COMING WITH THE CLOUDS

February 24, 2008

Somewhere there’s an abused woman who is afraid of what her husband might do.   Over the course of their three year marriage, she’s been hit in the face and verbally battered and bruised.  On a Wednesday afternoon, she listens to her baby cry herself to sleep and stares out the kitchen window.   She looks through the bare and entangled branches of trees to the clouds. 

Somewhere there’s Chief Executive Officer who is contemplating suicide.   His company has just laid-off over two-thousand employees.   The stocks are taking a huge hit on Wall Street.  He suspects that his wife is having an affair.  But on a red-eye flight from Las Vegas, this captain of industry makes his descent through a bank of thick, cumulous clouds.  

Somewhere there’s a frail little boy who’s been diagnosed with cancer.   After weeks of chemotherapy he’s lost most of his dark, curly hair.  The child’s parents consult with specialists and buy all kinds of electronic toys.  The school, where the boy’s a student, starts a fund-drive to help with medical and transportation costs.  One day, after lunch, when he can’t really taste his food, the young patient draws a picture; it’s a picture of the clouds.  

In the Bible—just so we’re clear—clouds frequently signify a theological lack of clarity.  That’s important for today’s message.

  

Whenever we see or hear something about clouds, we should instantly assume that the clouds conceal something more than rain or snow or lightening.  On Mount Sinai, for example, the clouds gather around the awesome presence of God.   But just when we get used to that correlation, we dare not assume that we know for sure whether God is pleased or displeased with us.  The clouds of the biblical narrative would just as soon launch a violent strike of judgment as they might give way to a radiant burst of smiling light.  We can never be too sure or too clear. 

  

At Penn State University, we had a street preacher who would yell at the students, racing to and from classes.   He would rant about pre-marital sex and rave about drinking and smoking cigarettes, but mostly he would talk about “being saved.”   Apparently God had saved this man from his sin in November of 1975, on the day before Thanksgiving.  He remembered it vividly because there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and since that day and that hour that he gave himself to Christ, the man claimed that he had not committed one sin.   Not one.   In the middle of the walkway, going up to the library, at the foot of the stairs, he declared that God had made him morally perfect and that if someone like me really believed I could be perfect too.   That if I truly grunted up the right amount of spiritual resolve someone like me could live out my days under a cloudless sky…  Someone like me…  Someone like a human being…

  

Now, before I venture an interpretation of Daniel 7, we need to be really clear and to repeat this basic background with regard to clouds in the Bible.   Clouds are not necessarily bad.  Clouds are ambiguous, and to the extent they invite us to imagine God’s judgment and God’s grace, we should probably not esteem any word from any preacher who promotes his or her own moral fiber over and above the mystery of the clouds. 

  

As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. 

As you already understand, Jesus personally identifies with this image in Mark 13:26, and in Daniel 7 we have brief glimpse of where he gets this stuff.   He gets this stuff from being immersed in the story.   He gets this stuff from being haunted by the biblical text.  He gets this stuff from being able to discuss and to debate the intimate details of a community’s dealings with Yahweh.   Jesus gets this stuff, and more often than not, when in doubt, he lets the clouds roll over him.   Think about Mark 1:10 when the “heavens (are) torn apart” in his baptism.  Think about the transfiguration cloud in Mark 9.   Think about the darkness that broods over his crucifixion in Mark 15:33.   The meaning and the purpose of Jesus’ life are thick with clouds.   And the only question is, why would we ever want a day or a night without them?  Why would we ever expect our lives to have meaning and purpose without the clouds? In the scene from the 1991 film, Grand Canyon, Danny Glover plays the tow truck driver who just wants to do his job.   Kevin Klein plays the affluent attorney who doesn’t want to get hurt.   And the guys from the bad section of Los Angeles epitomize the way things are.   Things apparently just are a certain way.   Some neighborhoods go to hell while others build higher walls with security guards stationed at the gate.   There are rich and there are poor.   There are crime victims and there are criminals.   This is the way things are.   There are Democrats and there are Republicans.   There are health nuts and there are drug addicts.  There are those whom we respect because they carry a gun and there are those we disrespect because… well because we can.   And yet, what if, in the words of the Danny Glover character, “It ain’t supposed to be this way”? 

