Rev. Danielle K Bartz March 13, 2022
Genesis 3:1-7 “Tests and Trials”
When I was a chaplain resident in the children’s hospital at Mayo, I had a patient, about 6 years old, who was going to be having extensive surgery. I didn’t know him very well, pediatric chaplains spend most of their time with the parents of patients. So, when I got a call that the patient was asking for a prayer before going into surgery, I assumed it was the parent’s asking for a prayer – which was very common and a normal part of my day. When I arrived in pre-op, the little boy was all prepped and ready for surgery and his parents got up to excuse themselves. In a first for me, it was the little boy who requested a prayer, not his parents. Except for the nurse who had to stay, it was just the two of us. He told me he actually wanted to ask a question of me. “Go right ahead” I told him. This little boy, tiny in that big hospital bed, looked right at me and asked, “What does God want of me?” What does God want of me? – a question most adults are afraid to ask aloud, spoken by a little boy about to go into surgery.
I don’t remember what I said. I do remember I was stunned and humbled. Undoubtedly, I said something about how God wants everyone to be happy and peaceful and do whatever good they can in the world. I think I said something about how God would be with him in surgery, no matter what. Whatever I said felt inadequate to the moment, but he listened and nodded. After a few moments of silence, he looked at me again and asked if he could pray with me. Then this little prophet took my hand, closed his eyes, and said, “God, help me to always do what you want me to do. Amen.”
His surgery was successful and without complications, and a few weeks later he went home. He’s about 20 years old now – and I have no trouble believing he is still asking hard and good questions, and humbling every older adult around him who is supposed to have all the answers. And I hope he is still praying to God that same prayer, “God, help me to always do what you want me to do. Amen.”
That prayer by a 6-year-old prophet laying in a hospital bed is one that has been echoed throughout the generations by people wondering just what it is God wants of us and for us. This is the BIG question – What does God want of us and for us. I have heard the question asked hundreds of times since that encounter and I have asked it myself more times than I can count. It is the question echoed throughout the scriptures of every faith that believes in a divine and active creator. The monastics secluded themselves away from the rest of world to contemplate this question. The leaders of change have asked this question and found themselves on the streets marching for justice. Adults ask this question in the last moments of their lives and some remarkable children ask it hoping they have a life-time ahead to figure it out.
It is usually in times of trial that I hear this question being asked. Those times when we feel like we are being tested and want to do what God wants of us in the midst of the test. But, I have also heard a different question asked in those moments of trial – what do I want for me and how can I get it. That question is reversed, turned away from God and back to self. The self becomes the source of wisdom and guidance, not the Divine. That is the tension of our humanity – in times of trial and testing, do we turn outward to God, or do we turn inward to self.
That is the tension we are left with in today’s scripture. We continue this week with our ancestral creation story. The first humans, formed like art from the very fertile soil of our earth and given the breath of life from God, have been living within the paradise called Eden that God created. Living in peace with the earth and all the other creatures of God’s creation. God provided everything those first humans needed – including one limit. They must not eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil – because if they do, God says, they will surely die. But this limit is given a test and that test comes in the form of a serpent.
This story describes the serpent as having naked, or raw, or unfiltered intelligence, more than any of the other creatures in the garden. And using that intelligence to manipulate, the serpent sows doubt and distrust in the first humans. “What did God really say?” it asks. And when the serpent hears the answer, that if they eat of that tree they will surely die, the serpent casts doubt. “You won’t die, God just wants to keep you from becoming powerful. God wants to keep you in your place. God doesn’t want for you everything that God has.” The first humans knew what God wanted of them and for them – but when that was tested by the serpent, they turned away from God and back towards themselves. And when they eat the fruit of the tree, they became ashamed and covered themselves.
This ancient story was written to help humanity understand their relationship to God, to the world, and our own limits. This story helps us to see the tests and trials we face today with new eyes. Do our goals align with what God hopes for us? When engaging with the world do we do so with the humble knowledge that we cannot do and know everything and therefore must rely on the wisdom of the Divine around us, or do we approach the world seeking to manipulate it to conform to our wants and needs? Does what we say and do point to God, or does what we say and do simply point back to self? Are we serving God and the promise of God’s paradise, or are we serving only ourselves with no thought to the rest of the creation we are so intrinsically tied to?
“What does God want of me?” is the BIG question of our faith and of our lives. That was the question the first humans were confronting in this story. They were too easily manipulated to turn their attention away from God and service to God’s desire for humanity and instead turn back inwards towards themselves. We are stopping the story in this moment of selfishness and idolatry and next week we will hear God’s response to the choice that was made. Part of me really wants to keep going, to finish the story because the story is an extraordinary reminder of God’s grace. But, I won’t. I am going to instead hold us in the moment of tension so we can reflect on how we have, or haven’t asked the question and sought through prayer wisdom of what God’s wants of us.
I don’t know if we can always be as brave and wise as that little boy who was unafraid to ask the question and to seek the answer in prayer. But I hope we can be. I hope that when we confront those moments in our lives when a choice must be made that we choose to point to God and not back at ourselves. I hope that we can choose to look outward at God and by doing so see all of God’s creation – our neighbors, our strangers, our earthly home, the possibilities, and promises of God waiting to be claimed. I hope that we can be humble enough to know that we do not have all the answers alone, and that we must rely on the wisdom of the ancient and modern prophets who can help us to find what God is hoping for us. I hope we can be brave enough to say to God, we don’t have all the answers, but we do have faith in you. Guide us and our actions to be in your service.
Lent is a time to live in this tension between wondering what God wants of us and whether we can remain committed to focusing on God. Lent is not meant to the be the test – rather Lent is meant to be a gift of time for reflection and prayer. And maybe, just maybe, we can all echo the prayer for a 6-year-old prophet during this time – “God help me to always do what you want me to do.” Amen.
God, it is with humble spirits that we come before you in prayer, because we know that we do not have all the answers. We seek your wisdom for us, and from that wisdom we hope to find the paths you intend for us to follow. We do this with gratefulness that you have created in us the ability to ask the big questions and make choices. You have created in us the possibility to always put you first, and we are grateful for this possibility.
God, even as we seek answers to the big questions of our lives with and in service to you, we remember that there are so many in our world who do have the time or capacity for such questions. There are far too many in this world that are simply trying to survive, and have no choice but to rely on you and you alone. For all of those who are hungry, sick, afraid, in the paths of bullets and bombs, without shelter, and at times without hope – we pray. We pray that you will comfort them in ways that we simply cannot. And we pray that we will find it within ourselves to do what we can to ease their suffering.
God of grace and possibility, we pause now in a few moments of silence, seeking to hear your still-speaking voice, whispering to us and guiding us….
Thank you God for your constant presence in our lives and in the lives of all your creation. We pray all of this, and so much more, in the name of Jesus Christ – our teacher who was unafraid to ask the hard questions and would always use the answers to point back to you. So, we pray in the way he taught, by saying together…Our Father…