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Tending to God's Purpose In You

The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield

I’m still thinking about last week’s message of moving from distraction to attention and intention for Lent. It’s not about intentionally imposing suffering on yourself for the sake of deepening your faith, but removing something from your days that may be preventing you from dropping into your faith more fully. Removing distractions and also cultivating attention and intention.

Today I want to dive a little more deeply into that. Because today, we have the story of the first and ultimate distraction. Adam and Eve eating of the fruit—it was never an apple, by the way, at least not in the scripture.

So often we’re taught that weak-willed Eve sucked Adam into her original sin, thereby damning humanity forever to death and suffering. I should note that nowhere in the original Hebrew is the word “sin” used in this reading from Genesis. I don’t think this story is about sin. I think it’s about freedom and what we do with it.

So often we think freedom is about doing whatever we want. And I guess it is. God gave Adam and Eve boundless freedom. A beautiful garden where they could roam wherever they wanted, plant and animal companions, all of their needs met. And God even gave them freedom of choice. God tells Adam, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 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.” God didn’t have to put that tree in the garden. After all, God is… God. But what is joy, what is happiness, when it’s all there is, when it’s not something you choose?

The story of the Buddha illustrates this. The myth goes that the Buddha was born Siddhartha Gautama, the son of a king, and it was foretold when he was born that he would become either a great king himself or a great religious leader. Of course his father wanted him to follow in his footsteps and become a renowned ruler. So the king secluded his son in the palace and gave Siddhartha every worldly luxury he could possibly want and kept him away from any suffering of the world in hopes that his spiritual side wouldn’t come online. Siddhartha had no choice. Of course, he became restless. His default happiness wasn’t enough. He snuck out of the palace one night into the city streets. For the first time in his life, he encountered sickness, old age, and death, which led him down the path of the Buddha.

Choice is a powerful thing. It’s the heart of freedom.

I think God knew this. So while God told Adam not to eat of the tree, God didn’t withhold the tree. It was right there, and every time Adam and later Eve walked past it, they made a choice not to partake of its fruit. Until the serpent shows up.

Wait a minute, the serpent says, “Actually, you will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” And guess what. It’s all true. The serpent spoke not one word of a lie. Their eyes were opened in a different way, and they didn’t die. They suddenly knew good and evil. I’m not sure they liked it, but they knew it.

But God had also given Adam and Eve something else. In the scriptures before what we heard today, we’re told that God created Adam because there was no one to till the ground. God created him, and later Eve, to tend to creation, to make things grow, to cultivate new life.

God gave them purpose. Purpose is what gives direction to freedom. It’s what anchors freedom.

The serpent distracts Adam and Eve from their purpose. And down the rabbit hole they go. Who knows how different the world might look had they chosen differently. But I have a feeling that if it wasn’t them, it wouldn’t have taken long after them for someone else to eat the fruit. Why? Because sometimes distractions from our purpose are hard to resist.

Like I said, the story of Adam and Eve eating the fruit has sometimes been described as the moment when sin entered into the world. Indeed, that’s exactly what Paul says in today’s very confusing Letter to the Romans. Kudos are in order for Jim for getting through it.

The etymology for the word sin is unclear. Probably it derives from the Old English which derives from a proto-Germanic word for “offense” or “crime.” And if it’s from Old English or proto-Germanic, then it’s not biblical. It’s a translation, an interpretation. Because the Bible was written in Hebrew and Greek for the most part. There are at least five different words for sin in the Hebrew Bible and seven different Greek words for it in the Christian Testament, which speaks to variations and degrees of sin. Sin is not one thing, as we’ve been taught. Sometimes it means “missing the mark,” which implies good intention but poor execution. Sometimes it means “transgression against God,” which implies something a bit more willful.

I think it’s interesting and a bit telling that we English speakers have folded all of this into one word. Murdering and shoplifting diapers when you can’t afford them and having sex before marriage? All the same thing, according to our English take on sin. I think it explains a lot about the theology of so much black/white, all-or-nothing Christianity in the West.

Which brings me back to Lent. In our Ash Wednesday service, I winced a little when I prayed the collect which says, “worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness.” It needs a little unpacking. I do think it’s important to lament our sins and sometimes even acknowledge our wretchedness—because we’ve all had moments of wretchedness.

But sin and wretchedness are not who we are. Not because of fruit, not because of flesh. We are not sinful so much as we are distracted from our purpose. Just as Adam and Eve were. And we must repent and return to God and to the purpose God has created in us over and over again.

That is our Lenten practice. Not only to identify and work with a particular distraction but to identify and intentionally build up God’s purpose for your life. That means building confidence in who you are, in your gifts and ways of being.

I know that in addition to giving up a particular distraction like social media or alcohol or overworking, some of you are writing a prayer or poem every day during Lent. Maybe some of you are taking up daily affirmations or giving attention to a hobby you let fall away.

God created us to have freedom, and that is profound. Distraction is freedom without purpose. Aimless, short-sighted, and ultimately unsatisfying. Purpose gives meaning to freedom. Becoming who God made you to be. That is our call.

We have a choice. How will you spend this Lenten season?

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