My suggestion is that Daniel 7 gives us the license to live with our head in the clouds in exactly this way.   We’re not quite sure, not quite clear, on what we should do or how to do it.   All we know is—the way things are and the way things are supposed to be are two different things.   A vast chasm opens up whenever we allow ourselves to consider people who are homeless, or people who are suffering, or the parts of creation that seem so broken and breakable.   Should we just give up?   Should we keep our heads down and try to fit in?   Or, does Jesus want us to look up and catch a glimpse of something beyond the way things are?

There’s an amazing short story that speaks to this question in a profound way.  In Flannery ‘O Connor’s Revelation, Mrs. Turpin and her husband, Claud, find themselves in a physician’s waiting room.  Mrs. Turpin is a proud woman of forty seven years.   Across from her is a nineteen year old with a face full of acne.  The young girl is reading a college book, called, Human Development.   Mrs. Turpin, by contrast, is not interested in development.   She muses aloud,

 “If it’s one thing I am… it’s grateful.  When I think who all I could have been besides myself and what all I got, a little of everything, and a good disposition besides, I just feel like shouting, ‘Thank you, Jesus, for making everything the way it is!’  It could have been different…”  

A little later, the Human Development  book comes, flying across the room and strikes Mrs. Turpin in the head.  There’s a huge commotion and eventually the white-trash girl who threw the thick tome is restrained.   And yet, at night, just as the sun is slipping through the tree line, we read about this vision, a streak of light in the clouds:

 She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire.  Upon it a vast horde were rumbling toward heaven.  There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs.  And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right…  They alone were on key.  Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.  

You see, what we’re discovering with Daniel 7 and other passages is the messy transcendence of God as it is revealed in mundane, ordinary cloudy days.   Jesus himself identifies with one like a human being, coming with the clouds…  Have you seen him lately?  Amen.  

LATAH LONGS

February 18, 2008

I’m about ready to make a statement that may shock you.  It may shock you in terms of irony.  It may shock you in terms of its sheer existential honesty.   But what I’d really like to emphasize is the way this soon-to-be-uttered sentence might shock you into a new awareness of the hope that we have in Jesus Christ.   So here’s the statement.  Brace yourselves… 

  

Latah Valley Presbyterian Church will not last forever.  

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Now that I’ve let that phrase slip from my mouth, let me point out the often exaggerated and somewhat arrogant use of the word, “FOREVER.”   I’m not talking about Handel’s Messiah and the Hallelujah chorus.  I’m referring to the United States Postal Service, printing a so-called “FOREVER” stamp that we might like to purchase if we’d like to avoid the incremental price hikes that will occur in the future.   The “FOREVER” stamp evidently guarantees the standard delivery of a standard letter from now until the end of time.  But, ask yourselves, is the U.S. Postmaster truly in a position to enforce this transaction?   I think not.  And it was the same thing when President Bush and other military leaders designated this country’s response to the 9/11 attacks in terms of “OPERATION INFINITE JUSTICE.”  Can we really make that assertion with a straight face and a clear conscience?   That you and I and others like us can guarantee the righting of all wrongs—and the healing of all hurts—forever and ever and ever?  

Sheryl and I once drove the kids down to Washington D.C., where we spent the day, seeing the sights.   And, let me give you this tip.  If you’d like to get around our nation’s capitol, one of the things you ought to do is plan on riding on the Metro rail system.  I think every major city should have this kind of transportation network.  Rather than hassling with traffic and parking the car, we went from the Smithsonian to the International Spy Museum, from the Lincoln Memorial to the Library of Congress and had a great time.  But I remember talking with the guy in the booth, who sold us the Metro Pass.  He said that we could buy a one day ticket that would be good only for that particular day, or we could be this laminated, fancy ticket that would be good… “FOREVER.”   

  

Well, excuse me.  I’m not so sure the United States, let alone Washington D.C., let alone the Metro rail system will be around forever.   Have you seen the ruins of the Forum or the Coliseum from ancient Rome?   Have you seen the Orthodox Jews in Israel, saying their prayers while standing near the last remaining western wall of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem?  “FOREVER” is a long, long, long time.  And some might argue that “FOREVER” is actually a time outside of time altogether.  

  

And that brings us back to Latah Valley Presbyterian Church and how I believe it’s a good thing that we tell people from the start:  we will not last forever.  Something better, wildly better, is coming.

