Look and see
You probably know that a new epic movie about Noah opened on Friday. The trailers show some pretty spectacular looking special effects. I’m sure you remember the Noah story from Sunday School, the rainbow and the dove and the olive branch and the procession of animals lining up two by two to get on the ark. From what I’ve read and seen, the movie seems to focus on the darker side of the Noah story, the grim implications of God’s decision to wipe the slate clean and start again. I don’t know that I’ll go see it in the theater; at two hours and seventeen minutes, it’s a bit long for me to sit still, so I’ll probably wait for it to come out on Netflix. I’ve also read that the movie takes some liberties with the biblical account. So, in case you are planning to see the movie, here’s a little quiz about what the bible actually says about Noah and the ark, with thanks to Joel Hoffman of the Huffington Post.
First question. How many of each animal did Noah put on the ark? a. Two; b. Seven; c. Fourteen; d. different numbers for different animals. The answer is d. Genesis 6: 19-20 says Noah collected two of each animal, one male and one female, and that’s the image that is seared into our imaginations from Sunday School, but Genesis 7:2-3 says two of some and “seven each” of others.
Second question. God sent the flood in response to human wickedness. What led to that wickedness? a. People ignored God’s laws; b. People offered the wrong kind of sacrifices; c. the Devil tempted people to sin; d. Evil angels mated with humans and bore giants. The answer is d. Genesis 6:2-4 refers to the time when angels took human wives and gave birth to giants. However, regardless of what the movie depicts, the bible does not say that the giants helped to build the ark.
Third question. How big was the ark Noah built? a. Much smaller that the Titanic; b. about the same as the Titanic; c. a little bigger than the Titanic, or d. much bigger than the Titanic. The answer is a. At 300 x 50 x 30 cubits, the ark was 450,000 cubic cubits. A cubit is about 1.5 feet, so the ark was 450 x 75 x 45 or 1,518,750 cubic feet. That’s the equivalent of about 1,300 of today’s standard 20-foot international shipping containers, and today’s megaships carry some 9,000 such containers. The Titanic was three times bigger than the ark, with a volume of about 4,600,000 cubic feet.
Final question. How long did the flood last? a. Seven days; b. forty days; c. one hundred and fifty days; d. one year and ten days. The answer is d. The rain lasted for 40 days (Genesis 7:14), but the water didn’t start receding until the 150th day (Genesis 8:3), and mountaintops remained submerged until about the 250th day (Genesis 8:5). But according to Genesis 8:14, the land wasn’t dry until the 27th day of the second month — one year and ten days after the flood had started.
It’s turning out to be quite a year for bible based movies. A few weeks ago, 20th Century Fox released Son of God, now we have Noah, and later this year, we’ll see Exodus in 3-D. This isn’t a new phenomenon, of course; movies based on biblical stories have been big box office draws for decades, think about The Greatest Story Ever Told, Ben-hur, or The Ten Commandments. In more recent years movies like The Last Temptation of Christ and The Passion of the Christ have sparked a fair amount of controversy for the liberties taken with the biblical text or for the depiction of graphic violence. I tend to think that movies about the bible are a good thing overall. I guess I hope that they get more people interested in this book that is at the center of our faith, a book which I have come to love more and more as I get older and continue to study it. My favorite stories from the bible, however, tend to not be the ones that end up on the silver screen. Rather, my favorite stories are like the one we heard this morning from John’s gospel, the story of the man who was blind from birth. It probably wouldn’t make a very good movie, at least not the blockbuster sort. There’s very little action, and no need for special effects. What there is, however, is a lot of dialogue, with very human characters doing their best to understand who God is, what their relationship with God is like, and how they are called to live with one another. It is a story about darkness and light, about blindness and sight, and maybe most importantly, about learning to see and choosing not to see.
Jesus and the disciples are walking along and they see a man blind from birth. The common understanding back then was that birth defects or illness or any sort of handicap were caused by sin, so the disciples ask Jesus whose fault the man’s blindness is, his own or his parents. Jesus tells them that neither the man nor his parents sinned; in fact, sin has nothing to do with the man’s blindness. His blindness, however, does provide an opportunity for God’s works to be revealed; specifically, it provides Jesus an opportunity to show people who he is as the son of God. And even though the blind man doesn’t ask for Jesus to cure his blindness, Jesus spits in the dirt and makes a little clay and rubs it on the man’s eyes. This sounds pretty unappealing to us today, but it was a common sort of healing remedy back then. Jesus tells the man to wash, and when he does, he is able to see.
