Harrowing Of Hell
November 7, 2021

Ambiguity Capacity as a Kingdom of God Experience

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

I’m reading a book right now called Nonsense by Jamie Holmes, and in it he makes a claim that grabbed my attention. He wrote: “As uncertainties add up in the world around us, they accelerate our desire for certainty.” When I read this, I was reminded of a sermon I preached on Easter day 2014: titled Doubt and Certainty.

In it I recounted a scene from the movie Doubt… It is about a Catholic school in the Bronx, circa 1960, run by a nun played by Meryl Streep. Her name is Sister Aloysius. Philip Seymour Hoffman is Father Flynn, a new, young, charismatic priest sent there to help integrate the school.

Flynn ends up being accused of acting indecently with a student. Sister Aloysius confronts him.  An argument ensues. Father Flynn yells, “You haven’t the slightest proof of anything,” to which Sister Aloysius screams back, “I have my certainty.” The scene captures the moment in the film when Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn’s relationship solidifies into an immovable, galvanized, rock-solid certainty. And there it died.

As my dad, a rheumatologist, has said from time to time: “When it stops moving its dead.” Not sure you need an M.D. to make that diagnosis.

Anyway, back to my point: Certainty, I believe, is what has dislodged Christianity from its central place in society. Why? Because in many corners of Christendom the church, in its certainty, has stopped moving…even as the world trudges on.

But not all Christianity has stopped dead in its tracks. There is a fleet-footed remnant, including us here at Epiphany, who draw our inspiration from the first followers of Jesus who taught and trained people to sit comfortably with uncertainty and ambiguity. What they achieved, we call: “The peace which surpasses all understanding.”

This peace is a type of intelligence that the secular world is only beginning to appreciate. In fact, it is reflected in Nonsense where Holmes writes: “The type of intelligence needed to navigate in the world that we are moving into  is the capacity to hold, without cognitive stress, two opposing ideas at the same time.”

He said what we know: that Kingdom of God intelligence is measured by one’s capacity to sit with ambiguity while retaining a sense of equanimity. The Gospel sharpens this kingdom intelligence, training us to be comfortable knowing that dead people are dead, AND Lazarus was raised from the dead. That a disabled man sitting by a pool for 38 years will never walk again, AND that a disabled man at the pool of Bethesda after 38 years walked again. That water is water and wine is wine, AND that at a wedding feast in Cana two thousand years ago seven large stone jars held water that suddenly became wine.

I could go on, but you get the point. The study, and even memorization, of the Gospels forms our hearts, AND our neuro-synapses, to more easily accommodate two opposing ideas simultaneously. Christianity, as we practice it, is a training ground for this Kingdom of God intelligence that is desperately needed in the world right now; because this kind of intelligence–the capacity to sit with ambiguity–not only improves relationships but may well keep our nation from solidifying into the cement of certainty.

This settling certainty congealing around us has been on my mind as we struggle to break free from this pandemic. I have been thinking about all of you and how we can better train to meet uncertainty with equanimity and model a healthy community aligned with the Kingdom of God.

I suppose our best course of action is to continue to teach Jesus’ intelligence-where our conversations begin with curiosity, rather than certainty; where we hold to a flexible field of possibility, rather than a rigid pattern of thought; where we seek the common denominator of trust, rather than a stultifying risk avoidance.

Curiosity, flexibility, and trust are three attributes of the Kingdom of God intelligence I will be preaching about in a sermon series in November and December. I am doing so to remind us that we offer a brand of Christianity that trains people to live with ambiguity, without raising their anxiety; to remind us that we practice “a peace which surpasses all understanding,” and that is a message worth sharing, so, bring a friend to church.

Now, let’s take a closer look at the artery clogging role certainty can play in our lives and in the world around us. One attribute of certainty is that it provides short cut, easily consumable answers to questions that, while having no relevance in the Kingdom of God, well serves people seeking to gain or retain power. Jim Crow laws were an example of this. Hitler’s final solution was an example of this. Racism, in all forms, is a certainty shortcut that always only benefits a few in pursuit of personal power.

Another example of a certainty shortcut can be found in the backyard of our own religion. There are many within Christianity who are certain about a lot of things like: only Christians go to heaven; only Christians are saved; only Christians are loved by God.

And while they may be bound by their certainty, we, the Epiphany Christians, aren’t. We dance in a world designed by a dynamic, inclusive, relational, Triune God.

And even still, we experience the riddles of ambiguity, don’t we? We know what it is like to have multiple feelings wrestling around within our heart simultaneously. It is as if God intentionally carved this tension into the very fabric of creation.

I’ll give you an example: A crocodile in the Nile explodes out of the water, collapsing her jars around a baby wildebeest, as the mother stomps her hoofs on the bank impotently, wagging her head and bellowing. Violent. Heart-wrenching. Normal. Good. Two opposite emotions, and both valid, if not normal. This scene is not about the personal power of the crocodile, though it is powerful, it is about a pattern within the Kingdom of God which can, at least for me, cause multiple feelings to wrestle around in my heart.

This range of feelings can be more difficult to manage when tweaked by the certainty of someone we know well; particularly when we believe this person is doing something that diminishes their capacity to achieve a peace which surpasses all understanding. These are complicated encounters because in them we witness a beloved person muffling their Kingdom of God intelligence in favor of personal power; whether it be their own, or unwittingly abdicating their power for someone else’s benefit.

And so, the challenge is: how do we stay in the equanimity of the Kingdom of God, so as not to provoke a power struggle between us and them? Why did God design the world to allow for such tensions?

The answer may also be the solution… as an invitation to turn to Jesus. And so we turn, and there we meet our own judginess. Jesus reminds us of the log in our own eye. He reformats our judginess into an exploration of our own erratic behavior. He calls us to review our own book lined shelves of certainty when confronted by someone else’s certainty, and in doing so, see ourselves in the person we are judging and then, hopefully, engendering within our hearts greater patience.

Which is exactly what did NOT happen between Father Flynn and sister Aloysius. Certainty stopped the movement. And when it stopped moving it was dead. That’s why Paul, in his letters, talks about sin leading to death. Sin seeks certainty and the broken relationships that follow.

Epiphany Christians seek another way, by trusting Jesus. Trusting in Jesus is an action that reinforces itself. The more we practice trusting Jesus, the more trustworthy we find Jesus to be. This empowers us to both say how we feel about someone else’s certainty, while also letting go of our influence over their actions and opinions. Trust in Jesus is acknowledgement that outcome belongs to God.

We train for trust by remembering. We remember by looking for Jesus in the rearview mirror of our lives and telling the stories of where we met him along the way. This is how we build the muscle of trust we remember and share the stories of God’s faithfulness.

So, if you find yourself in the quicksand of someone else’s certainty, seek to shift the conversation by telling a story of God’s faithfulness… even if you have to leave out the name of Jesus when doing so. This is Seattle after all. And God will still be glorified.

It is my hope that through this coming sermon series we all gain capacity for equanimity in the face of ambiguity.

Today we talked about self-reflection and trust as exercises that build our Kingdom of God intelligence. I will unveil other exercises in the series, but the overarching point remains that Epiphany Christianity, also called Jesus Christianity, I might add, has answers for the uncertainty and anxiety in our lives and the world around us.

We offer a lifestyle here that leads to a peace which surpasses all understanding, and this peace, God designed and God given, is the best, greatest hope for our anxious world.