Sermon Texts: Excerpt from T. S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets,” East Coker
Link to Sermon Video: https://screencast-o-matic.com/watch/cYhYqykmbP
I am going to be straight up with you,
this speech from John’s Gospel is not a verbatim
of Jesus saying, “so long” to his pals.
I hope I am not breaking your heart
or triggering theological PTSD
when I tell you that John’s Gospel
was written by someone who never knew Jesus,
likely never knew anyone who knew Jesus,
and was writing it two and a half generations
after Jesus was dead.
There was a time when the church
treated John and the other Gospels
as if they were a history book
purporting to be a kind of holy streaming service
that brought us live action
from two millennium past.
There are still churches that proclaim
that kind of historicity for the gospel content
and whose faith depends upon
every drop of the bible being true blood
pulsing in the vein of the original heartbeat.
It will come as a shock to some,
but biblical faith that requires every word
of the bible to be an actual and absolute
representation of what was said and done
2000 and more years ago,
is a very logical faith.
Such faith is built upon a simple logical syllogism:
If everything in the bible is factual and true,
then we know what we must believe and do,
and therefore, we can be certain of our eternal fate.
It is a house built of Lincoln logs
with each piece fitting snugly into the others
and creating a stable and complete
intellectual home for faith to inhabit.
It is both logical and rational
but depends upon the veracity
of each and every piece.
Take one item away,
question the credibility of any,
and the whole house beings to rattle and shake.
It is not terribly different
from Catholic and Protestant orthodoxy
that built their houses
out of doctrines and
intellectual theological arguments.
Over the centuries, Christianity has had brilliant
scholars and theologians
who have authored systematic theologies
aiming to stack up against
Enlightenment and scientific thinking.
Who can blame them?
We humans have this amazing intellectual capacity
to take things apart
and inspect their constituent elements
in the effort to understand
all the relationships between them.
What makes a heart pump,
a clock tick,
a cell live,
a cosmos start?
As our ability grows
to measure ever-smaller elements,
and run calculations based upon
past behavior and predictions
of future behavior,
our understanding spreads like a spill
across the kitchen table.
But we have blind spots.
We have parts of the canvass
we just cannot see.
We look at the diagram of life before us
and see so many intricate lines and relationships
that have never been seen before
and yet there are lines
we simple cannot see.
Things we can’t even see
when right there before our eyes
or underneath our electron microscope
or within view of our most powerful telescope.
Sometimes we can see that there IS a blind spot – a shape without content – and sometimes we can’t even see
that we don’t see.
Pretending that John is quoting Jesus
helps us live with what we do not know
but it also blinds us
to what we could discover.
Enter T. S. Eliot:
“In order to arrive at what you do not know
you must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
you must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
you must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know
is the only thing you know…
and where you are is where you are not.”
That’s from East Coker of The Four Quartets.
This is where faith and religion
gets weird and goo-shy.
Orthodoxy and fundamentalism
avoid this part like the plague –
or the virus, as the case may be.
It is indefensible,
it is impenetrable,
it is ineffable.
It is the part of our vision
that never really gets better –
even after thousands of years.
Call to mind the images
of those prehistoric cave paintings in France
That is the level of wisdom, knowledge, and
certainty associated with this part
of faith and religion – or spirituality if you prefer.
In other words,
we never know more –
no matter how much we learn
For many humans, that means it doesn’t exist.
If you can’t measure it
and you can’t reproduce it
and you can’t reduce it to its constituent parts
then it is just an idea…
or a fantasy.
But that is not us.
You wouldn’t be watching this right now
or desire to wonder –
about the parts we can’t see
and never will know.
John’s Gospel imagines
what Jesus would have said at the end
when it was time to say good by to humans.
And then he writes a speech for Jesus to fill in the blanks.
That seemed important to John
but hanging on those every words
is not so important for us.
In fact, hanging on them as if they are important,
gets in the way of our seeing and knowing
what we cannot see
and cannot know…but are able to encounter.
Getting comfortable with the goo-shy
and unstable dimensions of the field we are in
is a crucial element of spiritual practice.
Sidling up to it
and not ordering a drink right away
to steady our nerves,
is a muscle we need to exercise
in order to build capacity.