This is when the story really gets going. The neighbors had been used to seeing the blind man sitting on the side of the road begging. They had probably felt sorry for him and helped him out here and there. They maybe even felt kind of good about themselves for doing this, for helping someone in need. But when the blind man shows up able to see, the neighbors don’t recognize him; they’re not sure it’s the same guy, but rather they think it’s someone who looks like him. Before, they couldn’t see anything about the man except his blindness; now that he can see, they can’t see him. The poor guy is standing there while they argue with one another, and he keeps saying, “I am the same man!” Finally, they ask him, “How were your eyes opened?” And he tells them, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, told me to go wash, and when I did, I received my sight.” They want to know where Jesus is, and the man tells them he doesn’t know.
The neighbor want to get to the bottom of this, so they take the man to the Pharisees, those so-called experts on how to live a godly life. The issue is complicated because Jesus did what he did on the sabbath, in violation of the rules against working on the sabbath. The Pharisees start arguing amongst themselves, some saying that Jesus must be a sinner because he doesn’t observe the sabbath, but others countering that no sinner would be able to heal someone. Finally they ask the man what he thinks, and the man replies that Jesus must be a prophet; after all, prophets proclaim a new vision for the world, and that is exactly what the man has received from Jesus. Some of the folks hit on a new explanation, that maybe the man wasn’t blind at all, so they call his parents over. His parents tell them that indeed he was blind, but they don’t know how it is that he now sees. So they go back to the man and question him again. “Look,” they say, “It’s clear that Jesus is a sinner, because he’s working on the sabbath, and since he’s a sinner, there’s no way he healed you. Tell us the truth, how is it that you can see?” I just love the man’s response. “I don’t know whether he’s a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” I suspect in the few hours that he’s been able to see that he’s re-evaluated life as he understood it. Since birth, he’s lived with the belief that he was blind either through his own fault or through the fault of his parents. He’s believed that the only role for him in society was as a beggar. He’s believed that there was no way he would ever be able to see. He’s believed all this things because the Pharisees, the religious authorities, told them they were true. But now Jesus has come along and given him his sight, and he sees things in a whole new way. Maybe the Pharisees have got it wrong, maybe his blindness wasn’t anyone’s fault, maybe God’s love and mercy aren’t doled out in a complicated system of rules.
The Pharisees keep pressing him, asking again how he was healed. The man says he’s told them already and they wouldn’t listen: first the neighbors can’t see him; now the Pharisees can’t hear him. Finally, the man has had enough. “What is wrong with you people?” he explodes. “Who cares where he comes from, or whether or not he’s a sinner according to your rules: he opened my eyes!! If that isn’t a gift from God, I don’t know what is. And I’ll tell you another thing: If Jesus shows up again, I’m going to look carefully at what he does and listen carefully to what he says, because I think what he does and says is life-giving; I think he is from God.”
As I said, I love this story. I love that Jesus doesn’t let himself get caught up in the disciple’s theological and philosophical questions about why the man is blind or whose fault it is or why there is suffering in the world. Rather, Jesus sees someone in need and he helps him, no questions asked; he doesn’t even wait for the blind man to ask for help. I love how the neighbors’ inability to see the blind man once he is healed serves to remind us that a person is not defined by a handicap or an illness or something that makes them different from other people. There is more to the blind man than his blindness; there is more to a patient in the hospital than their cancer; there is more, I suspect, to most people that we meet than what we think we immediately see. Finally, I love the simple straightforward response of the blind man to his gift of sight. In spite of what he’s been taught from birth, in spite of being shouted down by everyone, the man knows what is life-giving and holy when he sees it and he refuses to ignore it.
The story of the man blind from birth isn’t blockbuster movie material, but it may help us to see God, each other, and ourselves in a new and different way. Look and see how we can help people in need. Look and see more than just the one or two most obvious things about the people we meet. Look and see what God has freely given us, the gifts that have changed our life for the better. Look and see how we can walk in the light of Jesus. Amen.
