a sermon preached by the Rev Dr Tim W Jensen
at the First Parish Church in Portland, Maine
Sunday March 9, 2008
“Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed” -- G. K. Chesterton
I thought I’d start out today by talking about something we don’t talk about very often here at the Unitarian Church. “In Adam’s Fall We Sinned All.” That’s how they used to teach children their ABCs, back in the olden days, but it’s a doctrine that has never really made that much sense to me, especially as a kid.
You all know the story, right? Adam and Eve are living in the Garden of Eden, happy as clams, not a care in the world...all of their needs are taken care of, and there is basically only one rule: don’t eat of the fruit of the Trees planted in the center of the garden. Everything else is permitted to you; but that particular fruit is forbidden.
So naturally, being human, they’re curious; and with a little encouragement from a friendly serpent, they decide -- what the heck -- and take a little taste of the Fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. And, of course, once they have eaten, they immediately realize that not only what they’ve done is wrong, but also that they’re not wearing any clothing...so they immediately do what I’m sure any one of us would do if we found ourselves in a similar situation. They covered up, by sewing together fig tree leaves, and making themselves breeches.
But here’s the part I just didn’t get as a kid. Until Adam and Eve had actually eaten of the Fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, how were they supposed to know that what they were doing was wrong? I mean sure, God had told them not to do it. But without a working knowledge of the difference between right and wrong, how were they supposed to understand what that really meant?
Now the cover-up: that’s an entirely different story, because at that point they really did know better, and rather than simply ‘fessing up to what they’d done, they chose to try to keep it a secret instead. But more to the point (and this was the part that REALLY bothered me as a kid) what did any of this have to do with me? -- especially considering the fact that I hadn't even been born whan all of this supposedly happened, and that none of it ever really happened anyway; it was all just a myth, a fairy tale intended to frighten small children and teach them an important lesson about who they are and why they are the way they are, and the consequences of disobedience, and the importance of telling the truth. But viewed in that light, it’s probably a GOOD thing that our mythical ancestors tasted the forbidden fruit...so that the rest of us now CAN understand the difference between right and wrong.
It really wasn’t until I became a parent myself that I began to understand that there are even more layers to this story. We are all born into this world naked and helpless, completely unaware of anything other than the power of our own appetites: our need to eat and drink, our desire to be held and kept safe and warm -- and completely dependent upon others for our care. And fortunately (at least for those of us who survive), there always seems to be someone right there to take care of those needs: our parents, or maybe some other relative; a nurse; a neighbor; some other grown-up who can provide for us the nurture and the nourishment, the protection and the affection we all need to grow into grown-ups ourselves.
And admittedly, some of us are obviously a lot more fortunate than others. But how do we make this miraculous transformation: from helpless, naked infants who know only how to scream at the top of our lungs when we are hungry or thirsty or cold or tired... into caring, competent, compassionate adults capable of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, providing shelter for the homeless, and offering hospitality to those less fortunate than ourselves?
I used to think that the principal challenge of parenthood was raising children who are self-reliant and capable of taking care of themselves -- helping them to make that important transition from a condition of dependency to one of “Independence,” when they flex their wings and fly the coop, and leave their parents alone in an empty nest. And of course I always anticipated a little adolescent “counter-dependence” along the way: a period of rebellious “limit-testing” when young people naturally want to explore their own boundaries and experience the extent of their own freedom and competence, perhaps even to taste the sweet flavor of forbidden fruit with their own lips.
But over the years I’ve come to realize that the value of independence is highly overrated. None of us are ever truly or completely self-reliant, and we all depend on one another every day simply to make it through safely to the next one, even about things so simple as counting on other people to stop at red lights, and to keep their cars safely on their side of the white line. The limitations imposed upon our freedoms are not random or arbitrary; they emerge out of the limitations inherent in our own humanity, and we ignore them at our peril.
Rather than discovering and exploring our Independence, as adults it is far more essential that we learn instead to recognize and honor our Interdependence: the network of mutual trust and care and concern which allows us to transcend the so-called “law of the jungle,” and live our lives as members of a society where the fundamental safety and well-being of everyone is the mutual concern of us all.
There’s nothing especially original about a couple of people who make a mistake, do something that they shouldn’t, and then try to cover it up in order to avoid accountability for their actions. You can read about that kind of behavior every day. The truly inspiring stories are about people who make amazing sacrifices for the well-being of others: who risk their own lives and fortunes and personal comfort and safety in order to make the world a better, safer and more comfortable place for us all. They recognize that their own self-interest resides in the common interest (at least over the long haul), and with concern for the safety and comfort of our children, and our children’s children.
When I was a child, I was accustomed to thinking of sin as bad behavior: something that I shouldn’t do because God had forbidden it, and would punish me for if I disobeyed. But mostly I didn’t think about sin very much at all, because I was a Unitarian and didn’t have to worry about confessing my sins every week, like all my Catholic neighbors. My parents tried to teach me instead that there were natural consequences to every choice that I made, and that I should try to anticipate those consequences before simply going along with what all the other kids were doing, and that I should always tell the truth, and take responsibility for my own actions rather, than trying to cover up or shift the blame to others.
