"The necessary knowledge"-Sermon for Epiphany 4, I Corinthians 8:1-13
I will never forget the very beginning of my very first class in seminary. It was taught by the Professor of Church History at Virginia Theological Seminary, the Rev. Dr. Bill Stafford, who went on after I graduated to be the Dean and President of the School of Theology at Sewanee. I remember, that first day of seminary, I was so ready learn…maybe more so than at any time in my life before. I felt so blessed to have three years still before me to simply pursue knowledge full-time…and on a subject that is of great interest and passion for me…above and beyond even the science of cooking or the art of fly-casting…and that subject is, of course, divinity itself. I arrived at that first class five minutes early…a rarity for me…fresh out of an inspiring service of Morning Prayer in the seminary chapel. I had with me a new un-scribed upon notebook and newly sharpened pencils…ready to fill the blank pages with all the knowledge that I would glean. I wanted to learn everything I could about the nature and ways of God. I imagined myself, in some future moment, standing in some cathedral like church in an ornate pulpit lofted above a congregation of hundreds of people as they waited in breathless anticipation for the wisdom that would flow from my lips…all rooted in all the knowledge I would soak up like a giant sponge at seminary. Of course, that has never actually been my experience as a college chaplain and church planter over the past 19 years or so.
And that first lecture by Dr. Stafford was indeed inspiring and informative. It was about two early Christian martyrs: Felicitas and Polycarp. But, again, it was the very beginning of the lecture…actually the preliminary remarks that I remember most. For Dr. Stafford began by saying something like, “If you have come to seminary to unlock all the secrets of scripture, to understand the mind of God, to discover the purpose of life, to unpack all the wisdom of hundreds of years of Christian theological thought...”. And as he is saying this, I am thinking yes…that’s exactly why I am here…let’s do it! I was like a kid on Christmas morning…the anticipation bursting out of my skin. And then Dr. Stafford continued dramatically, “Well, friends, then you have come to the wrong place.” It took my mind a moment to acknowledge what he had just said…should I have applied to the Seminary of the Southwest instead…how disappointing…what then were we going to learn and why were we even here? My mind began to run in a hundred different directions at once. And then, again, he continued and said, “But, if you have come here to learn to ask better questions…to seek…to search…and to explore…then…then you have come to the right place.”
Albert Einstein once said, “The pursuit of knowledge is more valuable than its possession.” And I have come to think this is perhaps in part what Dr. Stafford meant. For if we believe that we possess all knowledge on any particular subject then at least three potential stumbling blocks are placed before us. The first is that we are simply wrong. Thus, we have been fooled or have fooled ourselves. For, ideas, concepts, experiments and even physical pursuits are like people…they can never be entirely grasped, fully known, or perfected by the human mind or body. Michael Jordan will tell you he never fully perfected his game. And, Tony Baker will tell you that every new theological insight, even after many years of having new theological insights, only leads us more deeply into the mystery of God. And, my brother-in-law, Dr. Roddy Vann, a noted Plasma Physicist, will tell you that understanding the relationships between the un-seeable particles that make up the physical universe leads to the revelation that the universe is unknowably and infinitely small and large at the very same time…and such knowledge is wonderfully and entirely beyond our capacity. Thus, the adventure for new discoveries, new accomplishments, new creative or physical feats, new philosophical insights into ourselves and the people around us never, nor should it ever, end. And, I think this is one of God’s lasting gifts given to God’s people. Knowledge is something to pursue not possess…remembering that Jesus said to us: seek first.
