The Ignorance of Knowledge (The Wisdom of Faith)

A sermon, based on John 6.35, 41-51, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 12th Sunday after Pentecost, August 12, 2018

“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never hunger. Whoever believes in me will never thirst.”

Bread. A universal metaphor for elemental nourishment that satisfies bodily need, thus, sustains life. Jesus identifies himself not only as a giver of bread, but also as the bread, thus, proclaiming to us that he gives and is life eternal, and, that by faith in him, the promise is ours.

This sounds like good news. This is good news. But where are we, how are we reallywhen,” as the hymn sings, “the woes of life o’ertake (us), hopes deceive and fears annoy”?(1) When our lives and the lives of those we love are assaulted by illness or injustice, natural calamity or human iniquity? When our hunger and thirst for relief is not satisfied and quenched? When Jesus seems more absent than present? When what we observe about our lives in this world contradicts our faith-experience, verily, challenges our belief in faith?

This is the predicament at the heart of the encounter between Jesus and the crowd. They knew or thought they knew so much, too much about the way things are. Who Jesus is. His parentage and place of birth. Who God is. The One who fed their ancestors bread during their wilderness trek from Egypt to the Promised Land. Therefore, Jesus can’t be the giver of bread! Jesus can’t be bread that came down from heaven or from anywhere else!

Funny thing about knowledge; that compendium of time-tested-and-trusted-truths wrought from the application of our reason to our experiences. Knowledge can blind us, leaving us unable to see and recognize this ultimate truth: There always is more to know. The more we know, the more we know we do not know. And if…as this is true of the natural world, how much more true is it of God?

Alexander Pope opined: “A little learning is a dangerous thing.”(2) A little learning can lead us to think that we know more than we do know, more than we can know. A little learning, in spiritual matters, can limit our sense, our assurance of when, where, how God speaks, Jesus appears, the Holy Spirit moves in the circumstances of the world around us and in our lives.

Now, we are not called to forsake our knowledge, reject the use of our reason, debunk our history and experience. These are useful, even essential in charting the course of our lives. Yet none – not our knowledge, not our reason, not our history, not our experience; individually or in whatever combination – can provide absolute answers for the conundrums we encounter in this world. None can offer the perfect plan to guide our life’s ship safely across the deepest oceans or to navigate carefully to avoid crashing into the rockiest shoals of this existence.

If anything is universally true about this life, no one – no matter how much education, money, achievement, self-and-public esteem we have attained – is free from suffering. “The woes of life” o’ertake all of us. “Hopes deceive and fears annoy” all of us. Illness and injustice, natural calamity and human iniquity affect all of us.

Nevertheless, or perhaps because of all this, the good news is that Jesus always stands with us, especially at times he seems distant, even absent, saying, “I am the bread of life.” Jesus, who willingly bore the cross of death for our sake, does not spare us from suffering and physical death. Yet Jesus will not, will never suffer us to lose our hold on life eternal. Though we die, we shall not die forever. Even more, as we live, by faith, we have eternal life now. And nothing, not illness or injustice, not natural calamity or human iniquity can sever Jesus’ loving hold on our souls.

 

Footnotes:
(1) From the hymn, In the cross of Christ I glory; words by John Bowring (1792-1872)
(2) Alexander Pope (1688-1744) in his “An Essay on Criticism” (1709): “A little learning is a dang’rous thing; drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring: there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain and drinking largely sobers us again.”

6 thoughts on “The Ignorance of Knowledge (The Wisdom of Faith)

  1. Thank you for this sermon Paul! I got so much out of it. I decided to copy it and read it on the plane on the way home from Shreveport, LA where I had one of the saddest weekends I’ve spent in a long time.

    After reading the sermon I felt called to answer your questions….

    How are we really“when,”

    1) as the hymn sings, “the woes of life o’ertake (us), hopes deceive and fears annoy”?(1)

    I’m usually really upbeat and take everything as it comes but this weekend for some reason I couldn’t! None of my hopes for the weekend were realized and the fears I had about the weekend didn’t annoy, they came true.

