Sermon for Sunday, October 17, 2021 || Proper 24B || Job 38:1-7
Before I matured into adulthood in my early thirties, there was a trio of words I don’t think I ever said. I said them individually in other contexts, of course, but never in a certain order. Those words were, “I don’t know.” I think I never said these words in this particular order for a couple reasons. First, I was young and stupid and thought I knew everything. And second, my entire identity was wrapped up in being the person who knew the answer. Over my 19 years of school, I cultivated that identity. I wanted it. I needed it. I relished whenever my classmates’ eyes swiveled in my direction. To say, “I don’t know,” would have stabbed me in the very core of who I thought I was.
Then, in the years following seminary, three things happened that helped me disassemble this identity and try on a new one – one that was comfortable at saying, “I don’t know.” First, I participated in Godly Play storyteller training. This is the method of formation we offer to our young ones here at St. Mark’s, and I am a huge devotee of Godly Play. At the end of Godly Play stories, the storyteller asks a series of “wondering questions.” These questions are designed to be open-ended and imaginative. There is no right answer; there are only creative responses that help the children dive deeper into the story. Practicing the art of wondering helped me begin to let go of the know-it-all identity.
Second, I participated in a preaching class a few years into my priesthood, and this class completely changed my outlook on preaching. Before the class, I approached preaching as a venue to display my expertise over a certain subject matter. (If you go back and read my early sermons, it’s painfully obvious that my main goal is not to preach the gospel but to prove how smart I am.) The preaching class dismantled brick-by-brick this view of preaching. Displaying expertise did exactly the opposite of what I should have been trying to do because it taught the people in the pews that they couldn’t possibly share the story of the faith because they weren’t “experts.” Once I let go of the need to prove my expertise, my preaching got more relatable, and I let go of the know-it-all identity a little bit more.
Third, my kids were born. If there’s a better nail in the coffin of a know-it-all identity than having kids, I can’t think of it. From the moment I first held the twins,I realized deep down that I knew absolutely nothing. At long last, at the age of thirty-one, I started getting comfortable saying, “I don’t know,” and now they’re three of my favorite words to say.
The way I felt holding my babies for the first time is, I think, the way Job felt when God spoke to him from the whirlwind. Job and his conversation partners have been waxing poetic about all sorts of topics for thirty plus chapters (mainly the topics of life, death, and suffering). They go round and round…and round and round…when the best thing they could have done was just sit silently with Job in his grief. By the beginning of chapter 38, Job et al have finally run out of words, and God takes a turn on stage.
And for the next 123 verses, God reminds Job (and us readers) of all the things Job does not know, simply could never know.
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?”
If you ask me, God’s being a little snarky here. That notwithstanding, for four chapters God drives God’s point home. You barely know enough to recognize the mere existence of all the wonders and mysteries of Creation. By the end of God’s speech, Job is appropriately chastened. We’ll hear Job’s reply next Sunday, but here’s a sneak peek. Job says, “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”
How beautiful are those three little words: “I don’t know!” They ground us in humility. They open us up to new experiences. They keep us from getting too stuck in our biases and our presumed knowledge. Saying “I don’t know” is the key to curiosity. And curiosity keeps us learning and growing.
When Jesus speaks with the Pharisee Nicodemus in John Chapter 3, Jesus intentionally leads him along conversational pathways that Nicodemus has never been down before. Finally, Nicodemus says, “How can these things be?” This version of “I don’t know” opens him to Jesus’ message and mission. Over the course of the Gospel, Nicodemus’ life changes and he becomes a follower of Jesus – all because he was able to say, “I don’t know.”
We can follow Job’s and Nicodemus’s examples when we embrace saying, “I don’t know.” Instead of assuming knowledge of another’s experience; instead of bluffing our way through; instead of trying to squash everything new into the same old thought boxes, we can choose the freedom of saying, “I don’t know.” And then we can get curious.
That is how we grow as people. That is how we grow in our faith. Every one one of us has new neural pathways just begging to be trailblazed. When I let go my need to know everything, I started getting curious again. My brain had grown sluggish for lack of input. But then I started reading and reading and reading. And new worlds opened up to me: worlds of experience I could not have conceived of before. We grow as people and as followers of Jesus whenever our curiosity sparks us to learn from the experiences of others because their experience makes us more compassionate, more ready to serve in responsible ways, more open to the many and varied ways God is moving throughout creation.
So the next time you say, “I don’t know,” remember those three little words do not mark us as stupid or uninformed. They mark us as fertile ground ready for new knowledge to be planted. They mark us as humble in the face of a magnificent and mysterious universe. They mark us as children of God, who are always ready to listen, to learn, and to follow.