- Parish House
Sermon for the First Sunday of Lent
Year C, Genesis 2.15-17; 3.1-7
The Rev. Scott Walters
In case you missed it, a few years ago, an article appeared in Current Zoology (available at newsstands…pretty much nowhere), an article appeared that shook the world of yawn science.
First a little background. The idea that yawns are contagious goes back at least to Aristotle. In the 17th century, Francis Bacon observed that “gaping, or yawning, and stretching do pass from man and man … so that if another be apt and prepared to do the like, he followeth by the sight of another.” Observant people have been wondering for a long, long time why it is, when one person yawns, the urge seems to come over the rest of us nearby. Have you wondered that?
The question is old, but yawn science didn’t really hit its stride until the 1980s when researchers got curious about whether yawns were contagious in other species. They’d observed yawn-like behavior in other animals, but scientists wondered whether some animal yawns were infectious. Because that behavior might be a special kind of social adaptation. It might be a kind of “proto-empathy,” or even a sign of higher consciousness. Tortoise yawns were of interest in particular. Quite a few tortoise yawn studies were undertaken.
See what you’ve been missing since you let that subscription to Current Zoology lapse?
Well, things were kind of rolling along in yawn-theory until the Current Zoology article that concluded, “Our findings are more consistent with the suggestion that tortoises do not yawn in a contagious manner.” And that suggestion was corroborated in a recent paper by an Oxford scholar titled, “Are Yawns Really Contagious? A Critique and Quantification of Yawn Contagion.”
I’m sorry if you happen to be among the tiny subset of human nerds for whom this news is devastating, but there it is. As you know, I’ve never been one to look away from uncomfortable truths in these sermons.
We humans are curious creatures, are we not? Curious in every sense of the term. We’ll wonder about just about anything. But wondering about what’s contagious, wondering about what passed between and among us isn’t as silly as tortoise yawn theory might seem to you. It goes deep into the heart of what makes us human. It goes deep into the heart of how we interact with each other, deep into the heart of our capacity for love and hate and goodness and sin.
And since it’s Lent, let’s consider the contagion that is sin. Sound fun?
I love the story of Adam and Eve. Show me someone who says it’s all nonsense from a primitive culture that could have nothing to offer enlightened people like us living in a scientific age, and I’ll show you someone completely tone deaf to the truth telling power of story.
And it’s not a recent idea that this story in which two people pick fruit from a tree of the knowledge of good and evil might be a story with some symbolic meaning. Don’t you think the people who wrote it down even might have thought so? You can’t buy a knowledge of good and evil tree at Hocotts, after all.
The story is wise and true in part because it is a story about contagion. It’s a story about how we are relational beings and the same mysterious emotional connections between us through which love and empathy and hopefulness can travel can also be conduits for envy and temptation and hurt and finally shame. The question of yawns may be open, but we are fundamentally infectious and contagious creatures. We catch who we are from other people. At least we catch some of it.
Now it’s more than reasonable for feminists and snakes’ rights advocates to point out how reputations of both have suffered unfairly over the years because of their exchange in this story. Women were forever temptresses and snakes forever gave us the willies. Although it’s hard to see how adding the original legs back to a serpent reduces its willies-giving properties.
Anyway…Adam actually seems like the more pathetic character to me. Eve is the one in whom this dangerous but sometimes wonderful human curiosity and longing for knowledge is alive in. She’s the one who desires the deadly but divine gift. She wants to be wise. She wants to grow up out of her innocence. Which doesn’t seem all bad, even if it was unwise to trust the legged snake instead of God.
But maybe what’s most important is not who tricked whom and which human curiosity about good and evil first got the best of. What’s essential is only that somebody had the idea first, and that somebody had to bring someone else along. Sin wasn’t just about Eve all by herself over by the azaleas, sneaking a bite of knowledge of good and evil fruit like a nervous teenager smoking behind the gym. Sin was relational. It passed first from one species to another (not quite sure what to do with that, actually), and then from one human being to another.
And the results were separation, estrangement, shame. The couple saw their nakedness, and they covered themselves up from each other. And then they hid themselves from God. And doesn’t every man and every woman know about this covering up? Doesn’t every human being, once they know good from evil, know how shame makes us pull away from one another? Sin lives mostly between us, not just within us.
There’s a lovely bit of contemporary Midrash on this story by the Orthodox Christian poet, Scott Cairns. Do you know about Midrash? It was a kind of creative interpretation of Biblical texts in which Jewish rabbis would riff on the Biblical story with stories of their own that exposed something of the wisdom of the original.
So here’s the end of Scott Cairns’s prose poem.
…Sin had made its entrance long before the serpent spoke, long before the woman and the man had set their teeth to the pale, stringy flesh, which was, it turns out, also quite without flavor. Rather, sin had come in the midst of an evening stroll, when the woman had reached to take the man’s hand and he withheld it.
In this way, the beginning of our trouble came to the garden almost without notice. And in later days, as the man and the woman wandered idly about their paradise, as they continued to enjoy the sensual pleasures of food and drink and spirited coupling even as they sat marveling at the approach of evening and the more lush approach of sleep, they found within themselves a developing habit of resistance.
One supposes that, even then, this new taste for turning away might have been overcome, but that is assuming the two had found the result unpleasant. The beginning of loss was this: Every time some manner of beauty was offered and declined, the subsequent isolation each conceived was irresistible.
Sin does work this way, doesn’t it? It is a developing habit of resistance. A taste for turning away. We pull back from each other, even if some beauty, some gift, some vulnerability or some trust has been offered. We pull back and find ourselves isolated, alone, ashamed.
It is strange that Christians have used shame and guilt to try to cure sinners. Because the stories say shame is a chief side effect of sin. Shame is precisely what pulls us away from each other and into the isolation that, as Scott Cairns said, must be pleasant to us in some dark way. It must be irresistible. Shame is what sin feels like as it pulls us apart.
Maybe confession is just realizing that for all sin’s allure, we really don’t want to stay apart. That our habits of resistance need breaking.
Maybe you’re still not convinced modern people should spend a season like Lent contemplating sins. But we do contemplate sin. We contemplate other people’s sins all the time, don’t we? All the time.
After all, there are billion dollar industries printing and flashing and exposing the sins of other people to us twenty-four hours a day. Industries that profit handsomely by helping us into the luxurious isolation of our indignation and our anger at all those other sinners out there. “Shame on them,” is what we think. And our shame on them feels so irresistibly good. The habit of resistance develops a little more. Our taste for turning away is not quenched. It grows. Displacing our shame onto our enemies feels so good. But it’s not. It’s not good. Because we, like Adam, were not made to be alone.
The penitential season of Lent is not meant to shame us apart. Truthfulness about our sins, about our tendencies and habits toward coverups and isolation, from other people and from God, is meant to be an antidote to the contagion in our lives that is shame. Surely a 40 day round of honesty about ourselves is worth a little trouble and discomfort, since what we stand to gain as we’re healed is everything and everyone and even the God we lost contact with in the moment we hid ourselves away.