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Sermon for March 1, 2020, 1 Lent: Backwards (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

Updated: Aug 5, 2021

“In 1796, an English doctor named Edward Jenner made an incision into a young boy’s arm and inserted cowpox pus… [in order] to prove a theory that people could become immune to smallpox if they previously contracted its milder cousin. Jenner called this a vaccine after “vacca,” the Latin word for cow… He was initially met with skepticism and repulsion at the idea of placing pus from an animal into a human body, but the 30% death rate for smallpox made quick converts of many. By the mid-20th century, new methods for producing and administering vaccines allowed scientists” to announce in 1980 that small pox had been eradicated and measles followed in 2000.[1]

Two weeks ago in Hartford, Connecticut, over 500 people signed up to speak at a legislative hearing for a bill that would end religious exemptions from certain vaccinations for school children. The bill was introduced in response to concerns about the growing number of measles outbreaks worldwide. “Named one of the 10 greatest health threats of 2019 by the World Health Organization, ‘vaccine hesitancy’ is increasingly cited as a cause behind measles outbreaks. Vaccine hesitancy is a delay in acceptance, or outright refusal of vaccines despite having access to vaccination services.”[2] In the United States, this is largely the result of an anti-vaccination movement that argues that the measles vaccine causes autism. This theory has no basis in science, yet somehow well-intentioned and caring parents have become convinced that in order to protect their children it is reasonable to put millions of others at risk.

Stories like this seem to have become the norm rather than the exception. Unlike the 18th century constituents of Dr. Jenner, 21st century Americans often seem unwilling to accept the evidence of their own eyes and hearts – and the Church of Christ is no exception. While some people argue that the decreased influence of “Christian values” in America has led to a decline in the moral structure of our society, I would suggest that of much greater concern is the influence of ideas that people call “Christian” that have nothing whatsoever to do with either Jesus of Nazareth nor the God of which he is part. I am deeply disturbed by the lengths to which people will go to justify hateful behaviors by finding ways to call them “Christian.” This so-called Christian conduct is contrary to the very soul of the practices and beliefs taught by Jesus – and has done incredible damage to the moral fiber of the nation. I believe that the primary reason the influence of “Christian values” has declined is because what people see done in the name of Christ is not consistent with what Jesus actually taught.

This is the first Sunday of Lent, a season of self-examination and repentance in which we are encouraged to meditate on God’s Holy Word. It is a good time, then, for a refresher course in Christianity 101 – and today’s scriptures provide one. Our first reading is perhaps the most famous of all biblical stories. The tale of Adam and Eve is well-known not just to Christians, but to people of numerous faith traditions – maybe because many of them also have a version of the tale. For Christians, it is the basis for the idea of “original sin” – the moment in which humanity “fell.” The culprit, according to most interpreters, was pride. For giving in to the temptation to be like God, humanity was cursed. What is interesting, though, is that the word “fall” and, more importantly, the word “sin” are nowhere to be found in the actual text. Although it certainly contains important information about the purpose and limitations of human beings, what it speaks to most eloquently is relationship. This story argues that when human beings listened to God we prospered, but when we chose to follow our own wills we were separated from him – and from one another. Basically, early in our existence, human beings decided that we are able to decide what is good and what is evil – and that we have the right to impose our decisions on one another and the rest of God’s creation. Since that time, we have, as William Danaher puts it, been “a sin-sick humanity looking for love in all the wrong places, helplessly yearning for health and wholeness.”[3] Sin is separation.

That’s why it is so painful and why repenting of our sins requires us to identify the way in which we have caused separation from God and one another, express genuine remorse for it, and try to fix it. Unfortunately, humanity continues to be unable to do this consistently. Yet God in her mercy never stops trying to restore her relationship with us, blessing us with laws, stories, and prophecy to help us heal not just the separation caused by the first humans, but also the rifts we ourselves create every day. Most importantly, God sent Jesus so that we might learn how to live obediently, righteously and as God intends for us. This is the basis of our Christian theology. It’s not about sin. It’s about grace.

Today’s gospel describes what it means to accept that grace by seeking to follow Jesus’s example. It shows us that we must try to reject things which separate us from God and one another, three of which are identified in the story of Jesus’s temptation by the devil. In it, we find that the devil is not a red-suited, horned beast that is God’s equal and opposite number. Rather, the devil is a clever deceiver who seeks to mislead Jesus (and us) about the true purposes of God. How does he do it? – by quoting scripture. “It is written,” the devil says, “that you can focus on your own hungers – your personal physical needs and desires.” “Wrong,” says Jesus. It is more important to listen to the words of God – words that encourage us to think of the needs of others as well as our own. The devil next quotes a passage that suggests that Jesus can do what he wants because he is important and privileged. Jesus also rejects this interpretation, arguing instead for humility and respect for God’s power. Finally, the devil shows Jesus everything a human being might want, telling him that he can have it if he will only abandon his relationship with God. This final assault leads Jesus to offer his most definitive rejection of the tempter; he declares that nothing the world has to offer is as important as being in relationship with God.

I think we should be astounded when we hear this story – because it contradicts almost everything that human beings tell ourselves to justify our continued separation from God. First, it identifies how we might be deceived by distortions and misrepresentations of our own holy scriptures. Second, it shows us that the evils by which we are tempted often appear to be good things. Notice that in the course of this passage Jesus rejects several things which we, as Americans, have been taught to value: physical safety, privilege, and power – and in each case Jesus shows how such desires are divisive and hinder restoration of our relationship with God and one another. As Jeffrey John puts it, the “stubborn, blind determination to call darkness light and light darkness [was what] Jesus called the only unforgivable sin. And we must note carefully: this is the special sin of religious people, when we get so bound up in our own interpretation of Scripture and tradition, or in preserving our religious institutions and the status quo, that in order to protect them we will be prepared to turn truth, reason, love and justice upside down – all in the name of God himself.”[4] Do not be deceived by the temptation to substitute God’s will for our own. Remember that ours is a God of love. Everything that Jesus was and is is infused with the light of that love – and it is by that love and that love alone that we are saved. AMEN.

[2]Leah Salim, (December 5, 2019), “Measles explained: What’s behind the recent outbreaks”? Unicef for every child,

[3]William Joseph Danaher Jr., (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 2, Lent through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster Knox Press], 30.

[4]Jeffrey John, (2004), The Meaning in Miracles, {Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans], 140.

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