Latah Longs for the coming kingdom of the risen Christ where there will be no temple, no church, no sighing, no suffering and no death, but the Lord God will be their light…

  

You see, by most accounts, institutions and infrastructure that last forever are considered to be the best bargains that we have.  Except when it comes to the life of the church.  I know it’s a shock to hear someone like me say this, but the life of the church is to be located in the way that we give it away.  And we garner that idea from the witness of the New Testament and from the Revelation to John.  In particular, Revelation 21 highlights the following items for which we yearn, ache and long:

1.    a new heavens and a new earth;

2.    no more sea and no more sun;

3.    the new Jerusalem… prepared as a bride;

4.    the home of God among mortals;

5.    every tear wiped away;

6.    no more death—which also takes care of mourning, crying and pain; and

7.    no temple.  

Now, the mention of “no temple in the city” is an awkward thing to hear.   It would be sort of like the fan of the Cleveland Browns who is told in 1994 that his team would be moving to Baltimore.  And that’s sort of like the fan of the Baltimore Colts who is told in 1982 that her team is moving to Indianapolis.  The temple, like the sports franchise, has become a powerful source of identity for the people of Jerusalem.  As long as there is a holy edifice and a priestly system of making guilt offerings to Yahweh in the Holy of Holies—there’s a FOREVER stamp or a FOREVER ticket, which guarantees a free ride.

And yet, suppose the temple itself is not meant to last forever, and suppose all seven of the congregations to which John writes in the Book of Revelation no longer exist.   Is there something more?

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Before you answer that, let me back up and tell you about a phone call that I received on Wednesday about the Latah Valley property.   The man, a neighbor from across the street, called to say that he thought the region would be ruined by the construction of the new homes that will be built and by the establishment of a new sanctuary with parking lots and the whole religious thing.  That is, he respected “the right of the owner” to do whatever we wanted, but it would not improve the area around Meadowlane Road.   Now how am I to respond to those kinds of remarks inasmuch as I am the organizing pastor of Latah Valley Presbyterian Church and I believe that we intend to do a lot of good?  Am I to get on my high horse and claim our rights?  

  Well, maybe.  That’s certainly one way to fit into other people’s frame of reference.  With Scarlett O’Hara’s father, most people assume that land is the only thing that lasts.  But the hope of our Mission Statement is that Latah Valley will point beyond its property and beyond its buildings.  The hope of Latah Valley is not simply that we become a viable and strong congregation.   It’s more, always more.  

William Willimon tells the story of a new pastor who wanted to clean the rolls at United Methodist congregation to which she had been appointed by the bishop.  Cleaning the rolls is a euphemism for determining who among the church membership list is still committed and living in town, who has been to worship recently and who has served on a committee.  For example, if a person or a family hasn’t been to worship in a long, long time, it’s appropriate for the church’s pastor, working with other lay leaders, to remove that person’s name or that family’s name from the roster.  Anyway, the method by which this pastor wanted to accomplish this goal seemed very fair and very redemptive.  She personally would pay a visit to every family of the church who had been estranged, and she would do this with a Bible in her hand and a song in her heart.  

  

So, after going through most of the list and visiting most of the households, the pastor went to see the Simmons family.   The couple lived in a nice, suburban home with a swimming pool and a three-car garage.  Neither of them had been seen or heard from since the funeral for their child, so the pastor asked why.  She sat there on the couch, leaned into the awkward silence and waited for a reply.  The husband’s face was like stone, but his spouse launched into the story:   she had been vacuuming upstairs and her son had been playing in the family room.  When she turned off the vacuum she went downstairs and couldn’t find him.  She noticed the sliding door to the patio was ajar, and rushed outside to the swimming pool…

 Her son had drowned and couldn’t be saved.  And then came the eulogy, delivered by the pastor at the time.  He stood at the pulpit, in the midst of this amazing sanctuary, this permanent fixture in the community.  He stood there and he spoke so authoritatively, and he told the group of mourners that Billy’s death had been God’s will.   “God’s will,” said the mother, as her voice cracked.  “That was the last thing I heard in that church.   And I’ll never go back.” 