The power of chance
This week of course was the beginning of the NCAA Basketball Tournament. I don’t really follow basketball, and I’ve never filled out a bracket before. But, like millions of other Americans, the chance at a billion dollars of Warren Buffet’s money for a perfect bracket was just tempting enough that I did get online and fill one out this year. I had to pick Michigan State as the winner, since I went there, my sister graduated from there, and my mother would probably never speak to me again if I didn’t. I looked at a few statistics, and I consulted a couple of friends. I watched a video on the New York Times website that compared the bracket strategies of a university-level math department at Davidson College with the strategies of the four ten-year old actresses currently playing Matilda on Broadway. The Davidson College program is led by Professor Tim Chartier, and he and his students have devised a computer program with 350 equations and 350 unknowns to help them predict the winning teams. My strategies are more like the Matilda girls, who are much less scientific, choosing teams they recognize or going with a gut feeling. Neither group are particularly sports fans; Chartier says that his students who know less about the actual teams tend to do a bit better because they don’t let their own biases creep in and they allow the statistics to do their work. The Matilda girls pondered out loud between teams like Wichiita and San Diego Street; one of the actresses favors underdogs because Matilda, the character she plays, is an underdog. Unfortunately, two of the girls favored Syracuse. The Davidson College program has had some pretty good success in recent years, producing brackets with accuracy rates above 95%.
Still, the odds are against both groups, and really all of us. The chances of picking the perfect bracket are something like 1 in 9.2 quintillion. That means if all 317 million people in the United States filled out a bracket at random, you could run the contest for 290 million years, and there’d still be a 99 percent chance that no one would ever win. If you know the sport pretty well, you cut your odds to something like 1 in 128 billion, but you’d still need to fill out about 90 billion brackets to even have a 50-50 chance to win. Still, millions of Americans fill out brackets every year (even without the billion dollar incentive), buy lottery tickets, and play slot machines at casinos, even though we know the odds are against us. The chance of winning, even if it is infinitesimally small, is so enticing we put aside our better judgement.
The allure of chance, whether a big payout, or the chances of being in the right place at the right time, or the life-changing possibilities of a chance encounter on the street or at the laundromat, captures our imagination, and I wonder if that’s not part of the appeal of this very familiar story of Jesus meeting the woman at the well. Certainly from the woman’s perspective, the chance that this encounter would turn out to be so life-giving had to have seemed incredibly small. The woman is a Samaritan, and you probably remember that Samaritans and Jews (like Jesus) did not get along. And all the details we have about the woman really seem to indicate that she is down and out on her luck. First off, she’s at the well in the middle of the day, when the sun is directly overhead and the heat is sweltering. Hauling water from the well was woman’s work in those days, and it wasn’t easy work. They would take a large clay jug from their home and walk to the well. They would tie a rope around the jug and lower it into the well to fill it with water. They’d haul it up by the rope, and then they would have to haul it home, heavier now that it was full. Most women went to the well in the early morning and late evening, before or after the heat of the day. They could chat and exchange gossip, and help one another out if the jug was too heavy to haul up. For some reason, this woman is at the well in the middle of the day, when no one else is around. John doesn’t tell us why; it may have something to do with her having had five husbands. Whether she lost her husbands through death or divorce, the system of marriage that was supposed to support her has utterly and completely failed this woman. I suspect she stays away from the well when the other women are there because she can’t bear to hear their happy chatter about their husbands and children. She likes the well at noon, when it’s quiet; she likes the anonymity. So, when she sees the strange man sitting there, she probably thought about turning around and coming back later.
And for Jesus’s part, I’m not sure he was too thrilled to see her. He and the disciples have been traveling on foot a long time on their way from Jerusalem to Galilee. Everywhere they go, people flock around him with questions or requests for healing; the disciples are constantly bickering with each other and asking him which of them will sit at his right hand and which at his left. The nice thing about being in Samaria is that no one knows who he is, people just leave him alone. Jesus is probably enjoying his few minutes of quiet at the well, and might have just ignored the woman. But he looks at her and something about the woman touches him, and so he asks her for a drink of water. The woman is shocked, to put it mildly. Men simply did not speak to women in public in those days, especially not strange women they didn’t know. Plus, the woman can tell by the way Jesus is dressed that he’s a Jew: no faithful Jew would ask a Samaritan for anything. She asks him why he would ask her for a drink, and then she and Jesus have this strange conversation about water and thirst and living water and eternal life. The woman has a hard time understanding what Jesus is saying, that he has a living water to give her that will mean she’ll never be thirsty again. She marvels that he knows all about her past, her husbands who either died or abandoned her. Before she realizes it, she’s forgotten that she’s not supposed to talk to men in public, that she’s not supposed to talk to Jews, that her life is filled with sorrow and shame. She asks Jesus about the difference between the mountain where Samaritans worship and the mountain where Jews worship, a question really about the difference between Samaritans and Jews, a question that really asks, “So, Jesus, which one of us is better? Which of us has it right?” And Jesus replies, “Pretty soon, that won’t matter. We’ll all worship together. All those things that you think separate you from me, that separate you from your neighbors, that separate you from God, they’re all in your head. They do not matter to God. God seeks those who seek to worship in spirit and truth. It doesn’t matter who you think you are; it doesn’t matter who others think you are. It only matters who God thinks you are.”
