The Man at the Gate

God enlightens our ignorance bit by bit, story by story, revelation by revelation.

Easter 3b 2015 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Peter said, “Why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power of piety we had made him walk?”
Our reading from the Acts of the Apostles begins a bit abruptly, including a reference to an “it” and a “him” whom some of us might not recognize. We are fortunate in having a beautiful stained-glass window depicting him and it, right on the southern wall of the sanctuary — take a look at it as you come up to communion because it is hard to see from the nave of the church; it will be on your right as you approach the altar rail. It depicts Peter and John standing before the man at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple. He is the “him” and the “it” is his miraculous healing through the name of Jesus. To refresh all of our memories, let me read a slightly abridged portion from the Acts of the Apostles just prior to our first reading today, as it sets the scene for what follows.

One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer... and a man lame from birth was being carried in. People would lay him daily at the gate of the temple called the Beautiful Gate so that he could ask for alms from those entering the temple. When he saw Peter and John... he asked them for alms. Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, “Look at us.” And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. And jumping up, he stood and began to walk, and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. All the people saw him walking and praising God, and they recognized him as the one who used to sit and ask for alms ... and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him....

That’s the “it” and the “him.” Our reading today continues the tale with Peter’s testimony to the crowd that are amazed at all of this; that it is the power of Jesus’ name that has wrought this miracle. He castigates the people and their rulers for having rejected and killed the author of life, and testifies that he and the apostles are witnesses to the resurrection of God’s chosen and righteous one, in whose name and by whose name this man has been healed. And he calls them to repent, even though, he says, they “acted in ignorance.”
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Ignorance is a theme that runs through all of our readings today, including the bit I added from the first part of chapter three of Acts. But before I go any further I want to clear up a possible misunderstanding, and that revolves around the meaning of the word ignorance. Sometimes people will use the word ignorant as a synonym for an insult, for “stupid.” They’ll say, “Oh, you’re ignorant!” But that is not really what ignorant means. To be ignorant is not to know something — not to be incapable of knowing something, but merely not knowing a particular something or some things. Even the smartest people in the world are ignorant, because no one knows everything. In fact, the smartest people in the world know that they don’t know everything, and they are always willing to learn. It is the people who think they know everything that are usually the most untrustworthy. And the other good news is that ignorance can be remedied: as soon as you learn something that you didn’t know before you are no longer ignorant of that fact. Once you have new information, you are no longer, but informed.

So with that cleared up, let’s look at some of the ignorance laid before us in the Scripture passages we read today, beginning with that passage from Acts. In the part that I read, it is the man at the gate who is ignorant. He is not a disciple. Although he’s lived in Jerusalem for a long time — for the Scripture tells of how people would carry him in every day, and set him in the gate to beg for alms, and after his healing they all recognize him (they’re not ignorant about him; they know him very well!) — but he is ignorant of who Peter and John are. He doesn’t know them from Adam. He is ignorant of them — he doesn’t know who these out-of-towners from Galilee are. He’s lived in Jerusalem his whole life; people from Galilee may come and go, but he doesn’t know who they are. All he is interested in is what he can get out of them, and as soon as Peter addresses him, you can well expect that he stretched out his hand for a coin or two. Peter immediately remedies his ignorance, informing him that he and John have no money to give him; and I can well guess he is disappointed! But then Peter surprises him, and says, I’ve got something better than gold: he reveals the name of Jesus, the best bit of information this world has ever known, at which point Peter takes him by the hand to raise him up, healed of his weakness and able not just to walk, but to leap for joy! More than his ignorance is remedied! His heart is filled with the knowledge of God’s healing power, known in his own healed limbs.
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The next ignorance addressed is that to which Peter refers in what follows. He charges the people for having rejected Jesus, even when Pilate was ready to release him, and they chose a murderer to be released instead. But, as Peter continues, they and their rulers acted in ignorance — an ignorance that helped in its own ironic way to fulfill God’s promise that the Messiah had to suffer. However, now that the suffering is over and Christ is raised from the dead, the school of God is back in session: it is time to learn something new, something of which they were ignorant before. It is time for them to put that ignorance behind them, to become informed by the Gospel, and to embrace the truth of the power of Jesus’ name — not just to heal a disabled man, but to restore all of them to the wholeness that God intends for each and every one, through grace by faith.
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The next ignorance described in our readings — this one from the First Epistle of John — is double: The world is ignorant of God and of us as children of God; but we too are not without our limitations, our own ignorance: As John says, “We are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.” There is still more to learn, more revelation to come, more opening of the eyes of our faith. The good news is that our ignorance is not total: “What we do know,” he writes, “is this: when he is revealed we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” We don’t see him yet, but when we do we will be like him. We will learn something wonderful and new. This is the hope of all who seek Jesus, who number themselves among the company of those who have believed in his name, and are washed with his blood, united with him in a death like so that we may be united with him in a rising from the dead like his. At present, as St Paul would also affirm, our knowledge is partial as if seeing dimly in a mirror. But when Christ is revealed we shall know as we are known, fully informed, fully enlightened by the light of the world, the revelation of the Son of God.
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And so it is fitting that the final ignorance with which we are presented today is that of the apostles themselves. They have heard the testimony of Peter and the disciples who had encountered Jesus on the way to Emmaus. And while they are still arguing and trying to understand all of this, Jesus himself appears among them — to their amazement, and in the case of some, disbelief. And Jesus, ever the good teacher, gently instructs them, relieving their ignorance with the good news, reminding them that this is what he had told them beforehand would happen, before they came to Jerusalem in the first place, before the time that he said he would suffer; and, moreover, that all of this was attested in the Scriptures (in the Law of Moses, in the Prophets, and in the Psalms) — Scriptures they had read their whole lives, Scriptures they knew by heart and yet somehow they had never put two and two together even when those holy promises were being fulfilled before their eyes. Such was the ignorance of the apostles that they needed not only to experience, but to remember, to be reminded that the experience matched the promise. They needed a good teacher to inform them of how the promises of the past become real in the present.

