08/28/22 – Humility in Knowledge, Grace in Mystery

HUMILITY IN KNOWLEDGE, GRACE IN MYSTERY

August 28, 2022
12th Sunday after Pentecost
Jer. 2:4-13; Ps.81; Heb. 13:1-16; Lk.14:1, 7-14
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

At some point in the latter half of the fourteenth century, a spiritual guide to contemplative prayer entitled “The Cloud of Unknowing” began in circulation. Written in Middle English, this anonymous work promoted the idea that the way to know God is to abandon the certainties of what one thought to know about God and humble oneself into a state of unknowing by emptying the mind and ego in prayer to discover the nature of God in its awesome mystery. This is not the anti-intellectualism we see in our society today. This is not the fear of knowing. The author was not dismissing the concept of “faith seeking understanding,” an idea espoused earlier by Augustine and Anselm, but rather emptying the mind of human constructs of God and the ego which seeks to become God. Anselm, explaining the motto he often used, wrote: “I do not seek to understand so that I may believe, but I believe so that I may understand.” (1) In the presence of God, the humility of unknowing allows us to experience that presence in ways that are transforming – including what we think.

One of the images denoting the presence of God employed in the Old Testament is a cloud. You may remember, that God hovered over Mt. Sinai as a cloud while the people waited below to receive the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments provided the Israelites with knowledge of God’s will for them to live in community in the Promised Land. God’s presence demonstrated the all-powerful, all-knowing nature of God, which can only be revered and obeyed but never fully known. Within that experience of the power and glory of God, there is also grace. Grace is the unexpected, undeserved love of God — a gift. In our communion liturgy this is what is meant in the words, “we thank you for the mystery of our faith,” which is then followed by the acclamation: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” This is the awesome grace that we will never understand in the way we might understand a scientific fact. It is a divine truth that has the power to connect us with the holy in our day-to-day lives.

Our reading from Hebrews comes from its final chapter. The book itself is somewhat of a mystery in that neither the author nor the intended audience is known. Today’s reading opens with what appears as a laundry list of prescribed Christian behaviors, beginning with: “Let mutual love continue.” The Greek word for mutual love is “philadelphia,” literally translated as “brotherly love” — love among equals. Then the author continues in the next sentence: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers…” The Greek word for hospitality is “philoxenia,” which translates as “love of the stranger.” You might recognize the root word, “xenia,” from the word, “xenophobia.” Today we commonly use the word, “xenophobia,” to mean only fear of foreigners, but it actually means “fear of strangers.” “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,” Hebrew’s author writes, “for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

“Without knowing it.” That is how God’s grace often comes into our lives. Like “angels” – our messengers from God — who appear unbidden to awaken us to God’s loving care administered through ordinary people and events in our lives. We disguise our fear of the unknown with the lie of knowing. We want to think we know all about people who are different from us. In our arrogance we assume the ways they are different from us must be bad based on the assumption we are the model for what is right and good. This is where the ego precludes us from the grace which can come into our lives when we do not construct walls to keep the not-yet-known out.

We saw the horrible spectacle of fear of others based on the false knowledge perpetrated by conspiracy theorists on display on Jan. 6, 2021, at the U.S. Capitol. Groups identifying themselves as white supremacists, antisemites, and Christian nationalists employed violence and threats of violence to initiate a coup for the losing presidential candidate to stay in power. It was also witnessed at the death beds of Covid patients, who refused to believe the virus was real or to believe scientists that a vaccine could have been the healing angel sent to save them. In contemporary society, it is not just strangers with different ethnicities or ideas that we fear. Look at how we distance ourselves from our electronic media. We can choose our news and social media, so we only hear what we want to hear and see what we want to see. We can even choose to be completely ignorant of what is going on outside our me-world.

For example, we can turn a blind eye to the mass killings with military-grade automatic assault rifles in this country because it hasn’t happened to us or we don’t have children in schools, a popular “soft target” for angry, violent young men. To paraphrase a Texas congresswoman after one of the many mass shootings in that state: “We don’t just have a gun problem in this country, we have an empathy problem.” If we treat others as enemies, we dehumanize them and fail to acknowledge their dignity and value as God’s children. In our Hebrews passage, we also hear echoes of Matthew 25: 3Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. This is empathy. We may throw up our hands in despair, refusing to see a solution to mass shootings. Yet, God may be sending us prophets and angels, which we don’t see, or refuse to see, because we are so sure we already know what is and isn’t possible or we refuse to acknowledge possible solutions because we are unwilling to give up what we know to be advantageous to us and our worldview.

