Sermon for the Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
October 13, 2013
In 1999, two psychologists performed a wonderfully popular experiment. David Simons and Christopher Chabris wanted to demonstrate a topic known as selective attention. That is, how we humans can focus so intently on one thing, that we miss everything else. The experiment went like this:
A video is shown of two teams passing a basketball back and forth. And we, the people in the experiment, are supposed to count how many times the white team passes the basketball. Easy, right? Actually, yes, it’s quite easy to count how many times the white team passes the basketball. But that’s not the experiment. Without warning you, the folks leading this experiment send a guy in a gorilla suit across the middle of the basketball court, he beats his chest, then walks off. The experiment is to see if you notice that guy. And guess what? Nobody does! Because you’re so focused on counting passes, your selective attention is so focused, you simply miss the big, giant ape. Everybody sees the video the same way. Everybody sees the two teams passing the basketball. Everybody sees the gorilla. But hardly anybody notices.
Jesus also performs a test of selective attention. Ten lepers shout out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” Jesus doesn’t even skip a beat. We don’t even know if he bothered to stop walking. He tells them to do what the Law of Moses told them to do, go and show themselves to the priests. And as they went, all ten were made clean; cured of their leprosy.
Now imagine this. You have leprosy in the first century. You are not allowed to come close to anybody. You are not allowed to touch anything. You are totally cut off from society. Suddenly, a wandering prophet named Jesus makes you clean. Your life is totally transformed. You can go back into society. You can be with your family again. Wouldn’t you think that you would at least go back and thank Jesus?
But don’t you also think you would have noticed the gorilla walking across the screen, beating his chest? You don’t, and you won’t. Because even though everybody sees, hardly anybody notices. Selective attention, spiritual blindness, whatever you want to call it.
This is not just for psychologists and lepers two thousand years ago. It happens right now. Of all the charges levied against the Church, two accusations stand out. I have heard people claim that the Church is boring. And that the Church is irrelevant. That God hasn’t done much for them lately. Let’s unpack this.
Every time somebody encounters God, it is neither boring nor irrelevant. Boring? In the holy scriptures, whenever God or an angel shows up to a human, the first thing they have to say is, “Do not be afraid!” Because they are scared out of their mind. Seeing the glory of God is by no means boring. And every time somebody encounters God, it is relevant. The one leper had his entire life changed. This is the definition of relevant.
People are always going to accuse the Church of being boring and irrelevant. And there are two ways to respond. We could go one direction – toss out the Prayer Book, build a giant stage for a rock band, and I could ditch these clothes for skinny jeans and a cool t-shirt. And we’ve seen churches do that. They don’t want to be boring and irrelevant, so they try to be hip and cool. But we’re not going to do that.
The other way to respond to this accusation is to read this story about Jesus a little more closely. Of the ten lepers who were cured, nine of them simply walked away. Only one of them was changed. Of the ten lepers, every single one of them encountered God. Every one of them. They met Jesus in the flesh and he healed them. They all saw, but only one noticed. Only one noticed.
I firmly believe that everybody in this world has encountered God. Somehow or another, everybody has met Jesus. The Holy Spirit has touched everybody. But hardly anybody notices.
You have met God. I know you have. And that encounter is only boring and irrelevant if you didn’t notice it. But it happened. It surely did. It happened to me. When I started driving to church on my own in high school. It wasn’t boring, because my spirit was alive and I was learning new things every day about God. It wasn’t irrelevant, because my life changed, and following Jesus became a priority in my life, not number three or four on my agenda.
So the great question is this: did you notice your encounter with God? Did you meet Jesus, and then keep walking down the road with the nine lepers? Or were you the one that noticed, and came back to thank Jesus? My gut tells me that since you are sitting here this morning, you are the one. And I hope you’ll agree with me that it has been neither boring, nor irrelevant to follow the Lord Jesus.
So here we are. You have met God. Your life has been changed. You have returned to thank Jesus. And this is what Jesus says to the one leper: “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” Get up and go on your way. I would like to imagine the one leper jumping up and running down the road after the other nine. The one leper, pulling at the sleeves of his friends, saying, “haven’t you noticed what happened? Don’t you see that Jesus changed your life?”
Everybody you know has encountered God. Everybody you know. Your mom, your dad, the checker at Kroger. Our job is to help them notice that encounter. They might think that Church is boring and irrelevant, they might not have noticed what Jesus has done for them. Your brother, your sister, your UPS guy, the lady who does your hair. They might have been too busy counting how many times the white team passed the basketball to have noticed the dude in the gorilla suit. They might have been too worked up, fretting about their life, to have noticed when the Holy Spirit came to them.
Our job, as the Church, is to shake them out of their slumber and shout, “Look at what the Lord did for you!” And believe me, if you do that, no one will ever again claim that the Church is boring and irrelevant because their lives will be changed.
The code word, the church-y word for this is, evangelism. Telling others about the good news of Jesus. But don’t use that word. It might actually be boring and irrelevant. How about this: sit down and listen to somebody tell their story. Listen for when the Holy Spirit touched them. And it’s really not that hard, because everybody has encountered Jesus already. What we have to do is first listen to their story, hear about their lives. Then, all it takes, is for us to point out when the Holy Spirit came to them. That’s it. Our job is to be the one leper who tells the other nine how it is that faith made us well. Our job is to rewind the video and point out the dude in the gorilla suit, beating his hairy chest.
And you’re smiling now. And you should. Because this work is not a chore, or a burden, or an obligation. It’s fun. It’s full of joy. Get up. Go on your way. You won’t be boring and irrelevant. You will be the messengers of Jesus.