Monday, January 23, 2017

Sermon: "Inquiring Minds, Inquiring Spirits", Psalm 27:1, 4-9; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18 (January 22, 2017)


Sermon video here.


Last Sunday before worship, we kicked off our confirmation class. We’ve continued the lessons this week, and we’ll be meeting regularly until Easter, at which point each student will decide whether they want to join the church as full members. That leaves us with a lot to discuss in 12 short weeks! As I hope to impress upon them, Confirmation isn’t a matter of checking a box on the salvation checklist (there’s no such thing, by the way), nor is it about learning the “right” things to do in order to be a “good” Christian. It’s about exploring what it means to be a follower of Christ and a Presbyterian, discovering where you are on your own faith journey, and deciding whether the two things fit together for you. Like I said, it’s a pretty tall order for a few short weeks. But I think these kids are up to it.

Of course, it’s impossible for me to embark on this journey with these kids without recalling my own Confirmation. I don’t remember a lot about the classes or lessons specifically, but I DO remember going before Session to be grilled—I mean, examined—about what we had learned in class. I was (I’ve been told) among the more precocious students that year, but I still remember the anxiety and pre-teen angst that led up to the big event. I KNEW that these were all people who loved me and supported my faith journey, the parents of my friends, the adults that I had grown up around, and yet the dread at the prospect of being interrogated—and worse, potentially giving the wrong answers!—was awful. The risk was low, but the fear was sky-high.

As it turns out, fear is a really common human reaction. As Christians, we’re certainly not immune to this aspect of our humanity. Now, it might be easy to write my confirmation fear off as the stage-fright of a 6th grader, or feeling intimidated by church leadership, or simple test anxiety. But I think that discounts the very real experience I had; one that, in fact, isn’t unique to Confirmation students: the fear of being “wrong”. When we’re kids, this fear manifests in our determination to give the correct answer to a question, but it tends to morph into a different form as we grow into adults. As we age, we begin to worry less about others perceiving our answers to be wrong, and more existentially about our own perceptions having been wrong all along.

For most of us here, enjoying relative safety and the freedom to think and believe and say what we want, few things are able to cause more fear in our hearts than the prospect of being wrong. We might not readily identify it as fear, but that’s what it is. I know, because I’ve felt this fear myself. I’ve felt the panic rising when someone responds to my thoughts saying, “Well, actually…” I’ve felt the urge to justify and defend blindly when my ideas are challenged. I’ve felt that sinking feeling, followed by a hot flash of anger and frustration, when someone suggests that they know better than I do. Haven’t you? These don’t reflect the rational engagement in respectful debate that I ultimately try to employ; they aren’t responses that I would choose if I had any say in my initial internal reactions. These are knee-jerk, fight-or-flight instincts that arise, unbidden, in response to my fear of being wrong.

Here’s the problem: Scripture is notorious for telling us NOT to fear. We read it all the time. It’s the very first verse in Psalm 27: “The Lord is my light and my salvation,” the psalmist declares, “Whom shall I fear? Of whom shall I be afraid?” Now, we all know that there’s plenty worth being afraid of in this world, even if it doesn’t impact us directly. We know that there’s discord, injustice, evil, and corruption surrounding us every day. So what business does God have telling us not to fear? It’s a terrifying world that we live in!

Well, let’s take a closer look at that first verse of the Psalm. It makes an assertion—“The Lord is my light and my salvation”—and then poses a rhetorical question that, to the psalmist, follows logically: “Whom shall I fear?” He’s not saying that we SHOULDN’T fear or that fear is bad or evil in some way. It’s not a commandment or a box on that salvation checklist that mentioned (Purge fear from my life? Check). It’s a reminder that we don’t NEED to fear because God is with us. Our God, who delivered the Israelites from Egypt; our God, who dwelt among us in flesh so that we might be redeemed; our God, who loves each of us before we’re even born—even though our fears may not be unfounded, they’re certainly unnecessary with the Lord in our corner. And if the psalmist can give his fear up to God in the face of evildoers that want to devour his flesh (mentioned in verse 2—there’s a reason the lectionary skips from verse 1 to verse 4), certainly we can let go of our fear of being wrong.

My favorite part of Psalm 27, aside from the reminder that God’s salvation releases us from fear’s paralyzing grasp, is that the psalmist doesn’t just go on and on about how great God is (as so many Psalms do). Instead, he tells us how this independence from fear changes his perspective on life. After so vividly describing how God’s light and salvation make fear unnecessary, with the words describing this liberation still hanging in the air he reflects on the one thing that he desires in this new life freed from fear: to inquire in God’s temple, reveling in God’s presence.

This is the polar opposite of what we might expect. In our culture of triumphantalism, we celebrate those who win, those who overcome all obstacles and wind up at the top. We honor those who are the most powerful, the most fearless, and, therefore, the most right. And there are plenty of Psalms that celebrate the conquering hero right along with us—but not this one. In this psalm, the writer doesn’t use his God-given confidence to achieve greatness. Instead, he chooses humility. He uses his freedom from fear to risk digging deep into the unknown, to learn more about God’s truth. He chooses inquiry instead of invincibility.

