First Sunday in Lent, Year B
Genesis 9:8-17 † Psalm 25:1-10 † 1 Peter 3:18-22 † Mark 1:9-15
Cognitive scientists Steven Solma and Philip Fernbach have spent many a year asking anyone they can find if they know how a toilet works? How about a zipper? They want to know. Or a coffee maker? Do you know how those work?
Yeah – yeah I have a reasonable idea how they work is the answer they would first receive. So then they follow up. Okay, can you explain to me exactly what it takes? How that toilet bowl empties, how the water in the Mr Coffee gets to the pot and how it gets heated, how those little prongs attach when you put on your favorite hoody. Then they let the person think for a while and try to explain as best they can how these processes they engage every day actually work. Finally they ask – so tell me again how would you rate your knowledge of how that toilet works?
These researchers have spent time and effort measuring these dynamics very precisely - lots of well-designed questionnaires and sophisticated coding and exacting measurement - and what they have found is that in the vast majority of cases when we take the time to examine our understanding of some of the mechanisms around us we realize that we actually know quite a bit less than we think we do - on almost every subject.
Of course, there are subjects on which we all know a lot – and there are things, important things, that we each know better than anyone else, better than we perhaps give ourselves credit for. What we really desire for ourselves, for the world, for instance; what we are willing to give for the things we care about. But across the board - and that board includes rocket scientists, MIT grads, and leaders of industry, we tend to think we know a lot more than we actually do about almost everything else – about toilets, coffee makers, and zippers, about economic systems, political representation, poverty, and violence, about other people’s loves and sufferings and griefs - and the hopes and dreams that reside there.
Now the not knowing, isn’t the problem – it’s actually a very special and useful characteristic of the human experience. Our brains have evolved, you see, for abstract thinking. Thinking that will allow us to take the action that best supports the life we need and want. This means we are not designed to hold lots of information in our heads – about 1 gig in fact is what scientists think we could manage if we even tried to file raw data like the computers we have designed. But rather we are designed to gather what we need from that to which we are connected – through our senses and our emotions we gather knowledge of our environment, and our community; we are equipped to glean what we can from those that know a lot on any given subject - experts and stakeholders in all sorts of fields. And what makes us so unique and powerful is that our brains are designed to reflect and deliberate, on what we have taken in – make connections, make meaning, assess value and then move to the action that will get us towards our desired goal. What is so very critical is that given the way our brains work it is imperative that all along the way we stay connected to sources of information and wisdom. We need others along the way: guides, diverse and knowledgeable voices to make sure we keep asking - do I really know everything I need to know, or am I operating out of the illusion that I know more than I think do? The guides that we are wise to walk with will vary depending the scope of the issue of course: it might be a partner, a helping professional, a family, a group of friends, a stranger, an enemy, a faith community, a work group, an activist group, a school body, the wider people, or some combination of these, but the temptation to buy into the powerful illusion that we know more than we really do means, according to these cognitive scientists, that we should never – not ever – think alone. Such a move is, it has been shown, the source of the mostly deadly accidents in engineering, and, I would argue, some of the deadliest patterns of our society.
What was God thinking when that divine mind decided to send a flood upon the earth that would cause devastation and terror. I can’t pretend to know. It doesn’t make sense to me given the nature of the God of love that I think I know in Jesus. But I do take seriously the events that we are told led up to this action. I take very seriously the claim of this ancient story that the gift of life that had been given was being squandered, abused, and evil was having its way. Given the way that we are unable to find a way to keep our children safe, unable to find a way to prioritize the gifts of creation over our exploitation of the earth, unable to accompany our siblings out of the cold, and out of war I take this reality very seriously. And I take seriously the desire for God to do something about it.
What is most incredible to me about this ancient text though is that we seem to have a God that learns and takes into account and adapts to the cries of a creation that knows utter devastation. Upon seeing the terror and the devastation that comes in the wake of retributive violence – this divine love makes up its mind and says never again. Never again will terror reign as an answer to evil. But instead I will pledge myself to you, I will always go this way with you, all of you, in your struggles and your unfaithfulness, in your joy and hope and in your work for life that matters.
“This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations.”
All generations, every creature – that’s who God is for and with – no exceptions.
“I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth….. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.”
God sets a reminder for God’s own self - a marker of peace, a pledge to be with us on the way, a desire for our well-being and flourishing, a unilateral laying down of the desire for vengeance and a promise that mercy will win - a bow hung in the sky, a man hung on a tree, a spirit coming to us in the voices of those who know what we might not.
There is a way of being in the world that reminds itself of its need for others. Reminds itself that alone we are apt to fool ourselves into thinking that we know more than we do. Reminds itself that others bring understanding that we need to be able to decide upon the best, or at least the better, course of action. Scientists call this way of being embodied intelligence. An intelligence that gathers what it needs to know from the ones it belongs to and with these others commits to a way forward based on their collective knowledge and understanding. I think the God of Noah becomes a God of embodied intelligence. Determined to be connected to our suffering, willing to learn about what the world needs based on the suffering and the hopes that are witnessed. Willing to tend towards mercy because of this deep and vital connection to every living thing. I think the God that was and is with us in Jesus is a God of embodied intelligence. This is a God who enters into our suffering, into our hopes, refuses to back down, engages with mercy and loves those who would answer with violence and shows us a life worth living that can be ours as we go the same way.
As Christians we are a people of embodied intelligence. We are bound to the world, sent to God’s beloved world to act in love, but not on our own – never, not ever, on our own. We go with the guides of our faith; the particular contribution that we along with other religions bring to the collective consciousness that looks out for the powerless and promotes a peace that does not prioritize one group over another.
But we must go not just with the church. Repent says Jesus. Be aware of the temptation to think you know more than you really do; that you have that kind of power. Turn towards the world and the many guides that exist there: strangers, those grieving, those living in fear, those who are angry, those who have studied and who have direct experience with the issue that you care about. These other will help us know what is at stake and they will help us uncover what it takes for us to be part of the path towards a just peace. This is simply not a way we individually or as the church can go alone. God is working in all the world, has pledged divine presence to every living creature. So as you think about the life you are being called to this Lent, as we think about the church moving towards Easter, who might be our guides, the spirit calling to us from the troubles and the sufferings of the world, how might these voices enlarge our understanding and how might we let them lead us to the peace that comes from making justice?
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St. Andrew Sermons