I Don’t Know (Third Base!)

Sermon for Sunday, September 27, 2020 || Proper 21A || Matthew 21:23-32

There are a lot of contenders for most famous comedy routine of all time. There’s Monty Python’s Dead Parrot sketch or perhaps, “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!” There’s the cheeseburger skit from the early days of Saturday Night Live. There’s George Carlin’s seven words you can never say on TV (which are also words I won’t say in a sermon). But they all fall short of one comedy routine, the absolute pinnacle: the baseball routine of Abbott and Costello, commonly called “Who’s on first.” The Yankees have some players with very strange names, and as Abbott teaches the players to Costello, Costello gets increasingly confused and frustrated.

Abbott begins by telling him the infielders: “Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know’s on third.”

They go round and round trying to drill into Costello’s head that “Who” is the name of the first baseman. It devolves pretty quickly into exchanges like this one:

Costello: What’s the guy’s name on first base?
Abbott: No. What is on second.
Costello: I’m not asking you who’s on second.
Abbott: Who’s on first.
Costello: I don’t know.
Abbott: He’s on third, we’re not talking about him.
Costello: Now how did I get on third base?
Abbott: Why you mentioned his name.
Costello: If I mentioned the third baseman’s name, who did I say is playing third?
Abbott: No. Who’s playing first.
Costello: What’s on first?
Abbott: What’s on second.
Costello: I don’t know.
Abbott: He’s on third.
Costello: There I go, back on third again!

As the skit progresses they keep ending up on third base every time Costello says “I don’t know,” and he says it a lot, more and more aggravating each time. It’s hilarious. Even reading the transcript in your head will make you laugh out loud. 

I was thinking about the chief priests and elders in today’s Gospel lesson when Abbott and Costello popped into my head. That’s just how my brain works – it likes making biblical connections to Star Wars or, apparently, 20th-century comedy legends. We’ll get back to the chief priests in a minute. Let’s stay on third base for now. Within the context of the comedy routine, Costello’s willingness to say, “I don’t know,” is the wheel on which the whole sketch turns. Costello is trying to learn the very strange names of the players, and every time Abbott runs through their names, Costello ends up saying, “I don’t know.”

These three little words teach us humility and grant us to the ability to stay open and curious to the world around us. I was never very comfortable saying “I don’t know”: I wanted to be seen as someone who had the answers. That is, until my kids started talking. The kinds of questions children ask don’t often have readily accessible answers, so I started saying “I don’t know” a lot. The posture of “I don’t know” is the posture of a seeker – someone who asks deep questions more often than repeating pat answers. 

You’ll notice that Jesus resists the urge to answer people’s questions throughout the Gospel. Instead he tells parables like in today’s passage. The parables respond to questions by placing the questioner inside the parables’ story worlds. “A man has two sons,” Jesus says. And his listener thinks, “I have two sons” or “I have a sibling,” and the listener realizes the parable is about them, about everyone. In telling the stories of the parables, Jesus expands our ability to be curious. The parables are confusing, enigmatic – like the players’ names in the Baseball Sketch. They’re designed to allow us to say, “I don’t know – but I want to learn more, yearn more, discern more.”

Jesus responds with a parable in today’s Gospel reading after the chief priests say, “We do not know.” But there’s a bit of nuance here. Often Jesus’ opponents in the Gospel make absolutely true statements and do not realize it. The chief priests’ “We do not know” is a completely accurate response to Jesus’ question. It is true. But it is made from a place of political calculation, rather than genuine openness. Jesus asks them about the baptism of John out in the River Jordan. They calculate the best response, and they can’t find it. They think Jesus has painted them into a corner. And then – unbeknownst to them – the chief priests give the best response anyway, which is “We do not know.”

In a world that believes power is derived from both information and opinions masquerading as fact, admitting that we don’t know something  has become a profoundly countercultural action. And a profoundly faithful one. That might sound odd to your ears – saying I don’t know as a statement of faith. But it is a statement of faith. The opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty. Certainty hardens into rigidity to the point where we are incapable of saying, “I don’t know.” We have answers for everything, which means we’ve stopped seeking, stopped yearning, stopped growing. And when we become rigid, our answers easily metastasize into judgments.

There is a brilliant new TV show on AppleTV+ called Ted Lasso about a relentlessly friendly American football coach hired to skipper an English Premier League soccer team. It’s hilarious and heartfelt and thoughtful, and I highly recommend it. In a recent episode, Ted offers some words he lives by that are commonly attributed to 19th-century poet Walt Whitman. He says, “Be curious, not judgmental.”

I like that. Be curious, not judgmental. Being curious is the posture that allows for statements like Costello’s “I don’t know” and the rush of discovery that comes with seeking. Being judgmental assumes we’ve got everything figured out and now must contort the world to fit our particular set of answers. Which would we rather choose? Discovery or contortion? Being curious opens us up. Being judgmental shuts us down. There’s only one life-giving choice, the path of curiosity, the path of “I don’t know.”

The chief priests can’t decide between two judgments, so they stumble into curiosity, and Jesus takes full advantage of their accidental openness. Imagine how much more fully Jesus can transform our lives and then we can transform our society when we pray for that openness to be our default position. 

Here are a few ways we can practice expansive curiosity. We can actively seek out experiences of the world that are unlike our own, starting with books, films, or podcasts. We can wonder why the systems of the world function as they do and seek to understand the history that has led to this present moment. In conversation, we can say, “Tell me a story about that,” when someone activates the part of us that is always ready to judge. In prayer, we can sit with our hands spread wide or held open, using our bodies to model how we desire our hearts and minds to be.

Too many of the loudest religious people in our day slip too easily towards rigid judgments. We can model a different approach, one that begins with an open “I don’t know” and then enters into the life and stories of Jesus to seek and serve, to lose and find, to play and imagine. So be curious, not judgmental. Be curious like Lou Costello, who tries for a full six minutes to figure out the names of the made-up Yankees. But stop short of the punchline of the routine, where Costello gets too frustrated and says, “Why? I don’t know. He’s on third, and I don’t give a darn!” (“Oh, that’s our shortstop!”) Because we do give a darn. We do care. And with God’s help, our collective curiosity will lead to a more open, inclusive, understanding, loving, peaceful, and just society.

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