    2) When our lives and the lives of those we love are assaulted by illness or injustice, natural calamity or human iniquity?

    I’m sad, particularly this weekend with the protests in Washington. Such hate in the world, but I’m happy that as I boarded the plane the counterprotesters were gathering full force.

    3) When our hunger and thirst for relief is not satisfied and quenched?

    I tend to work harder for the satisfaction and relief when it’s not immediate. I think that leads to overwork and exhaustion at times. This weekend I chose not to do that. Yesterday afternoon & evening and the early morning hours of today I didn’t work out, or work on my computer or any of the other normal stuff I do. Instead I let myself be sad and a little mad and I watched endless episodes of Law & Order.

    4) When Jesus seems more absent than present?

    As Today went on I tried to see and find Jesus because maybe he hadn’t been absent, maybe I’ve not been seeing or listening. First I sought to find the presence of Jesus in the Law & Order episodes and then I finally left my hotel room to get some exercise. I walked a couple of miles and connected with Jesus in the river, along the walking path, and even in the hotel casino I was staying in.

    5) When what we observe about our lives in this world contradicts our faith-experience, verily, challenges our belief in faith?

    In spite of the brokenness of the world I try to remain positive and thankfully my faith stays mostly in tact. This weekend it was hard though. I think the loneliness of traveling alone finally got to me this weekend particularly I think because some of the things that occurred really got to me. I was worried about how long my sad and lonely feeling would go on. I was worried about how the protests this weekend would go…..

    I feel good writing this on the plane and feel like I have a new and better focus. I’ll keep asking myself these questions.

    I had some serious concerns about how this weekend in Shreveport would go so after we landed Friday evening I played my favorite Tasha Cobb songs, For Your Glory & But For You Grace. They always make me feel strong. I played them again as I boarded this flight in the hopes that I can be back in the right mindset for my upcoming busy week. I’m grateful for your sermon and that I had the opportunity to reflect on it for two hours on the first leg of my flight.

    Much love!

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  2. Lord, have mercy, Loretta, I do not know and have no idea what happened in Shreveport, save, as you write, “where I had one of the saddest weekends I’ve spent in a long time.” I am sorry.

    I am, if not happy, then, at the least, satisfied that the words of my sermon were helpful to you.

    Love you

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    1. Thanks PRA!! I’ll tell you about at some point. Hoping to board my delayed flight to DC in a few.

      Love you back!

      Like

  3. Dear Paul and Loretta,

    I feel like I have been absent from the comments on Paul’s blog for a long time. Life has been full and a little demanding, and I’ve been somewhat tired and pretty deeply contemplative. But I’m here this afternoon and loved both Paul’s sermon and your comments on it, Loretta, although I’m sad to think that you had such a hard weekend trip. As always, you both speak to me of things that mean so much to me and with which I’m wrestling too, just as you (and many people) are wrestling.

    Your sermon, Paul, revolves around theological truths that underlie something I find myself saying every single day of my life now, at 71 years of age: “There is SOOOOO much we don’t know.” Now, I don’t think I ever said that at 21, because I think I was sure that anything that I did not already know by then, I would certainly learn and pretty well understand before I turned 50. I was so confident of my mind’s ability to absorb just about all human knowledge (well, except for math, which I’ve always known is a hopeless for me) when I was young. And of course, what happened as time went on was that the longer I went to school, the more I read, the more I thought, the more I explored, the more I met people and had conversations, the more I prayed even, the more I found out I didn’t know, couldn’t know, couldn’t ever learn, couldn’t ever even fathom that I didn’t know. The larger my store of knowledge grew, the smaller it became in comparison to what I desired to know and understand, in comparison to what there is to know in order to live in the wisest way. In the past couple of decades, at least I have reached a point where I am able to stand agape at the vastness of my ignorance. Perhaps, just perhaps, that overwhelming awe is the beginning of a tiny spark of wisdom. I hope so.

