Let It Go! 01/21/18

Let It Go!
Texts: 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20
Rev. Heather M. Hinton
January 21, 2018 ~ Third Sunday After Epiphany


Laura climbed through an electric fence to save a woman who was being attacked by a 950-pound bull.

William scrambled into a burning car not once but three times to rescue strangers from a car crash.

Wesley left his two daughters, ages four and six, on a subway platform when he jumped onto the train tracks to save a man who had fallen while having a seizure. He covered the man with his own body and pressed them both into the space between the tracks as the train passed over them. [1]

What makes a hero, a hero? What goes through their mind at the moment when they decide to risk their own safety to save, or attempt to save, the life of another person? When Radio Lab hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich explored this question, they spoke with Robert Sapolsky, a neuroscientist at Stanford University. They asked: what made these people act in a split second while other stood by, doing nothing?

Sapolsky first told them what didn’t make them act.

They didn’t stand there and think it through, reason it out. They didn’t stop to wonder what the right thing to do was. They didn’t spend any time analyzing the possible consequences of acting. They just did the thing that was there to do. People don’t reason their way to a moral decision, Sapolsky explained. In fact, if you give people long enough in a situation like that, they will think their way out of doing anything at all. So they weren’t thinking their way to action.

Second, they weren’t feeling the other person’s pain – an experience we call empathy. If people are too empathetic, they will feel the pain too keenly and they will be afraid to move. We don’t rush towards pain. To ask people what they were feeling is to ask the wrong question. They weren’t feeling.

So what makes someone a hero, a hero? What turns an everyday person who doesn’t feel especially brave or moral or heroic do things that others don’t? The answer, Sapolsky says, is in what people say: “Before I knew it, I had stepped in to save a woman from being assaulted by a man with pruning shears.” [2] “Before I knew it, I had jumped into the ocean to save a woman and her two children who were caught in a riptide.” [3] There is something happening in the brains of heroes like these. They can’t name it or explain it, because it happens unconsciously and immediately.

Sapolsky says, “We don’t know a ton about the neurobiology of how a moral good” becomes a spontaneous and instantaneous act, but we know a ton about how that works in a much more mundane area” – when you’re learning something new.

When I was learning to drive, one of the things that was tricky for me was figuring out how to take a corner smoothly. It wasn’t that I couldn’t steer; I had that down pretty quickly. The beginning of the turn was fine: as I approached a corner, I would hit the brakes to slow down enough to take the curve at a safe speed. But you know that moment when you’re partially through the turn and you step on the accelerator just a little bit to get some momentum going to carry you through the rest of the turn? I remember clearly how terribly hard I had to think about that part every darn time. I can still hear my mom saying, “give it some gas, don’t slow down so much, step on the pedal!”

This is what’s called a declarative task. The hippocampus is talking to the frontal cortex and being very directive. “This is what’s about to happen and here’s what you’ll need to do…OK, here it comes, get ready, put your foot in place…feel the momentum of the car…there it is, this is the moment, give it some gas!” Step by specific step, part of our brain is working really hard and very consciously to tell other parts of our brain exactly what to do.

And then suddenly there came the day when I realized that I was easing into and out of turns smoothly without thinking about when to take my foot off the pedal and when to put it back on again. It just happened “before I knew it.” The explicit declarative task had become an implicit procedural task.

So it is with the people we call heroes. Doing the “right thing to do” is, for them, automatic.

“Follow me,” Jesus called out to Simon and Andrew, and immediately they left their nets and followed him.

“Follow me,” Jesus called out to James son of Zebedee and his brother John, and immediately they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.

As far as we can tell, they didn’t stop to discuss it or think about it. They didn’t reason it out. They hadn’t heard Jesus speak or teach, they hadn’t seen him perform any miracles, they hadn’t witnessed any healings or exorcisms, so they didn’t have any logical reason to follow him. They didn’t consider how they were going to make a living or what would become of their families, businesses, or property – such as it was. They didn’t weigh the consequences before they got up from their work.

