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I delivered this sermon from notes; what follows below is a transcription from a recording made at the 11:15 am service. The text has been edited for clarity. – Scott
Probably about 50% of the people in this room were raised in the Episcopal Church, but the other 50%—including myself—were raised outside of this tradition—either in other Christian denominations, other faith communities, or indeed no faith community at all. Now some of you from other Christian traditions were probably raised to read the Bible literally: one just reads what’s on the page—there’s no interpreting to do, no wrestling to do. Whatever’s there, that’s what it means. Now I do think that there are some passages of Scripture that we should read literally. When Jesus tells us to feed the hungry, I think he’s being literal. It’s not an allegory for something else. He’s saying to give food to hungry people so that they can continue being alive. It’s very simple and straightforward. And I think that when Hebrew Scripture talks about a king that was born in this year, and did such and such, and then died in a later year, I think that’s also literal. It’s pretty straightforward information.
But there are some passages of Scripture that are not amenable to this kind of literal reading. We have one of those this morning in our Epistle reading from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. (Now the Scripture nerds in the audience may want to interrupt at this point and say that most scholars believe that this letter was not written by Paul—and that’s true. So if you’d like to insert invisible scare quotes around the name “Paul” from here on out, that’s OK—but I’m going to keep using this name for brevity’s sake.)
We’re just going to look at the third sentence of this passage:
“I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” Now, this is a sentence that, the more I read it, the less sense it made to me. I was hoping that if I kept reading it, I would get it, but, no—that’s not what happened…
“I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth” … of what? He doesn’t say! Then he goes on: “and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge”. Wait—how can I know something if it surpasses knowledge? That seems like a contradiction in terms! Finally, I’m told that I should be “filled with all the fullness of God”. I’m not entirely sure what “the fullness of God” is, but it sounds like something a little too big for me to contain. This is a passage of Scripture that is not easy to make sense of, literally or otherwise. What is Paul trying to do here?
Well, it became clear to me as I read this over and over and Paul is bringing us to the frontier of something strange. This is not normal, this is not clear, this is not easy. Paul is trying to give us information on how to seek God: if we want to know God, we have to know what surpasses knowledge—and that lets us know that it’s not going to be easy; it’s going to be a struggle. Now, we could spend hours trying to discuss that—don’t worry, we’re not going to! But for those of you who are hearing this passage and it’s hooking you, it’s grabbing you, you want to join that struggle, as difficult as it sounds, I’m just going to recommend a book to you. Some of you have probably heard of it before, it’s called The Cloud of Unknowing. That’s a great title, right? A book with “unknowing” in the title, you know that’s going to be fun…
Now, we actually don’t know who the author of this text was, which is perfectly appropriate, right? What we do know is that it was written in the 13th or 14th century by an elder monk to a younger monk, and the elder was giving advice about meditation, and contemplation, and prayer, and fasting, and other spiritual practices one could use to draw closer to God. (As a side note, it’s probably one of the earliest books written in English as well). For those of you who hear this sentence about “knowing what surpasses knowledge” and you find yourself curious about that, and drawn into that idea, well, there’s a book for that. And actually, this copy (that I am holding up) is your copy—it belongs to the St. Mark’s Verna Dozier Library downstairs. So you can check it out—literally and figuratively.
But my guess is that many of you heard that sentence about “knowing what surpasses knowledge” and you weren’t hooked, you weren’t thinking, “wow, how amazing, I really want to spend hours reading about that!” Some of you are not that concerned about speculative or mystical theology. Does this passage from Ephesians have anything to say to people who are looking for something a little more practical? I think so! But to see how, I need just a little bit of audience participation. I just want you to raise your hand if you believe in human rights…one human right, or a whole bunch of rights…if you think, “yeah, humans have rights, and I think we should respect them”…(OK, pretty much everyone has raised their hand). Human rights are such a part of our religious and political culture, it’s kind of automatic to believe in them.
But human rights are kind of a weird idea if you think about it. Believing in human rights doesn’t seem to be a scientific statement, right? Consider something else: if I say, “I believe in the law of gravity”, that’s just something that happens, all the time. My believing in it has nothing to do with its working. I can even test it out: I can hold this book up and let it go and…it falls to the floor. It seems to work every time. Human rights aren’t quite like that, though. If someone came in here and arrested someone unjustly, someone who had done nothing wrong, and imprisoned them, the Human Right to Liberty would just be … violated, and that would just be that. The prison door wouldn’t refuse to shut because this person’s rights were being violated. A lightning bolt wouldn’t strike down from heaven to blow the prison up and free that person. Their right to liberty just wouldn’t be enforced.
