Sunday, February 10, 2008

A Fear of Falling

A Fear of Falling

© 2008 Robert J. Elder, Interim Pastor
Mountain View Presbyterian Church, Las Vegas, Nevada
Genesis 2:4b-9, 15-17, 25-3:1-7
1st Sunday in Lent, February 10, 2008

The forty days of Lent started on Ash Wednesday this past week, as most of us are probably aware. Three observations:

[1] I remember a time, several years ago, when Donald Trump was much in the news because of difficulties in his personal life. If newspaper accounts at the time were accurate, one of the reasons Donald Trump began having second thoughts about his relationships — and the meaning of his life in general — could be traced to the accidental deaths of two of his close associates. The most profound way he could find to describe his reaction to their loss sounded typically Trumpian. He said that he could not understand the meaning behind the loss of two people “of such quality.”

[2] A heroic account of the work of a Protestant pastor — who conspired to hide and transport Jews in German-occupied France during World War II — opens with the story of the death of his mother.1 When he was a boy, his family was in an automobile accident in which his mother was killed. That proved to be a turning point in his life. The contemplation of his mother’s lifeless body there on the road and his father’s reckless driving that had killed her, led him to affirm that human life is infinitely precious, whether it was the life of the Jews who were fleeing the Nazis, or the lives of the Nazis themselves.

[3] One bright morning along between the ages of thirty-five to fifty, many people look themselves in the mirror and are struck by the dawning realization that we are no longer what our society calls “young people.” We begin to discover that the models on TV, the actors that get the best roles, and the folks who pose with products in magazines are increasingly selected from people younger than ourselves. Professional football, baseball, and basketball players our own age are relegated now to the sidelines or described as “aging veterans.” Sure, there are likely to be comments from folks in their seventies and eighties about how they would love to be forty again, but the widespread use of the phrase, mid-life crisis, suggests that there is a special developmental task for those in the mid-life period of life which must be accomplished if we are ever to reach a well-adjusted viewpoint at sixty, seventy, or eighty. At age forty people have reached a time in which the end is in sight, when — statistically speaking — there is more time spent than remaining, and that the time which remains will include the subtle and not-so-subtle deterioration of physical abilities, accompanied by the increasing awareness of aches, pains, and assorted medical problems that now won’t just go away.

What do these three random observations have in common? Just this: the awareness — unique among all animals to the human animal — that we are mortal. Like the other animals, our bodies are not designed to last forever. Unlike other animals, we know in advance that this is so. Just because this has always been so does not make each generation’s accommodation to it any easier. Why is this pertinent to us on a Sunday morning? Because this is precisely what our readings from Genesis can help us to understand.

In his best selling book, When Bad Things Happen To Good People (Schocken Books, 1989), Rabbi Harold Kushner correctly observed that people do not fear death itself as much as we fear what death might mean. Does the fact that I will die one day mean that my life has been meaningless? Does it mean that all the good things of life — the love we have experienced, the care that we have shared with others, the accomplishments we have managed to leave behind — are erased by our parting? Will my death be a time in which I am abandoned by those who once loved me, and all my life’s work will be seen as futile?

Our story in Genesis declared that God took dust from the earth, blew into it the mysterious and still little-understood breath of life, and God’s relationship with humanity was underway. Later, after the disobedience in the garden (where God’s warning turned out not to be that they would die if they ate the forbidden fruit so much as that they would know they would die), the nineteenth verse of the third chapter says that from that point on, people would have to toil their existence out of the very dust to which they would ultimately return. Our own toil in the earth would serve as a daily reminder of our mortality. Humanity not only has to live with the fact that death ends our lives, but we have to live with the knowledge of that fact as well.

I have had the blessing over the years of the companionship of three different beautiful Golden Retrievers in my home. The dog in our home these days is named Maxwell, a beautiful three year-old Golden. Though he is only three, I know that one day he will die and I will weep. But he doesn’t know that, and is not confronted with daily reminders of his impending mortality. He eats, sleeps, and launches himself into gravity-defying leaps when he thinks he is going to have a ride in the car or a walk on the leash. His life is generally serene. His death is no source of anxiety for him today.

Not so with us. The story in Genesis proclaims that our daily toil itself, just the work of living, reminds us that we will die, in echoes that are as unavoidable for billionaire entrepreneurs and French pastors as for anyone who finds themselves occasionally mourning for their vanished youth. There shall be no exception to this rule. Its reminders will shadow us until the shadow one day claims us. That is the curse laid upon Adam and Eve in eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and whether we believe this is a good explanation of its origin or not, it is a fact of our lives to this very minute, as up-to-date as the morning newspaper. Death always makes the news. It always has. It always will.

Where does that leave us? The apostle Paul believed death was the result of sin, so that universal human mortality was the proof of our universal sin.2 The number one sin throughout the Bible is the sin of idolatry, generally setting ourselves up as little gods in the rightful place of our Creator God. When the serpent promised that they would become like God, he didn’t mention that it meant knowing something it would have been better to have let God keep to himself. Adam and Eve stand for all of disobedient humanity, but Paul suggested a new era has begun, that in view of the resurrection of Jesus, there is a new possibility open to humanity in addition to the necessity of sin and death: it is grace and life.

Clearly, this passage from Genesis shows that the biblical idea of sin goes well beyond a concern with little transgressions we may have committed on this or that occasion. The more fundamental problem for humanity, which the story of Adam and Eve shows to be a problem originating deep in the mists of human prehistory, is a rebellion against God. Further, it is a rebellion which — despite our best efforts — we are powerless to overcome. Try as we might, we make ourselves the measure of this world and the good God who created it, rather than letting our God be the measure of us, his creatures. We appear “incurably prone to the idolatry of regarding ourselves rather than God as the final hope of our redemption.”3

If Jesus had not shared this curse of death with us, then he could not have been truly human. If he had not contemplated with dread the prospect of his own death, he would have been only a pretender to community with us. But the entirety of his life and ministry makes clear the fact that he placed his whole trust and confidence in his heavenly Father. Paul declared that because of that unique sinless quality, Jesus has become the new Adam, creating the possibility for life where before there was only the possibility for death. Jesus has led us from the gates outside the Garden of Eden through the Garden of Gethsemane, to the gates of heaven. God raised Jesus from the dead, and his example of a new humanity makes possible an altogether new contemplation of the finality of our existence. Lives void of any other meaning may now be filled with the meaning that Jesus’ life gives us.

We have entered the season of Lent this week, but it is important that as we begin this time, we not lose sight of Easter and the hope of eternity which Easter provides. Our dread of death is taken up in God’s ringing affirmation of life in Christ. Praise be to God whose victory is ours in Jesus Christ!

© copyright 2008 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1 Philip Hallie, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, Harper & Row, 1979, p. 53.
2 Romans 5:12-19.
3 Paul Achtemeier, Romans, Interpretation Commentary Series, John Knox Press, 1985, p. 101.