And this is the gentle way in which God continues to enlighten our darkness, to lift our ignorance, to inform our minds and rejoice our hearts. Not suddenly, but bit by bit, story by story, and revelation by revelation. By promise and reminder, by poetry and prose, by repeating the lesson until we understand; by words from on high and hopes uttered in our inmost hearts by the groaning of the Spirit within each of us — so it is that the Good Teacher teaches, and the Great Physician heals.

May we, like the man at the gate, reach out for what we know not, but find that we are grasping the hand of the One who brings us gifts better than we can ask or imagine, even Jesus Christ our Lord.

Insufficient Knowledge

Knowledge without love makes no music.

Epiphany 4b 2014 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Saint Paul wrote to the Corinthians, Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.

No pastor before or since had to deal with any congregation more difficult than that of the people of Corinth to whom Saint Paul ministered, and to whom he wrote the letter from which we heard a portion this morning. He had enough bones to pick with them to assemble an entire skeleton, but I’d like today to focus on the issue that came to light in this short passage: while there are many false so-called gods, there is one Lord Jesus Christ above all lords, one God and Father above all gods. Moreover, he presses the same point that had been made for 600 years by the prophets before him, that idols are not gods. Long before Paul set pen to paper (or stylus to tablet — and I don’t mean an iPad!) prophets had ridiculed and condemned those who put their trust in inanimate objects of wood and stone and metal: so-called gods that could not speak or move or even smell, since they had no breath in their nostrils. You may recall that Winston Churchill once replied to a grande dame to told him, “Sir, you smell.” He replied, “No, Madam. I stink; you smell.” So it is that these idols could stink even if they could not smell — having no breath in their nostrils — when their wood caught fire and they went up in smoke, powerless to defend themselves.

And Saint Paul continues the message: we know that there are many so-called gods, but we Christians know better: That Jesus Christ is the one Lord through whom all things are and through whom we exist; and there is one God who is God the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist.

So far, so good, you might well say, because, of course, that is what we believe. But in Saint Paul’s day, Judaism, with its belief in the proclamation of one God, was a tiny fraction of the population, and Christians formed a smaller fraction still. The bulk of people living around the Mediterranean — Arabs, Greeks, Romans and Egyptians — most of them believed in many gods if they believed in gods at all. Not too many still worshiped idols as if a god could actually be made of wood or metal, though a few still did — and Christians got in trouble with them in Ephesus, as they threatened to put the carvers and casters of idols in wood and metal out of business.