The young pastor then waited for a long time without saying anything.  She glanced at her Bible.  She opened it to Revelation 21… 

“See, the home of God is among mortals, He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples and God himself will be with them; he will every tear from their eyes.  Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”

  After she finished reading, the pastor whispered.   She seemed almost ashamed when she said, “I’m very sorry… your son’s death was not God’s will.  Death is never God’s will.  The church that told you that was wrong.”    Latah Longs…  What can I tell you about FOREVER?   Latah Longs for the day when we won’t be necessary, the day when worship and praise will be what we breath, the day when we’ll feel the warmth of a light upon our skin and we’ll look up and it won’t be the sun.   Amen. 

Left to our own devices, I think the act of loving someone is impossible.  I’m not being cynical here; I do believe that this statement is true:  the act of loving a person is impossible when we are left to our own devices.   Therefore, if you accept the proposition that people do in fact love one another, those people must be receiving help.   Let me repeat that:  I think it’s impossible to completely and passionately love the person who says he or she neither wants, nor needs that love—and I think it’s impossible to completely and passionately love the person who would like nothing more than to receive and/or to reciprocate that love.   In short, I think it’s impossible to love—to love a parent, to love a spouse, to love a child, to love friend, to love a stranger, to love a victim of the Holocaust, to love the winner a Super Bowl, to love a beautiful person, to love an ugly person, to love a rich person, to love a poor person.  All forms of love are impossible, I think, inasmuch as we define love as something more than hormones, but as the unrelenting commitment of one to another in trusting relationship.   And I know that some of you may even hate me for bringing this to your attention, but on my own, as pastor, I cannot love you as you ought to be loved and you cannot love me as I ought to be loved.  

broken_heart.jpg

 

This is just the stark reality of the human condition.   And if you’d like to argue with me about that—if you’d like to say, “Surely people love one another all the time”—my response goes like this:   Those people are either pretending to love, simply out of self-interest, or they are getting help, or they are being trained. 

 

So, here we go.  To illustrate the impossibility, allow me to offer these four Valentine’s Day scenarios, which suggest what I’m talking about…

 

Scenario #1 involves the mother of a daughter who is trying out for the high school cheerleading squad.   The mother confessed, confessed to police authorities, that she loved her little girl so much that she hired a hit man to take out one of her key competitors.   That’s Valentine’s Day scenario #1, and it touches on what C.S. Lewis refers to as STORGE, or familial love. 

  

Scenario #2 involves a young thirteen year old boy—a boy who falls in love—a boy who falls in love with his teacher.   And the teacher breaks her vows with her husband and has an affair with her student.   That’s Valentine’s Day scenario #2, and it twists what C.S. Lewis refers to as EROS, or romantic love.  

  Valentine’s Day scenario #3 involves a group of friends, who have been close for over a decade.   In the movie, The Big Chill, these friends gather for a reunion following the funeral for a person, named Alex, who had committed suicide.   The friends will do almost anything for one another, including provide drugs, exchange spouses.   That’s Valentine’s Day scenario #3, and it offers a bleak image of what Lewis calls PHILIA, or friendship love.    

Now, in review of Valentine’s Day scenario #4, we need to draw from an outside source.  Namely, this passage from 1 John 4, which reads like this:

  “In this is love:  not that we loved God but that God loved us and sent his Son to be an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (v. 10).   

You may recall, from last week, how we switched around our understanding of knowledge.   We said that the most important knowledge, according to 1 Corinthians 8:1—3, is to know that we are known.   Well, in a similar way, that’s what happens when we try to talk about our love for God, otherwise known as AGAPE.   We love God, only in that we have received God’s demonstration of love for us in the historic events of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.   So, you see, love is impossible.   But what if God has done the impossible for us and among us?  

 

And what if, right now, the Spirit of Christ spreads among us like pneumonia?   Latah Loves… by the power of the Spirit of Christ who trains us in forgiveness, reconciliation and compassion… 

  Brett Webb Mitchell once described how helpless he felt watching his daughter learn to swim.   He said that when she first jumped into the water, the instructors observed her flail about or do the doggie paddle.  In very short order, she became exhausted and could no longer swim to save her own life.   But, with a few weeks of training, things changed.  Swimming, argues Webb-Mitchell, is a very un-natural practice.  Human beings do not have this innate, hard-wired gene which by which we simply know how to do the breast stroke or the back stroke or any other stroke.  Someone must get in the water with us; someone has to demonstrate and be there for us to imitate.   So, why do we assume that when it comes to the art and the practice of love, that we automatically just know how.    