According to Mark’s Gospel, they just acted, and they acted immediately.

It was automatic.

And wow, I have to say: I’m both envious and discouraged by that.

I’m envious because they got to meet Jesus in person. He chose them, he called to them. They got to hear his voice. They got to literally follow him.

I’m envious because they apparently had so little to encumber them. He called, and they could just pick up and leave. I don’t know what the circumstances were for them, but I can’t imagine picking up and leaving for a four-day vacation without making extensive plans, never mind leaving my whole life behind for who knows how long.

I’m envious because it seems like they’re just so…free. There’s nothing tying them to the life they had, up until that point, been living. Even James and John can leave their dad – there are apparently hired hands to take care of him.

And I’m envious because it seems like they’re just so…brave. They don’t know who this man is, they don’t know where he’s leading them or what he might get them into, but they follow. I’d like an itinerary, thank you. And maybe some personal references.

And I’m discouraged because I think about all of this and I think, “there’s no way I could be that brave. Or free. Or trusting. I would still be standing by my boat.”

In fact, when I’m honest, I know that I stand by my boat all the time. When I think about following Jesus, I think about all the reasons I shouldn’t. I tell myself that I don’t know how to follow him when he isn’t standing right in front of me. I worry that he’ll ask me to do something hard or scary. I run from the possibility that he might ask me to leave all that’s familiar and safe – not literally, not in the sense of leaving my family and running off to some faraway place, but more subtly: I might have to leave my comfort zone to try something new. I might have to encounter people I’d rather stay away from. I might have to sit down and pray for long enough to confront my own pain, fears, sorrow, confusion, and doubt. I might have to do something I can’t even imagine.

So I cling to all that I know, all that’s familiar and safe, my hands clenching those things so tightly that grasping Jesus’ hand is hard, maybe even impossible.

I want to be like Simon and Andrew, James and John. I want following Jesus to move from being an explicit declaratory task to an implicit procedural task! I want Jesus to call me. I want to follow him – in the ways I can in 2018, not in person, obviously, but still following him – and I want that following to be automatic. I want to stop thinking about all the ways it might be hard, I want to stop feeling scared or reluctant and just go.

And then I remember a couple of things. First, I remember that Jesus has called me. And Jesus has called you. And we have heard, and we are answering. We have gotten up and we are following. Our steps might be halting and awkward and we might get lost now and then, but we are doing all we can to follow him. We’re sitting here in church, thinking about him and praying and singing, and by doing so we’re doing some of what it takes to follow him. And that’s not nothing!

Second, I remember that although the gospels make it sound like it was easy for the disciples to follow Jesus, it wasn’t. They doubted, they feared, they denied, they disobeyed, they missed the point. They were, in other words, human. And it’s ok that I am too, and that you are too.

Finally, I wonder: has following Jesus become automatic? If James and John and Simon and Andrew had to let go of their nets and their boats and their father and their whole way of life, what do I have to let go of in order to follow Jesus?

Friends, this is what I’m hearing the Gospel say to me today, and maybe it’s saying something similar to you:

“Stop making it so complicated. It’s not complicated at all. ‘Keep it simple,’ as Paul says. Live the way Jesus taught you to live. And when you forget, find other disciples to remind you. Serve your neighbor, offer help to those who are poor, fight for just systems, stand up for those who are oppressed, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless. Let go of all of the reasons you don’t do those things; let it go. And do it now; stop putting it off, because, as Paul also says, ‘time is of the essence.’”

And if that’s still too complicated, too hard to follow, then make it simpler still. Maybe repeat the refrain of Eastlake Community Church in Seattle: “life is a gift and love is the point.”

And keep repeating it until it becomes automatic. Because eventually, with practice, it will.

Thanks be to God.

[1] To hear about these stories and about Dr. Sapolsky’s analysis of them, visit the Radio Lab website: http://www.radiolab.org/story/how-be-hero/

[2] Robin Ireland.

[3] Frank B. Conselman.

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