Sermon for Year C, Proper 27
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
November 10, 2013
St. Thomas Episcopal Church
What kinds of things do you know about? What has God made it possible for you to know?
Is there any particular area in life you might say you feel you have a pretty good grasp on?
Consider the question: What is it that you know? That you know very well?
Something you have studied? Pondered? Learned to make? or do? or be?
Would you go so far as to say you’re an expert at anything?
That you know things about your interests or craft or vocation or avocation
That people might never dream of knowing?
If I suddenly shot out of this pulpit and found myself in the cockpit of an airplane,
My fondest wish would be to look next to me and to see an Ed Yagel or a Matthew Geerlings,
Someone capable and tested out on the subject of flying planes;
Otherwise, in my total ignorance of the subject,
I’m afraid I would be looking at a very fast trip, taken at a very steep pitch.
If I weren’t standing here right now,
But were instead working a construction site
Or tending a bar or helping college students find information,
I would look around for Corey, or Deanna, or Julius -- our three most recent confirmands --
Because what I know about those subjects is limited indeed;
But they have achieved levels of mastery in these things, and their skills are necessary
To help make society go.
Each of us knows something about how the world works:
How plants come up, how school children process things psychologically;
How to run an X-ray machine; how to run a spreadsheet; how to keep a farm going;
How to make a bum knee better, or get a bad heart up and running;
How to answer the phone at city hall when just about every call is from an angry stranger;
How to do Euclidian geometry or give a dog a bath or fit a 12-year-old for a catcher’s mitt.
At least one person in the room today can tell you everything about how newspapers are printed,
And there’s someone else who can install an electrical system top to bottom,
And there’s someone else who knows how to draw up real estate contracts
And another who knows life insurance contracts
And there at least two people who hold more knowledge in the tips of their fingers
On the subject of furniture than I’ll ever get in my head even if I started right now.
If you’ve never printed a check before, or reconciled a business account, or raised beagles,
You might want to ask Jean Tufty, because each one of those things is uniquely tricky.
If you’ve never read a book to a room full of Kindergarteners, be prepared for a learning curve.
If you’ve never taught a section of college History before, you’d better ask Edwin Blackburn,
And you’d better do it before Wednesday morning of this week!
From the individual to the collective - how much do we know?
If we put it all our knowledge into one pile, how vast would it be?
How long would we have to walk before we got all the way around it and circled home?
What about the sum of all human knowledge?
No doubt: What we know is almost immeasurably vast.
There seems to be no limit or logical end.
To this tremendous repository of knowledge, we are adding all the time;
Again, it’s God’s gift to us, that we can do this,
And we’re using that gift, we hope, to make the world a better place.
Our total knowledge base is getting wider and wider all the time,
And thanks to advances in many areas of life,
It’s all happening at an incredibly fast pace.
In 1982, Buckminster Fuller coined the term Knowledge Doubling Curve.
He said that until 1900, the amount of knowledge doubled about every one hundred years.
But he said that by the time of World War II, that number was down to more like every 25 years.
One source recently suggested all human knowledge doubled about every 13 months.
Meanwhile, all the way back in 2006, IBM predicted that by the year 2010,
“The world’s information base [would] be doubling in size every 11 hours.”
Of course, out of all this knowledge, some of it is obsolete or irrelevant or dangerous or inaccurate.
Not all of it is usable; not all of it pertains to our immediate situation;
A good deal of it might even be junk.
But just think on the sheer magnitude and volume --
The breadth and width of What We Know!
It seems like a reason to celebrate, and it is;
But it’s also a call for humility.
We should be haunted and humbled by the words of -- well, of all people, Donald Rumsfeld,
Who was speaking at a press briefing eleven years ago, when he said,
“There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know.
There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know.
But there are also unknown unknowns --
There are things we [don’t even] know [that] we don’t know.”
(For saying this, Rumsfeld was attacked by a group calling itself the Plain English Campaign,
Who presented him with something called the Foot in Mouth Award.)
It’s not the clearest thing anyone ever said,
But I think it makes the case with absolute precision;:
What we do know pales in comparison to what we do not know,
And in fact, when it comes down to it, we don’t even know what we’re supposed to know,
And there isn’t any way to find out -- at least that we’re aware of.
