The Rev. Steven D. Paulikas
March 1, 2020
All Saints’ Church
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
We all have our days of reckoning. You know yours. It’s that time when all the short cuts you’ve taken, all the excuses you’ve made, all the things done and left undone come tumbling out of the sky like a bag of bricks and bonk you square on the head. You know you’ve been doing all these things, and you’ve probably had some pretty clever explanations for why you’ve been doing them. Now isn’t the right time. Something else came up. I just can’t. Meanwhile, the things you’ve made your excuses to avoid aren’t just sitting there, patiently waiting for you to come around to them. They are hungry. Voracious, even. They feed off all the things you are ignoring, and they get bigger, fatter, until finally, one day, their combined weight plops right down on your head in that one, great, day of reckoning.
Have I gotten you anxious yet? Well, friends, there’s safety in numbers. Because if any of what I’ve said sounds familiar, it’s because it’s an experience common to all humanity. And, actually, one of the greatest sins is to think that your sins are somehow unique. But more about that later.
For the past several years, I have been living my life with a huge day of reckoning hanging over my head. I’m in a PhD program, which means there’s a literal date by which I have to have produced a book-length thesis that supposedly advances human knowledge about a particular topic. No pressure. Now, no one forced me to do this; it was my own choice. But it was a weird choice. Do you know those dreams when you’re back in school, and there’s a math test, but you forgot about it or you studied the wrong thing, or you lost your notes? They are one of the iconic feelings of the day of reckoning. Well, for me right now that’s not a dream—it’s basically my life.
In January, I had a mini-moment of reckoning when I went in for what’s called an “assessment,” the second of only two in my entire program before the big day of reckoning when I finally turn in my thesis. At this assessment, you walk into a room with two noted professors who have read your materials, and for an hour, they proceed to tell you…all the things you should have been doing for the past few years but didn’t do. Imagine going to Confession, except instead of you doing the confessing, the priest already knows all your sins and just reads them out to you. What do you do? Lie and say you didn’t know? Make more excuses? None of that will work. Because the day of reckoning has already come.
Whew. If your palms are sweaty now, just wait—there’s more! In my assessment, one of the professors challenged me on my use of one word: fault. If somehow I haven’t told you already, I’m writing my thesis about the work of a philosopher named Paul Ricoeur. Specifically, I’m interested in what he has to say—and not say—about evil and what we are supposed to do about it. To that end, Ricoeur focuses on today’s reading from Genesis to explain our experience of evil. Like the serpent, evil enters the world with no warning, unexpectedly. Think about it: what is this serpent doing in this story? He is out of place. Evil is fantastical, like this talking snake. And it is evil that causes us to fault, just like the first two people in the garden.
There’s a lot to this word: fault. It can mean guilt, as in, it’s your fault, not mine. It can also mean that things are more generally wrong: there’s fault in the world. It can also mean there’s something inherently wrong with you, like, one of my faults is not studying enough. In Ricoeur’s French, la faute can mean something like an error.
But I also like the geological definition. A fault is a crack or a seam in the crust of the earth. You know about the San Andreas Fault in California, where the North American Plate meets the Pacific Plate. Seen from the air, it looks like a scar in the land. As these two massive chunks of crust grind up against one another, pressure builds up in the fault, until it snaps, causing a massive earthquake.
Isn’t that what the experience of the fault is like for us, too? The great day of reckoning is like an earthquake. The evil in our lives enters through the fault, the crack in the way our lives are supposed to be, the scar in the fabric of our personalities, our very selves. We try to avoid it as much as we can, to ignore it. But over time the pressure builds and builds, until one day, BAM! The whole world is shaken. You face the exam you didn’t study for. You face your family or your spouse in light of the behavior you know has hurt them. You face the things you have said and done to others that continue to haunt you. You face your neglect in your finances, or your work, or your domestic affairs. You face your complicity in systems and exploit others and are killing our planet. The earth begins to tremble beneath your feet; the walls shake and the ground buckles underneath you. It is the day of reckoning—but it is not the San Andreas fault that causes this earthquake; it is your fault.
As an aside, you’ll never catch me living in California! The weather may be nice, but I’m not interested in being there when the Big One hits!
Your fault exists. That’s just a fact of living that can’t be avoided. And it’s an incredibly hard thing to live with. But I take comfort in something else Paul Ricoeur says about the fault: that in spite of the tremendous pain our faults cause ourselves and others, in spite of the suffering they cause in the world, the fault is nonetheless a site of potential. When we face our faults, God’s grace is given a place to work. When we face our faults, we release the pressure our sins force on them. The result is that the day of reckoning isn’t as bad as it would have been otherwise. But there’s more than that. When we face our faults, we learn in new ways how we live by God’s grace alone. This knowledge transforms our lives and the lives of those around us. This is what we do in Lent: open up the possibilities for God by having the courage to own up to the fault.
Friends, what matters is not the fact of the fault; what matters is how we deal with it. When you ignore the fault and let it fester, the pressure on it continues to build and build until it is released in a powerful and destructive earthquake. But when you face your fault, it eases the pressure on you and those around you. It takes courage and effort, but it is the very work to which God calls us, especially in this season of Lent.
Let’s go back to Genesis. The serpent appears out of nowhere. He is a fault in the fabric of Eden, a thing that shouldn’t exist. But he is not the cause of the tragedy that ensues. Rather, it is the man and the woman’s response to him that causes their pain. They are at fault. And when given the chance to repent and own up to their fault, they lie to God. It is in that moment that the innocence of trust between them and God is broken forever. The serpent really has very little to do with it.
This lesson is repeated in today’s Gospel message. Even Jesus is not immune from the fault. The devil places three great temptations before him. Here again is the fault appearing, like the serpent, out of nowhere to cause chaos in the world. People say the devil doesn’t exist. But what other explanation is there for the state of our world? He appears even to Our Lord. But unlike the man and the woman in the garden of Eden, who succumb to the fault, Jesus resists it. He rejects the offer of food when he is hungry. He says no to a magic that is meaningless. He even turns down the devil’s offer of all the kingdoms of the world. Jesus faces the fault and rejects it. And what is the result? He unleashes potential that would have remained dormant had he never been tempted at all.
He rejects the devil’s bread, and offers his body as bread for us all.
He rejects the devil’s magic, and shows us that God’s love is no magic at all.
He rejects the devil’s authority over the nations, and humbles himself to become our eternal King.
We are not perfect like Jesus is. But that doesn’t mean we can’t reject the fault when given the chance. You know what your faults are. And if you don’t, then as your pastor, I suggest you take a long, hard look at yourself this season and become acquainted with them. I am continually amazed by the strength and persistence of my own faults and the power I give them to sabotage my life. When I refuse to face them, then the pressure on them grows and grows until the earth quakes beneath my feet and life begins to look like a pile of rubble—the great day of reckoning. But when I have the courage to face my faults, I unlock the potential of grace hidden within them, and I allow the good that God has placed within me to ripple out.
I believe that is God’s desire for me. I believe that is God’s desire for you. As we embark on this Lenten journey, may you have the strength to face your faults, to acknowledge them and not to allow them to define who you are and how you act. God will give you all you need in this holy struggle. Be firm in your faith, for the sake of righteousness. Amen.