The Sin of Certainty – Sermon Text

Time for All Ages

Seven Spools of Thread” by Angela Shelf Medearis

Sermon

The brothers in our story made some big assumptions. They each assumed they would inherit, and that there was no way to work together. And until they let go of their assumptions, they were willing to commit what we might call the sin of certainty.

The sin of certainty is all about assumptions – namely, that you know what’s right, what’s true, who to trust, how things are – period, full stop, end of sentence.

The problem, of course, is that what you know may not be right, may not be factual, may come from a questionable source, may not be how things actually are. Dot. Dot. Dot…

For instance, I am sure some of you think I am leaving you in the lurch, without any help or thought to your future and that I’ve disappointed you like others ministers before me. Maybe you think it’s because of the fights, or the delays on the building. Maybe you think it’s because you have a reputation for being horrible and I bought it. And maybe you are certain that I’ve been hiding my true feelings.

For those of you who aren’t thinking those things, you may think I’m exercising some hyperbole – but you should know these fears have come out in real conversations. And this is why I want to address it here.

But where does that come from? What basis do those assumptions have? And are you so certain about my motivations that you can’t hear me when I say it is not about you but about me? Because it is definitely about my call to a ministry the arts and worship that requires I not be in a congregation but rather follow my heart and my ministry to the wider denomination.

Assumptions get in the way of real conversation – and they get in the way of progress and true connection. I think often about the assumption my mother held about the Japanese. Her first husband was shot down in the South Pacific during World War II, and from that moment on, she was biased against all Japanese. She supported the internment camps. She was angry about the war reparations. She hated that Japan took over the electronics trade. In fact, she hated it so much, she wouldn’t talk to me for a week in the 1990s when I bought a Toyota, and she grumbled about the Japanese nurse that one of her doctors had hired. Her assumptions about the Japanese people, her certainty of their motives and attitudes – grounded in one moment in time – was a blind spot for an otherwise open, loving, inclusive heart.

But assumptions like that – personal or less personal — actually run counter to the ways we were taught.

Most of us grew up in schools that prized critical thinking – an enlightenment way of looking at the world. We were taught to weigh evidence, consider where information is coming from, back it up with additional sources, look at information that might challenge our assumptions, and change our minds as needed. I thought Thomas Jefferson walked on water, until it was confirmed that while he was great in some ways, he also had his faults, namely around the question of slavery. I thought Robin Williams was nothing but a comic until a series of films showed the depth of this actor’s range.

Assumptions like these are probably fairly easy to shift – evidence of Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemmings and a viewing of Dead Poet’s Society are easily enough to shift these not-terribly-controversial opinions.

But sometimes the assumptions we hold on to are deeply held beliefs – they are comforting and serve to confirm everything we know about the world. Information that refutes those assumptions become not just challenges to an idea but challenges to how we understand ourselves.

And sometimes, the more information we have, the more likely we are to dig in our heels, a natural defense to cognitive dissonance. When we hold a belief tightly, we are likely to feel an actual threat, and it becomes harder for us to admit our wrongness. Yet what we also know is that when we dig in our heels, we are less likely to learn anything more or seek out any information that does not confirm our certainty. In a 1945 essay entitled “Listen, Little Man!”, psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich wrote, “The less a little man understands something, the more firmly he believes in it. And the better he understands an idea, the less he believes in it.”

Some of this depends on the nature of the deeply held narrative that new information challenges. If we believe our story is a positive one, then information that challenges the good narrative is deeply unpleasant. Similarly, if we believe our story is a negative one, we grow suspicious of any positive information that challenges our negative narrative.

Last fall, I talked about the narrative here. It feels funny to quote myself, but here goes:

“Over the past year, I’ve sat down with most of you – many more than once. We’ve talked about your hopes and dreams. We’ve talked about the saving message of this faith, and your longing for community. We’ve talked about building and rebuilding – not just a structure, but growing your own community so that First Universalist can serve the greater world. I know your stories, your pains and sorrows, your joys and accomplishments. We have cried and celebrated together, and I stand here honoring those connections.

“And yet, the narrative I hear over and over is that ‘we are dying” and “we’re too small” and “we’re too old” and “we love conflict” and “we always fight.” That is the underlying narrative of this place – a narrative that will keep you small and fearful and fighting amongst each other instead of growing and being courageous and fighting for justice and helping those who are desperate for our saving message. This narrative is in the water, just as misogyny and racism are in the American cultural waters.”

Supporting that narrative is a string of ministers not everyone liked or were good fits. Supporting that is your worry that you’ll never be anything more than a bunch of people on a ship with competing maps and no one to steer. Supporting that narrative is an uncomfortable skepticism about each other’s abilities and trustworthiness. Supporting that narrative is fear.

The negative narrative is all about waiting for the other shoe to drop, so when anything does happen, it’s seen through a negative lens – even if the shoe that just dropped is really Cinderella’s diamond slipper.

