Unlearn What You Have Learned

Sermon for Sunday, April 3, 2022 || Lent 5C || Philippians 3:4b-14

Last week we talked about beginning again. I want to stay with that theme this week and talk about a fundamental piece of beginning again. This fundamental piece is the action of “unlearning.” Sometimes we learn something wrong (or at least incompletely), and we operate under that wrongness so long that it seems right due only to longevity. When we recognize this, the mature step is to unlearn what we have learned, and this means beginning again.

When I was writing this sermon, I accidentally quoted Yoda in what I just said, so I figure I might as well just present the whole scene from The Empire Strikes Back to set up this sermon. (I haven’t used any Star Wars references yet this year!) Luke Skywalker is deep in his training with Master Yoda on the planet of Dagobah. Luke is doing a handstand while levitating rocks, but then R2-D2 whistles a warning, and Luke loses his concentration. Artoo was warning him that his X-Wing starfighter is sinking completely into the swamp.

“We’ll never get it out now,” Luke says.

So certain are you,” Yoda says. “Always with you it cannot be done. Hear you nothing that I say?”

Luke has already given up. “Master, moving stones around is one thing. This is totally different.”

“No!” Yoda says emphatically. “No different! Only different in your mind. You must unlearn what you have learned.”

But Luke can’t shake the idea that it’s impossible to use the Force to lift something so big. He tries to lift the ship and, predictably, fails. “I can’t,” he pants. “It’s too big.”

But Yoda isn’t through with him. The Jedi Master pushes him to unlearn what he has learned. “Size matters not. Judge me by my size, do you? Hm? Mmmm.”

Then Yoda lifts the X-Wing from the swamp. No problem.

Each of us is confronted time and again with opportunities to unlearn things we either think we know or else that we take for granted and don’t think about much at all. I’ve talked before in sermons about confronting my own privilege – how an overlapping set of identities insulates me from many of the hardships faced by people for whom society has not applied such privilege. Such unlearning is tough and ongoing and touches every facet of life. And such unlearning is essential for moving about the world in ways that promote justice, equity, and peace.

The Apostle Paul tackles a similar unlearning in his letter to the Philippians. “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more,” he begins. And then he ticks off all the ways he has seen himself as privileged and important. But he shares the list for one reason only – so he can dump it in the trash.

Paul says this next: “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”

Paul’s relationship with Jesus enabled Paul to unlearn what his society told him was important, all those overlapping privileges that Paul had been clinging to. Throughout his life, and even in his death, Jesus challenged the priorities of his day and helped his followers unlearn them. He ate with tax collectors and sinners, the proverbial outcasts of his society. He centered his ministry not on the wealthy and powerful, but on those whom society said were not worthy of blessing. One of the main behaviors that dumbfounded Jesus’ critics was his insistence that everyone mattered, and he showed it by remaining in proximity with those society said mattered not at all.

As followers of Jesus, we can enter the same reality that made Paul reject his societal accolades in favor of a relationship with Jesus. We can unlearn what we have learned about who matters most. We can reject the version of reality that white supremacy grows in us like a cancer. We can reject the hierarchy that keeps women from earning as much as men. We can reject the myth that poor people are lazy when they’re working three jobs and still can’t move forward. We can reject the talking points shouting the lie that transgender youth are causing harm to their cisgendered classmates.

Unlearning such ingrained ideologies is not easy because the minute we start questioning them, the building blocks of our realities start to shift under our feet. At first we feel like everything is going to collapse around us, and so we fall back to a safer position and the earthquake stops. We’re like Luke Skywalker giving up after trying to lift the X-Wing, allowing one failed attempt to convince us the whole business was silly to begin with.

But that’s precisely the moment we need to listen to Yoda…and to Jesus. And to begin again, knowing this time the ground will shift beneath us. But it’s not collapsing; it’s rearranging. Rearranging into a foundation that is more truthful and more just; rearranging away from a worldview steeped in a story that privileges the power of a few; rearranging toward a worldview that widens the bounds of who matters to include everyone Jesus loves. Which, if you’re keeping score, is everyone, especially those whom society has never privileged.

To take on this mission of unlearning and rearranging, we have to begin again in another way, as well. We have to let go the old Puritan work ethic that tells us the reason we do good works like these is so that God will love us and welcome us into heaven. Staying in this mindset recenters such work back on us and what we get out of it, rather than helping to realign society to reflect Jesus’ priorities, apart from our own bottom lines. 

Paul’s words to the Philippians help here too. Paul says, “For [Jesus’] sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.”

The phrase ‘but one that comes through faith in Christ’ can also be translated ‘through the faith of Christ.’ In other words, Christ’s own faith propels us towards righteousness, that is, right relationships with each other and with God. Christ believes in us, no matter how many times we fling ourselves back into old learnings. And through the faith of Christ, we can find a steady foundation when everything we thought we knew is rattling apart. We do not earn righteousness by doing good works. Rather, we work for a more just society because our faithful Christ is always and forever bringing us into a deeper revelation of right relationship.

This week, I invite you to join this spiritual discipline with me. Listen to Yoda and unlearn what you have learned. And when the ground starts to shake beneath your feet, remember you have a sure foundation built on Jesus Christ, who, as Paul tells us, has made us his own.

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