I. Learn to love what you do not understand – God
So, here we are in Marsh Chapel with its Cram designed neogothic nave, its Connick stained glass, and its Casavant organ. Just as we have had four deans of Marsh Chapel named Bob, apparently if you want to work on the infrastructure of the chapel your last name must start with “C.” Here we are, listening to texts written neigh on two millennia ago, singing songs sung over the past five centuries, and yet inflicted with a preacher only three decades old. Here we are, in a chapel dwarfed by its surrounding schools and colleges, at the heart of a great research university, in the midst of the city that Oliver Wendell Holmes cited as “the Hub of the Solar System.” Here we are, pausing for a moment of awe, groping for a touch of wonder, steeped in the richness of history, and inspired by the presence of mystery. Here we are, come Sunday, that’s the day.
Do you know why you are here? My parents and my in-laws are here because I put coming to church on their itinerary for their trip to Boston, but the rest of you are here of your own volition. You have no excuse! What are you doing here? Why have you come? What possessed you, motivated you, inspired you to either make the trek in to church, or to flip on your radio, or to navigate to our live stream, or to download our podcast? And on Memorial Day weekend, no less!
Well, the reason that most people come to a major research university is that they do not know.
Now Brother Larry, you’re starting to sound like that student last semester cited in The Bunion, Boston University’s satirical student newspaper: “Rich Girl in Dining Hall Can’t Even.” Just as a fictional employee in the story wonders, “What can she not even? … That’s barely half a sentence!” so too we have to ask, they do not know what? What is it that they do not know?
Well, dear friends, particularly in the case of matriculating undergraduates, the answer again is: they do no know. That is, they do not know what they do not know. Before you can learn what you want to know, first you have to learn what you want to know. At the masters level, of course, we expect you to at least have some idea of the general field out of which your questions arise. Then at the doctoral level we expect you to have honed your question to such a narrow degree that you can write a dissertation entitled something like “The use of the conjunction ‘and’ in the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson written between May 1 and May 17, 1841.” (They’re funny. They think I’m kidding!). Of course, the greatest accomplishment of a PhD is learning exactly how much it is that you do not know.
Why would you go to a university if you already know? Libraries are places where knowledge is stored; universities are places where knowledge is pursued. But here’s the thing: at their best, churches are more like universities than they are like libraries. That is, church should be a place we come to pursue God, not a place where God is packed away in storage. In the life of the church, God is the great unknown for whom, as Paul says in our reading today from the Acts of the Apostles, we would search, and perhaps grope, and find. Paul identifies the God of Christ with the unknown god of the Athenians. Then, rather than presenting knowledge about their unknown God, Paul goes on to further affirm God’s unknowability. God is not like things we can know, like images made of gold, or silver, or stone, “formed by the art and imagination of mortals.” Rather than knowledge, Paul presents a paradox: “God who made the world and everything in it … is Lord of heaven and earth,” and yet God “is not far from each one of us.” God is transcendent and immanent; God is aloof and intimate.
This is why we have come, and more, this is why we were made: to be struck by awe, to be transformed in wonder, to emerge from history into the heart of mystery. We are travelers on a journey, not dwellers in a homestead. We are learning, we are traveling, we are growing, here on Sunday, and day by day in the classroom, and the laboratory, and the field site, we learn to love what do not know, we learn to love what we do not understand, we learn to love God.
God is here! As we your people
meet to offer praise and prayer,
may we find in fuller measure
what it is in Christ we share.
Here, as in the world around us,
all our varied skills and arts
wait the coming of the Spirit
into open minds and hearts.
II. Embodied feeling of God – Spirit
On this Memorial Day weekend I remember my childhood friend Marion McCrane. Now, Marion was my childhood friend because she was my friend when I was a child, even though Marion herself was of an age to be my grandmother. She and her sister Edna lived across the street from us, and my brother and I would go over to spend time with them, to hear their stories, to explore the antique artifacts of their childhood and family, to pet their three dogs and two cats, and to help care for the flora that proliferated under their deliberate care and guidance in both front and back yards. Marion died this past fall, and I had the privilege of presiding at her funeral. In preparing to lay Marian to rest, I found this story in Bernard Livingston’s book Zoo, Animals, People, Places.