But many sophisticated Greeks had long given up believing in idols, or even in the gods themselves. They would still observe the convention of tipping a few drops of wine out of their wineglass at a banquet to honor the gods, but this was purely “the thing to do,” social convention; they did not believe the gods were real. These were the first atheists — and as far as most of the religious people of the Mediterranean were concerned, the Christians - who denied that idols were gods, and who affirmed that there is only one true Lord and God — were numbered among them. The basic rule was, “If you deny my god, you are an atheist!”

This in the context in which arose the problem with which Paul had to deal. Some of the Christians in Corinth were proud of their knowledge that there is but one Lord and God, and felt so proud that they had no compunction about eating food that had been offered to an idol in a pagan temple, since they knew that the idol was just a block of wood or stone, or a slab of metal. The problem, as Saint Paul sees it, is that this sophistication might lead a less sophisticated person astray into thinking that the idols might really be gods. If they see a member of the congregation who is accounted to be “in the know” eating food offered to idols they might think, “Gee, if Mr. Metropolous eats food offered to idols then maybe there’s something to this idol business after all...” And that, Saint Paul says, would damage the faith no end.

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More importantly, and more relevant to us, since we are very unlikely ever to encounter food offered to idols, is the larger issue of the extent to which the knowledge of God falls short. Knowledge that there is one Lord and one God, is not enough on its own. As the Epistle of James puts it, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe — and shudder.” The demons know that Jesus is the Holy One of God, as attested in our gospel passage today, and in many other places in Mark’s Gospel. In short, it is not enough simply to know God, or who God is, not enough even to believe in God as Father and Jesus Christ as Lord — even the devils know God, perhaps better than any human being ever could, for, like the angels, they come from the spiritual realm.

But their knowledge of God does them no good, for they lack the one crucial element that makes salvation secure. And that is love. As Saint Paul tells the Corinthians, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.” Knowing God gets you nowhere without loving God and your neighbor. And if knowledge is misapplied, it will get in your way and be of no service either to you or to your neighbor. It might even do them harm. The devils know God, but have no love in them, so their knowledge does them no good at all.

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There was once a little boy who showed a remarkable talent for playing the violin. At the age of four he happened to come upon his uncle’s violin left unattended for a moment when he stepped out of the room. The toddler picked up the instrument and imitating the actions he had seen his uncle perform, began to play. It wasn’t a virtuoso performance, but his uncle was so astounded — hearing this music from down the hall — when he came back into the room and saw this child making music, he decided that the boy had to get his own violin and learn to play it. And play it he did — beautifully, and without instruction. He simply listened to recordings of the great violinists of the day, and imitated the sound with the instrument in his hands. He was soon giving concerts and even made a few recordings himself.

By the age of twelve it was decided he needed some proper instruction from a real violin master. And that master discovered that the boy was playing the violin all wrong. Although it sounded wonderful he was using the wrong fingering and bowing to produce the sound. So the teacher set to work correcting all of these bad habits so that he could play even more beautifully. The trouble is, all of this new instruction spoiled his ability to play at all. The habits formed over those eight years were too set to be unlearned. Fortunately, before all was lost, it was decided to let the boy alone and continue to play in his peculiar manner — after all, if you weren’t watching him you couldn’t tell how he was playing; all you could hear was that beautiful music. The love of music that inspired this child won out over the so-called knowledge of the right way to play. Knowledge is not the point; music is. You can have all the knowledge of technique in the world, but if you have no love of music, your performance will be empty.

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And when it comes to God, it is the same: knowledge is not the point; love is. This is why Jesus rebukes the unclean spirits who recognize him as the holy one of God, but warns those who believe in him that they must come to him as a child — just as he came to us as a child. It is not sophisticated knowledge or technique that saves us, but the innocent love of a child.

Our worship often ends with a blessing and I hope you will listen to it carefully today. For it affirms that the peace of God passes understanding — that is, it is something beyond the capacity of our minds to understand — but not of our hearts to receive. And the blessing continues by asking that the knowledge and the love of God be upon us. The knowledge alone will do us no good, it might even spoil our efforts to make the music God wants us to make, in our service for and to and with each other. Knowledge, without love, as Saint Paul would assure those same troublesome Corinthians, doesn’t make beautiful music — it is a clanging gong or noisy cymbal, if it comes without love. But with love, love that endures all things, bears all things, and ultimately believes all things with a believing heart — with love we are perfected and blessed as children of God our Father, who with Christ our Lord and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns for ever and ever.