Latah Loves by the power of the Spirit of Christ who trains us in forgiveness…  

  

Or, as 1 John puts it, “since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another” (v. 11).  This sounds easier than it actually is in practice.

 Corrie Ten Boom, for example, had survived World War Two in a Nazi concentration camp.  She had seen with her own eyes the atrocities of that evil regime and even lost many of her closest relatives to the brutal acts of the German officers.   Well, after the war, Corrie founded a rest home for those who had been Nazi prisoners. She began speaking all over Europe about God’s faithfulness to her. Once, after she had given a talk in Germany, a man walked up to thank her for her message. Corrie immediately recognized him, and he must have sensed she would—one of the cruel prison guards from her camp. “How wonderful to know, as you say, that our sins are cast into the depths of the sea,” he remarked humbly. For an instant, she didn’t want to shake his hand. But as she reached out to him, she felt the love of God like a jolt of electricity, and she cried, “Why of course! How wonderful it is!”  

Latah Loves by the power of the Spirit of Christ who trains us in forgiveness… and reconciliation, which actually goes one step beyond forgivness. Ken Burns directed a documentary on the Civil War, which included a compelling reunion of many of the Confederate and Union soldiers who had fought in 1863.   On that summer day in 1913, however, the last remaining veterans came out, not with rifles and bayonets, but with canes and crutches.  And, instead of charging Pickett’s Charge, the film footage showed them ambling slowly and wearily, like the old men that they were.  But then came the most amazing and historic moment.

 

As the Confederates broke into their famous rebel yell and as they Union combatants jumped out from behind their stony cover, an eye-witness described an audible “moan, a sigh, a gigantic gasp of disbelief…”  And then, unlike fifty years earlier, the men in grey uniforms and the men in blue uniforms embraced one another and wept.

  Latah Loves by the power of the Spirit of Christ who trains us in forgiveness, reconciliation and compassion…  Compassion, which means to suffer with.  This is probably the most difficult move for which we need the most intimate training.   On NBC’s Dateline program there appeared a man who had been tried and convicted as a predatory pedophile.  That is, he had abused children sexually and psychologically, and according to psychologists there are many like him.  What made this man unique, however, was that because he had been a truck driver, his abuse covered many miles and took place over many years without anyone catching on.   But then this disturbed man breaks into a house and kidnaps this little girl, named Sarah, who had belonged to a local church.  And the story is quite mysterious.  This girl, after she had been raped, started to pray for this man.  She prayed and the pedophile overheard her words—words of tear-filled compassion.  She prayed and the man broke down in tears.  He wept and the girl put her arms around him and told him it would be alright.  Subsequently, the now convicted rapist took Sarah to the hospital and turned himself in.

Now, ask yourself, how does stuff like this happen?   Stuff like forgiveness, reconciliation and compassion are impossible, right?   In the circumstances, like the ones I’ve described, it would be perfectly natural if Corrie Ten Boom wouldn’t want to shake that Nazi’s hand.  It would be perfectly natural if the Confederate and Union soldiers had remained embittered and full of vengeance.  It would have been perfectly natural for a little girl, named Sarah, to be have so irreparably scarred by the violence done to her, that she wouldn’t be able to feel a thing in her heart for years and years.  And yet, what if we had help?  What if we had available to us the power of the Spirit of Christ?  Someone who trains us in forgiveness, reconciliation and compassion?   And if that’s true, and I believe it is, let’s be a congregation who love impossible people in the most impossible situations.   And let the world around say, “the love of God abides in them.”   Amen.   

Genesis 3:8–19

Mark 8:22–26

The Super Saver market had recently opened at the MacDade Mall.   My mother loved to shop there.  After stealing candy from that subsidiary of the Acme Food Company, however, I could never accompany her again to buy groceries.   She would occasionally ask me, but while trying to conceal a cold sweat, I declined.   And it was a shame.   Once, she absolutely insisted that I go, but I wore a ski mask over my face so the store manager wouldn’t recognize my face.   Even so, I could somehow feel his eyes on me as we made the turn up the snack aisle.   And I could hear his footsteps on the linoleum tiles.  