Now, whenever there’s inquiry, there’s the risk of being wrong. I bet the confirmation class doesn’t realize that they’re engaging in an act of bravery by choosing to dig into their faith. I certainly didn’t when I was in their shoes. But it’s true. Fortunately for us, the stakes are only high if we place our value is on being right at all times. Thomas Paine once quipped, “it is error only, and not truth, that shrinks from inquiry.” Inquiry is only a threat if our highest goal in life is to be right. To err is human, right? So what exactly are we expecting? If what we seek, however, is truth—a greater, more complete understanding; the way that God sees the world—well, then we have nothing to be afraid of at all. But if we’re determined to be right, we won’t be willing to take the risk.

Truth, of course, is such a huge concept, such a lofty goal, that even if we’re willing to choose inquiry over fear, it’s a tough thing for us to wrap our minds around on our own. It takes many different minds, with many different ways of seeing things, to even begin to understand something as multifaceted as truth. But our blind devotion to the cult of correctness isolates us from one another and keeps us from cooperation. Certainly, there are times when we MUST choose a side and defend it courageously and unfalteringly. But we mustn’t do it in a way that idolizes our correctness and refuses to hear other perspectives. That was the sin of the Pharisees in Jesus’ time: because of their unwillingness to consider another point of view—since, of course, they were RIGHT—they were completely unable to hear the new parts of the truth that Jesus had to share with them. When we give into our fear of error, we risk losing our collective access to truth.

Consider the Indian parable of the blind men and the elephant. Three blind men come across an elephant, and describe to one another what they’ve found. One, touching the leg, says, “Ah! This animal is like a pillar!” Another, having only felt the tail, says, “No, no, no! It’s like a rope!” The third encounters the ear and argues, “That’s ridiculous; it’s clearly most like a fan!” The men argued on and on, clinging to the facts of their own experience, not realizing that they each had an incomplete piece of the truth. If they had been willing to risk their sense of correctness and inquired into the experiences of the others, they would have been able to grow from hoarders of isolated facts into those who together were able to understand a greater truth.

When we approach life this way—as a battle of facts to be won instead of a journey of inquiry to be undertaken in community—we’re giving into the fear that the psalmist insists God has released us from. I think this was Paul’s problem with the Corinthians, too. When he appeals to them in his first letter for unity of mind and purpose, he’s not saying that there should be no disagreements. He’s not saying that there should be no questioning or exploration or inquiry; he’s saying that the people need to stop fixating on the wrong things. Those pesky facts were holding them back from their true calling. The people were so determined to prove that their baptism was the “right” baptism, that their faction was the “best” faction, that they were utterly unable to do the vital work of hearing and proclaiming the gospel—the truth revealed to them through Jesus. They were MISSING THEIR ENTIRE PURPOSE AS FOLLOWERS OF CHRIST because they were unwilling to let go of their own self-righteousness. If Confirmation had been a thing during the first century, you can bet that Paul would have required the church at Corinth to go through it. It seems like they could have used a little humble inquiry.

It’s okay to disagree. Gracious disagreement for the sake of discernment is a beautiful thing—a holy thing. Through disagreement, we learn. But holy disagreement involves more than just registering the opposing view for the purpose of attacking it. It involves listening and empathy and true inquiry into the matter. It involves vulnerability and humility. Sometimes, it involves a deep and unsettling inquiry into our own heart. And it always, ALWAYS, involves a risk of being wrong. Inflexibility of thought and insistence on conforming to a single perspective are the marks of fear. True followers of Christ and seekers of truth don’t bear these marks because God has liberated us from fear. Now, it’s on us to decide what we do with this freedom.

So, the question is, what’s the certainty that’s keeping you from the truth? What’s the fear that keeps you from inquiring in the Lord’s temple? What are you doing to learn from your brothers and sisters, to seek the truth even at the expense of your own ego?

I may not remember much about the details of my confirmation examination before Session, but I do remember one question vividly: at the time, we took communion by passing the cups and plates, and one Elder asked me why we take the bread as it’s passed and the cup in unison. My hand danced in the air, threatening to detach from my arm in my eagerness to answer: we take the bread as it’s passed as a symbol of our individual relationship with Christ, and we drink from the cup at the same time as a symbol of our unity in Christ.

As I stand here today, seeing the divisions in Christ’s Church and in our country, I can’t help but wonder if our obsession with winning, with being the best, with being the most right, is getting in the way of this unity of purpose, if our certainty is obstructing our view of God’s vision for the world. I hope not. In a scathing criticism, 19th century writer Robert G. Ingersoll commented, “The Church never doubts, never inquires. To doubt is heresy, to inquire is to admit that you do not know—the Church does neither.” On our worst days, he’s right. But at our best—when we live as God desires us to be—he couldn’t be more wrong. To be Christian is to wonder, to puzzle, and to inquire. To be a follower of Christ is to admit that we need help and that Jesus is the one to provide it. To be in this community of believers is to confess that we can’t discover truth on our own and that we need one another on this journey. But we can’t be our best until we let go of the fear that holds us hostage. So let it go, open your heart, and take the risk. It may turn out that you’re wrong, but you won’t regret it.


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