Feb 26, 2023
Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, CA 2D14
1 Lent (Year A) 11:00 a.m. Eucharist
Sunday 26 February 2023
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
Often I start with a question but today I want to finish with one. Sixty years ago President John F. Kennedy, full of confidence in modern science, made two predictions. First, that within a decade a human being would walk on the moon. And second, that science would, “make the remote reaches of the human mind accessible.” At that time few people might have guessed that traveling 239,000 miles through oxygen-less -455 degree Fahrenheit outer space would be far, far easier than discovering psychiatric cures for mental illness.
In David Bergner’s book The Mind and the Moon, he shares the story of his younger brother Bob who was diagnosed with bi-polar at age twenty-one, institutionalized and medicated with drugs that had debilitating side-effects. Bergner also follows Caroline a woman from Indiana who started hearing voices as a child and whose drug treatments, starting in elementary school, led to obesity and losing control of her forearms and hands. He introduces us to a civil rights lawyer named David whose severe depression during the Trump administration could not be mitigated by either the drugs his doctor prescribed or the psychedelics he turned to afterwards.
Bergner points out how little we understand the mind. He writes about the damage that can be caused by a psychological diagnosis (which puts us in a kind of box and separates us from other people) and of many drug treatments which have questionable efficacy. Forty million American adults and millions more children are on psychiatric drugs. In one ten year period the number of children diagnosed with bi-polar increased fortyfold. Thirty to forty percent of our students are treated with psychiatric medication at some point in their college years.
I’m not trying to make a point about how we treat mental illness. I just want to remind us how much we are a mystery to ourselves. Perhaps the saddest part of Bergner’s book for me came when he quoted the prominent neuroscientist Eric Nestler. Nestler said that unquestionably fewer Americans should be on psychotropics for depression and anxiety. He went on, “Exercise. Better sleep. Mindfulness. The belief in something bigger than yourself. Religion if you are religious.” Nestler said, “People with religious beliefs benefit greatly from them.” He wondered if they fostered a, “capacity to bring order and meaning into one’s life.”
And then the sad part. He said that religion was not part of his own life. He tragically explained, “The thing about religion is, I can’t know whether Jesus is the Son of God or whether Allah rose to heaven on a winged horse. Those are not scientifically knowable.” This is an insurmountable barrier for him, and many others. Theology has failed our generation when ordinary people think that they have to believe something contrary to science in order to be religious. Christians like us have a lot of work to do in explaining this to the people around us.
The stakes are high. On Tuesday one of our daughters’ friends took his own life only months before graduating from college. From his social media posts you would never have realized that there was anything wrong. Did he understand that he is a child of God? There is no way for us to know.
This morning, the first Sunday in Lent, we have before us central biblical texts: the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness and the Garden of Eden. How do these ancient stories help modern people to understand God? How do we interpret them? What meaning should they have in our life?
For Matthew wilderness is equivocal. On the one hand it has no structure and is void. On the other hand it represents limitless possibility, a context for encountering God. In ancient scripture the number forty represents a long time. This connects Jesus with other figures who persevered over time.
My friend Matt Boulton proposes an alternative to the way we usually interpret this story. For him it is not about a hero bravely resisting temptations to comfort, security and glory with admirable self-control. It is not about the devil offering something that Jesus deeply desires and Jesus gritting his teeth and responding like someone on a diet knowing that he should not have another plate of cookies. This is not about sacrifice but about trust.
Similarly the story of Eden’s forbidden fruit is not primarily about sin and disobedience or temptation, but rather about fear, and the failure to trust. Let’s begin by seeing the connection between Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness and Moses.