Naturally, we want to understand
how God is a loving God yet
the creator of a cosmos
utterly indifferent to our happiness.
Of course, it bothers us
that Jesus is supposed to have been the messiah
even though he was tortured and murdered.
Why wouldn’t we feel the need to know
if God hears our prayers,
and if so, do they go in the round file
or get answered?
And of course, the big one for many people:
Is there anything on the other side of the veil
between us and death, and if so, what?
These are some of the dark shadows
forming macular degeneration in the field
of our perception and knowledge.
They are blurry blind spots that don’t go away
no matter how much more we learn and know.
In response to our blindness
we can say to ourselves,
as science might,
well, if we can’t study it in any way
then it may not be part of reality.”
Or, as popular religion might respond,
“We know the answer to that,
because God has promised
or Jesus has said…”
But instead of either of those
more comforting ways to fill in the gaps,
we need to enter them
with open arms
and a heart that does not require an answer.
We need to be willing to enter the darkness
of our ignorance
and wander blindly in the ether.
If that sounds mystical, it is.
There are no answers
to the questions we most want to know
the answer to.
There is only the door
from which we enter into our blind spots
hoping for an encounter –
an encounter with the holy.
If we have such an encounter,
it will not answer our unanswerable questions
but it will cause us to care less about them.
We will, for awhile at least,
stop asking ineffable questions
because we will have felt the presence
of what is on the other side of them…
and accepted that presence
The bible does have images
for this kind of whackomystical goo-shiness.
When Moses encounters the burning bush,
he does not ask how it is
that a bush is on fire without being consumed.
He takes off his shoes
and hides his face.
When he asks God’s personal name
so that he can find out what kind of god this is,
God says, “I am who I am”
and warns Moses not to try to know more
than he can know.
When Pilate insists
that Jesus talk to him,
holding the noose above his head as a threat,
Jesus holds the silence.
When Isaiah shook before
the six-winged seraphim and light
blistered the air around them,
all he could say was, “Woe is me.”
It was too much and he gave up.
What we do not know
is the only thing we know…
and where we are
is where we are not.
That is the kind of moment
we need to be looking for,
the kind of experiential knowledge we need
rather than answers to questions
or tightly fitting pieces to the cabin of belief.
This is crazy-talk, right?
I mean, it is 2020
and I sound like Julian of Norwich.
But here we are.
If I could urge us toward one direction,
it would be toward the deep end
where we fall in
I do not mean that we must abandon
the field we call reality –
the form-fitting knowledge
that can be measured
But it is not either/or –
we do not live in a bifurcated
duality of “this is real
and this is unreal.”
I am not playing Trump with the facts here,
and denying science.
I am pointing to something else
that is right here in the field
At the same time and
alongside the dimension we live in,
is a dimension we sense
and sometimes encounter.
It does not change the facts,
which we also know,
but rather, it is an experience within them.
What we experience
will likely lead us to different conclusions
and from these experiences
we will walk toward different directions.
Unlike orthodoxy, fundamentalism, or science,
such encounters do not prescribe reality
they expand our awareness of it.
As I said recently in another sermon,
these encounters within our blind spots
can feel big and splashy
or quiet and calm –
and everything in between.
Mother Teresa had one clear, deep, life-changing
encounter that transformed the direction
of her life and then,
as far as we know,
Above said Julian of Norwich
had abundant dreams and night visions
dripping with poetry and songs.
For most of us, I suspect,
it is the accumulation of small encounters
that kiss our days like a breeze
but come to re-orient us anyway.
But however they come and
wherever we encounter them, if it’s
John’s language on Jesus’ lips
that invites you in
or Julian’s dreams
that opens our mind,
then by all means, keep reading.
If it is a simple agape meal at your table,
or bread and wine you call Eucharist,
by all means, keep feasting.
If it is in the long and hilly country
of your prayers
where you bump into
or trip over
our blind spots,
then by all means keep praying.
Keep walking in those places
and doing those things
because even though your knowledge
will not be increased,
your experience of reality
will be expanded.
That’s how it is for us human beings.
And that my friends,
is what religion or spirituality is for.