So what does it mean to believe in human rights? There are different ways of making sense of this language about human rights. But one way to think about it that I think is helpful is something like this:
Look around us in this space. We see tables and chairs, the floor, we see the bricks of the building (we’ve been thinking a lot about those bricks lately). All this stuff, we think we can know it, we can possess it, we can control it. And with science, we think we can pretty much know everything there is to know about this stuff. It would take a while, but we could do it. But there are some other objects in this room you may have noticed—human-shaped objects. And we are objects, bodies, we take up space in the world. And science can tell us a lot about what it means to be a human body in the world. But when we say we believe in human rights, we’re not really concerned about saying something just about our bodies. What matters to me when I say that I want to defend someone’s rights is their experience. I want to think about that person not as an object in the world, but as a fellow subject: someone who is thinking, feeling—feeling joy, feeling sadness—they can have hopes and dreams. When I worry about that person locked up unjustly, I am worried about what they are thinking, what they are feeling. Are they suffering? Believing in human rights is to take seriously human suffering, to take seriously human joy—and to think we should prevent the one and encourage the other.
I think that’s at least a part of what it means to believe in human rights. But when we start to think about people this way, we find ourselves coming to the same strange frontier Paul brought us to when he was seeking God. He says that seeking God meant trying to know what surpasses knowledge. And I think we are at the same point now. Because whatever you are thinking or feeling right now, I am not thinking or feeling that. I don’t have immediate access to that. Your own thoughts and feelings are just right there for you; they are who you are. They are totally immediate to you. But they are also totally private. Unless you express yourself through language, I can’t know them. And even then, I certainly don’t experience them with the immediacy that you do.
This is the kind of thing that we used to cover, in part, with the idea of the “soul”, and recently try to express with terms like “lived experience”, a term you may have heard of before (I have to say that I have always been a little confused by this phrase, since I don’t know what un-lived experience would be, but in all fairness, I think the term is struggling to capture something very difficult: this immediacy of experience, of thought, of feeling). That’s what we’re talking about; when we want to defend each other, when we want to protect each other, that’s what we’re worried about.
And so I think this passage of Ephesians is calling us to do two things that are a little strange. On the one hand, Paul is pointing out the real horizon to our knowledge: he’s saying there’s some stuff that surpasses our knowledge; we can’t know it, at least not the way we think we normally know stuff. And that horizon is something we meet when we seek God, but also when we really seek each other, the fullness of who we really are. And yet Paul is also calling us to transcend that horizon, to come to that frontier, and instead of stopping, keep traveling. That’s what’s so weird: he doesn’t say, “there’s stuff you can’t know; too bad”. He says, “I want you to know what is beyond knowing. I want you to know what is on the other side of that frontier.” That’s where things get strange, that’s where things get weird.
But I think our commitment to human rights is drawing us in that same direction. Because the fact of the matter is that our rights seem to be violated at least as often as they are upheld. We know that we live in a world full of suffering, of ignorance, and of brokenness. To affirm human rights is to affirm the truth of justice, of mercy, and of compassion in the face of all that suffering, ignorance, and brokenness. But at least as often as not, the rights fail and the suffering wins. To believe in human rights is to commit to them anyway—it’s not like the law of gravity, where I can just count on it working. I have to work to defend those rights, I have to assert them. Believing in human rights is making a commitment. And it’s taking a risk—because there’s no guarantee that the “rights team” wins!
Now I actually think that our Gospel passage—the first story from it today—is getting at a similar point. This morning, I don’t want to be concerned with the historicity of this text—did this really happen? Did Jesus really feed all these people? Or at least did something similar happen? What did the author do with this text?, etc.. These are important and interesting questions, but that’s not what I want to talk about this morning. I want to ask: what does this story mean to us? What could the Spirit possibly be telling us with this story, where Jesus feeds 5,000 people with five loaves. What could it possibly mean? It seems to me that this story is telling us that we have to love people beyond our capacities. That the inability to do what we know we need to do doesn’t mean that we don’t have the responsibility to try anyway. You only have five loaves? You still have to feed everyone; you still have to try! We come to that strange frontier, that same horizon, the limits of our knowledge, of our abilities, and we keep going anyway. That somehow, we are called to commit to this: that love can defeat suffering and brokenness, and maybe even death.
And we know that it has to be that way, because when we don’t make that commitment, too often, as we know, suffering and death do win. Following Jesus, or seeking God, or just trying to respect other people, means signing up for a ridiculous way of life—let’s be honest about that! We’re going to claim that love is truer than self-interest, love is truer than suffering, that love is truer than death—that’s crazy! Ultimately, whether you invoke God or not in this, to commit to human rights, to commit to the needs of other people, is to live a life of faith—and I know that for a few folks here, “faith” is a four-letter word. But that’s what we’re doing: we come to that limit, and we try to cross it anyway.
So whether we’re seeking God, or we’re seeking to be disciples of Jesus, or we’re just seeking to serve other people, I think that’s what both of these passages are telling us this morning: we have to risk ourselves, we have to live that ridiculous life, we have to come to the frontier of something strange, to the limits of our knowledge, to the limits of our ability— recognize those limits, and then cross them anyway.
And so for those of us who feel called to cross those limits, those of us who feel called to live beyond our capacities, all I can say is: Godspeed!