Everything changes for the woman because of this chance encounter with Jesus at the well. Now, she sees herself through Jesus’s eyes, she sees herself through God’s eyes. Before, she did her best to be invisible, to stay in the shadows. Now, she leaves her water jar at the well and she runs throughout Samaria telling men and women alike about this Jesus, who saw her as she is and talked to her anyways. Before, she saw herself as a cast-off, as a nobody. Now, she sees what Jesus sees in her, what God sees in her, that she is a somebody, that she has worth, that she has value, that her life has meaning and potential.
A couple of weeks ago, I watched the movie A Late Quartet on Netflix. It’s the story of a professional string quartet as they approach their 25th anniversary of playing together. There’s a scene in the middle that really got me. Christopher Walken plays the quartet’s cellist, and he’s coaching a young group of musicians playing chamber music. One of the young musicians calls another out on a mistake, in a pretty harsh way. Walken’s character says, "Folks, disagree, but do it nicely. And please, try not to get caught up in mistakes. When I was your age, I met the great Pablo Casals. I was so intimidated I could barely speak. He must have sensed this, because...instead of a chat, he asked me to play. He requested the prelude to the fourth suite by J.S. Bach. I focused, took a deep breath, began, the notes started to flow, the music's in the air, and it was the worst music I ever made. I played so badly, I got halfway through and had to stop. "Bravo," he said, "Well done." Then, he asked me to play the Allemand. "A second chance," I think to myself. I never played worse. "Wonderful. Splendid," he praised me. And when I left that night, I felt terrible about my performance, but what really bothered me wasn't my playing, it was Casals. The insincerity.
Years later, I met him in Paris and by then I was professional, we played together. We became acquaintances, and one evening, over a glass of wine…I confessed to him what I thought of his insincere remarks all those years ago. And he got angry. His demeanor changed, he grabbed his cello, "Listen," he said. And he played the opening of the prelude from the fourth suite. "Didn't you play that fingering? You did? It was novel to me, it was good. And here didn't you attack this passage with an upbow, like this?" And he played a phrase from the Allemande. Casals emphasized the good stuff, things he enjoyed. He encouraged. And for the rest, leave that to the morons, or whatever it is in Spanish, who judge by counting faults. "I can be grateful, and so must you be," he said, "For even one singular phrase, one transcendent moment."
I really love this story. I think about all the teachers I had over the years who chose to hear and see and focus on the best of my work instead of the worst. I think of my parents who figured out how to bring out the best in me when I was doing my darnedest to mess up my life. I think of my friends and colleagues who have helped me to find that little glimmer of good in the many messes I’ve managed to create. I’m here today because they chose to see the best, and they helped me to see it. I suspect if you look back over your life, you’ll find the same pattern, that you’ve been shaped by those people who have helped you see your own God-given potential.
Today will be filled with chance encounters, chance opportunities, chances to have an impact in small and large ways. Be open to others seeing your God-given potential in ways that you haven’t been able to see before. Do your best to help others see their God-given potential. Choosing to do this, to see past all the noise and the mess, choosing to see the best in yourself and in others, may not win you a billion dollars. But it will help bring about the kingdom of God, here today. Amen.
Let go of what we know
In honor of St. Patrick’s day, a light-hearted joke by way of an introduction. Paddy O’Brien was just off the boat from Ireland, new to America. His cousins told him there were good jobs available on the docks. Paddy wasn’t a big man, but he was a hard worker. He arrived at the docks eager to prove his strength despite his stature. So he picked up a large anvil and carried it up to the gangplank to the ship. The anvil was very heavy, and the gangplank was very narrow, and Paddy lost his balance and took a bad step. He fell into the water with a huge splash. As the men on board looked over the side of the ship to see what had happened, they saw him come sputtering up to the surface. He was clearly struggling to keep his head above water. Finally he shouted, “Throw me a rope, ye spalpeens,” he yelled. “Throw me a rope or I’m gonna drop this confounded anvil!”
