13 February – Of fig leaves and the future

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Epiphany 6

Genesis 3:1-10
Psalm 130
Luke 2:22-40

In a sentence:
God clothes us with Christ and, so attired, we are dressed for anything.

What is the question to which the Congregation of Mark the Evangelist seeks an answer, the problem we need to resolve?

Obviously, it is how we will continue as a congregation once we leave this place. Less obvious is what “how” means – “how we will continue”. Central to our thinking today and in the weeks to come will be the question of “where?”: Where will the congregation be? This understanding of what matters predominates for us because “where” has been central to our efforts over the last too-many years.

Yet the challenge we face is not simply that of location. If we were the congregation that built Union Memorial Church, we would also be able to fix it – this is what congregations of many hundreds of people can do. But we are not that congregation. The church-world relationship we considered last week has shifted monumentally since those foundations of UMC were dug – not quite deep enough. Buildings aside, the crisis moment of our congregation includes the declining fortunes of the broader church in western societies.

And so what we need is not only a new location but also a clear sense of the time. What does this particular moment require? As we reflected a couple of weeks ago, nothing about tomorrow is clear except that it need be nothing like yesterday. This is to say that nothing about tomorrow is necessary. Nothing is predetermined for us by what has gone before.

But we as begin to think more intensely about this, we strike a problem, and it is Adam’s problem in today’s reading from Genesis: we know that we are “naked”. The man and the woman have eaten from the tree of knowledge of good and bad, and suddenly they are troubled by what did not bother them before: they have no clothes.

Yet, nakedness itself is not the problem. Adam (and Eve’s) knowledge of good and bad after the apple affair does not include the knowledge that nakedness is shameful. The knowledge of good and bad is not knowledge of what is good and bad, only knowledge that there is good and bad. The man and the woman now know that there is an alternative to being naked, which has not occurred to them beforehand: “the man and his wife were naked, and were not ashamed” (2.25).

Knowing there to be a clothing alternative means that they are now free to – in fact, required to – decide whether to be clothed or remain naked. They are required, that is, to judge themselves and each other: am I adequate? Their judgement is that naked is not good, and they stitch together a few leaves and hide.

The distorted condition of Adam and Eve is not that they are naked but that they know too much: I was naked, Adam says; I see that I could be embarrassed about this, and so I am.

This shift in the story marks the presence of a radical uncertainty in human experience. Awareness of their nakedness is not about their bare skin but is a kind of self-exposure to themselves as responsible before God. With the appearance of choice in the awareness of a distinction between good and bad, morality appears – the possibility of being wrong, and being judged for that failure.

This is what we know as we consider our next steps as a congregation: that God will not tell us what to do, so we must work it out, not knowing what “the right” thing to do is. The apple-eating and its consequences account for our sense of being responsible for what happens next. To protect ourselves, we calculate and plan and rationalise, to act according to whatever seems to be the best principles. In this, we demonstrate to ourselves – and we think we demonstrate also to God – what the future has to look like. We make the future the next necessary thing.

Nothing could be more sensible than working it all out “properly”. Yet this is also fundamentally an exercise in self-justification. To calculate and balance and debate is to demonstrate – to each other as much as to God – that we have done the only thing we could, the necessary thing. Necessary things are safe, but God has no interest in what is necessary; what is necessary is always outside of God. Grace – which is fundamental to the character and activity of God – is radically unnecessary, unlegal, unjust, and is precisely what God does when re-creating us out of nothing in forgiveness or in the gift of a tomorrow we did not imagine but desperately needed.

The gospel is that God has seen us naked and – unlike we ourselves – has neither laughed nor been shocked. But we don’t believe this, so we reach for fig leaves – for visions, for mission strategies and for budgets – and we cover ourselves with these, just in case it be found we don’t have enough on. Yet, to rest our future only on the conviction that we have “done our best” is to declare nakedness before God shocking.

We must surely do our best, but this is not the end of the story because the story of the first couple’s judgement of their nakedness does not end with them hiding in the bushes. At the end of Genesis 3, after hearing all the bad news which now flows from knowing too much, the text reports, “And the Lord God made garments of skins…and clothed them” (3.20).

This gift is not about the durability of leather over withering leaves. It is not about the difference between our Elm Street hall as a temporary fig leaf and what we do next as “better”, as more secure and amenable. The difference between the leaves and the garments of skin is, rather, the difference between what Adam and Eve can provide for themselves and what God provides for them.

What we can do for ourselves is always of the order of fig leaves. We can make these work for a while, as we have made this hall on Elm Street work. Thinking this way, of course, suddenly casts Union Memorial Church itself as something of a fig leaf. As it finally withers and falls away, we naturally reach for something else to cover us. But we must keep in mind that self-provision is always a fig leaf, always an estimation of what we’ll need to cover whatever seems too exposed.

God does not provide us with what we could provide for ourselves – does not provide even a better version of what we might have managed for ourselves. The difference between what we can do for ourselves and what God does for us is the difference between living by our own goodness or cunning and living by God’s grace. What God does for us is grant us the freedom to be wrong. The man and the woman are wrong in their assessment of their nakedness. Yet they are accepted by God, and the garments of leather are the sign of that acceptance. This acceptance does not wear out. The leather lasts forever. To press it to its final truth, Christ himself is these garments of skin.

In clothing us, God says, for all your misjudgement and confusion, you are still mine. There is nowhere to hide. I see you. And my seeing clothes you.

The risk in our conversations over the next little while is that we proceed by telling one another, “If we put that on, we will still be naked.”

God has seen us naked and has not laughed or been shocked. It is neither here nor there. Our conversation today is not about getting dressed because we have to. It is a fashion parade: an occasion to wonder that such garments could be clothing and what it would be like to wear them.

We are free to play dress-ups in this way because God is not overly concerned about what else we wear, apart from Jesus.

We no longer hide from God; we hide in God.

And when we put on Christ,           we are dressed for anything.