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.