Knowing rthe Unknowable

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at St. Paul’s Church, Bantam, Connecticut, on July 29, 2012.

One of the great phrases of 21st century America is: “Who knew?”

“You can get it for less at Walmart.”  “Who knew?”  Well, actually, if you didn’t, you were living in an igloo in northern South Dakota or totally beyond the reach of computers, cell phones, and Facebook.  But how about, “They’ve discovered that milk is generally bad for adults:” “Who knew?”

We live in a time when it seems that we stumble on something new every day and find out that what we learned in first grade is dead wrong.  Who knew? I remember learning in elementary school that oil comes from dead dinosaurs and there’s enough to last until at least 1980 but now I know it’s not mostly from dinosaurs and there’s enough to last another couple of years.  I learned that the resources of the sea were largely unexplored and inexhaustible. Who knew we would ever run out of fish?  We live in an age when yesterday’s common knowledge turns out to be wrong again and again and things we never imagined like computers and Facebook and capitalism in Russia and China and revolutions in Islamic countries are taken for granted.  But we take it all in, take it for granted, see kindergartners taking things for granted that were unheard of ten years ago. I have grandchildren who know things nobody knew when they were born.

Paul in this morning’s reading reminds us, however, that there are still things beyond our knowing.  He wants us, he says, “to know the love of Christ that passes knowing.” He wants us to know what can never be known.

Now, there is a whole field of study called “epistemology” which has to do with what we can know and how we know it. Most people never worry about it and probably don’t need to. Most people probably say, “I know what I know” and let it go at that. But human beings have a capacity no other life form has as far as we know and that is to continue to learn as long as life goes on. I say, “As long as life goes on,” because we all know people who become brain-dead long before they stop breathing. They take polls every now and again that show us that half the population doesn’t believe in evolution and probably thinks the earth is flat.  No wonder we elect the kind of representatives we do; they’re as uninformed as we are.

But can you imagine being no longer curious, no longer wondering, no longer exploring, closing your mind to new ideas?  Some people think that’s what religion is all about and certainly some people seem to take refuge in religion rather than think things through or even look at new ideas.  But an ancient rabbi once said,

It is forbidden to grow old – for a child knows how to be amazed, everything to him is new – the sky, the sun, the stars, mother, father, the doll. . . .  Adults unfortunately have ceased to be astounded.  They see no mystery; freshness is hidden under names and categories.

Exactly.  We put labels on things and think we understand. But a child sees everything for the first time and asks, “What is this?” and may see in it what we have failed to see because we know the familiar label but not the possibility.

But why would we close our minds to a fuller understanding of God’s creation? It seems to me that we need to remain childlike in that openness to new understanding and growth. And all that we learn exposes us to new areas of ignorance. The more we know, the more we can see how much we don’t know. Until Columbus opened up the other side of the planet Europeans only knew that there was more to learn about Europe and Asia.  Suddenly they knew there was a whole new world and they knew almost nothing about it. By learning of its existence they doubled their ignorance. Science does that for us constantly – and so does faith.

Until Jesus came along,  God’s people thought they knew most of what they needed to know: God was powerful and just and had certain laws to be obeyed but then suddenly they began to understand that God’s love was so great it could become enfleshed in human life and die for us and rise again and suddenly God was to be known supremely not in power and law but in love and self-sacrifice, and who knew God’s love for us was that great? Who knew we were called to love God and our neighbor that much? Who could get it into their heads that God’s love was that great?  Two thousand years later we are still working out what that means.

So my job this morning is to tell you what I can’t tell you. Like St Paul I want you to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. I want you to know the things you can’t know and all I can do is point in that direction and remind you how little we know about anything.

The world is full of people who think they know it all, have all the answers, and the first step in becoming wise is recognizing how ignorant we are.  The second step is recognizing how many kinds of knowledge there are.

You hear people say things like, “Jones has more knowledge in her little finger than Smith in her whole head.” Yes, and we do have knowledge in our fingers that isn’t stored up in our heads. The organist in the parish I served for many years used to talk about getting a piece of music into his fingers. There isn’t time for the eye to take in all the notes and pass it on to the brain to tell the fingers; the fingers have to absorb it themselves so they know what to do without being told. I guess it’s like walking and breathing: the legs and the lungs know what to do without being told. And what kind of knowledge is that?  And have you ever tried to explain why you like one piece of music more than another? How does music work anyway? Or what does Picasso’s painting tell us or Rembrandt’s or Goya’s?  Do you understand it? And if you do can you explain it? There’s musical knowledge and artistic knowledge and maybe social knowledge.  Can you explain what it means to be an American, or a Christian, or in love? We know those things more deeply than we can ever explain.

So then think of a patriot’s love for their country, or a mother’s love for a child or the love of the bride for the bridegroom or the love of a carpenter for a fine piece of wood, or a musician for his instrument, or a sports fan for a close, well-played game. Can you explain those things?  I’m not sure, come to think of it, that I can really explain why one plus one is two because sometimes one plus one is one.  Sometimes two rivers make one lake and one bride plus one groom make one new being and there are things we know so deeply that we can never explain them but we know them just the same and they are often more true than the things we can explain.  But we do know them. And we know that we know.  And Paul is inviting us to know something even beyond that: to know what we cannot fully know, to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge; that’s what he wants us to know.

And in a very real sense we do know that unknowable love.  We know it when we come to the altar to be fed, to take the love of God that we can never fully know in our hands and digest it.  We know it when we put our pledge in the plate and help out at a chicken barbecue or serve on the Vestry or help with the soup kitchen in Torrington.  Those are all ways of saying and knowing what words can never say and the mind can never fully know.  They are ways of knowing that can never be put into words.

My point is this: when Paul tells us he wants us to know the love of Christ that passes knowing we ought to remember first of all how much we do know that can never be put into words. I told you two weeks ago that I have two commentaries on the Epistle to the Ephesians and together they are well over a thousand pages of small type but I should also tell you that you can read them both and not know much more than you know already about the love of God. There are people who never went to college who know more about the love of God than the authors of those books.  There’s a lot we do know about the love of God that we could never put into words and Paul is pointing us even beyond all that.

However much we know already there’s infinitely more: not simply enough for a lifetime of learning but for an eternity. And we always need more. How much love would it take to transform American politics? Would you believe there is that much love available?  Paul tells us there is. How much love would it take to transform our neighborhood and to create a community in which there was no need for soup kitchens and food pantries? Is there that much love available?  Paul tells us there is. Not in us, but in Christ, but the love of Christ can become real and effective in us and there’s more available than we can ever know.

So we have looked at the first three chapters of one of Paul’s letters and he has talked about unity and love and knowledge. Next week we begin looking at what it all means, what should we do about it. I don’t think there are many surprises.  I think we know in many ways what God calls on us to do, know it but fail again and again to do it and we always will because we can never love God or our neighbors as much as God loves us. And that’s why we need to come back again and again to these first three chapters of Ephesians and remember not simply how much we need God’s help but how infinite that help is, how much God loves us.  God loves us more than we ever can know but never more than God will pour out on us when we come and ask for that help.

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