  There are, of course, things that are much worse than snatching a few caramels and forgetting to pay for them.  For example, we could find ourselves in a pristine garden, with every tree flush with ripe fruit, free for the picking and delicious to the taste.   We could find ourselves in that tropical paradise, with no reason to want for more, and we could set our sights on the very item which God specifically said we could not buy, and should not take.   So, you see, there are worse things than stealing candy from the Super Saver.   It’s just that “the sound of the Lord, walking”—as he does in Genesis 3:8—reverberates.   “The sound of the Lord, walking” echoes.   And it’s as if we’ve been linked, we’ve been tethered, we’ve been enmeshed with this mythic moment; and no amount of noise, no amount of electronic buzz, no amount of festive hoopla can keep us from hearing the sound.  The sound of the Lord, walking…  What exactly is that sound?   

The sound of the Lord, walking is like the sound of a child waiting in the corner of a mildewed Sunday School classroom.   He’s been dropped off at church by his grandmother who will come back to get him after worship is over.  This child pages through the Bible and lingers over the pictures of Jesus healing the blind man, but when the teacher calls upon him to read, he says that the words are blurry. 

  

The sound of the Lord, walking is like the sound of a couple, recently married in the church, but who already feel the romance draining out of the vows they each took before God and these witnesses.   They’re not sure why they’ve become so annoyed with one another, but the credit card debt probably has something to do with it.

  

The sound of the Lord, walking is like the sound of the insurance adjuster at the airport.  He’s working on his laptop and talking on his cell phone, when suddenly he notices an older woman in a wheelchair staring him in the face.   “Excuse me, can I help you?” he says, taking a break from his work.

  

The sound of the Lord, walking is like the sound of the teenage girl, getting drunk with her friends, while her parents are on a trip to Bermuda.  They gossip their way through a bottle of vodka, until one of them wants to take the BMW for a spin. 

  

The sound of the Lord, walking is like the sound of a church potluck, where the din of conversation pauses as a man, who has publicly admitted his addiction to ###########, loads his plate with chicken casserole.  He smiles nervously as the servers look away.  

  

You see, I contend that the sound of the Lord, walking, has both positive and negative connotations.   First, it resonates with our nostalgic view of God, lingering in the background, watching from a safe distance.  In this view, God is nothing more than a religious rumor, theological trivia, what Walter Brueggemann calls “a paper tiger, an idle threat, a literary hypothesis” (p. 52).  We love the idea of the Lord, walking at the time of the evening breeze; and we imagine the sound of it as rather soothing, sort of like elevator music.   But, according to the text, the actual steps of God pierce through the landscape and create dissonance.   I imagine it almost like the beating of the Telltale Heart in that Edgar Allan Poe short story.  I picture it like that suspenseful scene in Jurassic Park when the Tyrannosaurus Rex stalks the children who are no longer protected by the high voltage fence.   With each pounding step, the raindrops and the puddles convulse with ripples. 

  

Have you heard the sound of the Lord, walking? 

Have you heard it within the sanctuary of Hamblen Park?  Have you heard it as Latah Valley gathers for our third month of Sundays?   If you have, you know now that you cannot remain in the background.  You cannot hide among the trees.

Michael Lindvall tells the story of a teenage mother who wanted to have her child baptized.   The only problem was that in that congregation, the local families had a long-standing tradition, and the tradition was that, as a child was brought forward in worship, the minister would say something like, “Who stands with this child?”   At that point, not only would the mother and the father stand, but there would be grandparents and aunts and uncles rising from the pews.  And this was the back-drop, this was the standard practice of the North Haven Presbyterian Church.  Yet, in the case of Tina Cory, things would be different:  “pimples on her chin, little one-month-old Jimmy in her arms, big Jimmy long fled to North Carolina and Mildred Cory, Tina’s mother, the only one who would stand when the question was asked…”    

  

Do you hear the sound of the Lord, walking?   And, what impresses me about this story, is not simply the way the teenage mother will eventually come forward, it’s the way in which the MacDowell family and a couple of elders and the sixth grade Sunday school teacher and the new young couple in the back—how all of them stand up with little Jimmy.    

  

Do you hear the sound of the Lord, walking?  It’s not necessarily the sound of the Lord, coming to punish or to rub our faces in the dirt.   In Christ—through the life, death and resurrection of Christ Jesus—it could be that he’s coming to forgive, to heal and to put us back into responsible and reconciled relationships. 