    My daughter Emilia turned 34 on Thursday, and I always find her birthday to be an occasion not only for reminiscing about her childhood and thinking about the woman she has become, but also for self-searching, thinking back on my active, small-child-and-teenager-and-young-adult-parenting days and rejoicing in some of the wonderful memories we share and cringing in shame at some others that highlight my clueless thinking I knew everything about how to raise a child, when I knew so very, very little. One thing I try to do each year as Emilias birthday and mine approach, is to think of something that synthesizes some new piece of understanding that I have gained in my years of striving to come to grips with life, with the universe, with faith, with relationships, etc, and to share whatever I come up with with Emilia. This year the thing I calligraphed on a little postcard and then decorated with some little flowers was the following: “Hold everything lightly, so that it can grow and change in your hand.” I was kind of puzzled at why I came up with that at first, because it was not based on anything that was really conscious with me. But I finally realized that most of my worst mistakes and missteps in parenting and in life in general have come about because I have held on too tightly and tried to assert my own control over things that I should have been wise enough to know I couldn’t and shouldn’t control in the first place. I am learning, ever so slowly, that when I am able to hold onto anything lightly, and allow time, and life, and events to take their course, or to allow other people to move in their own ways rather than ways that I have prescribed, in other words to trust God/Love to do its work, things generally turn out much, much better for everyone, and in fact, often lovely surprises appear, things I could not possibly have anticipated. This has been particularly true of my life with Emilia. She has grown and changed in ways that I simply was not capable of imagining, and I am so glad she was able to become who she is and is still becoming, even if a good bit of it happened in spite of me rather than because of me.

    So, thank you, Paul, for approaching something I wrestled with this week from your own unique perspective and allowing me to go even deeper into some thoughts I had already been dealing with in deep ways. And thank you, Loretta, for adding your honest, if sad, feelings to the mix to share with us having to confront things that are very hard, that would tempt me, as they may have tempted you, to try to step in and control. I don’t know if holding lightly is a good approach for you, but I have a feeling your full-of-grace approach to life may serve you well in that regard. Learning it has been very, very hard for me.

    Much love to both of you precious friends (and to Pontheolla nearby, and to Tim a little further away).

    Karen

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  4. Soooooo Karen, all I can say is WOW!!! Your reply spoke volumes to me. Most of my sadness was around finally reaching a point that traveling alone was overwhelming to me. I miss having a partner!! The conference was touted to be this great thing yet it was poorly organized and resulted in lots of unnecessary hoops to be jumped through the morning of the event. My presentation was awesome people said, BUT I was so exhausted at the end I just wanted to fly home so I could get a hug from someone who knew and loved me.

    Being stuck in Shreveport until Sunday caused me too to be contemplative just as you’ve been. Lots of my sadness has to do with my almost 47 year old daughter who was 8 when Tim introduced her to me. I learned so much from your honest reflection of your parenting skills!! I have come to the conclusion that I am the worst mom ever in that I gave way too much AND NOW I believe we may have reached a point of no return in our relationship because of what I perceive is her deceit and manipulation. Worse still is that our latest issue involved me providing assistance to her that I KNEW Tim would be opposed to and I did it anyway…. only to find out later that I’d been “tricked”. I feel like I’ve let Tim down……I’ve cried so much over the last few weeks that I doubt I have many tears left, BUT your words helped me so much!!! I pray that my contemplation gives me the right direction on whether I can remain in a relationship with her.

    WE will hang in there together and keep contemplating!!!!!

    Much thanks and love both to you Karen and to our mutual spiritual brother Paul!!

    Loretta

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  5. Lord, have mercy, for the grace of serendipity and synchronicity…

    Karen, you, as always, write with passion and perspicacity. In this instance, sharing deeply from your well of parenting in ways that resonate, Loretta, for and within you. And, you, Loretta, write with equal passion and perspicacity, sharing deeply from your well of fortitude and perseverance and optimism in the face of life’s worst circumstances. I love and admire and respect and honor you two, each and both.

    Funny thing about this sermon… I was conscious as I wrote and preach the words that I offered no concrete, personal examples to flesh out/to illustrate what I attempted to express. Yet, as always, you two, each and both, reply with personal stories that elucidate that which I only (barely) hinted. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    Love

    Liked by 1 person

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