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The Strange Contagion of the Gospel

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 7:08 pm on Sunday, October 22, 2017

A sermon preached on October 22nd, 2017 based upon 1Thessalonians 1:1-10.

Jeff with Jake Marissa and Ben

I mentioned at our Church Conference a book I’ve been reading a compelling book called “Strange Contagion:  Inside the surprising science of infectious behaviors and viral emotions and what they tell us about ourselves.”

The author is a journalist named Lee Daniel Kravetz who moved to Palo Alto, California when his wife took a job with Google.  The town is in the heart of Silicon Valley, near Stanford University with a very high density of the smartest people in the world – people who have started high tech companies that have changed the world.  The author and his wife were about to have a baby, and one of the reasons people move to Palo Alto is because of the reputation of the local high school, where, surrounded by smart, high achieving kids, students absorb a culture of hard work and intelligence.

It became apparent, however shortly after arriving in Palo Alto that that’s not all that kids absorb there. In the course of a year five different high school students – all high achievers and seemingly well adjusted – decided to step in front of the speeding train that passed through town — taking their own lives.


This terrible “cluster” of suicides revealed the dark side of all the ambition and high achievement present in Palo Alto – that it could create at times an excruciating pressure on young people driven by an underlying perception that their self-worth was dependent upon their successfully achieving at a very high level.

It also revealed that suicide can be a kind of “strange contagion” – an infection that can be caught by simply being in close proximity to those who took this self-destructive act – the idea that hey, there is a way out from carrying this heavy burden of constant performance anxiety.

Concerned about his community, and wondering about what growing up in Palo Alto would mean for his own son, the author set out on a quest to try and understand “social contagions” – the often unconscious ways in which thoughts, emotions and behaviors spread among people like germs, for good and for bad.

One of the things that caught my attention early on in the book was the author’s description of the history of Bulimia, the eating disorder that can afflict teenage girls (and occasionally boys as well) in which feeling driven to lose weight, they compulsively induce themselves to vomit.

The diagnosis originated in the sixties when a psychiatrist noticed a handful of such cases in his clinic.  At first it was an extremely rare occurrence.   But the number of cases quickly sky-rocketed into the millions when three major magazines ran stories about Bulimia.  Unfortunately the publicity planted the idea in young peoples’ heads that they could lose weight by inducing vomiting, with the result being the eating disorder spread to the ends of the earth.

For a time there was only one place where medical records were kept where no cases of Bulimia had occurred and that was the Fiji Islands.  But that changed in the early seventies, and the trigger was easily located – it was the arrival of television.  When the people of Fiji got hooked on watching the popular television shows of the West they absorbed the belief that the ideal body image for a woman – what it meant to be “beautiful” – required that a woman be thin.    (Some of us are old enough to remember the strange phenomenon that was the super-model “Twiggy.”)

So something very sinister and destructive was spread to the Fiji Islands from the culture of the west:  the idea that a woman’s self-worth was directly tied to her ability to embody this emaciated ideal of beauty.

This got me thinking about all the other subtle yet toxic and contagious messages that we are bombarded with through television as well as through social media – messages we absorb often without our even being aware that it is happening that entice us into embrace greed and lust and division and prejudice and fear.

And as I thought about this, the story in the New Testament of the devil tempting Jesus in the wilderness came to mind; in particular, the claim the devil makes that the kingdoms of this world belong to him.  The values that dominate this world are the Devil’s values – spirit killing values that we unconsciously absorb.  The unconscious belief that our value is tied up with how thin we are, how much sex appeal or money we have, how high our SAT scores are, or how big our house it, or whether we are a “winner” as opposed to a “loser”, and the ability to Lord it over other people.

It’s as if we’ve all been infected with the sinister virus that first infected Adam and Eve, which the Bible calls sin, and it’s become so second nature that we can’t even recognize it.

But the antidote – the cure – to this virus entered the world in a man called Jesus, who lived and died and rose again 2000 years ago.  In him the kingdom of God was present encompassing a set of values quite different from those of the kingdom of this world – the devil’s kingdom.

By simply being in the presence of this man with open hearts people “caught” the cure – this contagious alternate way of being in the world.

In a relatively short time the cure — also known as the “Gospel” – the good news – spread to every corner of the earth.

And that’s what our Scripture reading this morning is about.

An interesting fun fact about the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Christians in Thessalonia is that it is the first book to be written in the New Testament – written, scholars think, just twenty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Thessalonia was a city in Greece, so in just twenty years, the contagion of the Gospel had spread from a handful of people in Jerusalem all the way across the Mediterranean Sea.  How did this happen?

