How do we listen to God’s word? How do we remain open to that word? How do we hear the word in new ways? How do we listen not only with our mind but more essentially with our hearts? Today’s gospel seems to show us some ways we might do this: first, by remaining open to possibility, second, by adopting a certain naïveté, and finally, through a practice of repentance that leads to real humility.
Today observe the Feast of St. James of Jerusalem. The stories about St. James in the Acts of the Apostles tell us about a man open to possibility; a man open to hearing God’s word in new and varied ways. It credits St. James with willingness to allow the possibility that the depth and breadth of God’s saving love extended far beyond the Hebrew people themselves. He was open to the possibility that something he had been taught to believe as the word of God, something he assumed to be true, was false. St. James was able to change his mind. He was able to allow that Jesus had come not only to save him and people like him but the entire world. St. James was open to the possibility of the infinite breadth and depth of God’s love for all creation, not just his own people.
I think that the Jesus’ neighbors were wrestling with possibility. Struggling with outrageous possibility: the boy next door, now in mid-life, turned preacher; preacher of new and possibly dangerous ideas; a rabble rouser and trouble maker, that some insist can cure incurables and wrestle with demons?” Would I, could I, really believe such things possible? Could you? Think about it. Could we?
I often find myself sympathizing with people in the gospels who for one reason or another simply cannot believe or understand what Jesus is all about. I feel for Jesus’ neighbors. They knew Jesus. He was the kid next door. He was that boy who learned to read scripture at the feet of the same scribes that taught their boys. He was Mary and Joseph’s oldest son.
Their response to Jesus shows that they had heard at least some of his teachings already. What we see in the Gospel passage is how far they had gotten with Jesus’ teachings. Not far enough to wholeheartedly accept and follow them, but at least far enough to question them, to wonder where on earth the teachings had come from and whether or not they carried any validity. The pot was at least boiling, even if the soup wasn’t done.
Maybe that’s where some of us are this evening, just far enough along in our understanding to make us wonder, even possibly struggle with Jesus’ message, but not ready yet to rest in whatever understanding we have. That’s good. We’ve begun to at least admit the possibility.
All of us process information through well established thought patterns. We all have our filters. We usually see the world and others through those filters. They can be useful. They help us negotiate our world. But, unquestioned, unexamined filters can be dangerous. They can close off possibility. You’ve probably heard the saying, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” Like those neighbors we can become smug in knowing what we think we know: “Is not this the carpenter’s son?” Familiarity breeds contempt – so do unquestioned, unexamined attitudes about others.
Sometimes, our thought patterns set up questions for us. We find ourselves second guessing ourselves and others. “Does that street person really need my help or is he just trying to scam me? Does that person really mean what she says or is she trying to say what she thinks I want to hear?” Or the neighbors’ questions: “Is not this the carpenter’s son. Is not his mother called Mary?” “Can this be the one in whom the prophets have taught us to hope?” Thinking we know who someone is can breed contempt. Naïveté can mean choosing to accept things at face value. Many religious teachers advocate an attitude of naïveté, as one means of silencing nagging, unanswerable questions. Sometimes only in embracing naïveté can we open ourselves to possibility.
How do we read the scriptures and what are we to make of them? What does it mean? How are we to understand this? Even more seriously, how are we to shape our lives and live them out in relation to ourselves and others. What will our lives look like based on our understanding. These are questions that still inform our search for the living God; the same dogged questions present even as we come to accept the unique nature of Jesus’ insights into God.
Last Saturday morning Brother Mark teased out the meaning of that loaded word “repentance.” He pointed out several layers of meaning. Repentance contains an implication of remorse, of being sorry. It also means “turning, turning around, and turning toward God” as well as “changing one’s mind,” and even “changing one’s heart.”
Jesus invites the possibility of changing one’s mind and heart from settled patterns into something that admits of wide open possibilities contained in our life with God. To be open to new understanding and interpretation just as Jesus tried to offer his listeners new ways of imagining God’s love.
Changing one’s mind involves embracing one’s humanity. Embracing our humanity is the beginning of humility. How do we go forward in our quest to understand and re-understand the message of God’s word for us as contained in Holy Texts? I would say we do so from a place of profound humility, wonder, and forbearance for those who hear the word in ways that differ from ours.
For many of Jesus’ contemporaries, for many Christians and Muslims today, revelation wasn’t a far off event that happened in some by-gone time. It is something that is happening in the here and now. Right here, today. As heirs of this tradition, Revelation invites us to open our mind’s eye in a way that allows us to take ourselves into a creative process; a process that requires the very best of human ingenuity. For us, there is no infallible information about the divine in Revelation. We acknowledge that because we acknowledge that that kind of information is beyond our understanding. “Even the supreme revelation of Christ, the incarnate Word, showed that the reality of what we call God [to be] as elusive as ever.”
The best of our tradition has always insisted on intellectual integrity and thinking for oneself. Jesus teaches us here and elsewhere that “Instead of clinging nervously to insights from the past, his followers are to be inventive, fearless, and confident in their interpretation of faith.”
I realize that my presentation of biblical interpretation reflects of my own values and I presume the values of many of us here this evening. There are plenty of sincere people who would radically dispute the idea of Revelation that I have presented here. We all do a lot of talking and asserting. And many of us are quite comfortable with our version of faith that is to some extent comfortable with the symbolism of God when it is backed up with inspiring rituals and disciplined living in a vibrant community. Many of us here this evening can and do find meaning in this.
But, as we know, most people don’t think this way. I find that I have to remind myself again and again that I have no corner on the truth of God. Much of the today’s religious discourse is very contentious even downright rude and mean. God is infinite, and neither I nor anyone else is ever going to have the last word on this matter. Not even when like today I get to do all of the talking and you get to listen. The best I can ever do is to have what is for ME the last word right here and now – while being honest enough with myself to keep an open mind and heart.
There is an ongoing discussion of what we mean by Revelation and what that revelation says about God. It would, I think, be fatuous to think that most people who call themselves Christians share the version of that I am presenting here. It would be fatuous to say that there is even anything like agreement about these things in our own denomination.
If others see things and think things differently, we need to remind ourselves that to quarrel about such things is counterproductive and not conducive to enlightenment. If we can’t even talk civilly among ourselves, among other people who call themselves “Episcopalians or Anglicans” how can we expect to be able to listen to someone who insists that creation was completed in seven twenty-four periods, or who firmly believes in the necessity of speaking in tongues or the biblical directive on snake handling.
If we can’t silence ourselves long enough to admit our own groping before the mystery of God we cannot enter into any authentic religious experience. The essence of mystery will have left us and made that experience unavailable and therefore impossible. We won’t be able to embrace the mystery of God or the ritual that makes that mystery available to us.
Jesus’ message is an invitation to us to come to terms with God’s elusive nature and to learn to live more comfortably with an elusive God. Our faith means being able to step back and question our own beliefs subjecting them, fearlessly, to ruthless scrutiny. Whenever we think we’ve have figured it out, we need to step back and acknowledge that we all stand before a great mystery.
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