John 8:31-36; Matthew 22:34-46
“Knowing things changes you. You can’t help it.”
Maybe some of you recognize that line. I use it as a signature line on my emails. It comes from one of my favorite novels, The Bromeliad Trilogy, from my very favorite author, the late Sir Terry Pratchett. The novel is about of a civilization of Nomes who have lived for generations in an old-style department store, something like a Harrods or Selfridges. These Nomes believe that their “world” of the department store was created for them, and that, in fact, Nomes simply cannot possibly exist anywhere else. One day, though, a young Nome named Masklin learns that the store is soon to be demolished. In a very short time he must convince the other Nomes that their world is ending, that they aren’t as important as they think they are, and that they can all survive if they’re willing to make some sacrifices and hard choices.
After significant struggle, Masklin manages to lead the Nomes to a new home just in the nick of time. In his struggle to gain their confidence and find them a new home, he has to learn many new skills and absorb a great deal of new information. Often the things he’s learned and seen put him at odds with the other Nomes. At one point toward the end of the story, his girlfriend, Grimma, says to him, “Masklin, you’ve changed.”
Masklin pauses for a long, thoughtful moment before he replies, “Knowing things changes you. You can’t help it.”
The human mind is a remarkable thing. We can choose not to see things that are right in front of us. We can choose not to learn things that are clearly beneficial. We can go through our days with our eyes and ears closed to anything that veers from what we already know—or think we know. Or we can choose to stay curious, interested and open to discovery, new information, and change.
In 1945, Percy Spencer, an engineer at Raytheon was standing in front of a magnetron, a vacuum tube used to create high frequency radar waves, when he noticed that the candy bar in his pocket had started to melt. He was intrigued, so he scattered a few popcorn kernels in front of the tube. The kernels exploded all over the lab. Spencer started tinkering and experimenting and ten years later he patented a “radar range” that cooked with high frequency microwaves. Today you have one in your kitchen.
Microwave ovens became part of the restructuring and reordering of life after the disorder of World War II. Kitchens are designed to accommodate them. A whole industry of microwave foods and microwave cuisine was developed. Schedules became more flexible because food preparation became less time consuming.
Life has changed for all of us because Percy Spencer learned something. He learned that the high frequency radio waves that could spot aircraft miles away could also melt a candy bar and pop popcorn and cook things. It changed him. It changed life for all of us.
Knowing things changes you. You can’t help it.
All life moves in cycles of Order, Disorder, and Reorder. Your life. My life. Our relationships. Cultures. Nations. The world. Order. Disorder. Reorder. This is simply part of being alive. This is the pattern of transformation and growth.
As Richard Rohr has pointed out, “To grow toward love, union, salvation, or enlightenment, we must be moved from Order to Disorder and then ultimately to Reorder.”
We can see this pattern clearly and repeatedly in the life of Martin Luther. He was about to graduate with a degree in law and enter a life of order when a sudden lightning storm threw his life into disorder and drove him to the monastery. Life in the monastery was one of imposed order, but his doubts and his anger at God kept his heart, mind, and soul in a turmoil of disorder. He was sent to teach at Wittenberg, and it was there, as he prepared for a lecture, that the words of Romans 3:23-24 leapt off the page to bring peace to his disordered spirit: “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” These words reordered his spirit and his intellect.
Knowing this changed him. He couldn’t help it.
A changed Martin Luther began to ask questions. Good questions. Hard questions. His questions began to shake the Church. Order was threatened. The Reformation began—a long time of great disorder, marked often by great violence. But it was disorder with a purpose, and in the end, the world found its way to a kind of order once again. A new order. A different order.
“Know the truth, and the truth will make you free,” said Jesus. He said this to Judeans who had believed in him but who didn’t quite understand what he was talking about. He was trying to tell them that what they were hearing from him was nothing less than God’s own word and promise. They couldn’t quite grasp it. He was trying to tell them that they were so committed to their understanding of things, to the order that they knew, that it was making them blind and deaf to the truth of who he was and what he was trying to show them and tell them, making them blind and deaf to the new order of the beloved community that God was calling them to be part of.
“I tell you,” said Jesus, “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free, indeed.” Remember, he says all this to Judeans who had believed in him. So what sin could he be referring to in this context other than their refusal to see and understand? What could their sin be other than that they were choosing not to hear what they did not want to hear, choosing not to see what they did not want to see. Jesus was offering to free them so they could live in the freedom of the beloved community under the ethic of love instead of the yoke of the law, but they were choosing to live instead in the illusion of “all systems normal.”
In today’s other gospel reading, Matthew 22:34-46, a lawyer who wants to test Jesus asks him what is the greatest commandment in the law. In response, Jesus quotes back to him the Shema from Deuteronomy 6: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” But then he adds to it from Leviticus 19, “And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Saul the Pharisee certainly knew these commandments in the days when he was persecuting the early Christians. The Shema, after all, was part of every devout Jew’s life. But on the road to Damascus a vision of Christ threw Saul’s orderly life into disorder and he heard these words in a radically new way. His life was reordered to such a degree that Saul the Persecutor, the legalist Pharisee, became Paul the Apostle of grace. He wrote in Romans: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”
He had come to know the truth, and the truth set him free. He knew something old in a new way and it changed him.
Knowing things changes you. You can’t help it.
For 8 months now we have been all been living a very different life than any of us envisioned a year ago. This time last year none of us imagined Pandemic life. None of us imagined that we would have to think twice about gatherings with even a few friends and family. None of us imagined wearing masks whenever we left our homes for even a simple trip to the store. No one imagined that we would be meeting and worshipping and learning electronically. No one imagined how much time we would have alone with our own thoughts or how much time we would have to look at and think about what is happening with the rest of the world.
After 8 months, one can’t help but wonder, what have we learned? What do we know now that we didn’t know before? What do you know now that you didn’t know then? About yourself? About your relationships? About the church? About the country? About the world? How has it changed you?
We have had 8 months of disorder imposed on us by a virus. What will reorder look like? Are we content to simply try to rebuild what was or are we wiser? Have we learned things that will change the way we reorder our lives? Do we have a larger vision? Is God guiding us to something that looks more like the kin-dom?
“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples,” said Jesus. Have we learned a better way to do that in this time of introspection? Are we being prepared for a new Reformation? Have we learned a truth that will set us free as we move through disorder to reorder in our lives, in our nation, in the church, in the world? Do we really need to know anything more than to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves?
I think you know the answer to that.
And knowing things changes you. You can’t help it.