As an adult (although, admittedly, a young adult) at the Harvard Divinity School, I also learned that the word “sin” actually means “to be off target” -- to be misguided, misdirected, or (in one translation) living in a state of “aimlessness” -- in other words, to stray away from the straight and narrow path that leads to God. And the so-called “wages of sin” are not just death: they also include estrangement, alienation, isolation and abandonment...a state of existence where we truly are left alone to our own devices, and have no one to rely on but ourselves.
I also learned at Divinity School that the alternative to a misdirected and aimless Life of Sin is the so-called Life of Faith: not faith in the sense of “a belief in things we know aren’t true,” but rather an attitude of hopeful and optimistic confident trust even in the face of uncertainty, even in the midst of doubt, even in the presence of ambiguity and the unknown and the ultimately mysterious and unknowable. Not “belief without evidence,” but “faith [hope/trust] seeking understanding” -- a willingness to take that first step into the darkness even though you don’t really know what awaits you on the other side of the door, and can’t even see clearly all the way to the end of the first staircase.
Hope, Trust, Confidence, Optimism... letting go of the need for certainty, letting go of the need for control, expressing a willingness to take things one step at a time, believing in our own ability to take things in stride, and with faith that those who are walking with us will stand beside us when the going gets tough....
The simple recognition that we are all in this together and that none of us can do it alone; that we need one another in ways we can never fully anticipate or understand, and that others need us (and are relying on us) too.
I do want to pause for just a moment to say a brief word about the difference between Interdependence and Co-Dependence, which can sometimes be confusing if you’re not paying close attention. Co-Dependence might be thought of as a mutually reinforcing pattern of dysfunctional behaviors which enable one another, but also prevent any of the participants in the relationship from changing their self-destructive behavior and making more healthy choices. In many ways, Co-Dependence is all about maintaining the illusion of certainty and control, and this is really where it differs from the Interdependent Life of Faith, which recognizes both that each of us is special and that none of us is perfect, and accepts the limitations of our own human nature without feeling limited by them. Interdependence connects us to a Higher Power, through an act of trusting surrender which recognizes our own fundamental powerlessness to control every little detail of our lives, and acknowledges our need for something more.
The Interdependent Life of Faith is grounded in four basic values which many of us have been taught since childhood, and yet which often seem so easily forgotten. The first of these is Gratitude: the ability to be truly thankful for the many blessings that life has given us. And it doesn’t really matter whether we’ve been blessed a little or blessed a lot -- the ability to say “thank you” and really mean it makes all the difference...it truly is the “magic word.”
I’m sure many of you have encountered people who seem to have everything they could possibly wish for, and yet it just doesn’t seem to be enough -- they still aren’t satisfied, they still want more, they somehow feel as though life has cheated them. And some of us have also been blessed to have met folks who actually seem to have very little, yet their sense of gratitude for what they do have is contagious, and makes us feel better just to be around them.
A sincere sense of Gratitude leads in turn to an attitude of Generosity -- the heartfelt desire to share one’s blessings with others, in order to see them multiply. That’s what it means to be generous: to generate new life, new hope, new energy. It’s all about the importance of Sharing: another fundamental value we try to teach our children at a very early age. Our capacity for Generosity, for Creativity, is the one palpable way in which the human spirit might honestly be said to have been created in the image of God. It’s the thing that makes us most authentically human, and also which orients and connects us most directly toward the divine, generation after generation, after generation.
Of course, along with Generosity is the value of Humility: which is an ability to see ourselves as we truly are, for all our flaws and limitations, and still feel good about ourselves. Nowadays we often talk about this value in the language of “self-esteem,” which is fine as far as it goes, especially considering the tendency of our secular culture to confuse humility with humiliation. But to my mind, the biggest difference between authentic humility and mere “high self-esteem” is the ability of the former to deal with failure and disappointment. Too often our self-esteem is dependent upon the perception of achievement and the receipt of external praise; there are no “losers,” everyone’s a winner. But the humble soul is a resilient soul, which recognizes that there are indeed both winners and losers in this life, yet that each has inherent worth and dignity in the eyes of God, and is worthy of respect on that basis, and on that basis alone. Authentic Humility grounds us in the earth. It reinforces our sense of connectedness to something larger than ourselves, and also reminds us of both our origins and our destiny: from dust we have come, and to dust we shall return.
Finally, the Interdependent Life of Faith is ultimately a Life devoted to Service: a committed expression of our empathy and compassion for others, in humble gratitude for the gift of life itself, and through the generous manifestation of that same life-force in the world. It is through Service that we realize just how alive we truly are, and the kind of difference our lives can make in the lives of others. But we don’t necessarily see this right from the beginning. Because a life devoted to the service of others is also a profound act of faith -- a willingness to trust that our actions do indeed have meaning, and the confidence that our purpose here is a worthy one.
The plain truth of the matter is that none of us can never know for certain what the future may bring. We can try to anticipate, we can try to plan...but mostly we just need to cultivate the confidence and the courage to move forward in what we believe to be the right direction, trusting that over time we will encounter both what our ancestors would have called the ‘benevolent and afflictive dispensations of Divine Providence,” and that we will somehow take them each in stride. And perhaps the most important thing is our commitment to walking together, not aimless, misguided, and alone...but optimistically side by side in the direction we hope and believe will lead us all into greater Harmony with the Divine....