 I know that it’s awkward to make this connection, but I’m going to try to make it anyway.   In Genesis 3:8, the man and the woman hide among the trees, when the Lord takes his stroll at the time of the evening breeze.   In other words, it is the futile hope of human beings that all God will see is a blur of trees, a bucolic background, sacred scenery, a lovely landscape.  They hope that he will somehow pass by and not notice them.   And, in the same way, I’m wondering about the hope of this blind man, who is brought to Jesus in Mark 8:22.   Notice that he is “brought” to Jesus, which implies that some people had to stand up for him.   And when Jesus presses this concoction of saliva and mud into the man’s eye sockets, we hear his quivering voice:  I can see people but they look like trees, walking.”   You see, what I’d like to offer on this Ash Wednesday is precisely that interim moment when we’re not quite sure of who we see or whom we hear.   When we hear the sound of what could be the Lord, walking in the garden, when what could be people seem like trees, walking—that is the time to venture out.   That is the time to let someone smear dust on your forehead.   That is the time to stand up at the communion table and say, Here I Am, God help me, here I am.   Amen. 

There’s a perpetual debate in our household about which information is the most important to retain in one’s memory or to have on the tip of one’s tongue.   It’s an argument that runs along the lines of gender, age and temperament.   My wife, for example, thinks it’s crucial to know the high temperature of the day, and she has been known to ask, while she’s getting dressed, “What’s the high?”  And to that question she wants a specific double digit number, according to the Fahrenheit scale.  Ian, by contrast, could care less about that number.  He wants to know all the details about the latest and greatest movie, starring Will Smith.  Or he wants to know the exact incantation on the lips of the warrior prince in whatever fantasy novel he’s reading.  Philip, however, can’t be bothered with that kind of trivia.   Instead, by sheer observation, Philip knows things about our dog Pearl that nobody else knows.  He knows the way she hops through deep drifts of snow and where she likes to be scratched at the base of her tail.   Each of us, you see, possesses knowledge that the other dismisses as unimportant or irrelevant.  

And yet, for the most part, we all get along.   Isn’t that amazing? 

I happen to know and have committed to memory a fair amount of film dialogue—quotes from many of my favorite cinematic moments that sometimes help to diffuse the tension around the dinner table.   However, many references are lost on family and friends who do not share my appreciation for motion pictures.   So, if I throw out the words of Captain Quint in Jaws or the Lord of Swamp Castle in Monty Python’s spoof on the Holy Grail, you may not know… This is the dilemma that I’d like us to focus on this morning:  is there a base or a pool or a reservoir of knowledge that all of us, regardless of gender, age or temperament, need to know?   Is there knowledge that we share somehow with people of different races, ethnic origins, languages and peculiar experiences?   And if that knowledge has nothing to do with my personal interests or pet projects, what is it? 

“Now concerning food sacrificed to idols, we know that all of us possess knowledge.”  This is what the apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 8:1, and right away we find ourselves either curious about the meaning of this ancient passage, or nauseated by the idea of eating food sacrificed to idols.  We are either drawn into the conversation—is this something we need to know in 2008?   Or is this something that we might like to know, given that we have an interest in first century Christian practice, faith and religion?   You see, our perspective makes a huge difference.   And this is why, at Latah Valley Presbyterian, I’d like to recommend a perspective from which we learn and understand and know whatever there is to know.  Latah Learns from those humble people who are willing to admit that they don’t always know for sure… 

Given that starting place and given that end goal, let me distinguish between three categories of knowledge:

 1.       the knowledge of information; which may include

2.       the knowledge of technique; and by way of contrast

3.       the knowledge of God and the human soul or self. 

Information, as you know by now, includes things like opinions, values and personal interests that we’ve already mentioned.   But at the core of information are supposedly the brute facts or the data that has been gathered by what scientists call empirical evidence.   I want to talk about the limitations of that knowledge in a moment, but you can see already how the scientific method becomes our primary way of knowing and how immersion in that matrix leads to desperate college applications which sound like this one: 

I am a dynamic figure, often seen scaling walls and crushing ice.  I have been known to remodel train stations on my lunch breaks, making them more efficient in the area of heat retention.  I translate ethnic slurs for Cuban refugees.  I write award-winning operas.  I manage time efficiently…  On weekends, to let off steam, I participate in full-contact origami.  Years ago I discovered the meaning of life, but forget to write it down.  I have made extraordinary four-course meals using only a blender and a toaster oven…  I have played Hamlet, I have performed open-heart surgery and I have spoken with Elvis.           

