this heart, God might not simply love me in a paternalistic way, or with a generic, impassive offering of good-will, but that God could be IN LOVE with me. That God could be IN LOVE with all of us.

“Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.”

The Song of Solomon clues us in to something—that desire, that romantic love, as much as any other form of love, is a doorway to understanding the ways in which God relates to us. And that’s not in the detached, polite manner  of interaction that you might offer an acquaintance on the street. No. God loves us passionately, ardently, with a fury and a longing. God is the burning bush in the desert that calls out to us and burns and burns and burns and yet is never consumed.

And it’s with this insight that we come to understand that the romantic bond between two people—straight people, gay people, young lovers, or lifelong partners— this bond is bound up in the outpouring of divine love that permeates creation. It is our nature, it is a good thing, to long for each other, to yearn for the union of our body with another, because God longs for us in the very same way. It is this longing that erupted in the Incarnation, the Passion, and that brought forth the Resurrection. In the human heart, the divine heart, the beating and burning sacred heart of Jesus, God has not only sanctified our human love and desire—He has experienced it, as a human being, firsthand, coursing through Him.

This truth about the heart of God is what allowed the medieval English mystic Julian of Norwich, writing down heavenly visions in her monastic cell, to refer variously to Jesus as father, as mother, as brother, and as husband—the One Who fulfills every need, Who encapsulates every type of love we have been blessed to receive in this life, and every type of love for which we are still longing to find.

This truth about the passion of God is what St. Clare of Assisi was referring to when she wrote, of Christ: “Draw me after you! We will run in the fragrance of your perfumes, O heavenly spouse! I will run and not tire.”

This is a love that enfolds us, no matter our gender, no matter our sexuality, or our relationship status. Christ looks upon us and loves us, He sees our longing to be understood, to be admired, to be held, and He says:

I’m here. I’ve always been here. I love you. I am in love with you, every part of you. Why else would I have endured the folly and suffering of the cross, if not for that burning love? Why else would I show up here at this altar, week after week, to kiss your lips with bread and wine, if not for an all-consuming desire to be one with you?

And the voice of the poet, who is us, sings in response,

“Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills.”

“Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice.”

The Song of Solomon, like all of Holy Scripture, is an invitation to love and be loved, in body as well as heart and soul. Those who would read the text as “only” an erotic poem AND those who would read it as “only” a spiritual metaphor are actually making the same mistake: they are constructing a false boundary between our bodily experience of human love and that of the divine love we participate in through Christ. The two are intertwined, and in our humble passions we find a reflection of the One Consummate Lover of all creation—the God we know in Christ, who calls out to us, wooing us, consoling us, as only a lover can do.

The only question that remains, then, is whether we will respond to the invitation to “arise and come away“. If your beloved calls to you, will you go running and cast yourself into their embrace?  Will you venture out with them, into that landscape of abundant possibility where “the fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom”?

I pray that each of us will take such a chance. I pray that we will respond with the same intensity of feeling that Jesus offers us, for it is He who will always be the Supreme Love of our lives. I pray for a world blessed by the consummation of our desire for God and for each other. I pray that such a world will give way to a new love poem, one that never ends. Its title will be the Song of the Kingdom of God.

“Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away, for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come.”