“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
I mean, “welcome home!” sorry.
Today is a day of celebrations, not a day to abandon hope. It’s just, when I realized that the Narrative Lectionary chose this reading for today, I was not happy. I wanted to start off the new church year with a fun, happy, optimistic story. Instead, I’m given this tale of failure and exile.
This is the moment. The moment that many have looked back on as the moment that humanity failed. The moment we turned our back on our relationship with God; shortly after it began. Humans expelled from paradise, set down the path of sin and death. This is a story that many of us have grown up with; one that artists and poets have imagined and depicted in paint and in prose. Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” – where the narrator enters the Gates of Hell which bear that inscription: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
We know this story. Many of us have heard it since we were little. A beautiful garden paradise. God and Adam, best friends forever, are working together to make the world perfect. The entire garden is Adam’s to do with whatever he pleases. Frolic through the fields, play with the animals, eat anything you want…well, almost anything. Just, you know, stay away from that one tree. No problem for Adam! Whatever you say God!
Then along comes Eve, created out of Adam’s rib because the animals and plants and God weren’t good enough companions. Now Eve gets to share all of the gifts of the garden: the fun, the furry friends, all the fruit she can eat. Well, all except for that one pesky tree.
Enter Satan. That slimy, sneaky, serpent. He whispers in Eve’s ear, tempting her with that heavenly, forbidden fruit. His luscious lies are as sweet and juicy as that apple must taste. Eve, in her weakness gives in and wantonly defies God. Then she uses her feminine wiles to drag Adam down with her. This is the moment when it all falls apart.
This story of deception and temptation and sin; This story we all know so well.
Today is a day of celebrations; when we welcome everyone home from summers away; when we kick off our new Discovery Kingdom classes; when we look forward with joy and optimism towards a new year of growing and becoming an even better version of the church God calls us to be.
In a world full of fear, we come here looking for hope. In a world full of questions, we come to church looking for answers. Instead, this is what we’re given? Lies and betrayal and abandonment?
Maybe it’s not that simple. Maybe we can’t just pick up the Bible and find that stories written thousands of years ago will give us easy answers for today. We can’t just read the words on the page and assume that they’ll work.
So, we come to church. We gather together as a community to look at the stories of our faith and to discern together what they mean for us today. The Bible is not easy and straight forward. The stories are complex and complicated.
When we are trying to solve the puzzle of our lives, we have to remember that our sacred texts are only one piece. The words on the page have to be examined from a variety of different points of view. We have to look at them in the original contexts: when were they written? Why were they written? What do they say in their original language? What are the different ways they’ve been translated? I don’t expect everyone to do that work, that’s my job. We do send out a link to Sunday’s readings in our “This Week at MCC” emails so you can look at the scripture ahead of time. I do my best to do the research to give you a little more information. This way, I can tell you about some of the word play in the original Hebrew – how the human ‘adam was created out of the soil ‘adamah; how the man ‘ish and the woman ‘ishshah don’t gain those titles until they are separated; how the couple was naked `arowm but the snake was crafty `aruwm.
Once we look at the original context, we can consider our context. What do we bring to our interpretation: what’s going on in our lives? What are we looking for? What do we think we already know about these stories?
Let’s work together now to take a closer look at some of what we think we already know. Take another look at the scripture written in your bulletin. If you’d like to see a different translation, take a look at the Bible that’s in your pew – or feel free to take out any Bibles that you may have brought with you this morning.
Okay, let’s play a little game, see who can read the fastest. When you find the place that says Eve took a bite of an apple, raise your hand.
How about the part that explains that the serpent is Satan?
Neither of those passages exist. Those ideas come from other people’s interpretation and re-imagining of the story. If we can so often get details wrong, what else might we misunderstand about scripture.
We also need to spend some time with the woman. Eve – and all women as an extension of her – have been blamed for the fall of mankind because of giving into the temptation and then convincing her partner to do the same. Look at the story “She gave some also to the man beside her, and he ate it.” Adam was right there as the serpent spoke, he made his own decisions without the woman forcing him or tricking him. Yet, this text has been used for millennia to degrade and subjugate women.
If we look closer, we can also see that God tells the man that they will die if they eat the apple – sorry the fruit. They’ll die on the same day. But, even after they defy God, God’s grace comes through. There are still consequences but God saves them from death.
Our understanding of the Bible can get clouded by assumptions and misunderstanding. “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” are from Dante’s Inferno, not from Genesis. “Women are to blame for the evils of the world” is the call of a misogynistic society, not a world where all are created equal in the eyes of God.
This is why we come to church. So that we can struggle with these texts together. My meditations are only meant to be the start of the conversation. I’ll do my best to give you a little background and a little context but it’s our communal discernment that will help us go deeper. Together we can understand God’s word in scripture. Together we can hear our still speaking God’s words for us today. Together, we can find our place in this world. Together we can find hope.
So, welcome home. Welcome to this place of joy and love and fellowship and optimism. Today is a day of celebrations.
This is the moment when we come back together, seeking each other in a world full of fear so that we can find our joy.
This is the moment when we sing songs celebrating creation and covenanting to serve together.
This is the moment when we join our children as they discover their faith.
This is the moment when we worship our God full of grace, the moment to follow in the courageous footsteps of our savior, the moment to let the Holy Spirit fill us with fire.
This is the moment when we find hope, not when we abandon it. When we remember that God is good, all the time.
So join me in this year of hope. Come to MCC every Sunday and Wednesday or as often as you can. Invite your friends and family to struggle with scripture with us so that we can discover the unimaginable hope that God calls us to. Lend your voice to God’s story at Memorial Congregational Church. This is going to be an amazing year of worshiping and learning and serving. I thank God for the hope that you bring to MCC. Our new year starts right now.
This is the moment.