The River … Do You Not Perceive It?

The Sunday Sermon:  Fourth Sunday after Pentecost – July 7, 2019

Scripture: Psalm 137:1-6 and Isaiah 43:18-19

The River … Do You Not Perceive It?

This morning’s scripture reading is a “mash-up,” the joining together of two separate periscopes, or readings in an attempt to reveal something different, or as one of our readings says directly, “something new.” The sermon message is an attempt to unpack that mash-up, explain it in a bit more detail, but hopefully not further obscure it.

Listen for the Word of God from the Book of Psalms and the Prophet Isaiah. Read Psalm 137:1-6 and Isaiah 43:18-19. The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

So, I wonder what you’ve heard, what you’re thinking about why those two passages we read together this morning. Here’s what I was thinking about last week. It starts with an experiment.

A while back Daniel Simons, a researcher in a field of psychology called visual cognition at the University of Illinois, conducted an experiment. It was, and is, popularly called “the invisible gorilla.” Perhaps you’ve heard of it, or seen it and done the experiment yourself. It’s on YouTube along with other experiments designed to do the same thing – namely, to point out that our perceptions of reality are contingent on our mode of attention. Allow me to explain a bit more for the one or two of you who are furrowing your brows right now (!).

Simons set up his experiment in this way: Two groups of people, some in white shirts and some in black, pass a basketball between them as they move around, in and out of each other, crossing paths often as they pass the ball. The observer is asked to count how many times people in the white shirts touch the basketball. A few seconds into the sequence, a person dressed in a gorilla suit comes walking through the group, pauses in the middle and actually looks at the camera, and then walks out of the scene. Afterward, half of the observers – fifty percent of those who are watching this scene and dutifully doing what they were told, counting the number of times the people in white shirts touched the basketball – are shocked when asked if they saw a gorilla. Most assume there was no such thing and say those who claim to have seen a gorilla are either liars or crazy.

Again, Simons point is clear: perceptions of reality are contingent on our mode of attention. What we are prepared to focus on determines what we see.

So, let’s dig a little deeper into this phenomena. There’s a philosopher named Charles Taylor who wrote a book entitled A Secular Age in 2007. He calls our deeply rooted assumptions about how to conceive and represent the world around us “social imaginaries.” He says we can and do miss hugely obvious realities when we focus our attention on something else. Religiously speaking, he argues that in the modern era our attention has been drawn away from what our ancestors thought of as obvious: That an intimate “God” acts and moves in the world. In our increasingly secular age, some (many?) people today would say this movement represents a “liberation:” We’ve put aside an increasingly untenable belief in some supernatural deity. But Taylor doesn’t go that far, at least not in this writing. He suggests, rather, that we have acquired in the modern, now post-modern, age a unique “observation blindness.” It’s not that thousands or millions have given up an untenable belief but that “new social imaginaries” have drawn our attention away from the “Holy,” the “Sacred,” the “Divine” in our midst and toward something else. New forms of attention, new things to focus on, and our unwillingness, or worse our inability, to change the way we express “God” makes us unable to see what was once obvious and what, I stubbornly insist, is still and always will be within and among us: The Divine.

Listen again. Read Psalm 137:1-4 …

By the rivers of Babylon – there we sat down and there we wept when we

remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps.

For our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth,

saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.” How (can) we sing the

Lord’s song in a foreign land?”

We must identify with those who are weeping in this Psalm. Here we sit like the exiles millennia ago, watching the river roll by, keeping our focused attention on what we’ve been told to watch, on how many times the people in white touch the basketball being passed to them, lamenting and counting … and missing what is right here. The ancient Israelites are convinced that “the Lord’s song,” that is so joyfully and readily sung “in Zion” cannot be sounded in Babylon. We are convinced that the reality we most commonly call “God” cannot be expressed in our modern, now post-modern, secular world. So we all weep and we all double down, through verses five and six.

If (we) forget you, O Jerusalem, let (our) right hand(s) wither!

Let our tongue(s) cling to the roof of our mouth(s),

If (we) do not remember you, If (we) do not set Jerusalem

above our highest joy.

We are focused so intently on what we’ve been taught and told and instructed to do that when the gorilla arrives and passes through our midst we see it as just another part of the background, another leaf in the river of our sorrows passing us by. We didn’t even see it, so busy are we lamenting and fiercely holding on to the past.

Back to our philosopher, Charles Taylor. He notes that we are all living in a socially constructed framework that imposes levels of attention that make divine action questionable even for those of us who do not define ourselves as atheists or unbelievers. “God” is in the background, and our day-to-day, moment-to-moment attention is on something else. We are all counting the number of basketball passes – or focusing on our bank accounts, Twitter followers, product promotions, consumer purchases, and political outrages.

We “religious people,” those of us who still give our hearts to something “More” at work in the world, are also distracted by something else: the past. The way it was, the way “God” was, our belief in something that we know is increasingly untenable, keeps us from exploring, let alone discovering God in new ways. It may push the analogy here, but I compare the basketball to our conception of God. We’re so focused on watching that ball move through the group, counting the touches it receives, that we miss something hugely obvious. “God” is not the basketball! “God” cannot be that thing that is being so faithfully, but so cleverly, controlled by humanity. God is the “thing” moving freely among us in our human experiment, wanting to be noticed, wanting to be experienced, wanting to be shared.

Whoever, however, whatever, wherever “God” is, “God” is right here, right now. In a gorilla suit, perhaps, walking right out into the thick of things and begging for attention. But we are sitting on the banks of our rivers of memory and nostalgia, lamenting what was and wishing for the past to be relevant again. Wishing that “God” would act like the “God” of old, and that we could express “God” as we once did, even though we now know why hurricanes and tornadoes happen, and that any God worth worshipping doesn’t desire the untimely deaths of anyone (young or old), and doesn’t allow terminal diseases any more than we allow ourselves to be hurt or diminished. These are the untenable beliefs that have set us, too, on a riverside, harps quieted, silently weeping.

But here’s the thing (and how many times have we heard this but not noticed it?): God says …

Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.

I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

A river, even a river in our “foreign lands” like Babylon millennia ago, offers a way out, a way forward. What we need to do is pull our harps off the branches of those willow trees and step in. Stop counting the touches and go with the flow. Follow the gorilla! (Now, I know I’ve gone too far with this, but you get it!) Just because the beliefs of our past are increasingly untenable doesn’t mean we should stop believing in God. Instead, we need to start believing that “God” is something different, something “More,” than we’ve been taught, at work in deeper ways than we’ve been told to watch.

And before you get worried that this is radical, let me tell you there is not anything– anything – particularly revolutionary about our call to re-define our understanding of God.. About two thousand years ago a group of people stopped watching and counting the touches they were told to watch and count and followed the Way of someone who redefined what God is and what God does. It transformed their lives. It’s supposed to transform ours. Will it? Ever?

We’ll leave those questions hanging for the weeks ahead. Our table is set for us today. In a few moments we will be called to remember – not the things of old! But to remember – to perceive – the newness God offers in Christ – again, not only the Christ “of old” but of the Christs “right now”, you and me. Ways in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. Let’s gather at the river, step in, and try something new just as Jesus did.

May it be so. Amen.

Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / July 7, 2019