Thursday, March 16, 2017

Questions without answers

Last Sunday, I had a member of our congregation confront me by the back door after church because we’d read the story of Adam and Eve, the serpent, and the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and she was damned if she was going to let women be blamed for all the evil in the world anymore.  Later that morning, we had our Lenten book study, and afterward, another of our members sent me an email questioning an overly simplistic statement I’d made about evil, as it confronts us in events like the Nazi genocide of the Jews.  And then, there was another incident this week in our ongoing internal struggle over whether and how to appropriately respond to the political crisis in our country; a certain mass email had gone out sounding the alarm about various laws being introduced in congress, and someone got in touch with me to raise concern, because she erroneously thought it had been sent using the church’s email list. 
Now, I’m not complaining about any of this.  I would rather be in a community where people feel free to say what’s bothering them than one where they do not.  And I’d rather be wrestling with difficult questions about misogyny in the Bible, and the power of evil in human affairs, and how to handle politics in the parish, than doing some of the other stuff I do every day.  So if there is more ferment going on right now at St. John’s, and folks are more inclined than usual to speak out, as also seems to be the case around town, and all over the country, I experience that, on the whole, as a good thing.  When that person went off last Sunday about the Book of Genesis I started laughing, not because I thought she was being ridiculous, but because it made me happy that someone trusted me enough to say what she really thinks and didn’t tone down her opinion or apologize for what she said.
No, the hard part, for me, is that I feel like I’m supposed to have the answer.  I take these objections seriously, because I know that they are coming from a genuine desire to understand.  People are speaking out because they want help to make sense of intractable issues that demand to be confronted, in church, and society, and the depths of the human soul.  These are exactly the kind of questions our religion ought to be able to help us address but it’s not always clear how it does.  In fact, there are times when the Bible and the history of Christian tradition seem to give ambiguous answers, to say the least, or even to come down on what feels like the wrong side.   So people turn to their pastor to help them understand.  And that would be me.     
My role in this community is to be more than the chief administrator of the parish organization.  It is also more than to be a sacramental priest, administering the rites of the church.  I am also supposed to be a religious teacher.  So when someone raises an impassioned question about a weighty matter of life and death, good and evil, spirituality and ethics, I really should be able to give something more than just another half-baked personal opinion.  I don’t know if it is just me, or if other people really expect this (probably, a little of both), but I feel like I should be able say something authoritative, something wise, something that has the deep ring of truth about it, something that, if it doesn’t settle the question, at least clarifies it to some degree so that people can find their own way forward. 
Now I don’t want to sell myself short.  I suppose I am able to do that from time to time.  But there are plenty of other times when I feel like my abilities as a religious teacher are pretty inadequate.  And one way I can explain that to myself is in terms of the gaps in my scriptural and theological education.  Sometimes I look back on my college days, or all the years I spent farming and gardening, or studying Mahayana Buddhism, and I wish I’d known then what I know now, and had used my time differently.  But, then again, I’m not really so sure that having mastery of biblical Hebrew, or a thorough first-hand knowledge of the Church Fathers, would necessarily make that much of a difference.  Because, as Jesus reminds us this morning in the Gospel of John, truly becoming his disciple is not about being persuaded by an argument, or about putting together a coherent system of religious ideas. It is about being born from above. 
At least that is what Jesus says to Nicodemus, whom the Gospel describes as a leader of the Jews.  That is to say, he is a scholar of the scriptures, and an authoritative religious teacher.   But Nicodemus is in the dark.  We don’t know why he comes to Jesus in the night.  Maybe he wants to avoid being seen, because he’s ashamed about going to consult the young upstart teacher from Nazareth.  Maybe he knows there is something about this Jesus that he can’t put his finger on, and this not-knowing won’t let him sleep, so he goes to try to learn something that will set his mind at ease.  Whatever the case, Nicodemus begins his conversation with Jesus, not by asking a question, but by making a statement.  “This much,” says Nicodemus, “we know: we know that you are a teacher sent from God, with whom God is present, for we have seen the signs that you are doing.” 
Which is saying a lot, really, especially since we are used to thinking of the leaders of the Jews as Jesus’ sworn enemies.  But there’s an implied question here, even if Nicodemus himself isn’t sure what it is.  Somehow he understands that this is not the whole story, and he leaves it to Jesus to tell him something more.  So Jesus begins by running Nicodemus aground on the rocks of his own literal way of thinking.  And then he shows him what he has to gain by knowing him, not from a distance, nor by the outward signs.  Because Nicodemus is right—there is more.  And the author of John, who likely wrote these words to read aloud to the catechumens in the night before their baptism at Easter dawn, is also giving us the chance to be more—more than people who have joined a religion.  He is giving us the mind of the beloved, the one who lies close to the heart of the one who abides in the heart of God.
First of all, says John’s Gospel, this is not about acquiring new religious knowledge; it is about being transformed, about seeing the world with the eyes of God and, finally, being in God.  And this way of new birth that begins at baptism is essentially a path of not-knowing.  To follow it is to dance on the breath of the Spirit, and who knows where that comes from or where it is going?  Still, there is one thing we can we rely on—the testimony of the Son of Man, the one person we know whose whole life flows out from and back into God.  His teaching is confirmed by the signs that he gives, especially the supreme sign of giving himself to be lifted up on the cross.  But again, this self-giving is not simply an atoning sacrifice that happened once, long ago, out there somewhere—it is also the enduring object of transforming contemplation.  If we keep our inner eye fixed on the crucified and ascended Son of Man, he will heal the wound of knowledge bound to death, that knows nothing beyond it.
Finally, this is the path of trust in God’s love above all.  Faith in Jesus leads to the heart of God, because it is from God’s overflowing heart of love for the world that he came.  This is the key to receiving the testimony of John’s gospel as something other than an argument.  These are not words written to demand conversion to a new religion, or to prop up a theological system, but are the gift of a heart that has known God’s grace and truth.  They are words given to people who have already made the decision to follow Jesus, to help us realize the fullness of this path we’ve undertaken; to show us its glory in the depths and the densities of earth, and to carry us all the way to heaven.   They were written to bring us to our one true religious teacher—who is God.

About Me

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Petaluma, California, United States
I am a priest in the Episcopal Church, and have been (among other things) an organic farmer and gardener, and a Zen monk. I have a lifelong interest in social and spiritual renewal on the basis of contemplative discipline, creative nonviolence, and ecological practice. In recent years my work has focused intensely on the responsibility of pastoral ministry in the humanistic, evangelical, and catholic branch of Christianity known as Anglicanism. I'm married with a daughter, and have three brothers and two parents.