Tuesday, August 20, 2013

"Christ's wisdom: Learning from our hunger." -- a sermon for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost

A sermon preached by Canon Theologian Dr Mark Jordan at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, August 4, 2013

Good morning to all and to each of you. You may well wonder who I am. My name is Mark Jordan and I teach religion at Washington University. But that’s not why I’m here. Last spring, the cathedral chapter kindly appointed me “Canon Theologian.” Despite that resounding medieval title, I’m a lay member of this congregation, as most of you are. But then you may wonder why you can’t recall seeing my face alongside you in the pews.

The truth is that I come as an ambassador from a distant tribe. It’s called the 8 o’clock service. The tribe has strange customs. We don’t sing. We cling to 17th-century grammar. And we believe that when Jesus said that two or three should gather in his name, he meant only two or three.

It’s good to remember that people come to this cathedral not only at different times, but for diverse motives. We talk a lot about diversity here, and we should, but perhaps not often enough about liturgical diversity or theological diversity or spiritual diversity. Indeed, there may be only a handful of other people here this morning, only two or three, who share your exact mix of motives and needs. You may come because you have childhood memories of this building. You may come because you like to see friends. You may come because you love the music. Or because it’s a short walk from where you live and you happened to find it one day. Or because you admire the reredos, that towering sculptural wall behind the altar. Or perhaps you detest the reredos and return Sunday after Sunday in the dogged hope that someone will have covered it, at last!, with a thick tapestry.

We should expect this variety of religious motives and needs—and not just because people are so different. We should expect it because the mysterious God, the God who can never be contained or comprehended, calls people for all sorts of divine purposes, using all sorts of messengers. As Hosea says in this morning’s reading, God calls us for no better reason than that God loves us—love us as we are, in all our differences and disagreements. God says to Hosea, “I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.” There can be no better reason for being called here than divine love. Only we often don’t recognize it or realize that we hunger to be fed in just that way. So we need to be taught to recognize what or rather who draws us.

One biblical word for teaching about deep hunger is wisdom. I’m not sure that we Americans believe in wisdom. I mean, we’re drowning in information. Sometimes we trust expertise. We’re impressed by technical know-how, and we love an inside tip. But wisdom, especially religious wisdom? We tend to think of religious teaching as burdensome rules, or memorized Bible verses, or tedious and complicated doctrines. Are we ready to allow that a church might actually offer wisdom? That’s much harder, especially if we’ve had bad experiences in the past with abuses of religious teaching authority. So most of the time we convince ourselves that we don’t want wisdom after all or that there isn’t anything like wisdom to be had anyway. But it’s just this despair about wisdom, this cynicism about spiritual teaching, that keeps us hungry in spirit. One way to push back at the despair and to resist the cynicism is to find the source in ourselves of the hunger for wisdom—the desire for a spiritual teaching that we want as deeply as food to eat. We may need a teacher who can reawaken that desire.

From what we see in the gospels, Jesus spent most of his time teaching. Not rules, not doctrines, but wisdom. In today’s reading from Luke we see him refusing to teach anything other than wisdom. Someone asks him to intervene in a family dispute about an inheritance. Jesus gives an unexpected answer: “Friend, who set me to be a judge or an arbitrator over you?” In other words: Friend, you’re asking the wrong question. You want me to deliver an expert opinion that you can then use to extract the money that you think you need. But I’m sent to teach you something else, something much more urgent—something that you’ve forgotten you need.

Jesus has a habit of giving these unexpected answers. People ask him a question, and he replies with a story—as he also does today. Often the story is such a riddle that even his closest students can’t understand it. At other times, his answers are not only unexpected, they’re irritating. A few chapters further on in Luke, a group comes to Jesus with a question: Should we pay taxes to the Romans? (Luke 20:20-26). The compiler of Luke thinks that the questioners may have had bad motives for asking, but let’s leave that aside. The question makes good sense to Jesus’s audience: the Romans are not only invaders, they are religious enemies. So wouldn’t it be sinful to pay them taxes? Jesus asks back, Do you happen to have a coin on you? One of the surprised questioners holds one out. Jesus now asks, Whose image is on it? It’s the Roman emperor’s image, of course. That’s what you expect on a Roman coin. Well then, Jesus says, give the coin that shows the emperor back to the emperor. Give God what belongs to God. You can almost hear the questioners thinking, All we wanted to know was whether it was religiously permitted to pay our taxes? And you can also hear Jesus correcting the question underneath: Ask instead about what you have that belongs to God—and how you are called to take it back to God.

Jesus is a teacher, but not the kind of teacher we expect. He jolts our expectations. A jolt is good for us when we’re overconfident about exactly the kind of answer we require. A jolt is also good for us when we’ve given up asking for any answers in disappointment or boredom.

But beyond jolting us, what kind of wisdom did Jesus consider it important to teach us? Sit with that question for a moment. Put aside all the first answers that come up, all the automatic, churchy answers. Ask yourself, as if for the very first time: what does wisdom look like in Jesus’s teaching?

To begin with, he didn’t write anything down. All the texts we have about him, including all the books that make up the New Testament, were written by other people. Apparently Jesus didn’t consider it essential that he leave us a detailed written teaching. Maybe his wisdom isn’t best transmitted by books.

Or maybe it has to be transmitted by many books in varied forms and voices. Jesus taught by speaking on particular occasions, to particular people. His words were often annoying or troubling, when they weren’t simply incomprehensible. Apparently Jesus didn’t consider it important to give us bullet points or simple slogans. So maybe his wisdom isn’t simple the way some aggressive ideologies are. Or maybe it’s so simple that any words betray it. Again, Jesus’s teaching didn’t stop with words. He taught by actions. By healing and forgiving, but also by praying in desert solitude and then feasting with disreputable people.

On the night before he died, in his final teaching to his closest students, he didn’t hand over a summary creed or an institutional plan. He urged them—urges us—to repeat a ritual at his unguarded table.

In Jesus’s teaching, what does wisdom look like? We’ll each have answers to that question, and they’ll change as we learn. But I would suggest that his wisdom cannot ever be contained only in the prayer book (whether Rite 1 or Rite 2), or only in the Bible, or only—God knows—in sermons. His wisdom is displayed in the ritual he urged us to re-enact. We re-enact it every Sunday: people standing at a table remembering the teaching Jesus gave before he left us. It’s so familiar, so routine, so modest, that it can slip by without our paying much attention. Some Sundays, in fact, we bury it underneath all the things happening around it. But this intimate ritual is what our teacher gave us as the reminder of his wisdom.

We’ve come here this morning for our different reasons. We’ve arrived at the table that is the center of Jesus’s teaching. Now is the time to learn from him. Not when our lives are less busy. Not when we’ve sorted out all our problems. Not after we’ve built more barns or solved the cathedral’s financial challenges or finished editing its mission statement. Not when we finally agree on why we’re all supposed to be sitting here. We’re here now in the presence of this table, which belongs to Jesus. Let’s be ready now to learn. To remember what we each desire most. Let’s learn from our hunger.

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