Further, to somehow believe we know everything there is to know about anything in particular leads to the end of exploration…not the beginning…which is the second stumbling block to the possession of knowledge. For to believe we have mastered any subject simply stunts our growth. It keeps us from the very next discovery, whether about ourselves or the world around us. Sanctification…the process of achieving holiness…of being and becoming the person God created us, in the very image of love, to be and become is a life-times work of seeking and trying and starting over and discovery and re-discovery…a diagonal advance…on a chart whose x and y axis expand infinitely…a journey not a destination…a pursuit and not a possession. And this is just as true whether we are speaking of understanding ourselves, understanding God, understanding other people, or the way the world works around us. And, again, as an admitted work in progress, I see this as a lasting gift from God...for I hope I have not yet fully arrived. I am glad I still get to grow, to become, to learn, to understand more and more of the enormity of God’s love as experienced and shared through my own life with others.
And, the third stumbling block that comes with the possession of knowledge St. Paul sets before us today, who shared his own wisdom on the subject, of course, long before me or Dr. Stafford or Albert Einstein. Paul writes to the church he planted in Corinth, “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.” You see, Paul is not anti-academic. He is a Pharisee…schooled in the scriptures and in Jewish wisdom and the Jewish law…a master rhetorician and gifted writer able to hold his own before the great philosophers in Athens…clearly fluent in Greek philosophy alongside his training as a Pharisee. He acknowledges that we all have knowledge, and, further, like I have already suggested, he argues that really knowing something should lead us to understand how little we really do know. And, the stumbling block he is asking us to address is the lack of humility that often comes from a sense of possessing knowledge. For if we believe we are not just the expert on a subject but the master of it then what does anyone around us really have to offer. To use Paul’s word, this sort “puffed-up” attitude, if you will, silences people, makes them feel invisible, makes them feel less than, and surely does not encourage participation or coming back next time. The actual acquisition of new knowledge is cut off and all are diminished, including and maybe most especially, the one holding court. And, I am an admitted, at times, court holder.
I love the expression that “the wisdom is in the room”…and I use it often…meaning that if there is revelation, an insight, or epiphany to be had in the moment…whether we are studying the bible…or discussing politics…or planning some project or event…or solving some problem…the magical moment of revelation or insight or epiphany…will only and always fully come when every voice involved is heard and affirmed…when every participant is respected and honored as having something deeply valuable, even Godly, to share. I am a big fan and highly commend to the women in our church our women’s bible study on Mondays. It is the longest lasting continuous ministry in our church outside of Sunday worship. And, though, when I join them I am the one with the Master’s Degree in Divinity sitting in the circle or on the screen, I can’t tell you the countless times that Martha Schreffler or Jennifer Garen or any and all of the other people who bless us with their participation have provided some nugget…some insight of wisdom on the passage…that has blown my mind and burst my heart wide open. I am not exaggerating. I just want to sit at their feet and soak it all in…like that first class in seminary.
The wisdom is in the room, or on the zoom, and it always is. And recognizing that is how we just begin to deflate that sense of possessing superior knowledge over another that can, at times, get us all puffed-up. And, then…the best of all…for then love, God’s love, directed toward one another, which is what the pure pursuit of knowledge is actually always pursuing, has the space to really enter the room…and then, as Paul says, we are built up together…love builds up…and our individual and collective vision becomes clear…new possibilities emerge…we grow…people are affirmed…new insights abound…difficult problems find solutions…and there is hope…for all of us.
I think as we begin a new year together, come to another Annual Parish Meeting…and especially as we do so physically apart…especially as we do so in a world that so desperately needs to be built up…especially as we do so at the anniversary of this pandemic…especially as we do so when so much death, distance, division and grief abounds…I think as we come to a new year together that we should make the bold and intentional commitment to lean into one another…to lean into our faith…to seek after the heart of God together…to seek knowledge and learn through the worship and study and service we do together. For I believe the wisdom is in the room. And, I mean the metaphorical room that is made up of and inhabited by our entire family of faith together. Together, when all are heard and affirmed and seen and honored and belong, we can begin to discern…we can begin to glean the knowledge of God’s will for our church…for our lives…for our world…which will build us and those around us, who need us, up. This is good work, fun work that blessedly never ends…a great adventure of exploration that shapes us and grows us…the pure pursuit of knowledge whose end is love alone…found but never possessed…and only together. Amen.