It’s not a great joke, but it does get at something basic about human nature. We often will hold on for dear life to what we know, even if what we know is about to kill us. I think at some level our story this morning about Nicodemus shows how Nicodemus struggles to let go of what he knows in order to grab hold of something new, something he sees in Jesus that he thinks will be more life-giving than what he has.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee. You probably remember that Pharisees lived as holy a life as they knew how, following as closely and completely as possible the hundreds of commandments and rules laid out in the Torah. These rules defined what you could eat and who you could eat with, what you could wear, what you could plant, how to harvest your fields, and exactly what your obligation was to those in need. Nicodemus was probably a rich man, because it cost a lot of money to follow all those rules. He was also a leader of the Jews, maybe even a member of the governing council. If anyone had life figured out, it should have been Nicodemus. But something draws him to Jesus. Maybe, in a story familiar to us today, all his riches and power failed to make him happy. Maybe he saw some of the miracles Jesus performed, like turning water into wine, and he began to wonder about God. Maybe being close to God isn’t following a long list of rules; maybe God’s love isn’t reserved for just a deserving few; maybe God’s love is poured out freely for all. And when Jesus criticized the temple priests for being corrupt and too concerned about their own welfare, maybe Nicodemus found himself questioning the values of the whole religious establishment that he was a part of. So he comes to Jesus by night, when none of the other Jewish leaders will see him, and he says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” It sounds a little like flattery, but it seems to conceal Nicodemus’s real questions: Jesus, he asks, how do you do these things? What is the nature of your relationship with God? How are you holy and yet not a Pharisee, not connected with the temple? And Jesus answers the implicit questions: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Jesus says, ‘Born from above,’ because for the gospel writer, God is in the heavens. Jesus could have said “Born of God;” other translations say “Born again” or “Born anew.” Nicodemus doesn’t get it, wondering how a grown man can enter a second time into his mother’s womb. And as Jesus continues talking, Nicodemus gets more and more confused. What does this mean, people who are born of the spirit, born again, born anew, are like the wind, coming and going as they please, without anyone being able to tell why or how? Jesus in effect says, “Yes, Nicodemus, there is a whole other reality than the one you know: the reality of the kingdom of God. Accessing that reality does not happen by following rules. It happens by being born from above in the spirit. And if you are born again, you’ll come to know what is really important in this life: you’ll come to know the kingdom of God.
This encounter with Nicodemus gets at an essential aspect of what it means to be Christian: our need to be born again, or born anew. Our tradition has interpreted this in a variety of ways over the centuries. Baptism is in some ways viewed as a rebirth, as in the words in our prayer book, in the waters of baptism “we are buried with Christ in his death” and “reborn by the Holy Spirit.” Many Evangelical Christians believe in the need to be “born again” by making the conscious decision to accept Christ as Lord and Savior. I tend to think that being born again is a life long process, happening in small ways over time. Marcus Borg, a bible scholar and writer, says being born again is essentially a passive event, something that happens to us, something that we can’t control. But, he continues, in order for it to happen, we have to let go of what we know and embrace what we don’t understand. That phrase really struck me this week: We have to let go of what we know and embrace what we don’t understand. And we’ve all experienced this in big and small ways. The end of a relationship, or the beginning of a new one. The birth of a child, or the loss of a loved one. The loss of a job, or a new opportunity.
Stories about being born again, about experiencing new life, are really Easter stories, of course. This is the second Sunday in Lent, the period of time leading up to Easter that the church sets aside for reflection and self-examination. Intentionally letting go of what we know may be a question of deciding to face those things that are slowly killing us, like addictions or unhealthy relationships. Overtime, the alcohol or drugs have become the only thing we really know. We’re going through the motions of life, but really only living for that next drink. We know its killing us, but it feels like the only thing we really have. Likewise, the unkind or abusive friend or partner isn’t good to us, we know, but the fear of being by ourselves again is overwhelming. Giving up this life, as bad as it is, will be a painful and difficult process, but until we do, we will be unable to really experience re-birth.