But I have not yet gone to college. 

You see, when the world has been built around knowing information and then mastering technique, “knowledge puffs up” (v. 1).   “Bo knows… baseball and Bo knows… football.”  That was the ubiquitous commercial slogan about twenty years ago, and by that phrase the advertisers did not  mean to suggest that Bo Jackson knew names and dates and batting averages.   “Bo Knows” meant that, as the designated hitter for the Kansas City Royals and as the running back for the Oakland Raiders, this particular athlete could boast about the  mastery of skills which are valued by American pop-culture.  When he became injured, of course, Bo no longer knew much of anything. 

And it’s at this point—at the end of our ability and at the limits of our information that we may wonder about knowing God.  Or even about knowing ourselves.  Walker Percy, in a funny book, called, Lost In The Cosmos, introduces his topic by rattling off these rapid-fire questions:

  • How (can) you survive in the Cosmos about which you know more and more while knowing less and less about yourself?

  • Why is it possible to learn more in ten minutes about the Crab Nebula in Taurus, which is 6,000 light years away, than you presently know about yourself, even though you’ve been stuck with yourself all your life?

  • How is it possible for the man who designed Voyager 19, which arrived at Titania, a satellite of Uranus, three seconds off schedule and a hundred yards off course, after a flight of six years, to be one of the most screwed up creatures in California…?

Percy’s analysis hits home because it’s only too obvious that the categories of information and technique cannot handle self-knowledge, let alone knowledge of God.  Let’s watch this clip from the movie, Contact, and I think you’ll see the problem.  Jodie Foster plays a scientist who is trying to prove the existence of other intelligent life in the Universe.  She believes in this alien race even while she is seeking the proof.  And yet, she says that she does not believe in God because of the absence of proof.   Well, amazingly, another civilization makes contact through a series of bizarre transmissions.  This other-worldly culture apparently wants to converse with a representative of our species.  But that leads to the problem of who actually represents us.   The majority of the United States population believes in God, but Dr. Jane Aeroway does not.  So here’s her conversation about that with the spiritual advisor to the government, played by Matthew McConahey…

  

Think about that.  Can you prove empirically that your father or your mother loves you?   And if you can’t prove it—if you just know it—might there be another mode of knowing?   And might there also be another mode of learning the most important thing there is to know?

 … concerning food sacrificed to idols, we know that all of us possess knowledge.  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. 

My friend called me from Pennsylvania the other night.  It was about one in the morning for him, but he needed to talk.   “Every time I talk with you it’s the same thing… I’m just tired of it.  I need a change.”   This is what my friend says about his job situation.   As a contractor, doing technical work on companies’ computer systems, he doesn’t receive health benefits or pension.   He’s recently divorced and his youngest son has four years until he graduates high school.   Larry talks about a variety of options—the training he’d like to receive to enter a new line of work.  But then he tells me about his continuing commitment to Christ and to the church community.   He mentions the names of a few people, who he has gotten to know and who know him.   He also knows that I know him, and then we pray to a God who knows both of us more intimately than we know ourselves at any given moment. 

Could this be “the necessary knowledge” that Paul the apostle declares in 1 Corinthians?  Could the knowledge that we are known—something we can’t prove—be what’s necessary?

If it is, then why do we see so many churches still trying to master and to manipulate the categories of information and technique?   I still have people call or write e-mails, quizzing me about the beliefs of Presbyterians.  There are atheists and agnostics who want me to stick to the facts.  And there are believers who want to know why I don’t know for sure.   Let me explain.  I believe in the saving power of God as it’s revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.   But I do not presume that my ideas or my understanding of those things constitute the be-all and end-all of everything there is to know about God.  Likewise, we have a plethora of entrepreneurial clergy who presume that if they just employ the right kind of music or the right number of parking spaces or the right style of preaching, then, with that technique firmly embedded in their congregation’s DNA, only then will they succeed. 

 Latah Learns from those humble people who are willing to admit that they don’t always know for sure…    

How do we learn?  We learn from people who want to be in a mutual relationship with us and who don’t try to dominate the conversation with lots of facts or to even manipulate that data with a fancy technique.   These people are willing to admit that they don’t always know for sure because every time they get close to God, they can’t quite put him under the microscope.    Do you know what I mean? Amen.