Why Believe

Belief comes by experience or testimony... and as a gift of God. A sermon for Epiphany 2b

SJF • Epiphany 2b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these. Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

I’m going to ask a question of you that might seem odd coming from a priest to a congregation gathered in church for worship on a Sunday morning. And the question is, “Why do you believe?” I’m specifically thinking of why we believe in God — after all, right after this sermon I will invite us all to affirm our faith and the faith of the church in the words of the Nicene Creed, where we will sing a whole long list of things we say we believe about God.

But there is a larger question here: why do you believe anything? I think most of us would say, starting at the simplest and most personal level, that we believe the things that are evident to our senses — as the old saying goes, seeing is believing! There is an old story about an Anglican bishop who was confronted by someone who was from a church that believed only adults should be baptized. This Anabaptist challenged the bishop, “Do you believe in infant baptism?” To which the bishop responded, “Believe in it? Why, man, I’ve seen it!”

So for most of us the first stage of belief is based on our personal experience; we believe what we see. I know that London is real because I’ve been there, done that, got the T-shirt! But the fact of the matter is, I believed there was a London long before I got there and saw it with my own two eyes and walked its streets with my own two feet, and breathed its foggy air. And that brings me to the second reason for belief: testimony.

Much of what we know and believe, probably most of what we know and believe, is not based on our own personal experience — our senses — but on the experience of others reported to us. I spoke a few weeks ago about secondary sources in writing history, and this is precisely where they come in. We believe on the basis of the testimony of others. Unlike personal experience, which is by definition unique to each and every person, belief by testimony can be shared and multiplied. I can tell dozens of people that I have been to London, and talk to them about what I saw there, what the food and weather and the architecture are like, and if they accept my testimony they too will believe that there is a large and populous city on the River Thames, the seat of English government, full of incredible buildings and well supplied with fish and chips — and curry. And not only can I share my own testimony, but those who come to believe through me can share their new belief with others, and they with others still. In this way, many who have had no personal experience of London may come to feel well informed about it.

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So far, so good. It all seems free and clear. But what about people who believe things that are not true? Experience shows that experience can be fooled — the doors of human perception are not always open, and the windows are not always clean and clear. As we are only a few weeks from Christmas, I recall Ebenezer Scrooge’s argument with Jacob Marley’s ghost, right at the beginning of the story when the ghost challenged him to his face as to why he doubted his own senses:

“Because,” said Scrooge, “a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!” To which the Ghost responds, “Man of the worldly mind! Do you believe or not!?”

Our passage from the Old Testament this morning reveals some of the problems with the senses — and with our ability to make sense of them. The old priest Eli has grown blind — not just literally, but figuratively as well, as he has turned a blind eye to the blasphemous corruption and crime of his own two sons, who have corrupted the worship of the temple, stealing the people’s offerings for themselves. The whole nation seems to have lost its senses of hearing and sight, too, for the word of the Lord is rare and visions are not widespread. The corruption in the leaders has infected the people.

It takes a child — a child with fresh and open ears, young Samuel — properly to hear the voice of God gently calling him by name. And even though he does not at first — or even second — recognize who it is that is speaking to him, he eventually comes to know the Lord, and becomes a witness to the presence and power of God, so that the whole land, from Dan to Beer-sheba, comes to know and respect him as a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.

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Which brings me to the second problem with belief — it is one thing to trust your own senses, or not to trust them; but it is quite another thing to trust someone else’s senses, someone else’s testimony. The extent to which you believe someone else’s testimony is based on how much you trust them. Whether you believe will be based to a greater or lesser extent on the degree to which you trust their testimony, or their general trustworthiness.

When Philip tells Nathanael that he has found the Lord, Nathanael’s first response is one of doubt, not trust. Perhaps he’d had some bad experience with Philip; or perhaps he found it too hard to believe that the Messiah had actually come — especially from the unexpected direction of Nazareth; or maybe he was just a skeptical person by nature and didn’t trust anybody. Whatever the reason, doubting other people or their testimony can be a block to our believing what they say.

