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Sermon for 8 am service, December 15, 2019: How will I know? (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

I have been “reading” an audible booked called, “Talking to Strangers.” It is not about how to get over your shyness and win friends and influence people. It is, in fact, about listening as much as it is about talking. It is about how we communicate with strangers. The author, Malcolm Gladwell, argues that there something very wrong with “the tools and strategies we use to make sense of people we don’t know. And because we don’t know how to talk to strangers, we are inviting conflict and misunderstanding in ways that have a profound effect on our lives and our world.”[1]

Gladwell uses high-profile examples to introduce linguistic, psychological, and criminal behavior studies that, taken as a whole, suggest that most of the assumptions we make about what people hear when we talk are quite wrong. I have experienced this myself on more than one occasion when, after receiving some particularly energetic feedback about one of my sermons I have wondered to myself, “Did I say that”? It’s enough to make a person stop preaching!

Some of the problems that crop up when one person is trying to convey information to another have to do with who those people are. For example, Gladwell quotes one study that found that diverse cultures perceive facial expressions differently. You would think that since most human beings share the same basic physiological structures – eyes, nose, mouth, ears, etcetera – that the way we move them around to demonstrate our emotional states is also similar. It turns out that’s not the case. For example, one study found that an expression that was recognized by more than 90 percent of participating Madrid school children as surprise was interpreted as aggression by a group of people on a remote island. In other words, it turns out that I am right when I tell my husband it is not universally agreed that the Three Stooges are hysterically funny.

Other communication difficulties stem from the preconceptions that the listener has – not just about a specific speaker, but about people in general. Apparently, when we meet a stranger – someone we know nothing about – most human beings assume that the new person is telling the truth. This “truth default” mechanism means that even when we notice things that don’t seem right – that don’t line up with what we know – we will assume that a stranger is telling the truth. In fact, in order for us not to believe them, our doubts have to reach a pretty high threshold before we will openly question what is being said. It is apparently so distasteful to us to think that someone is lying that we will actually go to great lengths to make sense of things that simply don’t add up.

This seems, at first glance, to be a good thing. It would be a suspicious and scary world if we all assumed that every person we met was probably lying to us. On the other hand, a willingness to ask questions goes a long way, because our truth default tendency often allows dishonest people to take advantage of honest ones. This, regrettably, can happen frequently and catastrophically when spiritual leaders put their own needs first, leading people to question or lose their faith altogether.

It’s no surprise then, that even John the Baptist, who Matthew calls the greatest of all prophets, wanted to double-check his information before telling people that Jesus was the Messiah. Although John was in prison, he had heard things about his cousin performing miracles and confidently teaching God’s word, so he sent messengers to ask Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another”? When Jesus received John’s message he did not simply say, “Yes, that is me.” Instead he answered with a command, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” In other words as my mother would say, “The proof is in the pudding.”

And it was not just that Jesus was doing amazing things. It was that Jesus was doing the right things- the things that had been prophesied for generations about the Messiah: “He will come and save you. Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.” The arrival of the true Messiah was to be accompanied by healing and wholeness. The arrival of the Messiah was to bring joy.

But not to everyone – because the Lord would also bring justice- recompense for those who had been oppressed and frustration for those who had oppressed them. This is how John’s people – and how we know that the one we worship is the true Messiah, because his way is one of goodness, mercy, and integrity. It is also how we know if we have been duped into worshipping a false God.

The psalm we chanted today is one of praise, praise for the God who corrects the actions of deceptive and wicked humans – of those who have caused the righteous to suffer. As Steven S. Tuell reminds us, Psalm 146 stands as a rebuke to the naiveté that had ascribed to the human institution of kingship an ultimacy that even the best and most noble king could not bear. Sadly, this temptation is still with us. Too often, Christians have identified the gospel unambiguously with some political party or movement, forgetting that faith’s proper role is to critique all human authorities in light of the God made manifest in Jesus. Inevitably, such mistaken investitures of faith end in disillusionment and disappointment. Only God can, and ought to, bear the weight of our ultimate faith and commitment.”[2] We have to pay attention to what we see and hear to determine whether the words and actions of those who would ask our loyalty are consistent with the words of our scriptures – with the words of Isaiah, of the psalmist, of James and Paul and, most importantly, of Jesus Christ our Lord.

This can be difficult, because our holy scriptures sometimes contradict one another and may not seem relevant to our 21st century lives. That is why we cannot limit ourselves to studying only certain passages of the Bible. It is why we have to struggle with the parts of scripture that are not clear or we don’t like. It is also why we must apply our hearts as well as our minds to determining what the truth of God is. Remember, the opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is fear. Is what we are told by our leaders consistent with a God of mercy, love, and truth? Ask yourselves, Can the desert blossom and the wilderness be glad if Christians do nothing about climate change? If the Lord promises justice to the poor, hungry, and oppressed, then how can it be right for us to support leaders who take from those groups? Look, listen, think, and know. Those who continually seek to do God’s will have no reason for our hearts to cower at his arrival. We are among those who have waited, hoping and believing in a God who cares for all people. The Messiah is for us. The Messiah is coming. REJOICE! AMEN.

[1]Gladwell, Malcolm, (2019), “Talking to Strangers,” book summary,

[2] Steven S. Tuell, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster Knox Press], 4, Kindle location 2275.

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