“Knowing Stuff About Things”
The Reverend Phillip Blackburn
September 24, 2017
You’re at the grocery store and you are in a hurry. You have a few items in your cart and you just need to pay and get out. There are two lines available to you and you have to make a quick decision: which line will get you out of the store fastest? You survey the lines, you look at the amount of food in each cart, you check the age of the people in front of you (older people can sometimes pay with a check and that would be a disaster), and you look at the checkers. Do either of them look more spry and energetic? Does one seem half asleep? You look at all these things and then you make your decision. You choose your path and you hope for the best.
Our lives are full of decisions small and large like this. We are presented with two paths and we must make a choice, which shall we choose? You’ve made thousands of path-related choices in your life. Some have been easy and others have been agonizing. Some have had relatively small consequences and some have shaped the course of your life. Nonetheless, the choice of one path amongst two is a choice with which we are all familiar.
And it is a choice which is presented to us this day by the writer of Proverbs. Here in chapter 2 he or she wants to talk about understanding. Three times in the first 5 verses we find this word, “understand.” You are invited to, “incline your heart to understanding,” and reminded that if you, “raise your voice for understanding,” then you shall “understand the fear of the Lord.” This understanding then, this knowledge, acts as a blessing for us in our lives. It is, as the writer suggests, a path. The path of seeking knowledge and wisdom, of seeking understanding, comes with abundant promises. We will find that our knowledge will protect us, in a manner of speaking. Listen again to these words from verse 11, “prudence will watch over you; and understanding will guard you.” There is a powerful element of assurance here, that our knowledge is not something we seek for its own sake, but for the benefits we derive from our understanding of God.
This, however, is not the only path. There is, as there always is in life, another path before us. This path is a dark one, and we walk it when we forsake what we know. Listen again to how the author describes this path. This path will lead you to, “walk in the ways of darkness, rejoice in doing evil, and delight in the perverseness of evil.” Ouch. That is a harsh way to journey in life. You would think, then, that for us as Christians this is easy. If we seek to understand God and God’s law and God’s Word to us, then the path we walk will be of the just and upright. However, if we walk the path of evil, then we will walk in darkness, separated from God and, worse, participants in the tragedies and hardships in this world. So, if this is true, and there are 2 billion of us on the earth, why aren’t things better? Why is it that, when we are so often in Scripture presented with two distinct paths, a faithful and unfaithful one, that we seem to be so poor at choosing the one to walk? Why can’t we get it right?
The answer, I believe, is simple. We just have a very hard time, as humans, telling the difference between the two paths described here. We look at choices and often the evidence we have to choose from leaves us confused. In short, in faith, as in the grocery store, we often can’t tell the difference between the good path and the bad one, the slow line and the fast one. So what is it that blinds us? Let me tell you an example from my own life.
Rougned Odor is the Texas Rangers’ precocious 23-year-old second baseman. Odor is a Venezuela native who battled his way out of his native country with a ferocious intensity and plays similarly. Last season he blasted 34 home runs and, most notably, did all of baseball a solid when he memorably punched Jose Bautista. I love Rougned Odor, so when an article was written this past week that said Rougned Odor had been the worst everyday player in MLB this season I refused to read it. I know the author and he doesn’t really throw hyperbole around, and he always backs up his opinion with stats so he may very well be right. That doesn’t mean I want to hear it. As a Ranger fan I know he hasn’t been his best, but confound it he is still Rougie to me, the ball of fire who other teams hate playing and whom I love.
Now, don’t worry, we are finished with baseball for this sermon, but I wanted to speak about Rougned Odor for a simple reason. He represents the confusion for all of us; the natural desire to have our preconceptions matched by facts. Most of us have a Rougned Odor or 10, we have a belief or set of beliefs which we hold which fly in the face of pretty much any rational argument. Today, that often manifests itself in our political beliefs, where we crank up the partisanship to 11 and immerse ourselves in confirmation bias bubbles. But no matter if it is fandom, partisanship or any other worldview we hold dear, we all have problems conforming our worldview to the available, often objective weight of truth around us in certain important areas.
So now bring this back to the world of faith. Often we look at God in much the same ways that I look at a flawed baseball player. We take what we believe, how we see the world, what we like and don’t like, what feels good and what does not, and we conform and shape our understanding of God to these biases. If you need proof, how else could we read Scripture and arrive at the belief that God wants us to be wealthy? That is a classic example of seeking God from behind our preferences. This is how come we end up on the wrong path. This is how we, faithful people who sincerely believe we are seeking God, can come out walking on the wrong path, this is how we are still standing in line when the people in the other line have left the store.
And this is why the mind truly matters in faith. Faith can’t all be emotion. We can’t simply build a faith around what we feel to be true. The mind is here for a reason, and the writer of Proverbs writes of faith in a purely intellectual way here. She talks about understanding, knowledge and wisdom because these things help shape the path we will walk in powerful ways. As followers of Jesus, our task is first and foremost to bring all of our mental faculties to bear on understanding God as fully as possible THEN forming our worldview from there. This is an exceptionally challenging thing to do, but this is our calling. And when people of faith choose this path, when we truly subvert our self-interests to the will of God, it shows.
I believe very strongly in the role of the mind in faith. I would say that, if anything, I prioritize thinking over feeling too much. But it can’t just be thinking, it has to be right thinking. For us to love God with our minds, we have to recognize those things which clutter our minds, confuse our vision and cloud our paths, and as clearly as possible then seek to understand God. This is one of the main reasons, I believe, that we are supposed to do our work of faith together. It is much easier as a group to choose the correct path. Amen.