So, as Philip suggests, perhaps with a shrug or a smile, Come and see; if you don’t believe me, let it be your own senses that convert you, convince you, and bring you to belief. So it often comes back to personal experience. Just as Thomas said he would not believe in the risen Christ until he saw him with his own eyes, and even put his finger in the place where the nails had made the wounds, so too Philip offers Nathanael the only thing ultimately that you can offer to a doubtful skeptic: Come and see! And Nathanael goes, and he sees, and he believes. Big time.

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So why do we believe? Is it simply because you accept the testimony of those who walked with Christ, in those ancient days, and passed along their testimony in the form that eventually came to be published abroad in the Gospels we now have, those precious pages in that book? Do you believe because people whom you respect have told you of their experience of God at work in their own lives? Or do you believe because you have, in some way perhaps you cannot fully describe or even understand, heard the voice of God calling you gently by name, have felt the hand of God at work in your life, guiding you along right pathways for his Name’s sake? Very truly, I tell you, those who believe will see greater things than these. You will see the heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.+

Seeing the Signs

SJF • Advent 3a 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Go and tell what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.

The world of the ancient Israelites, as the world of the people of Christ’s time, and our world today, was and is a world hungry for signs — for significance. At all times and in all places, knowledge comes about when our inner minds engage with some outer reality — knowledge does not simply spring from within, nor is it wholly external. It comes into being through that interaction between objective reality and subjective reaction, as our senses convey to our inner minds some apprehension of the world that exists outside of ourselves. Just as we need food and nourishment from outside ourselves to build up our bodies, we need the input of the world with which we interact to nourish our minds. In short, we hunger for significance, for things to mean something — so much so that people will often see meaning where none exists. The human mind is so hungry for order and meaning that we will look at clouds or rock formations and see castles or camels or crocodiles.

We keep looking for signs and significance because most of the time the things we see actually do tell us something of the world in which we live, the state of the world. Take one prosaic example alluded to by the prophet Isaiah. One of the first signs that spring is about to arrive is the humble crocus — the small flower that pushes its way to the surface, sometimes through snowfall, as a sign that spring is about to come.

The important thing, in addition to seeing the sign, is understanding it, and that involves a bit more mental labor — and engagement with its context. A person who saw a bowl of crocus blossoms in a florist’s shop or the supermarket in December and thought, “Oh, spring is coming,” would be sorely mistaken. (And am I the only one here who misses the sense of the seasons in the supermarket, the seasons that used to pervade the markets? There was a time when you could tell what season of the year it was by the selection of fresh produce available, and the times had their appropriate tastes and smells — but now you can find watermelon in December!) So it is not just seeing the sign, but grasping its significance, that is vital in forming a proper meaning in the mind.

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Our gospel passage today addresses both sides of this mystery of perception, the grasping of significance. And if you don’t mind, I will deal with them in reverse order, because the first part is the more significant, and I want to end with the more meaningful and significant sign.

The latter part of the passage deals with understanding the significance of the sign based on its context — as I said before, like a crocus in a supermarket or pushing its way through a snowbank, or watermelon in December — or July. In this passage, Jesus asked the people what they were looking for when they went out to see John the Baptist. That is to say, what sign did they seek? A reed shaken by the wind? Well, there would be plenty of those to see out by the river bank — but what would be their significance? what would they tell you? Maybe, if a reed was shaking, that it was indeed windy; but who needs a reed to tell them that?

Were they looking for someone dressed in luxurious garments? If that’s the case, they were looking in the wrong location — for a sign out of its place.

But perhaps they were looking for a prophet after all — and if that’s the case then they will have seen what they were looking for, the sign and the testimony of the greatest prophet who ever lived: John the Baptist.

So for a sign to be of use, one must seek the right sign, in the right place and to the right end, to the right object, for the right purpose: in this case, of being prepared for the coming of the Righteous One, the Messiah.

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John himself shows us the other important thing about signs. In the first part of the Gospel passage, he is in prison, but he sends a message to Jesus, asking if he is the one for whom the world has been waiting. Instead of giving a direct yes or no answer, Jesus tells John’s messengers to take back to him the evidence of their senses: what they have seen and heard. This is where the role of understanding a sign comes in — matching the external sign with the internal knowledge. In just this way we know that a red light means that we are to stop: not because there is a natural connection between the color red and stopping — after all, a red button is sometimes the one you push to make things go! — but because we have learned from our parents or teachers that a red light has this meaning — and we were all instructed in this meaning long before we ever saw a red light or stopped at one. We had to be taught or we would know to stop.

