Unlimited Mulligans: March 5, 2017

March 7, 2017

Year A, Lent 1                                                                        
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7                                                                       

            I was a fairly regular church attendee through my youth, college and even after.  However, for some reason, Lent always came as a surprise to me.  I would come to church one Sunday and I would think, “Why is everyone so depressed? Why is the music so sad?” Then I would look at the altar hangings and see the purple, I might notice something in the bulletin and it would click.  Or right…it’s Lent.  How long is Lent again?  Of course Lent was also identified as the time I gave up something which was never particularly fun.  I am afraid that is how many of us think of Lent…oh that again.  In some ways we treat it as this time we have to get through to get to Easter.  The readings don’t help much. They are all about sin and judgment. 

            Let’s start with the first reading, which we are told–is all about the first sin, when sin entered our world.  Here they were, Adam and Eve, sitting in paradise. They had no 9-5 job dragging them down.  The weather was probably perpetually sunny.  They got along all the time.  God was talking to them, caring for them.  They could eat the fruit from any tree….any tree but one.  So of course they had to eat from that one tree.  For millennia people have blamed this transgression on Eve and I have addressed that in other sermons. The blame doesn’t belong on Eve, at least not entirely. 

There is the serpent of course; we could put all the blame there.  He was crafty.  He took God’s words and twisted them. He appealed to human pride.  However, the blame does not rest on any one person or animal and trying to determine who is to blame is at best useless and at worst detrimental to understanding the text. It’s true.  They committed a sin.  God had given them everything and they jeopardized all of that in the hope that they could be more like God, more like the creator than the creature. 

            Thus, they were expelled from the garden, from paradise.  As a result of this expulsion, instead of being more like God, they were further from God.  They could still communicate with God, but it was harder and seemed to get even harder for every generation thereafter, at least until Jesus came.  While God punished Adam and Eve, he let them live.  They still had food.  They had shelter. They had one another and the promise of children.  While there time in paradise ended, they had a new beginning. They had an opportunity to start over.

            Today we began the service with something called an “Invitation to the Observance of a Holy Lent.” This is part of the Ash Wednesday service, but I find it appropriate for the first Sunday of Lent as well.  The last paragraph reads, “I invite you … to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. And, to make a right beginning of repentance…let us now kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer.”  Some of those things sound ok.  Self-examination, prayer, reading the Bible…those things are fair expectations of Christians.  But repentance, fasting, self-denial…those things do not sound appealing at all.  Those are the reasons that people do not like Lent. 

            Going through Lent without the repentance, confession and self-examination is kind of like expecting to lose weight by reciting body affirmations but not exercising or eating right.  In order to really transform your body, you have to do the work.  Sometimes that work is miserable, but sometimes, it makes you feel really good.  It’s the same with confession, repentance and self-examination. It’s hard to be honest about yourself.  It is hard to do the work that will make you a better person and a better Christian. It is hard to acknowledge your sins and weaknesses and ask God and others for help.  But all those hard things allow you to become a better person.  Confessing your sins and working hard not to sin again doesn’t just make you a better person, it brings you closer to God.  Even though it seems that you are doing all this work for yourself, you are really doing it for God.   Repentance is not merely the acknowledgment and condemnation of our sins…it is a process of renewal.  It literally means to turn around and reorient ourselves. 

            We don’t know what happened to Adam and Eve after they left the garden.  While they certainly felt guilty for offending God—sinning against God, it is not clear that they repented.   We don’t get the end of the story.  It is not until Jesus comes that we get the rest of the story. In many ways that is why Jesus is often referred to as the new Adam.  He provided the opportunity for humanity to begin again.  While the first humans (Adam and Eve) rejected the limitations of their humanity by trying to be like God, Jesus purposefully took on the limitations of humanity by becoming a human.  By becoming human he not only took on the limitations, he felt the effects of our sins. He had to resist sin and temptation. 

            The story of him in the desert with Satan is dramatic and powerful.  We see Jesus standing up to Satan and refusing to prove his divinity.  However, just because he withstood this temptation in the desert does not mean that he lived a life free of temptation and trials.  Much like us, he was faced with temptation every day.  Every day, he had to do the hard work of resisting sin. While he did not sin, he still experienced the effects of the sins of others.  He went through the agony of betrayal, abandonment and even death on the cross.  Because he went through all of that, he was given an opportunity to start over. His resurrection was a new beginning.  It continues to be a new beginning for us all. 

            It would be helpful if we could find a way to think of Lent not as a dreary time full of sadness and gnashing of teeth, but a new beginning.  I am not a golfer, despite the efforts of my grandparents and father.  However, I am going to attempt a golf analogy.  A mulligan is a free shot you get after you have a really bad shot. It does not count on the scorecard.  It is not a real rule, but is often used in more relaxed settings.  But here is the thing about a mulligan.  You still have to swing again. Someone doesn’t just say, you missed that one, let’s move your ball right next to the hole.  No, you get a chance to start over.  In starting over, it is usually most helpful if you avoid doing what you did the last time.  You want the next shot to be better than the last. 

In golf, you usually only get one mulligan per game.  However, in our Christian journey, we get many opportunities to start over without any penalty.  In our invitation to the observance of a Holy Lent, the last line calls us to kneel before our maker and redeemer.  Our maker and redeemer.  Lent is our opportunity to be made a new, to be redeemed by a God who loves us and cares for us.  It’s true.  We still have to do the work and that is not always fun.  But the end…the end is forgiveness, redemption and a new beginning.  That is not something that should make life dreary.  That is a cause for joy.