Did you see the gorilla?
A famous psychological study in 1999 asked participants to watch a brief video of two groups of people passing basketballs —some dressed in white, some in black. The participants were instructed to count the passes among the players dressed in white. The correct answer was fifteen passes. Most people got this right, and thought they passed the test. Then the researchers asked, “Did you see the gorilla?”
During the video a person in a gorilla suit had walked in and out of the scene thumping its chest. A full 50% of participants did not notice the gorilla. To this day the infamous “invisible gorilla” study is a premier example of what is called "inattentional blindness.” And I wrote this sermon before hearing Jurgen’s last week, but his own “Good Samaritan” study happened to lead right up to this. Inattentional blindness results from focusing so hard on one thing that you cannot see the unexpected, even when staring right at it. One of the researchers behind the invisible gorilla study, Daniel Simons, remarked that "although people do still try to rationalize why they missed the gorilla, it's hard to explain such a failure of awareness without confronting the possibility that we are aware of far less of our world than we think.”
I think we all tend keep our eyes on the ball; I know I do—on whatever task is next on the list, whatever insecurity is raising its nasty head, whatever comment or person or happenstance is helping or hindering our current plan. This focus on the ball is not a bad thing; without it we would not have won the World Cup this month. But I think that God is like the gorilla. When God shows up, it’s sane to let the ball drop.
Our scripture readings today all have in common an appearance of God, what is known in theology as a theophany. The Angel of the Lord with two messengers appears to Abraham with good news. Jesus comes as friend and teacher to Mary and Martha. And St. Paul describes how “the image of the invisible God” came to transform the Colossians.
If we don’t want these kind of inbreakings of God to pass us by, we have to be intentional, to keep our eyes wide open. We must prepare for the inbreaking of God, we must notice it; and we must respond by seeking to become an appearance of God’s love.
The first step is to make room in our lives for God to appear. This is largely a cognitive shift, the quality of becoming open-minded.
If a modern skeptic were transported back to Abraham’s side when the three heavenly beings arrived, would she see them? Frankly I think not. The uncomfortable fact is, most of what we see depends on our preconceived perception of what we will see. A fervent believer may retort, “But how could anyone not see three forms corporeal enough to eat with Abraham?”. And my response is, “Did you see the gorilla?”
I believe that as people of God, we have a unique responsibility to stretch our minds open. We must soften our focus to perceive what others do not. Just as a painter or an architect sees the world differently from an ordinary person, so should a Christian. Paul wrote that we should “be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” I don’t think that only was a pretty way of recommending more virtuous thoughts, though it may be that. I believe he meant we are to literally perceive the world differently, perceive it as alive, as art, shimmering with divine glory. For those with impaired sight, this means more richly opening to God and the world through your other senses.
The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber wrote, “This is the eternal origin of art: that a human being confronts a form that wants to become a work through him. Not a figment of his soul but something that appears to the soul and demands the soul's creative power. What is required is a deed that one does with one’s whole being.”
The transcendent, the holy, the numinous is ever breaking into our mundane world. But if we can’t recognize those moments, if we can’t incorporate the utterly unexpected into our lives, we risk missing out on God.
I think for many of us the hardest part of being spiritually open-minded is not any supposed clash with modern science. Instead it is simply hard for us to believe that God cares. That God cares about you. God cares about your problems, your suffering—your soul. That the Creator of the universe feels personal joy when you become more fully alive. The most pervasive and sinister doubt may be simply, “Why would God appear to me?”
It’s hard to convince someone by rational argument that God cares. It seems we become more open to the possibility that God cares when we see that someone cares. But I’m skipping ahead.
What’s important to note here is that God showed up for Abraham and Sarah, for Mary and Martha, and for Paul and the believers at Colossae, in different form but with the same remarkable interest in their personal affairs. God cared whether Abraham had a son. God cared whether Martha felt overwhelmed. God cared whether the Colossians were distant from the peace that only God can bring. As our hearts open to love, our minds naturally begin to open to truth as well.
Next, when we have prepared ourselves by opening our minds and hearts, we must learn to notice when God appears.