So. Even armed with every last piece of information we could ever hope to acquire,
We nevertheless face a staggering and endless blank canvas of mystery.
Good faith, real faith prepares us to face this great mystery without arrogance or pretension --
But rather, on our knees, in awe and in wonder.
That doesn’t mean it isn’t natural to want to know things
Even if we cannot attain to them.
It doesn’t keep us from just being curious,
And especially about things that have everything to do with us,
And especially, within that category, about the question of eternity.
There’s no better example than the question of What Happens After We Die.
And so we have this question from the Sadducees to Jesus --
An absurd tale about a woman who had seven related men as successive husbands.
(It’s like a bad Western film: “One Bride for Seven Brothers.”)
It’s a question dreamed up by the Sadducees to test and embarrass Jesus.
Jesus is in Jerusalem, in the shadow of the Temple, on the home turf of the Sadduccess,
Taking all comers, answering all questions, holding court.
This is the third such question in a row, and so far Jesus is batting a thousand.
First, it’s the chief priests and scribes, antagonistically asking about his authority;
He dismisses them like flies with his sound teaching.
Then it’s the governor who sends spies who ask him about paying taxes;
Again, with a wave of his hand and a few well-chosen words, he sends them packing.
Now it’s the Sadducees, the ruling religious élite,
Who we’re told up front don’t even believe in the resurrection anyway!
They step up with this question about the resurrection, thinking they can kill two birds:
With one question they will confuse this foolish Johnny-come-lately,
And they will make the people who fuss about the resurrection look like idiots.
So what does he do?
First, he ignores how intent they are on embarrassing him; he just sets that aside.
Then he takes on the rest of the question.
He says that in the resurrection, things change.
But he is loathe to say much more.
In fact, he calls for humility: not just for the Sadducees to humble themselves,
But (by extension) for all the readers of Luke to humble themselves as well.
He says that arrogant people are filled up with their knowing,
So there is less room for God to get in and work.
By contrast, just six chapters before, he has already told us:
“Those who exalt themselves will be humbled,
And those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
So yes, he has extended this teaching now
To even our most basic and naturally curious questions about life in the resurrection.
Now, you might be thinking to yourself that no matter their intention,
The Sadducees’ question is actually a pretty good one.
In fact, you might have wondered along the same lines in your life:
What does happen to us after we die?
Is there some part of us that continues on?
Does some part of us, or even all of us, “go” to God?
What do we mean when we speak about eternity?
If the church cannot help us to know these things better, then what is the use of the church?
There is a simple, though not simplistic, answer that lies at the base of our gut.
If we sat long enough in the darkness and silence, in the stillness we would hear it.
It’s a simple piece of logic.
Ultimately, God takes care of what God makes.
God makes because God loves;
That love is irreversible; it cannot be altered or blotted out.
It is the one thing everyone needs to hear.
And because God’s love stands fast, we have no reason to believe we would ever be abandoned.
In our heads and in our hearts, it comes down to faith.
But to God, who holds all things together, it is a matter of certitude.
The closest icon we have for any of this is our master and brother Jesus Christ,
Whom we proclaim as both every bit God and every bit human.
And even that is a mystery whose proportions we can’t quite work out.
He lived among us and taught us how to relate to one another and take care of each other
And he showed us how to worship God.
In the breaking of the bread, he is known among us as one who comes and redeems.
Imperfectly, today, filled with what we know, and knowing what we know, we have come.
And yet there is a kind of not-knowing that is precisely what we are called to revel in.
It isn’t some reductionistic faith where we get to check our heads;
But we are lead, sometimes, even with all our powers,
To admit that we are insufficient to save ourselves.
Perhaps it’s less a question of knowing and proofs and data, and more one of faith in Christ.
Because like the wind,
There are just some things that cannot be seen,
But must be trusted all the same.
Sometimes our high-falutin ignorance is all we can really offer to God,
As we trust in the love that made us to take us to the next place,
Wherever and whenever and however it may be.
Sometimes all we can do is to confess, with St. Paul,
That “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,
Neither the present nor the future, nor any powers,
Neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation,Will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”