Now to be clear – I’m not saying that individually you are negative people. Far from it. You are individually positive, hopeful, full of goodness and kindness and love. And the diamond slipper that is my decision to follow my ministerial call toward a ministry of the arts and inspiration includes a commitment to working with you to find the next right minister, one who will have the skills and heart to see you through the rebuilding process – both of the structure and the congregation itself. I believe in you – I always have. My narrative of you – what I am certain of – is that your goodness and hopefulness is not only there, waiting to be revealed to the world, but is vitally necessary out here on the North Fork. I believe that if you want that future – of growth, of goodness, of loving the hell out of this world – you can have it… and I want to make sure you find a minister who isn’t a place holder but is an active participant in your future.

Now some of you may doubt me still. My positive information is likely challenging your assumptions and the narrative you have invested in. Things are changing, again, and you don’t like it – because change hasn’t always been good for you, and trust is hard to come by. It makes it nearly impossible to know what to trust or what we can be certain about.

Last year, I talked a bit about trusted sources – what are the sources we can trust for reliable information? We have a list of real news – versus the fake news that permeates our information age right now, and real facts – versus the alternative facts we constantly debunk. But we also have a wide range of sacred texts from the world’s religions, with wisdom and truth. And we have people who have shown themselves to be truthtellers in our lives – perhaps a parent, or a partner, or a best friend, or a mentor, or a therapist, or a minister.

For the past 18 months, you have trusted me to tell you the truth – about who we are, how we are, what’s happening in the world, and what we can do to help heal the world. You trusted me with your grief, with your fears, and your hopes. Now I know the news of my departure this summer has shaken you up, but I ask you to continue to trust me as you have before – that I would not lie to you about why I am leaving nor about my hopes and dreams for your future.

It might take some reorienting – shifting your assumptions and letting go of what you see or know to be right. Let’s think about what that means:

In 2015, the internet exploded over a controversy about a dress. A woman was shopping, took a photo of some cocktail dresses, and asked her remote daughter to say which she liked better. “The white and gold one” the daughter replied. “There is no white and gold one – it’s blue and black” said the mother. The daughter could not see the different colors on the dress and asked friends online, which then blew up, with people absolutely convinced one way or the other – it was either blue and black or white and gold, and never the twain would meet. People argued incessantly about it, firm in their belief, with science writers having to explain why some of us saw one colorway and some the other.

Now I am on Team White and Gold – for the life of me, in that original picture, I cannot see it as any other color. Yet it’s been proven to me that the dress actually is blue and black, and so I believe that’s true, because I trust those sources – despite my eyes not being able to see those tones.

Similarly, what is this number? (showed large printed number)

Depending on where you’re sitting, it’s a 6 or a 9. Isolated like this, it could be either one, and you’d all be right. But perhaps it’s part of something bigger, and what is required is orienting yourself more thoroughly.

(showed printed “631”) You see, it’s a 6 – because it’s part of our area code. Isolated, with nothing to orient you, you make an assumption according to your own perspective. But we can take in information – the number is 6, the dress is blue and black, and my reason for leaving is actually not about you but about me. And we can let go of the certainty that confirms our world view and instead trust that which we know won’t lead us astray – science, trusted sources, trusted people.

 

This stuff isn’t easy. Whether it’s about the congregation, or our relationships, or politics, or the way the world works – there’s a lot to shake us up and scare us. It’s comforting to have something – anything to hold on to. It’s one of the reasons I preach a lot on our principles – basic tenets of an optimistic, hopeful faith in humanity. We can be certain of those principles. We can also be certain of our connections to certain people, of our heart’s desire, of what we have confirmed to be true. And even then, we can be open to challenges to those things we are certain of – lord knows I spent a lot of time challenging first my call, and then the nature of my call.

Yet what I know is what I’ve talked about before and want to reiterate now: letting go of narratives that do not serve us and breathing into possibility requires some work.

The first step is to admit the narrative isn’t complete, or isn’t working.

The second step is checking our assumptions – where they come from, what we’re relying on, and how they might comfort us

The third step is to decentralize – looking at the other side of the story and letting go, at least for a while, of our own viewpoint to see the bigger picture.

The fourth then is to retell and rebuild – if that’s not the narrative you want, figure out what the new narrative can be – turn negatives into positives, let go of old ideas, make room for the new, and then share those stories. Be open to new language and new behaviors to support the new story.

One of the things we’re learning in the study of Yoruba and the Traditional African religions this month is that everything is about story – the stories and legends inform their rituals and beliefs. They believe we can tell stories and change them in order to remember what is true about us and each other, and to change our lives – the sin of certainty prevents us from becoming the people we are meant to be.

As we enter a time of meditation – consider: where are you committing the sin of certainty – in your personal life, regarding politics and your view of the world, about the congregation, about each other, about yourself? And what might you be willing to let go of?

 

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