Hospitality is a common thread between our epistle and gospel texts this morning. In the case of hospitality to strangers, there’s a call here to unknown what we may think we know about strangers. In Jesus’ day, inappropriately seating oneself at a dinner party could lead to offense, disgrace, and embarrassment. It was customary that the most honored guests, usually distinguished by social rank or age, would be seated closest to the host. It was also customary that the most honored guests would arrive last to a dinner party. Perhaps this is where the idea of being “fashionable late” originated. Therefore, it was not uncommon for a guest who arrived earlier, and who had already seated himself in a place of honor, to be asked to give up his seat for the late arriving, more honored guest.  And since all the other guests had already taken their seats, only the seat of least honor would likely be available for him.

In our reading for today, Jesus has been invited to dine with a group of Pharisees. As a guest, he observes the behavior of the other guests. Apparently, as they arrive, they take their seats according to the usual protocol at such social gatherings. If you have ever planned a wedding dinner you understand the complexity of seating assignments. Learning who cannot sit at the same table as another guest is an eye-opening introduction to the social dynamics of one’s new in-laws. In this case, it is important that the meal to which Jesus refers is a wedding banquet.  This context tells his audience that proper protocol will be of utmost significance. Not many other occasions call for more decorum than a wedding banquet. In the Old Testament, a wedding was a symbol of a community’s relationship with God and humanity’s salvation.

Here we find Jesus offering practical advice to guests about the seats they should choose for themselves at the dinner table. It is advisable that Jesus himself most likely learned from the book of Proverbs, where in chapter 25, verse 6, states, “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.’”

In the previous chapter of Luke, someone asks him, “Will only a few be saved?” Jesus responds with a description of the heavenly banquet to which “people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God” (Luke 13:29). Jesus envisions the feast in God’s kingdom as an occasion to which all people are invited. This is a common theme in Luke. Luke repeatedly drives home the message that God’s covenant with Israel has been extended to the world so that people from all tribes and nations can come into God’s household. This is grace of the highest order. Jesus taught that the kingdom of God is formed by a spiritual, covenantal kinship which includes both Jews and Gentiles. Admission is based on no other factor than being in a faithful relationship with God.

After Jesus gives the Pharisee host and guests his first instruction on table etiquette, his second piece of instruction goes another step further. He tells them the issue is not limited to where you sit at the table, but who you invite to dinner. Jesus said to his host:

“When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends
or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they
may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you
give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.
And you will be blessed because they cannot repay you, for you will
be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (14:12-14)

In other words, showing hospitality to your friends, who you consider your equals is good, but showing hospitality to those whom society has marginalized, because they have been deemed less than equal, is Kingdom living.  God shows no partiality but loves the whole human family and desires sharing amongst us so that all receive what they need. Cocooned in a “me world,” we tend to restrict our hospitality to a social group made up of people like us, particularly in terms of age, race, and socio-economic status. The school lunch table pattern of behavior continues through our adult lives. Racism has created a systemic and legally backed hierarchy that has perpetuated and insidiously reinforced inequality from the time white Europeans first came to the New World.

When Jesus addressed the Pharisees, he was telling them that the ordinary encounters of day-to-day living expose what is in our hearts and minds. In the case of the Pharisees, the dinner invitation to the leader of the Pharisees’ house was not from hospitality but was a set-up to trap Jesus into breaking Jewish Law. They were particularly incensed that Jesus ate with people they considered unworthy dinner companions. Jesus is telling us here that our encounters with family, friends, co-workers, acquaintances, and particularly strangers, reveal a great deal about what we value. Jesus was also saying that classifications of social status do not exist in the kingdom of God. In the kingdom of God, God’s will for peace, justice, mercy, and love reigns supreme. Luke’s gospel brings special attention to God’s particular concern for the marginalized in society, which is in opposition to our social hierarchies.

Jesus sets the ultimate welcome table. No one must earn a place at the table, it is a table where there is no seat without honor, without grace, without love. It is hard for us to break away from the familiar patterns of human social hierarchy based on identities we prescribe to them from what we can see and what we think we know. God calls us to the humble position of unknowing the mind of God. When we let go of our ego-based false knowledge and listen to that mysteriously wise voice that breaks through when we remain attentive and silent, we are awed by the magnitude of God’s grace. In the yet incomplete knowledge of God’s grace, we learn how to extend the gracious hospitality to which Christian disciples are called.

 

Amen. May it be so!

 

 

© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2022, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church | 1420 W. Moss Ave. | Peoria, Illinois 61606
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