In this case John is asking if Jesus is the one to come or if he should wait for another. And Jesus, rather than giving a simple yes or no answer harks back to something that John would have been taught, something he knew quite well, something John had learned from his childhood up, just as children today are taught that a red light means “stop.” What John had been taught is that very passage from Isaiah: the one we heard this morning, the one that promises that the blind shall see and the deaf hear; the lame will leap and those without speech will become eloquent: and that these are the signs of the coming of Messiah.

And so Jesus, in the gentle way of the good teacher he was — much as a parent with a young child approaching an intersection might ask, “And what do we do when the light turns red?” — Jesus similarly gently reminds John through those messengers about what they had seen and heard: the fulfillment of those very promises from the prophet Isaiah! The new sign of Jesus is really a reminder about the old sign long promised. We can only imagine how John’s heart must have leapt when he received this news, for he would have recognized what Jesus was saying immediately!

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As we grow closer to the feast of Christmas, let us as well be open to the signs that God has placed upon our path. Many of them are things that we too learned when we were young; perhaps we have forgotten some of them. Perhaps we have become accustomed to watermelons in December, or we’ve seen so many laws broken that the warning signs and red-lights of this world no longer stop us in our careless disregard for one another.

Do we still remember how to recognize the signs of love and generosity, fair play and justice when we see them? More importantly, when we see signs of hatred and injustice do we strengthen our hands and make our knees firm to stand up and say to those who are doing wrong — as John the Baptist did — this is not right!

The time is near, my friends, the time is near, for each of us to bear our witness, as the prophets did of old. May we, when we are given the sign to speak, not the red light, but the green light, have something wise and encouraging to say, and speak rightly and plainly speaking of the love of him, who is our Judge and our Savior, our Lord and our God.+

Knowing and Loving

SJF • Epiphany 4b 2009 • Tobias Haller BSG
Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge, but anyone who loves God is known by him.+

Alexander Pope, the English poet of the eighteenth century, wrote that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” Sometimes, Saint Paul assures us, too much knowledge — or rather thinking you know more than you do — can be dangerous as well. Ignorance can get you into trouble, but so can thinking that you know something about which you are mistaken.

This is where we get into the world of known unknowns — things you know that you do not know, and unknown unknowns — things you don’t even know that you don’t know. For instance, I know that I don’t know how much the moon weighs — though I could find out by looking it up. That’s a known unknown. But in the days before Galileo discovered them, no one would have wondered how much the moons of Jupiter weighed, because no one even imagined that Jupiter had any moons. That was, at that time, an unknown unknown.

But what is even more dangerous is to have in your head something you think is a known known — something you are sure you know — but about which you are mistaken. Someone who thinks the moon is made of green cheese, for example, may also know that the moon exists and how much it weighs, but be entirely mistaken about the material from which it is made. And dare I remind us that the man who brought up all these distinctions in recent years, between known unknowns and unknown unknowns, Donald Rumsfeld, was himself a victim of his own partial and incorrect knowledge — his belief in the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq — when there weren’t any there. When a little knowledge, partial knowledge, puffs you up to the point where you think you know more than you actually do, trouble is sure to happen.

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One day a rushed businessman had a few moments between connecting flights at an airport, and he decided to go to the crowded café for a snack. He bought a newspaper at the newsstand, then got a paper cup of coffee at the counter, along with a very tempting bag of Famous Amos cookies. Juggling his shoulderbag and his newspaper, his coffee and cookies, his hat, coat and gloves, he found his way to the tables in the food court. In the midst of the crowd he was pleased to find an empty table, where he settled all his belongings, sat down and began reading the paper. A few moments later, a stranger’s voice attracted his attention, and peering over the top of his paper asked if he might share the table. The man gave a curt and businesslike nod and went back to reading.

