We Are Part of the Problem

Matthew 7:1-5 (But Now I See, part 2)

This is our second week in a three week series on bias. If we want to fulfill our calling to be an expansive church, then we have to deal with the things that make us exclusive. We all have biases that lead us to think and act in particular ways. Biases are opinions we hold that are 1. unexamined and 2. uncharitable. As Dr. Sarah Jackson helped us understand last week, we have biases because our brains are wired for efficiency. We take in information quickly, we sort it quickly, and we respond to it quickly, often without even really having to take much time at all to think about it. And while this efficiency is useful for us in some ways, it’s harmful to us in other ways. It leads us to make assumptions about the world, about other people, and about ourselves, that aren’t always accurate. When we act on these assumptions we can wind up hurting other people and limiting ourselves. Which is the opposite of being expansive.

If we are going to change any of that, we have to first realize it’s happening. We have to admit that we are part of the problem before we can be part of the solution. We desperately want to be part of the solution. But as Jesus reminds us, we have to deal with our own stuff first. Let’s be reminded again of the words of Jesus that we are using to frame this series. It’s from Matthew chapter 7, verses 1 through 5.

Jesus said, “Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged. You’ll receive the same judgment you give. Whatever you deal out will be dealt out to you. Why do you see the splinter that’s in your brother’s or sister’s eye, but don’t notice the log in your own eye? How can you say to your brother or sister, ‘Let me take the splinter out of your eye,’ when there’s a log in your eye? You deceive yourself! First take the log out of your eye, and then you’ll see clearly to take the splinter out of your brother’s or sister’s eye.” 

Matthew 7:1-5 (Common English Bible)

This is the word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.

We have to remove the log from our own eye before we can help someone else remove the splinter from their eye. We have to admit that we are part of the problem before we can be part of the solution. And we don’t like to admit that. In fact, not admitting we are part of the problem is a bias. Our efficient brains are wired to interpret the world such that we are either 1. the victim or 2. the hero, but never the villain. We see this all the time. When something goes wrong for us, or when the world is not arranged the way we want it to be, we tell a story of being the victim. Someone else is doing something bad to us. We don’t have any control over it. The problems are someone else’s fault. Or we cast ourselves as the hero. Everything we do is right. We have good reasons for making the decisions we make. Our actions are justified. We are fine.

Honestly, this is what our political discourse sounds like, doesn’t it? Everyone is either a hero or a victim. Nobody ever stands up and admits, “I’m the problem here.” Not just in politics, but in our regular everyday lives. It is very hard for us to admit when we are wrong. And usually when we do admit it, we follow it up with a justification that we hope will cancel out the wrongness. We see ourselves as the victim or the hero, but never the villain. It’s a bias. Our brains are wired this way.

But it’s not just on a personal level. We do this on a group level as well. Our brains have a bias in favor of people who are like us. It is very hard for us to take into account the experiences of people who are different. And this is especially true if we don’t have any contact with them. We can’t see things the way other people see them if we don’t know any other people. Our brains are also wired for safety including being part of a group, and so it is very hard for us to see things that our group doesn’t see. Doesn’t matter who our “group” is, we see what the group sees. We tend to see from the perspective of our friends and family, the perspective that is held by the people we follow on social media. We see things they way they see things. Our brains are wired this way. 

And naturally, we don’t challenge this. Another fundamental bias we have is to accept information that supports what we already believe. This phenomenon is so well-documented that it has a name: confirmation bias. If you go to Google to look something up and there are nine results that challenge what you think is true, and one result that confirms what you think is true, most likely, you will click on the one that confirms what you already believe. We all tend to stick with one or two news sources that interpret the world the same way we do, that tell the stories in the way we want to hear them. It keeps things simple. And our efficient brains are biased against complexity. We would rather hear a simple lie than a complex truth. Complexity bias and confirmation bias. Our brains are wired this way.

I could go on. In fact, if you want to hear more about the fascinating ways that our brains work, I recommend the podcast mini-series “Learning how to see” with Brian McLaren, Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis, and Father Richard Rohr. It was my inspiration for this series and will really get you thinking. Again it’s called “Learning how to see.” It helped me understand that our brains are wired for efficiency and safety, which means that we like things simple and we like to be right. We are going to see things in the way that requires the least effort from us, that confirms what we already think, that doesn’t challenge our opinion of ourselves, that affirms how we think and act, and that encourages us to stay in our safe groups. These are the biases that we all naturally have. Our brains are wired this way.

Friends, dear ones, we are part of the problem. We are the villains in this story. We are. We can’t help it. The very way that our minds work lead us to conclusions that are unexamined and uncharitable because we want things to be simple and and we want to feel safe. We are part of the problem. 

And yet, the Kingdom of God is neither simple nor safe. Participating in God’s plan to bring wholeness, shalom, peace, to all of creation is complex and frankly a little dangerous. Because it involves everyone in the world, if we do it right we will be sharing our lives with people who have vastly different experiences than ours. The problems of the world, the problems we have created, are complicated. They are messy. There are no simple solutions. And even when the right thing to do seems obvious, actually doing it challenging.

Which is why we need Pentecost. If we want to be expansive, as individuals and as a church, we desperately need the infilling of the Holy Spirit. We need the infinite creativity and courage that is imparted to us by the breath of the Divine if we are going to follow in the way of Jesus Christ. We have boundaries, within ourselves and around our groups, and the New Testament describes how Christ has come to remove all barriers. This is what happens at Pentecost. The followers of Jesus are expanded, sent into the world, filled with humility and boldness, empowered to move beyond simplicity and safety. That same infilling of the Holy Spirit, that same empowerment is available to us, to all who trust in God, so that we can move out of our simple and safe comfort zones, witnessing to our hope that another way of living is possible.

Next week we are going to talk about what it looks like for us to actually do that, here and now, so I know you’ll want to join us for that. But today I want us to end here and move to the Communion table. Because the ritual of celebrating the Lord’s Supper brings together what we’ve talked about this morning. At this table we admit that we are part of the problem. And we receive the empowerment that we need to become part of the solution. We face ourselves, our failures, our sins, unflinching, because we know that the point of seeing them is so that we can invite God to help us fix them. The message of the table is that we can change. Regardless of what we’ve done, regardless of what has been done to us, another way of living is possible through the love of God, the grace of Christ Jesus, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Which is why our ancestors in the faith have declared for hundreds of years that this is the joyful feast of the people of God, where folks of all ages, races, and sexes–people in every type of body– come from the north, south, east and west, and gather about Christ’s table. 

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