Well, Paul tells us.

Paul writes: “our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake.”

The strange contagion of the Gospel was spread by the Paul and his fellow missionaries who came from Jerusalem to Thessalonia.  He makes the point that although they spoke words – telling the people about Jesus – it was more than the words they spoke – it was the example of their lives in their time together that gave the words they spoke power, so that, as Paul says, “you became imitators of us and of the Lord.”

The people in Thessalonia, having caught the contagion of the Gospel, became “examples” of the Gospel life spreading it to people in other parts of Greece – “in Macedonia and… Achaia.”

Another interesting thing I read in the book had to do with a soap opera in Peru in the early 70s that was purportedly the most popular soap opera ever, with millions glued each week in front of their televisions to watch a story in which the central character was a poor young woman who left the indigenous culture of the mountains to come to the big city where she learned how to sew on a sewing machine and took night classes to learn to speak the national language of Peru. In the course of the story the young woman becomes a fashion designer, building a large business.  By the end of the soap opera she is a multi-millionaire living in Paris.

Now the interesting thing was that as a result of this soap opera, tens of thousands of women bought sewing machines and learned to use them, and similar numbers enrolled in language classes.  They imitated the central character with whom they had come to identify.

Social scientists took note of this and applied the principle involved to social problems, for instance, in Africa where the AIDS epidemic was spreading out of control.  It was frustrating to people trying to contain the epidemic when it proved to be relatively ineffective to simply provide people with the information needed about the changes of behavior required to keep from contacting or spreading the disease.  Words alone weren’t very good at changing behavior.

So they developed a soap opera with appealing central characters and embedded themes of healthy behavior into the story line, and as the soap opera became popular lo and behold people began to change their behavior in healthier directions.

What the scientists discovered was that the message of healthy behavior needed to be subtly embedded into the story line.  If it was too overt people were far less receptive.

Something similar happened in the US with smoking.  When information first began to be made public about the dangers of smoking, it was hard to change behavior.  The tide changed in regard to smoking habits when the role models – the movie stars and athletes and such – began to quit smoking.  It was no longer “cool.”

So the point is this:  Take it from a preacher — people don’t like being preached at.

They will however absorb the models – for good or for bad – to which they are exposed.

And so the Gospel – the cure to the destructive virus of sin that infects the human race — is spread less by words than it is by the example of lives that live out the Gospel, which seems to be what Paul is saying about the believers in Thessalonia.

It was the radically loving way that Paul and his fellow missionaries related to them in their time among them that made them receptive to their message.

It had to do with how they related to them as people worthy of respect and compassion regardless of their worldly status, creating communities where all the divisions that separate people – between Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free were overcome.  It had to do with how they weren’t driven by the same anxieties and fears that seemed to consume most people — how they allowed themselves to be vulnerable in their midst for the sake of love.

This is what caught their attention.

It reminds me of the words of St. Francis:

“Go into the world and preach the Gospel.  Use words if you have to.”

There was this famous preacher in the 19th century named Phillips Brooks who was once asked by an earnest questioner why he was a Christian.  He thought seriously for a moment, and then replied, “I think I am a Christian because of my aunt who lives in Teaneck, New Jersey.” A Christian is someone who knows one – someone who lives the faith out with integrity and authenticity.

So to wrap this up: a big part of what this all means is that we truly do impact one another in profound ways – for good and for evil – in ways we rarely fully realize.  We catch from one another moods and attitudes and value systems, and most of this happens on an unconscious level.

Violence itself is a “strange contagion”.  If a person witnesses violence, they are more likely to commit violence.  But what is also true is that a handful of people can turn the tide of violence in troubled neighborhoods.

A scientist looking at maps over time of neighborhoods in big cities that had high murder rates noticed that they resembled the maps that showed the spread of disease in villages in Africa.  Violence is a virus, and by training leaders in  neighborhoods with high rates of violence to serve as what they called “interrupters” – to fan out into the community when violence has occurred or was rumored to be about to occur – to talk people down from the ledge and point them to a better way – violence could be kept from spreading, and murder rates reduced dramatically.

By implementing such a program the murder rate in Baltimore was reduced by a remarkable 56 percent.

Without speaking His name, they were ambassadors for Christ – the great reconciler.

So our lives truly matter.  The little acts of kindness, of forgiveness, of reconciliation – witness to Jesus more than we know.

We come together here to absorb Jesus so we can take him out into the world in the lives we live.

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