Saturday, February 18, 2023

“AI and Real Faith” - February 19, 2023

Text: Matthew 16:24-17:8

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

Today, we gather to reflect on the remarkable event that occurred on the mountaintop as described in Matthew 17 – the Transfiguration of Jesus.  This is a significant event in the life of Jesus, and it offers a message that is relevant to our lives even today.  Let us take a moment to delve into this passage and gain a deeper understanding of what it means to us as Christians.

OK, the beginning to this sermon probably doesn’t sound quitelike me.  And there is a reason for that: I didn’t write it.  Have you heard about ChatGPT?  It is an artificial intelligience language chatbot, which basically is a robot you can have a conversation with on the internet.  It can report on whatever you ask it to.  Students can use ChatGPT to write essays and papers.  It has become such an issue that somebody has created a program that teachers can use to determine whether a paper was written by ChatGPT.  

There was a conversation about Artificial Intelligience and ChatGPT in an online pastors group that I’m a part of.  There was a question of what kind of sermon this would come up with.  

I had been thinking about that and I decided to find out for myself.  I typed in “write a sermon on the Transfiguration of Jesus from Matthew 17:1-8.”  It took about 5 seconds for words to appear on the screen and they came at a fast rate than I could read them.

It was kind of amazing, and what was shocking about it is it was not a terrible sermon.  I mean, I have heard a lot worse.  But it was pretty – what’s the word?  Generic.  Humorless.  Pretty dry.  It was completely lacking in local context.  There weren’t any illustrations and there wasn’t any plot.  The great preacher Fred Craddock said that the purpose of an introduction to a sermon is simply to get people on the bus so that they will go along for the ride.  Well, I’m afraid this AI sermon would have a mostly empty bus.

But again, it wasn’t terrible.  So I tried again.  I typed in “write a sermon on the Transfiguration of Jesus with illustrations.”  It spat out a similar sermon with a few points, and then it would say, “To illustrate this point, think of a GPS system.  Just as a GPS guides us on our journey, so does Jesus guide us on our journey of faith.”

Again, it wasn’t a stirring or especially inspiring sermon, it was all kind of bland, but it wasn’t terrible.  It wasn’t offensive or have really weird theology.  But it felt like a student doing all of their research on Wikipedia the night before and coming up with a research paper.

I mention all of this because maybe because you have been hearing a lot about artificial intelligence - this is very much in the news.  But I also mention this because it may actually relate a bit to our scripture this morning.

Let me back up just a bit to the verses before our reading.  Jesus had asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”  And there were a few answers, some thought he was like John the Baptist or Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the prophets.  And then Jesus asked, “Who do you say I am?”

And Peter said, “You are the Christ, the son of the Living God.”  But Peter’s response, it turns out, was something like ChatGPT.  He was spitting out the answer but without context or real understanding.  This was simply the biggest response he could think of.  Because shortly after that, when Jesus starts talking about having to suffer, Peter takes him aside and rebukes him, saying “God forbid, this can never happen to you!”  Basically he was saying, “Jesus, you can’t be that kind of messiah, I won’t allow it.”  And Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!”

So there is a lot of tension in the air at the beginning of our reading.  And Jesus continues on the same theme.  “If any want to become my followers, they must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  Suffering and sacrifice are not only the road that Jesus is choosing; this is the road his disciples must follow as well.

Right from the very beginning, the world has taken offense - even Jesus’ closest followers have taken offense at the suffering of Christ.  Jesus in power and glory, wiping out evil can be a lot more appealing than Jesus overcoming through the power of sacrificial love.

This is where things stand with Jesus and the disciples.  They weren’t quite catching who he was, even if Peter had said the right words, and Jesus challenges them.  This is a complicated moment.  

It is really difficult for Peter and the other disciples – maybe including us – to conceive of Jesus in a way other than what we always have.  Peter and those around him understood that the Messiah was supposed to come in power and defeat the Roman oppressors.  It was really hard to think any other way.

Jesus teaches them otherwise, sets them straight.  But we all know that sometimes, words are not enough.  Words alone can’t always motivate us to change.

Look at how those around Jesus learn and grow.  He teaches them – but not simply through rote memorization or class lectures.  He’s not just disseminating information; he uses parables, stories, metaphors that grab their imagination.  

He teaches not only through his words but through his life.  He breaks social norms.  He confronts power brokers.  He is a person of absolute integrity.  He feeds the 5000.  He walks on water.  He turns water into wine.  These miracles are the sorts of things that break through preconceived ways of thinking.  

But even after all of this, the disciples still don’t quite get it.  Peter has the language but still does not fully understand.  And so Jesus takes James, John and Peter, kind of the inner circle of the disciples, with him up the mountain.  