Sometimes, we’re not aware of the things in our life that are controlling us, but I think Lent can help us identify them. The Lenten discipline of giving something up, whether sweets or fatty foods or caffeine, is another way of giving up what we know. By giving something up, we get a clearer sense of its real importance in our lives, the extent to which it may control us. We get a sense of whether it really makes us happy, or if it just fills a temporary need. Fasting has fallen out of favor in our Christian tradition, but it is still an important spiritual practice in many world religions, particularly for Muslims, who fast for the month of Ramadan. When I helped teach a class on spiritual practices for college students (most of whom had no formal involvement in religious per se), we decided as a group to do the 30 Hour Famine. Many students reflected about how they hadn’t realized how much they think about food during the day, and about how available it is, and about how grateful they are to live in a society where food scarcity isn’t a problem. I realized all the ways I use food in ways other than for nutrition: for instance, bribing myself into completing tasks I don’t want to do: finish this sermon and you can have a cookie. I was also aware of what a feast my life is everyday: the variety, quality, and amount of food I eat is truly amazing. I think this discipline of giving something up, for a day, or for the season of Lent, can give us valuable insights into our lives.
Being ‘born again’ is a process that involves more than an big event or two in our lives. Going back to Nicodemus: he leaves his encounter with Jesus still in the dark: he doesn’t get it. We don’t hear anything else about Nicodemus’ journey, but I like to imagine him playing the conversation with Jesus over again in mind, watching Jesus’ ministry unfold, maybe asking questions of some of the disciples and chewing on their answers. Later in the gospel, Nicodemus challenges the other Pharisees openly on their plans to arrest Jesus, and after Jesus’ death, he brings spices to wrap Jesus’ body with. He has moved from acting and living in darkness, to living in the light.
Martin Luther wrote of ‘daily dying and rising with Christ.’ For me, and maybe for you as well, there are the big events in my life that led to rebirth, but the process of being born again, born from above, is incremental. It can be daily if we are willing to step outside of our comfort zone, let go of what we know, and embrace what we don’t understand. Have the difficult conversation with a stranger, or a friend. Let go our of pre-conceived notions about others, or ourselves, and see what is revealed to us when we look with fresh eyes. Perhaps in some of our quiet time today and this week, we can identify those things in our life which are keeping us from God, and how we might let them go, how we might make room for the holy spirit so we might be born from above, again, and again, and again. Nicodemus somehow came to realize that he did not have life figured out: in spite of his carefully following all the rules, something was missing. Jesus suggests that accessing the kingdom of God means that we have to be born anew, born again in the spirit. This new birth is a gift from God that we can’t control. What we can do is learn to let go of those things we know but that get in the way of our ability to see or receive the gift of new birth. That is a good task for Lent, and I hope that we will all spend some time prayerfully and intentionally engaging it. Amen.
Bananas and Interruptions
I don’t know if you’ve heard, but things are not looking good for the banana. Before I go on, I should say as a matter of full disclosure, that I personally really dislike bananas; I haven’t willingly eaten one in years. But I take no pleasure in the trouble they are facing. In 1990, farmers in Southeast Asia cut open their crops to find that their plants were no longer bearing the soft, creamy fruits they’d been growing for decades. Instead, their bananas were tough, fibrous, and brown. The farmers called in experts, who isolated the problem, a pathogen they call the Tropical Race 4 strain of Panama disease. Since its discovery, Tropical Race 4 has steadily ravaged export crops throughout Asia, and recently has been found in Mozambique and Jordan. There is no way to combat the fungus, which spreads through soil and can travel halfway around the globe on a pair of infected boots or machinery. It infects the banana plant through the roots, and often the first sign the farmer has that there is a problem is at the harvest. That this fungus has spread from Asia to Africa is very bad news, because it is getting closer to Latin America, where about 70% of the world’s $8.9 billion dollar a year export banana crop is grown.
This is not the first time that a fungus has threatened to wipe out the world’s banana crop, or really, the export banana crop, which I’ll explain in a minute. In 1903, Race 1, an earlier variant of today’s fungus, began destroying the export plantations of Latin America and the Caribbean. Within 50 years, Race 1 drove the world’s only export banana species, the Gros Michel, to virtual extinction. That’s why 99% of the bananas eaten in the developed world today, those familiar long, bright yellow bananas you buy at the supermarket, are a relatively new cultivar called the Cavendish. The Cavendish was developed to be resistance to the Race 1 fungus, so as the Gros Michel crops died out, the big fruit companies encouraged their farmers to plant Cavendish bananas in their place. So, across Asia, central Africa, and Latin American, huge banana plantations are planted with Cavendish banana plants, all of these bananas grown for export to countries in the developed world like the United States.
