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Thursday, October 18, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: Job38:1-7, 34-41 AND Psalm 104:1-9, 24, 35c OR Isaiah 53:4-12 AND Psalm 91:9-16, Hebrews 5:1-10, Mark 10:35-35

The longer I live, the more I realize how much I don’t know—and how much of what I know, I don’t understand. I grew up in a tradition, both religious and secular, where it was assumed we knew the answers, or at least could and should.  I still am a seeker after truth, both religious and scientific, but there’s much more awareness of the “seeker” part of it. I appreciate every bit of enlightenment that comes my way, but I will never know or understand the whole of the mystery that is God and creation and humanity.

There’s a whole approach to religion and religious experience that focuses on mystery. It’s called mysticism. God is not found in our words and intellectual systems, but in the experience of God’s presence beyond those words and systems.

A book with which many mystics find affinity is the anonymous 14th century writing, The Cloud of Unknowing. It proposes that the only way to truly "know" God is to abandon all preconceived notions and beliefs or “knowledge” about God and be courageous enough to surrender your mind and ego to the realm of "unknowingness," at which point, you begin to glimpse the true nature of God. It counsels the seeking of God through intense contemplation, motivated by love, and stripped of all thought. William Johnston summarizes the books message as follows: "God can be loved but he cannot be thought. He can be grasped by love but never by concepts. So less thinking and more loving."

I’m not ready to give up all thinking, nor are most mystics, but, like Job, I at times need to be reminded of the limits of my sometimes arrogant claim to knowledge and understanding. In this week’s lectionary reading from Job, after Job has endured lengthy counsel from his friends as they try to enlighten him in the midst of his complaints, God enters the conversation, speaking out of a whirlwind. “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” God asks, wanting to know whether Job was there at the beginning of creation, “when the morning stars sang together . . .” (Job 38:1-7) God fires question after question as God challenges Job. “Who has put wisdom in the inward parts, or given understanding to the mind?” (vs. 36)

A scientist hearing God’s questions might say, “Well, we have answers to some of those questions. And we’re working on others. We’ve come close to looking into the very moment when the universe exploded into existence.” God’s challenge, however, is not so much about all the specifics. It’s a reminder of how much we don’t know or control, a reminder that sometimes we need to look at and experience the mystery that is life and respond in complete awe.

That’s what the Psalmist does in Psalm 104. His observations of the natural world parallel the list of God’s questions to Job, ending with a cry of praise, “O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures,” and, a few verses later, “Praise the Lord!” (Psalm 104:24 & 35)

Next week I'll have before me a reading from Job that takes us to the mystical core of the book. In Job 42:3-5, Job responds to the God who speaks out of the whirlwind : “ . . . I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know . . . I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you . . .”

We are often full of words. I fill up this blog with words every week. We gather on Sunday and hang on the words of Pastor Rick as he challenges and inspires us. In contrast to many churches, including the kind I grew up in, our words often convey an awareness of and openness to mystery.

Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent that in our approach to Jesus. In my early years we had formulas that we repeated to describe what Jesus had done for us. Give them credit; those formulas were linked with a life-changing inner experience. Then came years of struggle to find interpretations that satisfied the mind, words that could capture the overwhelming reality of a gracious love which seemed to fill life and its relationships at times.

The one at the heart of Christianity is not a sports hero, an entertainment star, a general leading the troops into battle. As much as I have enjoyed Jesus Christ, Superstar, I find that image alien to the reality of the Jesus I encounter in the New Testament. I’m much more fond of the Jesus in Godspell, but it is not a playful friend we find in Isaiah.

Isaiah, in one of this week’s readings, talks about one we have come to call a “Suffering Servant.” The writer may have had in mind a particular king or perhaps he saw the entire nation as the servant he was describing. The description came to be associated with the anticipated Messiah and thus with Jesus himself. Isaiah 53 paints a picture of one who suffers for the sins of others, one who gives himself, at great cost, to bring healing. “ . . . he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; . . . by his bruises we are healed.” (vs.5) What foolishness. We see God at work in such a person? Why can’t we just admire and try to emulate a superhero?

The Gospel lesson, though, makes it clear that servanthood is the way to which we are called. It’s built into the very structure of reality. James and John are after positions of privilege. (Mark 10:37) Jesus says that all he can guarantee them is the way of a servant. “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant . . .” (vss. 42-43)

Did you ever hear anything so foolish? I can’t find words that take away the foolishness and mystery of such truth. All I can do is try to (or open myself to) experience and live into the mystery that is behind and beyond all the words.

In this election season we might note that this “suffering servant” is not just about a personal relationship with Jesus or calling us to live as servants. This “suffering servant” was seen as a king, a king who was defined by his giving spirit in relation to his people. What candidate for president or other public office would be ready to define himself or herself as a “suffering servant”?

The book of Hebrews presents Jesus as a high priest. A high priest, we are told, is one who “is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness.” (Hebrews 5:2) If that’s the model for a high priest, what does it say about Jesus? Jesus is called “a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.” (vs. 10) Melchizedek was a king/priest who gave his blessing to Abraham. (See Genesis 14:18-19 & Psalm 110:4) Here’s a leader who is a compassionate priest. In God’s order rulers do not “lord it over” others. (Mark 10:42) “ . . . whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant.” (vs. 43)

Finally, it’s almost as if Psalm 91 has been thrown in to confuse us. People in biblical times struggled with various images of leadership just as much as we do. They wanted someone to come and rescue them and keep them safe, one who had “the Most High” as a “dwelling place.” (Psalm 91:9) Many words have been written and spoken through the ages about what constitutes an ideal leader. It’s a worthy conversation, but the most important realities are often beyond words. The mystics invite us into “The Cloud of Unknowing.” Those who want their truths tied up in neat packages are hesitant to accept the invitation. The mystics claim that it is in that cloud that we may see more clearly than we’ve ever seen before.

Isn’t it interesting that “the cloud” has become what seems to many of us to be sort of a mystical place of information storage in cyberspace? Whatever the nature of the cloud, wherever it is, there’s lot more to life than meets the eye, and there’s a lot more to Jesus than what can be contained by language, verbal, written, or digital.

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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