Wisdom, Children, Guns

March 4th, 2018

Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

I think my Grammy Clifton was a wise woman. She lived on an 80-acre farm in western Nebraska with my Grampy, who she called Glenn.  I have particular memories of her; how she’d say over their “party telephone line: “Now Betsy, I know you’re on there.  Why don’t you hang up and let us finish our conversation.”

I remember how she’d, from the comfort of her lawn-chair near the house, ask one of my older cousins, someone a bit more farm handy than I, to grab her a hen. She’d take that hen by the head, whirl it around, and send the body flying across the yard, where we’d chase the headless bird until it dropped. Then a cousin would bring it to her and she’d begin pulling off the feathers.

But what I remember most about this wise woman, was how she listened. She had this way about her that seemed truly interested in what I, or anyone, had to say. And then, inevitably she would find joy in the exchange.  She always laughed.  She loved to laugh.

Even after she and Grampy had moved into the old folks’ home, and after her stroke and she was wheelchair bound, with her face sagging a little bit, and words difficult to understand, she laughed.  She loved to laugh. She was a fount of joy.

My Grammy’s wisdom was not the wisdom of the world, though she had been a school teacher, and a Sunday school teacher, and she knew what to do with a chicken. Her smarts ran deeper, beyond knowing about stuff, to what Paul in his 1st Letter to the Corinthians calls the power of God.

The Bible talks about two kinds of wisdom, gnosis and epinosis.  They sound alike, don’t they, gnosis and epinosis, so I’ll try to enunciate so as not to muddle this sermon. Gnosis is the knowledge of stuff and how stuff works.  Epinosis is the knowledge of the power of God.

I want to talk about gnosis and epinosis today because there is a lot going on in the world, and having a bit more wisdom may be helpful in navigating this uncertain, polarizing time. I believe at the confluence of gnosis and epinosis God is doing a new thing right now; and I believe we are being called to both understand what is happening and to point to the power of God in our midst.

A while back, I was at the department of motor vehicles (DMV) renewing my driver’s license.  The place was packed.  As I surveyed the room, I noticed what seemed to be an unusually high number of young people there with their parents.  It was school day, so this struck me as odd.  I had a while to observe, and what I noticed was that these children were acting as their parents’ interpreters.

The children had the gnosis.  They were native English speakers, while the parents were not.  I often feel like that when dealing with the digital world.  My children are the native speakers, and I am the immigrant.  They have the gnosis full and complete, while I only have it in part.

This is generally not how things should be. The younger should learn from the elder. (Am I right?) Gnosis is acquired over time. And yet, in this brave new world of digital dialogue the pattern has been turned up-side-down. Which is why I suspect God is doing a new thing, but we’ll get back to that in a minute.

First, let me say something about epinosis. It is the opposite of gnosis. It is an inherent wisdom often made most apparent in the lives of children. And yet, as our children grow up the associations and allegiances and habits of thought that accompany the acquisition of the knowledge of stuff can cause the clarity of epinosis to fade.

In other words, as they work to accumulate their own knowledge, they can, if not carefully guided, find that they have unwittingly walled themselves off from the wisdom of God. That is true today, and it was true 2,000 years ago, which is why Jesus warns us not to put stumbling blocks in front of children. In fact, he implores us to be more like them.

Throughout the Gospel of Matthew, in particular, we see how Jesus attaches wisdom to the perspective of children. Jesus says: “Wisdom is vindicated by her children.” (Matt 11) He says: “Good seed produces children of the kingdom of God.” (Matt 13) He says: “Unless you change and become like a little child you will never enter the kingdom of God.” (Matt 18) He says: “The kingdom of God belongs to the children.” (Matt 19)

So what do we have here? Well first, we hear that “wisdom is vindicated by her children.” This teaching sets a foundation for how to assess the impact of wisdom…that it is measured by future fruits, by future results. In other words, epinosis, in particular, can only be valued retrospectively. The potency of the power of God is measured by the abundance of the crop yielded from the seeds sown at some past point.  Which is why Jesus says: “Good seed produces children of the Kingdom of God.”

And then he ties it together saying: “Unless you change and become like a little child you will never enter the Kingdom of God.”    Because “the Kingdom of God belongs to the children.”

And so, children reside in the kingdom of God both because of the knowledge of God inherently hardwired into their humanity and because they have yet to be compromised by their allegiances and associations and habits of thought.

Which brings us back to my belief that through our children we are now witnessing God doing a new thing in our midst. There are times, very rare times, I believe when the knowledge of children, their gnosis, overlaps with their knowledge of the power of God, their epinosis, in a way that brings cultural transformation.  We may be sitting at the confluence of one of those moments, as we witness the leadership of the children from Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland Florida. As digital natives, they have gnosis. As children, they are still in touch with their epinosis; unvarnished by associations and allegiances and habits of thought.

There are many people, powerful people, who are chasing after these children looking to bind them to particular associations and allegiances, and that will happen; but my prayer is not before the power of God, the foolish power of God, as Paul calls it in his Letter to the Corinthians, changes the hearts of this nation.

Not much happened after San Bernadino, or Newtown, or Aurora, or Las Vegas, or Sutherland Springs. There were 347 mass shootings in 2017, killing and injuring 2239 people. In 2016, there were 383 mass shootings killing and injuring 1993 people. In 2015, there were 333 mass shootings killing and injuring 1695 people.

This list goes on. If you are hearing these words, right now, as Doyt getting political, I want to ask you: How do 5,927 deaths and injuries from 1,063 mass shootings in 3 years count as a political statement? Would a child consider those numbers a political statement  or something else… like a crisis?

Maybe Parkland was the tipping point.  I don’t know. More likely just the next generation seeing that our generation wasn’t going to do anything about this, and deciding that they have the knowledge to act, the gnosis, based on their inherent knowledge of the power of God, the epinosis.

As immigrants to this brave new world of digital dialogue faced with a crisis that is killing people, how do we act? How do we connect? How do we respond?

I am mindful of my Grammy as I reflect upon these questions. She listened. We must listen. I suggest four ways of doing so. We listen to the context from which the voices are spoken. We listen to our own lives. We listen to the children. And we listen to Jesus.

First, we listen to context. Hearing context is way more important than hearing words spoken, or plans made. Context tells us something about the associations  and allegiances and habits of thought. Ranchers use guns as a tool.  My Grampy did. He shot foxes, and skunks, and weasels. Hunters feed their family, or just enjoy the hunt itself. Bi-athletes test their body. Militia men fear the Government. Religious fanatics anticipate the apocalypse.

Context matters. Listen to the context more than the words said. Then listen to your own life. What is your context? What relationships impact your way of thinking? What allegiances are you beholden to?  How do they compromise your ability to hear others? What walls have you built around yourself that keep you from hearing the wisdom of God?

Then, with clarity around your own context, listen to the children. That is what the principal at Hamlin Robinson middle school here in Seattle did. Students came to her and ask if they could honor those who died at Parkland High School by having 17 minutes of silence at their school assembly. So they did. I wonder what those middle schoolers were listening for in those 17 minutes? I wonder what they heard? The power of God? Epinosis from their elders?

Finally, listen to Jesus. What would Jesus say about mass murder in America?

This is not a political question. This is a question concerning the power of God. This is a Christian question, and as Christians seeking epinosis we must wonder how would Jesus respond to the crisis we are facing right now?

I suspect Jesus wouldn’t answer our question, rather, he would ask a question: “What would a child do? What would a child decide?”