And unfortunately, therein lies the problem. There are actually hundreds of varieties of naturally occurring bananas in the world. Some are starchy and are called plantains. Some are short and fat, others are long and skinny. They come in colors from red to pink to purple to green. Some even have furry skins. But Cavendish bananas are uniquely suited for export. They have tough exteriors and they take a long time to ripen so they can travel for long distances without getting banged up or going bad along the way. They are very productive, with each plant producing a lot of fruit. And most importantly, and most unfortunately, they don’t carry seeds. You don’t grow new Cavendish banana plants from seeds; rather, you chop off a bit of a chunk of a banana tree, plant it, and wait for it to sprout. They are clones. This is great for sales, for consumers who want a reliable, consistent banana they can depend on, because if you let banana plants cross-pollinate, variations would sneak in and you’d get bananas that were shorter or less sweet or a different color. But it is not great for keeping up resistance to disease. If banana plants were allowed to cross-pollinate, some of the genetic variations would end up being resistant to the Tropical Race 4 fungus, and natural selection would favor those strains. As it is, the Cavendish has no way of protecting itself.
This is bad news for all you banana lovers out there. According to the Census Bureau, Americans eat more bananas than any other fruit, in fact, about 25 pounds per person, or about 100 bananas, per year (if you’re one of the folks who eats a few more than that, let me say: you’re welcome). It’s worse news for the 400 million people in poorer countries around the world, the folks who eat nearly nine-tenths of the world’s bananas, because many of the varieties they eat are also susceptible to Tropical Race 4. According to Gwynn Guilford, who wrote an article about this bananapocalypse in Quartz Magazine, all of this has come about because of the centralization of agriculture on huge plantations and farms, where disease can spread easily, where limited varieties of crops are grown, and where natural selection has less opportunity to protect plants from new diseases. It amounts to a catch-22: large scale agriculture makes inexpensive food widely available around the world, but at the same time, it makes our food supply much more susceptible to disease and disaster.
So how will this play out for the banana? According to Guilford, farmers and scientists are working hard to develop new varieties of fungus-resistant bananas, and figuring out how to quarantine infected crops. In the short term, we may well see banana shortages. The banana industry as a whole is going to experience a sort of interruption, a time of study and reflection, re-thinking its growing practices, and re-planting destroyed crops with re-developed varieties. Hopefully, after this period of interruption, inexpensive, healthy bananas will be available around the world, and the industry will be better set up to deal with new diseases. Hopefully, this interruption, as costly and inconvenient and painful as it no doubt will be, will ultimately be good for the industry, and good for the banana.
Today is the first Sunday of Lent. Lent serves as a sort of interruption in the normal flow of things, an interruption in our way of going about our daily business. It is a time when we’re asked to reflect on our lives, take a look at what is not working so well, re-think some of our practices, re-work some of our bad habits, and maybe plant some new healthier, life-giving habits. It is a time to reflect on who we are, and who we are called to be. This is not a quick and easy process; it’s not a pain-free process. It is hard work, and it takes awhile. Interruptions in our routine are rarely welcome, and making changes in our lives, even positive changes, takes time. Two of our readings today give us some insight into this season of Lent, this season of interruption and reflection and re-thinking and re-tooling. I’d like to look a little closer at these stories, our very familiar first reading from Genesis and our reading from Matthew’s gospel, because I think we can learn things about God, about ourselves, and about what it means for us as Christians to live during this season of Lent.
