Lent 1, Year A
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7 † Psalm 32 † Romans 5:12-19 † Matthew 4:1-11
Is sin a virus? Does it spread with contact or exposure from one person to the next to the next? Is it transmitted communally, somehow?
Perhaps it is the attention that we’re giving to COVID-19, the novel coronavirus outbreak creating growing concern throughout the world, that has me thinking about this connection. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has stated that while the immediate health risk from COVID-19 is considered low for the general public in the United States, "current global circumstances suggest it is likely that this virus will cause a pandemic" and that more cases in the US will be identified.
The story is changing rapidly, as you surely know. I want you to know we are paying close attention, and thinking about how best to respond appropriately and reasonably to the most reliable and current information. And we trust that you are educating yourself, and considering how to respond according to your needs and resources—staying home if you have a fever, keeping yourself from potential transmission if your health is already compromised, practicing good hygiene.
For now, though, listen again to the beginning of the Romans reading:
Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned.
Sin sure sounds like its gone viral as we pick up the writer’s metaphor at this point in the text. It seems to have some of the same characteristics as this new epidemic and, for that matter, many a youtube meme--
like Baby Shark! And no, I will not put that ear worm in your head right now, but did you know 20 seconds, or halfway into the Daddy Shark verse is about the right length for washing your hands to thoroughly disinfect them?
Anyway, sin has, according to Romans, an almost viral quality to it. Yet we know that the letter to the Roman church was not about a potential pandemic. It was about temptation and our response to it. It was about how we find strength for choices and patterns of relationship that give us fullness of life together in community—particularly when the going is rough. It was about how we draw on that Spirit of life in one another to inoculate us from what can kill us. It was about being the church together. It was about the power of grace.
And just as the Romans reading is not about a virus, the Genesis reading is not a history of original sin. Contrary to what we may have been told, it is not about some historical event in which two early humans somehow made some choices that started an unstoppable human contagion.
Let’s consider that this story is a grand story, a myth in the technical, literary sense that it doesn’t just tell a history, but a timeless truth; it is not about an inherited predisposition, but an illustration of a grand predicament—the quandary of being human, the whole package that comes with higher order thinking, the ability for self-reflection and imagination, the powerful influence of fear and trust and the deep, underlying sense of a divine power and order that is not of our own making, and yet incarnate in our lives.
In other words, let’s think of the Genesis story as a reflection on the human experience, and a perfect entry point into the gracious and life-giving task of Lent as a practice that leads to renewal, health, strength, and peace with God and others. Let’s talk about the power of grace breaking through what we thought was dead and done like a flower through a crack of barren concrete.
This may not be the perfect analogy, but I hope you will indulge me this first Sunday of Lent. I was so smitten by this old video of this shirtless dancing guy that I want to show it to you. This is taken just across the state on the Columbia River Gorge at the Sasquatch music festival back in 2009. The quality is not particularly good—of the video, I mean! Maybe that too is for the best! But you can see it well enough to understand what’s happening as this fearless guy dances to the festival music—first all by himself. But then one brave soul decides to follow, and suddenly a lone nut becomes a leader. It may be that this second person is the bravest of all and the key to allowing a crazy act to become a movement.
After the first follower joins, then another does, and a few more. And, well, momentum builds, the tipping point comes. You will see what happens, if you haven’t already figured it out.
Derek Sivers, who presented this in a three minute TED talk back in 2010, notes that it all started with the shirtless guy, and he’ll get the credit. But “it was the first follower that transformed a lone nut into a leader.” There is no movement without the first follower. While we are constantly told to be leaders, and this is not bad advice, we might remember—especially in this season the importance of discipleship, the power of following, the possibilities inherent in the courage to be the first to follow and to show others how to follow as well.[I]
Church consultant Peter Steinke reminds us that all mammals share that bundle of nerve connections at the base of our brains that is totally absent of thought process—the amygdala. The amygdala does instinct; it fires our emotional impulses: fight or flight or freeze—the reptilian part of our brain.
Then there's the bulk of the brain that fills most of the cranium—the mammalian brain. It seems to be pretty inefficient when you get right down to it. But it helps us create lasting relationships and families; it makes us playful, gives us voice.
And then there is the cortex, and, in particular, the left prefrontal cortex. The left prefrontal cortex houses our humanity; it allows us to do things which make us human, and it is only functional in humans. Steinke talks about the left prefrontal cortex as holy tissue. It develops in the third trimester and continues until about age 25. It is the only part of the brain affected by environment and experience. Others have called it the organ of civilization, the soul’s fragile dwelling place.[ii]
The left pre-frontal cortex allows us to do five things which make us human. It enables us to step back from experience and reflect—to observe ourselves and our environment and to think critically. It allows us to exercise social competence, to see beyond ourselves and our own self-interests. It allows us to think and imagine, and it allows us to control and regulate powerful emotional forces such as fear and anxiety. Finally, this holy tissue allows us to deal with the future, to create scenarios, to plan and imagine new possibilities. It allows advent, hope, baptism, a God of Genesis, but also new creation, promise and tomorrow.
You see, the writer to the Romans understands the power of community shaped by a particular spirit to tip the future toward something more than it is. In Romans, the early church knew the power of sin to infect not just one, but many, in a viral sort of way. But it also knew that the power for goodness was much greater in not only inoculating us from sin, but tipping the world toward the good:
Even though the lectionary cycle has moved our readings around a bit, we should note that Jesus’ journey into wilderness and temptation immediately follows his baptism. This is no accident, in fact, Matthew is clear that the Spirit leads him out into the wilderness. To be baptized for Jesus is to be put at risk because he has allowed his own preferences to be put to death in favor of the Way of the God who calls all creatures beloved and all creation holy. Yet it is also the affirmation of his belonging to the Holy, and of the strength that will carry him through the most difficult times when the angels have not yet appeared to attend to him and you.
In Matthew’s story, Jesus has offered the antidote to the folly of the first humans who have allowed their own agenda to trespass on holy ground. Jesus remembers instead that his life is found in obedience to the ways of God: “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.”
Baptism, along with the Eucharist are the ultimate reminders for Christians that the way to faith and fullness of life is through obedience, not control; through acts of self-giving, not fearful hoarding, through new alignments with those we would not normally partner with, by way of the courage to join in the way of the One dancing in the wilderness. By partnering with God to tip the world toward generosity and goodness. Through the viral spread of love.
[I]See Derek Sivers, “First Follower: Leadership Lessons from a Dancing Guy”, February 11, 2010. Retrieved on February 29, 2020 from https://sivers.org/ff.
[ii] See my St. Andrew article “Take it Down a Notch for Jesus”, September 25, 2010. Retrieved February 29, 2020 from http://www.standrewpc.org/on-our-minds/take-it-down-a-notch-for-jesus.
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