The invisible, guiding hand of God, becoming visible through our lived circumstance, has long been called Providence. Since 1951, however, when Carl Jung coined the term “synchronicity,” many prefer that term, which still connotes that our little lives can be eerily meaningful, but doesn’t require wrestling with G-o-d. Whatever term you use, I don’t think being observant about how God is moving in your life is some spiritual practice aside from being attentive in general.
The late 15th-century mystic and nurse Catherine of Genoa wrote, “God loves us so much that although he sees us so blind and deaf to our own advantage, yet he does not for that reason cease to knock continually at our hearts by his holy inspirations, that he may so enter and make therein tabernacles for himself.”
God will keep knocking. God will keep showing up. The only question is, will we keep missing God?
In our Gospel reading, Jesus told Martha she was “distracted by many things.” To her mind, she was focused, she had her eyes on the ball; her sister was the distracted one. But Jesus made clear that when God shows up, what is important changes. What is possible changes.
Martha often gets a bad rap as the one that can’t relax, who doesn’t realize that Jesus is more important than the dishes. But a bit of context is helpful. For a woman to sit at a rabbi’s feet as a student was unheard of. It’s likely that Martha thought Mary was being impertinent to listen to teachings directly from Jesus, and was worried that Jesus was affronted. Perhaps Martha was trying to be respectful by staying in the kitchen, as Sarah had when the heavenly messengers showed up. Instead, Jesus invited Martha not only to rest, as the passage is often preached, but also to take on a role of spiritual student not usually available to her. Before Martha could sit in Jesus’s presence, she had to incorporate a new sense of what was possible. She had to open her mind. And before she could serve with her heart in the right place, she had to sit in Jesus’s presence.
How can we be Christ in the world if we have not sat with Christ? How can we love if we have not experienced love? How can we bring peace if we do not feel peace?
Only then can we rightfully seek the last step, to become to someone an appearance of God in this world. This last one I struggle with the most. Being contemplative , I fancy I see God everywhere. However, it’s difficult for me to engage the world in a way that evokes the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, especially when I’m anxious, confused, and sleep-deprived.
I’m comforted that Paul in our reading from Colossians describes Jesus as the one in whom “all things hold together.” Jesus holds together the holy and the ordinary, rest and service, hope and pain. Jesus is both and Jesus commands both.
As I’ve mentioned here before, I like to go to the Cathedral of Christ the Light in Oakland, to walk down to the mausoleum, down the long marble hallway past the coffins, where I inevitably weep as I pray to the life-size crucifix. I call this macabre habit simply “visiting Jesus.” While I feel comforted there, that I have a God that loved us enough to enter bodily into our sufferings, I also feel a desire to comfort Jesus. Down there so alone looks as if he is just about to cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”. So I tell him how it ends: “You’re going to resurrect! God is going to exalt you above all the other powers! You’re going to reconcile back to God everything in heaven and earth!” And I feel him saying, “Thank you. You’re going to resurrect too.”
If you’ll recall though, when Jesus did resurrect, not even his friends recognized him.
Several years after the original “invisible gorilla” study, when the video had gone viral, the researchers released a new video with different actors. I recently watched this video and like everyone else congratulated myself that I saw the gorilla. But it turns out that this video, as well as a gorilla appearance, also has the background curtain change from red to gold, and one of the players walk off stage. This I did not notice. Because I was looking for a gorilla.
I would like to close with a quote from Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy: “The mystery is experienced in its essential, positive, and specific character, as something that bestows upon man a beatitude beyond compare. . . . It gives the peace that passes understanding, and of which the tongue can only stammer brokenly. . . . ‘Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.’”
I don’t want to miss that.
This week, perhaps you’ll like to reflect on how God has appeared in your life. When and where have you seen “the image of the invisible God”? How have you reflected—and failed to reflect—that image to others? And how is God trying to make Himself known to you now? Did you see the gorilla? It walked by while I was preaching. I’m just kidding.
Let us pray.
God, please forgive us for not noticing you. We’ve passed you by, perhaps because you did not appear as we expected. Make us sensitive to your presence, to your working in our lives and the lives of those around us. Nourish us with your holy love, that we might be your presence and do your work. In the name of Jesus, Amen.