Another few moments passed as he perused the news on the latest declines and crises, when he heard, coming from the other side of the newspaper wall he had erected, the distinct crinkle of a Famous Amos cookie bag being opened. Lowering the paper, he saw that the man sitting opposite him had opened his bag of cookies, which he’d left lying on the table between them, and smiling at him all the while with a look of guilty pleasure, the stranger took one out and ate it. Well, the man was speechless; but he reached over, took a cookie out of the bag, and with a somewhat defiant crunch ate it. The stranger smiled again, and took another cookie from the bag, after which the man, glaring at him, also took another himself and munched it even more defiantly. This went on for a bit, until the stranger reached into the bag and came up with the last cookie. Smiling, he broke it in half, popped half in his mouth and handed the other half to the still-astonished businessman. Shaking his head in disbelief at this audacity, he nonetheless took the half-cookie and ate it even more aggressively, as if by crunching fiercely he might finally convict his opponent of his incredible presumption.

Just as he had worked himself up to the point of saying what he thought of this unbelievable behavior, a voice came over the PA system to announce his connecting flight was boarding. He hastily gathered up his shoulderbag, coat and gloves and newspaper, and made his way through the bustling crowds to the gate. As he approached the desk, he reached into the side-flap of his shoulder-bag to get the ticket for the connecting flight, and there, next to the ticket, neatly nestled, his fingers encountered his unopened bag of Famous Amos cookies.

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Knowledge puffs up, especially too little knowledge, while love, even a little bit of love, can build up. The Corinthians, about whom we heard last week, and about whom we will hear more as we move towards Lent, the Corinthians thought of themselves as particularly knowledgeable and sophisticated. Corinth was, after all, a cultural center of ancient Greece, a cosmopolitan city. What Paul was attempting to teach them, in an unusually gentle way for him, was that maybe they didn’t know quite as much as they thought, or know about what really mattered. The Corinthians’ knowledge told them that as there is only one true God, that idols are mere nothings, and not worth worrying about, so eating food offered to them was permissible, since in their sophistication they knew that such an offering was meaningless. But like the man who thought the stranger was taking his cookies, they were only seeing things from their side, from their perspective.

Paul tried to show them the other side, what their knowledge might do, what results it might have, if some Christian believer less sophisticated than they were to see them eating food in a pagan temple. “Take care,” Paul said, “that this liberty of yours does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” So Paul urged them to temper their knowledge with love and consideration for their weaker brothers and sisters, who might take offense at their sophisticated liberty. He urged them to be more like the stranger in our airport story, who though he could have been indignant with this man for taking half of what really were his cookies, smiled tolerantly and even shared the last half-cookie with him. His knowledge, the generous man’s, while complete, was tempered with charity. He would not, as Paul said, allow food to become a cause of someone’s fall.

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A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. And much knowledge, untempered by love, can be a very dangerous thing. For knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Knowledge in itself is morally neutral, like a shovel. Use a shovel to dig a ditch, or plant a garden, and you accomplish something useful. But use a shovel to whack someone over the head and you have turned it into a weapon.

Knowledge, by itself, does not always lead to virtue, and knowledge without love can be cold, empty and vicious. As we see from our Gospel this morning, the demon recognized Jesus immediately, before many of the disciples, even, and said, “I know who you are.” You’d better believe the demons know who Jesus is, and as Saint James famously said, they tremble in that knowledge. Their knowledge does them no good, because they rejected God at the very beginning, choosing to take their own course rather than rejoicing in the one God had intended for them.

So Jesus doesn’t engage the demon in a debate concerning the facts. The facts are as the demon states them. No, Jesus simply orders the demon to shut up and get out, to leave God’s human creature, God’s human child, alone! As the old Appalachian folk song says, “Get your finger out of it, it don’t belong to you!”

Yes, knowledge in itself, without love, is worthless, even dangerous; it puffs up; it gives those who possess it an inflated estimation of themselves; while love, which is so often expressed in humility and charity, is blessed, and it builds up.

The Corinthians didn’t heed Paul’s warning, and continued bickering for decades more before their church finally fell apart. That is a warning to us all not to place our trust in our knowledge, however extensive we may think it is, but to put our trust in God’s love. Knowledge always has limits, and can never be perfect until that final day when all is revealed. In the meantime, let us take care with one another, loving first rather than leaping to judgment on the basis of uncertain knowledge. For in all that we do with each other, can we really be sure we know whose cookies we’re eating?

Let us pray, as we do in the final blessing, for the peace of God that passes all understanding, that we may be kept safe and secure in the knowledge, but more importantly, in the love, of Jesus Christ our Lord.+