First, our story from Genesis, a story I’m sure you know well. Adam and Eve are living in the garden of Eden. God has told them they can eat the fruit of every plant in the garden except the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But of course, they do eat the fruit from the tree, and with that one bad decision, that one momentary lapse of judgement, in that one instant, everything is changed. They are kicked out of the garden for good, life becomes harder in any number of ways, and their relationship with God is damaged. In fact, their relationships with each other and with their own best selves are damaged as well: Adam blames Eve for a decision he made, and Eve tries to weasel out of her responsibility by shifting blame to the serpent. That is, I think, what sin is. Sin is separation from God, from one another, and from our own best selves. It’s not just breaking the rules; it involves our relationships with God, others, and with who we are called to be. We sin when we fail to live up to the people God calls us to be, when we tolerate or participate in systems of social and economic injustice, when we fail to take responsibility for our actions, when we put others down in order to make ourselves feel better. The painful and difficult thing about sin is that, as this simple story shows, it seems almost to be ingrained in who we are as human beings. Speaking for myself, I don’t know that I would have even waited for the serpent’s encouragement to try the fruit: just the fact that it was forbidden, that it was enticingly called the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, would have almost certainly been enough to get me into hot water. Lawrence Kushner, a Jewish theologian and writer I like a lot, even goes so far as to suggest that Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit was God’s plan along. It was necessary so that humankind could fully mature. As hard as life is outside the garden, it also is so much more fulfilling and real than life on the inside. In Kushner’s scenario, Adam and Eve figure that out God set them up, and they go back to complain. They ask about the snake, and God replies, “Sammy? Sammy the snake? He was in on it the whole time. Come on out here Sammy and meet everybody.” However it came about, Adam and Eve’s failing is our own. Lent calls us to a period of reflection on how we have sinned, how we have missed the mark, how we have separated ourselves from God, from each other, and from our own best selves. We do this not to wallow in guilt and self-recrimination, but rather to see how we might repair our lives and our relationships and how we might try to live in new and life-giving ways. Sin is reality for me and for you, but Lent gives us an opportunity to face up to our shortcomings and to repair our lives.
Our other story this morning is from Matthew’s gospel. Jesus has just been baptized by John, and he sees the heavens open up and the Spirit of God descending like a dove. He hears a voice from heaven saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” You’d think that Jesus would then be ready to begin his public ministry of teaching and healing, but God has other plans. God creates an interruption in Jesus’s life. The Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. Jesus fasts for forty days and forty nights, and as you might imagine he is starving. And that’s when the devil shows up to tempt him. The temptations the devil offers are so dangerous because they are so reasonable. Jesus is hungry, so the devil says to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” It’s a reasonable idea. After all, God fed the Israelites for forty years in the wilderness with manna that appeared on the ground overnight, and in just a months, Jesus will figure out how to feed the crowds with just a few loaves and fishes. Jesus resists the temptation, not I think to wallow in his hunger and suffering, but to make it clear to the devil and to us what it means to be the Son of God. Being a child of God means radical reliance on God, trusting that God will provide what you truly need. So Jesus tells the devil, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” The devil then takes him to Jerusalem and places him on a tower above the temple. He says to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. Let the angels come and rescue you.” Such a spectacular miracle would have instantly convinced everyone who saw it and everyone who heard about it that Jesus was indeed the Son of God, and instead of a rag tag band of followers, Jesus would have instantly had the support of the crowds. But Jesus says “No, I’m not going to put God to the test in that way.” People will come to follow Jesus one by one, through personal encounters with the living God. There is no quick fix, there is no shortcut to becoming a follower of Jesus. Finally, the devil takes Jesus up on a very high mountain and shows him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor, and he offers a kind of power-sharing arrangement. If Jesus will bow down and worship the devil, the devil will let him rule all the kingdoms of the world. I think this must have been the most tempting of the devil’s offers. Think of all the despots and dictators, the corrupt kings and emperors. Think of all the good Jesus could do in their place, the changes to economic systems he could make, the ways he could help the poor and the needy and the disadvantaged, how many wars he could stop, how many lives he could save. But Jesus has had enough of the devil’s offers, and he says, “Away with you Satan!” Jesus knows that the kingdom he comes to proclaim, the kingdom of God, does not draw its strength from political and military power, it is not about the powerful ruling over the weak, even with the best of intentions. Rather, the kingdom of God comes as a sort of interruption in the normal way of doing things. God comes to earth not in the trappings of royalty, but as a vulnerable baby. Our response to Jesus is not worship and adulation but derision and crucifixion. And yet, in spite of God coming in weakness and vulnerability and in spite of our responding with the worst that we can do, God is ultimately triumphant.
Those forty days in the wilderness helped Jesus to fully forge his identity as the Son of God, to fully clarify for himself and for us just who he is and what he came to do. These forty days of Lent offer us the same opportunity. They are an interruption in our normal day to day lives. Lent is a call for us to slow down, to re-evaluate, to re-examine, to own up to our sin, to identify how we have separated ourselves from God, from each other, and our own best selves. Lent is an opportunity for us to try and live more fully as the children of God we are created to be. Forty days is a long time, Lent is a long interruption. I pray that this interruption will be blessing for you and for me, and that we will find ourselves drawn closer to God, to each other, and to our own best selves. Amen.
The Rev. Paul Frolick has been the priest at St. George's since August 2012.