Again and again, the mountains are a place to meet God.  Moses receives the Law on Mt. Sinai.  Elijah defeats the prophets of Ba’al on Mt. Carmel.  The temple in Jerusalem is built on Mt. Zion.  Jesus goes to pray on the Mount of Olives.  He went up on the mountain to teach the people – we’ve just looked at the Sermon on the Mount.

Jesus takes Peter up on the mountain and suddenly, Peter is confronted face to face with the depth of what he is dealing with.  There is a bright light and these disciples see visions of Moses and Elijah with Jesus, representing the Law and the prophets – these are the heroes of Hebrew faith.  They are star struck.  And it is almost too much. Peter feels like he needs to do something.

He says, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  Peter wants to memorialize this moment.  We can just shake our heads at Peter, but we are exactly like him.  He wants to get out his phone and take selfies with Jesus and Moses and Elijah rather than simply experience the moment.  

The text is actually kind of funny.  It says, “While Peter was still speaking, a cloud overshadowed them and there was a voice from the cloud.”  It’s like nobody even noticed that Peter was speaking.  And the voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

They fall to the ground.  Of course they are terrified.  And Jesus says, “Get up, don’t be afraid.”

There is a big difference between thinking about God or speculating about God, and actually having an experience of the Holy.  It’s like the difference between an AI generated sermon, kind of dry and rote and impersonal, and a personal experience of God’s presence.

I’m wondering – have you had a mountaintop experience?  A brush with the Holy in which God seemed especially real and near?  

Such times can be very important for us – they are times when it is reinforced for us that our faith is not simply a collection of beliefs that we sign on the bottom line.  These Holy Moments are times when faith is experienced, when faith is lived.  They grab us with the truth that faith is not just about the facts; it is about trust and wonder and awe and joy and relationship.  

We need these Holy Moments – those times when we may experience God in a new way or a very real way and see a bigger world out there.

These moments may not necessarily be big and dramatic.  God may speak to us in a still, small voice.  For me, some of those mountaintop moments have actually been on a mountain, or in the woods, or along the ocean or at least far away from my normal routine.

Last summer Susan and I were in Minnesota, on Lake Superior.  I got up at 5 am to see the sunrise over the lake.  It was amazing.  And then I saw something in the lake.  It came closer, and an otter swam by.  It was just kind of goofing off, seemed to be enjoying itself as it swam past me.  It was one of those moments when I felt the power and the mystery and the beauty of God’s creation.

Sometimes this happens in worship – for me, it is often in a stirring hymn or choir anthem or cantata.

Holy moments may occur when we clear the distractions that are so much a part of our everyday lives and really have time for God.  It’s no accident that the Transfiguration took place on the mountain, a place where immediate worries and concerns could be set aside in order to focus on prayer.

But then again, sometimes it may happen in the midst of the everyday when we somehow are enabled to see things – to see one another, to see life, to see God – with new eyes.  It can happen even in some of the most difficult times of life as we are sustained by the love and care of God, often experienced through the love and compassion of others.

We cannot create or force these moments - they just happen.  Peter and James and John were not expecting this “brush with the holy.”  It was God’s doing.  Those mountaintop experiences are not up to us.

It is important that these mystical, mysterious stories are included in the scriptures because we can be tempted to give an overly rational explanation for faith.  Many of us in this university community can make faith largely about our heads.  We can be tempted to think of Christianity like we do trigonometry or algebra, as a largely intellectual enterprise in which these are the facts, these are the seven golden principles for living, and if we do “x” then God will respond with “y.”  But deep down, we know that faith doesn’t work that way.  

The Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church has a wonderful prayer to be said for the newly baptized.  The prayer concludes with these words:

Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit.  Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.  

I love that last line: “The gift of joy and wonder in all your works.”

Faith is not simply about the facts.  Following Jesus is not about believing certain things and taking certain positions.  In the words of that prayer, following Jesus is about having an inquiring and discerning heart, about having the courage to will and to persevere, about knowing and loving God, about finding joy and wonder in all of God’s works.

Now back to that ChatGPT sermon.  I typed in a response to it.  I wrote, “This is kind of stiff and humorless but surprisingly good.”

It responded,

Thank you for your feedback.  As an AI language model, my programming is focused on delivering informative and factual content.  However, I do understand that a sense of humor and warmth can add value to a sermon and make it more relatable to the audience.

It was a little bit frightening how OK that sermon was.  It made me think that given a little time, with machine learning and improvements, I could be replaced one day.  But I’m not too worried.  Because faith is not just facts and information.  It involves experience and relationship and commitment and care and it not just about our beliefs and not just about words, it is about our living.  

Let us pray: Sustain us, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit.  Give us inquiring and discerning hearts, the courage to will and to persevere, spirits to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.  Amen.

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