The Limits of Our Senses 2024 (sermon)

March 31, 2024

First Unitarian Universalist Society Burlington

I am indebted to an episode of Radio Lab for inspiration for pieces of this sermon.

If you grew up familiar with the Christian Bible, you may remember that the story goes that when Jesus died and before he ascended to heaven, he visited with his disciples and followers.  Do you remember what happened?  When we look at all of the gospels as they relate the miracle of Jesus walking the earth after the crucifixion, we see many stories of human senses not fully taking in all that is there. 

In Matthew, Jesus appears to Mary Magdelene. She mistakes him as a gardener and perhaps the person who removed her teacher’s dead body.  At another point, the disciples, while fishing, encounter a man, but do not know him as Jesus until he performs a miracle.  In Luke, there is the story of Jesus eating with his followers, demonstrating his flesh and bone reality, not some spiritual haunting or hallucination.  And of course, in John’s Gospel, there is the story of doubting Thomas, who cannot trust the senses of his eyes, and must touch Jesus’ wounds.

I think about that time of bone-deep sorrow, what it must have been like to lose your savior, to lose the one to whom you had given your heart and your hope.  Of course, because of this somewhat odd focus on three, we think that sorrow must have lasted three days, for ~ as the story goes ~ on the third day Jesus was raised from the dead.

Yet, we can see in the stories from the gospels that the sorrow, the disbelief, the lack of perceiving what had happened, continued.  Continued, because Jesus didn’t appear to everyone everywhere at the exact same time but also because even when Jesus did appear, people didn’t necessarily perceive Jesus.  They had their eyesight, but couldn’t see him.  They had their hearing, but could not always discern the voice of their Beloved.

There are limits to our senses.

William Gladstone was British Prime Minister in the 1800s and a huge fan of the Greek writer, Homer.  Gladstone was a particularly keen fan of the Iliad and the Odyssey, both written at the end of the 8th century BCE – that’s about 2800 years ago, give or take. 

At some point in his reading of these ancient Greek texts, he noticed that some of the references seemed to be to his modern eye – pun intended – off color: wine-dark sea and wine-colored oxen or honey as green and sheep’s wool as dark violet.     He embarked on an analysis of the references to colors in the text.  So he culled the whole text for references to colors and discovered that there were 170 mentions of black and 100 times white.  He also noted that the color red was mentioned only thirteen times while both yellow and green, fewer than 10 times.  And blue? 

Blue?  Oh, yoohoo: blue?  Not at all. 

This piqued Gladstone’s curiosity.  He looked at other classic Greek texts and found this to be true, as well: no blue.  Ten years later, Lazarus Geiger, a scholar of ancient texts beyond those just of Greece, found this oddity to be true not only in ancient Greek texts, but in texts from Iceland, from China, ancient Vedic hymns, and even in the Bible in the original Hebrew: no blue.  Not only was there no blue, even the sky was not blue. 

Intrigued, Geiger did an analysis of many ancient literatures, looking to trace the developmental emergence of color terms.  He found that all ancient languages began with black and white. The order at which other color terms were acquired was not entirely random. Next came red, consistently across all languages, then yellow, next green, and then blue.  There is some variation as more languages were studied – remember, Geiger did his study in the 1800s – but what still held true across all languages is that red comes third (after black and white) and blue is always last. 

It turns out that only those cultures who had access to blue in nature –which is actually an extremely rare color to be found organically – and had the capacity to develop blue as a dye also had the capacity to develop a term for that color.  In ancient times, there was only one culture with the technology to make blue dye: the Egyptians.  And they are the only ones with a word for blue.

So hold onto that piece of literary analysis as I share with you a bit of science as it relates to color.

Dogs have eyes that perceive not only black and white, but also blue and yellow. 

Scientists figured this out and have been able to label the structures in the eyes that facilitate this capacity.  It turns out that dogs have two color cones – that blue and yellow capacity.  So if a dog looked at a rainbow, it would see two colors – blue and green, a tiniest bit of yellow trickling off at the end: half as thick as the one we humans see because we have three color cones (blue and yellow, plus red), allowing us to see seven colors in the rainbow.

What about a sparrow?  It has ultraviolet vision and a sharper sense of red, so its rainbow would start before ours and end later than ours.  Butterflies have five or six color receptors.   With twice as many as our three human receptors, they do not see twice as much as we do, but exponentially more.  Yet, butterflies are not animals with the most receptors: that honor belongs to an animal called the mantis shrimp. 

It has not two like a dog, not three like us, not even five or six like a butterfly, but sixteen.  Can you imagine what a rainbow look like to the mantis shrimp?

Why all this science on the day of the Christian calendar that calls us to believe in that which cannot be proven?  On the day in all of Christian history that calls us to move outside of our logical/rational mind and into that place where faith asks us to move beyond what we can discern with our senses?

Imagine that you are struggling.  (Maybe you are.)  Imagine that you are heartsick.  (Maybe you are.)  Imagine that you are in over your head and aren’t sure how you are going to get out of whatever mess surrounds you.  Imagine that you can’t stop.  Or maybe it’s that you can’t start.  Imagine that you are in a very dark place, one of those dark nights of the soul, but dang, it is lasting way longer than any night you have ever known before.

Your sense of comfort, your sense of relief, your sense “this too shall pass” are nowhere to be found.  That which gives you hope is nowhere to be found.  That which tells you that you are enough, you are okay, you are loved, you are worthy – nowhere.  That which gave you a sense of direction, a sense that you have a place in the world is not there.

You are in a narrow and dark passageway that seems to go on forever.  You are just one person, one spirit in a body with its limitations.  You can only see so far ahead of you.  A couple of feet, but otherwise, the darkness just seems to swallow up all hint of light or hope.

I offer these words of faith and science to you because no matter what your senses tell you, they do not tell you the whole truth.  This is particularly true when we are in shock, when we are grieving, when we are struggling.  Look to the stories of Jesus’ closest followers and how their grief, disappointment, and disbelief held them back from perceiving what or who was in their presence.

I offer these words to you to call out in you courage to trust that there is something beyond what we currently perceive. That the narrow and dark tunnel of physical or emotional pain, of addiction, of loss, of a persuasive sense of failure, of loneliness – it has light at the end of it. That end may not be soon, but it is there. It seems to go on forever because we can only see or sense just so far in front of us, just so far into what is next, just so far into the texture of the future.  Of what did the poet from this morning’s first reading remind us?

Mostly we occupy ocular zones, clinging
only to what we think we can see.
We can’t see wind or waves of thought,
electrical fields or atoms dancing;
only what they do or make us believe.

“How the Rainbow Works” by Al Young

We can see a rainbow, but it turns out, the rainbow is much wider and much more colorful than what we perceive.

There is a living and lasting love that survives death. the words of the poet Mary Oliver, let us dare to not “worry about what is reality/or what is plain, or what is mysterious.” 

If you were there, it was all those things.
If you can imagine it, it is all those things.

Or in the words of the late nineteenth century poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, as he offers comfort to himself and to us:

In this uncontainable night,
be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,
the meaning discovered there.

Both faith and science tell us that we are not equipped to perceive everything that is.  So take to heart one of Easter’s messages: don’t believe everything you see, like the death of your Beloved or the triumph of injustice. Take to heart another of Easter’s messages: believe in some things you cannot see, like rainbows beyond your vision and like love and justice just beyond your current grasp.