One of the more interesting examples of skillful simulation of motherhood for a zoo animal was the experience … of Marion McCrane in hand-rearing a two-toed sloth born at the National Zoo. The two-toed sloth is a nocturnal creature that spends practically its whole life – eating, sleeping, traveling – suspended upside down in the trees by its limbs. The infant lies on the mother’s abdomen as she lethargically moves about the forest. Ms. McCrane, as a zoologist on the National staff, had hand-reared everything from monkeys to snakes, but as far as they knew nobody had ever hand-reared a two-toed sloth before…
Ms. McCrane was equal to the challenge. After experimenting with a number of techniques that did not quite work she managed to succeed in simulating the precise position that an infant sloth assumes while nursing in his upside-down world. And a bottle of half-strength evaporated milk did the trick for little Mary Jane…
Ms. McCrane solved the material-contact problem by housing Mary Jane in a strong basket packed with towels, blankets, hot water bottle and a muff to which the infant clung as a substitute for her mother’s abdomen. The waking nocturnal hours were filled in with feeding and a bit of clinging to Ms. McCrane herself.
Can there be any experience of greater awe and wonder than that of mothering love? Here was Marion, living out of the history of her own experience and into the mystery of mothering this small, vulnerable creature in love. As Jesus said, Marion lived, “I will not leave you orphaned.”
For Paul, we do not know God, and yet in God “we live and move and have our being;” God “is not far from each one of us.” We do not know God, but we feel God, we encounter the mystery of God in our bodies. Awe and wonder are not thought; they are felt. We feel God in the quickening of the heart, in the shortness of breath, in the fleeting failure of words and concepts. It was the great Protestant theologian, and grandfather of liberal theology, Friederich Schleiermacher, who said that religion is “the feeling of absolute dependence.” We do not know but we feel ourselves dependent on God for our very being and the world in which we live and move.
We do not know God but we feel God and we desire God. Jesus, speaking in the voice of John the Evangelist, does use the language of knowledge to describe our relationship with the Advocate, the Spirit of truth. But is this the knowledge of facts or the knowledge of lovers? Well, apparently we will know the Spirit because the Spirit “abides with” us, and “will be in” us. This hardly seems like knowledge acquired by pure reason. Rather this is the language of eros, of desire, of embodied feeling. “On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” To be sure, erotic language in relation to God is dangerous. There is a reason that our Jewish brothers and sisters prohibit reading the Song of Solomon until you are both married and have passed your thirtieth year. Nonetheless, what other language could express the intimacy that is the embodied feeling of God other than the language of desire between lovers or the image of the loving and nurturing parent? “I go and I will come to you and your heart shall rejoice.” We know, in that we feel, in our bodies, the love of the unknown God in the intimate presence of the Spirit.
O Comforter, draw near, within my heart appear,
And kindle it, Thy holy flame bestowing.
O let it freely burn, til earthly passions turn
To dust and ashes in its heat consuming;
And so the yearning strong, with which the soul will long,
Shall far outpass the power of human telling;
III. Suffering persists – Christ
And yet, suffering persists. Our feeling the glory and love of God, while it may transform suffering, does not overcome it. “The resurrection follows but does not replace the cross. The cross precedes but does not overshadow the resurrection.” The Advocate, the Comforter, the Spirit of truth accompanies us on the journey of life and faith into the never-ending depths divine unknowability, but cannot walk the path for us.
On this Memorial Day weekend we remember too many who have endured suffering and death as a result of human failure: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. In the end, these seven deadly sins are our human succumbing to fear: lust is the fear of solitude, gluttony the fear of hunger, greed the fear of poverty, sloth the fear of being overwhelmed, (no offense to Mary Jane!), wrath the fear reconciliation, envy the fear of being enough, and pride the fear of being wrong. Alas, these sins are all too often most deadly to those who surround those who commit them.
In March, Bishop Elias Toume, Greek Orthodox bishop of the Valley of the Christians in Syria gave the keynote address at the annual Costas Consultation on Global Mission hosted by the Boston Theological Institute. He spoke of the suffering of Christians in Syria, in the midst of the suffering of the Syrian people generally. He reminded us that Christianity was, in a sense, born in Syria, with Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. He wonders whether Christianity now will die in Syria. Bishop Elias told the story of facilitating a prisoner exchange between the military and the rebel forces, in which some of his congregants were caught in the middle. At the end he said, “Being a bishop is not about going to parties and presiding at ceremonies. Being a bishop is about being ready, at a moments notice, to lay down your life for your people.”
“But if you suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated… For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.” (1 Peter 3: 14 & 18).
Abide, then, in the love of the unknowable God. Feel the flaming desire of the Spirit in your heart, in your gut, in your spirit. And even in the midst of suffering, keep the commandments of Christ, whom God has appointed to judge the world in righteousness. Amen.
~ Br. Lawrence A. Whitney, LC+
University Chaplain for Community Life